Monday, April 25, 2005

Do Allies Talk Like This?

I am getting to this late. I have to admit that when I first heard a few weeks back that Jacques Chirac was going to take to the airwaves to save the EU “constitution”, I was not overly impressed. Shortly before, I had attended the screening of a documentary in Paris that included some brief extracts from a Chirac press conference. As the footage of Chirac appeared on the screen, virtually the entire audience broke into remarkably simultaneous laughter. Of course, this was not necessarily a representative sample of the French public as such and the laughter may have had something to do with what Chirac was saying – namely, praising the keenness and valor of the French military shortly after French soldiers opened fire on a crowd of civilian protestors in the Ivory Coast. But it was undoubtedly as much the familiarly slow and studied pompousness of Chirac’s delivery as the, under the circumstances, improbable content of his remarks that provoked such mirth.

One should recall that in the first round of the French Presidential elections in 2002, Jacques Chirac received barely 3% more votes than Jean-Marie Le Pen. Of course, in the second round, Chirac then went on to crush Le Pen by a score of some 82% to 18%. But this was only after the virtual entirety of the French media – in a performance befitting a “democratic” society only in the Stalinist sense of the term – badgered the French public around the clock for two full weeks to the effect that it was their civic duty to turn out and vote for him. Even then – with the assembled media warning that the apocalypse was nigh should Le Pen win – some 20% of eligible voters stayed home. Moreover, hidden in the officially announced 82%-18% final score was the fact that over 5% of cast ballots were either left blank or declared invalid. To cast a blank ballot is a common form of protest in France. Unfortunately, the official statistics – which are available (document in French) here – do not indicate the precise number of the blank ballots alone. But if we assume that, say, half of the “blank or invalid” ballots were intentionally left blank, this means that the actual rate of abstention from the “Chirac-Le Pen” choice was more on the order of 22%. To put this another way: in a contest that was essentially presented as a choice between Jacques Chirac and Satan, somewhere between 35-40% of eligible French voters could not bring themselves to vote for Chirac. And note that by “eligible voters” we are here referring only to those French citizens who are registered to vote: some 41,000,000 persons in a country with an adult population of nearly 50,000,000.

In short, Jacques Chirac is a president who enjoys extremely meager democratic legitimacy and has little claim to be considered popular. I was highly skeptical, then, that anything he might say about the proposed EU “constitution” could sway voters in its favor, rather than perhaps repel them. Polls published in the immediate aftermath of Chirac’s performance, which saw the “no” vote actually gaining strength, seem to have borne out this intuition.

Nonetheless, as our friends at GeoPoliticalReview brought to my attention, there was indeed something of significance in Chirac’s televised April 14 chat with French youth: namely, the openness of the hostility to America and the “Anglo-Saxon” world reflected in it. That Chirac should choose to play the anti-American card is hardly surprising. As we saw here on Trans-Int, one of his party’s top political advisors was openly advocating doing so already in March. But the specific terms by which Chirac chose to express his hostility deserve, nonetheless, to be considered more closely – especially since the traditional mainstream media managed somehow to ignore or suppress the most brazen indications of where Chirac stands towards the US and alleged “Anglo-Saxondom” more generally.

According to an AP report (here reproduced via The Guardian), for instance, “Referring to competition from the United States, Chirac said he opposes an ‘Anglo-Saxon, Atlanticist Europe’”. But Chirac referred to more than merely “competition” from the United States to explain his hostility to an “Anglo-Saxon, Atlanticist Europe”. The more correct term would be rivalry – and it is clearly he who rejects “Atlanticism” who must be held responsible for casting transatlantic relations in such terms, not he who embraces it. The NYTimes April 15 report, btw, did not even provide as much as the AP’s timid hint of the antagonism toward the US and Atlanticism expressed in Chirac’s performance. It said nothing whatsoever about it. Given the centrality of the theme, such an omission leads one to wonder whether the Times’ man in Paris, Craig Smith, even listened to the broadcast or read the transcript. Perhaps his French is not yet up to the task?

What follows is a translated excerpt from perhaps the most revealing passage in the evening's proceedings. It is drawn from Chirac’s ostensible response – the moderator Marc-Olivier Fogiel interrupted him at one point, saying: “Excuse me, Mr. President, but Alexandra’s question, it was: ‘why a constitution?’” – to the first question from the audience. In it the President of the Republic attempts to enlighten the youth of France about the political contours of “today’s world”. The full transcript of the broadcast, oddly christened a “debate”, is available in French here.

Today’s world is characterized by two great developments.

On the one hand, what one calls ‘globalization’, which worries many Frenchmen and French women. It is a globalization borne by an ultra-liberal current and that, at the end of the day, profits the strongest, which, of course, poses problems....

Secondly, the world is tending toward [the formation of] more and more great powers: the current powers like the United States of America, but also powers that are emerging and are considerable: China, India, tomorrow Brazil and South America, Russia. Great powers that, as a matter of course, have the intention or the will to impose their will [sic.]....

These powers, we will not fight against them individually. This is not possible for France. And if, confronted by this development, we want to reflect and to react, we have to have an organization. Europe must be strong and organized to oppose this development.

There are, then, two solutions. The solution of letting matters take their course – a bit the solution that we have pursued up until now – that’s to say a solution that leads to a Europe borne by the ultraliberal current: let’s say an Anglo-Saxon, Atlanticist Europe. That’s not what we want. The second way is a humanist Europe, but which, in order to be able to impose its humanism [sic.], must be organized, must be strong.

So, in short, Jacques Chirac, the President of the French Republic, says that the EU “constitution” is necessary in order to be able to “fight” various great powers: first and seemingly for the moment foremost, the United States. Why, then, does the American administration and the overwhelming majority of American commentators, both Democrats and Republicans – the latter presumably in the interest precisely of salvaging the transatlantic relationship – continue to regard France as an ally?

I believe the definition of an “ally” is someone who fights with me, not against me.

(For more on Jacques Chirac's mobilization of the "Anglo-Saxon" bogeyman - "Scaremongering about asylum seekers in British tabloids seems sober and thoughtful in comparison to French hysteria over les Anglo-Saxons, who are blamed for everything from France's growing problems of childhood obesity to its moribund economy" - and on the turbulence being created within each of the French establishment parties by the failing "yes" campaign, see the excellent EURSOC.)