Wednesday, November 19, 2003

France Falling – Nicolas Baverez, Part Four of Four

Failures and Solutions

The blame for the French decline, and the failure to break the cycle of reaction and revolution lies, according to Baverez’ analysis, with the French government and its inability to present the French electorate with a convincing reform program. One of the main excuses used by the Chirac-Raffarin government when challenged on its lack of substantive action is the old saw that the French people themselves are resistant to change. In fact, Baverez argues that the overwhelming victory for Chirac’s party in the 2002 legislative elections was precisely a demonstration that the majority of the French are ready for change. Moreover, no one is suggesting that France needs to follow the American political or economic model in detail. Indeed, other European nations have instituted or are instituting reforms while retaining their own historically unique models. What is needed is a willingness to recognize and adapt to the current realities within the specific model appropriate to each individual nation. Clearly, France will never have the relationship with the US that Britain has developed. At the same time, there was no reason for France to actively antagonize the United States with the threat of a veto at the United Nations Security Council.

But Baverez is not a mere prophet of doom – he offers up constructive solutions to France’s current malaise. In addition, the solutions he offers are not the either/or model which would have it that there are only two choices: surrender to American military and cultural imperialism, or valiant defiance in the name of the much vaunted and rather adolescent “French exception.” Rather, Baverez notes that France itself has its own unique model. While the nation is prone to decline, torn between revolution and conservative reaction, France has usually been able to pull itself out of freefall with the help of a strong statesman who administers a form of “shock therapy.” Here, Baverez draws on de Gaulle’s actions establishing the Fifth Republic in 1958, actions which themselves were inspired by Ernest Renan’s program for the moral and intellectual reform of France laid down during the crisis of the 1880’s.

Whether another de Gaulle will emerge, however, is another question. Baverez seems skeptical but continues to hold out hope. Ultimately, the issue for France seems to be the specter of nihilism itself. Quoting Leo Strauss, Baverez defines nihilism as, “the desire to efface the current world and its possibilities, a desire that has no clear idea as to what should be put in its place.” The fluctuation between revolutionary rhetoric and reactionary ossification, the pandering to what is worst in anti-globalization ideology and Islamist rhetoric, and the refusal to move beyond the stale categories of Cold War geopolitics, all these reflect a will to nihilism that pervades many in the French political elite. Present events in Iraq might lead one to argue that France was correct in its assessment, but Baverez shows why this was not the case. Only shortsightedness, only an inability to see the long-term changes that have taken place would allow an observer to believe that refusing to take some concrete action toward liberalization in the Arab world, while antagonizing the US, not to mention insulting the emerging democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, could be considered revelatory of French wisdom.

Certainly one might argue with Baverez on a number of points: his detailed assessment of the three great transformations that have taken place over the last few decades, his precise analysis of various aspects of French political, economic, social and diplomatic life, his view of the United States and its presumed imperial role – all these are open for discussion. However, Baverez has done an excellent job of, once again, pointing out the ideological obsessions and philosophical self-delusions that continue to plague the French, self-delusions that produced fellow-travelers for both barbaric Soviet communism and European fascism and anti-Semitism. France’s good fortune is that she has been civilized enough, dedicated enough to the principles of liberalism that she shares in various ways with Britain and the United States, to avoid the disasters of Germany and Russia. But these old ideologies, reborn in the guise of anti-globalization, transnationalism and judicial bureaucracy run rampant, now threaten to lead France down the garden path even while its allies and even some of its old enemies are attempting to move on. If France persists, and if she succeeds in her attempt to enshrine this misguided mindset in the heart of the EU, the advances made against ideology in Europe will suffer. On the other hand, she may find herself left out in the cold by nations who, after sober assessment, prefer American liberalism to French obstructionism and archaism.

Next week, I’ll post on André Glucksmann’s book, Ouest contre ouest.


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