As Europe continues to search for its role on the world stage in the 21st century, what kinds of decisions will face la Grande Nation?
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While every nation on Earth has its own history, heritage and defining characteristics, France stands out, even on a continent with an abundance of distinctive and ancient states. Its development has paralleled other nations of the West, particularly the United States, but on a decidedly different track.
The French are typically characterized as being passionate, sophisticated, globally minded, whimsical, diplomatic, stylish, proud, impractical and refined. One of France’s national symbols—the strutting, preening rooster—evokes the country’s grandiose showiness and sense of self-importance.
This people who gave the world the terms gourmet and connoisseur have long been known for their enjoyment of life’s finer things. French cuisine, wines, cheeses, agricultural products, and fashions are coveted the world over. Together they form a celebrated culture that has been the nation’s signature export.
Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, in his 1983 book The Europeans, chose “quarrelsome” as the word that best described the French character (as compared to the “Careful Dutch,” “Imperturbable British,” “Baffling Americans,” and others).
Of the nation’s unpredictable, contrarian slant, Barzini wrote, “The French were at first among the earliest and most determined champions of European unification. They saw in it…a way to solve most of their national problems at one fell swoop…Only a few years later…the same French turned into the most implacable opponents of the European idea. They managed to block all progress by skillful maneuvers and stubborn opposition.”
This love-hate relationship with the idea of a unified Europe came to the world’s attention again in 2005, when a French referendum halted progress toward ratification of the European Constitution with a resounding “Non!” This almost reflexive disagreement has been called “l’exception francaise.”
Ambivalent thoughts on European integration continue today. A 2013 poll from the Pew Research Study revealed that just 41 percent of the nation has a favorable view of the European Union, which is down from 60 percent the previous year and 62 percent in 2007.
Despite this negative turn, 63 percent of France remains in support of the Continent’s common currency, the euro.
It is no wonder why those in the nation are often called the fickle French!
By and large, France’s citizens have enjoyed an enviable lifestyle: a map dotted by beautiful historical sites, picturesque villages, and abundant, varied natural beauty; the most extensive road system in Europe (nearly one million kilometers); almost universal literacy; a virtually tuition-free university system; five weeks of vacation per year; and generous social entitlement programs.
But all of this comes with a hefty price tag. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France ties with Hungary for the nation with the third-highest tax burden in the world. The French government’s revenue absorbs around 46 percent of GDP.
This high overhead has also contributed to years of slow economic growth, a factor in citizens’ fear that their nation is falling too far behind the rest of the EU.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign featured promises to overhaul the French economy by tackling high unemployment, loosening restrictive labor laws, and potentially reforming France’s pension privileges. When these reforms did not materialize, change was in the air again. In the 2012 presidential elections, an estimated 51.9 percent of the 80 percent of registered voters who went to the polls chose to replace a center-rightist with a moderate social democrat, Francois Hollande.
“The defeat of the most unpopular French president ever to run for re-election was not simply the result of the global financial crisis or eurozone debt turmoil,” the Guardian reported. “It was also down to the intense public dislike of the man viewed by many as the ‘president of the rich’ who had swept to victory in 2007 with a huge mandate to change France. The majority of French people felt he had failed to deliver on his promises, and he was criticised for his ostentatious display of wealth, favouring the rich and leaving behind over 2.8 million unemployed. Political analysts said anti-Sarkozy sentiment had become a cultural phenomenon in France.”
Mr. Hollande has not fared much better on the economic front since he took the reins a year and a half ago. France continues to face the same economic woes, including an unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent and a public debt that is 95 percent of GDP.
Yet President Hollande has been more successful in building his foreign policy credentials. According to The New York Times, he has “managed a successful military intervention in Mali and has stood in favor of a military strike against Syria over the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons, until the United States and Britain backed off.”
And like his conservative predecessor, Mr. Hollande maintains a hardline stance on Iran’s nuclear program. “‘To take the stance he took doesn’t hurt him politically,’ [Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris] said of Mr. Hollande’s position that reportedly scuttled a deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to relax sanctions against Tehran in return for tangible assurances about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program” (The New York Times).
The traditions of French culture and identity are facing challenges on two fronts. One is the difficulty of integrating non-European immigrants (especially Muslims) into a thoroughly European (and majority Catholic) nation. According to the Gatestone Institute International Policy Council, “A panel appointed by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to review France’s integration policies has urged the government to implement a ‘new form of secularism’ that would raise the profile of Islam in public life—in order to improve the integration of Muslim immigrants.
“Among a long list of recommendations aimed at ‘recognizing the richness of multiple identities,’ the panel says that public schools in France should begin allowing Muslim pupils to wear headscarves in class (clothing that has been outlawed since 2004), and that courses should be taught in Arabic and African languages rather than in French.”
