France's longing for impenetrability
If we want to understand what is going on today in France, we need to start by saying something about the global geopolitical trend, of which France is obviously part. If a single phrase could summarize the global geopolitical trend, we should say that we are witnessing an era of shift of power: in the last four decades, the geopolitical axis of the world has been shifting from the “developed countries” toward the “developing countries”.
It is a slow tectonic movement, indeed, which produces, as one can expect, some sudden and dramatic seism (from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the election of Donald Trump, through the 2003 Gulf War, the 2005 French referendum, the 2008 financial crisis and, of course, Brexit). The temporal proximity of Brexit, the election of Trump, and a possible victory of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election allows us to assume that this process has entered a phase of critical acceleration.
Immediately after the blasts of the British referendum and the 2016 American election, many observers found an easy explanation of this massive popular discontent in the increasing inequality caused by globalization. Once the dust has settled, however, more and more specialists acknowledge that globalization did not increase inequality in the world; on the contrary, it reduced the inequality between the developed and the developing countries. Arguably, this is the real reason why globalization is in the dock, at least in the developed countries.
In his 1990 article describing the “roots of the Muslim rage”, Bernard Lewis wrote: “In part this mood is surely due to a feeling of humiliation – as a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”
As I wrote in 2013, the same could be said to describe “the roots of Western rage in general, and American in particular, today and in the years to come” (Holy Wars and Holy Alliance, Columbia University Press, 2017). In fact, a small group of countries that used to dominate the world in an exclusive way now finds in front of them a group of new unexpected competitors in countries that “they regarded as their inferiors.” It is not only a question of wounded pride but, more concretely, a question of material change of social status. In 2010, two Berkeley economists – Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong, put it this way: “When the money drains out,” a great power can count, “for a considerable time” on maintaining an elevated living standard for its citizens, thanks to the international placement of its debt; still, “the end is inevitable: you must become, recognize that you have become, and act like, a normal country. For America, this will be a shock.” (The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money)
Even more explicit, the Washington Post business editor Robert J. Samuelson wrote in 2013: “Since 1950, the U.S. economy has grown slightly more than 3% annually. But projections for the future are just above 2%.” This will be the “new economic norm”; and such “prolonged slow growth threatens to upend our political and social order.” In the light of these analyses, it is not possible to say that the November 8, 2016 seism came unforeseen. For a growing portion of “Western” people, this geopolitical shift of power is translated into uncertainty and fear, not really because their standard of living is worsening (actually, it is worsening, but this is still barely perceptible), but because they expect and fear that their standard of living will worsen even more. Many politicians have smelled this fear and have provided the apparently easier solution: since we were better in the past, we have to go back to the past. So Brits (at least a conspicuous part of them) want their country back, Americans want to be great again, many Dutch want to go back to the time when all Dutch people were white, blond and blue-eyed (with no “Moroccan scum,” as Geert Wilders infamously said during his electoral campaign), and the French want their sovereignty back, whatever that means. Of course, history cannot go backward, and the old exclusive masters of the world are in any case doomed to decline, albeit relatively. But no politician can say so if he/she wants to be elected. So some of them are understating and hiding this painful reality, others are openly lying, and others are providing fantastic solutions, which seem to make sense (rather: voters want them to make sense).
Mission Impossible for free-marketer Theresa May, who proposes a free market not to her already existing free-market partners but to the wannabe protectionist America. Not quite impossible for Donald Trump, who wants to introduce protectionist measures and to fight immigration, that is, to kill the very same mechanisms that made America great.
In sum, we can say that many people from the developed countries are behaving like those who commit suicide because they are afraid of dying.
Since protectionism means to introduce the US to the delights of the Soviet-like economy (and their fatal consequences), Trump’s thinkers offer a ready-made scapegoat: immigrants in general, and Muslim people in particular. According to Steve Bannon, “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict… The progressive Islamization of our country [is] calling into question the survival of our civilization...We have to prosecute this as a war, and we have to take care of this fifth column – there’s clearly a fifth column here in the United States – that needs to be dealt with immediately.”
It is interesting to remember what Jean Paul Sartre wrote in 1944 about the anti-Semite: “Member of a declining social class, he is threatened by social change, endlessly fearful and resentful… How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of longing for impenetrability (“nostalgie de l’imperméabilité,” Réflexions sur la question juive).
