With five days to go until the first round of the French presidential election, it is clear that human rights, along with major issues of foreign policy, are having great trouble carving out a place in the campaign. Ten days ago, after the United States’ airstrikes in Syria, the Syrian conflict did come back into the public debate, forcing the candidates to express their positions on the subject. But human rights-related issues and the attention they should be given in France’s national and international policies are still mainly absent in this campaign, despite the importance of what is at stake.
At a time when human rights values, democracy, and the rule of law are under the most forceful attacks in decades in Europe and the rest of the world, this observation is worrying. How will the candidates defend these essential principles and include them in their policies for everyone in France? How will they defend these values on the world stage, values that are critical to build a fairer, safer, and more just world?
These questions are not abstract, nor are they naive.
We are seeing a global rise of xenophobia and intolerance that spread division and violence. We are seeing the ascendancy of authoritarian governments that are stifling civil society as well as the checks on power in Russia, in China, in Egypt, and in the Philippines. These authoritarian governments are also inspiring leaders in Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. And we are seeing attacks and violations committed deliberately and with impunity against civilians in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, violating elementary rules of international law and fueling despair and exile.
And while all this happens, Russia is effectively causing paralysis in the United Nations Security Council. And in the United States, Donald Trump has shown his hostility toward multilateral institutions. Yet there is a desperate need for political and financial support for the international justice system to fight against the impunity that benefits many of those responsible for atrocities around the world. All of this is leaving victims with a deep sense of injustice.
In the face of these major challenges, the French presidential candidates should not stay silent.
France’s place within Europe, especially in the time of Brexit, its position as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, its history as the birthplace of the declaration of Human Rights, give it an immense responsibility, on the national, regional and international levels. The person who will soon become President of the Republic will have to confront this reality as soon as they are elected. France faces great challenges at home too, from discrimination during police checks against young people, to abuses in the context of a state of emergency repeatedly extended, and the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum here.
So candidates who claim to stand for democratic values and a humanist tradition should state unequivocally their support for equality, tolerance, justice and freedom and put them at the heart of their campaign. Beyond discourses, they should also explain clearly and precisely to voters how these values will inform their policies at the national and international levels.
And what about candidates who are tempted to put aside these principles in the name of security or commercial preoccupations. And what about those who, worse still, ostensibly trample these principles by playing on the fears and frustrations of a part of the population to turn it against another. These candidates take the risk of eroding the foundations of the rule of law, of exacerbating the country’s inner divisions, and of weakening France’s role on the world stage.
Supporting human rights values for everybody does not prevent good administration in a democracy nor does it hinder a democratic country’s influence in the world. On the contrary, these values are its condition and bedrock.