Friday 20 March 2009

France- Not a Bang, But a Whimper

I am a little conscious in writing these series of posts that what I am attempting to do is analyse the political realities of certain European cultures. And this is hard to do. Especially when one lives in one of them.

Yet the reality is, when one looks at long gone cultures, one does not accord equal value to their ideas. We are aware for example, that the success of Rome was due to a blending of Athenian and Spartan virtues in many ways, taking the best of both worlds. But when we analyse Athens and Sparta independently, we find more to commend in the Athenian virtu than in the Spartan.

Sparta gave to the mix, certainly, but it was the ethos of Athens that won long term.

It is Solon we look to as a an early example of a wise statesman who shone a torch for the future, not Lycurgas.

And it is hard, perhaps, to see Europe in the same way. Though I believe that Europe in many ways holds the same position to the world as Greece once did to Europe. With America perhaps being the New Rome. Not entirely a perfect parallel, because in another very crucial way, Britain was the Rome of its day and America now plays Byzantium.

But the European continent has its very own Athens and Sparta. And it's hard to be objective about this without being accused of undue patriotism. Yet not to do so is to ignore history. Which we seemingly do. We ignore perhaps the most important struggle of modern history, we fail to understand one of the most important sweeps of modern history.

Perhaps because we tend to focus so much on the last two wars. Where we fought the Germans. Of course, those wars perhaps obscure the wider picture. Those were essentially wars of Capitalism and whilst I argued in the previous posts that both wars were partly caused by factors intrinsic to German culture, neither conflict need necessarily have taken the form it did. Conflicts involving Germany were inevitable, but it is possible to imagine Britain not having been involved in such conflicts at all. Or playing a different role.

The wars of the twentieth century were important, perhaps, in that they marked decisive phases in the development of globalisation.

Their violence and the fact they showed us that with modern technology war is far too stupid a game to play means that we tend to treat them is more important than in other ways they were.
That in fact, the most important struggle of the last three hundred years had long ago been decided.

Of all the countries in Europe, the one that probably seems most strange to most Brits, is France. And the reason is clear. It is the one which has most stubbornly resisted any external influences to its culture from elsewhere. Everywhere else has accepted the globalising influences of Anglo-American culture. But France has resisted it to a greater degree. And thus it still feels 'foreign' in a way no other European country does. Because the French, perhaps subconsciously, are bitterly aware that global culture is the culture of the winners, for the most part.

Because they are aware in a way other countries never consider, or don't really care about, that the United States that is dominant today spreads values that for the most part it acquired from its parent. That the game that unites the entire world is a game whose rules were decided by Cambridge University, not the Sorbonne, in short; that the force which played the role in modern times that the Roman Empire once played, was the British Empire. And that came to pass at the expense of the French Empire.

And the entirity of Modern French history has been about coming to terms with that.

The history of modern times often overlooks the most important war of the last three hundred years, the one that kind of set the stage for so much that came afterwards.

And we need to go back to the end of the seventeenth century to find the reason way. The time before Capitalism. Just before.

Two important things happened in Europe in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

The first was the rise of Europe's obvious new Superpower. To be sure, Europe had always had states which could have been classed as European powers. And mostly they had tended, since the early middle ages to be the same ones. But in terms of rising far above the others and marching towards global supremacy, none had really ever risen so high above the rest. Spain had seemingly been set to do it with her vast annexations in the new world and the personal dominance of the Emperor Charles V. But something hadn't quite worked. The Spanish Empire had failed to be anything much more than a plunder system for the Castilian nobility. It had markedly failed to do much to establish a system for turning its plunder into something that would achieve stability in its Empire.
And now the silver was running out, it was already declining. It had become rich on wealth, not its own strengths.

But the France of Louis XIV was something new. Louis XIV really was a model ruler. His France was modern, a triumph of administrative efficiency, the opulence of Versailles shouting to the world that the state which would actually achieve what Spain had failed to do, was here.

The France of Louis XIV was seemingly unstoppable.

It was ascendant in art, in literature, the French language was becoming the new lingua franca. The future was France. The future was the form of enlightened despotism and centralised government demonstrated by the Sun King. 'L'etat, c'est moi'.
Sun Kings, are the French way.

