Tuesday, May 08, 2007

France's fin de siècle

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The French presidential election that concluded this past Sunday with Sarkozy's victory over Royal in the second round featured several high-profile candidates from across the political spectrum (Sarkozy and Royal, of course, but also Bayrou and Le Pen, and, to a lesser degree, Besancenot and de Villiers) with divergent positions on many key issues (Europe, immigration, the economy, the environment, energy, taxes, law and order, among others) and divergent visions for France. The French may be deeply conservative in their general opposition to change, but their leading candidates were all advocates of change.

But what united them all, from the far left to the far right, was not just advocacy of change but opposition to the unacceptable status quo. And the status quo is outgoing President Jacques Chirac and the so-called "declinism" that has come to define his 12-year presidency. From a foreign policy perspective, Anne Applebaum has more on this in her latest piece at Slate, where she examines his horrendous "diplomatic legacy":

One of consistent scorn for the Anglo-American world in general and the English language in particular, of suspicion of Central Europe and profound disinterest in the wave of democratic transformation that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s, of preference for the Arab and African dictators who had been, and remained, clients of France. In his later years, Chirac constantly searched, in almost all international conflicts, for novel ways of opposing the United States. All along, he did his best to protect France from the rapidly changing global economy.

It was, in other words, the legacy of a man who was deeply conservative, almost Brezhnevite in his view of the world -- so much so that the word most often used to describe his political beliefs is "stagnation." But as he leaves office, the loudest condemnation of his twelve years as head of state comes not from the outside world, but from the French themselves. Don't listen to me, listen to them: After all, it is they who have just elected a man who promised to "break with the ideas, the habits and the behavior of the past."

The French may not want change, or much change, but they voted for change and, at least at the outset, Sarkozy is promising change.

What the French need, it seems to me, is at least enough change to put Chirac behind them for good.

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