President of the French Republic

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 30 September 1982

It is an honour for the President of the French Republic to be able to address the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly today, here in Strasbourg. The city of Strasbourg is symbolic in many respects – not only of reconciliation between the German and French peoples, but also of all the peoples of Europe in their joint determination to safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms.

After so many of what one may call civil wars, Europe has re-discovered its vocation as the continent of freedom. This aim is embodied in the Council of Europe, which – as you have just pointed out, Mr President – is one of the oldest European organisations and remains today the one with the largest membership of states. It is an aim which is given expression in the organisation’s very Statute, in which the member states proclaim their unshakeable devotion

“to the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy”.

These spiritual and moral values are embodied more particularly in your Assembly, Mr President, and it is a real pleasure for me to be welcomed here by you. I was able to make your acquaintance in Paris when you were representing Spain there, and I know the role you have played in restoring Spain to the community of the free, democratic nations of Western Europe.

In your person I should like not only to salute an outstanding representative of your country but also to pay tribute to a European statesman.

I have come to bear witness, before the Parliamentary Assembly you preside over, to France’s esteem and consideration – its confidence even. This is an ideal forum for exchanges of views between highly informed men and women who have chosen to ask their parliaments to be allowed to come and take their seats here with what is plainly the intention of defending a cause dear to them, seeing that they devote a great deal of their time and thought to the activity.

In so doing, you are carrying out the task allotted to your Assembly in 1949 by “providing a means through which the aspirations of the European peoples may be formulated and expressed, the governments thus being kept continually in touch with European public opinion”.

This is often the most difficult of things to do, because even though you represent here peoples who share the same idea of democracy, freedom and human rights, how is this choice that you have made – which is sometimes even a calling, corresponding to civilised man’s deepest commitment – to be made comprehensible to the totality of your present-day constituents, who are making contemporary history but are divided on so many issues?

It is essential that your voices should be heard on international questions such as East-West relations or the Middle East, among many others.

Discussions of problems such as violence in all its forms or the impact on mankind of developments in science and technology are, I consider, very useful. I am thinking in particular of the conference you held last year in Helsinki, of genetic engineering and the fight against drug abuse, for which purpose your Assembly has been able to secure the help of the Georges Pompidou Study Group, now officially part of the Council of Europe.

I also want to pay tribute to your contribution to bringing the laws of member states closer together.

The Council of Europe’s major conventions – which have rightly been viewed by the public, or at any rate by informed opinion, as milestones in European co-operation – have nearly always been the brainchildren of this Assembly.

I am thinking of the European Social Charter, the Cultural Convention and many other initiatives in fields as varied as youth, the integration of refugees and migrants or co-operation between local authorities. Above all, perhaps, I am thinking of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the first draft of which was submitted to your predecessors thirty-three years ago by Pierre-Henri Teitgen. It was not by chance that the European Convention on Human Rights was the first convention adopted by the Council of Europe, in 1950.

I will not presume to spell out to you, its originators, the importance and potential of that treaty. Allow me, however, to stress the most vital aspect of it. The European Convention is not merely a list of rights: it provides a direct guarantee for them to any person within the jurisdiction of the Contracting Parties. It sets up an international system for the joint protection of these rights – machinery unique of its kind, which can be set in motion by states or by individuals.

Thus the “law of nations”, as it was still called when I was a student, truly merits its name and has recovered its patent of nobility.

The individual – previously isolated and ignored in relations between states – becomes a person and a citizen in the community of European nations.

You will understand my wishing to point out that several Frenchmen played a decisive role in drawing up this convention. Even though it cannot be forgotten that France remained an outsider for rather too long, that time is now over. We in France have kept faith with freedom in accordance with a centuries-old tradition. In so doing we do not merely experience a sense of duty done, as if we had now fulfilled all our obligations – what country could say that? We know that we are going to have to shoulder fresh responsibilities, because the liberty of the individual is a fragile thing, and where human rights are concerned no victory is ever final.

