Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What About France?

Continuing my discussion of world conditions and developments, I turn to
France and its current presidential election.

The French are very proud folks. They are rightfully proud of their beautiful
countryside, their extraordinary metropolis of Paris, their wines, their cuisine,
their museums, and their contributions to world culture in painting, sculpture,
architecture, literature, music, philosophy, film and dance. But they have an
exaggerated pride in their politics and the influence of their language. With
their large continental population (about 65 million), their large economy,
and the fact that France is the number one tourist destination in the world, this
nation continues to be one of the top nations of Europe (along with Great
Britain and Germany).

The main problem for France is that it is in protracted demographic and
economic decline. French was THE international language for more than a
century, but French has now been supplanted by English, as well as
(increasingly) Mandarin (Chinese), Spanish, Russian and Hindi. Thanks to
the emergence of Brazil as an economic power, even Portuguese is becoming
more important than French. (But don't tell that to a French-speaking person.
He or she will yell rude epithets at you in French!)

After several hundred years of absolute monarchies with strong ties to the
Vatican,  including naming Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, Louis
IV initiated a number of European wars at the end of the 17th century, and
France became a dominant force in continental Europe along with Spain and
the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a short-lived revolution a century later,
Napoleon Bonaparte made himself emperor of France and put France back on
the map at the beginning of the 19th century. He conquered much of Europe, and
went all the way to Moscow. By 1815, however, Napoleon had been defeated.
Later, the French empire began to shrink. Of course, France (as did her British,
Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and German neighbors) established colonies
throughout the rest of the world, bringing along her language, culture and law.
At one time, France had the second-largest colonial empire in the world (after
the British). Most colonies are now gone, although the French have made some
of her smaller former colonies to be overseas departments (states) of France with
full citizenship (and thus justifies holding on to them).

After Napoleon, France went through a protracted series of political ups and
downs, including short-term restorations of the monarchy, and a series of
republics. France was a military power at the outset of World War I, but by the
time World War II began, her military power was outmoded and weak. France
fell quickly to the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940, and a large part of France was
partitioned into a Vichy government, subservient to Hitler, but technically
independent. This collaboration became the shame of France, as most of the
French went along (as did, to be fair, most of occupied Europe). Some of the
French, to their great credit, did not go along, and formed a network of resistance
which greatly aided the Allies when they re-took the continent in1944. Under
Charles De Gaulle, a Free French army was formed and moved to England, and
likewise contributed to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini in 1945.

After the war, the French reorganized into a new republic, and with the help
of the U.S. Marshall Plan, recovered her economic well-being. France was a
central player in the creation of the European Common Market, and its current
successor, the European Union.

French politics continued its patterns of ups and downs. At the turn of the
century, French society was torn by the notorious Dreyfus Affair in which
long-standing French anti-semitism became a central political issue.
French leadership was part of the problematic Treaty of Versailles (1919)
in which the victors of World War I placed harsh terms on the losers just as the
world economy entered a period of prolonged depression. Political and economic
conditions quickly led to World War II, and French leaders (along with the
British) were slow and inept in dealing with an aggressive and malevolent
German dictatorship which soon combined with fascist totalitarianism elsewhere
in Europe, and once again threatened the world.

In recent years, France has seemed often to overreach itself in its quest for
world respect and influence. The French, as did the British and the Russians,
acquired atomic weapons. When it became obvious that above-ground testing
was a threat to world health, most of the nuclear powers limited themselves to
underground testing, but the French, using their overseas Pacific territories,
insisted on above-ground tests which had serious health consequences to nearby
areas and populations. France, the colonial power of Viet Nam, was forced to
withdraw from it in 1954. Soon after that, there was a traumatic separation of
France from its Algerian territory in north Africa, something which profoundly
divided the French people, and resulted in the creation of the Fifth Republic, the
present system with a strong executive. Restored as president of France, Charles
DeGaulle tried to rally visions of former French grandeur. Visiting Canada late
in his last term, he recklessly incited French-speaking Canadians in Quebec to
separate from Canada, long a member of the British Commonwealth. Although
it has remained part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, France, unlike
Great Britain, drew apart gradually from its historic alignment with the United
States in foreign policy, although again to be fair, this separation followed what
French leaders felt to be their economic self-interests (such as oil interests and
markets in the Middle East). France, like much of the rest of Europe, has seen a
huge wave of Islamic immigration that has upset past demographic and cultural
national patterns. Although France was once the European nation with the
closest ties to the Vatican, and was overwhelmingly Catholic, it has now
become rigorously secular. Modern French anti-semitism, first made public
during the Dreyfus Affair, and revived during the era of the Vichy government,
has resurfaced, as have other ethnic and religious tensions.

