The present government of France is nothing worth jubilating. President Jacques Chirac gathered less than 20 percent of the popular vote in the first round of last year’s elections. Through the luck of a draw, his main opponent, Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, was eliminated or abandoned in protest voting by two-thirds of his traditional voting base. What the majority of French citizens sought to declare at that time was their unstymied support for broader and deeper socialist policies.
The resulting runoff election had Chirac face the far-right contender, Jean-Marie LePen. Waves of panic gripped the French voting public in the unpredictable prospect of being ruled by a Nazi sound-alike. When the curtain fell, Chirac had not only managed to contain LePen to his usual 15 percent tally. He did much more. Benefiting from the near totality of the Socialist default vote, Chirac just as soon acted as though the votes were meant for him, and him alone. The press blindly proclaimed his landslide victory a historical event. In hindsight it was barely a hysterical outcry.
The prime minister Chirac then named, and the government the latter has formed, aim at profoundly changing the democratic structure of la cinquieme Republique francaise. With concentration of wealth falling behind even that of the USA, France’s haute-bourgeoisie want a bigger slice of the cake than Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, not to mention the common Frenchperson, will afford. As a traditional conservative party, it has unsurprisingly moved to reinforce a law and order State.
The ultra-conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy, was mayor of the affluent Parisian suburb of Neuilly prior to becoming Minister of the Interior. With frenetic haste, he has scurried to pass the laws able to achieve his vision of France as a harbor of peace and security. Low-income “zones de banlieux” have seen increased police presence. Summary arrests have been increased and sentences lengthened. When he hasn’t been forcing unification of France’s Muslim community under tutelage based on Roman Catholic Episcopal control, he has been wrecking France’s techno/rave youth subculture.
Repression has had Sarkozy playing as a master for lack of having learnt the complexities of prevention. Economic disparity has gnawed at the fabric of French society for decades. To prevent such “minority” issues for gaining center political stage, his latest “projet de loi” aims at abolishing public funding for France’s smaller political parties. One of them, an environmentalist group, had been part of the previous “gauche plurielle” ruling coalition.
No national French government, however, has managed to pass harsh domestic reform without facing popular revolt. Merely ruffling the public service and education sectors has led to France’s conservatives losing not only one past election. So when a government understands its legitimacy rests on a structural fluke, it has got to respond to popular will somewhere. That’s why Chirac has ridden upon the overwhelming opposition to the American aggression on Iraq.
It is true that France is on the losing side for commercial interests in Iraqi oil. Thanks to CNN’s spots on sophisticated American weaponry, France’s arms industry will doubtless suffer. And agents remain non grata in Israel in their attempts at managing the Fertile Crescent fresh-water supply booty. All of these reasons also stand further to the point of why the French elite has failed to join the warmongering.
Regardless of Hitchens’ rant, whether Chirac is a rat is irrelevant. France’s opposition is primarily that of its citizens.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the French public led the world in mass protests. Few were convinced of the transparency of the pretexts used to assemble the most daunting military force in history. Did Saddam invade out of his own will? Or, as a would-be American ally, was he framed by the National Security Council in a green light to his wish of deposing the Kuwaiti sheikdom?
These questions lay only at the tip of the iceberg. One need only recall the Palme d’Or-winning performance given by a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the USA. “Nayirah”, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, shocked the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Oct. 10, 1990, when she tearfully claimed to have watched 15 infants being taken from incubators in Al-Adan Hospital in Kuwait City by Iraqi soldiers who “left the babies on the cold floor to die.” For months her identity and whereabouts were unknown, until it was discovered that Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm, had coached her performance. Allegedly footing the bill was Citizens for a Free Kuwait. While many in France may have missed the deconstruction of her performance, few fell for the American claim of bringing democracy to Kuwait. Fewer still have expected to see it realized.
In 1990, France had far more invested in Iraq than its American detractors claim it does today. Under the principles of international law upholding a country’s right to defend itself in case its sovereignty is smashed, France’s Socialist government joined the UN force. At the onset of war, Francois Mitterand confronted hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets of Paris. He allowed the infamous CRS anti-riot police to give one of their most impressive shows since 1968.