How many times have I said in France: “Never forget that freedom is something that has to be won”.

The fight for human rights was for a long time a fight to secure written texts. Now that national and international legislation exists the fight is on to apply them, so that no one shall be deprived of their benefit, whether he be a Third-World migrant worker in a more developed country, an inhabitant of the Fourth World, where people are poor and illiterate from generation to generation, a nomad who clings to the traditions of wandering, a former criminal who is trying to rehabilitate himself, a handicapped person or an elderly person – for the old are too often neglected.

We must look into the economic, cultural and psychological reasons why so many people become social rejects, and must ensure that our society founded on law is a society for all.

France is indeed determined to support the efforts made on behalf of human rights. In this connection, I know that work is being done to improve and strengthen the two vital instruments in this field – the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.

As regards the Convention, the aim is to improve the operation of the supervisory system, and above all, to extend the rights safeguarded. For too long now human rights have been considered more from the point of view of defending them than from the point of view of extending them.

In its Declaration on Human Rights of 27 April 1978, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers decided to give priority to extending the list of individual rights, in particular, as you know, in the social, economic and cultural fields.

This tied in with concerns which I had often had occasion to express wherever I happened to be. For the ultimate question that has to be answered is indeed this: What place can be given to the individual vis-à-vis the state and vis-à-vis society? To the individual – every person – vis-à-vis movements, organisations, groupings, abstractions; to the individual as an irreplaceable and, I hope, inalienable asset and treasure.

Human rights form a whole and it seems essential to realise that they complement each other.

In our various countries we are over-inclined to think that social and economic rights arise spontaneously from economic progress. But this is not so: we need only look at the current crisis to be reminded of that.

In the organisations with which Europe has equipped itself, as in the states which go to make up Europe, co-ordination between management and labour is a necessity for all. Such, at any rate, is my conviction, and I should like Europe both to set an example and to set the pace in its various international institutions. What would Europe be without its economic and social rights? Here too freedom has to be won.

I know that you are aware of that here in this Assembly, because you have expressed the wish in one of your resolutions that a special code should be drawn up in this sphere. To my mind, it is in this spirit that we can envisage the updating of the Social Charter, which is an essential instrument supplementing the convention on rights.

The Council of Europe seems to me to have an essential contribution to make to the thinking that we must do in order to co-ordinate our work – the work of states, governments, parliamentarians, management and labour – so that we may rectify economic and social disparities and eradicate as far as possible the evil of unemployment which threatens our democracies.

Believe me when I say that France will strive to achieve these goals whatever happens.

For what is at stake is nothing less than the total self-fulfilment of human dignity. And it is in the name of this dignity that the French Parliament, on a government motion in accordance with directives which I myself issued, has abolished the death penalty. I am delighted at the idea that in the near future – so I hope, at least – a new requirement, the abolition of this penalty, will be added to the European Convention on Human Rights.

This example reminds us that ensuring respect for the dignity of every human being presupposes a major shift in attitudes. Rights have to be learned; their worst enemies are ignorance and intolerance. Accordingly, I think that the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers was right to point out in its Declaration of 14 May 1981 that intolerance is a lethal threat to democracy.

In each of our countries we are trying to put these principles into practice. Circumstances may mean that it is not always very easy; but, as we have been reminded, we all live – or would like to live – in a living democracy. I have done what I can in my own country, which has the honour and pleasure of being your host, notably by joining your ranks without further delay, through signing our acceptance of the right of individual petition. The Minister responsible for European Affairs and the Minister for Justice were here not long ago in that connection.

