An Interview with Sabine Herold on Politics, France, and Freedom

The most well-known face of a growing pro-liberty movement in France shares her thoughts on politics, America, the recent war, the value of freedom, and more.
Sabine-herold
Sabine Herold is the editor and spokeswoman for Liberté j'écris ton nom (Liberty, I Write Your Name), a think tank and activist organization at the forefront of a new and growing pro-liberty movement in France.

Herold and Liberté j'écris ton nom came to prominence last summer when the organization led two anti-government-union rallies in Paris, the second of which attracted a phenomenal eighty thousand protesters.

A passionate speaker and essayist, Herold promotes liberty from a moral, ethical point of view — namely, from the standpoint of individual responsibility and the right of every individual to make his or her own decisions.

For this Atlasphere interview, Herold spoke with editor Andrew Schwartz about politics, French culture, her thoughts about the United States, and the goals of Liberté j'écris ton nom.



The Atlasphere: How did you first become interested in politics?

Sabine Herold: It's interesting — when I was eighteen and still in high school, I was absolutely not interested in politics. Then I arrived at the Université Science-Po [Political Science University] in Paris — and when I got there I was still almost apolitical.

But I'd always been anti-communist, because I knew the consequences. I knew it caused close to eighty million deaths — that's just too many.

And at the Université Science-Po, I met many interesting people. Everyone there is very political. You have the left wing of course, but then I started talking with others and thinking, and I started reading some very interesting authors like Jean Francois Revel, Toqueville, and about six months later I discovered Hayek. And I started thinking about these things.

Also, about one year after I arrived at school, the association Liberté j'écris ton nom was created by Edouard Fillias, another student at Science-Po. I knew Edouard on a casual basis, and at one point he sent an e-mail to many people in Science-Po about his organization — so I went to the web site and found it very interesting to read the articles and to chat with other people on the forum.

All this led to my interest in politics and got me to thinking in a political way.

TA: When you encountered these new ideas, were they shocking? Or did they resonate with you immediately? Libertarian-oriented thought is not exactly well known or popular nowadays in France.

Herold: You're right, it's not. But I think I had always been a libertarian, without always knowing it.

When I wrote my first article for Liberté j'écris ton nom, even at that time I didn't know I was a libertarian. The article was on euthanasia, and was written from a clearly libertarian perspective. But when I wrote it, I was thinking only in terms of individual freedom, without knowing what libertarianism could be as a philosophy.

I think that to believe in individual freedom is a natural thing.

TA: Since that first article, you've become Liberté j'écris ton nom's editor and spokeswoman. What are the organization's goals? What was the initial motivation for creating it?

***image1***Herold: It was created three years ago by several students who wanted to act in a political way, but outside the party system. When you're young, there's no real forum to express your views in politics. If you work for a political party as a young person, you can act — you can hand out some flyers — but you can't in that system think and express your own feelings.

The students who originally created Liberté j'écris ton nom wanted to engage in both action and reflection. And that's partly why I found it very interesting.

We have a web site where we publish articles, and that forces us to think about individual freedom, to try to define it and to apply it to current issues. And we're also activists — we organize conferences and demonstrations. So it's a very good combination that you can't find anywhere else in France.

Also, France doesn't have a libertarian party, so…

TA: That's right — is there any libertarian movement at all in France other than Liberté j'écris ton nom?

Herold: There's not much. The problem with libertarians, I think, is that we're all very individualistic, so it's hard to work together! But there are various groups in France with libertarian ideas working independently.

Actually, I think each organization is useful in the area it wants to touch — some want to specialize on taxes, some want to specialize on pension issues, some are just general think tanks.

The thing that makes Liberté j'écris ton nom special in the libertarian movement is that we mix both action and reflection. And that's pretty rare in this movement, to include action.

TA: You're not joking when you say "action" — Liberté j'écris ton nom led a couple of very prominent anti-state-union rallies last summer in France, the second of which drew an incredible eighty thousand people. How did those come about?

Herold: The first one was May 25 in Paris in front of the town hall (not in my home city, Reims, as some articles reported). There were about fifteen hundred or two thousand people there, so this was a kind of prelude to the very big rally.

