The Magazine

The Decline of France

From the December 8, 2003 issue: And the rise of an Islamist-leftist alliance.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Much of present-day French politics springs from the panic of April 21, 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen's fascistic National Front outpolled the ruling Socialist party to finish second in the opening round of France's presidential elections. Jacques Chirac, of course, easily won reelection two weeks later, with 82 percent of the vote, by rallying the entire left around his moderate-right party. But the first order of business for Chirac's prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was to reassure voters that he had taken full account of what a close call it had been for France. "If in 200 days we have not seen real change," he said, "the risks of tension in this society will be high."

If the 2002 elections were a wake-up call, then France has slept through it. Today, Chirac's popularity is plummeting and Raffarin's job hangs by a thread. On the day the United States launched its war in Iraq last March, Chirac had a 74 percent approval rating, while Raffarin's stood at 58. Today, Chirac is at 47 and falling, while Raffarin is at 33. Their problem is partly that they knuckled under to union protests last spring during a halting and overdue attempt to restrain public employees' privileges. It is partly that they mishandled last summer's heat wave, which saw 15,000 more deaths than would be expected according to actuarial tables. (Most were old people, ditched by their families over summer vacations prolonged absurdly by generous social legislation. The great indignity of the heat wave was thus that it reminded the French what a non-familial, consumerist, rootless, "American" society they have become.) It is partly that Chirac and Raffarin have squandered their mandate on nugatory issues, from their campaign against reckless driving to a "war on tobacco." (The latter is causing problems of public order, too, as smokers, incredulous at the near-doubled price of cigarettes, assault tobacconists and steal merchandise.)

What made this inaction possible is that the government seemed to have an important project over the last 18 months--the exhilarating task of taming (if only oratorically) American military hubris. Certainly, France had some legitimate points. An argument can be made that America's "Axis of Evil" rhetoric, far from winning respect from rogue states, led them to accelerate their nuclear programs. The same goes for France's warnings about avoiding a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. While America believed it was avoiding a clash of civilizations--fighting our enemies in the Islamic world without fighting our friends--drawing such distinctions may be beyond the capacity of most of the Muslims Washington sought to help. Avoiding a clash of civilizations thus demanded an explication not only of our war aims but of our Western way of life, which in turn requires more rhetorical sophistication than this American administration has at its disposal.

But all this was true only before the beginning of the year. Thereafter, French advice gave way to playing to the gallery, as the country sought to win the applause of violent barbarians by taking potshots at its most important democratic ally. French opposition to the war was unanimous. The war was supported publicly by about four intellectuals and three politicians. Some opposition was measured, but the tone of most of it can be seen in the broadsides launched by French thinkers since the war: The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, in "The New World Disorder," alleges that "those occidental ayatollahs who are the directors of the major media launch fatwas against certain public figures who express their disapproval of the war"--this while Michael Moore is the best-selling nonfiction writer in France and Paul Krugman is perhaps the most widely read columnist in the world. The Franco-American Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman, who recently published a collection of interviews called "A Truly Imperial America?", believes the New York Times helped squelch the efforts of the French embassy to reveal a campaign of disinformation being spread by administration sources--this despite the seeming identicality of that paper's antiwar position to France's. Nouvel Observateur editor Jacques Julliard, in "Rupture in Civilization," expresses his conviction that the real target of America's National Security Strategy--which aims to preempt emerging threats--is not Iran or North Korea but Europe. He adds that "the principle of preventive war leads to the destruction of all international law." Julliard favored NATO's war on Serbia, however, which was carried out without U.N. sanction. That's because "the veto then feared in the security council, that of Russia, was more formal than real, inspired as it was by the traditional solidarity with fellow Slavs, rather than by a real political design." France, it appears, is the only U.N. member that can threaten a "real" veto.