Europe’s Last Word

By David A. Andelman

PARIS—A hot best seller in France is a curious little work that likely says more than the deepest political commentary about the state of mind in today’s Europe, especially this nation that still considers itself—reality perhaps notwithstanding—the heart and soul of the continent. The book is titled Vous N’aurez Pas le Dernier Mot (You Won’t Have the Last Word), and its authors are the writer-actor Jean Piat, of the Comédie Française, and Patrick Wajsman, the founding editor of Politique Internationale. Subtitled “a lighthearted anthology of the sweetest repartées,” it seems to have touched a chord this year in a Europe swept by discord, where repartée has taken to the streets—often quite violently—and parliaments are debating how best to reduce expectations.

The fact is that Europe is very much going its own way—at times, it seems, a host of different ways. European military forces, even those nations who are members of NATO, still won’t jump whole-hog into Afghanistan. The European Union is thinking quite seriously of lifting the embargo on the sale of arms to China—and a Brit is actually spearheading the effort, with the endorsement of the president of France. The decades-long effort to bind Europeans together into an economic, social, diplomatic, political or military compact is facing perhaps its most critical test. At least on an economic level (and perhaps far beyond that), the very union itself may be in peril, with many Germans questioning whether its economy should be subsidizing those on the Mediterranean littoral who—through German eyes—seem to prefer laughing and dancing in the sun in lieu of taking the tough choices needed to keep the entire continent on the straight and narrow.

In many countries, but especially in France, the social dialogue has simply been suspended—“until the next presidential election,” according to the front page of Le Monde on December 30. Well, that’s until May of next year—a long time for such a suspension, especially with bond sales coming along at an ever-accelerating pace and the global capital markets watching with gimlet eyes for the next turn of the fiscal or social screw. “The United States wants to believe in economic recovery,” blared a headline at the bottom of the same front page, with an implied ellipsis suggesting that perhaps the rest of the North Atlantic world does not hold such a sanguine view of its future prospects.

But beyond Europe, the larger question, of course, is whether the rest of the world is playing ball. China, for instance, has long been going its own way, and at the same time its economy has been recovering, it has been accused of pilfering technology for its new stealth fighter from the remains of an American F-117 stealth that crashed in Serbia back in 1979. And the Chinese military had the gall to conduct its first test flight on the very day that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in China talking with his civilian counterparts. In Afghanistan, where there has never been an economic, let alone a real social dialogue, the Taliban are said to be simply marking time. Fading back into the landscape, they continue to stage the occasional skirmish just to keep American troops off guard and produce enough European and American casualties to maintain the pressure, while awaiting the Western withdrawal that will send the forces of Islamist extremism back into power again. Iran and North Korea appear clearly in a mood to keep up their own brand of pressure until something gives in Washington or London or Brussels—or perhaps Paris or Berlin, which are seen in an increasingly broad swath of the world as the two real drivers of the 21st century consensus, if such a concept even has any meaning at all anymore.

Over the Christmas holidays, I spent 10 days in France, a nation I’ve come to know well since the seven years I lived in Paris during the first term of President François Mitterrand in the 1980s. Most striking on my latest trip was the absence of the sort of dialogue, let alone consensus, that I’d become accustomed to hearing back then. In those days, there was unceasing political dialogue, an uninterrupted flow of raucous and compelling chatter that served as a powerful motivating force for the political class. France was becoming increasingly a part of a Europe that was growing together, not apart. The barriers were about to come down. Tariffs had already been all but abolished. On March 26, 1995, the Schengen Agreement was ratified and came into effect—all travelers between Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal could move freely without ever showing their passports, without any border controls. The rest of Europe would eventually be brought into this system, and now Europeans can travel from the Atlantic to the Hungarian puszta without stopping. Equally, job seekers from any European nation can now jump on a train or into their cars and travel to any other to seek work. That was fine when times were good. But times are not so good anymore.

The coming-together of Europe took place during an upward sweep of history’s arc. Now we are on a downturn—each nation, each faction within a host of European nations, seeking now to have the last word. One key reason may be that many of these countries have become less sure of precisely what they represent anymore, to themselves and to the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in France.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Back in those long-ago days of the 1980s, there was a saying in France that went something like this: “France is the center of the universe, Paris is the center of France, the Saint-Germain des Prés is the center of Paris and the Brasserie Lipp is the center of the Place Saint-Germain.” Well, Lipp these days is a backwater in the French culinary universe that today happens to be lit by such upstarts as Spring and Frenchie, where there’s effectively no menu. You simply make a reservation (if you possibly can), come in, sit down and eat whatever the chef decides he wants to put in front of you. In the case of Spring, incidentally, it’s an American chef—but an extraordinary meal (should he happen to find extraordinary foods in the market that day, of course).