But something else happened at the end of the eighteenth century in one of those European countries which was seemingly being eclipsed by this rising sun.

After decades of arguing over the best way to govern a country and whether God or the people decided who was King, the British people finally came up with a solution. A sort of Republic, cunningly disguised as a monarchy. With a complex system of checks and balances which effectively meant that their island was now going to be run as a kind of shareholder corporation. In Britain, it was very simple. Anyone could have shares in governing the country, you just had to buy them. They were called seats in parliament. And the purposes of such shares? Well, to help your other shares.
The government of Britain was just the master corporation, to make all those other corporations work, be they the City of London, the East India company, or a company for building turnpike roads.

Now at the time no one could have foreseen that this new trend towards freeing commerce and even government from royal control would lead essentially, to Capitalism. Capitalism was the logical consequence of the Glorious Revolution. The Industrial revolution and a country which actually had an incentive to produce lots of goods and then sell them abroad, were a direct result of the 1689 settlement, a country run for commercial purposes, not royal aggrandisement.

So it was kind of a different experiment to that happening under Louis XIV. It's purpose wasn't world domination by a monarch and his family. No one in England- or Scotland- wanted to rule the world. They wanted to NOT be told what to do by Kings. And yet curiously- it would turn out that the logic of what was now possible without having absolute monarchs would mean that the corporations set up by this system- would aspire to rule the globe. They would need to.

They didn't- yet- realise that the little constitutional experiment being started would result in wealth creation that would soon only be sustainable by ensuring that the Bourbons ruling the world was prevented.

The first hint that this modern equivalent of the Athens-Sparta conflict was on its way, was the War of the Spanish Succession. Basically, this was a war between France and everybody else who was naturally apprehensive that France was on the verge of becoming dangerously powerful.

It was caused by Carlos II of Spain leaving his vast Empire to a grandson of Louis XIV, thus raising the possibility of Bourbon dominion over the Earth. The possibility that it could be a mere precursor to welding more fully into a Franco-Spanish block under one Bourbon was raised.
When the war started, the object was to place a Habsburg Prince on the Spanish throne so the Habsburgs seemed to be the leaders of this anti-French league...

But as the war progressed, events showed something even the British hadn't expected.

Their new lean, efficient system of government was damn good. It worked. They were able to be key players in this war. In fact, they were the ones giving the French a run for their money.
Peace came, when Louis agreed to a peace on British terms.

And left no one in any doubt. The real battle for world domination was on its way. And now everyone could see what hadn't been apparent before. France had a rival.

And the next forty years saw both sides preparing for the inevitable struggle.

The seven years war of 1756-1763 was in fact, the TRUE First World War. It was the first war fought on more than one continent. Indeed, Britain and America, and in India. And there was never any doubt what was at stake. The winner was going to talk it all.
Both states now depended on vast overseas Empires for their continuing development, their increasing wealth, their advance in science and culture. The winner was going to eat the loser and stand as the foremost of the European powers. And the verdict was almost certainly going to be irreversible.

And it was the first war where efficiency mattered. This war would be fought till one side ran out of money. So the question was- who was actually running the most efficient state?

If France had won, the thirteen colonies would have gone to France. There may never have been a Unites States of America. Maybe a Union D'Etats de Amerique. India would have gone to France. The world would have been blue, not pink.

But France did not win.

Short term, Britain had bitten off more than she could chew. The most immediate result was in North America. On the one hand complete British supremacy meant that Britain now found itself in conflict with its own colonists who no longer had the French to fear.

But it sealed the death warrant of French monarchy. Before the war, some writers, such as Voltaire, had commended the English system of government. Now many intellectual condemned the rigid, centralised inflexibility of the monarchy as the cause of France's weakness. It was OK if the King was Louis XIV. But if it was the less impressive Louis XV, it was less good. The theory that you needed strong Kings to tell people what to do and that popular institutions weren't suited to governing major powers had just been disproved.

The French government also had the bright idea of sending its troops to aid the American revolutionaries. I find it highly comical that Kentucky possesses a Dauphin county and a Lafayette County- both named in 1785- to say thankyou to the French.

