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50 years of rationality interrupted in France


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Surprise and dismay (and, of course, in some quarters, joy) have greeted the French "Non" to the EU constitution, but, really, what's new in this? Aren't the French doing what they've done many times before? There would seem to be many ways in which this is true.

One: the electoral insurgency against the government of President Jacques Chirac and his musical-chair handful of star ministers, is an early 21st-century version of the spirit of Ravachol, the 19th-century anarchist who threw bombs and committed murders in his fury against the political corruption of the French Third Republic, as well as the alienation and commodification of labor brought about by nascent capitalism.

Then, a bit more than half a century later there was Pierre Poujade, whose antitaxation movement became the prototype for all sorts of populist movements in France since then, including, of course, the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front movement of Jean-Marie Le Pen. If Poujade were alive (he died just a couple of years ago after decades of post-Poujadist obscurity), he would, like Le Pen, have opposed Europe.

Underlying his tax protest, which, at its height, had more than 50 representatives elected to the French Parliament, was Poujade's antimodernism. He represented small merchants and artisans dislocated by France's transition to a modern industrial state after World War II. Perhaps in this sense his true spiritual heir is not Le Pen but another anticonstitution, antiglobalization, anti-EU activist, José Bové, who, like Poujade and, apparently, a majority of the current French population, yearns to go back to a simpler, more wholesome, pre-McDonald's time when the specter of Polish plumbers did not yet haunt all of Europe.

Two: the animus against what everybody from Bové and Le Pen to Chirac and the separatist Socialist leader Laurent Fabius called ultraliberalism - or, more or less interchangeably, the "Anglo-Saxon model" - is a variation on a theme as old as the French Fifth Republic: It is the struggle against Anglo-American domination and the concomitant need to present France as a humanist alternative.

The one thing that de Gaulle and Sartre agreed on was their contempt for brash, clumsy, unsophisticated America. This led Sartre to his long and unseemly complacency with the Soviet Union, and it led de Gaulle to pull France out of the NATO military command.

But the French obsession with everything "Anglo-Saxon" has had other manifestations as well, including entirely understandable and laudatory ones, like the effort to prevent the language of Flaubert from being polluted with Franglais; the wish for a French movie industry to survive in a cinematic world crushed by Hollywoodian junk; and the ambition to build Europe into the kind of entity that can hold its own against the American hyper-power.

The French effort to punch above the country's weight, in other words, is sometimes glorious and at times vainglorious. Whichever it has been in its latest incarnation, once the constitution got stuck with the reputation, accurate or not, that it was essentially an "Anglo-Saxon text" full of "Anglo-Saxon" ideas, not to repudiate it would have been to go back on 300 years of French self-understanding.

Three (and corollary to two): much of the French intellectual class behaved with extreme nonempirical silliness, as it often has when it is at its worst (compared to those many moments when it has been at its best). French thinkers of the 20th century were, on the whole (and with such dazzling exceptions as Albert Camus and Raymond Aron) the last of the Europeans to see that central planning à la Joseph Stalin wasn't such a good thing after all.

Now French thinkers are among the last to recognize something else: that economic liberalism and free-market economics are the best ways to ensure that countries will be, as Fabius put it, "social" and "human." French thinkers have been caught many times in the past having ideas more or less independent of any empirical basis - preferring lofty Cartesian speculation to fact-finding, or expecting reality to conform to concept rather than the other way around.

And so, the steady bashing of the "Anglo-Saxon model" was largely unaccompanied by any serious examination of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Never mind that France has suffered 10 percent unemployment for a quarter of a century and that British levels are currently about half of that, even as British social services at least rival those of France. As the French lawyer and commentator Nicolas Baverez pointed out, in the 1970s the British GNP was 25 percent less than that of France; now it is 10 percent higher. Ireland, once the poor man of Europe, has a higher per capita income than France.

But the French chattering classes hardly examined those facts, burying them under the comforting conviction that the French "social" and "human" system was superior and had to be defended.

This is an idea that both Chirac and Fabius reiterated ad nauseam from their opposite sides of the constitution debate, never bothering to define terms or to refer to any concrete circumstances. Examination turned into catechism. Ditto for the concept of globalization, which was denounced repeatedly, demonized, presented as an unmitigated scourge, but never explained.

As Le Monde's Alain Frachon put it: "There was a new ritual: you had first to declare yourself against liberalism in order to gain the right to speak in the public arena."

Or, as the much reviled former EU commissioner for the internal market, Frits Bolkestein, put it in The Financial Times: "How social is an economic model that throws up 12 percent unemployment as in Germany, or 10 percent as in France?"

Four: The French, as always, thought they were defending what they call "les acquis," the things earned over the decades of struggle for social justice. And, as the political philosopher Pierre Hassner reminded me, citing Aron, the French have always put more stock in égalité than in liberté.

"The tendency, when the going gets bad," Hassner said, "is to close the doors and try to find scapegoats"-the latter in the latest instance being Brussels, or ultraliberalism, or the Anglo-Saxon model, with nary a suggestion that there might be some French fault at work as well.

The big difference with past behavior is that the French have spent the last 50 years building Europe as part of an entirely rational and reasonable effort to defend their national interest. Why they have departed from that tradition seems to have to do with what Serge July, editor of Libération, called "delirium." It has little to do with French tradition.

We all have to hope, for the sake of la gloire, la patrie, and the rest of us, that they will come to their senses. As we "Anglo-Saxon" ultraliberals used to say years ago, watching the French sing "La Marseillaise" at that critical moment in "Casablanca": Vive la France.

www.iht.com . . .

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Brilliant! I must admit that I recognize myself in many (if not all) elements you wrote in your message. Quite a good vision of French and France.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent me from voting "OUI".

I am not sure that all informations you gave were directly linked with the referendum.



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