Myth No. 3
The French tend to surrender in conflicts.
“Since World War II,” Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid proclaimed in 2009, France “and its army have been seen by many as standard-bearers for surrender, cowardice and military ineptitude.” In 2015, the Spectator’s Toby Young chastised the French for their alleged “reliance on British and American men to protect them from murderous fascists.” And “The Simpsons” famously labeled them “cheese-eating surrender monkeys. ”
But while the French may choose their battles carefully, they’re no cowards: Recently, for example, French forces have been deeply involved in fighting extremists in Africa and the Middle East. In 2012, French troops went into Mali to hold back an Islamist advance there, followed by operations in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. France has also been the Western nation most involved in combating the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. It has intervened to try to bring stability in the Central African Republic and took a leading role in the intervention in Libya, where its special forces are still fighting terrorism. Likewise, the French Foreign Legion — renowned for its strength and bravery — is still active globally.
France began air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq in 2014, followed by missions in Syria. In fact, President François Hollande was ready to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria after its use of chemical weapons in 2013 — but was held back by the refusal of the Obama administration to do so.
This distrust in a system that has failed to solve mass unemployment and allowed an increase in inequality is hardly surprising. What is new is the level of rejection publicly expressed in many quarters of the far right and the far left, with people openly wishing for chaos. “Monsieur Macron, you are hated, you are hated, you are hated!” the radical filmmaker François Ruffin warned the future president in Le Monde last week. Some see in this confrontational mood an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1970s.
The old system —
“l’ancien régime” — will not surrender without a fight, and this includes both the mainstream and the established extremes, far right and far left. This is a fractured country, not in two, but in four, maybe five parts. Mr. Macron acknowledged just that in his acceptance speech, vowing to take into account “the divisions, the anger, the anxiety and the doubts of the nation and to protect the most vulnerable.” The new president understood the country’s mood very early on, grasping the thirst for fundamental change when establishment politicians were in denial. He bet that his message of truth, hope and audacity, of confidence in liberal values and a united Europe could convince a pessimistic country to elect an optimistic president — and he won.
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with these anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness — tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Turn a corner in Albi, and you’ll pass the last school inside the historic center, abandoned a few years ago. Down another street is the last toy store, now closed, and around a corner is the last independent grocery store, also shuttered. Walk down the empty, narrow streets on some nights and the silence is so complete that you can hear your footsteps on the stones.
…“For me, if you are precise, you can’t be attacked,” he said of his work. “It’s a big problem for me that there are no grocery stores in the center of the city. There is no neighborhood cafe.”
Street after street, we took the measure of the town’s fragility. Name tags were missing from buzzers at the doorways of the old buildings. Above them the shutters stayed closed night and day, with estimates that 15 percent of these old houses are vacant.
…Albi’s fate was a cultural misfortune. City leaders had poured money into a high-concept modernistic new culture center at the town’s edge. And the shopping mall had been built. Large grocery chains, called hypermarkets, had also been constructed outside the city, with free parking. It is not that Albi no longer had commerce, or activity. But the essence of the ancient city was being lost.
The rise of the shopping centers
traced the sharp rise in living standards brought on by what the French call the Trente Glorieuses, the 30 glorious years from 1945 to 1975. Growth was around 4 percent; purchasing power of the average worker’s salary rose 170 percent. The boost to consumer demand could not be met by the old center-city structure of small shops, small purchases. Malls and strip centers were born.
…Today, France has the highest density of such retail space in all of Europe, even as vacancies in 190 historic town centers have gone to 10.4 percent in 2015 from 6.1 percent in 2001, according to the government report. Thus, the French paradox: a newly consumerist society that had stripped France of its “soul” — made even worse, now, by the fact that economic growth has collapsed.
“There’s no bar, no cafe. We’re in the southwest, for heaven’s sake. It’s a scandal,” said Mr. Lacoste, serving up crepes to his customers. “We’ve lost that conviviality that was our signature. Before, each little neighborhood had its own center, with its own cafe. All that has disappeared.
