Federalism against Federalism

Maurice Braudi
National Secretary of the French Socialist Party. Member of the Executive Committee of the European Movement-France. President of the Jean Monnet Association

Georges de La Loyère
Alexander Hamilton 1757-1804. Père du dollar, Fondateur des Etats-Unis (in French)
Editions Temporis, Paris, 2019
(and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing's preface to this book)

We surely remember the work of Michel Albert. After the fall of communism in the Central and Eastern Europe countries and in what was still the Soviet Union, he contemplated the existence, for the years to come, of two opposed dominant models of capitalist economy in the world, the Rhenish model – which he preferred – and the New American or Anglo-Saxon model.[i]

As we were commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I had all these things in mind, when I delved into the latest issue of the review Commentaire. It published the preface written by the former President of the French Republic Valéry Giscard d'Estaing for a recent work by Georges de La Loyère, Alexander Hamilton 1757-1804. Père du dollar, Fondateur des Etats-Unis.[ii] In the preface, the former president compared two historical experiences of a federal nature.

In the United States, the biographies of Alexander Hamilton and the editions of the Federalist Papers are innumerable. More recently, since 2015, the musical Hamilton is a huge Broadway success, as much as The Lion King or Mamma Mia. It has been played without interruption and it is known all over the world.[iii] And in France? Nothing!

My good friend Bernard Voyenne, in his old work on the history of the federalist idea, perfectly described the Jacobin inebriation that initially led to the annihilation caused by the Terror of the first French Revolution, which had a federative nature, and then to its definitive eradication with Bonaparte.[iv] Hence probably the fact that, with rare exceptions and only for short moments, federalism, as a theoretical corpus and as a principle of organisation of human societies, has never been truly integrated into the French political culture. The workers’ and socialist movement itself occulted from its history and its idea the original federalist elements, present in its Proudhonian roots. Nonetheless, some of the unions (and all major confederations) and political organisations (the Socialist Party being, until recently, a national federation of departmental federations) are built on federal principles.

We must welcome the work of Georges de La Loyère, a very useful one, who has proposed to the French audience its various facets as well as the theoretical and political contribution of Alexander Hamilton. We will come back to this later.

For the time being, it is interesting to focus on the preface of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, in particular on the comparison that he attempts. At the time of writing, he is an elderly man, the reconciliation between France and Germany (VGE was born in Koblenz, Germany) and the European creation have always been the core of his public action, as well as the one of his brother Olivier and, before them, their father Edmond.

VGE openly expresses admiration for the American federal model and its founders who, coordinating around George Washington, institutionally organised the Thirteen Colonies. These colonies became independent under a constitution that was fiercely defended, illustrated and promoted with talent by authors disguised under the pseudonym of Publius, the first of whom was Alexander Hamilton.

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, at the time a young financier in the wake of General de Gaulle, perceives a parallelism between Alexander Hamilton’s journey and his own. He says about Hamilton: “son histoire a un goût d’inachevé si on raisonne en termes de succès électoraux, mais elle traduit la cohérence d’une volonté et d’une action dont les effets demeurent”.[v]

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing then develops what he believes to be the relevancy of Hamilton’s thinking in the economic and monetary field, in particular with the creation of the US dollar and the implementation of a uniform tax system in the newly-created federation.

Once more, the parallelism is evident with himself, who believes - with good reason - to be one of the creators of the European single currency (the ECU, now the EURO).

All this personal, not to say intimate, thoughts make his observation of the European Union's situation even bitter, and is defined by VGE as “at the base of the cycle”. He regrets that no political “leader” can or wants to efficiently and successfully reopen the debate on the future of the Union.

Like some of us, including myself, he considers that there are some possible convergences between member States, in particular between France and Germany, especially regarding the issue of security and defence on the one hand, and taxation on the other.

However, together with the search for providential women or men, he wonders how to find “a Washington” assisted by “a Hamilton” capable of giving a new start to Europa.[vi]

I do not agree with this last point. There is no shortage of talented men and women in Europe. The issue is rather one of identifying the social and political forces capable of developing and preparing the necessary stages, of bringing them to life in the public debate and, when the time comes, to support them and bring them into the European mobilisation campaigns with a leader who will not fail to maintain her or his position.