Perhaps I may be allowed to remind you that all special criminal courts in France have recently been abolished and that the rule of law now prevails to an extent which is, I believe, unprecedented, both in the political sphere – thanks to the abolition of the National Security Court – and in the military sphere, in peacetime, thanks to the abolition of military courts. We have removed from our laws all traces of collective liability; and we no longer want differences in people’s customs to give rise to criminal liability. We have already carried out our intention to restore to judges their complete powers of discretion, while, at the same time, we have embarked on reforming our Criminal Code so as to reflect a number of central ideas, including making corporate bodies criminally liable – for cartels, for instance, or immoral or illegal dealings, which are sometimes protected by being carried out under the cover of corporate bodies; punishing offences against the public interest – and I am thinking in particular of crimes against the environment, such as persistent pollution in defiance of everybody and everything; judicial supervision of the carrying out of sentences – thereby restoring to the courts what is properly within their province; not to mention, of course, the fight against crime, all sorts of crime, particularly that which results from systematic organisations acting unchecked and without any other consideration than deep-seated fanaticism or hatred of others.

Admittedly, we have expressed reservations, with regard to some of the proposals adopted in this Chamber, and even some, I believe, at France’s instigation. Some provisions of law will have to be amended, but we are none the less anxious to see the countries of Europe – whether those in this Assembly or others – agree on things that could help to develop freedom and to safeguard lives and property from international terrorism.

But for this, as for the rest, a fresh political impetus is needed.

The Austrian Government’s recent proposal for the holding of a ministerial conference on human rights is a step in this direction, and the French authorities are giving it sympathetic consideration.

It is essential to maintain the unity of democratic Europe in this sphere. The European Convention must remain the common code for all these states. Together we are the custodians of a heritage whose protection and development, if they are to be durable, must also be uniform. The task which remains to be accomplished is such a weighty and difficult one, however, that its most exalting aspects will in no way be diminished.

In our various countries we are all committed, through the workings of democracy, to a most arduous struggle which stems from our convictions and may sometimes give us the feeling that we are wasting our time at levels incommensurate with the best within us; so you can well imagine how important it is that such activity should carry deeper significance in order that one may justify one’s own life. The work being done within these walls meets this need.

As you know, the Council of Europe and this Assembly are anxious to develop co-operation between member states so as to harmonise and improve national legislation in the social field. I mentioned this a little while ago and shall return to it again shortly.

Much work indeed has been done since 1949, but it is sometimes forgotten that the great achievements of your organisation are the outcome of constantly carrying on dialogue in all its forms – political dialogue, obviously.

But your Assembly is also a meeting-place – perhaps the only one of its kind – for those who share the ideal of freedom, political democracy and the primacy of law, an ideal which must be considered in the light of its historical development and its aims.

What would be the point of public-law rights and principles applicable to the individuals, to use the traditional terms of our law – which I studied for a long time, like many of you – what would be the point of the definition of political democracy given in the magnificent Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and in other fine and great documents, if these rights were made devoid of substance by the mere fact that, in our social life and the operation of the economy, these principles inscribed on the front of public buildings did not in fact at any time make themselves felt in the daily life of those they are supposed to protect?

The point must be to give to millions and millions of men and women who can say with their lips that they are free and protected but who work too much for their physical and mental health – or not enough, because of the irruption of unemployment into their lives – the unregimented, voluntary use of that life, made available for their own pursuits, so that their work is viewed as the means whereby they live, not their life as the means whereby they work. And what about women’s and children’s rights, now that old people have the possibility of taking a new interest in life until the end of their days? Nor, as I said just now, should we forget those whom society rejects, minority groups with their very cultures.

What would be the real point of all our fine words if political democracy were not transformed in due time – and there is no more time to lose – into economic and social democracy? Or, conversely, what sort of democracy – or self-styled economic and social democracy – would it be which abandoned political democracy by the wayside? In neither case – though obviously the two are of unequal value, since political democracy remains the essential foundation – could one claim to have built a society based on the rule of law.

As I have said, the rule of law affects most varied fields, from the big things to those which may seem of lesser importance but are none the less of practical concern. I am thinking in particular of transfrontier co-operation between local and other territorial authorities. In comparison with all that I have just been talking about, this may seem very thin and small-scale, yet for us all to have been able, or to be able – for the matter is currently in the balance – to ratify provisions of this kind is a major step forward. For what can be more political – in the proper sense of the term – than encouraging a better distribution of power between the state and local authorities and enabling these to co-operate across frontiers?

