One Kafkaesque morning, as I was waking up from anxious dreams, I discovered I dreaded going to work. All I wanted to do was cheat on my perfect wife, ignore my children, stab my oldest friend in the back, and smoke a cigarette, even though I haven’t smoked for almost 20 years. My hair broke out in gel and my underwear turned into briefs–then shrunk three sizes. I realized I was slowly becoming a French person.
So I’m going to the American midwest, the anti-France, where people talk as straight as they often are. I’m going to stay there until snow threatens and write all there is to be written about the wisdom of red-state voters. When winter strikes, I’ll pack up the fab family, beat a hasty retreat to–well, where else?–France and figure out the next thing, which I hope will include a revival of this gentle column.
I’m explaining my itinerary to you so you’ll know that for the next six or seven months or so, I’ll be letting all those Le Mondes and Libérations and Suddeutsche Zeitungs pile up on the front porch while I send you occasional notes from the heartland.
But I won’t leave you guessing at the fate of Europe. Based on a scan of the Euro-press, here’s how I think the summer season’s going to play out.
1. Jacques Chirac will become the incredible shrinking man. The French press is full of Chirac, and I mean that in a non-euphemistic sort of way. France appears increasingly likely to vote “non” to the proposed EU constitution on May 29, so Chirac is suddenly everywhere beating the drum for a “yes” vote, even dragging former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin–the man whose ignominious defeat by Le Pen catapulted Chirac into the presidency–out of hiding to help push for a yes vote. According to an AP report in Le Nouvel Observateur, Chirac’s prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has dusted off a strategy last used by Mitterand in 1992 when faced with a similar sullen shrug from French voters ill-disposed toward a bureaucracy-bloating treaty–he’s equating a vote against the EU constitution with a vote for America. This ploy ultimately worked for Mitterand, who explained that France was “at war with America.”
But, according to a poll reported in Le Monde, in France at the moment Chirac and Raffarin are as popular as Bush and Rumsfeld. Meanwhile, Libération reports that the painful return of Jospin to the political stage has been greeted by Socialists campaigning against their own party as a sign of “despair.” The French hate failed politicians. Where Jospin has tread, Chirac will one day follow.
In 1992, polls before the referendum showed “no” voters ahead of “yes” voters until the very last minute. As John Vinocur tartly observes in the International Herald Tribune, another referendum miracle by the ruling elite this time “ain’t no simple matter.” If the election goes against Chirac, among the main beneficiaries will likely be Laurent Fabius, who has led the Socialist opposition to the EU constitution, and Nicholas Sarkozy, Chirac’s rival on the right, whose efforts on behalf of the “yes” vote have been diffident, at times even whimsical.
2. Meanwhile, Europe will grow larger–as a brand, that is. Once the EU constitution has been dismissed by the voters, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the Euro-press, none of whom have high regard for lowly voters, will begin the predictable process of doing what might be called an electoral bypass and fashioning a Europe based on pure sentiment. The International Herald Tribune recently demonstrated how it’s done, by reporting, Times-style, the lingering death of nationalism and the birth of a European consciousness. This is an assignment made easier by simply surveying the likes of Greenpeace workers and exchange students. The wiser observers at Eursoc help provide a more accurate take:
Economic differences will not go away simply because the guy in charge spent a year having sex with interesting foreigners in Hamburg, Bologna or Barcelona: Far from being “sharp differences of opinion,” the vision of Europe offered by Britain and by France are wholly different and wholly incompatible.
Symbols of European unity are all the rage, of course. The maiden flight in Toulouse of the world’s largest passenger jet, as reported in Le Figaro, was a huge story in the Euro-press. Who needs a plane big enough to carry all the inhabitants of a Nebraska county from Luxembourg to the Maldives? Nobody, really. While one hopes for endless happy landings for the titanic airplane, the French have had some experience covering this sort of thing before.
3. Gerhard Schroeder will be the only German with a job in all of Germany. Unemployment is now so rife in Germany that by summer’s end trying to explain away failed social and economic policies will be the only full-time job left in the country–except for those filled by an flood of new Polish workers, as the International Herald Tribune reports. Meanwhile, Germans looking for work are pouring into Austria, according to the Guardian. If Turkey ever enters the EU, maybe Germans can find some work there. Nobody’s very happy: The chancellor’s socialist party will lose regional elections in regions Germany didn’t even know it had. But the German opposition is taking all its cues from British Conservatives, not only leaving Schroeder in better shape than logic would suggest possible, but allowing him to campaign for a “yes” vote in France with the Abbot to his Costello, Jacques Chirac.
