Features » Politics And Society


The French malady

Philosopher Andre Glucksmann diagnoses the ailment that has been troubling the French Republic for decades.

Andre Glucksmann. Copyright: DR

Extravagant France! In just a year, four crises have confounded international opinion. A year ago, there was the Non to the European referendum, followed last autumn by the suburban riots, then in spring by the student revolt and now the Clearstream scandal (news story). Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, currently no. 1 in the government, is said to have put the secret service onto the activities of no. 2, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and cast suspicion onto no. 3, Defence Minister Michele Alliot Marie.

The last developments seems so fantastic that, in the absence of any reasonable explanation, the general public and many commentators see in them nothing but a smokescreen. People talk of a psychodrama, cockfights between oversized egos or simply media hype obscuring the real social problems currently tearing apart la France profonde. In fact these four crises are symptoms of a single sickness that has been incubating for three decades.

It is illuminating that the general malaise is not just directed at the official elite, but also, and more profoundly, at political culture and its traditional alternatives. Sixty-nine percent of the population puts its trust in neither the left nor the right. Opinion polls confirm what the elections have shown: if you add together abstentions and votes for the extra-parliamentary extreme right and left, you will see that half of the French electorate couldn't care less if the right or the left is in power.

The age-old political categories of the French Republic – whites against blues, reds against blacks, left against right, seem to be worn threadbare. An additional proof: the left is more taken up with infighting than with opposing the right, and vice versa. Inner-party mortal combat rules the day.

In 1978, Jacques Chirac opposed Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, calling him an "outside party." In 1981 he favoured the election of Francois Mitterrand. Today, Dominique de Villepin is said (according to the notes of General Rondot who is caught up in the Clearstream affair) to suspect American support behind Nicolas Sarkozy, who finds himself falsely accused of appearing on false lists detailing the false billions of a Russian Mafia supposedly directed by the liberal Mikhail Khodorkovsky! Accusations and insults fly. Leaders of the social left suspect their neighbours in the national assembly of "liberal socialism." On the right, Chirac has proclaimed that the threat of liberalism in the 21st century is on a par with that of communism in the 20th. So it comes as no surprise that those in his camp who do not share such dogmatic opinions are regarded as a nefarious fifth column capable of high treason.

If the French no longer believe in the sacrosanct left-right alternative, it's because they see that in several decades of cohabitation, alternation, mobilisation and counter-mobilisation, neither the left nor the right have done a thing to solve France's problem of problems: the unemployment rate. Here France is the long-standing Western European champion. As long as the country has 10 percent unemployment (over 20 percent among young people and almost 40 percent in disadvantaged neighbourhoods), the situation will not improve. But there is no superhuman fate preventing the world's fifth-largest economic power (cock-a-doodle-doo!) from coming off any worse than Denmark, Finland, Ireland or the UK. The responsibility here is borne by the leadership teams on the right as well as the left. They have accompanied and reinforced society's blockade against itself. Electoral abstentions and votes for the extremes can be interpreted as an exasperated message from the population: "Thirty years is enough!"

Contrary to appearances, the machinations behind the Clearstream affair did not start yesterday. An article entitled "A family affair" published in Le Monde on March 16 describes them in the following terms: "General Rondot, Jean-Louis Gergorin, former vice president of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have been good friends since the 70s, when they worked at the 'Centre d'Analyses et de Previsions' in the French foreign ministry. This think tank was created by Thierry de Montbrial, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique. His son Thibaut, a lawyer, served as messenger to Gergorin, allegedly the 'corbeau' in the Clearstream affair."

The protagonists of this shady entanglement include not only heads of the military industrial complex (like Gergorin, who worked at Lagardere, EADS, Airbus and Ariane), top figures at the foreign ministry (Villepin) and secret service spies (General Rondot), they also include members of the government's geopolitical think-tank CAP, which works out diplomatic and strategic initiatives of the Elysee, for example France's "Arab" and "African" policies, and its support for Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in their heydays. This heterogeneous black cabinet which prefers to avoid publications and media attention, quietly gathers together post-communist intellectuals and post-Gaullist elite-bureaucrats under the banner of a respectable anti-Americanism, open to both left-wing anti-imperialists and right-wing sovereigntists: Regis Debray and Emmanuel Todd are esteemed advisers.

This endearing family presides - without either undue modesty or parliamentary control - over the worldly destinies of France. A country with a mere hundredth of the world's inhabitants has worked its way up to be the planet's third-biggest arms dealer. Cock-a-doodle-doo! In a demonstration of "soft power" and universal moral sovereignty, Dominique de Villepin's famous speech at the UN in 2003 revealed to the four billion people of the world, in Jacques Chirac's words, that France was still France. The Paris-Moscow axis pursues its objectives to the detriment of Europe of the 25; arms and patents are delivered to China to the detriment of the Atlantic Alliance: all this raises our camarilla far above the classic, measured anti-Americanism from De Gaulle to Mitterrand which in times of danger (be it the Cuba Crisis or the question of the Russian SS20 missiles) always came home to the fold of Euro-American democracies. Today, all of that is history. Down with "hyper power"! What purpose does the Atlantic Pact serve any more? The French foreign ministry rejects its extension to Ukraine and Georgia, so as not to ruffle feathers at the Kremlin. Paris seems to regard an alliance for liberty and security unnecessary.

It's entirely understandable that the possibility of losing power in the next presidential elections is throwing the leaders of the military-industrial-ideological complex into a tizzy. Sarkozy isn't one of the clan, so he's got to be eliminated. Our musketeers at the Elysee don't care how it's done, war is war! Stupidly, they were careless and shot themselves in the foot. Now they're trying to minimize the damage: a businessman can be sacrificed if it means saving the heads of the president and prime minister (people say Gergorin is depressed or has even gone mad). Let the press and judiciary beware! Rather than clearing things up in the government, the princes are scandalised to see the scandal come to light. That's how things are done in France. Do the French buy it? No. Candidates who seem to stand for a rupture with three decades of stagnation and compromises are topping the polls. On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy is expressly calling for a "rupture". On the left, Segolene Royal embodies it with her image. There's a start to everything.


The article was originally published in Italian in Corriere della Sera on May 19, and in German by Perlentaucher.

Andre Glucksmann is a French philosopher who was active in the protest movement of the 1960s and opposed the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. His most recent book is "Une rage d'enfant". A German edition will be published soon by Nagel & Kimche Verlag.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european