Here we are again: an increasing number of Western people feel “threatened by social change”, become “endlessly fearful and resentful”, are “longing for impenetrability” and therefore are ready to listen to those who “reason falsely”. Only the nature of the scapegoat has changed (and it is not even sure that the old scapegoat will be left alone).
And here we come to France.
France is among this small group of nations, “heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization” who feel “overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors”: Britain, France, the Netherlands and of course the US are the main actors of the ongoing political upheaval.
What is worse in France is that her “longing for impenetrability” is much stronger than anywhere else. Speaking of Second-Empire France, Kissinger wrote: “There was an inherent gap between France’s image of itself as the dominant nation of Europe and its capacity to live up to it – a gap that has blighted French policy to this day”. As Victor Hugo forecast in 1871, the unification of Europe started only when Germany had been crushed and France felt free to take the lead in this process. Actually, France has always felt post-WWII Western Europe as her “thing”, a kind of remaking of Napoleonic adventure by other means, with the control of the Lower Countries and Northern Italy, and the German Federal Republic as a new Confederation of the Rhine. When, in 1969, this same Kissinger asked de Gaulle how France would have reacted if Germany had dominated Europe, “de Gaulle did not consider this query to merit an extensive reply: Par la guerre”. Since the German reunification in 1991, France has felt robbed of “her” Europe, and started nurturing a growing frustration, resentment and hostility. These feelings have translated into votes whenever the French people have been asked to directly express themselves: in the 1992 referendum about Maastricht (when the “yes” camp won with a meager 51.04 %), and in the 2005 referendum that rejected the European Constitution. This referendum marks the beginning of the political decline of the European Union (and also, as collateral damage, the beginning of the involution of the political situation in Turkey, when the ruling class in Ankara became aware that France would bar Turkey indefinitely from entering Europe).
In France, anti-German feelings are part of the national tradition, but they coexisted with pro-German feelings in an ambivalent relationship. Why? Because France is unable “to live up to” her idea of grandeur and therefore needs to rely on one or more powerful allies if she wants to (try to) pursue her national interest. So, since 1871, whenever Germany is (or appears to be) stronger, France tends to lean toward the UK, the US or Russia, and whenever the UK, the US or Russia are (or appear to be) stronger, France tends to lean toward Germany. Her foreign policy regularly follows the same swinging movement as a pendulum.
In a nutshell: France suffers a double frustration and a double resentment:
the global one, shared with other former dominant powers that feel threatened by “those whom they regarded as their inferiors”; the specific one, about being stripped of the leadership of Europe. Thus, the resentment against Germany is growing (directly represented in this electoral campaign by Le Pen and Mélenchon, and indirectly by Fillon, all of them pro-Russian) along with a growing resentment against “globalization” and in particular toward some of its more visible outcomes: immigration and so-called “Islamization.”
It is important to bear in mind that the demonization of Muslims is not only an item of Marine Le Pen. With different shades of intensity, it has been pushed forward by many politicians, from the far right to the far left (in the alleged defense of secularism), through Sarkozy, Copé, Fillon, Valls and others. Not all of them would use Bannon’s language, of course, but “le cœur y est” as the French say (the thought is there).
The huge difference from the United States – and this is precisely what makes France more imminently dangerous – is that in the US Muslims represent around 1% of the population whereas in France they are 10%.
Let us remember that in prewar Germany Jews represented 0.75% of the population, just a little fewer than Muslims in the US today. With so small a percentage, it is possible to use them as a scapegoat for the remaining 99%; but when 10% of the population are pointed to as a scapegoat, the only possible outcome is a state of permanent riot, and possibly a civil war. For its proponents, it is a win-win mechanism, because it appears as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Muslims are relentlessly presented as unintegrated, hostile, and intrinsically violent up until the point that they cannot stand any more the attacks they suffer, they give up any attempt at integration and become hostile and violent.
Everybody remembers what happened in the banlieues in 2005, and everybody saw what happened a few weeks ago when police brutalized Théo in Aulnay-sous-Bois.
Many observers tried to explain the economic and social immobilism of France and her dominant political conservatism by the fact that historically France moves on by leaps and bounds: revolutions, coups d’état, empires, five republics and so on. In this era of global disruption, probably the time of another dramatic leap into an uncharted territory has arrived.