France is still an economic power, but like all its neighbors, large and small,
government debt, accumulated to pay for its vast welfare and entitlement
systems, has threatened its solvency. Smaller nieghbors such as Greece, Italy,
Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, Hungary, etc., are feeling this crisis more
acutely now, and lack some of France's resources (its healthcare and
educational systems are highly-rated), but the French economy remains in
trouble. Taxation in France, compared to the U.S., is very high.

Contemporary France is in great flux. Its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, leads
with a multi-party parliament. Like most French governments since World
War II, he and the parliament are "right of center." Unemployment is high,
and the endangered Euro (the common currency adopted by most European
nations) is in considerable difficulty. For the first time since the Common
Market was founded, the survival of its successor institution, the European
Union and its Euro currency system are in doubt. Germany is now the most
stable and successful economy in Europe, but its ability and popular will to
continue to "bail out" the rest of Europe are also in doubt.

In the first round of the 2012 French presidential elections, the center-right
incumbent Sarkozy came in second, slightly behind the socialist Hollande.
They will run against each other soon in a second round election that will
determine the new president of France. Since Hollande and Sarkozy each
received less than 30% of the total vote, minor party voters will determine
the outcome. Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, was the surprise of the
election, obtaining about 18% of the vote. The communist (far left) candidate
received about 13% of the vote. A centrist candidate received 9%. Various
fringe candidates of the right and left  got  less than 5%. On paper, Sarkozy
should get most of the Le Pen vote and narrowly win re-election, but in
reality, the far right Le Pen party would like to replace Sarkozy's party as the
major party of the right in France, so many of its voters (and leaders) might
choose not to vote for Sarkozy, and let the socialits win.  In fact, most French
political commentators have concluded that this will happen, and that M.
Hollande will win the presidency.

On the other hand, Sarkozy is outspoken and controversial, and while this
has often made him unpopular in France, he outshines M. Hollande (who is
rather bland) on the stump. Sarkozy also claims to be the only candidate who
can bring France out of her current economic slump. M. Hollande has offered
the usual leftist ideas to solve France's problems, and many observers suggest
he is not as strongly committed to the European Union as is Sarkozy. Thus, a
grand and pivotal showdown likelywill take place in France over the next few
weeks, with the smaller parties jockeying to provide the margin of difference
in the election (seeking thus to receive much influence in the new government).

[I need to interject here a word of caution and clarification for American
readers about the terms left and right, conservative and liberal, when
discussing European politics. Currently, the leaders of France, Great Britain,
and Germany are described as "conservatives," but the term is not the same
as it is in U.S. politics. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German
Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy are considerably to
the left of their American counterparts, especially in terms of government
entitlements and welfare. Only the Czech statesman and current president
Vaclav Klaus (not to be confused with the late Vaclav Havel) would fit the
American definition of "conservative" among European leaders. Another
group of European politicians called "Euroskeptics" (the British member of
parliament William Cash has long been one of the most articulate of this
group), and who oppose much of the European Union, would also be
considered genuinely "conservative" by Americans.]

If M. Hollande wins the French presidency, he is likely to make expensive
concessions to the demands of French union workers, and this in turn may
make the pressure of the debt all the more problematic for France to resolve
its long-term problems (many of which it shares with its neighbors and
fellow European Union members.) But it is not clear, if M. Sarkozy wins,
that he would be able to muster the necessary support for the significant  and
ultimately "unpopular" changes in public policy that is going to be required
soon of all governments both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Barry, if my world history classes in college had been as incisive and compelling I might have paid more attention. Sorting out the complexities of European political systems, and how they arrived at where they are today, is a valuable service. Very nice analysis.