Does the state have to lie to act?


"I assume perfectly to lie to protect my president." Sibeth Ndiaye has the merit of the franchise when she proclaims that it deliberately unravels the pact which governs the relationship between rulers and citizens in a liberal democracy. This contract is based on the publicity of decisions and the sincerity of its actors. It is true that the condemnation of lying remains implicit in the Constitution of the Ve Republic.

It proclaims from its article 3 that "national sovereignty belongs to the people who exercise it through their representatives"; the deliberations of the Parliament which "controls the action of the government" are public and published in the Official Journal. The notion of publicity is everywhere, in the Constitution; that of sincerity, nowhere, or almost.

What is the point of deliberating and deciding in full light if sincerity is not required? Only exception: the accounts of public administrations which must be "regular and sincere". As if lying, dissimulation, travesty could only be lodged in quantified realities, which would be the only horizon of truth. As if sincerity was a duty of the citizen, in his tax declaration or his testimony, but not of the government. The lie under oath constitutes a criminal offense. The citizen who testifies before the parliamentary committees swears by raising his right hand to say "the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth". A magistrate must answer for perjury. But a president, a minister may lie in the line of duty without risking any penalty other than those issued by the media court. Gold public opinion is sometimes tolerant of lies.

Does reason of state justify deviations from the truth?

"Les Guignols de l'info", representing Jacques Chirac as a "super-liar" during the 2002 campaign, did not prevent him from being elected President of the Republic... Does this mean that the notion of lying of State is reduced to that of secrecy, long justified by reason of State?

If the political lie is not the perfect reverse of the truth (error, for example, does not concern this book), the notions of sincerity, authenticity, accuracy, do not only concern morality private life or science, but also political life.

Super liar, the Guignols de l'info, 2002.

Following a decision by the Constitutional Council in 2005, endorsed six months later by the regulations of the National Assembly, parliamentary debate now obeys the principle of "clarity and sincerity".

These notions appear less often in secular France than in more religiously steeped nations, such as the United States, where moral injunction is embedded in political culture. Bill Clinton's lie under oath about an extramarital affair drove the president at the edge of theimpeachment.

The question of fake news arouses a flowering of publications on the conditions of their regulation in the current media regime. Wartime propaganda, which makes liberal democracies depart from their ordinary rule, has interested historians.

But a blind spot remains: the vulnerability of our social and political life to a wide range of state lies that take advantage of the overly implicit nature of the sincere publicity pact at the foundation of our institutions. For lack of thinking the truth in political matters, we have become accustomed to poison. No history or political science book has recently tackled the question of state lying in order to think about its nature and document its effects. This book wants to repair this gap for the most contemporary period: that of our Ve Republic.

What can and what should we know in a democracy?

Philosophers and political scientists are moved not without reason by the relativism of the present time, which sees the expression "post-truth" flourish. The boundary between "opinion" and "factual truth", for use Hannah Arendt's expression, a distinction endorsed by Myriam Revault d'Allonnes, raises the question: what is the truth, what can we know outside the natural sciences, in social and political matters?

What are the conditions for approaching and sharing this type of truth? We propose to distinguish what concerns veracity in social matters from mathematical truth, and the requirement of publicity from the thirst for transparency.

It is not a question of naively founding an exact science of politics as dreamed of by the utopian socialists or Auguste Comte but to agree on a horizon of truth in the social world, while admitting its linguistic limits.

This book does not have the naivety to hunt down lies as so many moral faults, equivalent to algebraic errors – nor do we believe, moreover, that the exact sciences produce a "pure" truth, scientism proving to be like a perpetual temptation of scientific knowledge to assert a monopoly on truth. In fact, the natural sciences are not mathematics. The philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn has shown that the sciences are not immune to history.

A form of relativity of truth

We admit a form of relativity of truth for human societies, without neglecting the gray areas: communication skill, the ambiguity which takes into account the historical maturity of the audience (the famous "I understood you" from General de Gaulle), the secrecy and vagueness sometimes useful for negotiation. The requirement of publicity does not mean that the truth, in political matters, would be revealed thanks to a magic formula of perfect circulation of unequivocal information.

The computerization of society and the easier access of citizens to data do not mechanically favor public debate. We also perceive the populist or puritanical limits of the demand for "transparency".

The demand for publicity can turn against the modern, liberal project, which aims to submit political decision-making to collective intelligence. The sharing of political information, which prejudges a rational community, has given way to a systematic suspicion of manipulation by the "elites" who intend to evade criticism, decide in secret, and hide the real decision-makers.

This suspicion borders on conspiracy when it leads to the conviction that power is always elsewhere than in official institutions and that the decision comes from occult circuits. Moreover, the liberal requirement for publicity of the information necessary for collective deliberation may be the wrong target and compromise a no less legitimate desire for secrecy, especially in the private sphere.

One thinks of the tracking of information driven by commercial considerations (traffic by GAFAM of data for the purposes of private advertising), political (the Benjamin Griveaux affair, candidate for mayor of Paris, for example) or security (the tracking information to anticipate any act of internal or external threat, from crime to terrorism).

What border between publicity and secrecy?

What is the legitimate boundary between publicity and secrecy in a liberal democracy? At the end of the XVIIIe century already, the liberal Benjamin Constant disputed the absolute duty of veracity proclaimed by Kant. Does the general good of the nation, in particular its defense against external danger, justify lying? Then appears the reason of State, which replaces the democratic rationality.

If Sibeth Ndiaye justified the political lie with aplomb in the interest of a person, would it be the President of the Republic, should we also categorically deny the right to lie in the name of reason of State?

The question was settled for the first time, in a liberal democracy under the IIIe Republic. French society, with the Dreyfus affair, weighed the fate of an individual against the authority of a group, of an institution. Finally, it did not seem desirable to preserve the Army, despite its essential role in national survival, by overwhelming an innocent. When Dreyfus' guilt turned out to be a miscarriage of justice, it appeared to public opinion for what it was: a state lie...

"Lies of State", published on May 24 by New World editions.

If the rights of the individual remain sacred, in a liberal democracy, those of humanity as a whole cannot be flouted either: it is the interests of humanity, even of the planet, that must be defended against reason. of state. This strange tension between the smallest and the universal leads us to consider that it is necessary to rule out any lie of the State for the benefit of the interest, were it generalized on the scale of a nation.

This work, on the basis of a wide range of recent historical situations, which makes it possible to review all the types of lies and their actors, takes a clear position. At the end of the exercise, it appears to us even more than at its beginning, at the risk of being considered naive, that lying does not only weaken liberal democracy, but the state itself. It is not only reprehensible but ineffective, and turns against the institution, if not against the person, who uses it.

"State Lies. Another History of the Fifth Republic", with Yvonnic Denoël, published by Nouveau Monde on May 24.

Renaud Meltz, Historian (UHA-Cresat, MSH-P), National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/O.Kemppainen

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