Doubts tearing France apart
Even the French think they suck.
An orgy of breast-beating in print claims the French âpiss off the planetâ, Paul Webster reports from Paris.
At the FNAC Etoile in Paris, more a multi-storey literary warehouse than a bookshop, the shelves are buckling under the weight of ammunition for a political and social war. With titles such as French Arrogance, Falling France and French Disarray, this is heavy-calibre weaponry that is being trained on Franceâs political elite in a war that has broken out over the very soul of the country. Launched against a background of top-level disillusionment with Europe, accelerating unemployment rates, spectacular company failures and a stagnant economy, the books â by some of Franceâs leading social commentators â have added an incendiary factor to popular protests over reforms that could end the 35-hour week, cut social security benefits and introduce across-the-board austerity.
Having recently emerged battered from national education strikes and months of street demonstrations over reduced retirement benefits, Jacques Chiracâs administration is looking on with dismay at media encouragement for right-wing intellectual claims that France is now the weak man of Europe, mired in hypocrisy nationally and internationally, indifferent to popular needs such as care of the aged, and shaken by the aftershocks of vain defiance of the US-led war in Iraq. In short, that France is going down the pan.
âReading these books, France is in agony, powerless and irretrievably condemned to decline,â Dominique de Villepin, the suave but widely mistrusted Foreign Minister, complained over two pages in Le Monde last week, comparing todayâs prophets of doom to anti-republicans who collaborated with the Nazis.
|"Vain" is such an interesting word. |
Equally piqued by Franceâs depiction is the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who sought out Americaâs Time magazine to complain about state-educated French intellectuals âscrutinising French society while perched on the summit of a pyramidâ and obsessed with âdeclinismâ. And it is a pretty bleak picture, even by the account of the most rational of the âdeclinistsâ, Alain Duhamel, whose lugubrious face haunts every TV channel and serious newspaper column and charges that the country has been struck down by an âinsidious evilâ. âFrench democracy, the political balance and even the nationâs personality are at risk,â he writes in Le DÃ©sarroi franÃ§ais.
|Somehow, the guys with the brown shirts always pop up when you've been argued into a corner, don't they? |
It is an argument bolstered by Nicolas Baverez, a historian and free-market evangelist and author of La France qui tombe, who in only 134 pages trots out a thousand historical and contemporary statistics to claim that France is paralysed by âeconomic, political, social and intellectual immobility and is plunging towards declineâ. Both pale into insignificance alongside LâArrogance franÃ§aise, where the journalist authors, Romain Gubert and Emmanuel Saint-Martin, state:
|Oh, no! Not the nation's personality! But he's right. He means they've gone from being a happy, outgoing, tolerant folk, fond of music, poetry and dancing, to being sullen and quick-tempered, nursing old grudges as they pore over their geneologies. Somehow they traded personalities with the Spaniards, who can be expected to make better boulliabaise any time now... |
With our sermons, our empty gestures and our poetic flights, we (the French) have pissed off the planet. Worse: we make them laugh. Itâs a sickness to which French people are addicted â believing that France must offer the world Light, Law and Liberty; that their leaders are the carriers of a universal message.Arguments on the inevitability of French decline are based on three premises: chaotic history up to the end of decolonisation, the domestic mess caused by lost opportunies and mistaken choices since 1970; and, finally, the months following Chiracâs re-election in May 2002 with 82 per cent of the vote which has been followed by some of the worst economic statistics since the war, and an admission by Raffarin that the country is in recession. Since Agincourt, they say, French rulers have been repeatedly trapped by overconfidence. Napoleon in Moscow in 1812, his nephew at Sedan in 1870, and the Third Republic in 1940.
They point to a national tendency for self-immolation â the Terror, the Paris Commune, and Vichy â before going on to dissect the consequences of reckless decisions by all-powerful Presidents of the Fifth Republic, De Gaulle and Mitterrand among them, a tradition that they claim is pursued by Chirac. In this they argue that, blinded by their unchallengeable status at home, French Presidents stumble into their own diplomatic and social ambushes constructed with the help of a state-educated elite from the Ecole Nationale dâAdministration, ENA. But none admits his mistakes or apologises for appalling, almost comical, blunders typified by the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, by hapless frogmen in 1985.
|Three for three means yer out... |
And it is the suave De Villepin who is mocked with iconoclastic vigour for his vanity in LâArrogance franÃ§aise, as a cypher for this state-moulded super-class and who is never forced to admit being wrong. And it is De Villepin who is blamed in particular for persuading a malleable President to take such an uncompromising stand on Iraq although other advisers correctly warned of the long-term damage of taking no account of US hegemony and offending the emerging EU Eastern bloc.
|Ummm... I thought that was one of the things they did right? |
It is not just the elites that come in for criticism; by implication it is the considerable number of ordinary Frenchmen who have put their faith in the rural campaigner, JosÃ© BovÃ©, a neo-Poujadist. Much of this wave of populism, say the declinists, is fed by an insistence of both Left and Right on lâexception franÃ§aise, a modern form of chauvinism in which legal fences are built around French language and culture.
|Dominique is also a part of French tradition of Gray Eminences... |
It is an âexceptionâ that is mocked in LâArrogance franÃ§aise as a hallucinatory drug that spills over into all facets of life from haute cuisine to the heavily subsidised and introverted cinema industry.
It is all pretty apocalyptic stuff. But in one respect the declinists may be right: that their political masters seem somewhat blinkered to the way in which many, from the Murdoch press to the Bush White House, regard La Belle France. And it is De Villepin who is most exposed in this regard. âAbroad,â he writes in his answer to declinists: âFrance rests a pole of thought and culture, a major economic, military and political power.â
|Competing without any opponent is always easier. But even in La Belle France, great lovers who practice only upon themselves must eventually perform with someone else... |
Yeah, theyâre a "pole" all right...
Posted by: tu3031 2003-10-13