As for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés, these days it’s more often the scene of protests as the nation’s social fabric begins to tear. Imagine, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. Quelle horreur! Well, it was done—and in the face of millions of would-be retirees in the streets, fearing that they’d have to stay in their jobs, making life miserable for two more years for everyone who would have the audacity to come to see them, interrupting their morning café, three-hour lunches, and the afternoon they spend recuperating. “The real job these days of all fonctionnaires is to see how quickly they can make life so miserable for you that you want to leave and let them return to doing nothing,” observes one French journalist who has spent his life dealing with this nation of small shopkeepers and petty bureaucrats.

Can this concept of less work for more pay and full retirement at the earliest possible age be passed on to the next generation? After all, the university system that has prepared them for this life is also in a state of revolution. France, it seems, is “freeing” its universities. Twenty-two became private on January 1, following 33 last year, and 18 the year before that. In all, 73 of France’s 83 public colleges and universities have been privatized so far. What’s being called a new “flexibility” translates into a new way of life for 124,000 workers. In other words, no more civil-service protections for the professors, who at least in theory can be shown the door now with relative impunity. And this trend extends right through the educational establishment. This year, some 16,000 positions in lycées and colleges will be “suppressed,” adding to the 66,000 who’ve been downsized since 2007. At the same time, there’ll be no real ceiling on a sharp growth in class size or rising student tuitions at the newly-privatized universities. Of course, the loosened restrictions also mean the right to go abroad and hire new talent from unexpected quarters. At the University of Paris VII (Diderot), George Smoot, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and an American) has arrived. What more dilution can be expected for the French professorial corps, who’ve managed to win a grand total of 11 physics Nobels since the Curies debuted in 1903? All the more reason for protests in the streets.

Curiously, though, the protests have less to do with the state of the economy than the state of society in most European countries. Indeed, the talk in France, at least for a still-large segment of French society which actually is employed (and quite profitably), was as much the chaos that weather—snow, rain and floods—was wreaking on the holiday season than the 9.8 percent unemployment. After all, the Seine had reached its highest point in more than 10 years, traffic had been diverted entirely from the quays of the Left Bank, which had completely flooded, and denizens of houseboats tied to the Right Bank quays were considering whether it might be prudent to move into town for a few nights rather than find themselves stranded on board. As for the unemployed, most were covered by comprehensive social benefits that effectively rewarded most with a relatively comfortable government-subsidized lifestyle while they could wait out any downturn. Still, though some things in France never change, there’s already a dawning perception of a steadily shrinking safety net.

As France accelerates its privatization campaign and winds down its traditional subsidies and cradle-to-grave social programs, other European countries are moving in the same direction, with varying degrees of urgency—shrinking the subsidies and the bureaucracies that have frozen progress in so many areas. The French and others might be loathe to admit it, but their model now is Germany, the super-competitive motor of the European economy. As Michel Didier, president of France’s Conférence Nationale de l’Industrie, puts it, “there is an urgency to cut the costs of labor and of production, permitting us to put an end to the divergence in competitiveness with Germany and return us to better competitiveness on the level of prices and reclaim some of our markets.” Translation: France is losing ground to the German juggernaut and needs to play catch-up.

TORN UP IN FRANCE

Just when its economy is in need of firm leadership, France’s politics are as torn apart as they have ever been. Though President Nicolas Sarkozy shows no signs of fading from the political landscape, few are deeply enamored of him. At the same time, no clear rival has emerged. His principal challenger on the left is the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal, once the darling of the international media. (When was the last time a French presidential candidate made it onto the cover of The New York Times Magazine?) These days, when Royal’s name is raised, the general reaction is, “No way.”

So who remains? On the left, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the name on most lips. Strauss-Kahn is the managing director of the International Monetary Fund—only the 10th individual to hold that job since the founding of the fund back in December 1945. He was France’s Minister of Economy and Finance during the Socialist reign from 1997 through 1999. Since taking the reins at the IMF in November 2007, he has had the heady task of steering the international financial and political community through the shoals of recession and toward some semblance of recovery. Strauss-Kahn would make a formidable challenger. But some doubt that he would give up his powerful and visible position to gamble on his chances against Sarkozy, a canny and skillful politician who will likely prove difficult to unseat—certainly from the left.