Because those French soldiers went home telling excited tales about this new way of governing.

Of course, the French went further than the British/American ideas ever went. Though not perhaps quite that much further than is sometimes claimed. Of course, Britain was only to keen to act shocked at the French beheading their King, forgetting that it's own revolutionaries had-er-cut off the head of their King a good hundred and fifty years before.
But perhaps we need to see things the ways the revolutionaries saw it.

They believed that it was the inefficiency of the monarchical system that had prevented France from winning the seven years war. And now they had overturned that handicap, brought in a 'modern' system of government, surely they could make things how they were 'supposed' to be? France as top dog?

Well, it didn't quite work like that. Mostly because they got silly. The French never quite got what had made the English Revolution work. By English Revolution, I really mean THREE separate revolutions taking place over a hundred year period; the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the American Revolution.

This revolution worked by basically being a common sense revolution. It didn't so much destroy things as find ways round them. And it was largely bottom up as opposed to top down. It wasn't about imposing things, it was about removing obstacles.

What the French revolution didn't get was that it was establishing a new creed; 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'. Whereas the English Revolution had been about removing creeds. Having liberty from creeds, even creeds called 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'. The conclusion of this English Revolution was that it doesn't matter much if people are butchered by a King claiming divine right, a priest claiming to speak for God, or an idealist shouting about Liberty, the results are much the same. Designing a calendar with a decimal week and a clock with a ten hour day comes into the category of things which would certainly be a better way to do it if one started from scratch. But are actually a pointless waste of time when everyone is quite happy with a seven hour week and a twenty four day.

The French revolutionaries were surprised that their quest to liberate everyone else was initially well received, but after a while, not so much. They didn't, of course, realise that their liberty would end up being an imposed liberty and not everyone else was overly convinced the French had got it right.

And so the French tried a new model. Louis XIV Mark II. Otherwise called Napoleon.

Now of course, this time period is fundamentally important in European history. It marks the death knell of monarchy, basically. True, when things are 'restored' in 1814, everywhere is a monarchy again. The point is, it has been proved you can live without them. The case for Republican government has been made. Universally. It was the end of the old order and the start of the new.
It was the start of the Capitalist epoch. The beginning of the Liberal Democratic world order.

But let us not forget what the Napoleonic wars were all about.

The sympathy shown by Britain towards the Ancien regime was essentially a convenient sham. From a British point of view, these wars were all about making sure France did not regain her position of pre-eminence. Britain was not unduly concerned what sort of government the French lived under. I think that Pitt was entirely correct that the British concept of liberty was a truer concept than the Napoleonic concept. But I think it's clear that the Napoleonic concept was still somewhat freer than the Ancien regime.

So a certain part of the British view was conditioned by the belief that whatever the French came up with, the British were already doing it better. A tried and tested system of Freedom. Of course, it wasn't exactly that free for everybody and some of the ideas unleashed in the French Revolution would indeed impact on thought in Britain and lead to radical social and political change. But in ways that didn't involve people having their heads cut off.

But the real point of the Napoleonic wars were this; in reality they were the final phase of that century of struggle over which power was to be the global superpower. And the final gamble of the French was to entirely overturn their system of government to try and produce one which could silence the Lion's roar for good.

And the gamble failed.

Between 1814 and 1914, there was only one superpower on the face of the Earth and during that time period, it and the system of values it propagated triumphed.

From that time forth, the rest of Europe ceased baiting the Lion and instead played another game; who could take second place. The Lion had seemingly learned not to bite off more than it could chew. It's system was based on expanding its markets. So it didn't actually go round invading random places; its troops went in AFTER its economy had already saturated the place making troops necessary. Which meant there was plenty of world to round. If one wanted to invade other places where the Lion didn't have lots of greedy Capitalists milking the natives, the Lion didn't much care.

Since 1814, the story of France has been a frustrating story, in terms of national pride. The story of a not quite, an also ran. A story of attempts. Attempts to find something for France to excell at. And yet every time France has tried, someone else has stolen its thunder.

