Anglosphere: What about the French?

By JAMES C. BENNETT  |  Feb. 16, 2002 at 2:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- What's the matter with the government, academia and media of France? Since Sept. 11, despite the genuine sympathy of the ordinary French in the street for the victims, the response of the elite elements has too often been pessimism, obstructionism, unfounded criticism and in general the same old blame-America malaise that they share with the rest of the Continental elite classes.

Although these attitudes are shared by other Europeans, somehow the French seem to express them in a particularly grating and arrogant fashion. This has led, in turn, to a particularly strong anti-French reaction on the "Anglosphere street," which is to say, that combination of e-mail, on-line discussion groups, Weblogs and other shared media both print and electronic from which contemporary opinion emerges throughout the English-speaking world.

The French are frequently referred to by terms such as the Simpsons' unforgettable "cheese-eating surrender monkey" epithet, and worse. No discussion of French perfidity is complete without the obligatory references to the French capitulation of 1940 and the collaborationist Vichy regime. The French, who have made a particular hobby of insulting Americans for the past half-century, of course, respond in kind.

All this is only too reminiscent of two packs of schoolboys trading insults, or for that matter two packs of monkeys screaming at each other. Although it is satisfying, particularly when applied to particularly egregious examples like French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, still all this primate behavior gets in the way of clear thinking.

To begin with, the stereotype of "surrender monkey" may seem justified by French actions in 1940 and certain more recent occasions. But to say that the French are somehow inherently cowardly is to ignore French steadfastness from 1914 to 1918 in horrifying circumstances. For that matter, the issue in 1940 was not the physical cowardice of French troops on the line, who in fact fought as well as they could under bad leadership and took great casualties, but the moral cowardice of the French Cabinet.

Charles de Gaulle, who was relegated by the political system of the Third Republic to leading a handful of tanks, rather than, as should have been, the French army or the Republic itself, demonstrated that by proper leadership French troops and tanks could gain ground against Germans. After the surrender, he also demonstrated that a Frenchman could embody moral courage by flying to England and continuing the fight, single-handedly if need be.

Today, however, France stands at the crossroads between two courses of action, neither of them viable. Much of the problem with the reaction of the French elites stems from this reality. France is in some ways the last true nation-state on the western European continent. On the one hand it wishes to preserve its independence of military and foreign-policy action, its remaining formal and informal empire, its position as leader of a global Francosphere of substantial size and importance, and its economic throw-weight as the world's fifth-largest economy, not far behind Britain's. Alone on the Continent, France has a seat on the U.N. Security Council, nuclear missile submarines and a military that can project force outside of its own region without dependence on America. France is a power in the way that its Continental neighbors aren't.

On the other, it is beguiled by the European dream, and the alternate vision of being the second-largest influence in a continental world power equal to America. It fears that France by itself is too small to preserve what it sees as its true independence, but hopes that a united Europe will be independent in the autarchic Continental understanding of that term.

They also know that while the rest of Europe enjoys a complex love-hate relationship with the French, nobody has the uneasiness about them that they have about united Germany. France's Europhiles are confident about their ability to manage European internal politics to guarantee that a united Europe's shadow on the world will really be French.

These two visions have coexisted for the entire history of the European project. However, the period of coexistence is coming to a close. France no longer has a seat at the financial discussions of the G-7; that enviable perk has been ceded to the representative of the European Central Bank. If the European foreign and defense policy project is a success, then France's individual voice will gradually be silenced in forum after forum. At some point, France's seat on the Security Council will come into question.

These problems are aggravated by the fact that France's economic and social structure is facing great challenges, and neither autarky nor European unification will resolve them. A demographic drought and a problematic immigration situation foreshadow the looming unfunded pensions crisis that neither France nor Europe will face realistically. Persistent high unemployment (especially among the young) stems from structural problems that again are not being addressed by either option.

The young entrepreneurs who should be creating jobs in France are moving to England and Ireland to escape the suffocating Colbertean state apparatus. At heart, the social and industrial structure of France was designed to mobilize the nation's strength against a German invasion in the environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It needs more than surface renovation to prosper in the scientific-technological revolutions of the 21st century.

As the French thrash around discomfited by all their options, it is easy to blame the Americans for spoiling their final vision of global dirigisme as the permanent procrastination of unwanted social readjustments. This is unfortunately not the vision France needs at this time. Every realistic person in Britain understands, despite the rhetoric, that their island could leave the European Union tomorrow and prosper with no more than interim adjustment issues. France does not have this luxury. They are stuck with the Germans and the consequent pressure to give up the dream of a uniquely French nation-state.

The French are not a nation of cowards, as the "surrender-monkey" epithet implies. They are a nation of talented, creative, and brave individuals. Unfortunately, they seem to alternate being led by a crowd of moral dwarves, alleviated by the rule of the occasional flawed giant. It has been three decades since the last such grand, albeit irritating, giant disappeared. What gives France its current bad name has been the pack of moral munchkins in charge ever since.

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