In my regular column in Haaretz, my new article: “What’s Next for France?“
Rifts in French society are growing harder to overcome. Unless treated as opportunities to boost connection, the growing weight will crush them.
The ever-present threat of terrorism and the rifts in French society concerning immigration, economy, Frexit, and other weighty issues are making the current French elections exceptionally tense. The result of the runoff will impact not only France, but all of Europe as the teetering European Union struggles to survive. Despite the tensions from the EU, in order to succeed, the newly elected president will have to give preference to France’s home affairs and achieve what currently seems impossible: the unity of the French people.
The new president will undoubtedly face fierce opposition, perhaps similar to that which Donald Trump is facing in the US. But even if, unlike in America, the election is decided by a wide majority, the new president will still need to deal with swarms of immigrants inundating France and taking over Paris. Besides posing a major security risk and a political and humanitarian challenge, the question of relations with the immigrants will continue to divide the French people and disrupt their lives.
Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Indeed, in order to solve France’s problems, the French president and the French people will have to rise to a new level of thinking: a comprehensive, all-inclusive level where all people matter and all views are included under an umbrella of unity.
The new level of thinking means that people stop trying pointlessly to persuade everyone that only they are right and everyone else is wrong. Instead, people will unite above their differences. In simple terms, uniting above differences means that we accept that we all have different views, but we also accept that the unity of our country (in this case France) is more important than the predominance of my personal view. Therefore, each of us says to him or herself, “I believe what I believe but other people believe differently. Now, let us take all those different views and utilize them for the benefit of the whole of society.”
Just like the different organs in our body, we are different in every way. In the body, this diversity guarantees our health and our existence. For example, the lungs and the liver both deal with the blood that flows through them. Yet, if they dealt with the blood in the same way, we would not have oxygen or we would have blood full of toxins. Either way, we would not survive. It may not be that obvious, but human society functions much like our bodies, and each person in it is like a unique organ. If a person compels another person to act or think the same as another, it stops the oppressed person from performing according to his or her unique role in humanity and inflicts damage on the entire human society.
In his essay, “The Freedom,” the great commentator on The Book of Zohar, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, wrote, “Anyone who eradicates a tendency from an individual and uproots it causes the loss of that sublime and wondrous concept from the world… From this we learn what a terrible wrong inflict those nations that force their reign on minorities, depriving them of freedom without allowing them to live their lives by the tendencies they have inherited from their ancestors. They are regarded as no less than murderers.”
The formidable challenge of the next French president will be to galvanize the starkly different parts of the French society into working for the benefit of the entire nation, just as different organs work for the benefit of the entire body. If successful, France will become a mighty nation, as its diversity will translate into agility, creativity, flexibility, and ultimately prosperity. If the new president fails to unite the French people, the country and its society will collapse. All they need to do is look to their ally on the west shore of the Atlantic to see how hard it is for a president to succeed when half the nation opposes him.
Treat Problems the Way Athletes Treat Weights
The human body is not the only example of complementary differences. All of nature consists of opposites that complement one another: light and dark, hot and cold, male and female, life and death. The same principle should apply to a healthy social life. The book, Likutey Halachot (Assorted Rules) writes, “The essence of vitality, existence, and correction is creation in achieved by people of differing opinions mingling together in love, unity, and peace.” The growing chasms in today’s societies indicate that we must intensify our work on unity accordingly.
Indeed, problems are not meant to be solved; they are meant to be levers for greater social cohesion. In his book Letters of the Raiah, Rav Kook wrote, “The great rule about the war of views, when each view comes to contradict another, is that we need not contradict it, but rather build above it, and thereby ascend.”
The French need not conceal the chasms in the French society. Instead, they should preserve and cherish the various factions in society, and use what each of them has to offer for the benefit of the entire country. The differences among the French people enrich and vitalize the French society and add color to the country.
France’s future leader will have to maintain two opposite levels one atop the other—rifts and differences to the point of hatred, at the bottom, and atop it, a layer of solidarity and mutual responsibility. Social tensions will not vanish. On the contrary, they will grow and thereby enable and compel the French to build stronger bridges among them. In this way, the differences between the factions will not be revoked or suppressed, but rather embraced as contributors to the diversity and strength of a united French society.
In order to build their muscles, athletes force themselves to lift incrementally heavier weights. Likewise, the rifts within the French society are growing incrementally harder to overcome. If the French treat their rifts as opportunities to work harder on their (muscles of) connection, they will have a robust and powerful society. If they give up and do not try to lift the growing weight, it will undoubtedly crush them.