Monday, June 11, 2007

C'est vraiment matin en France

Well - the French parliamentary elections have made it certain: it really is morning in France. The Gaullist era is over, and France is becoming a normal country.

The French National Assembly has 577 seats, and Sarkozy's party won over 400 of them. After next Sunday's runoff, his party will alone control more than 440 seats. Apparently Sarkozy captured almost all of the support that had gone to the centrist party of Bayrou. The Socialists will hang on with about 120 seats, but the far left was virtually wiped out. It's a landslide victory of the type enjoyed by Thatcher early in her government's rule or like Blair in 1997.

Here are summaries in English and in French. Even if you can't read French, you can enjoy the cool interface, with its interactive maps of the French départements.

All of the chatter in the US media in the next week will be about how this means that France is trending "rightward" like Germany - and of course, the media chatter will be clotted with half-truths and clichés, like Sarkozy as "neo-Bush" or some such nonsense. And there is "right," and then there's "right." First, the cryptofascist far right in France was crushed along with the far left. That's a good sign for France's political culture, which has been blighted with significant extremist parties for much longer than other Western countries - all representing curious and antiquated political conflicts from the 1930s and 40s or, in some cases, even farther back, to the age of Dreyfus and the Paris Commune.

But the real significance of Sarkozy is this. His victory, at the head of the Gaullist center-right party (Rally for the Republic) that saved France after it was liberated in 1944, means the end of France's perverse thumb-in-the-eye attitude towards the US and the rest of Europe. Unlike in many countries, such attitudes and policies were representative, not so much of the left, but of the nationalist right. De Gaulle did serious damage to NATO, the EU, and his country's standing by pursuing these policies from 1965 on - including his Arabist leanings, which contrary to legend, began before the Six-Day War and resulted not from that conflict, but withdrawal from Algeria. De Gaulle also undermined the democratic left (the Socialists) by cultivating the Communists and relations with Moscow. (In fact, the Socialists under Mittérand in the 1980s were more pro-American, pro-Israel, anti-Soviet, and "Atlanticist" than the Gaullists.) Finally, he allowed another type of political extremist to flourish by never being honest about what had really happened in France during the years of Vichy and German occupation (1940-44). Instead, until the 1990s, the issue was covered over with a Casablanca-type sentimentality. This perversity lingered on during the reign of Chirac, with France becoming more and more socially and economically like the rest of the West, but remaining politically out of step, as if caught in a time warp and pursuing the fantasy of still being a world power.*

In more immediate practical terms, Sarkozy's victory has another significance. This blog has mentioned it several times: one of Europe's main problems is that 1970s never ended there. The British and Irish in the 1980s and the Dutch and Nordics in the 1990s at least pursued successful economic reform, whatever their other problems. The core EU countries (France, Germany, and Italy) haven't even reached that point. Recognition of their problems and the formation of a successful political coalition to cope with them is imperative. At least a start has been made in Germany with Angela Merkel, although little progress has happened there - same in Italy. But with a political earthquake next door in France - the home of continental Europe's fatal romance with the all-powerful state - maybe things will head off in a truly different direction in the coming years.
* But let's not be too hard on the old man: probably no one else could have saved France after the catastrophe of 1914-18 and humiliation of 1940. De Gaulle was proud and vain, getting extraordinary concessions from Roosevelt and Churchill to shore up his nation's wounded ego, like giving France a permanent seat on the UN Security Council - a concession unwarranted in 1945 and even more so today. Churchill once referred to De Gaulle as a "female llama surprised in her bath" - but never doubted for a second the necessity of supporting him.

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