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Lundi 20 juin 2016
Statist France Collapsing
Statist France does not work anymore (literally). But it is still obsessional about « grandeur ». A new book explains why.
When the so called Students Revolution erupted in Paris in May, 1968, President Charles de Gaulle was on a State visit in Rumania, and Primer Minister Georges Pompidou on a parallel visit in Afghanistan. Both men were asserting France’s « grandeur » abroad and its « world role » as a champion of « national independence » against both « American and Soviet imperialism ».
Whithin days, they had to shorten their tours and come back to Paris unceremoniously, to face a chaotic situation at home. Radical students had turned the Sorbonne University into a « liberated territory » ; there were barricades all over the Latin Quarter, in the very heart of the French capital ; strikes were choking the economy to death ; red and black flags were being waved on public buildings. So much for « grandeur ».
One cannot help but recall the 1968 precedent today, as France just convened an international conference in Paris to « restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ».Twenty-nine countries and international organizations attended the conference’s grand opening, on June 3. However, very few of them did it at a significant level. The American Secretary of State John Kerry obliged. So did the UN Secretary General, Ban Kee Moon, and the European Union’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini. That was it.
One reason why the conference’s opening failed to attract as much attention as the French sought is simply that France is – again - in a mess.
President Hollande’s popularity is down to 11 %. Prime Minister Manuel Valls fares almost as miserably at 14 %. Although a state of emergency has been declared since the jihadist massacres in Paris last November (and in front of more jihadist operations like the butchering of a couple of police personnels at their home, last week-end), street riots are rampant and demonstrations ubiquitous.
The socialist cabinet was unable to pass a new labor legislation in a socialist-dominated parliament, and had to resort to article 49-3, a constitutional provision much similar to what is known in America as an executive order. This move, in turn, enraged the unions, who started strikes in the public transportation sector, from planes to trains to petrol distribution, and other vital fields like garbage collection.
What saved Hollande and Valls, for a while, was a natural catastrophe : the heavy rains and the subsequent floods that had been devastating much of the country, and even Paris, for about two weeks. Even die hard unionists had to relent under such circumstances.
Hollande and Valls expected a further respite from Euro 2016, the UEFA European Soccer Contest that is taking place in Paris and other major French cities until July 10. They were wrong : strikes were renewed with a vengeance on June 10, the very day Euro 16 was started.
There is something puzzling about the recurrence of domestic crises in France over the past fifty years and the French insistence, throughout the same period, to be a major player in world politics. Unless one takes it as the two faces of a same and single coin. The French are convinced they are a Great Power, and a thus entittled to a world role, because they have a strong, Statist, government – arguably the strongest and most Statist in Europe. They don’t quite realize, however, that Statism tends to be counterproductive beyond some limits and to generate cumulative mismanagement. Even in the much hallowed sphere of foreign affairs.
Some of them, of course, do realize. Much is to be learned, in this respect, from a newly released book by Vincent Jauvert, La Face cachée du Quai d’Orsay (The French Diplomacy’s Hidden Face). Jauvert, who writes for L’Obs (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur), France’s flagship liberal media, is a veteran and thorough investigator, who knows only of well-checked facts, figures and names. His report carries all the more weight.
What Jauvert makes clear in the first place is that French diplomacy works as a self-contained universe, adverse to intrusions from elected officials or the press. This may be true of any foreign service in the world, including the American State Department. It reaches however unprecedented and at times comical heights in a super-Statist environment.
French diplomats, most of them graduates from the elite National School of Administration, tend to cover each other in case of misdemeanor or even plain criminal activities, from embezzlement to sex harassment or paedophilia. Likewise, they tend to mutually whitewash mistakes and blunders, whatever the consequences.
Admittedly, they must report, at some point, to at least one official : the foreign minister himself. According to Jauvert, two cases are to be considered here : the minister can be an idiot, or an « imperator ».
Both the French president, who is supposed to be the last resort decision maker in foreign affairs, and the French prime minister, who is wary of would-be competitors in the cabinet, are both prone to put idiots in charge : they tend to select individuals with little knowledge of the Quai d’Orsay arcanes or of diplomacy itself. Such people can be manipulated at will or, if they prove less subservient than expected, subjected to character assassination.
It was reported about Philippe Douste-Blazy, a foreign minister under Chirac, that he asked, while in Jerusalem, how many Jews the Nazis murdered in Britain ; or that he mistook Taiwan for Thailand. It was rumored that Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (the famous « French doctors » NGO), that he mispelled the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in China, as « Yoghurts ».
When such vignettes accumulate – and they usually do - the minister is in bad shape. If one or two scandals are thrown in addition, either verified or unverified, he is finished.
It happens as well that the foreign ministers are « imperators » : experimented and ruthless politicians who know how to bend it to their own ends. They get the job because they could be even more powerful or potentially dangerous for the president or the prime minister in other positions.
Jauvert draws an impressive portrait, in this respect, of the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Laurent Fabius, who served as as foreign minister from May 2012 to February 2016. Fabius resisted the Iran deal as long as he could but he also initiated the French Middle East conference project.
Even more interesting are Jauvert’s remarks about the Quai d’Orsay doctrines. To cut it short, most French diplomats, either conservative or socialist minded, still stick to the grandeur cum national independence line laid forward until 1968 by de Gaulle and Pompidou : which, in practical terms, translates into an uncompromising anti-American and anti-Israel line.
However, there are also brilliant dissenters – some of them so brilliant as to climb up to the Ministry’s highest echelon - who advocate a more balanced approach. Guess what their nickname is ? La secte. In English : The Cult.
Apparently, Fabius listened to The Cult on Iran, but switched to the Gaullist doxa on Israel. An heritage he passed to the present foreign minister, the much less formidable Jean-Marc Ayrault.
« La Face Cachée du Quai d’Orsay », by Vincent Jauvert. Robert Laffont, Paris, 2016. 300 pages, 20 euros.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2016
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-thank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
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