Can the US Election save Europe?
Since the 18th century, France and Germany have been perennial adversaries. Envious of the British, both cultivated wannabe empires of their own. The prime impulse was to gain living space for their own citizens and to maximize the opportunity for cheap labor. The German interest in Africa, initially instigated by Goering’s father, led to the concentration camps and genocide of Namibia’s early peoples. It led too to the brown shirts of Hitler’s supporters. The legacy of France’s empire was still violently with them in the Algerian freedom fighters of De Gaulle’s presidency. Some histories may well be best forgotten. But in today’s polarizing politics, collective amnesia is not an option. Both Germany and France suffered terrible racist experiences in the horrors of Anti-Semitism during the Second World War. The aftermath is with us to this day in the current soul searching over the challenge presented respectively by “gastarbeiter” and “ensauvagement”. And these challenges remain today up front and in your face as both great nations battle with the emerging cracks in their economic recoveries and the shock of the pandemic.
To focus on France – that most beautiful of countries – and Paris, the loveliest of capital cities and for so long the cultural center of the world.
As the summer vacation ends, France’s coronavirus cases are surging. New school terms, a public return to work, and the nation’s recently precarious economy is about to be strained to a breaking point. The debate will now center on how to minimize the danger via presidential action whilst a vaccine is discovered. Unemployment will rise as tourism is threatened.
But this is not just the background to a simple, albeit potentially devastating, set of challenges. This is the start of a campaign for the soul of France and the heart of western democracy. The unresolved pandemic and systemic unemployment today overlay the populist appeal of the fascist National Rally Party led by Marine le Pen. “Ensauvagement” is part of a new and sick coded language that refers to the vulnerable and desperate immigrants from North Africa. France is a nation at risk. Right wing magazines write openly of a new barbarism, of black lawlessness, and of savages threatening the nation. Crime rates have in fact not risen, but populist demagogues have never concerned themselves much with the truth – and yesterday’s political psyche has been blind to the gathering storm.
So the door is open to a new , harsh story of racial xenophobia. If France is dealing with savages, so the story runs, then it is legitimate in the name of law and order to use violent means to deal with them.
President Macron’s term ends in 2022. His campaign must move to the right to counter Le Pen, who so nearly won last time out. For her, the current trends of hatred are the bracing replacement of refreshed blood to a sick invalid.
France is in fact facing a concatenation of inevitable economic challenge, the growing menace of the pandemic’s autumn return and the subliminal and polarized fears of a nation looking for a scapegoat – someone to blame and rage against.
Here in America, 4000 miles and a language away, France’s troubles may seem distant. But the outcome of the next 30 days here is taking on an unexpected significance. It is essential that November 3 sees the nation start over and that we walk out of the present slide into despotism for our own sakes. It is no less vital that we, as the world’s democratic lead, provide a much needed example, along with thought leadership and support for France and Western Europe. Absent such a lead we may be about to witness the unwinding of democracy that could take place within our own lifetime and under our own watch. We could be seeing otherwise a return to the populist extremism of the 1930’s.
Have a good day, James.
Published in The Press Journal October 2 2020.