Law in Contemporary Society
France finds comfort in its creed, Liberté. Égalité. Fraternité. It is admired as its apparent simplicity earns the public’s confidence. This is even more so when the creed is “personified” (see Marianne representing Liberty). However, to me, it is an illusionary myth which creates impossible standards. It may inevitably lead to a conflict with reality. This is particularly so “when old institutions are not functioning effectively is that they induce men to act in direct contradiction to observed facts.” (The Folklore of Capitalism, Thurman pp. 136-140).


To understand Liberty, we must consider and listen to its multifaceted meanings across varied contexts. It cannot be isolated. It might suggest new kinds of relationship or new ways of seeing existing ones: in the invention of new terms (freedom), in its restriction vis-à-vis the State, in its adaptation or opportunities for radical change (abortion for freedom of choice), and in its extension within the same language and in other societies (libertinism). This shows that “some important social and historical processes occur within language.” (Keywords, Raymond Williams).

Freedom. Liberty, as per the Webster dictionary, embodies a spectrum of freedoms, ranging from the individual’s freedom to act to a more collective freedom from despotic control. These may also be found in the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. History may reveal that the French Revolution, like its American counterpart, saw liberty as an ideal of political freedom, reestablishing a balance in the State’s controlling powers.

Restriction re: the State. Yet, the evolution of history has shown that liberty was sometimes constrained by the State when the very same liberty was supposed to guard against it. For instance, France’s imposition of COVID-tracking measures to supposedly safeguard public health highlights the tension between the individual’s freedom of movement and the State’s limits on personal autonomy and privacy.

Restriction re: Culture. Additionally, Liberty’s contours, notably for the freedom to act, are shaped by culture. In France, a cultural aversion to risk and failure fosters a climate disincentivizing entrepreneurial endeavors. This aversion, coupled with hierarchical structures within the workplace, educational and legal institutions, engenders submission to authority, stifling innovation. For instance, the absence of dissenting voices within law schools raises questions about the erosion of individual agency in the face of institutional power. Have lawyers surrendered their voice? As Robinson remarked, did the system crush the people?

Extension. Nevertheless, in another context of abortion rights, this freedom to act was expanded in France since 1975 and here, the meaning of “liberty” has stayed the same ever since (See 2024 enshrinement of the abortion freedom in the constitution). This sheds light on the contextual nature of Liberté––the freedom to make choices regarding one’s body contrasts with the limited individual’s choice when facing institutions.

Evolution within language. Finally, Liberty and libertinism may also be associated as keywords with the same latin root liber. While libertinism might not necessarily equate with prostitution, the semantic relation with liberty could be used to shed light on the recent debate about the decriminalization of sex work. France has historically prohibited libertinism and regulated prostitution. However, another French-speaking country, Belgium, has given an expansive meaning to liberté regarding the use of one’s body, as it approved in May 2024 a labor law for sex workers to get health insurance and pensions. Thus, these varied meanings of liberté within the same language (French) again underpin that liberty is contextual depending on the legal framework within which it evolves, culture and history.


While liberty and equality are defined as per rights or statutes, Fraternity stems from Judeo-Christian roots. Ironically, despite the motto’s religious connotation, the State declares itself to be neutral (laicity). If brotherhood were ever embraced, how to explain that some racial communities cluster together in similar neighborhoods? Perhaps fraternité and its primary meaning have been shaped by a dominant class (Keywords, Williams). In our case, it might be the French white “petite bourgeoisie” in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. By contrast, the “non-dominant” class forms clusters elsewhere: Consider the residents of the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements of Algerian and Maghrebi descent. However, these communities have created their own sense of fraternité, which is also embedded in the French ordinary language through alterations. They often refer to each other as “frère” (brother), suggesting that they too have a restricted vision of fraternity within their cluster since they’ve been excluded by the dominant class. This in line with Mencken in The American Language who mentions that “the non-respectable classes”—we could analogize to the excluded minorities—seek “a way to describe themselves, since society has denied them a position of dignity, they create a language of subtle satire and attack.” (The Folklore of Capitalism, Thurman). Perhaps this is also the result of a colonial history, which may be read into the meaning of fraternity.


France’s model is to provide everyone the same opportunities, regardless of any distinction based on race, origin, and religion. It naively assumes that equality before the law will lead to one in our social interactions, educational and professional possibilities. Aligned with a certain constitutional interpretation of its Republic, France has long been against granting specific rights to “minorities” such as the American affirmative action (before the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., 600 U.S. (2023)). Invisible minorities remain inside the standard “can” in the equal or rather identical way as everyone else and struggle to fit in a can either too small or too big for them. Since in theory distinction is not supposed to exist, how is France able to combat discrimination and uncover underlying biases? In fact, it may not be. In tension with égalité, recent terrorists’ attacks and riots amid international events have divided the French society, fueling the population’s hate towards minorities.

Perhaps, listening to each other might make us realize our kinship, read into the meaning of equality and fraternity.

I will be free, your sister and your equal, so long as I listen to you. I will never be far from you.


Webs Webs

r3 - 13 May 2024 - 18:36:52 - AngelaMaalouf
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