The state is secrecy, and first and foremost military secrecy. In 480 BC, the Greek fleet, after some setbacks, embodies in the Strait of Salamis to try to prevent the army and the fleet of Xerxes I from conquering the Peloponnese, on the momentum of the victory of the troops Medics on the Spartans of Leonidas at the defile of Thermopylae.

Tactically, the choice is excellent, because the narrowness of the passage neutralizes the crushing numerical advantage of the Persians. The disadvantage is that, as at Thermopylae, if the Persians manage to take the Greeks from behind, the massacre is assured, so that the lieutenants and allies of Themistocles take fright. Herodotus tells how Themistocles secretly makes contact with Xerxes I to force events: pledging allegiance to the Persian monarch, he indicates that following dissension among the Greeks, which are real, he will have to withdraw his fleet and that the Great King will lose the opportunity to destroy it if he does not attack immediately. This is what the Persian immediately does, which immediately goes on the offensive and lets itself be trapped in waters that are not conducive to major maneuvers in the strait. The invasion is stopped and Xerxes I rushes back to Asia Minor. But to achieve this result and force the hand of his allies, Themistocles deliberately betrayed them, committing an act which would have cost him his head, even after the victory, had it been known to those concerned.

In 675, then in 717 AD, taking advantage of the weakening of Byzantium by the incessant wars waged against the Sassanids, the Arab armies, who conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine push as far as Constantinople. A large fleet lays siege to the city walls, entering the Bosphorus and blocking access to the Golden Horn. It was a carefully guarded secret that saved Byzantium, to the point that it is now lost: that of the Greek fires which, on both occasions, devastated the invading fleet. This secret weapon, long decisive at sea and at the foot of the fortifications, will contribute to the longevity of the Byzantine Empire which will only succumb in 1204 to the assault of the Fourth Crusade.

Economic secrecy can become a State secret. This was the case for a long time with that of the manufacture of silk, jealously guarded by the Chinese, the inhabitants of the land of the Seres, who traded in it with the Egyptians from the tenth century BC, then with the Romans, from of the fourth century BC. But the secret ends up being exposed, first to the benefit of India, then of Japan. Finally, in the middle of the 6th century, two Nestorian monks brought the Emperor Justinian eggs of silkworms. The Chinese quasi-monopoly on the production of this precious currency is definitely compromised.

The Royal Post Office was created by Louis XI, who in an edict on the Post Office (1464) stipulated that the mail transported by this route would be read and inspected. When in 1603, Henri IV opened this service to the public, this practice remained and under Louis XIII, it gave rise to the creation of a “black cabinet” which communicated to Richelieu the most interesting pieces, under the responsibility of a expert in decryption, Antoine Rossignol, whose surname will designate the instrument intended to force the locks.

In short, if it is a “state secret”, there is no secret for the state or for the king. The “King’s Secret” is the service that allowed Louis XV to conduct a parallel diplomacy which, after the War of Austrian Succession, led to a reversal of alliances in 1756, before the outbreak of the War of Seven years whose consequences will be catastrophic for France. There ” dual-track policy will have shown its limits, as well as the amateurism of shadowy diplomats.

It therefore appears that the preservation of secrecy is consubstantial with the exercise of power, to the point that the use of artificial transparency can be a means of manipulation. Thus, the ceremonial of the Court offered a spectacle of all the details, including the most intimate, of the life of Louis XIV. And yet, he had made it an inviolable rule never to explain the reason for his decisions, to the point that it was even forbidden to question him about it.

of democracy

In France, the first turning point occurs with the Revolution, and it is both exemplary of all the excesses and illustrative of all the debates. After having studied them, everything is said: basically, the next two centuries are only an illustration of this compendium of ideology and history, around the link between democracy and transparency.

The initial axiom of the revolutionaries is that public opinion guarantees the freedom of the people against corruption and treason, that is to say against the ministers and their advisers, and in short, against the monarchy itself. -same. And it must be recognized that from 1793, the discovery of the King’s secret correspondence, kept in the famous “iron cupboard” hidden in the private apartments of the monarch, hardly invalidated this thesis, supported by the attempt to cross borders stopped at Varennes. The rule is therefore the publicity of debates, votes, decisions, without limits. ” Tyrants conspire in the dark, the people deliberate in broad daylight! writes Camille Desmoulins. This is because absolute transparency, public access to all deliberations is a guarantee of freedom and justice: “ The procedure must always be done in public, because then the truth need not fear being smothered by intrigue, artifice, violence… said Marat.

