Monday, May 19, 2003

All the Wild Things France Can Muster

As I mentioned a few days ago, I haven’t been posting much lately, in part because I was traveling and in part because I’ve been rather busy with other work. But I have another reason for my lack of blogging of late – I needed to catch my breath. The war in Iraq and, even more so, the diplomatic wrangling during the lead up to the war were a rather tiring affair especially when you’re a blogger living in France but supporting the US. However, the world takes no breathers and politics, in France and the rest of the world, moves on.

What I’ve found most interesting since the end of the war is the relative silence of the French. With reports of sectarian bickering and difficulties in the post-war reconstruction team set up by the Americans, it would seem that the French critics of the war should now be taking every opportunity to take swipes at the US, but they aren’t. There are the odd criticisms in the French press, but nothing to compare to the pre-war vitriol. This could be explained by the rather extreme situation that war presents, and yet it does seem a bit odd that so much was said before the event of war, while so little is being said during the ongoing event which is reconstruction.

I suspect there are two reasons for this silence. The first is that the unprecedented success of the military operation left the critics with some egg on the face. Despite all the claims of the naysayers - that the war would turn into a quagmire, that the Arab street would explode and governments would fall throughout the region, that millions of civilians would die – the actual progress of the war was astounding and resulted in the fastest military advance in the history of warfare. Incidentally, the same critics raised the same objections over Afghanistan. Having been utterly and amazingly wrong in both cases, it seems these critics have decided to take a bit of cover. And we can’t forget the simple fact that these same people and nations are also now trying to get back in the American good books, except maybe for France. As a result, they seem leery about saying much even though one could raise legitimate questions about the efficacy of reconstruction efforts; though I suspect there are also legitimate answers for such questions.

The second reason for French silence, and probably the more interesting, is that the French have returned to more pressing diplomatic matters, matters which I encountered head-on today as I walked past the Place Ernest Denis along the Boulevard du Montparnasse. The French public sector was engaged in something it does quite well – it was holding a demonstration, and considering how many people actually work for the French public service, these things can run for miles. Today’s demonstration was not the first, but one in a series that have been going on for over a week now. The object, actually objects of the demonstrators’ anger include various reforms that the French government is currently implementing: pension reform, education reform, decentralization of government services and administration. Personally, I support the reforms which are long overdue. Still, there is substantial resistance because the proposed changes represent, in essence, the end of the Mitterand era of expansive government services. This isn’t to suggest that France’s far-reaching social system, known as dirigisme, is coming to an end. What it does mean is that the dreams of the French left for a thorough socialized and centralized state system built around the motto of “solidarite” are in trouble.

In this regard, France isn’t alone in Europe. Italy has already embarked on similar reforms, which elicited similar protests in that country. Austria is doing the same and meeting with the same demonstrations by the public sector. And Gerhard Schroeder, despite being a socialist, has called for precisely the same changes to the German corporatist social system. In short, there is something of a revolution going on in Europe. But there is a question as to whether the reforms will be enough. The Economist recently ran an article with some dire warnings. It noted that, as far as the French public is concerned, a majority support the marchers in the street and believe that pensions and education spending should not be cut back. Indeed, it was attempts to introduce similar reforms by the centre-right government of Alain Juppe that brought the Socialists back to power in the election of 1997. But from the Economist’s perspective, the whole issue may be a mute question in any case, because according to most projections, even the current reforms as proposed by the French government will be insufficient to save the public pension system. France is heading for something of a social collapse.

The problem for France, and the rest of Europe is not new, at least not the cause. Europe, as is now common knowledge, has decided to quit reproducing. In other words, demographics are working against the old continent. Almost every West European nation, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, has a birth rate well below the 2% replacement level. This is expected to continue will into the future, and even with increased immigration levels, the population of Europe is expected to decline significantly over the next 50 years. By contrast, North America’s population is expected to grow at a steady rate. Not surprisingly, this is going to lead to a decline in Europe’s overall percentage of global economic output. A recent study by a French think tank predicted that Europe’s share of global production will fall from its current rate of 22% to 11% by 2050. The North American percentage will fall only slightly from 25 to 22%.

As I noted, however, this situation isn’t entirely new for France. One of the main reasons for France’s decline relative to the German states during the nineteenth century was precisely demographics. While Germany, along with England, experienced substantial population growth during the nineteenth century, France’s population remained unchanged. The reasons for this were varied. One was simply that France had thrown so many of its young men onto the field of battle during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that it didn’t have the base from which to expand its population (a similar thing happened to the German states after the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648). The other reason, a more spiritual reason if you will, was that France had become a rather excessively bourgeois country. Simply put, it had become complacent, with a pacifist citizenry intent on enjoying its trite luxuries. This was one of the main criticisms French historian Ernest Renan launched against his country in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately for France, this didn’t stop Napoleon III, the scion of the second French empire, from seeking military glory during his tenure, and against the militaristic Germans no less. The result was the Franco-Prussian War and a stunning defeat for the French. Renan’s advice after the debacle was for France to reconsider its domestic situation and make some much need changes. France, and in many respects, the rest of Europe instead decided to increase their militaristic posture and colonialist competition, resulting in World War I.

After World War II, however, under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, France did attempt to implement many of Renan’s suggestions. Today, some would argue that Jacques Chirac is following in de Gaulle’s path. Though I support the French government on the issue of pension reform, along with other European governments, I don’t see this action as being specifically Gaullist. Rather, I think it may be something quite different and far more threatening. But I’ll save that for the next post.


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