I’ll just quote this entire Matt Yglesias post and then comment, as it is a short post:
Dominique de Villepin quote lurking in an article about debt relief:
De Villepin also promised to send constitutional law experts to help Iraqis draft their new constitution. Hakim in turn thanked de Villepin, saying France was “the first country to call for a rapid transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people” and “the mother of law and human rights.”
At the end of the day, I think this is what Franco-American conflict is really all about. Here you have two countries, both of which think of themselves as “the mother of law and human rights” and have a tendency to get self-righteous about it.
While I do believe that the Fench engage in their fair share of shady dealings, Matt has a very fair point here. Both nations are acting in their own self-interest, and what has become irritating is that the French have determined that it is in their self-interest to beat down American ‘hegemony’ at every opportunity. Thus, the French engage in a whole bunch of self-serving and self-destructive power plays that are essentially what my mother always called ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face.’
In an attempt to mute American power and restrain the Cowboy Bush, the French engaged in a number of duplicitous and manipulative behaviors behind the scenes in the UN Security Council (all of which had the extra side benefit of leaving Hussein in power, thus preserving arms debts and TotalFinaElf contracts, I might cynically add). The end result, of course, is an impotent Security Council that half the world now views as unimportant and sterile. Did this really serve French interests? Was this an effective stop-gap on Amercian powewr? The answer, quite simply is no. A strong UNSC is most certainly in the best interests of the French (and everyone, I would assert).
The French also attempted to align the entire EU against the United States, threatening countries, warning Turkey- all to create a counterbalance to American power- that being the collective might of the EU balancing out the EU. Did this work? Of course not, and rguments could be made that many of the problems with the EU right now stem from just this type of behavior.
I don’t even have enough time or web space to devote to all the French perfidy involving NATO, but I will simply assert it did not help French stature or power.
The end result has been that all of the French actions in their self-interest have served France poorly, have hampered the global effort to get rid of Saddam and rebuild Iraq, have stirred up anti-American sentiment abroad, anti-French sentiment at home, and in the worst cases, stopped us from opening a northern front (and causing how many American deaths) and empowering the resistance from Saddam and now the defeated Ba’athists.
The most irritating thing, however, that drives people like me up the wall, is the opinion that the French are not acting in their self-interest while the United States is, and this attitude seems to exude predominantly from people on the left side of the political spectrum. There is no International Coalition in Iraq because the French and Germans are not involved, etc.
Matt’s post is basically right- both countries tend to act in their self-interest (what a shock), but the French are never called to task for it. Add to it that France’s recent behavior has been short-sighted and self-defeating, moe based on a knee-jerk reaction to stop American will, and it is quite easy to understand why people like me frequently think “Who the hell cares what the French think?”
Two questions come to mind:
1) Why do the French, more than anyone else in Europe, seem to feel the need to counter US hegemony (real or perceived)?
2) Is this a function of French culture, or is it more the Chirac government?
Your guess is as good as mine.
And as we settle into an ice storm here in upstate NY, I still say there’s nothing better this time of year than a nice cassoulet and a glass or two of a good Bordeaux or Cote de Rhone. Your mileage may vary.
“Why do the French, more than anyone else in Europe, seem to feel the need to counter US hegemony (real or perceived)?”
Because (heresy!) the two cultures are actually not all that far apart in a lot of ways. Been that way for centuries. Probably will -be- that way for centuries more. Twenty years from now we’ll probably be on better terms again.
And I prefer a nice California zinfandel, myself – but French breads and cheeses /are/ better than ours.
“1) Why do the French, more than anyone else in Europe, seem to feel the need to counter US hegemony (real or perceived)?”
I have long suspected that it is due to France’s desire to sit at the head of Europe, united under the banner of the European Union. Looking at much of EU policy, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, it seems that the EU is quite friendly to France’s interests, at the expense of those of lesser members.
By attacking US hegemony, France is trying to signal to the world that they can still be taken seriously as a world power. Of the EU nations, both France and Britain have permanent seats on the UN security counsel. Britain, while hardly the lapdog everyone makes them out to be, is quite friendly to US culture and interests. America, in terms of culture, is much closer to Britain than France, and not just by language. Our entire notion of individual liberty is inherited from British philosophers, particularly Locke and Hume. The seperation of powers and the system of checks and balances suggests that the founding fathers were more moved by Thomas Hobbes than by Rosseau.
So, if France is to usurp the UK as the leading European power, it must present itself as a credible alternative to the US-friendly UK. If the ’02 elections are any indication, trying to run yourself as a -lite version of the other guy won’t get you very far. Therefore, France is presenting itself as a check to the US in order to present an alternative policy to that of Britain’s.
It also happens to be a policy friendly to much of the European populace, who are, as far as I can tell, well to the left of the US. The left has been in moral-blinders mode for some time with their constant attempts to hinder the US, so they are naturally amenable to any policy that shatters the feet of clay they seem to think we possess.
“2) Is this a function of French culture, or is it more the Chirac government?”
The former, I believe. If by supporting the US, Chirac could attain his goal of a united Europe under French leadership, he’d do it.
On a side note, where in upstate NY do you live, JKC? I happen to have grown up in Glens Falls, and gone to college in Clinton, so I have a soft spot in my otherwise black and wiezened heart for the area.
Damn, that’s cogent and well-said.
I’d just throw in the observation that France has LONG sought to counter and frustrate England (in the post-WWII context), to the point of opposing Britain’s admission to the EEC (iirc).