This first one was conceived in a café, where myself and two friends, whom I had met through Liberté j'écris ton nom, were complaining, saying that we had to do something. At that time there were strikes in France by the state transportation workers, and the country had basically been crippled for about one month. It was pretty impossible, because when you have to catch a subway, you have to catch it — you want to go to work — and that had been impossible for about a month.

So we were just completely fed up. And we decided to organize a demonstration against the unions on the twenty-fifth of May, because this was the day the unions wanted to organize a huge demonstration.

We actually wanted to do a kind of counter-demonstration, though we didn't want it to feel like we were only against something; I think the term "counter-demonstration" is not a good one, because it implies that the primary demonstration is more legitimate. We wanted a demonstration that was not just against the unions, but that was also pro-reform. Because we wanted to say that we want to reform the country and that we need to have a pension reform — and we also wanted to oppose the unions blocking the country.

We had only about twelve days to organize it, so that was pretty difficult — but we did convince some mobile press crews to join us and we sent people faxes and e-mails. It was pretty difficult to publicize it.

TA: Well, you certainly hit the jackpot with the second rally. Eighty thousand people is incredible.

***image2***Herold: We really didn't expect that many people. We were thinking that five thousand would be good — ten thousand would be absolutely perfect.

TA: It must have been amazing.

Herold: Yes. We just didn't figure there would be that many people. But the French people would do that kind of thing. They were so fed up with the unions blocking the country, they wanted to demonstrate and say no — that's enough — we want to go to work. We don't want some very small unions to block the whole country.

So I think in this instance Liberté j'écris ton nom had the role of a catalyst. We helped the people do what they wanted. I think we were at the right place at the right moment. We did a lot of work, but the French people would do that kind of thing.

TA: Do you consider yourself libertarian in the radical sense that ideally, you would promote a government whose only role is to protect the peace? Or do you think there's some additional role for government. Where would you fall on that spectrum?

Herold: I think we have a need for a very small welfare component — very small. I want to have some privatization everywhere, but for the very poor people I think it's good to have a very small government welfare component to be sure that they don't just starve. It shouldn't be too big, though, like in France now, where it's sometimes more profitable to rely on the state than to work.

I'd also like to keep some state schools, but I don't want to have laws that block the private sector.

TA: Block the private sector?

Herold: Yes. In France it's very complicated if you want to open a private school, for example. I think we should let the private sector act just as they want. The state should have its own schools for example, or social security, and leave the people completely free to decide.

TA: Liberté j'écris ton nom has been around for three years or so. How is it going?

Herold: It's going pretty well now. We have two thousand paid members, and about five thousand people who have either sent money or sent a note saying that they want to support us. We have almost ten thousand people in our database. So it's going quite well.

The media is starting to slowly recognize us. Recently, a law was proposed that would ban strikes during work-travel times. And when that was proposed, many journalists called us because they wanted to have a libertarian point of view on that issue. Three or four years ago they would have called no libertarian because they would never have been interested in having the libertarian point of view. That's pretty good progress I think.

TA: Do you think there's an openness in France to libertarian ideas?

Herold: I think it's starting. And that's what we want to do. I must say I'm not really pleased that so many journalists are focused on me, because that's absolutely not the point. We are creating a new generation of libertarian people. We are growing every day. And we want people to think for themselves — we don't want people to just trust us without thinking. We want people thinking and being able to act, and that's what we're creating now.

***image6***TA: There's a list of pro-freedom thinkers on Liberté j'écris ton nom's web site, and it contains Ayn Rand, whose novels are of course the theme of our site. Have you explored Rand's work yourself?

Herold: I've not read that much — only little bits. But I know that our president, Edouard Fillias, likes Rand's essay on the government and likes her book The Virtue of Selfishness … he has to give me that book. (Laughs.) I just forgot to ask him.

What he told me he liked about it is that it's based on moral issues and values. And that's how we view libertarianism. I think one of the problems in France is that libertarians are only focused on economic issues. That is not the most important thing. Of course, I think it's really important to be economically libertarian. But what is really the basis of a free society is the idea that people should be free to decide for themselves in any area — that means economically, but also in social issues, moral issues, or any issue. The economy is important but it's not the whole of it.

