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The Decline of the Fifth Republic
After just two years in power, French Socialist François Hollande has become one of the least popular leaders in Europe. He has taken much of the blame for chipping away at France’s social wage and for the rise of the radical right wing. Rather than listening to his economy minister Arnaud Montebourg’s recap of Paul Krugman’s critique of “absurd” fiscal cuts, Hollande has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Emanuel Valls, dissolved his entire government, and ordered Valls to form a new cabinet. The question is not only whether Hollande can still call himself a socialist, but whether the French Fifth Republic can hold on.
The immediate response is that this is just a shakeup, typical of the rebellious style of French political life. But what if there is something much deeper at play? When the Fourth Republic fell in 1958, it was due to the coming dissolution of France’s colonial empire, beginning with Algeria. The French army swept through the backdoors of the French Republic, and in a rapid coup d’etat, overthrew the republican system, reinstating Charles de Gaulle as leader.
Although de Gaulle allowed the government to return to a quasi-democratic process, Gaullism has remained a hard kernel in French politics, emerging powerfully in the 1970s and again for 17 years through the Party for a Popular Movement’s big hitters, Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy, after a window of Socialist governance by François Mitterand in the 1980s. The chief reason for the recent shakeup in the French government is not only Montebourg’s claims that financial matters have been mishandled, but his insistence on comparing Hollande unfavorable to Margaret Thatcher and to de Gaulle, himself!
The New European Foreign Legion
As a representative of the apparent alternative to the Gaullism of the Party for a Popular Movement, the Socialist Party is not making the kind of radical moves expected of it. Insisting that Margaret “Austerity Measures” Thatcher was a better leader than Hollande is tantamount to saying that Sarkozy would have been a better option. Returning to de Gaulle is like saying that Hollande a poor representative of the Fifth Republic. Blaming the lack of economic growth on France’s large-scale domestic spending and high taxes, Hollande has not found a viable solution to the Eurozone’s sluggishness. Rather than move directly to austerity programs, Hollande attempted to maintain the social wage first by plunging France into the Imperialist war effort in Africa initiated by his predecessor in 2011.
The results of French involvement in Africa are plain to see today (beginning with Sarkozy, so it’s not all Hollande’s fault). With Qaddafi gone, Libya is now a “failed state.” With that cornerstone of pan-African hegemony demolished, infrastructure has begun to decay. The cracks, or scars, left on Northern Mali from the fallout of Libya are challenging the existence of the liberal-democratic regime reinstated last year. As President Keita insists that “Mali will never be a caliphate,” the new regime undergoes challenges from Amnesty International for prosecuting alleged child soldiers as adults. At what cost can the new “European Foreign Legion,” headed by French general François Lecointre, maintain economic interests of France while the core rots away?
There is no doubt that fighting in Mali strengthened the cause of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, which has grown in ferocity since the French invaded the region. After France and the US teamed up for the propaganda exercise of “Save our Girls,” Boko Haram has continued to wage its insurgency against Christians and the “West.” Its latest publicity-grabbing efforts include kidnapping dozens of boys in the northeast and seizing the town of Gwoza, declaring it “part of the Islamic caliphate.”
Just around the corner from Nigeria, the rebel-seized state of Central Africa Republic continues to implode, after its genocidal, EU-friendly rebel commander was removed from office shortly after taking power in the wake of France’s invasion of Mali. After forcing the corrupt administration of François Bozizé out of office in 2013, commander Djotodia was forced to resign for allowing his rebel coalition, Seleka, to continue atrocities against Christians throughout the country.
The ouster of Bozizé was incredibly convenient for the EU in Africa. Although Seleka was known to contain Al Qaeda forces in its coalition, Hollande insisted that France would not become involved, since it was not in its “interests.” This threw doubt on the claim that France invaded Mali to fight the Islamist nature of the insurgency (everybody knew that the Tuareg rising up in Northern Mali were not connected to the Islamists descending from Islam). It also brought claims of “double standards” from Chinese scholars, who noted that Bozizé was overthrown only after attempting to sell CAR’s resources to the BRICS countries. That the rebel overthrow occurred as China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited the global BRICS meeting in South Africa only further exacerbated the controversy, with Bozizé claiming that France had aided the Seleka coalition’s rebel forces in Chad.
The rubble caused by Hollande’s terrible foreign policy in in Africa notwithstanding, Imperialism socialist party-style has failed to bring money back to France. With his popularity rate hovering in the teens, Hollande’s Socialist Party can do very little within the system established by the Fifth Republic but make a volte face against his constituency by switching to the austerity measures that he promised to defeat.
The Cunning of
“Austerity isn’t inevitable,” he insisted upon winning the election in 2012. “My mission now is to give European construction a growth dimension.” But the French Socialists have not followed through on the full promise of anti-austerity policies since Mitterand’s 1983 “tournant de la rigeur.” Why? Because the economic metabolism of the French Republic is tied to the post-Bretton Woods economic system that established the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union.
If France was to abandon its neoliberal line of flight, the system would crumble, but if the system is already crumbling, the only alternative is a step beyond the European Union. This much is being promised by members of the French Left that are forming a counter-hegemonic power bloc to contend with the Socialists. Modeled after Greece’s Syriza coalition, this new constellation of the French Left are facing the problem of the decline not only of the Fifth Republic, but of the EU as a whole, along with the rise of the radical right wing’s anti-EU, anti-austerity, and anti-immigrant ideology.
Perhaps Europe is shedding a skin, abandoning its neo-liberal and “third way” policies and moving towards a new wave of economic self-activity. In France, this movement must be imagined over and against the Imperialist ambitions on which the Gaullist foundations of the Fifth Republic were founded. To combat the imposing popularity of the neo-fascist National Front, the French Left must rally against not only austerity and imperialist ambition, but the political system as a whole. In spite of his diplomatic and economic fumblings, the hapless Hollande may have accidentally turned the page for a new European Left.
Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He can be reached at areidross(at)gmail.com.