French Without Tears

March 1, 2005 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: EthnocentrismSlaverySociology

French Without Tears

Mini Teaser: Cet animal est très méchant; quand on l'attaque, il se défend. Quelquefois.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Charles Cogan, French Negotiating Behavior: Dealing with Le Grande Nation (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2003), 344 pp., $14.87.

Thomas Cantaloube and Henri Vernet, Chirac contre Bush: l'Autre Guerre (Chirac against Bush: The Other War) (Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 2004), 349 pp., 18.

John J. Miller and Mark Molesky, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 294 pp., $24.95.

Nicolas Sarkozy et al., La Republique, les Religions, l'Esperance (The Republic, Religions, Hope) (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2004), 172 pp., 17.

Dominique de Villepin, Le Requin et La Mouette (The Shark and the Seagull) (Paris: Plon, 2004), 260 pp., 19.

Dominique de Villepin et al., Un Autre Monde (An Alternative World) (Paris: L'Herne, 2003), 668 pp., 26.50.

Last October, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus, published a report, originally commissioned by then-Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, on the grim economic prospects of his native France. Despite the country's impressive achievements in aerospace, nuclear power and high-speed trains, Camdessus warned that without almost revolutionary change in working hours, taxation, higher education and the welfare system, the decline of France would become unstoppable.

"A serious syndrome of denial is setting in which curbs all but superficial reforms", Camdessus concluded, pointing to a decade of low growth and high unemployment. "But the fact is that we are indeed stalling, and if nothing is done to overcome the pernicious phenomena that we have observed, in about ten years time it will lead to an irreversible situation."

Sarkozy hailed the Camdessus report, which he described as "essential reading" for the entire country, and noted that it echoed his own attempts to scrap the 35-hour working week and steer France towards the type of free-market reforms that had done rather well for the Anglo-Saxons. But in the very month that Sarkozy warned of "la patrie en danger", his great rival for the succession of President Jacques Chirac, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, published a remarkable book that claimed the new tide of globalization was flowing France's way and a new golden age for France and her ideals could be dawning at last. In it, Villepin suggests,

"After the first globalization dominated by Spain at the time of the Renaissance, and after the second, launched by the Industrial Revolution and dominated by the Anglo-Saxons, cannot one wager that the third globalization, that of identities, of cultures and of symbols, will bring a new spirit to French ambition? For the values that energize our ambition are equally those to which international society aspires--the universal rights of man, faith in solidarity and fraternity, the hope of reuniting all human differences in the single human community, the need to correct the distortions of the market by means of regulation."

The title of Villepin's new book translates as "The Shark and the Seagull" (a quotation from the little-known French poet René Char). Villepin has carefully avoided challenging the general view of his reviewers that the shark is a metaphor for the United States while the seagull represents France. Villepin's shark (masculine in French) "drives through the sea to snatch its prey, . . . a symbol of power, strength and the refusal to be halted by the complexity of the world." His seagull (feminine in French) is a much more spiritual and graceful creature, at home in the heavens, blending and merging with the air, "intoxicated by the sky."

"She turns, borne by the winds, with wings that beat and curve like waves, unleashing from time to time her agonizing cry of laughter", he writes. "She watches, soars, approaches, climbs and swoops, turns suddenly. The straight line is seldom her course. She listens to the world."

Villepin's new book is best read in conjunction with his previous publication, Un Autre Monde (An Alternative World), in which he is simultaneously author, editor and commentator on the work of other analysts who tend to share his view that "Two visions of the world confront each other." One vision is American (sometimes characterized as Anglo-Saxon), based on a brutal Darwinian capitalism of the survival of the fittest, and the other--for these are the only two with "universal aspirations"--is French, and committed to social solidarity. The heirs of the two great revolutions of the 18th century are thus condemned to be rivals throughout history in "the cultural and moral spheres." For Villepin, their warring principles echo to this day in America's Declaration of Independence, which celebrates the individual, and France's "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité", which understands that man is a communal and, at his best, a cooperative animal.

The Shark and the Seagull takes this inherent tension between French and American views of the world and applies it to the crisis unleashed by the Iraq War and the threatened clash of civilizations with Islam. Accompanying this leaden horseman of Villepin's apocalypse are familiar dark cavaliers: the advance of a soulless globalization, pollution, nuclear proliferation, new epidemics and so on. "This future of planetary disaster darkens our horizon", according to Villepin. "Everywhere resounds the chorus ofa world deprived of soul and of spirit, crushed under the heavy roller of an economic liberalism without brakes or morals, of a conquering and inhuman technology."

But cheer up. Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, led by the kind of great man that France uniquely produces (Napoleon and de Gaulle are his heroes), and infused with the warm glow of human solidarité, a brighter future beckons. Humanity is

"in search of ways to cross to the shores of a new age, of illuminators capable of seizing the spirit of the world and unveiling for it a new dawn. Our epoch above all needs the will of us all. Lucidity and courage, cunning and grace will be the qualities required to escape the yawning gulf and chart another destiny. To get out of the confrontation that looms, to escape the perplexities of modernity, to found a pact of salvation, we need a new myth, a fertile word, a grand gesture to define a future."

And guess who can provide this pact, this myth, this fertile grandeur?

"This book is enriched by the conviction that France was never so faithful to herself as when she had the audacity to reach for the universal. Our country has a message of hope to deliver. It is capable of calming the tumult of fear and hatred while opening a prospect of justice. France, a middle-ranking power, a nation like the rest? No. But power in the service of the peoples, a power that is awaited, expected and understood, seized by the values of tolerance, of democracy and peace . . . yes, I believe in this crazy French immortality which seeks to reconcile the opposites. I believe in the eternity of the man born one evening in 1789 [the year of the French Revolution]."

Villepin's work can be seen as an extended manifesto for his claim on the presidency, a post for which a certain intellectual and literary distinction has long been desirable. As well as a diplomat, he is a poet, a historian (of Napoleon's last Hundred Days, in which he noted that the catastrophic defeat of Waterloo "gleams with an aura worthy of victory") and a political philosopher of what de Gaulle called "une certaine idée de la France." Villepin also has a catastrophic record as a political advisor to Chirac, recommending an early election in 1997 on the issue of "Who governs France?" after Prime Minister Alain Juppe's failed attempt to face down striking truckers. The Socialists under Lionel Jospin won the subsequent election. The Socialists' defeat in 2002 paved the way for Villepin to become foreign minister, an appointment initially welcomed in Washington, where Villepin had graced the French embassy during the Reagan years and was thus somehow assumed to be unusually sympathetic to American ways. Colin Powell was to learn the limits of this assumption in their confrontation at the UN over Iraq.

It is a lesson that American diplomats have been slow to learn. As Miller and Molesky point out in their jolly canter through 225 years of Franco-American relations, Americans have too easily thrilled to references to Lafayette and Yorktown, to St. Mihiel and Normandy, to F. Scott Fitzgerald being dashing in Montparnasse and Ernest Hemingway liberating the Ritz. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had to grapple with the ruthless self-interest that underlay French support for American independence. Charles Gravier de Vergennes, the French foreign minister who in 1775 proposed covert support to the colonists because it would "diminish the power of England while it will considerably extend ours", was no friend to the infant republic. His instructions to the first French minister accredited to the United States noted, "The King feels that the possession of these three countries (Canada, Nova Scotia and Florida), or at least that of Canada by England, would be a serviceable principle for keeping the Americans uneasy and cautious."

Essay Types: Book Review