The fact is that France, like many other European nations, seems to polarize politically the more unsettled the financial situation becomes, and most of that polarization has been to the profit of the right, even the extreme right. It’s an attribute that has long and deep roots in this country that so often sees itself as the center of European liberal intellectualism.

BY THE SHORTES OF ANNECY

At 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 25, 1984, I was on the shores of the stunningly blue French alpine lake—the Lac d’Annecy. It was a crisp Fall day and on the lush green lawns sloping down to the shores, a string of bright white tents had been raised. More than 20,000 French men and women were assembled to welcome Jean-Marie Le Pen, the hero of the French right. Not the moderate right of Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou or Jacques Chirac. This was the right wing that might have embraced Vichy in another era but that was—and is today, nearly three-quarters of a century later—very much alive.

This was the right wing of the Front National, the movement Le Pen founded in 1972 as a refuge for those nostalgic for the glories of Nazi-controlled Vichy and right-wing opponents of French withdrawal from Algeria. Le Pen promised a return to some ancestral French values that are almost impossible to articulate, but which are the foundations of la France profonde—deep France, the Gallic counterpart to Middle America.

Le Pen himself was very much a product of that world. Son of a Breton fisherman, orphaned when his father’s boat was blown up by a mine, Le Pen wanted desperately to join the ffi, the French Forces of the Interior—the glamorous World War II resistance—but was turned down because of his age by Colonel Henri de La Vaissière, then a representative of the Communist Youth. Embittered by this communist slight, he entered law school, where he began earning his spurs hawking the monarchist Action Française newspaper Aspects de la France. He became president of the Association Corporative des Etudiants en Droit, a group of French law students  whose principal amusement was launching street brawls against the Cocos, or communists. (Le Pen was convicted of assault a number of times.)

After graduation, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, arriving in Indochina after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the beginning of the end of French involvement in Indochina. After Indochina, it was off to Algeria, another right-wing cause Le Pen joined with enthusiasm—to the point of later being accused of having tortured Muslim separatists, which he somewhat halfheartedly denied.

After his military service, he returned to graduate school, eventually publishing a graduate thesis titled Le Courant Anarchiste en France Depuis 1945 (“The Anarchist Movement in France Since 1945”). Le Pen, while never in fact an anarchist, did always take on missionary-style causes. Indeed, he believed deeply in a takeover of France and its entire political system from within. So the Front National was every inch a political movement, while Le Pen himself developed around him a personal aura that approached the messianic.

Indeed, the gathering I observed on that November afternoon more than a quarter century ago resembled nothing so much as a revival meeting. It was pure theater, and certainly great television. Le Pen bounced down the aisle like Rocky Balboa at an Oral Roberts taping session. But he took no chances when it came to his own safety. Waiting just off camera, but shadowing him closely, was a cadre of very muscular thugs—agents of KO International Company, a private security firm, that had been fingered as a front for the vicious SAC (Service d’Action Civique), a militia group linked with the French far-right and organized crime. They were there for one purpose—to ensure Le Pen’s survival, a necessity he’d learned on the streets of Paris battling les Cocos a generation earlier. (His caution appeared wise after a powerful bomb tore through his Paris apartment in 1976.)

His Annecy rally was a kickoff to the 1986 election season, which marked the first major electoral triumph of his career. The Front National won 34 seats as France swung to the right, installing Jacques Chirac as the center-right prime minister while François Mitterrand remained the nation’s Socialist president.

Somehow, Le Pen managed to sustain the fervor of his supporters for decades. Indeed, twice he won a seat in the Assemblée Nationale, the French Parliament.

And in 2002, he shocked much of Europe by winning almost 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, forcing Chirac, the incumbent, into a runoff. Chirac won handily with 82 percent, the largest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic.

There were several reasons. Then as now, France was not hurting as badly as many other European countries. And although many love the idea of a real “France-for-the-French” nationalist, when they actually go into the voting booth, they have a hard time pulling the lever for an individual too far to one extreme or another. After all, the memory of Hitler and his occupation of the nation is still very vivid in France. There’s hardly a street corner in Paris—scene of hand-to-hand combat in the days before de Gaulle marched victorious into Paris in 1945—where there’s not an inscription mort pour la France (died for France) engraved in the stone wall of a building, accompanied by a heavy brass ring where a bouquet of flowers is placed every 14th of July.

