It's not often state-sponsored demonstrations take place in a liberal democracy, but that's what today's Unity March in Paris was. That isn't to deny it was a genuine popular upwelling of people disgusted by Wednesday's atrocity. No amount of establishment handwringing can bring 3.7m people out onto the streets if the sentiments weren't truly heartfelt. And it was a fantastic display of solidarity against those who would seek to capitalise on the attacks to foster divisions, though quite how a mobilisation of moderate opinion would blunt the efficacy of racist populism remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, what of the great and the good who took to the streets? It must have been quite a novelty for our Prime Minister to be on a demonstration instead of being the object of one. If the leaders looked a bit stiff while they marched, it's because of all the brass necks. Even then they weren't on the demonstration proper. Theirs was a stroll that looked impressive from the front but from above was as deep as the assembled's commitment to free expression. Je suis Charlie? A right bunch of Charlies, more like. Dave, of course, is willing to do anything to avoid exercising his free speech in the leaders' debates, while also presiding over a country with the most restrictive libel laws in the world. There was Benjamin Netanyahu, knee deep in the blood of Palestinian writers, as well as thousands of others. The Russian government had the cheek to send its foreign minister along at the very moment it arrested activists in Moscow for putting up Charlie solidarity posters. Even Saudi Arabia had an official presence. Have we reached peak hypocrisy?
The contrived spectacle of leaders ambling down the street says a great deal about the state of democratic politics in the early 21st century, or rather what you might call post-democracy. Here, in a PR stunt, you have elected leaders and stand-ins for tyrannies associating themselves with the values of revolutionary France in the full knowledge each and everyone of them are at best fair weather friends of liberty, fraternity, and equality and worst its deadliest enemies. And none of them care. Their mealy mouthed cant leaves them unscathed, even when they're exposed as such. They are happily and openly affecting a pantomime of democratic piety in plain sight, and it's almost as if the wider media and by extension us, its audiences, expect a ritual simulacrum from them.
This is symptomatic of a widening gulf between leaders and led. It's a concern across official politics, but not one that's causing them sleepless nights. Rather than polarising and destabilising current set ups, its insulating our leaders from pressure gathering below. This is how so many of them can doff the caps and whisper the homilies, how they can be so utterly brazen. They behave as they do because they can, because the mechanisms of holding them to account have withered. And this will remain the case until many millions of people take politics up themselves and render this rabble redundant.