The Decline of France

por Christopher Caldwell, 8 de diciembre de 2003

(Published in The Weekly Standard, from the December 8, 2003 Volume 009, Issue 13)

Much of present-day French politics springs from the panic of April 21, 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen's fascistic National Front outpolled the ruling Socialist party to finish second in the opening round of France's presidential elections. Jacques Chirac, of course, easily won reelection two weeks later, with 82 percent of the vote, by rallying the entire left around his moderate-right party. But the first order of business for Chirac's prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was to reassure voters that he had taken full account of what a close call it had been for France. 'If in 200 days we have not seen real change,' he said, 'the risks of tension in this society will be high.'
If the 2002 elections were a wake-up call, then France has slept through it. Today, Chirac's popularity is plummeting and Raffarin's job hangs by a thread. On the day the United States launched its war in Iraq last March, Chirac had a 74 percent approval rating, while Raffarin's stood at 58. Today, Chirac is at 47 and falling, while Raffarin is at 33. Their problem is partly that they knuckled under to union protests last spring during a halting and overdue attempt to restrain public employees' privileges. It is partly that they mishandled last summer's heat wave, which saw 15,000 more deaths than would be expected according to actuarial tables. (Most were old people, ditched by their families over summer vacations prolonged absurdly by generous social legislation. The great indignity of the heat wave was thus that it reminded the French what a non-familial, consumerist, rootless, 'American' society they have become.) It is partly that Chirac and Raffarin have squandered their mandate on nugatory issues, from their campaign against reckless driving to a 'war on tobacco.' (The latter is causing problems of public order, too, as smokers, incredulous at the near-doubled price of cigarettes, assault tobacconists and steal merchandise.)
What made this inaction possible is that the government seemed to have an important project over the last 18 months--the exhilarating task of taming (if only oratorically) American military hubris. Certainly, France had some legitimate points. An argument can be made that America's 'Axis of Evil' rhetoric, far from winning respect from rogue states, led them to accelerate their nuclear programs. The same goes for France's warnings about avoiding a 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and the West. While America believed it was avoiding a clash of civilizations--fighting our enemies in the Islamic world without fighting our friends--drawing such distinctions may be beyond the capacity of most of the Muslims Washington sought to help. Avoiding a clash of civilizations thus demanded an explication not only of our war aims but of our Western way of life, which in turn requires more rhetorical sophistication than this American administration has at its disposal.
But all this was true only before the beginning of the year. Thereafter, French advice gave way to playing to the gallery, as the country sought to win the applause of violent barbarians by taking potshots at its most important democratic ally. French opposition to the war was unanimous. The war was supported publicly by about four intellectuals and three politicians. Some opposition was measured, but the tone of most of it can be seen in the broadsides launched by French thinkers since the war: The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, in 'The New World Disorder,' alleges that 'those occidental ayatollahs who are the directors of the major media launch fatwas against certain public figures who express their disapproval of the war'--this while Michael Moore is the best-selling nonfiction writer in France and Paul Krugman is perhaps the most widely read columnist in the world. The Franco-American Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman, who recently published a collection of interviews called 'A Truly Imperial America?', believes the New York Times helped squelch the efforts of the French embassy to reveal a campaign of disinformation being spread by administration sources--this despite the seeming identicality of that paper's antiwar position to France's. Nouvel Observateur editor Jacques Julliard, in 'Rupture in Civilization,' expresses his conviction that the real target of America's National Security Strategy--which aims to preempt emerging threats--is not Iran or North Korea but Europe. He adds that 'the principle of preventive war leads to the destruction of all international law.' Julliard favored NATO's war on Serbia, however, which was carried out without U.N. sanction. That's because 'the veto then feared in the security council, that of Russia, was more formal than real, inspired as it was by the traditional solidarity with fellow Slavs, rather than by a real political design.' France, it appears, is the only U.N. member that can threaten a 'real' veto.
So intemperate is the anti-Americanism in the literary hackwork done since the war that one could be forgiven for assuming its purpose is more to palliate French anxieties than to correct American mistakes.
France Falling
WHEN FRANCE'S OWN PROBLEMS are mentioned in public, the reaction is electric. The hot book in France just now is 'La France qui tombe' ('France Falling') by the lawyer and political scientist Nicolas Baverez (which was first published as an essay in the prestigious quarterly Commentaire last spring). Baverez--who opposed the American invasion of Iraq in a clear-eyed way--blames France's current predicament on the country's preference for stabilizing its institutions over adjusting to the world as it is. This is not a momentary loss of will but a tendency that has been entrenched in French culture since the Industrial Revolution, and it leaves France in 'undeniable decline, even in the context of a Europe that is itself decadent.'
