Thursday, May 19, 2005

France and the world 

I've had some fun at France's expense this week, but on a serious note, one of regular guest bloggers, Sophie Masson, now takes a closer look at the origins of the French foreign policy and the problem of France's uneasy relationship with the rest of the continent and the world.

Sophie, by the way, has a new book out, "Walking in the Garden of the Mind", a collection essays and short stories on fantastical, folkloric, mythological and spiritual themes.

France in the world

Like the US, France attracts more than its fair share of both love and hate. People outside France are often quite unbalanced when it comes to this hexagonal-shaped country in the inner west of Europe: either they regard it as the home of charm, style, a musical language, romance, good food, good living and what have you (a famous German proverb, for instance, depicts ultimate bliss as 'living like God in France'); or else they regard it as the home of arrogant, unprincipled, dishonest and surly, swaggering people who try to throw their weight around too much in the world and look down on everyone else (as in the attitudes depicted by Arthur in his report on fellow Europeans' attitude to France and the French).

Few people appear to be neutral, as they might be about almost any other country in Europe. In recent times, this fissure has become deeper and deeper, as the French Government's swaggering attitude re US Government policy has won them both praise and pillorying. French people generally regard both Francophilia and Francophobia with a shrug, though the national sardonic sang-froid has rather deserted them recently, and anti-Americanism--which is in fact, for most people, merely an extension of that old bugbear, anti-Anglo-Saxoness--is making a comeback. Many Americans feel betrayed by that, and by France's apparent willingness to side with its enemies. As a Frenchwoman, but also an Australian, and a firm believer in the war to destroy Saddam Hussein, I can understand the anger felt in the US--but I cannot accept the traducing of my mother country as some kind of uniquely devious or wicked nation. It's a country like any other, with both good and bad: what sets it apart is that, like the US, it has a strong inner core of self-belief, a belief in a civilizing mission, a mission of destiny. As a visitor to the US, and out of long knowledge of France, where most of my family still lives, I feel in fact the two countries have a great deal more in common than either might be willing to admit. The reactions of other countries to each shows that plainly. Isn't the US accused of arrogance in much the same way? It's not for nothing the two countries were linked by revolution (though those revolutions were very different--and the French support for the US revolution was principally for reasons of blacking England's eye).

These days, France still sees itself as a rival for influence on the world stage with the US, and its Machiavellian policies are not really cosying up to America's enemies so much as trying to position France as a major world player, if only in terms of influence. It's seen as following France's national interest (though I think the results are not good, and in fact not in France's interests at all). France is not a pacifist nation, like modern Germany--still less is it soft on terrorism (one of the US experts in the field of Islamist terrorism, Dr Daniel Pipes, who is hardly a left wing apologist, has said France has got a much better grip on it than Britain, for example.).

France is a contradiction. It is a country that accuses the US of unilateralism, but that has always gone its own way, without asking permission; a proud country that finds it hard to cope with the fact that it's no longer a major power in the world, a country that has always seen itself as besieged by enemies that it must trick and foil with Gallic cleverness (Alas, these schemes often fall flat on their faces, as pride, the French undoing, blinds them to the realities of other nations' capabilities. This is part of the reason for the French catastrophe in World War II: it was not appeasement but blindness to the German potential that caused both the collapse of the Army and the setting up of the Vichy regime--in part, the Vichy people thought they could trick the Nazis). In the modern world, it is flailing around because it's become obvious to all but the political class that France is not only impotent in international power plays, it is rapidly losing ground in the battle for ideas, culture, language to 'perfidious Albion' and its offshoots, such as the US. It doesn't have the consolation prize of Britain, which has managed to accept that it's now a second-string power and that its Empire no longer exists, because its cultural influence--including in the matter of the US--has been so broad and far-reaching. (Though a certain amount of prickly familial resentment exists in Britain re the US' power, of course).

The one big thing France thought it had got going for it in the modern world, until very recently, is the EU. From a long way back, a dream of European unification under benevolent French tutelage has existed in France. Chirac recently spoke of the EU as 'the daughter of 1789' (this constant reference to the French Revolution--which started well but quickly turned into a bloody and tyrannical nightmare, the template for all other such revolutions since--is one of the things that most irritates me about modern French politics. It's as if the country didn't exist before 1789! ) But in fact the dream of unified, French-guided Europe has existed since Louis XIV. Later, the revolutionaries certainly wanted to export their ideas to all of Europe and declared war on everybody so as to force liberty, equality and fraternity down all throats, willing or unwilling; and Napoleon of course was a prime exponent of it too.

French defeat since then made the dream recede; but it was revived before World War II by several politicians, including the Socialist Pierre Laval (who later, under Nazi occupation, became the head of the French puppet government which replaced the Vichy regime, after the Nazis lost patience with it and established direct control over all of France. After the war, he was shot as a collaborator. ) Laval, who actually, paradoxically, hated the Germans (as did many French people of his generation--not only for WWII but WWI as well) had both the French blindness of thinking he could trick the Nazis, and the utopian idea that, guided by France, the barbaric Germans could be defanged in a united Europe that would only 'superficially' bear Nazi lineaments . Of course he was utterly wrong in both, and he paid for his criminal cynicism and Machiavellism with his life, but his idea, cleaned up and sanitized and stripped of its ugly association with the occupation, was resurrected after the war. That's because it wasn't just Laval's dream; many politicians of the time, especially De Gaulle, believed fervently in European unification. It was an idea which had great currency amongst most of the victors of the war, in Europe generally. The unspoken motive for the formation of the EU was a wish to bind Germany with links of wary and patronizing friendship, something that could be done safely as the country was completely stripped of all moral certainty after the hideous revelations of just what the Nazis had done.

