Walking the talk of an open society

By Paul Gau­dric and Paul Lagneau-Ymon­et.

Young French peo­ple tend to be more com­mit­ted to open-soci­ety val­ues than old­er gen­er­a­tions, but incon­sis­ten­cy and indif­fer­ence to col­lec­tive action con­sti­tute two chal­lenges for advo­ca­cy, accord­ing to research by the Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and d|part

How do French peo­ple feel about the open soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly the younger gen­er­a­tion, if by this we mean free­dom of thought, the rule of law, and believ­ing that facts are true and not fake news?

Data from our Voic­es on Val­ues sur­vey sug­gests three main cat­e­gories of respon­dents: Cham­pi­ons of an open soci­ety, its Adver­saries and its Pil­lars, the most reli­able respon­dents on open soci­ety issues. We have also iden­ti­fied a pos­i­tive demo­graph­ic trend and two dan­gers that advo­cates of an open soci­ety must watch out for.

Cham­pi­ons sup­port­ed the state­ments that it is “absolute­ly essen­tial” or “fair­ly essen­tial” for a good soci­ety that “peo­ple who have recent­ly come to live in France should be treat­ed equal­ly”, that “every­one should be able to prac­tise their reli­gion freely”, and “to express their opin­ion freely”. Cham­pi­ons also thought that “gov­ern­ment-crit­i­cal groups and indi­vid­u­als should be able to engage in dia­logue with the gov­ern­ment”, that “the rights of minori­ties be pro­tect­ed”, that “all polit­i­cal views of the pop­u­la­tion be rep­re­sent­ed in par­lia­ment”, and that “the media be able to crit­i­cise the government”.

Adver­saries con­sid­ered it “absolute­ly essen­tial” or at least “fair­ly essen­tial” to a good soci­ety that “as few immi­grants as pos­si­ble come to France”, that “the gov­ern­ment ensures that media report­ing always reflects a pos­i­tive image of France”, that “non-Chris­tians only vis­i­bly prac­tise their reli­gion at home and in their places of reli­gious wor­ship”, that “same sex cou­ples do not kiss in pub­lic” and that “the right to cit­i­zen­ship be lim­it­ed to peo­ple whose par­ents hold French cit­i­zen­ship or who are eth­ni­cal­ly French”.

Adver­saries tend to be over-65s, although peo­ple over-80 are usu­al­ly more tol­er­ant. Cham­pi­ons are bet­ter edu­cat­ed, and gen­der, age and rev­enue don’t play a sig­nif­i­cant role. Their respons­es can at times be ambiva­lent, as when they sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly praise open soci­ety val­ues but, as Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron likes to say, “en même temps” make state­ments to the contrary.

Pil­lars are a sep­a­rate third group. They don’t sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly praise open soci­ety val­ues, nor do they oppose them. They adhere to the core prin­ci­ples of an open soci­ety, and tend to be younger and bet­ter edu­cat­ed. But they also often under­val­ue the roles of unions, NGOs and inde­pen­dent admin­is­tra­tive author­i­ties, despite their key roles in an open society.

Good news

The good news is that Adver­saries account for only 9 per­cent of respon­dents. Most are over 65s (table 1), and Adver­saries aged under 35 are few, rep­re­sent­ing less than 4 per­cent of their age group (table 2). Inde­pen­dent­ly of edu­ca­tion lev­els, old­er peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly more hos­tile to open soci­ety values.

Table 1: The three cat­e­gories by age group

A third of all inter­vie­wees agreed with the open soci­ety state­ments (table 1), with edu­ca­tion lev­els rather than gen­der, age or incomes unit­ing them. This cor­re­la­tion came as no sur­prise, but we should be care­ful about inter­pret­ing it, as pos­i­tive state­ments don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean act­ing on them.

That’s why we have dis­tin­guished Cham­pi­ons from Pil­lars. Con­trary to Cham­pi­ons who are more inclined to speak up but are sel­dom per­son­al­ly com­mit­ted. Pil­lars always espouse open soci­ety views, and their actions are usu­al­ly con­sis­tent with their prin­ci­ples. They are more reli­able than Cham­pi­ons when it comes to liv­ing by open soci­ety rules.

Table 2: Cross-tab­u­la­tion Adver­saries by age

Not-so good news

The not-so-good news is that Pil­lars account for only 15 per­cent of all respon­dents (table 1). They tend to be younger and bet­ter edu­cat­ed, and as steady sup­port­ers of an open soci­ety they con­sid­er that free­dom of thought is more impor­tant than con­cert­ed crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment by non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions, includ­ing unions and polit­i­cal par­ties (table 3, first column).

They would rather speak out indi­vid­u­al­ly than express their views col­lec­tive­ly, and thus more effec­tive­ly. This may sig­nal a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the role played by NGOs, unions and inde­pen­dent admin­is­tra­tive author­i­ties, such as ombuds­men, in the process of set­ting out rules in an open society.

This dis­re­gard for col­lec­tive action may also be a con­se­quence of a polit­i­cal sys­tem that pro­motes the sta­bil­i­ty of pres­i­den­tial majori­ties rather than diver­si­ty of expres­sion through par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Or it may be down to a lack of trust in the media, which in France is main­ly con­trolled by indus­tri­al­ists who oper­ate oth­er businesses.

For Cham­pi­ons, the results are some­what trou­bling, as they aren’t always con­sis­tent: 80 per­cent say that at least one of the more reac­tionary state­ments in the survey’s list is “absolute­ly essen­tial” or “fair­ly essen­tial”. This is slight­ly less than the ratio for all the inter­vie­wees (85 %).

Two ques­tions in par­tic­u­lar attract con­tra­dic­to­ry respons­es, those on reli­gion and migra­tion: 15 per­cent of Cham­pi­ons con­sid­er it “absolute­ly cru­cial” that “as few immi­grants as pos­si­ble come to France”, and almost one out of every five Cham­pi­ons thinks that it is “absolute­ly cru­cial” that “non-Chris­tians only vis­i­bly prac­tise their reli­gion at home and in their places of reli­gious wor­ship” (table 4, first column).

Table 3: Fre­quen­cy tables for Pillars

Table 4: Fre­quen­cy tables for Champions


Advo­cates of an open soci­ety in France need to pro­mote their ideas among the younger gen­er­a­tion, where they face two main chal­lenges: indi­vid­ual incon­sis­ten­cies, as when peo­ple say they are in favour of open soci­ety val­ues, while at the same time choos­ing some closed soci­ety val­ues, and a lack of inter­est in the col­lec­tive expres­sion of diverse, and some­times diver­gent opin­ions. The chal­lenge for those who defend the open soci­ety is both to define it in clear lan­guage, and to reduce the incon­sis­ten­cies between what peo­ple say and what they do.

Paul Gau­dric is an indus­tri­al rela­tions con­sul­tant. Paul Lagneau-Ymon­et teach­es soci­ol­o­gy at Paris-Dauphine (PSL Research Uni­ver­si­ty, IRISSO)


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the authors.

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