Legislation passed by the Socialist government in 1998--amidst a great deal of continental philosophizing about 'the end of work'--produced a statutory work week of 35 hours. Baverez keenly notes that in the 1930s, France's left-wing Popular Front passed a similar réduction du temps de travail. Indeed, its association with the Popular Front gave a powerful boost to the 35-hour work week during the debates five years ago. (The otherwise admirable tendency of the French to root for underdogs has led them to look at the Popular Front's defeat at the hands of domestic--and later foreign--fascism as evidence of its superior morality, not of its inferior strength.)
The short week was meant to spread limited jobs around; it wound up doing the opposite, serving as what Baverez calls a 'weapon of mass destruction for industrial production and employment.' Today France has the highest youth unemployment in Europe, at 26 percent; only 37 percent of its over-55 population works, a world low. Its employment rate of 58 percent is at the bottom of the developed world. (The figure is 62 percent in the European Union and 75 percent in the United States.) And this grim employment picture is worsened--some would even say caused--by a political inequity. Over the past decade, public-sector employees have been able to enrich themselves in ways that private-sector ones cannot. Government employees can retire after 37.5 years on the job, versus 40 for private workers; they get 75 percent of their salary as a pension, versus 62 percent in the private sector; and the salary in this calculation is based on the best-paid six months for government workers, versus an average of their last 25 years for workers in private industry. So the latter wind up subsidizing the former.
France's decline on the foreign-policy stage has the same root cause, Baverez thinks: a desperate, retrograde clutching at institutions that no longer serve their original purpose. Nostalgic for the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War--not just because it was stable but also because it provided a context in which France could leverage its international power--France is stuck in the 1960s. It has shown 'reserve' towards the new democracies of Eastern Europe, from its early opposition to German reunification to President Chirac's condemnation of America's East European allies last spring as 'not very well brought up.' (Must have been that Communist education.)
Foreign minister Dominique de Villepin is said to have responded privately to Baverez's critique by saying that France was living out 'not decline but destiny' (pas le déclin, le destin, in the original Jesse Jackson-esque French). But however ardently it may yearn for an independent European military, France doesn't have the means to produce or lead one; its hefty recent increases in its military budget are largely devoted to maintaining the country's small independent nuclear deterrent.
'Male, Female, Other'
FRANCE WILL NOT be able to address these problems at its leisure. While the country and its leaders have been spinning theories about globalization and American hegemony, a fresh problem has arisen--the resurrection of a hard left. In mid-November, the second annual European Social Forum was held in three Communist-controlled suburbs around Paris. With 55 plenary sessions and 250 seminars, the Forum gathered the losers of postmodernity under the banner of opposition to global capitalism.
With its roots in the World Social Forums held annually in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this European social movement has taken strong root in France, Spain, and Italy. Its motto--'Another world is possible'--promises a Marxist utopia with no program for getting there. Unlike Soviet communism, it offers little mystery and enigma--it's a nullity wrapped in a zero concealed in a nothing. In a certain light, it appears thoroughly ridiculous. Its adherents will tell you with a straight face that they seek a 'Third Way' between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. When you sign up for a press pass to the ESF, you're asked to check, under 'gender,' either 'Homme,' 'Femme,' or 'Autre.' What's more, as with many such movements, you cannot study it up close without risking death by boredom. Even Bernard Cassen, spokesman for one of the organizing groups, tells reporters: 'From one forum to the next, we're always kind of repeating the same thing, and we never arrive at anything concrete. We can't go on this way.' According to Cassen, the 'main weakness' of the Forums is that they leave the working classes cold.
But on another level, there is nothing ridiculous about these people at all. Few political parties could gather 50,000 people for several days of meetings as the Forum did. Fewer still could draw 200,000 to a mass 'happening' in mid-summer, as the 'peasant' leftist José Bové did in Larzac last August. The participants insist that they are not opponents of globalization but critics of it: not anti-mondialistes but alter-mondialistes, to use the neologism that France's newspapers have obligingly granted them. Many inattentive politicians and activists are willing to give the movement a try, assuming that it's simply a fresher version of a traditional well-meaning progressivism. For instance, when French leftists were asked in a poll before the Forum which politician represented alter-mondialisme to them, they answered José Bové and the staid socialist Lionel Jospin, the ex-prime minister, who in fact would have been pelted with ordure had he strayed within 10 city blocks of the European Social Forum.
