Tuesday, November 18, 2003

France Falling – Nicolas Baverez, Part Three of Four

Society and Politics

If the cause of France’s failure lay in its alternation between revolution and reaction, it is the case today that these two opponents are, in many instances, allies in a common effort. The effort, it seems, is opposition to liberalism and globalization, and during the build-up to the war in Iraq it brought the far-right and the far-left together to protest in the streets of Paris. Over the past year, Jacques Chirac has posed as the champion of a more human globalization, in the name of community and solidarity with the third world. But what of France itself? According to Baverez, France is today one of the most atomized societies in Europe, a nation obsessed with its vacations, its pensions and its French exception. At the same time, this was a nation that saw well over 10,000 of its elderly citizens expire in the summer heat without attention from families or neighbors. Similarly, whereas America’s greatest recent trauma came in the form of an attack from without, the great French trauma, which saw a far-right candidate knock off the Socialist Prime Minister during the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, was self-imposed. And to top it off, France is host to an immigrant population which remains one of the least integrated and most hostile in all Europe. The rhetoric of solidarity is largely illusion.

But why is this society so fragmented? And just as importantly, why is the French government unable to adapt to this reality in a constructive manner? One of the main reasons Baverez cites is precisely the constitutional inability of France to overcome its wild alterations between revolution and reaction, an inability imbedded in a structure that itself swings between paralyzing cohabitation and monarchic presidential republicanism. In short, France has no real political opposition and no real separation of powers – a surprising fact since the great theorist of separation of powers was the French philosopher, Montesquieu.

As Baverez notes, the French system produces either cohabitation, in which the president and legislature are divided between two different parties, or the two branches are held by the same party. But unlike the United States, where powers are separated, in France no real separation exists. The effect is an alteration between legislative inaction and presidential self-aggrandizement that undermines political stability, aggravated by the absence of real opposition. Indeed, it is difficult today to see a great deal of difference between the Chirac-Raffarin government and that of Chirac-Jospinian cohabitation. Add to this a process of decentralization that only multiplies confusion over political responsibilities, an increasingly active judiciary and a political class entirely dominated by graduates of the national management school (the ENA), and it’s a recipe for political gridlock and stagnation.

And the international implications are evident. On the one hand, successive French governments, whether socialist or conservative, attempt to make up for the increasing disintegration of French social and political life by blaming globalization and free trade. Unable to deal with made-in-France problems, the government seeks a scapegoat in the form of the American hyper-power. On the other hand, we see little hope for improvement in relations with the US, at least from the French side, precisely because, regardless of which party – left or right – comes to power, hostility toward Anglo-Saxon globalization remains the order of the day. By contrast, a change from left-led governments to those of the right will immediately produce a more favorable attitude towards the US in any other European continental nation. Had the Christian Democrats rather than the Social Democrats been in power in Germany, M. de Villepin would have promptly lost his ally-in-obstruction on the UN Security Council.

Here again, Baverez draws an implicit contrast with the United States. Writing on what he sees as the extremes of the Bush administration, he notes that when Americans decide they no longer favor a policy of active military pre-emption (assuming this policy will outlast Iraq), they will, in good constitutional form, vote for a Democratic president. By comparison, the French voted for change en masse in 2002, and, according to Baverez, have little to show for it.

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