Also, economics is something that is very boring for many people. I think if you want to touch many people, you should not speak in an economic way — you should tell them about values.

TA: I think you just hit upon what I love so much about your essays — you approach freedom from a moral standpoint. You also talk specifically about an ethics of individual responsibility.

Herold: Yes.

TA: That's an idea that is well known, if not always popular, in America. In France, is the idea even in circulation? When you say "ethics of individual responsibility," do people look at you as if you're crazy?

Herold: (Laughing.) I think it's something that people believe in and think about, but perhaps don't always want to apply to themselves.

In fact, you can have no right if you have no duty on the other side. Because if you have a right, you have to respect the right of the other. Which means you have to be responsible.

For example, in France right now there's actually a political debate about whether civil servants should be paid depending on what they're doing and whether they're good or bad. Some people, especially the unions, are simply opposed to that; they think that when you're in public service, your level of productivity shouldn't be considered. To me that makes no sense. If a civil servant is not efficient, there's no reason to keep paying him. (Pause.) France is still a communist country.

TA: France is?

Herold: (Laughing). Almost. I think in America, some people consider us one of the very last remaining communist countries. Some people are saying that about France.

TA: Half in jest, I think. But that actually raises an interesting question: what are your own thoughts and feelings about the United States?

Herold: I think the United States is a country of freedom. Our two countries have very strong historical ties. I don't approve of the fact that so many French people are anti-American, because we have the same culture. I like that America is a country of freedom, and a country where you can create and make yourself what you want to be.

I wouldn't say that America is a perfect country, but it's a country where you can at least try.

TA: I suppose you find that's less so in France.

Herold: Yes. It's really much more complicated, for example, to create a company. Everything is very complicated because of the bureaucracy, which is involved in everything, all the time.

TA: And yet you've said you love your country.

Herold: I like our history and the values. I love France and I love what we did in the past — for example, the Enlightenment. I love all the great thinkers we had: Toqueville, Montesquieu, Bastiat — they're very much individuals who gave rights to the individual. I think that is the real spirit of France.

TA: You supported the American-led war in Iraq. Was there more French support for the war than Americans think?

***image5***Herold: There wasn't much. I think about ninety percent of the French people were anti-war. There are many reasons for that. Partially it's because anti-Americanism is significant in France — but it's also because the media is very biased, so you saw very few people who were pro-intervention. There were a few of us libertarians, and that's about it.

I for one think that it's always good to be free of a tyrant. And when Liberté j'écris ton nom advocated intervening in Iraq, our arguments were not on the issue of weapons of mass destruction — they were on the issue that Saddam Hussein is a real tyrant and we have to get rid of him.

We advocate freedom in France, and the Iraqis also should be free. They were not genetically created to be slaves. I think that when the people in France demonstrated against war, they didn't want peace for the Iraqis — they wanted peace for themselves.

TA: I take it you don't think the value of freedom is "culturally relative."

Herold: No. Absolutely not!

It's a matter of human rights. I think human rights are more important than culture. To me, cultural relativism is just a way to justify when human rights are being violated.

TA: You mentioned that perhaps some of the opposition to the war was based on anti-Americanism. Where do you think this anti-Americanism stems from?

Herold: Well, I find it very weird, because America helped us twice in the two World Wars, and we have the same culture — the two of us are based on individual freedom and have the same values. So it's strange. Maybe it's because France would like to be more than it is now. It's really complicated. I think it's a kind of love-hate relationship.

TA: I know some people accuse the United States of so-called "cultural imperialism," which basically means that France imports American movies and television shows and other products, and there's a worry that the French culture will change and be diluted and corrupted and so forth. What are your thoughts about that argument?

Herold: I think no one is forced to eat at McDonalds or to go watch American movies. The people get what they want. Those very big Hollywood movies — every one the French people want to see. So they can do what they want. You can't force the people to go to see French films if they don't want to.

