Monday, April 17, 2017


If today continental Europeans consider off-shore Great
Britain (UK) the region’s “bad boy” for its Brexit vote, they
should recall that only 50 years ago the main troublemaker
was not the UK, but France under the leadership of Charles

DeGaulle had emerged suddenly in the early days of World
War II when, after France’s humiliating defeat by the Nazi
invaders, he and a small group of French soldiers fled to
London, and set up a government-in-exile. Always a thorn
in the side of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime
Minister Winston Churchill who together were directing the
Allied war efforts, De Gaulle overcame rivalries with other
French generals not under control of the Nazis or the
notorious collaborationist Vichy regime headed by Marshall
Petain, and by the time in 1944 when Paris was liberated and
the Nazis were routed, he was the biggest Gallic hero of the
war, and the leader of the new provisional government.

There is very little that is admirable about much French
conduct during the war, especially in the Vichy regime
which was not directly under Hitler’s army control, but there
was a notable resistance effort by some courageous French
men and women, and there was the small but noisy (thanks
to DeGaulle) Free French outpost in London. This provided
much salve to the French psyche after the war, despite the
nation’s general cooperation in deporting French Jewry to Nazi
concentration camps and their eventual brutal murders, as well
as its hasty surrender to the advancing Nazi armies in 1940
and later collaboration with the Hitler regime.

DeGaulle, by his escape, had preserved for many of the French
their national honor, and although he soon retired in 1947,
it was he who the nation called on more than a decade
later when the Algerian civil war threatened to destroy the
republic. DeGaulle always had not only a powerful sense of
personal destiny, but also an excessive view of French grandeur
and importance in the world.

Returning to found the Fifth Republic in 1958, DeGaulle
redefined the role of the president, and settled the Algerian war
by allowing the North African territory (not exactly a colony
since it was considered an integral part of France) to become a
sovereign nation. He then embarked on his own desire to make
France apart from the NATO alliance, and establish his country
as a go-between in the Cold War pitting the Soviet Union against
the democratic nations of Europe and North America. This latter
effort failed because the Soviet leaders rightly saw that he had
little real influence. At the same time, France lost most of her
African and Asian colonies, including Viet Nam. In 1969, on a visit
to Canada, De Gaulle stunningly offended his hosts by declaring
his sympathy for Quebec separatists (“Vive Quebc Libre!”). and
was forced to cut his visit short. In spite of the sanctuary provided
to him by Churchill and Great Britain during the war, and its
efforts with the U.S. to liberate France, DeGaulle resented the UK,
and consistently vetoed its entry into the Common Market. By
1969, he had worn out his welcome in his native country, and
following a parliamentary defeat, he resigned, dying a year
later at age 80.

After De Gaulle, the French immediately approved British entry
into the Common Market, and continued the policy of
rapprochement with West Germany. France rejoined NATO,
and its economy soared. Nevertheless, it was West Germany (later
reunited with East Germany) which emerged as the dominant
economy in the EU. In recent times, French leaders have allowed
significant immigration of foreigners from North Africa and the
Middle East (as have the other EU nations), and the French
economy has declined under the current socialist regime. Attacks
against the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe by new
immigrants has raised the specter of the earlier Nazi persecution,
and French Jews are now leaving France in increasing and noticeable
numbers. French euroskeptics are calling for France to leave the EU
(“Frexit”), and many feel their French identity is being threatened
from within.

In this volatile environment, France is about to hold its perhaps
most significant national election since World War II. The
presidential candidates of the two major parties actually trail
the leading candidates. One of those frontrunners is Marine Le Pen,
a populist/nationalist who opposes more immigration and wants to
take France out of the EU. The other frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron,
is a former socialist minister who formed, he claims, a new centrist
party that is pro-immigration and pro-EU.  The socialist candidate,
Benoit Hamon, is in last place, and is not even gaining in he polls at
the end. That is because another leftist candidate, Jean-Luc
Melenchon,  who is pro-immigration but anti EU, has come much
closer to the leaders in the polls, as has the conservative candidate,
Francois Fillon, who had earlier been hurt by allegations of personal

With the election only days away,  pollsters allege that the race
is tightening, and that any of four could be in the top two. A run-off
is typical of French presidential elections. It was thought that M.
Macron was a shoo-in to be elected president in that run-off if the
other frontrunner, Mme. Le Pen, were his opponent. But two very
important factors suggest that this conclusion might be premature.
First, it is now much more unclear who the final two candidates
will be, and second, an amazing 30-35% of French voters are
reportedly still undecided about whom they will vote for.

In addition to the many local and regional issues at stake in the
imminent French parliamentary and presidential elections, the two
biggest issues, the EU and immigration, touch on the very identity
of France and its republic. In the political time of Donald Trump
and Brexit (both of those elections also has an extraordinary number
of undecided voters until the end), the French vote has potentially
tremendous implications for Europe, the U.S. and the world.

The suspense about its outcome, once thought to be minimal, is now

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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