The one period of Franco-American close cooperation in the post-WWII period, interestingly, was under Mitterand. One suspects that that was rooted, in part, in what you say (Mitterand recognized that aiding Reagan would align him with those gaining power, better than maintaining a stand-offish attitude); but also that the perception of a rising Soviet threat and probably personal (antagonistic) history with the French Communist Parti might also have had to do with it.
I’m French and I live in NY. I’m often embarassed by the pompous declarations of some of our politicians -particularly Chirac and Villepin. I don’t think this misplaced self-importance is widespread in the French political class, and it certainly is not widespread in society, contrary to popular opinion here. One reason for this is that nationalism is repressed in France after two tragic world wars. Its may be lurking in the background -but its hardly ever expressed and when it does come out it is usually violently criticized (see the reaction to Le Pen – the truth is that in France it is uncool to love France -you are branded as a fascist) The other reason is that France is in a position of weakness. If France were in a position of strength, I would expect the rhetoric to follow (unfortunately). One problem is that when perfectly reasonable people take over the presidency they believe somehow they are channelling Louis XIV and feel compelled to act like fools. (Giscard, Mitterrand, Chirac -although Miterrand was never reasonable). So in a nutshell -this feeling of a special destiny is part of the culture but its hardly ever taken seriously or acted out anymore, except by a “select” few.
I’d just like to say that Return of the King was well-worth the money and your time. Get out and see it.
France, like Germany, has a problem: neither of their economies is now sufficient to support their welfare states, and the future demographics for both are pointing the way toward absolute disaster.
Most of France’s maneuvering today is part of a broader effort to export the costs of their welfare state to the rest of Europe. Unless they can successfully do so, their standard of living will enter a vicious spiral with nothing but disaster and collapse awaiting them a decade or two down the road.
Oddly enough, France’s attempt to turn the US into an uber-bogeyman has little to do with America, and a great deal to do with French efforts to weld Europe into a force behind France, and *supporting* France in the most literal sense of the word.
You know, Bill, I’ve been hearing for years how the European welfare states were heading for collapse, but the last I looked we were nation running half-trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can tabulate (even with supply-side accounting.)
Sure, the European economies–ALL of which are based upon progressive principles–are down now, but then so it the world economy. When you cast (or rather, tar) French or German policies as an attempt to solve their internal problems at the expense of others, it would appear that you could make similar arguments against US foreign adventures. I mean, who is it that is overseeing the sale of Iraq industry to private, non-Iraqi interests?
The European economies’ structural weaknesses are, first of all, evident from the long-standing nature of some of their problems.
Take unemployment. IIRC, neither French nor German unemployment figures have improved by more than about 1-2% in about a decade. French unemployment (IIRC) is about 11%. That was the case throughout the booming ’90s (which occurred under Clinton, in case anyone’s curious).
Unemployment that remains stuck like that reflects the absence of job creation, which is hardly surprising given the dependence of many Euro-economies on larger enterprises—the reliance on smaller businesses is fairly unique to the US (Japan resembles Europe in this regard).
Similarly, demographics is not something that’s a one-time deal. The falling Euro-birth rate has been a longstanding feature, something that was being remarked upon in the mid-1990s. Since most states have a pay-as-you-go system (similar to Social SEcurity) for their social welfare programs, the reality of burgeoning taxes to pay for this is also well-known.
As for deficit spending, that may or may not be a problem. One needs to unpack national debt, annual deficits and trade deficits from each other. Japan has one of the largest national debts out there (exacerbated by the efforts to spend themselves out of their decade-plus recession), yet few would expect insolvency. Italy, at one point, had a national debt that was a couple times GDP. It depends on the make-up OF that debt, including who it’s owed to.
But, to dismiss this European situation as somehow a temporary one due to the larger global economic downturn is inaccurate—as would be dismissing current Japanese difficulties for the same reason.
Indeed, one might well argue that EUrope is simply a lighter, less drastic version of Japan, at least in terms of long-term prospects.
Europeans’ unemployment rates have a lot to do with their excessively kind unemployment benefits and much less to do with any economic issues. Don’t get me wrong — our economy is better in most ways. But they do get six weeks of vacation and several other benefits that benefit us working stiffs. Europe is going to have to taper off its unemployment benefits and start looking at some of its stupider labor-non-mobility laws — and the various nations are going to need to reform their tax codes so that they are vaguely sensible, but these are fairly solveable problems.
Aren’t the unemployment benefits tied also to the tax structure, which is heavily weighted in favor of larger, more established companies? How can you suggest that this is not related to economics issues?
As for their “solveability,” I’ve little doubt that there ARE solutions, the problem, as always, is getting them through a political process. In the Euro-context, where there are very strong unions, fielding LOTS of voters, I have to wonder what the prospects of their actually being implemented are.
I seem to recall recent French strikes and protests this past summer from efforts at cutting the benefits (which you laud) of French public employees. Similarly, German efforts at restructuring their tax code seem to get shrugged off regularly.
The tax structure varies significantly between countries, from the mind-boggling idiocy of Italy to the rather sensible Holland. All of them, however, share an excessive commitment to making it extremely easy for able-bodied people to support themselves indefinitely without working.
French public employees get excessive benefits. But that six weeks’ vacation thing is still sweet.
I was born in Glens Falls (and work there now) and live near Saratoga.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled debate… :-)