Popular opposition to the war grew, as did pressure on the government to ban further protests. The government was concerned with the image it would leave on the coalition. To make matters worse, France’s Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, resigned in opposition to the endless bombing sorties hitting Baghdad. Demonstrations were subsequently banned for the duration of the war. The French air force stepped up its campaign as ordered by the American military.
There was moral weight to international law back then. And while the US president was George the 1st, no fool in his cabinet passed the preposterous and illegal right to pre-emptive attacks on undesired countries, let alone to murder its leaders. As we know now, Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with Saddam and a conquered Iraq back then.
Citizens of the French Republic generally mourned the victims of 9-11. They could not be duped, however, into turning a blind eye to the way the Bush administration has profited out of the malaise spread amidst the American population. Nor will the French citizenry allow its government to help the USA pay for this war, and unbendingly refuses any unilateral moves on the part of the USA.
This is the public sentiment to which the French leadership has responded. By threatening use of France’s veto power in the Security Council vote and refusing to send in its military, “Chirat” has indeed proved more courageous than his predecessor, Mitterand. Despite the billions by which the USA has paid off Turkey, France likewise refuses to recognize the need to defend it as if the immutable conditions for war were already a fait accompli.
Truth be said, Chirac has had no choice but to embody such opposition. This has less to do with business interests, though certainly France is concerned about American monopolistic behavior toward controlling the Iraqi oil supply. Nor is France simply involved in some stupid, hypocritical nostalgia for an empire long gone. If anything France, like the Arab world, know one thing for sure: Empire’s come and go like a desert sand storm, buried deep beneath its passing. His posturing is that of wisdom’s.
Chirac’s person is irrelevant faced with his people’s will. This identity shift is a move replete with sense within the framework of the democracy his government sustains. But with America’s relationship to the presidency as a personality-cult, its philosophy only appears metaphysically.
Without that that will, France would never have been the cradle of modern civil society politics. 1789 sought to oppose internal absolutist rule, reaching completion only in the king’s head lying beneath the guillotine. Its revolutionary zeal was repeated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet the red, white and blue of its flag colors holds the memory of its kinship with the USA.
Blooming from the Enlightenment, these two republics grew, disintegrated, and prospered. A street in Versailles names the Declaration of Independence drafted and signed within its perimeters. Once, the Enlightenment seemed to prevent progress into true egalitarian societies. Rare have the times been when a return to its ideas and ideals has become so urgent.
In their respective perversions of democracy, never have France and the USA seemed so close structurally to each its other. And yet through the population’s control of government in France, never has it seemed so far from the managerial rule of George the 3rd. Never has one rejected the principles of international law so unilaterally only to watch the other uphold it as if in a chalice.
France may no longer be the country of our idealist dreams, but it is far from that of our cynical nightmares. It may not entirely have been the Greece to our Rome, nor is it a spring of insuperable anti-Americanism. It may recognize the superficial materialism of Nouveau Rich Imperial America. But most often it fears to watch its dream of American freedom dissipate behind fanatical christianism and secular paranoia.
Progressive Canadian, American and British English-speakers all owe France acknowledgement and support for the risk it has taken to oppose the grounds of this imperial aggression. Check Hitchens and Will and their warmongering friends. Balance them out in their inane pettiness, pathetic profligacy and age-old militaristic opinion forming, prancing about as cultured inferences.
When I contemplate these pundits within different historical settings, Bonaparte comes to mind at speeds faster than any resemblance with the France I love, admire and respect. The issue here is not Chirac or de Villepin. The passion that moves the smug leaders of this political people is the France of Foucault, Godard, Bourdieu, ATTAC and, most important, the multitudes of French citizens heading into the streets to express its political will. That will now demands their government respond to the people, and the people alone, and oppose the aggression.
Let’s not be mistaken about the narrative form. This is a passion play for politics “of the people, by the people”.
NORMAN MADARASZ is a frequent contributor to Counterpunch. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.