For its intellectuals, France falters

Posted in Other , Europe | 04-Oct-03 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS - A growing sense of France's decline as a force in Europe has developed here.

The idea's novelty is not the issue itself. Rather it is that for the first time in a half century that the notion of a rapid descent in France's influence is receiving wide acknowledgment within the French establishment.

At its most hurtful and remarkable, and yet perhaps its most honest, there is the start of acceptance by segments of the French intellectual community that French leadership, as it is constituted now, is not something Europe wants - or France merits.

Several current books, three on the bestseller lists, have focused discussion on the country's incapacities, rigidities and its role, they say, in the context of the Iraq war, in dividing the Western community and fracturing notions of Europe's potential unity.

The books, with titles that translate to phrases like "France in Free Fall" or "French Arrogance," are merciless in their accusations of the fantasy-driven ineffectualness of French foreign policy and the extent of the country's economic breakdown. Or they more specifically target what one of books, "Le Pouvoir du Monde," by Bernard Poulet, regards as the implosion of the newspaper Le Monde, mirror of the French establishment, from one-time symbol of rectitude to self-appointed "universal mentor and Great Inquisitor"; or what another, essentially a short essay, called "Au Nom de l'Autre" by Alain Finkielkraut, contends is the rise in France of a new kind of anti-Semitism in proportions greater than anywhere else in Europe.

Together, they project the image of a decadent France, adrift from its brilliant past, incapable of inspiring allegiance or emulation and without a constructive, humanist plan for the future.

Of all the books, the current No. 2 on the bestseller list of L'Express, "La France Qui Tombe," by Nicolas Baverez, has been the focus of unusual attention.

Baverez, a practicing attorney and economist who has a strong place in the Paris establishment, argues that France's leadership hates change. Rather, it "cultivates the status quo and rigidity" because it is run through the connivance of politicians, civil servants and union officials, bringing together both the left- and right-wing elites. They are described as mainly concerned with preserving the failed statist system that protects their jobs and status.

Although he has little patience with the American role in the world (it is branded unilateral, imperial and unpredictable, yet flexible and open to change) Baverez charges that the failure of French policy on Iraq and Europe - resisting the United States with nothing to offer in exchange, and attempting to force the rest of Europe to follow its lead - "crowns the process of the nation's decline" and leaves France in growing diplomatic isolation everywhere.

Over the past year, said Bavarez, "French diplomacy has undertaken to broaden the fracture within the West, and duplicate American unilateralism on the European scale by its arrogant dressing down of Europe's new democracies. It has sustained a systematically critical attitude that flees concrete propositions in favor of theoretical slogans exalting a multipolar world or multilateralism."

As for Europe, Bavarez maintains that France has been discredited by its reticence to transfer any kind of meaningful sovereignty to the central organization, its resistance to giving up its advantages in the area of agricultural policy and its disregard for the directives and rules of the European Union executive commission.

He does not stop there. Of a united Europe, Bavarez said, France has "ruined what might have remained of a common foreign and security policy, deeply dividing the community and placing France in the minority." His country was at the edge of marginalization in Europe and the world, he claimed, because of its "verbal pretense of having real power" that is "completely cut off from its capacity for influence or action."

In a real sense, none of this is new. But this time, the provenance is a respected establishment figure talking, so to speak, from the belly of the beast. The echo has been striking within in national debate.

Over the years, foreign journalists, free of establishment pressures, have made Bavarez's points one by one without denting French public discourse. Talk circulated during the presidential election campaign last year about French decline, coming largely from Jacques Chirac, but it was basically dismissed as political taunts aimed at the Socialist government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Now, in response to the Bavarez book, there is public rage from the Chirac camp, which the Bavarez book charges with having neither the courage nor the competence to confront the basic problems.

But the density of Bavarez's factual argumentation, bolstered by the presence of the other books, all treating France's pride-of-rank and French conceits with brutal disrespect, have given the notion of French decline a legitimacy, reality and currency that it lacked before in public debate.

Alain Duhamel, perhaps the most consensual of France's mainstream political commentators, has praised Bavarez for launching "a legitimate debate on a subject that merits one: French decline." He said it touched "a sensitive point in the national subconscious that set off an intellectual hullabaloo."

An ardent advocate of limited surrender of French sovereignty so that the EU can become the vector of French worldwide ambitions - he too has written a new book whose title translates to France in Disarray - Duhamel acknowledges that France no longer pulls Europe along behind it, although he insists Europe will not advance without France.