It is interesting to measure how VGE himself, during his years of activity at the top of French and European affairs, had little interest towards those who were, already back then, largely inspired by Alexander Hamilton, even in their practice, to bring out a contemporary European consciousness and action by constituting and creating militant or opinion-forming events, actions and movements. He does not cite any of them.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk about Mario Albertini, a real theorist and man of action. In addition, how not to mention Altiero Spinelli who, as a coherent “Hamiltonian”, has always promoted a federalist and trans-European constitutional project, from the 1940s, and during all the functions he has exercised. He has done so when he was European Commissioner, and then, in the European Parliament, at the head of a constitutional commission that he helped to create. Is it a coincidence that today in Brussels one of the most emblematic buildings of the European Parliament bears his name?

The difficulty of considering and allying with other actors, individual or collective, who were nonetheless contemporary with him, remains one of the great limits of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. This limit partially explains the failure of his initiatives, both during his seven-year term and later at the head of the Convention for Europe, resulting in the draft of the Constitutional Treaty.

The text published in the review Commentaire is the preface to Georges de La Loyère's work on Hamilton, who in France – I repeat! – would benefit from being more studied and discussed as a major author and practitioner. In his preface, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is mainly interested in Hamilton’s story especially because it allows to highlight the current immobilism regarding the in-depth exploration of the European Union and besides to carve his own statue for the future. Nonetheless, he is part of a liberal political and economic tradition.

For my part, I must stress how much, to be complete and without detracting from the theoretical and practical contribution of Alexander Hamilton and other American federalists of the end of the 18th century, federalism cannot be reduced to the mere organisation of national or supranational States. Federalism is a much larger theoretical corpus, which embraces all aspects of human and social life.

Indeed, Bernard Voyenne had dedicated the second volume of his Histoire de l’idée fédéraliste to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the third one to what he nicely calls “The Proudhonian lines”.[vii]

Today the federalist theoretical corpus makes it possible to consider all human and social relations, from the local to the international organisation level, up to building the perpetual peace project identified by Emmanuel Kant and tirelessly pursued ever since by the federalists.

Besides, this allows us to think about economic, social and labour relations in a very Proudhonian filiation. Around Alexandre Lipiansky, also known as Alexandre Marc, and the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE) that he had created, those who support an “integral” or “global federalism” tried to develop concrete proposals for a “statutory minimum wage” open to all (I can think of Marc Heim, in particular) from a spiritual perspective relating to personalism.

While climate change, migration and environmental crisis are topics that currently control our news, and therefore, all of our contemporaneity, the federalist Denis de Rougemont had already thought of ecological federalism in the 1970s (in particular in L’avenir est notre affaire, Stock Editions, Paris 1977).

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the review Commentaire do the right thing by trying to bring the American actors and theorists of federalism out of the shadows (who are nonetheless descendant of the Enlightenment!). However, the federalist theoretical corpus is infinitely richer and more varied, and it is undoubtedly the only one that is presently able to respond comprehensively to the insoluble questions and problems that all of humanity has to face. Now it’s the time!

Translated by Cecilia Mellana


[i] Michel Albert, Capitalisme contre capitalisme, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1991.

[ii] Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, « De la Fédération américaine au projet Europa », Commentaire n. 167, Automne 2019, 659-663.

[iii] The author here refers to the paperback Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Books, London and New York 2004), the one used for the musical.

[iv] Bernard Voyenne, Histoire de l’idée fédéraliste, vol. 1, Les sources, Presses d’Europe, Paris – Nice 1976, in particular, 215-255.

[v] « If we think in terms of electoral success,  [Hamilton's] story looks unfinished, but instead it reveals the coherence of will and action whose effects endure”. VGE, op. cit., 661.

[vi] VGE, op.cit., 663

[vii] See Bernard Voyenne, Histoire de l’idée fédéraliste, vol. II,  Le fédéralisme de Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Presse d’Europe, Paris-Nice 1973 and vol.III, Les lignées proudhoniennes, Paris-Nice 1981.

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