Two obsessive threats will then lead from the publicity of the debates to the denunciation of the suspects: the fear of corruption, the fear of treason. Thus is built a society of mistrust and denunciation. A statement by Camille Desmoulins legitimizes this drift: “ Mistrust is the mother of security “. Denunciation becomes a civic duty. But should limits be imposed? Robespierre, against Brissot who is trying to preserve national unity, denounces the enemy within, a theme that will often be used, in all circumstances. The term denunciation itself, which is substituted for that of denunciation, expresses a desire to promote the act: it is a question of protecting the Republic by bringing to light the plots hatched in the shadows.

After the betrayal of Dumouriez in the spring of 1793, followed by the discovery of Mirabeau’s double game, after his death, which resulted in his remains being removed from the Pantheon, suspicion was generalized and the denunciations, often anonymous, sufficed by them. themselves to substantiate the accusation before the Revolutionary Court. The Committee of Public Safety examines and sorts thousands of denunciation letters every day and, in fact, the simple decision to select some of them is worth condemning. The rage of transparency now fuels the unleashing of the Terror.

The Thermidorian reaction will put an end to the uncontrolled runaway of the years 1793-1794, but it will not suspend the phenomenon, quite the contrary. The settling of accounts will ensue which will lead to the scaffold the “enrages” and, beyond that, certain Jacobins. This is the case with any shift in power, at all times. To experience the beginning of a return to order, we will have to wait until 18 Brumaire, when Sieyès will have finally found the “sabre” he was looking for to end the Revolution.

Both the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the installation of the American Republic between 1776 and 1787 were preserved from this type of collective psychosis, by the philosophical influence of Locke and Benjamin Constant, placing at the heart of the Republic (or of a Constitutional Monarchy) the principles ofHabeas corpus, the rule of law, and respect for the private sphere. For more than a century and a half, this balance managed to prevail until the experience of the two world wars followed by the wars of liberation, with their procession of disinformation, ended up shaking confidence in public speech and aroused a need for increased transparency in public opinion. In France, the publication in 1960 of the famous work by Jean-Raymond Tournoux, State Secretsonly amplified a movement of revelation behind the scenes of the official history, illustrated since then by various works such as The History of Secret Diplomacy by Jacques de Launay.

Of the rule of law

But the real break came with the era of the mass media announced in the 1960s by David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1964, in one of his books, The powers that be. This mutation coincides with the American engagement in Vietnam narrated by the same author in The Best and the Brightest. Thus are found the components of the tragedy that will lead to the dissemination of ” Pentagon Papers », first massive revelation of classified documents, authorized by the Supreme Court in the name of the public right to information.

Then begins a new phase during which Watergate to Monicagatepassing through theIrangatescandals and revelations follow one another leading to the heroization of “whistleblowers”, until the creation of Wikileaks with the declared aim of rewriting history.

From the end of the 1970s, the power of the current of opinion was such that in France itself, the law of July 17, 1978 created a right of access to administrative documents as well as a commission ad hoc responsible for ensuring its implementation.

In the space of a few decades, the practice of ” fishing for truth has spread to all countries to the benefit of the power in place in the case of authoritarian regimes and to the detriment of democracy in all the others. It is clear that from the manipulation of the “incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin” or the invention of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, up to the grazing of the pranks of this or that politician, a serious step has been taken which one can wonder if it was avoidable, given the inexorable nature of the spiral of transparency, once a company finds itself engaged in it.

Finally, let us add that the proliferation of information does not automatically mean unbiased access to the truth: this is what Tocqueville underlined in “Democracy in America” ​​when he evoked the emergence, in the press, of poles of influence of opinion; no doubt he had in mind the precedent, between 1810 and 1830, of the “regency of Albany” during which the great newspapers of the East, whose headquarters were established in this average city, made rain and good weather in American political life.

It is clear that this movement does not only present disadvantages, for example in terms of corruption and tax evasion. It is still necessary to distinguish the real motivations of the sycophants who, like Cicero publishing his argument at the end of the trial and the flight of Verres, aim rather than to denounce the turpitudes of a crooked magistrate to establish their own notoriety.

The price to pay, in terms of the discrediting of political action, is extraordinarily high. The same is true of the parody of justice constantly exercised by the media courts. Confronted with their intrusive methods, even the private life of Kant or that of Thomas Aquinas could have been the object of the worst rumors and the gravest suspicions.

Moreover, the premature disclosure of State secrets can give rise to many manipulations. The contents of the dispatch from Ems, following Bismarck’s shenanigans, had it not been known to white-hot public opinion, that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 might have been avoided. What this episode teaches us is that transparency is not truth.

The current health crisis, like any crisis, reveals the two sides of Janus that this phenomenon presents. When it comes to highlighting the reality of the Beijing regime to finally catch the eye of Westerners, the demand for transparency is justified and useful. But did it really take this crisis to highlight the obvious?