Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A guide for the perplexed I

There is a great deal of ruin in any country.
- Adam Smith

The new French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, recently visited the US and gave an exceptionally fine speech to a joint session of Congress. You can find it here, translated. (Although Sarkozy can understand English, his speaking and writing are shaky. So he spoke in French.) It's certainly one of the best speeches a foreign leader has given in the US in many years. Many liberals were nonplussed by it, since it contradicts their fantasies about Europe. Conservatives were pleased, but confused - after all, he's French.

What gives? It's explained here, but I'll add something else: the critical problem with France, from the mid-1960s on, was the dominant Gaullist dispensation that did not view France as part of the West. Instead, it was supposed to constitute its own realm, with a foreign policy often divergent from Western interests vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Although the Socialists brought French foreign policy back in a more sensible direction in the 1980s, the Gaullist approach dominated through the end of Chirac's presidency this year. This, in spite of the fact that since the early 1990s, France has been becoming a "normal" country, sharing more and more culturally and socially with the rest of Western Europe and - quel horreur! - the US. Its foreign and economic policies were the late in reflecting this evolution and often seemed stuck in another era. "Official" France did not view itself as being in the same boat as other Western countries, even though, in fact, it has been continuously since the industrial revolution and the rise of Germany and Russia in the late 19th century.

All of that has changed in the last few years. One reason is economic-demographic: France, like the rest of western Europe, can no longer afford its welfare state. Over a third of the country, in effect, doesn't work, while the rest support them. And it does not have enough younger workers to pay for generous retirements (starting at age 53 or so) or for students to remain in school until their mid-30s. Its labor market rigidity, however, also prevents younger French Arabs from entering, or from entering at a high enough level to contribute their full economic potential to the French economy and tax coffers. No doubt, French politicians of the last two generations thought they were being clever by buying off these "youths" (as they're often called when they riot) with welfare, instead of doing the harder but better thing of integrating them into the work force. Much of social integration is economic: when you work in a country's economy, you've taken some big steps towards integrating into that society. Of course, there's more to it than work and money, which don't capture the political and social dimensions of integration. But still, it counts for a lot. When it's missing, disaster results.

Which brings up a second reason: the French are now fully awake to the problem of unassimilated Muslim enclaves growing in their cities. This development poses the most serious threat to France's social cohesion and political sovereignty since the decline and collapse of the Third Republic before and during World War Two. What's more, it's not a matter of defeating a foreign army and pushing them out. The younger Muslims are French citizens, but they are frequently far less assimilated than their parents and grandparents, who originally immigrated to France. Western Europe's post-1945 cultural-religious-political vacuum leads these restless "youths" to look elsewhere for moral and intellectual guidance - with radical Islam being the most popular choice. The French of European culture and descent are frightened of what's grown up in their midst, and their governments until recently were reluctant to talk about the problem in public. Although France has a tough system of antiterrorist laws, courts, and police that has been successful in stopping Islamic terror attacks in the last 15 years, the reality of this problem - like so many of Europe's problems - has been carefully hidden from the public by political elites and the media. A variety of substitute hate objects - Israel and the US prominent among them - fill the void. Only in the last few years, with the problems now so serious that elites can no longer hide them, has the French public begun to wake from its welfare-state narcosis. The formerly high-handed and somewhat secretive French elite was forced to turn to the public at large and run a competitive politics for the first time in decades. The last elections featured four major parties; Sarkozy and his followers in the center-right party (the old Gaullist coalition) swept the field, in part by acknowledging realities that everyone sees but often refused to admit.

When we look at Europe's three most important countries - Britain, France, and Germany - a curious spectacle presents itself. France, a frequent irritant to the US in the last 40 years, has swung around to a position of broad agreement with the US, in spite of conflicting views about Iraq. Germany also now has a leader of the center-right, Angela Merkel, an "Atlanticist" of the Kohl-Adenauer type, broadly similar to Sarkozy. But Germany is in a strange position. Unlike France and for obvious reasons, it has not been allowed or allowed itself to exercise an aggressive policy of national interests. While the French have done this vigorously since the 1960s, they often pursued misguided policies - but at least they pursued something. The commitment of Germany's political elites to Western democratic values is real, and they are consistent in opposition to Muslim antisemitism in ways often not true of their French or British counterparts. But such an orientation is essentially reactive and defensive, and it's unclear if that is enough to halt the spread of Islamic radicalism among Germany's growing Muslim population. A weak national government and power decentralized to the German laender (states) and cities, imposed by the Allies in 1945, is the price of a defanged Germany no longer threatening to its neighbors.

The odd man in this trio is now, strangest of all, Great Britain, once America's most dependable ally in western Europe and creator of the original Jewish National Home in Palestine. The long shadow of post-1945 American dominance of the English-speaking world, the end of the Cold War, and Britain's loss of its empire have left it politically hollowed out. While Tony Blair and his government were strongly pro-American and firm on the need to oppose Islamic radicalism, the political elites of Britain have been headed in a different direction since the early 1990s. Britain's official culture of politics and education have been overrun with particularly noxious form of political correctness. It would be reversing cause and effect to say that PC has weakened Britain's national identity. But the rapid and unchecked growth of Islamic radicalism in London and other British cities has created as serious a crisis there as in France; the difference is that Britain, unlike France and the US, lacks clearly articulated and universal liberal and democratic values. Its political culture and national identity have depended historically far more on the unwritten and even unspoken. It seems odd that this should be so; after all, Britain is the cradle of modern liberty, constitutionalism, and democratic practice. The triumph of liberal, democratic, and market-economic values in the modern world is due largely to Britain and its former colonies.

Nonetheless, the weakness of Britain's domestic culture and politics, its inability to face down Islamic radicals, and the spread of intellectual and moral corruption in the face of such challenges are unmistakable. The next posting will explore why.

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