The whole of democratic Europe, I repeat, has a political responsibility towards the outside world. We must be aware of this, and there have in fact been a number of initiatives, including some by your President and your Assembly, which has itself entered into dialogue with the other pluralist democracies in the world. This dialogue is to take the concrete form of a conference of parliamentary democracies to be held in Strasbourg in the autumn of 1983, and that will be a logical development of the Council of Europe’s statutory function.

The Council of Europe’s states constitute the majority in the all too small – and often diminishing – group of democracies in the world. This has often been said, but it is worth repeating so that people may become more aware of the fact. Accordingly, a special role devolves upon the Council of Europe. It is natural – and necessary, even – that this role should be played out primarily in the parliamentary sphere. At the same time, however, the adoption of joint positions within the Committee of Ministers on world political events is assuming a more and more important place, and this is a natural development which I can only approve of.

In the current international situation the Council of Europe may serve primarily as a meeting-place for the families of Europe in order that they may build Europe; within the Council, member states, representatives of the European Free Trade Association, the Atlantic Alliance, neutral states and non-aligned states all have things in common, quite apart from any bloc-aligned politics, which is another aspect of contemporary life and one which does not involve all those taking part in the Council’s work.

We have here an incomparable fund of varied experience, of different commitments and views of the world, all originating in one common rallying-point for all those who believe in a particular form of civilisation inherited from our traditions. There is, of course, no question of shaping and imposing joint policies; rather is it a matter of comparing the points of view I have just mentioned and reaching a consensus which can be put into effect in varied forms through all the channels of international co-operation. This applies to East-West relations and North-South relations as well as to many others which could be pinpointed. In the sphere of East-West relations, for example, an attempt must be made to resume the essential dialogue.

But we cannot cease to defend our principles, particularly the principle of human freedom. Although I personally do not share the political ideas of the East European countries, I cannot help thinking – even if I occasionally have reservations about certain West European policies – that in any case our common safety lies, in moral and, above all, material respects, in certain courses of action, notably disarmament, and thus in dialogue and negotiation, though we must never let go of the safety-rail of human rights.

Some of the Council of Europe’s activities lend themselves to such co-operation, and they will be of benefit to Europe as a whole.

Let me turn now to North-South relations. In a speech to your Assembly on 5 May 1976 concerning the implications for Europe of the North-South dialogue, my friend Bruno Kreisky, the Federal Chancellor of Austria, suggested that there should be at political level “an institution comparable to OECD, in which exchanges of political views could take place similar to those held by the member states of OECD in the economic field”.

He felt that the Council of Europe might well consider that idea and that such a body might meet under its auspices.

Your Assembly is well on the way to carrying out this project, and I congratulate you.

At governmental level, could not the Committee of Ministers enable the governments of democratic Europe represented in the Council to make the necessary overtures and hold regular discussions on Europe’s political responsibility in North-South relations and possible action within the framework of the organisations directly concerned?

You can see the spectacle which meets our eyes: the industrial countries at a standstill, the developing countries – particularly some of the poorest amon them – plummeting, with excessive debts, disorders of every sort, and various kinds of breakdown or forced return to earlier balances of power.

Think of the harm done to the whole world, the inequalities, from which future tragedies will spring sooner or later, and, above all, how we have failed in our elementary duty!

For a long time – and rightly – nearly all the countries here assembled extolled the power of national feeling which has done so much to shape the spirit of our peoples, often for the better, but sometimes for the worse – and there of course they were no longer right. And yet we are not just a simple geographical sum of peoples living next to each other – I, at any rate, do not see it like that. My generation was born during the First World War and fought in the Second. We were twenty years old. What a sight met our eyes! Picture Europe in 1939 and all that followed from it: bereavements, sorrows, partings, lives cut short – that was our lot, ours and yours. Not all of us, but far, far too many!

