Sunday, November 16, 2003

France Falling – Nicolas Baverez, Part One of Four

The following is the first part of a four part series on French author Nicolas Baverez. The remaining three installments will be posted throughout the remainder of the week. And next week, look for a series on André Glucksmann’s recent work, Ouest contre ouest.

The French government has a problem and his name is Nicolas Baverez. Baverez, a French economist and historian in the tradition of Raymond Aron, is a hot commodity in Paris these days. His recent work, La France qui tombe, is just one of the numerous books by contemporary French authors commenting on France’s decline. But Baverez stands out among French social critics. One reason for his special status is simply the range of his book. Baverez cuts a wide swath through French life, drawing attention to French failings on all fronts: social, economic, military, diplomatic, institutional and political.

More importantly, and more ominously from the French government’s perspective, is the fact that Baverez is a moderate centre-right conservative. In other words, he is precisely the type of person who should be on the side of the Chirac-Raffarin government. That he is one of the most thorough and intelligent critics of that same government, does not bode well for M. Chirac. However, the fact that someone from the government’s natural constituency is one of its most vocal critics, is itself a symptom of the institutional depth of the French problem. And Baverez does an excellent job of appraising the symptoms in order to diagnose the disease.

La France qui tombe begins on an historical note, one struck by Aron in the twentieth century: ever since the French Revolution, France has alternated between political extremes of revolutionary fervor and nationalist reaction. Unlike the more moderate and progressive models found in Britain and the United States, French politics has suffered from an inability to realize a stable constitutional arrangement. While the United States has prospered under one constitution for over two hundred years, France has gone through five republics, two empires, a restoration and a constitutional monarchy, not to mention foreign occupation and the Vichy regime.

The result is a profound bifurcation between the rural provinces with their traditional attachment to a rather intrusive church and social structure, and Paris with its revolutionary fervor that refuses all compromise with mediating social institutions in the name of a pure humanity and the rights of man. Of course, history has forced France, like all other western democracies, to reach its own accommodations between tradition and modernity. In France’s case, however, the tensions between extremes are more pronounced than in most other European nations today. On the one hand, we have France’s stubborn commitment to the European Common Agricultural Policy that protects an antiquated agricultural sector in the name of preserving rural life. In truth, the policy does nothing to preserve rural life – it merely enshrines a reactionary attitude, undermines international free trade and reinforces an archaic and pointless system. That France is the largest beneficiary among Europe’s nations is not surprising.

On the other hand, the most baleful revolutionary doctrines have often come from Paris intellectuals, only to be realized in the suffering, first of Europeans, then among the third world peoples, subjected to corrupt “liberators” schooled on Parisian brands of Marxism and existentialism. Recent pronouncements by Jacques Chirac regarding an alternate model for north-south relations based on solidarity rather than exploitation fits neatly in this category. Interestingly enough, it is France’s thinking class, as evidenced by Baverez, that today agitates for moderation and thoughtful reform – certainly a hopeful sign.

For the time being however, Baverez sees the alternation between reactionary and revolutionary extremes as the dominant force in French politics. The result is that France manifests “an extreme difficulty adapting to the profound transformations impacting the global geopolitical and economic system.” For all its talk, France is the incarnation of inaction. Revolution and reaction merge in petrified sanctimony.

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