Politics & Policy

Money You Can’t Afford

Yugo, euro!

Somebody press the Medic-Alert button, stat. The dollar’s fallen and can’t get up. The last time this happened, in the late ’80s, I was given a bill for $27.50 for two cups of coffee and a sorbet at a tourist café in Paris. The waiter, realizing I was an American, took pity and scratched the sorbet off the check, so I knew immediately he wasn’t French. (He was from New Hampshire, as it happened.)

Alas, the wallpaper dollar is back again. A year and a half ago, I ate like a fat Ottoman Turk on my 85-cent Euros. Now I’m a fool for fruits and nuts because the dollar’s not worth a plugged Euro-nickel — and because the Guardian says it’s vegetarian week in England! (I thought every week was vegetarian week in England, but this week’s official.) Anyway, it’s only going to get worse. According to a report in yesterday’s Observer, in a few more months you’ll have to save up until you have $1.30 if you want to buy a shiny new Euro all your own. My advice for summer travelers: You should have gone last summer.

Dollar, weak. Euro, strong. Normally, this sort of triumphalism, secular as it is, would be celebrated in France and Germany, where snooty bank clerks regard dollars as if they were food stamps. Which, for people with jobs, they are. But, as it happens, an expensive Euro is exactly what Europe can’t afford right now.

Germany, reports Liberation, is in recession and the rest of Europe, which has a growth rate only slightly ahead of its birth rate, is likely to follow.

In France, meanwhile, the pension issue won’t go away and, according to Le Monde, Raffarin is warning that France is “nervous.” Le Figaro points to an economy of employment cannibalism. The streets are filled with demonstrators — and trains. The Independent carried a report on an exhibition of trains in Paris doing what French trains do best: standing still.

In Belgium, the Berkeley of Europe, a court indicted Gen. Tommy Franks on some goofy “war-crimes” charge — prompting a report in the Sunday Telegraph that the U.S. was considering moving NATO out of Brussels. Belgian voters didn’t care: According to results published in La Libre, they reelected the same Liberal-Socialist government.

This has not been the year of Europe, that’s for sure. A French think tank, the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, released an analysis last week, summarized by John Vinocur in the IHT, that makes Europe look like a snail darter in a Sierra Club scare report. According to the IFRI, Europe is the Mexico of tomorrow.

Now I don’t know if this is true or not — and Mexico’s not that bad, anyway. But something simple like jealousy or fear has to explain the ongoing, annoying obsession with America by the Germans, the leftwing Brits, the cute little Belgians, the European Press Sinister — and especially the French. The fear the French have is that even if you stack up all the countries in Europe and put France on the top, it’s still a shrinking, Napoleon-sized pile compared to the U.S.

Anti-Americanism, of course, is as French as tarte aux pommes. Books such as L’Ennemi americain and L’Obsession anti-americain show up on the French bestseller lists all the time. But zut! how to explain the growing anti-French sentiment in America? For the French, this is a very large mystery. A century of French mendacity, hypocrisy, and cynicism obviously can’t be the cause of such an inexplicable phenomenon, and for sure it’s not about France using the EU bludgeon to keep American influence from spreading. There can be only one explanation, and it’s reported in Le Figaro: France is the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy. The French word for “irony” is ironie, so you’d think they’d get this one right. But non. Instead of wringing his hands in the presence of a deeply sympathetic Today Show host, Hillary-style, the French told their ambassador to write whiny letters to George Bush and Congress. The ambassador’s a guy named Jean, incidentally. So there’s another reason we think France is creepy.

Speaking of which, French Foreign Minister Dominic de Villepin is scurrying around in front of the scenes in that Mad TV way of his as the EU struggles to come up with a new constitution. The French strategy — if “strategy” is a word one can apply to sledgehammer subtlety — has been to boost their influence over the union at the expense of smaller states and, of course, Britain. The French are betting that the new document will enshrine the principal of “shared sovereignty” – something that many Europeans, including most conservative Britons, such as those who read leaders in papers like the Daily Telegraph — find undesirable and unnecessary.

So de Villepin is making his moves in a by now predictable way: He’s advancing the German pawn. In this case, the little playing piece is German Foreign Minister Jo Fischer, behind whose ambition to become foreign minister of the entire EU France has thrown its support. The result, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, is a certain “Irritation in Brussels.” Die Welt offers a whole list of reasons why making Fischer the diplomat for all Europe will never work.

The de Villepin gambit may have other fatal flaws — such as a German decision to walk away from French manipulations altogether and reconfigure their own foreign policy. According to Suddeutsche Zeitung, it’s time for Germany to make a key decision. Either it subscribes to what the paper calls “the Gaullist solution” and “reduces” its foreign policy to an adjunct of France’s, breaks its alliance forever with the US and embarks on the French “multi-polar” mission, or it figures out a way to revitalize its trans-Atlantic friendship with America and get over the war in Iraq. The paper urges Schroeder to grow up, get real, and choose door number two.

I don’t know if Powell’s visit to Berlin, as reported in Friday’s Suddeutsche Zeitung, had anything to do with changing the heart o’ the Huns. Maybe it’s just the realization that beating the anti-Yank drum to garner knee-jerk voter support won’t work any more in the face of a recession sweeping across the map of Europe. Or perhaps the Germans, unlike the Belgians and the French, know there’s only so much posturing a reasonable government can afford to do — even with a Euro the size of the Ritz.

Note: A couple of weeks ago, I told the story of the young woman from Cambridge who leaned over to me at a dinner party and asked, “So what does it feel like to be from the most hated nation on earth?” I failed to report my reply — I digressed, I guess. So far, more than three-dozen people (okay, 37) have e-mailed me to ask what my response was. I said, “It feels great, thanks.” I know this is not snappy and it will disappoint, but there you are. The stuff some of you sent me wasn’t much better. Attention, people: A long, ranting paragraph in capital letters is not a bon mot. Give me a script I can use, will you?

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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