How great then was my admiration for those illustrious men who, even before the Second World War was over, were planning to rebuild Europe from the basic reality bequeathed to us by geography and history.

I remember – and I have often reminded people of it, because I take some pride in it – that, although I was very young at the time, I attended the first ever Congress of Europe at The Hague, two years after my country regained her freedom. There I found myself side by side with many others with hope in our hearts and determination to succeed. It is true that I had got to know Jean Monnet quite well – we came from neighbouring villages – and shortly afterwards I was to become a government colleague of Robert Schuman’s. I had not his political background, but I often flattered myself that I shared his spiritual heritage in so far as it was a universal one.

No, we are not simply a juxtaposition of peoples alien to each other. At various times already – I will not retell the story now, because we all know it by heart – Europe has existed on several levels: art, faith, the pursuit of knowledge, reason. Our peoples have lived together through reforms and counter-reforms. The great liberal movements and counter-revolutionary movements took place in most of our countries at the same moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our roots have been nurtured in the same soil.

The setting up of the Council of Europe after the double catastrophe of two world wars bears witness to this life force. I think that you, like me, feel the need in this particular place of assembly, to rediscover what we might call the sense of European fellowship around a common table of history and culture, and to re-create at the same time the political inspiration that will sweep aside minor obstacles and enable us to picture the history of the present time and the history of future times.

Openness towards other cultures is in the nature of our peoples. I am wary of any form of vague and sometimes analgesic universalism. I have nothing against a world outlook, which will prevail one day; but I am firmly convinced that the distinctive characteristics of each of our countries’ cultures – particularly the minority cultures – must be preserved, so long as they do not harm the prospects of keeping our national communities fundamentally intact.

And, finally, since we are assuming that all of us here assembled are members of one family, mention might perhaps be made of those who are absent. After all, they too are part of Europe – our continent cannot be reduced just to those who have signed the treaties and conventions for whose proper application you are responsible. History suggests another richer, less uniform definition, which reflects the European mosaic more faithfully. How can two thousand years of culture be obliterated? How can we forget that what used to be known as “central Europe” shares our own countries’ experience of such outward manifestations of civilisation as Gothic architecture, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Romanticism and lastly, the explosion of modernity? How can we talk here in Strasbourg of contemporary European literature without mentioning Kafka, of music if we forget Bartok, of aesthetics while overlooking Lukacs or of drama without Ionesco! And what better example could there be than Marie Curie, who was Polish and French at the same time?

If European culture is to remain true to itself and to flourish, no part of its heritage or its potential must be neglected. What paths are we to take in order to meet these great expectations? Every single one of all those we have been untiringly exploring for more than a millennium. Our students, research workers and creative artists should be aware that their universities, laboratories, libraries, concert halls and museums are shared, and they should understand that everything placed at their disposal is to be preserved and given new life – or else it will wither away.

Our culture should transcend frontiers, yet are we certain that we are giving full effect to this basic rule? We should remember that about the year 1500 there were some sixty universities scattered throughout Europe. Some of them had already been there for centuries – Paris, Montpellier, Bologna, Padua, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca and Valladolid. Another fifteen or so were rapidly growing – in Germany, Italy and indeed in the four corners of Europe, at Aberdeen, Coimbra, Budapest, Cracow and Uppsala. These centres of research flourished and developed at that time solely by the intensity of exchanges between them, and the basis for all these was the existence in every major university of groups of students from different foreign countries, whose studies often took them on a long journey through Europe. Erasmus of Rotterdam springs to mind – his career sums up Europe as it was at that time: Paris and England, Bologna, Venice, Padua, England again and Basle.

There are countless other examples, which would take in every one of the geographical and cultural locations represented here by each of you. Of course, the sum of human knowledge is no longer distributed in the same way today; other journeys are necessary in the pursuit of learning. But is it always desirable that our researchers should cross the Atlantic? Obviously it may be a very good thing for them to do so. There is no question of closing that avenue; but nevertheless, is it always desirable to cross the Atlantic when the means of making our research more fertile could be found in Europe?