But in France's case it was also a question of reviving ideas of French glory and influence, simmering away since the Napoleonic era. It was a way in which the country could exert a much bigger influence than its size warranted. France would be the driving political and cultural and social and bureaucratic motor of the EU; it's no accident that the European parliament is based in Strasbourg, in eastern France, while the bureaucratic centre is in a French-speaking city, Brussels, capital of Belgium. The Germans would pay and pay for their humble readmittance into the human race by being the economic motor; the other founding countries were regarded as makeweights. Another unspoken idea was that there would be no Anglo-Saxon interference; the feeling against Britain joining the EU was as strong in France as in Britain! (De Gaulle himself, who perhaps owed more to Britain than any other French politician, was intensely against Britain joining the EU and blocked any notion of it while he was alive).

When that changed--mostly because the other countries wanted no more French interference and domination than they'd wanted German--the impetus began to slip away from France. Little by little, her position within the EU has been eroded, and the entry of the ex-Soviet bloc countries recently has been the last straw for dreams of a Frenchified Europe. Little by little, France came to realize that her claims to a unique position in Europe--by dint of her superior culture and her civilizing mission--were not shared by other Europeans, who could see the advantages of the EU but had absolutely no intention of kow- towing to French ideas. This, coupled with growing cynicism in the French electorate about politicians, especially Chirac (whom most people consider, generally fairly, to be clinging to Presidential office only because he doesn't want to be impeached on charges of corruption), a dislike of interference by Brussels in everyday affairs, a complete contempt for the European parliament, and a fear of being 'swamped' by cheap labor from the poorer countries of the enlarged EU, has led to a tide of rage, resentment and revolt, a movement that has turned more and more against the EU, despite the desperate pleadings of politicians.

That is the background against which the current anti-EU constitutional treaty feeling has to be looked at. I think that the Constitution, which after all was written by a most patrician French politician, the supercilious Gaullist, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, was originally conceived as an attempt to push back the guiding reins into the hands of France. Looking at the documents and pamphlets that as a French voter you are sent as background to the vote at the end of the month, you can see that French national feelings are being constantly alluded to, sometimes directly, as when you are told that France's voice will be greatly enhanced under this treaty, which will give it 12 percent rather than 8 percent of the vote in the Council of Ministers. Sometimes, it's indirect, coded references, like saying that 'isolated' countries' won't be able any longer to 'put a brake' on 'European progress'. Could it be that that 'isolation' consists of a body of water called the Channel? The cheerleading of all the stuff French voters are sent is quite remarkable--nowhere is there any space given for the 'no' case, it is simply ruled as being beyond the pale, beneath notice.

This arrogant, patronizing lecturing on the part of the Government is part of the reason why the contradictory French people are turning against it--if the reviled Chirac and co think it's a good idea, then it must be a bad one, or at least treated with huge suspicion. They also completely disbelieve the claims that France will be made stronger within this revamped Union, and indeed in recent times many people have astonishingly pointed to Britain as the example they should follow, in its independent stance towards the EU. The euro is also seen as a disaster by many French people--though they were told over and over again that everything would be great, and instead, prices rose, and people felt poorer. Meanwhile, Britain, which had rejected the euro, forged ahead.

The media, which until recently has just assumed that of course the great unwashed would be easily led into accepting the treaty, are beginning to panic over the possibility of a 'no' vote; and the Socialists, who at first supported it in terms of its lofty adherence to just about every politically-correct slogan possible, now scent the direction the wind is blowing and are running to catch up with the surly population(Plus they are also very much out of sympathy with the 'new' Europe of the ex Soviet bloc countries and fear a 'conservative' takeover of the whole thing.) . The whole situation is a perfect crucible of the uncomfortable position France, as a nation, and as a people, feels itself to be in at present--at the losing end of just about everything, even the cherished EU.

Speaking of the coming referendum, read the most colorful Conservative politician Boris Johnson, writing in "The Daily Telegraph" (hat tip: Dan Foty):
Here we are in Britain, with well over half of us preparing to vote No, as soon as we are given a chance, because we think the European constitution means yet more interference and regulation from Brussels. There they are in France, in a state of gibbering paranoia, because they think the constitution is an "Anglo-Saxon plot" to export croissants from Tesco and populate the Trois Vallées with ski instructors from Surbiton.

The French seem to be against it for precisely the reasons - free trade and competition - that moderate Euro-sceptics should be broadly for it; and British Euro-sceptics are against it for precisely the reasons - more regulation and interference - that your average French Lefty should be in favour of it. We can't both be right. One of us must be mad, and the answer (I suppose I would say this, but it is true) is that the French Non campaign has seized the wrong end of the stick with awesome tenacity.
Sophie makes, I think, a very important point – the EU might have sounded like a great idea for the French when it was just an exclusive club of mature, social-democratic, welfare states – but with the absorption of New Europe (and there’s more to come), united Europe is suddenly a lot more liberal and a lot more conservative at the same time (in traditional European senses of these words) - more free-market oriented, more pro-American, less controllable.


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