My last interview before leaving town was with Eric Lamarre. Last year, he closed Albi’s last toy store. “Twenty years ago, the center of town was still animated,” he said. “People really came to town to buy. There were loads of lovely things. It buzzed with people.”
…The big shopping center opened in 2009, and his business declined until the end, when he was losing 50,000 euros (about $53,000) a year.
“It’s a political problem,” he said. “These towns have been had. They always say yes to the shopping center developers.”
Albi, he said, “is still a magnificent city — for the tourists.”
Small stores had been replaced by huge “hypermarkets” on the outskirts of town. Human contact was almost forgotten. “In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,” he said. Old people without cars were treated like human refuse. “And immigrants arrive and they immediately get handouts!”
Marine Le Pen at an election rally outside Paris on Monday. CreditFrancois Mori/Associated Press
The European Crisis
Ross Douthat MAY 3, 2017
In my Sunday column I raised the possibility that a vote for Marine Le Pen in next weekend’s French presidential runoff might be more defensible than was a vote for Donald Trump in 2016. The internet did not agree, and perhaps neither did Le Pen herself, since she rewarded my controversial foray by immediately getting mired in a plagiarism scandal.
But having made the foray, it’s worth stepping back and trying to see Le Pen in her wider context, and to recognize the scale of the problems that have 40 percent of the French poised to vote for her.
Those problems bear a certain resemblance to those of our own politics. In Europe as in the United States, recent trends in culture and economics have elevated an educated upper class while separating it, geographically and ideologically and in every other way, from a declining and fragmenting working class. In Europe as in the United States, a growing immigrant population serves this upper class while seeming to compete with downscale natives for jobs, housing and social benefits. In Europe as in the United States, the center-left coalition has become a kind of patronage arrangement between the multicultural meritocracy and minority groups both new and old, while the white working class drifts rightward and votes for Brexit, Trump and now Le Pen.
The best piece to read on the French version of this phenomenon comes from Chris Caldwell in City Journal, in which he discusses the work of the French geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy, who portrays his nation as increasingly “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.”
In Guilluy’s account, the tensions between Trumpland and liberal America find their mirror in the tensions between the French republic’s thriving regions and the stagnation and disappointment of “la France périphérique” — a mix of rural areas and cities whose industries have suffered under globalization, and whose inhabitants feel disdained and ignored by the metropoles. And the ethnic tensions that Trump has exploited are mirrored as well, albeit with distinctively French twists — like the role of the vast suburban housing projects, built in the postwar era for a largely native working class and now contested between natives and immigrants. (Caldwell writes: “Guilluy speaks of a ‘battle of the eyes’ fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other — the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.”)
So far, so similar. But as counterintuitive as it may seem — after all, we elected Trump and they have not — in many ways these problems are worse in Europe, part of a systemic crisis that’s more serious than our own.
They’re worse because Europe is stuck with a horribly flawed experiment in political economy, a common currency without a common fiscal policy or a central political authority capable of claiming real legitimacy. The damage that this combination has done to the economies of Southern Europe, in particular, is striking and severe — years of elevated unemployment and stagnation, all of it imposed without democratic accountability by a mostly Northern European caste of bankers and politicians.
They’re worse because Europe has had sub-replacement fertility for much longer than the United States (a trend worsened, there as here, by the Great Recession), which drags on economic growth, increases fiscal burdens, heightens social anomie and makes mass immigration seem more culturally threatening to natives even as it seems more desirable to technocrats.
They’re worse because Europe is a continent of ethno-states without a strong assimilative tradition, and it’s now attempting to integrate an immigrant population that differs from its natives more dramatically — in religion, culture, education, mores — than the immigrant population differs from natives in the United States. And more, part of this immigrant population is tempted by jihadist ideologies that flourish far more easily on European than on American soil, and is linked to neighboring regions whose populations are growing fast enough to promise truly revolutionary migration rates should Europe let them come.
Finally, they’re worse because European governance has a greater democracy deficit than the United States, and because the European ruling class already relies more than its American counterpart on illiberal methods — restrictions on speech that would be the envy of our campus commisars, counterterrorism methods that would make Jeff Sessions blush, even the spread of “voluntary” euthanasia as a solution to age and illness and unhappiness — to maintain the continental peace.
