During the night of 14-15th April this year, all while the law bill opening marriage & adoption to same-sex couple was being passed by the legislature, after an accelerated process, 67 young men & women opposing homosexual marriage decided to set up tents, peacefully & without noise, before the National Assembly. This act was not unprecedented. Among other instances, children of Harki had set temporary quarters in the same place, during 7 months, to draw attention to their condition, without being either bothered or dislodged.
But the 67 opponents did not benefit the same favourable treatment. An hour after Midnight, they were suddenly & violently arrested by police forces, then kept in summary custody for 18 hours under extremely difficult, not to say deplorable, conditions.
Faced with such disproportion of repressive methods, faced with a power which was revealing more & more manifestly its true face, & sought division & confrontation when it might have favoured appeasement, we reflected all night long on a means by which to respond. Were we to uprise & radicalise? The choice of a violent action now seemed necessary to be heard by a government accumulating provocation upon provocation, treating with the greatest contempt several hundred thousand Frenchmen legitimately concerned by their own future, & by that of their children & their nation.
Yet as the night went, we realized that violence would lead to nothing, & that we could not set ourselves up as defenders of human dignity without, at the same time, vouching for social peace. We understood that the primary violence was with a law which would soon deprive children of a father or of a mother. We understood that our anger, legitimate or noble though it might be, could just as well be peacefully expressed. We understood, finally, that we would only disarm accumulated police violence by being nonviolent ourselves.
There thus was no concept or system before setting up the Veilleurs, or Vigil-Keepers. Far from it. There merely was a simple intuition, a natural reflex of conscience, that very impulse which drove Antigone to bury her brother Polynices against King Creon’s orders. Convinced by the gravity of current developments, we cannot help taking as our models these great prophetic voices, from Sophie Scholl to Jerzy Polieluszko, from Winston Churchill to Vaclav Havel, rose with courage to awaken a humanity in mortal peril.
Hence, the night which followed the 67 arrests, we sat down on a lawn before the Invalides, with candles, to keep watch over respect for the human person. & to stay vigilant, while the consciences of our fellow citizens had dozed into fatal indifference.
But we also came with a number of literary texts which we love, because another very marked intuition struck us: as well as nonviolence, culture would be the fairest weapon against a power which, by this law, was breaking with centuries, even millennia, of human sagacity.
Yes, adopting this law springs from a veritable resignation of human thought. Judging, with Hannah Arendt, that the worst dramas of History occurred because men ceased to think, we have chosen to reawaken the voices of great human thinkers, whose writings we now reread, night after night.
Numbering 50 the first vigil night, we saw that number multiply by 10 after only five days. We have now met for 12 weeks, in the most absolute calm. The movement, initiated in Paris, rapidly set France on fire. Provincial towns & cities thus set up their own watches, spontaneously & autonomously, without any directive from Paris. Vigil-Keepers are now present in over 150 French cities, & in a dozen foreign countries. This blaze reveals, in France & well beyond, a genuine thirst : the thirst to reconstruct the meaning of Man & human dignity when faced with menacing ideology. A thirst to weave back the social thread of a society pulverized by several centuries of individualism, an individualism still growing, leaving the human person radically alone & disarmed, notably in these times of crisis, & which destroys the least human aspirations by reducing them to immediate want, circumscribing humanity in a short-term vision, with no care for the generations which may succeed, & no gratitude for those which gave each of us birth.
Last Sunday in Paris, over a thousand vigil-keepers assembled before the Invalides. We generally choose to keep watch in a place of memory or power, linked to the theme chosen for a given vigil. This event features text readings, guest speeches from psychiatrists, legal scholars, political, artistic, or religious personalities, mothers or fathers, adopted children, homosexuals, &c). Vigil-keepers stay seated in silence. They applaud with the silent hand-waving of hearing-impaired, in order not to disturb the calm of the night, & also to manifest their absolute nonviolence, & their respect for others’ speech. Songs which we sing in chorus interrupt this silence: the Espérance song, the Partisan song.
Our gatherings are non-confessional & non-partisan: they mean to be open toward all, whatever their political opinions or religious convictions as defending human dignity is a combat transcending many barriers, & which surely must unite citizens in a common awakening of conscience.
Our vigils are often followed by a march through Paris toward another symbolic place. We are then rapidly encircled by police forces, & often receive summations. Each vigil-keeper is free to stay or to leave. We stay in place for the time we have fixed, without obeying the summations: by this modest transgression, we set an act of civil disobedience, destined to manifest our resistance, & the irrepressible advance of our freedom of conscience. Despite the many summations which we have now received, despite also a number of few seizures & intimidations against the animators, no vigil-keeper has so far been taken into custody, which is rather surprising in a context where opponents to the bill are arrested again & again.
How to explain this relative tolerance toward us? We’ve noticed how embarrassed & divided law enforcement officials were toward us. It is indeed very delicate to round up people who do not hinder circulation, make no noise, recite poetry, & proclaim, along with Dostoyevsky, that “beauty shall save the world”. Harmless in appearance, this interior, cultural, & spiritual revolution which we have launched, is far more subversive than it looks. It contaminates the law enforcement officials encircling us. One of them confided to a vigil-keeper: “80-90 % of us are on your side. We are more & more sickened by the very severe orders we receive against opponents of the bill – all while told not to intervene in more politically correct demos, like one which truly was vandalizing the Bastille area.” Certain riot police officers laugh with us, others do obey orders, making us know they do it reluctantly. During one vigil, we read Douglas McArthur’s address on youth, & one gendarme, who knew it all by heart, recited it together with us. Indeed, this flame we kindle is contagious.
The Veilleurs thus mean to offer the spark which will ignite a true awakening of conscience, by mediation of culture, of thought, of art. Since June we ask during each watch the participants to hold a moment’s silence to think on which concrete commitment they may take, as soon as the following day, & each according to his or her own charisma, to promote within whatever existing association, trade union, or political party that sense of the human being which we defend. We are witnessing the birth of a generation which has at long last perceived the meaning of citizenship & commitment, & which bears hope for our future.
Today’s Europe has elected to heed the spurious call of the Sophists, rather than the wise thinking of Philosophers. Yes, Europe is about to lose its soul in a demigod illusion well worthy of Protagoras, when it affirms that Man is the measure of all things, & that he may, as he wishes, deny reality & empty all words of their meaning: notably marriage, filiation, & the complementary nature of sexuality.
We vigil-keepers refuse to be led astray by those modern sophists, & respond following Socrates that if Man truly is the measure of all, then madness becomes the measure of all. Following the same Socrates, we now stand ready to obey the sole voice of our conscience, regardless of blame & public condemnation, for love of Wisdom & Truth, for love of City & State, for love of Humanity.
(Strasbourg, Summer 2013.)
Original French version to be found here
#Veilleurs address at @coe, Early Summer 2013 de pourkoijeveille.net est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Pas de Modification 4.0 International.