The French culture will change based on what the French people want to do with it. No one is forced to go to McDonalds, no one should be forbidden to. So just let the people decide.

TA: In this and other issues, you guys are rather controversial in France. What kinds of responses has Liberté j'écris ton nom generated?

Herold: Many people just tolerate us, but we have many opponents.

For example, it's very funny: Recently we organized a fake plantation of Genetically Modified Organisms [GMOs] in order to spawn and encourage research. This is because France is the only democracy in the world where some people decide they have a right to destroy experimental cultures of GMOs because they're opposed to them.

***image3***
We want research to be held without any problem, so we organized a demonstration and made some statements about our position on the issue. And what was funny is that some anti-GMO leftists felt threatened by this. Namely, José Bové, the French unionist who is leading the anti-globalization movement, along with the association Attac, which is also an anti-globalization group that's popular in France, decided they had to jointly issue a press release saying that they are not obscurantists, since we had said they were anti-science and thus obscurantists.

So that was very funny. Because it means they really fear us, which is interesting. They hate us, but they also fear us.

TA: What do you find to be the greatest challenge to promoting liberty in France?

Herold: There are many things.

For one, the unions block any new reforms by going on the streets and demonstrating and blocking the whole country.

You also have the problem of a political class — people who have been in power for more than thirty years. For example, Jacques Chirac — he was a politician before I was even born. He has been living off the state longer than I'm alive. So, it's crazy.

And all these people, they're career politicians. But when you administrate a country, when you're a politician, you should have a wider view, and I think no one today has that. Of the major parties in France, there's the Socialist Party and the Union for a Popular Movement, both of which have produced nothing on an intellectual basis for more than twenty years.

So you can understand why French people become disinterested in politics. There are no ideas.

TA: If a young French communist were to approach you and ask, why are you so enthusiastic about freedom, how would you respond?

Herold: I'd say that when you have no freedom and when you don't respect the individual, it can lead to slaughter. And the only way to respect the individual is to give him the freedom to decide for himself.

***image4***

I'd say that you can't decide for others what they should be. When you try to centralize everything and when the state tries to help the people too much and to decide for them what is good, it doesn't work. It didn't work in China, it didn't work in Cuba, it didn't work in North Korea.

Because in those cases you are trying to impose a model on the people. But people are diverse, so no model can be applied to them. And then if you do want a model to be applied to the people, you have to kill the people. You should not create a model and then make the people adapt to the model — you have to do something that can adapt to the people.

TA: Do you plan on making politics a full-time profession? Or do you have other plans?

Herold: I'm in business school now, and I don't know whether I want to go into politics or not. But one thing is for sure: I think you have no legitimacy going into politics when you have not worked in the private sector before. You can't issue laws that will affect companies if you don't know how a company works.

And I think you also need a knowledge of economy and political philosophy. You can't just be a professional politician. It doesn't make sense.

TA: What does the future hold for Liberté j'écris ton nom?

Herold: We're not going to turn into a political party, I don't think. We are a civil organization and that makes us strong. So we want to become a kind of lobby that puts pressure on the government and the lawmakers and influences them toward libertarian reforms.

In the near future we will be focusing some efforts on Cuba and on France's relationship with Cuba. I think it's high time that the Castro regime fall. We're trying to hasten that fall, but it's very difficult because many people in France still support Castro. I remember in 1995 when Castro came to Paris and was received at the Elysée by then-president Mitterand — it was so disgusting.

We're also organizing a big conference for members and supporters on the 17th of January. And we'll shortly be publishing something that we're calling a Libertarian Manifesto — it's like the communist one, but libertarian; it will show what the ideas are. It will also be about our values at Liberté j'écris ton nom — who we are and what we want to be done in France throughout the next twenty years.

In general we're going to continue taking action to make the people more conscious of what libertarianism can be, in terms of concrete issues — because we want reforms. We don't want to wait for and we don't expect a future libertarian revolution. We're anti-revolution. We've had many revolutions in France and you can never know what that holds. Sometimes they finish with bloodshed.

So we want reforms and we want them to start now. We don't want to wait.

5 comments from readers  

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.