BERLIN - It’s certainly bizarre. For a while now, experts and researchers have been giving us the bad news, each bit worse than the last, about the crisis countries of southern Europe. And, throughout, the talk has been of “core Europe,” held by the “Franco-German motor” that must under no circumstances be allowed to stammer.
But now, in the face of France’s increasing lack of competitiveness and horrendous public debt (currently at 90% of GDP), a question arises: are we dealing with a communication disaster here, naive blindness all around – or is this perhaps one last Pyrrhic victory for that supremely French art of smoke and mirrors?
How much taxpayer money has been wasted – also in Germany – with ridiculous conferences and research projects geared to furthering post-World War II “Franco-German reconciliation!”
The reconciliation became a reality long ago, and the fact is that neither country gives much of a damn about the other. No need for conferences to establish that, and well enough could be left alone if it weren’t for the fact that France, Germany’s neighbor, is on a course to becoming the next crisis country.
So, once again: why wasn’t anybody paying closer attention? An unintentional and indirect explanation was delivered two weeks ago by the former CEO of aerospace group EADS, Louis Gallois, in his damning diagnosis of the French economy and call for incisive reforms. A "competitiveness shock" was needed, said Gallois who forged his own business career on the back of lucrative government contracts.
Part-Bolshevist, part elegant-casual, his message was however perfectly in tune with the ministerial undertakings of France’s self-proclaimed enemy of globalization, Arnaud de Montebourg, the minister in charge of “industrial renewal.”
Inbred circle of incompetent elite
"Le style c’est l’homme" [the style is the man] once wrote author Madame de Staël (1766-1817), and that can certainly be applied collectively as well – though not in a good sense, in the current case of the gossiping French. The question of how things were going with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s marriage appeared during his five-year term of office to be of greater interest to them than his open contempt for the democratic separation of powers and the scandalous use of the secret service to spy on the few remaining critical journalists. (In France, both print and online media are subsidized by the state however hard up – hence the predictable taboos with regard to what can be reported.)
But even gossip has to follow preordained boundaries in Paris’s inbred circle of elite. Otherwise somebody might have pointed out that despite mass unemployment, Monsieur Industrial Renewal Minister’s first priority upon taking office was getting his attractive partner the job of editor-in-chief of the magazine Les Inrockuptibles.
Or that when Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (a classic example of the so-called "caviar left") was Prime Minister under President François Mitterand, more than 3,000 patients in a state blood transfusion institute were knowingly given HIV-infected blood. Fabius and his ministers were cleared by what was probably a partially independent judiciary, and countless victims have since died. Not to be forgotten, in 2011, President Sarkozy appointed Alain Juppé as Foreign Minister, perhaps forgetting that when Juppé held the same position in 1994, France actively provided logistical assistance to the forces committing genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
You don’t have to be a government-wary "anglosaxon" (in present-day France, even more of an insult than calling a German "boche" as they used to do) to find this mix of repressed history and equally repressed denial of the here and now both incendiary and dangerous – or to perceive that having the same old incompetent elite at the helm is one of the main reasons for France’s present dire straits.
Anti-capitalism in the name of freedom
Genuine alternatives do not exactly abound, however. If the left and the right both agree on one thing it’s state control. But they also share a belief in thwarting the growth of private middle-class initiatives – and shamelessly making use of "egalité toujours" [freedom always], anti-capitalist rhetoric in the interests of protectionism.
Meanwhile, France’s exports are shrinking; youth unemployment is skyrocketing (to quiet things down, some unproductive public service jobs are being “created”); the hatred between Muslims and Jews is rampant on city outskirts; the social security system is on the verge of collapse; the nation is threatened with possible bankruptcy.
Where did the all those French writers go, the ones who used to write essays about the economy, taking what they viewed as the country’s quasi-socialist system to task? Where are the political scientists whose thinking was anchored in the tripartite system propounded by French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu (1689-1755): why aren’t they putting the separation of powers among the country’s institutions under a magnifying glass?
To this very day, the majority of French youth list “fonctionnaire” [public servant] as their ideal job – read: supposedly lifetime-guaranteed employment in the bureaucracy they both love and hate. Meanwhile, French cinema continues very much in the vein of Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 hit movie starring Audrey Tautou): dreams of a return to a Gallic idyll where the Beaujolais flows eternal and even the baguette is subsidized.