This is a tangle of problems that no single statesman or party, however brilliant, is likely to cut through; they can be only managed, not resolved. But much of elite European politics seems to be organized around the premise that they are really problems only because they might lead to an extremist party taking power. So the important thing is to concentrate every effort on delegitimizing and defeating and excluding critics (be they right wing or, as in many Mediterranean countries, far left) rather than solving the problems that the outsiders often quite accurately identify.
This strategy partially succeeded in Greece, but it failed with Brexit. It should succeed in defeating Le Pen, but it has failed to prevent Poland and Hungary from turning to parties of the populist right.
But even — maybe especially — if it were comprehensively successful, it would still deserve to be discarded, because it represents a dereliction of duty, a refusal to stare actual failure in its face.
Ideally, it would be discarded first by existing parties of the center-right, which would adapt the populist critique and implement an agenda purged of crankishness and bigotry: This seems to be what Theresa May is trying to do in Britain, and I wish her well.
But elsewhere right-of-center parties are either breaking down or simply sticking to the same old playbook, leaving populists as the most viable alternative to the status quo. And the policy alternative that the right-wing populists often offer — hard limits on immigration, new financial support for families, a re-emphasis on national sovereignty, the unwinding of the euro — is in some ways less extreme than the open-borders and onward-to-federalism fantasies still nursed by the elite, and more directly responsive to the elite program’s widespread failure. (It is also considerably more coherent than the right-wing populism of Donald Trump.)
Which does not mean that one should necessarily vote for the populists. It may be that Le Pen is still too much like her father, or too much like the anti-Islam monomaniac Geert Wilders or the bumptious Nigel Farage or even Trump himself, to be entrusted with the leadership of an important Western power. And if you read some of the stinging responses to my column — for a relatively kind example, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s piece for Slate — you will find this case eloquently made.
But I still think it’s generally made in a way that doesn’t quite reckon with the scale of Europe’s problems, and the wider political environment in which parties like the National Front exist.
I completely agree, for instance, with Mounk’s critique of Le Pen’s secularism-on-steroids approach to public religiosity, which would try to suppress Islamic identity (and Jewish identity) in various ways, from bans on head scarves to rules against kosher and halal slaughter. I think that France would be much better served by a combination of reduced immigration and the kind of accommodations to its Muslim citizens that the Catholic French philosopher Pierre Manent has proposed, in which secularism gives ground to religious pluralism even as it firmly demands certain forms of assimilation.
I also agree with Mounk that their authoritarian inclinations and ugly historical roots are good reasons to fear what far-right parties might do with real power.
But from my perspective — as, yes, a religious conservative, and therefore someone already far outside the official European mainstream — the evils of right-populism are not some wild outlier in an otherwise harmonious and liberal Europe. They are instead dangers to be weighed against the myriad evils of the status quo.
To pluck some examples: It was not the populist right but the Social Democrats that recently banned halal and kosher butchering in Denmark, on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.” It is not horrible fascists but high-minded progressives who are offering euthanasia to depressives and alcoholics and pressing religious institutions to go along. It is not nativism but Islamism that is driving Jews to flee from France.
Above all, perhaps — it is not right-wing authoritarians but the great and good of Brussels and Berlin who have shown consistent contempt for the popular will, for democratic self-government and for the interests of weaker countries in their union.
During an earlier spasm of European populism, the rebellion over the terms that Eurocrats imposed upon a supine and bankrupt Greece, I wrote a column called “Sympathy for the Radical Left,” in which I talked about how it was understandable that Greeks had cast ballots for the radical-front party Syriza — since that seemed like the only plausible way to assert their sovereignty and resist the misgovernment of the Continent’s elite.
The logic of that column is the same basic logic that leads me to at least entertain the case for Le Pen. The European Union has systemic problems that its existing leadership cannot or will not solve. Rebellion in such a context may not be wise; it will always risk worse evils. But it is understandable, and at some point it might become desirable as well.