“I feel instinctively that Providence has created France for complete successes or exemplary misfortunes,” General de Gaulle declared at the start of his memoirs; indeed, today, of all Europe’s major countries, none seems to have succumbed so fully to what Rod Kedward, in his excellent new history of twentieth-century France, calls de Gaulle’s streak of “fatalistic melancholy.” Confident slogans (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”; a little more vaguely, “l’imagination au pouvoir”) have been replaced by a surly Just Say Non-ism, whether to Europe, the United States or any changes in the acquis social–the register of social benefits created by the French welfare state. To outsiders, the French have come to look like a nation of ressentimenteurs, defiantly unwilling to adapt to the demands of a fast-moving world. And the French themselves are gripped by a sense that they are no longer making history; instead they commemorate and Disneyfy their own past, living off historical capital. Corrupt elites circulate in power, unemployment is chronic, violence a popular tool of political strategy, and dark rumination about the nature of France and Frenchness an unavoidable pastime. Internationally, French policy lurches between rhetorical flash and torpid inwardness. It’s a country where elected leaders–notably the man who may become France’s next president, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy–unabashedly refer to the (largely black and Arab) residents of housing projects as racaille (scum), and second- and third-generation Muslims, many of them of Algerian origin, retreat from involvement in public life, where, as they see it, “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is nothing but hollow words chiseled on the walls of the local mairie, or town hall. As the French have been more prone than others to exalt their ideas, ideologies and intellectuals–all seen as expressions of Frenchness itself–so too are they ready to despair when reality diverges from what their intellectuals wish for and ideologies promise, and to see such divergence as a critical injury to the very idea of Frenchness. And where Frenchness goes, there goes European civilization. As Jean Baudrillard recently put it with typical restraint, “The French can reassure themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole Western model which is disintegrating.”
If trust in France’s political leaders has plummeted, their legitimacy too is eroding: When the number of those who do not vote is combined with those who vote for extremist parties, around 50 percent of the electorate are turning their backs on their political elites. Matters are unlikely to be resolved or clarified in the run-up to the presidential elections in May 2007. The frontrunners have groomed themselves for the age of media democracy, but there is something too mirage-like about them. On the right, Sarkozy bubbles with helter-skelter ideas and initiatives–he spreads about him an air of decisiveness and action, and his hope is that all will hear something to attract them in his contradictory appeals: patriotism for the Gaullists, an embrace of the United States for the liberals, “positive discrimination” (French for affirmative action) for children of immigrants, promises of security to the National Front voters. But he is trapped by a paradox that bedevils the French right: He wants to make France’s economy and society more liberal and free of the state, yet he remains a good Gaullist in his belief that only an activist state can bring about liberal ends. The Socialists, meanwhile, after the fiasco of the referendum on the European constitutional treaty in May 2005 (when the party, which had been a prime mover in the European project, split in confusion over the issue of further integration), are without a single new or distinctive political idea–a vacuum into which has entered the Socialist Party’s leading candidate for the presidency, the glamorous Ségolène Royal, with her neither-nor, always smiling message: “Desires for the future.”
Where do the roots of the present malaise lie? And are things so helplessly dire after all? In a striking two-part essay published in 2004 in The London Review of Books, Perry Anderson sought to explain this hard fall from what he saw as the “apogee of France’s postwar revival,” May and June of 1968. It was de Gaulle, in Anderson’s account, who helped to raise France to this peak: shrewdly taking France out of a colonial war, establishing stable institutions, putting in currency a vocabulary of national grandeur, investing in high technology while protecting French agriculture and striking out from under the umbrella of American power–a choice that made France the only truly independent power in Europe. Then he had the grace to depart in the wake of May 1968, leaving the stage open for further advance.