As education minister Luc Ferry noted in an interview in Le Monde, during the last great crisis of the global economy, in the 1930s, there were three basic critiques of liberalism: (1) a democratic, problem-solving one (which spawned the New Deal and other reform movements); (2) a futuristic/utopian one (which was monopolized by Communists); and (3) a romantic one (reflected in a nostalgia for origins, and a drift towards fascism and Nazism). The anti-globalization movement is a combination of critiques 2 and 3, and is probably more 3 than 2. There is very little in the way of a 'democratic socialist' heart to the movement.
This is not to say that its members are uninterested in capturing institutions. Many observers of the Social Forum were mystified by the grim humorlessness with which panel after panel dealt with a minor, and seemingly off-the-point topic: the European Union's constitution, which is in the process of being drafted. But the EU is one of the world's institutions that appears the most tottering, confused, and unsure of itself, and it may be ripe for hijacking. Particularly now that the Social Forum movement has linked up with a force that has all the energy and clarity of purpose that it lacks, a force that is not boring or programmatic at all: Islam.
'Not anti-Semitic in the slightest . . .'
THIS LINKAGE TAKES MANY FORMS. Muslims were hugely overrepresented among the Social Forum's delegates; they even comprised a large chunk--perhaps a majority--of the American speakers. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the role played in this radical ideology by the American occupation of Iraq (universally opposed) and Palestinian terror against Israel (almost universally supported). The Arab world's case tends to get made in red-meat terms, as it was at a rally I attended in a mud-ringed, marijuana-smelling tent in St. Denis. The antiwar Scots member of parliament George Galloway had the audience roaring its approval when he expressed his hopes that George W. Bush would be buggered by one of Prince Charles's servants during his forthcoming state visit to Britain, and the American delegate Rahul Mahjane direly warned that the occupation of Iraq would resemble--horror of horrors--'what the United States did to Germany after World War II.' The yearnings of radical Muslims are now at the core of the Social Forum's universe. They have jostled aside the left-wing economics and focus on global markets that once dominated. The key sign of this shift was the Forum's anointing of Tariq Ramadan--along with Bové--as the event's costar. Indeed, when the two embraced onstage on the first day of the gathering, it was taken as a richly, even smarmily, symbolic moment.
Ramadan, a Swiss-born professor of Islamic studies in Geneva, is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who was assassinated in 1949 but remains a figure of inspiration for fundamentalists worldwide. Ramadan's father was one of the founders of the Saudi-funded World Islamic League. Ramadan himself is a handsome, soft-spoken advocate of traditionalist Islam whom outsiders have a hard time casting as a hardliner. He has just returned from a lecture tour of American campuses--Dartmouth, for example--where he got chipper write-ups from student newspapers.
But in 2002, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón linked Ramadan and his publishing house Tawhid to Ahmed Brahim, the Algerian financier of al Qaeda. This does not prove Ramadan a terrorist, or even a sympathizer, but it does mean he has important contacts in extremist circles. Then there is the matter of his brother Hani, a fundamentalist of harsher mien, who in September 2002 published a notorious article defending the lapidation (stoning to death) of adulterous women in Nigeria. Hani is director of the Centre Islamique de Genève, on the administrative council of which Tariq has sat since December of last year. So Tariq's views on the matter have been closely scrutinized. When he said on television in November that he had always denounced wife-beating, his opponents were quick to note that on page 330 of his 2001 book 'Islam: The Meeting of Civilizations,' he explained that the Koran permits, even requires, the practice. But the coyote will catch the roadrunner before Ramadan falls into such an obvious trap. That is because he hews rigidly to a distinction between Islam and 'Islamic cultures,' and chalks all the faults in Koranic applications up to the latter. He will insist that the Koran is the best way to lead your life, and tell you that the Koran says X. But he will never say, 'Do X.'
In late October, Tariq Ramadan began circulating an editorial in which he attacked French Jewish intellectuals (Alexandre Adler, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, et al.), and one whom he'd mistakenly assumed was Jewish (Pierre-André Taguieff) for 'communitarianism'--which, in its French context, means alleging that their very Jewishness led them to support Jewish interests over the universal ones proper to French intellectual life, and Israel over France. Libération and Le Monde rejected the article for being suffused with the very groupthink it purported to critique. And when the article was eventually published on, France's largest Muslim website and a venue particularly hospitable to Ramadan, inquiries began pouring into the Social Forum--most of them, surely, from non-attendees--demanding to know why Ramadan was being permitted to play such a prominent role in its debates.