Napoleon III tried to restore French greatness in a new way. As the European power broker. Britain wasn't much interested in Europe as long as it was quiet and stayed away from its Empire, so Napolean III figured France could be the lead power of Europe, leaving the rest of the world to Britain.
It ended in the failure of the Franco-Prussian war and the emergence of the Second Reich. French national pride knocked down another peg.

France tried to establish a colonial empire, not so much to match the British, but at least to show it was still great. Yet even here, it was conned. Lord Salisbury was only too happy to let the French have the vast reserves of territory known as French West Africa. He took the view that possession of those areas was of no commercial use and would cost France more than it gained.

The British weren't so much interested in owning a quarter of the globe, they wanted the quarter of the globe that made most money. Let the French get excited about owning the Sahara desert.
Whilst we BUY the Suez canal THEY built.

And even in Africa, French aims weren't to be. French national pride was dependant on being able to gain an East to West land route without leaving French territory. This clearly conflicted with the British aim of doing it North to South.

The twentieth century begins with an uneasy truce between the ancient enemies. Who had hated eachother for getting on for a thousand years. As Blackadder said 'Was the man who burned Joan of Arc simply wasting good firewood?'

Because the world was getting tight. The last scraps of territory not under control of European powers had been carved up. For, whilst a quick look at the map in 1910 suggests many countries existing outside Europe, we should remember that in fact China was divided up into Economic spheres where specific European countries had the same economic control they did in their colonies, and in practise the straits of Panama marked the end of the United States' economic colonies and the start of Britain's.

Some had enough territory to keep them going, others did not. Some were powerful enough to perhaps fight and conquer. Others, if war came, might lose what they had.

France had lost to Germany before. And Germany was looking greedily at France's colonies.
Now Britain would rather no one in Europe got too powerful- so was quite happy to give support to the underdog.

There are two ways of viewing Britain's traditional foreign policy. One is to view it as laudable. Britain always backed the underdog. The other way to view it- as many in Europe have- is to see it as a fairly cynical principle of divide and rule. Back weak states against ones which might prove a threat if allowed to get away with it.
And some would say that we still do it through our pupil. That the special relationship is largely based on the idea that America has now inherited the burden of defending the world the way we left it to them, but to do it the way we did, it still needs Britain along for the ride. Things tend to go wrong when it goes it alone. Up till recently, that logic seemed to work. Perhaps because Britain refused to get involved in conflicts it wouldn't have gone it alone with in the days when it ruled the roost. A sign of Blair's weakness as a leader perhaps.

So one could say that France in the twentieth century had to say 'If you can't beat them, join them'.

It's not been stated, but since the signing of the Entente Cordiale, France has accepted that it lost the struggle. It agreed to co-operate in the world that had emerged, to accept the scraps that fell its way.

And in doing so- it was able to retain its status as a power. A tolerated power.

It gained a seat on the permanent Security Council of the League of Nations. In spite of its laughable conduct in WWII, it was allowed to be one of the Four Powers responsible for reconstructing Germany. It was one of the five powers given a permanent seat in the UN security council. It has been treated as one of the key powers on the globe, in a manner totally out of proportion to its actual strength, economically OR militarily.
And all because it signed the Entente Cordiale.

One is reminded in a way, of Pu Yi. Allowed to remain Emperor- but only in the Forbidden City. By signing the Entente Cordiale, Britain agreed to support France, and only France, as a power it would trust in Europe. And allow France all the trappings of a major global power.

But the stress of all this on French culture cannot be underestimated.

France has still sought to be King Canute. It cannot admit to itself that by signing the Entente Cordiale, it was conceding the defeat of 1763. In that year, it was determined that one day the entire world would speak English. That the ideas spread by winners of that war, would win out. That one day the world would indeed be as one. There comes a point when clinging to national pride can be silly. There can be no clearer demonstration of this than in Wales. Its one thing to preserve the Welsh language, it is quite another to create handicaps to international investments by having workforces with poor command of the language of commerce- especially when you live in an English speaking country to begin with.

And France has this problem. It is stubbornly resistent to the way now nearly EVERYBODY else does things, because that way, is not the French way. It resists the English language, for the simple reason it isn't French.