The institute wrote, “Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of France’s main opposition party, the conservative UMP, said in a statement that the proposals are ‘explosive and irresponsible’ because they replace ‘the one and indivisible French Republic with a motley assembly of communities, ethnicities and groups of all kinds.’ According to Cope: ‘This report is an attempt to make multiculturalism the new model for France. It would no longer be up to immigrants to adopt French culture, but for France to abandon its own culture, language, history and identity to adapt to other people’s cultures…’”
The second challenge, the wholesale import of American and other non-French traditions into the fabric of daily life, is a side effect of globalization: “France is supposed to be the country which says non. France is supposed to refuse all cultural imperialism, except its own. France is supposed to be the country of…refusal to be swamped by…Hollywood, la malbouffe [fast food], Japanese cars, Chinese bras or the English language.
“France is supposed to be the country of Asterix, the small village which refuses to bow to the invader; the country of Jose Bove, the man who bulldozed a McDonald’s to preserve his right to wear a droopy moustache and make stinky (but wonderful) cheeses. All this huffing and puffing seems to have depressingly little effect…” (The Independent).
From food to films to fashion, French staples are giving way to foreign intruders: cheeseburgers and fried chicken, Skyfall and Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D (both dominated the French box office), baseball caps, and blue jeans.
The relationship between America and France has long been hot and cold. The two nations share some striking similarities (both in their current state were born of revolution in the late 18th century) and an intertwined history (Benjamin Franklin’s statesmanship in Paris, Thomas Jefferson’s invitation to France’s National Assembly for the drafting of the French constitution, alliance in the American Revolution and two world wars). Yet, before the Sarkozy era began, France’s politicians routinely won with a “keeping the U.S. in check” ideology.
A hint of jealousy tinges France’s anti-Americanism. While undoubtedly a first-world country, industrialized and prosperous, with colonial outposts across the globe, it has never been considered a superpower in modern times. France looked on as America helped rebuild Europe after victory in World War II, planted its flag on the moon, and took part in the Cold War arms race. Some would argue that France is known more for its style than substance when compared to the pragmatic and once-overachieving U.S. This has led to what could be called sibling rivalry—or more accurately, half-brother rivalry!
As regular readers of this magazine understand, the modern nations of the West are descendants of the biblical patriarch Jacob, later renamed Israel. Israel’s firstborn son, Reuben, began the family that grew into the French peoples. Reuben’s half-brother Joseph received the birthright blessings for which Reuben had disqualified himself through sin: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it…” (Gen. 49:3-4).
The following excerpt from David C. Pack’s book America and Britain in Prophecy sheds more light on the forefather of the French people: “Reuben’s primary emblem was a man, representing the ‘excellency of power.’ His secondary emblem is recorded as being wavy lines, representing unstable waters (Symbols of Our Celto-Saxon Heritage, W.H. Bennet).
“Reuben dominates the Israelite element in France. Therefore, France—especially northeastern France—is heavily represented by the Ribuari Franks, as bearers of the ensign of Reuben (The Tribes, Yair Davidy).
“In verse 3, Jacob referred to Reuben as ‘my might’ and ‘the excellency of dignity.’ France has portrayed these characteristics to the world. In the past, she was the greatest colonial power behind Britain and called the ‘queen of culture.’
“The Encyclopedia Americana notes that, ‘during the 70 years of the third republic [1875-1945]…more than a hundred cabinets succeeded one another, in France, with an average tenure in office of less than eight months. The main cause of this ministerial instability was the lack of disciplined parties…’ This ‘unstable’ and fickle French political system has also produced eleven constitutions since 1791!
“Jacob also goes on to say of Reuben that, ‘you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it: he went up to my couch’ (vs. 4). It is interesting to note that kings and leaders of France usually have their own mistress—‘concubine’—a pattern that has nearly become part of the national psyche.”
The most recent example is that of Mr. Hollande’s reported involvement with an actress. Historically, the French media have not reported on such matters as “the French simply don’t care about the personal vices of their leaders,” according to Matthew Fraser, a media commentator writing for CNN.
Genesis 49:4 bears witness to the continued dalliances of many high French officials today!
The book of Genesis records the resentment that the other sons of Israel felt toward the patriarch Israel’s favorite son, Joseph, which was magnified after a dream that foreshadowed the global dominance his descendants would experience: “And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer comes. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast has devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.
“And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into a pit…” (Gen. 37:21-24).
“Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, where shall I go?” (Gen. 37:28-30).
In this account, Reuben attempted to play the conciliator between Joseph and the rest of his brothers. While he convinced them to spare his life, he was not able to save Joseph from slavery, since he chose a covert plan of later returning to liberate him, unknown to the angry siblings.
In the years ahead, France will be forced to choose between loyalty to natural allies and kin—the Americans and British—or the rising power of a United Europe, with Germany as its engine. France’s one-time president Charles de Gaulle is reported to have said, “The unification of Europe will be performed by France and Germany, France being the coachman and Germany the horse” (The Europeans).
What will the French choose?