The Forum leadership issued a press release as dismissive as the author's rambling French would allow:
A number of commentators have questioned the European Social Forum, claiming to see opinions of an anti-Semitic nature in the text by Tariq Ramadan that has been circulated on our emailing list. This text is not anti-Semitic in the slightest, otherwise the Comité d'Initiative Français, as organizer of the Social Forum, would have faced the consequences, even if this text is susceptible to different opinions. Consequently, the Social Forum being a pluralist space of meetings and debates, Tariq Ramadan has his place there.
Ramadan raised questions at the Forum about the 'soft Islam of Turkey.' It was bad timing. His remarks came only hours before al Qaeda set off two bombs in front of an Istanbul synagogue. On the same night in Gagny, north of Paris, a mammoth fire destroyed the Merkaz Hatorah Jewish day school.
It was striking how thoroughly the two events were twinned in the minds of most French people, and President Chirac reacted swiftly. He called a meeting of Jewish representatives at the Elysée Palace, where, 'solemnly, in the name of the nation,' he stated that 'when one attacks a Jew in France, it is all of France one attacks.' Clearly Chirac feared a repeat of April 2002, when such acts were occurring at the rate of several per day. If anti-Jewish aggression has abated since then, it has never stopped. In the first 10 months of 2002 there were 184 such incidents, versus 96 this year; over the same period, anti-Semitic threats fell from 685 to 295. But a representative of the CRIF (the council of Jewish institutions in France) told Le Monde that the decline in vandalism reflects only a heightened vigilance over Jewish sites. Aggression and insults are now part of the fabric of daily life, according to Jews who live in metropolitan Paris, even if they take the form of harassment rather than outright violence.
The case of Rabbi Michel Serfaty is instructive. It made headlines when Serfaty was knocked down and punched in the face by anti-Semitic youths in Essonne on October 19. But it is also worth knowing that Serfaty had previously been spit on while walking to synagogue.
Shortly after the meeting with Chirac, Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of France, pled with his community not to wear yarmulkes in public. 'The chief rabbi has always said that head covering is an important commandment,' one of Sitruk's aides told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. But 'in the current climate, there is no point waving a red flag in public places.' Sitruk suggested that France's Jews wear baseball caps instead.
Running dogs or fellow travelers?
A SITUATION in which 'progressivism' rubs shoulders with extremism creates nightmares for the French center-left. Shortly after the Ramadan essay was published on, it was condemned by the Socialist party's leader, François Hollande. The smaller parties of the left took a different tack, seeking to use the occasion to pick up radical street cred. This was true not just of the Communists and the Trotskyists but also of the Greens, whose leader, Noël Mamère, implied that the whole Ramadan scandal was a plot of Socialists against the Social Forum. But to alienate the Social Forum altogether--or to draw undue attention to its antidemocratic side--would be to alienate those Trotskyite and Communist parties that won 10 percent of the vote in the first round of the last presidential elections, and which the Socialists will be counting on for their margin of victory in elections for the foreseeable future. Socialists could easily find themselves in the position the French right has been in for the last two decades, when it hemorrhaged the 15 percent of the most reliably right-wing votes in the country to a party (the National Front) which neither public opinion nor its own principles permitted it to form coalitions with.
So the Socialists tried to play it both ways. The day the Social Forum opened, Hollande, along with Denmark's former socialist prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, wrote a front-page editorial in Le Monde begging for a role in it. He and Rasmussen spoke about the unbridled global economy--an economy that Hollande's own party had done a superb job of fostering in the late 1990s under the intelligent leadership of two ministers of finance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius, who were cut from the Robert Rubin pattern of business-friendly center-leftism. But suddenly Hollande was intoning the nightmare of the free market, which
often enshrines the rights of the powerful, increases inequality between the North and the South [as the French call the First and the Third worlds], bypasses the collective preferences of peoples, and feeds the sentiments of fear and apathy in public opinion. At its worst, it fosters extremisms, with their logic of security and reaction.
Hollande paid respectful visits to both Attac and Oxfam at the Forum, and the future presidential candidate Laurent Fabius himself--having scrapped his business suit for casual wear--breakfasted with José Bové on opening day.
