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Democracy in Labour

Marieke Louis
p. 54
Cet article est une traduction de :
La démocratie en travail

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Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

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1From 13 to 20 September 2014, some thirty intellectuals from various disciplines came together at the Centre Culturel International of Cerisy-La-Salle (Manche) to discuss the work of Pierre Rosanvallon, Chair of Modern and Contemporary Politics at the Collège de France since 2001, in his presence. The week of critical debates, which took place in a friendly environment, was marked by a desire to investigate and build on Pierre Rosanvallon’s work, and to use it as a starting point for further research.

2This symposium, organized by Sarah Al-Matary (University of Lyon 2) and Florent Guénard (University of Nantes), followed the Decades of Pontigny tradition that was inaugurated in 1910 and directed by Paul Desjardins, when the main focus was on literature. In the 1970s these meetings – hosted in Cerisy from 1952 – were opened up to the humanities and social sciences, for which they became a theoretical crucible. Pierre Rosanvallon, former confederate secretary of the French trade union CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) and author of L’Âge de l’autogestion (1976), participated in events held in 1979 and 1981. Thirty years later, his now major intellectual work itself has been the theme of a symposium, which brought together colleagues, students, and interested members of the public in a friendly, though not an indulgent, spirit.

3The debates revolved around the question of democracy, which is central to Pierre Rosanvallon’s thinking. This main topic was examined through several themes so as to investigate the conceptual structure of his work, whilst resituating it in the author’s intellectual and personal trajectory. The debates on the history of democratic modernity and the conceptual history of politics rapidly turned to the contemporary challenges of democracy in France and abroad. Through a systematic discussion of some of the major concepts underpinning Pierre Rosanvallon’s work (the distinction between “politics” and “policy”, liberalism, equality, “counter-democracy”), and through the lens of their respective research fields, the participants considered the current relevance of reflection essentially built on nineteenth-century French history, whereas the stakes largely exceed it. Thus the discussion involved the French Revolution, the twentieth-century intermediary bodies, the metamorphoses of the principle of responsibility, the social State in France and Scandinavian countries, the idea of equality in India, counter-democracy in the Arab world today, democracy in Latin America and the reception of Pierre Rosanvallon’s work in China.

4Alongside reflection on democracy, its history, its complexity or even its theoretical and practical aporias, these days of intellectual debate were a plea for multidisciplinarity. Florent Guénard argued that Pierre Rosanvallon “wishes to produce a theoretical narrative which, without being confined to the pure history of ideas, can grasp the singularity of a time and the originality of the political experiences produced by that singularity …He endeavours to connect history, philosophy, and politics, and in so doing to show how these may be inadequate when they are treated separately from one another”. A round table organized halfway through the week around the theme “Pierre Rosanvallon: cultural entrepreneur” also afforded an opportunity to discuss the publication projects initiated by Pierre Rosanvallon (La République des Idées, La Vie des Idées and Raconter la Vie) and his role as a teaching intellectual, who is resolutely engaged in public debate.

5The plurality of disciplines represented and the angles chosen was telling of the dialogue that Pierre Rosanvallon, as a historian of politics, has successfully developed with philosophy, sociology, political science, law, and literature, around a common object: democracy.

• A series of interviews recorded for the programmes “À voix nue” and “Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance” are available on France Culture Plus at

• The publication of the symposium proceedings is scheduled for 2015.

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Marieke Louis, « Democracy in Labour », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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