And the strains of having to stay up there as one of the big boys has put huge strains on France. Let's face it, it has been hard for Britain to sustain it. Britain realised in the early sixties that certain things, like being the Space Race, really weren't things Britain could afford. And spending money on the armed forces costs a lot of money. Living costs in this country are ridiculously high and a lot of that is caused by hidden taxation. I'm amazed when I look at the rates of taxation in other European countries that we AREN'T paying vastly more per head of population, because we, the British taxpayer pay a high price for that permanent seat on the UN security council. High, when you bear in mind we're a little island with only sixty million people.

I guess it's a delicate balance. We can afford it- just about. This country can just about afford to pay the mortgage every year to stay in the big boys club.

France- since 1945, France has been BADLY struggling to make the payments. The cost of even being a pretend power has been too much.

The country has come closest of any European country to fullscale revolution and civil war of any European country in that time period- twice. It's economy is generally stuck in a timewarp, unable to match demand and bad industrial practices seem always be leading to strikes. One can blame the French workers I suppose, but that doesn't negate the fact that they seemingly feel they have something to strike about.

But surely the most damning indictment of French culture's helplessness and inability to face reality, has been it's failure to come to terms with multiculturalism.

France society has been unable to deal with its own insecurities in the face of those it told were French coming home to the country it told them to see as the mother country. It clings rigidly to a sense of identity it increasingly sees in narrow racial terms.
France today, appears a society suffering from a split personality, polarised in a way no other country in Europe is. A culture tearing itself apart at the seams.

A culture clinging to national identity, in the face of its increasing irrelevance, a country in which Archbishop Lefebre and Jean Marie le Pen fight against some of the most sincere radical movements in Europe for the soul of the nation.

It is a bitter irony that so much of the energy of the 'New' Europe goes into propping up this rotten door.

In the last post we dealt with what Germany gets out of the Franco-German axis. What France gets out of this, is a deal in which she has control. It allows her to break away from having to do deal with Britain. Deals in which, on her own, she can never have the advantage. But in alliance with Germany, the story is different.

France provides the skin of a power, Germany the skeleton. Germany has all the ingredients of a power, could indeed pay the price of being a power, could pay the mortgage to join the big boys club. But it isn't allowed to. So it pays France's instead. Germany connives at an EU subsidy system designed mainly to pour money into the coffers of the west's most inefficient economy. France really is propped up by Germany and the Benelux rump.

From France's point of view, the EU exists to enable France to stay in the big boys club.

As things stand, the EU consists of twenty seven states, but it is set up to serve the needs of two. To bind those two countries together, because each of them is half a power and each wants to be a power.

What is wrong with the EU is at stands, is that all it is is a cloaking device for this unholy alliance, with everyone else simply a hanger on, largely treated as irrelevant. France and Germany didn't want Britain in because British entry spoiled the party. And they've tried their hardest to get us to leave by simply ignoring us.

Really, what France and Germany really want, is a to revitalise themselves, to unite their two half-powers into one Whole power, and for this whole power to annex other European states into it without them noticing- basically, the Empire of Charlemagne restored.

A state that pretty much matches the current Eurozone.

I don't believe that aim is really for the good of the European continent.

I don't think it will lead to stability, and I don't think such a 'power' would be inherently stable.

The EU as it stands is not simply a case of the lunatics running the asylum, it's an asylum set up BY the lunatics FOR the lunatics.

And if its ever going to work properly, everyone else needs to assert themselves.

A United Europe can indeed, I think, solve the problems of France. But France isn't actually using it to solve its problems. It's simply taking the cash. The French aren't 'Good Europeans'. They're forcing Europe to fit in with France's refusal to address it's own problems. It seems to me they take as much notice of European Union regulations as Israel does UN Assembly resolutions.

I think we in the UK need to start taking the view that some sort of United Europe is going to happen, with or without the UK.

And a United Europe with the UK playing a central role, has a very good chance of turning into a very good society indeed.

But the sort of Europe that is going to emerge if things carry on the way they are, is not good.

Because it a Europe where the EU is used to avoid facing problems, rather than doing something about them.

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