Indeed, Le Monde, which normally makes French ambitions, or distress about their failures, synonymous with Europe's, made some rare admissions this week about the French descent in Europe's eyes.

Daniel Vernet, a former senior editor of the newspaper, wrote, "We often irritate our partners because too frequently we have the tendency to want to impose our views, or only to consider as truly European those positions that conform to a French vision, however much in the EU minority it may be."

That resulted in a dilemma without an obvious exit, Vernet said. "The European partners don't want to hear about European policy independent from the United States," he wrote. "So, either France acts alone, and, regardless of what's claimed, its influence remains limited. Or it seeks a common denominator with its partners and it has to give up its ambitions."

Even Chirac may have given a sign that he understands the changing vision of France's real possibilities. In two major speeches on world affairs since the end of the summer, he dropped any references to multipolarity, the French notion of a world of competing poles with Europe set up as a rival pole to the United States.

In the sense that they project the picture of a country that has lost its way, the other books complemented the Bavarez thesis and set the tone of discussion.

In "Ouest contre Ouest," by Andre Glucksmann, one of the few leading French intellectuals to challenge the country's position on the Iraq war, France is described as a nation, with others in Europe, that fled the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States in panic and attempted to set up a sterile biosphere away from the world's realities.

The book, also a bestseller, maintains that this flight from confronting trouble carried with it an attempt to create two opposing notions of the West: a serene Europe, sheltered from terrorist kamikazes, and a warlike, imperialist, autistic United States.

Glucksmann wrote that the central question of the future was not hegemony or multipolarity, the key French terms illustrating the Chirac government's seeming obsession about the United States and its desire to counter the Americans, but civilization versus nihilism, and whether the West together could make a fight to protect civilization.

Glucksmann believes that France's leadership has wanted to bring Russia into its project to counter the United States, with France promising in the bargain a return of Russia's lost rank and prestige.

"What does France gain?" he asked. "The possibility to continue its siesta. It would be up to Russia to counterbalance America, and keep the Islamist and Eastern hordes away. It would be the United States' job to chase down all the worldwide risks that we want to avoid. Paris, in all this, gives itself the role of directing the world by proxy. Once the Euro-Asiatic bloc is cemented through the inspiration of the Elysée Palace, Washington, put in its just place and counterbalanced, will conform."

These messages converge with that of "L'Arrogance Française," by Romain Gubert and Emmanuel Saint-Martin, whose chapter and section headings - How France Lost Europe or Narcissistic Blindness - well sum up a book that holds that French foreign and European policy is guided by "obsessive concern with its standing, and terror in the face of its decline."

France's essential arrogance, the authors suggest, is in continuing to act as if the world community and its European partners do not comprehend that for the French leadership, the "EU serves as the means for France to recover its influence and to reconquer its lost power."

In this light, although the writers of "L'Arrogance Française" do not say so specifically, it is possible to see French policy in relationship to Iraq as a temporary instrumentalization of Germany in an effort to recapture European primacy - an attempt understood and foiled by the vast number of its NATO and EU partners.

Months later, the fact is, after Sweden's rejection of the euro (in part because of France's refusal to conform to the economic performance standards it set up itself for the currency's credibility), and the likely splintering of the EU into groups of several speeds without any semblance of a unified foreign or defense policy, France has come up empty.

The sum of the messages of the books, in French to the French, is that this vision of the country's current circumstances is not a French-bashing invention from afar, but a home truth.

For Bavarez, France is threatened with becoming a museum diplomatically and a transit center economically. To do anything about it, it must revive itself internally first, getting away from what he calls its "social statist model." To advance, it must end the dominant role of a "public sector placed outside of any constraint requiring productivity or competitiveness."

The reform of the rest of French policy, based on genuine integration into Europe, should follow, he argues.

He recommends what he calls shock therapy, a forced march toward modernity that involves the risk of a clash among French interest groups and an end to the "sinister continuity" that unites the presidencies of François Mitterrand and Chirac in a kind of angry immobility.

But for Bavarez, and most of the other writers now gaining the nation's attention, the present reality is harsh for France.

"Overtaken by the democratic vitality and technological advance of the United State," Bavarez concludes, "downgraded industrially and challenged commercially by China and Asia, the decline of France is accelerating at the same rhythm as the vast changes in the world."