But none of this--duh!--was enough to satisfy the radicals at the Forum. On the second day of the gathering, at La Villette in Paris, protesters threw tear-gas bombs in the course of a 'demonstration against the presence of the Socialist party at the European Social Forum.' Not against anything they said--against their presence. When it came to the Socialist party, the Social Forum was not quite the 'pluralist space of meetings and debates' that Tariq Ramadan's defenders had said it was. During the November 15 closing march, hostile protesters surrounded the Socialist delegation. They accused the party of collaborating with capitalism, threw bottles, and (according to the later account of one Socialist marcher) yelled, 'Lynch them!'
Whimpering for mercy
BUT IT IS NOT JUST SOCIALISTS who will bear the brunt of France's shifting politics. The week after the Forum ended, the immensely popular Nicolas Sarkozy, France's law-and-order minister of the interior, appeared on France's popular television show '100 Minutes to Convince' with the newly exalted Tariq Ramadan and Jean-Marie Le Pen invited alongside to grill him. Although Sarkozy is French voters' idea of an ideal future prime minister (54 percent see him in this role, versus just 26 percent for his rivals Alain Juppé and Dominique de Villepin), and although Sarkozy has a lot on his plate, including the suppression of a low-intensity terrorist uprising in Corsica, almost the entirety of the discussion surrounded the issues of immigration, assimilation, and Islam.
Sarkozy has created a French Council of the Muslim Faith, which brings Islam somewhat into conformity with French laws that govern Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism. He is proud of it. Unfortunately, it is already headed for legitimacy troubles, for its president Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, is dismissed by the purs et durs of ghetto Islam as something of an Uncle Tom. It is unlikely the Boubakeur tendency will be able to hold out long against the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, which is more partial to Tariq Ramadan. Sarkozy, it is true, impressed audiences by keeping Ramadan at bay throughout the evening. 'I didn't like your article [on Jewish communitarianism],' he said. 'To my mind, you should think with your head, not with your race.'
But substantively, Sarkozy has no better solutions to the problem of assimilating Islam than anybody else. It appears that more drastic measures are going to be necessary. Affirmative action, which so deeply violates the French republican creed of equality under the law that it was unthinkable even to the left in France just five years ago, has just been held legal by a court ruling on a controversial admissions program at the Institut d'études politiques. And Sarkozy became the first French government official to sing its praises. Some neighborhoods are so disadvantaged, he said, 'that if you don't give them extra assistance, they'll never get ahead.' He promised that he would soon appoint a Muslim prefect. And one of the first areas in which affirmative action is likely to be used in a broad way is in the hiring of police.
Then he got to the most vexing problem: the veil. Since the late 1980s, a few girls every year have decided to challenge France's official secularism (or laïcitéall religious symbols in school, that is, to extend France's 1905 laws on secularism to roust religion totally out of the public square.
France's original laws on secularism were drafted to keep a declining religion--Roman Catholicism--under control. They are not much use for keeping a widely distrusted rising religion from dominating the public square. What's more, as the political scientist Farhad Khosrokhavar noted in a smart recent essay in Le Monde, the laws won't work because the stated justification--that the scarf itself is an offense against equal rights for women--would not be the real reason for the ban. The vast majority of the girls wear the scarf not because they're being coerced but because they are willingly practicing their religion. Such a law is simply an attack on the headscarf, and by extension, Islam. 'The rest is trivia,' writes Khosrokhavar--even if the government tries to make the law look serious and impartial by arresting the occasional yarmulke-wearer or a teacher who wears a cross around her neck. (Assuming that people aren't too terrified to wear yarmulkes in the first place.)
Sarkozy, to his credit, is against such a ban on religious symbols. 'Are we going to accept nose-piercing [in schools] and refuse baptismal medals?' he asked on France2. But in place of such a law, the only alternative he could suggest was that Tariq Ramadan tell his young Muslim neighbors not to wear the veil to school. So here is France's 'leader of the future,' begging an Islamic fundamentalist to help him keep Islam out of French schools. What a predicament. Faced with a real religion, with real beliefs and a real sense of purpose, France's secular, consumerist society is whimpering for mercy. As Khosrokhavar correctly puts it, 'the legal project in question is not principally a matter of protecting the gains of feminism, but of hiding a major crisis that is now passing through French society.'

And perhaps of hiding several.