Friday, November 14, 2003

France Falling - According to the French: Introduction

The current situation in Iraq seems to present critics of the American-led invasion with an opportunity to affirm the wisdom of their opposition to the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Foremost among these critics should be France. And in fact, numerous commentators, French or otherwise, have pointed out the prescience of France’s position. However, one might argue that such self-satisfied journalistic commentary is really little more than a further example of the same short-sightedness displayed by the French government during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. The limited vision of the French government infects many a journalist as well, leading us to wonder about the health and future of the French nation itself.

At first reading, such suggestions may appear to be a way of continuing the ongoing battle between France and the United States by a writer of markedly pro-American sentiments. This is not my intention. Rather, these questions and concerns regarding France’s future were themselves recently raised by a series of French authors. French thinkers, from a variety of backgrounds and persuasions, have begun a discussion, not so much about American imperialism or the situation in Iraq, but about the state of the French soul. From across the political spectrum – liberals, conservatives, Trotskyites, communists, socialists and the far-right – the argument is being made that in all domains, France is collapsing. Economically stagnant, socially divided, politically paralyzed, militarily enfeebled and diplomatically isolated – this, according to numerous French thinkers, is the plight of contemporary France. Some have gone so far as to suggest that France is turning into something of a democratic pariah among advanced western democracies. These are serious accusations, deserving of consideration.

By focusing on French authors, I hope to profit from those most familiar with France itself. I also hope to demonstrate that these are not mere hostile barbs emanating from an American neo-conservative (especially as I am neither American nor a neo-conservative). Rather, intelligent and thoughtful French writers are raising these questions, and doing so in a way that is both more immediately relevant than foreign criticism and more biting.

But why this obsession with France if it is collapsing, if it is passing from the scene? The reasons are numerous. First, historically, France, along with Great Britain and the United States, has been on of the most important contributors to modern democracy. Certainly, it has had a more tumultuous experience with democratic institutions than its Anglo-Saxon cousins, but no one can dispute the length and drama of this experience. Second, and on a related note, is the intellectual element. French thought about modern democracy and republicanism has had a notable influence, not least of all on the United States. Once again, there is a mixture of blessing and curse in this. French philosophy has contributed substantially to modern thought, but it also had the nasty effect of leading French politics to extremes, whether it was in the form of Paris’ revolutionary salons or in the writings of Sartre and Derrida. The third reason, and perhaps the most pertinent for an international audience, is that France still has a certain influence in the world through its seat on the UN Security Council, through its position at the heart of the European Union and through its links with its former colonies, most significantly, in Africa and the Middle East. This influence, recently used in an attempt to scuttle an action the United States deemed to be in its defensive self-interest, demands that the rest of the world take account of the nature of the proposed French decline. Not to mention the fact that instability in France could quickly lead to instability throughout Europe – when Paris sneezes all Europe catches cold, as Metternich was fond of stating.

As I mentioned, the list of authors raising the red flag on France is numerous and varied. My choices for consideration, however, are guided by a certain principle. One of the abiding themes in French political life since the Revolution has been the difficulty for France to moderate its democracy. Perhaps the overriding aspect of French political history for the past two hundred years has been the tendency for France to swing violently between revolutionary and reactionary political movements. Better yet, we might even say that revolution and reaction feed off each other and support each other in France. Some of its most revolutionary actions have had a strikingly reactionary undertone. In France, the universal rights of man can co-exist with a fervent and arrogant nationalism leading many observers to think that “Frenchman” and “man” are synonymous terms.

The French problem, more or less, is a lack of political moderation. At the same time, there have been exceptions, people such as Tocqueville, Renan and Clemenceau. Similarly today, there are exceptions among French thinkers. It is these thinkers, these moderates that I will consider in this series. Each week, for the next month or so, I plan to present a discussion of a book written by those who inhabit what could be called the moderate centre of the political and philosophic spectrum. This will include liberals, conservatives and moderate socialists. The common link is their reasoned and thoughtful expression of discontent with the state of modern France.

The authors I will cover include: Nicolas Baverez, André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Stephen Launay and Jean-François Revel. Each of these authors deals with an aspect of contemporary France of interest to the non-French observer, ranging from the domestic economic and political scene (Baverez) to the international and ideological (Glucksmann) to anti-Semitism (Finkielkraut), war (Launay) and anti-Americanism (Revel). In addition, I plan to consider a literary example from noted French author Michel Houellebecq. Finally, I will provide some of my own reflections on France after six years working, living and studying among the French.

As the reader can no doubt glean, I tend to share the concerns registered by the authors I treat. My hope is that France will do as it has done in the past and correct its current decline with what Nicolas Baverez refers to as “shock therapy.” If not, however, it will remain vitally important that the other western democracies learn from the French decline, both to avoid it and to understand what happens when democracy parts ways with political prudence. And on this point, we will begin with Nicolas Baverez and the immoderation of French political life. Look for the posting on Nov. 17.


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