Sarkozy does have to be worried about the possibility of being outflanked by the Le Pens. In January, Marine Le Pen, a 16-year-old blond firecracker when I met her in 1984, was elected president of the Front National and promised to pick up the flame from her 82-year-old father, particularly among those who see her as a Ségolène Royal of the right. Indeed, the Front is currently polling at a potent 20 percent, just behind Sarkozy’s all-time low of 30 percent. The root of an atavistic, nationalistic right-wing movement still runs deep within French society, and could sprout under the right conditions.

Then there are the Socialists. Should Strauss-Kahn enter the lists later this year, the president is facing the terrifying possibility of being squeezed out of a two-person runoff from both his left and right flanks in the 2011 presidential contest.

FRENCH MISSION (IMPOSSIBLE?)

Still, Sarkozy seems committed to his mission of making France once again the strongman of Europe. Unlike other first-term French presidents, who usually begin looking with only barely concealed lust toward a second term around this time, Sarkozy has become a bit of a visionary. He has an agenda for the G-20—which he heads this year—that includes scrapping Bretton Woods. He’s led the charge within the EU to abandon its arms embargo on sales of weaponry to China (a cause that has been picked up and carried forward by the Brits and others in Europe), and even sold French Mistral-class helicopter-carrying assault vessels to the Russian Navy, somewhat to the chagrin of the Obama administration (if publicly unexpressed in the age of a “reset” in Washington’s policies toward Moscow).

But Sarkozy faces one somewhat substantial roadblock—Germany, and especially its strong-woman leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Though Merkel, a Social Democrat, heads an at-times fractious coalition with the center-right Freie Demokratische Partei, she has little to fear from her nation’s right wing. Germany has never been stronger economically than it is today—at least relative to its European neighbors. So there is a growing consensus, even in France, that if there is a single European superpower able to go toe-to-toe with the United States or China, it’s Germany.

France, by contrast, has never met a budget it loved to balance. Indeed, it’s been 35 years since it last balanced a budget. This may indeed sound dangerously like Greece or Ireland (both already bailed out), Portugal or Spain (waiting in the wings as of this writing), even Italy (somewhere back in the green room), not to mention a host of the newer Eastern European nations who are proud to call the euro their common currency, no matter how precarious their public balance sheets. Which is also why many of these countries look to Germany for real economic leadership. While in private the leaders of the euro’s two principal pillars may often be competitive, even derisive, of the other, in public they now often speak in unison, no doubt to head off even deeper problems should the slightest rift appear. At Davos in January, Sarkozy said France and Germany will defend the euro at all costs and warned sharks not to bet against Europe’s single currency. “Merkel and I will never let the euro down, never,” Sarkozy told the World Economic Forum. “The euro is not just a monetary question for us, it’s a question of identity.” 

Then, with a nod toward Europe’s often conflicted past, he concluded: “To imagine that we might pull out, that we might abandon the euro, is to show a complete misunderstanding of the state of mind of Europeans who have been at each others’ throats for decades and who have only one thing in mind—peace and cooperation.”        

DERNIERS MOTS

One of many “last words” cited by Wajsman and Piat in their little volume of such bons mots is a comment made by de Gaulle at the end of December 1961 when a grand federation of Europe, not to mention a single currency, was only the vague dream of some scattered idealists. De Gaulle was meeting with Jean Foyer, his Minister of Cooperation (Ministre de la Coopération), a cabinet post he had created just two years earlier to help promote the development of countries that had recently received their independence during the de-colonization process that was sweeping across Africa at that moment. Foyer had just returned from a visit to the newly-created nations of Niger and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), both of which had won their independence in August 1960. During his trip, Foyer had met with Maurice Yaméogo, Upper Volta’s first president, who promptly and confidently declared to the French envoy that he believed it was “possible, even desirable to unite all the African nations and that the president of this federation would report directly to God himself.”

“Naturally, I imagine he could not at all have been serious,” the minister was quick to point out. De Gaulle, never one to pass up such an opportunity, shot back, “On the contrary. It’s a wonderful idea. That would avoid all competition.”  If only de Gaulle were around to see what would happen when Europe created just such a federation of its own a generation later.

David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal.

 

(Illustration by Damien Glez)


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