The question merits being put without prejudice. Need these diplomas and degrees be sought so far away when our true wealth lies not in degrees and diplomas but in brain-power. It would perhaps be sensible to think of keeping Europe’s brains in Europe and, to that end, offering sufficient scope for their powers of research and expression. Personally, I would be tempted to suggest to you that a network of research centres should be set up across Europe, using existing centres of excellence, to intensify exchanges between universities, laboratories, national professional schools and other institutes.

Europe as a cultural entity can help us resist all the commercial distortions of culture. Though commercialisation is in fact often necessary, it must not gain the upper hand, for when harnessed by commercial interests the inventions of the mind often become grossly over-simplified. Our educational institutions would become pointless, would lose their raison d’être, if we were incapable of putting our stamp on the audio-visual area – to use your expression, Mr President.

The increasingly large number of hours spent on using such equipment could become merely a pernicious waste of time unless we can introduce our initiatives and our identities – in other words, our programmes – just as we print our books. In short, Europe might suffer audiovisual pollution for want of any meaningful content.

When I say that the matter is urgent, I mean that the machines and those who are selling them will not wait: they are in a hurry to entrap us. Are we in such a hurry to be bought on the cheap? That is the question.

Do not misunderstand me: my question is intended as an appeal to use our imagination, not coercion. If we think of what printing meant for the Renaissance, we should not forget the need for an alliance between old and new means of communication, and that Europe has a special responsibility in the matter. The answer lies within us and we must seek it out confidently.

I have noted down a few lines of a great poet, whose friend I was until the day he died. Saint-John Perse wrote:

“When violence had made a new bed for man on earth,
An ancient leafless tree renewed the thread of its wisdom,
And already another noble tree was rising from great subterranean springs,
With its leaves like magnets and its burden of new fruit.”

European civilisation, you see, forms a whole. It is important that this message should come to us from a major European poet born far from here, across the Atlantic, who understood the value of wide open spaces and the power of scents in the human message.

In fact, there is no Europe of the Ten and no Europe of the Twenty-One, even if there are assemblies of ten and assemblies of twenty-one. It would be better not to regard these communities as rivals, even though they are both European. They differ in their purpose, their membership and their modes of operation; they have their own functions and the work of each should enhance that of the other.

I am familiar with the anxieties on this score of your Secretary General, Mr Karasek, to whom I should like to pay a warm tribute; it gave me much pleasure to receive him not long ago at the Elysée Palace.

Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to salute another man for whom I have great respect – Georges Spénale, who has presided over the Assembly of the European Communities and has also taken an active part in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; from afar I send him friendly greetings.

But let me put myself in your position, with its wider dimensions.

You must make your message to the world heard. European man, laden with history, will never complete the task of conquering his identity. We have come from a long way off and we still have a long, long road to travel! In different places, in different countries, we are still experiencing coercion, separation, broken relations, injustice – and, everywhere, the effects of the crisis.

Let us gather together the best of what we have, so that we may face these challenges and realise that our resources are to be found in ourselves, around us, in our very soil – better still, in our own spirit; and that the first rule for sowing seed in any ground is the one we have been talking about from the outset – the reason, in fact, for my visit here, quite apart from my duty towards you: let every man act from a strict regard to conscience!

That is what I wanted to say to you all here in Strasbourg.

I will end by saying how glad I am that you are here in France. I should like to tell you how keenly sensible I am of the honour of being welcomed here by you and of being able to welcome you here in my turn, after more than thirty years. Today I have enjoyed your hospitality and it has been one of the highlights of my political career. But my purpose has not been so much to praise your work, even if I have done so.

I seek rather to extol Europe’s greatness in the best of what it has to offer.

(The President of the French Republic resumed his seat to prolonged applause from the Assembly.)