4. There’ll be no pro-American backlash. All over Europe, clueless politicians will remain in power simply because their opposition is even more clueless than they are. But the bankruptcy of European political imagination has other consequences as well: One of the reasons for the persistence of anti-Americanism in Europe is not the relative success of the Bush administration or even the war in Iraq. It’s the absolute absence of any interesting political idea at all. In France and Germany especially, things are so bad that anti-Americanism is the only card to play. But as Medienkritick points out, Germany’s willing to pay to play it both ways and try to convince Americans otherwise. Don’t buy it.
5. The French will spend the summer wooing the Chinese government. After China passed legislation threatening the safety of Taiwan, the Daily Telegraph reported that the EU had decided to drop the French-led effort to sell weapons to Beijing. A few days later, Libération reported Prime Minister Raffarin was in China, where he helped sell a few Airbuses and explained that the Chinese government could be trusted with French weapons and that the American view of China as a despotic mess conflicted with France’s goal of including China in its multipolar view of the world. A few days after that, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation:
Seven priests belonging to the Diocese of Zhengding, Heibei were arrested at 5:30 pm April 27 Bejing time in Wuqiu Village of Jinzhou city. These seven priests had traveled from their parishes for a religious retreat conducted by Bishop Jia Zhiguo who had just been released from 24-hour surveillance during the period of approximately March 30 to April 25 when Pope John Paul II was dying and when the new Pope Benedict XVI was elected. The mass arrest of priests was made by the Security Bureau of Shijiszhuang, officers of the religious bureau, and dozens of police…
Meanwhile, French readers of Le Monde are shocked–shocked–to learn of the apparent complicity of political goons like former interior minister Charles Pasqua in the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food scandal. Until now, most readers assumed it was just another dust-up between Kofi Annan and the wicked Americans.
6. The left-wing press will launch more attacks on the pope and on the Catholic Church. For the media in Europe, as well as in the U.S., the whole show is about validating claims to be the ultimate moral arbiter. So naturally secular pontificators, like the very obscure Tim Luckhurst, typing furiously for the Guardian, want actual pontificators, like the globally acclaimed bishop of Rome, to confess even imaginary sins. The death of John Paul II was a tremendous loss to everyone in the Euro-press–because what was lost was their own sense of importance. The same was surely true in America. When the bells rang in St. Peter’s for the new guy, millions of people dropped what they were doing to turn on their TV sets to watch the stirring scene of thousands and thousands of other people who had dropped what they were doing to run down the street just to catch a glimpse of the new Pope. Pause for a sec and imagine the announcement of a new publisher of the New York Times. How many people would dash across town and into Times Square just to see who got the job? In the real lives of most people, neither a Pinch nor a Punch can hold a candle to a Pope.
7. British education reform will start with Michael Howard, who very likely will learn in a few days that to win an election, you actually have to have a positive idea of your own. The Conservative party is paralyzed in anger and fear of making a fuss. In the face of such hopeless opposition, Tony Blair, the only sentient British politician in sight, can win elections until well after his own demise, despite the constant nonsense in the Brit press–like this Guardian goofiness–about Tony’s eternally tough go. Here’s a secret: Nobody in Britain, outside the professionally outraged members of the press, cares about Iraq any more. Blair is such a habitual winner that he’s running now for a term he apparently doesn’t even want to serve, telling the Times that after the election, Gordon Brown can continue the hard work of making Britain into a bland isle of politically correct excess, where binge drinking and obscene language is mistaken for dissent. The losing Tory strategy this time is to call Blair a liar. Again. The Conservatives will be lucky to beat the meaningless Lib-Dems, who seem set to carry off some of Labour’s morally pained supporters. The Conservatives will one day lose to Brown, too. The losing Tory strategy then? No doubt to call Brown a liar because it almost worked so well against Blair.
This is my riskiest prediction, I admit, because, if BBC stories like this one and this one can be believed, we’re dealing with a barely conscious electorate. As anyone who has lived among drunks or toddlers knows, that means anything can happen. If Howard wins, I won’t be unhappy, just astonished at the triumphant vitality of European political mediocrity, British accent and all.
Speaking of which, I see on my return that the NPR station in Washington, D.C., has abandoned its broadcasts of (mostly European) classical music and instead now broadcasts the (entirely British) BBC World Service all day to the mothers and children of the District’s sprawling ghetto, with a relay that reaches listeners in Hagerstown, Maryland, on the slopes of the Appalachians. Just this week I heard the intrepid Owen Bennett-Jones ask a reporter why there had been fatalities in constructing the longest tunnel ever through the Alps. The correspondent was stunned into flabbergasted silence, then recovered long enough to report that blasting tunnels through mountains carried a degree of risk. That will serve as a warning to the young lads on New York Avenue to steer clear of Alpine construction jobs. This is why we endowed public radio! Soon Judy Swallow’s shaky, left-wing, anti-American warble will waft coast-to-coast–thanks to listeners like you and to taxpayers like me.
–Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.