A Europe Losing Cohesion
Ever since France’s defeat in 1870-1 in the Franco-Prussian war, when military strength was identified with numerical superiority, demography, language, and culture have become permanent parts — and, at times, the focus — of French politics.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National used these same three themes, and managed to beat the traditional parties in the elections for the European Parliament. Since only 42% of eligible voters bothered to show up and the European Parliament has been a symbolic, toothless institution, my interpretation of the results is of it being a protest vote against the traditional parties’ policies, those of the present socialist one in particular.
George Clemenceau, France’s prime minister in 1919, when ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, announced that: “The treaty does not say that France must undertake to have children, but it is the first thing which ought to have been put in it. For if France turns her back on large families, one can put all the clauses one wants in a treaty, one can take all the guns of Germany, one can do whatever one likes, France will be lost because there will be no more Frenchmen.”
The Vichy politicians embraced “pronatalism of the French population”, and gave gold medals for women having more than 10 children, silver to those with seven, and bronze to those with five. It did not bring about the desired effects – absurd policies rarely do.
More recently, Michel Debre, prime minister under de Gaulle, frequently spoke in the National Assembly about “the demographic struggle”, and in 1979 Michel Jobert, de Gaulle’s foreign minister, wrote the article titled “Comment un pays meurt,” (“How a country dies”) in a collection entitled La France ridee. Jacques Chirac described the demographic situation in France as “terrifying” and Europe as “vanishing”.
France’s political leaders, its media and the “intelligentsia” showed a near consensus on deploring the trends in fertility and asking for state intervention. But the political debates did not convince the French to make more children, and Jack Lang’s protectionist cultural policies at the time did not produce any more French culture either: unless one counts graffiti as being “culture” – a form of expression he strongly endorsed.
Demographic declines, however, did produce rising passions in political debates – though the groups relative to whom the French measured their “decline” have changed drastically. In the past the term referred to the German tribe’s population growth at times explicitly, at others implicitly: the term Lebensraum (“living space”) was coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1901 in Germany, used as a slogan referring to the unification of the country and the acquisition of colonies, and later became one of the foundations of Hitler’s policies, rationalized by the German tribe’s increased number.
But history rhymes – never repeats itself. The Marine Le Pen fear of decline no longer refers to German birth rates or population growth but the smaller fertility within France among the “pure French” relative to the higher ones among the various immigrant groups, Muslims in particular.
In fact, French fertility for the country as a whole stands roughly at the replacement number of two (while in Spain, for example it is a mere 1.4). However, 27.3% of newborn in metropolitan France had at least one foreign-born parent and 23.9% had at least one parent born outside of Europe (and parents born in what remains from France’s overseas territories are considered as born in France). Between 2006 and 2008, about 40% of newborns in France had one foreign-born grandparent (11% from other European countries, 16% from Maghreb and 12% from other parts of the world).
Combine this domestic tribal decline with the French extravagant welfare state (paid by the highest taxes in Europe and combined with burdensome regulations), benefitting immigrant groups; the lack of integration of many immigrants, and – last but not least – the departure of some 2 million French citizens over the past decade or so for London, Silicon valley etc – relatively young, skilled and entrepreneurial – and the present crisis atmosphere in France is not just comprehensible, but predictable.
French politicians have been searching for ways to sustain the population’s loyalty – and their traditional power base – but failed to notice that their atavistic vocabularies drawing on outdated “isms” and the redistributive policies pursued drawing on them no longer unify.
The welfare policies that work in relatively small, relatively homogenous, high-taxed Scandinavian countries with skilled and disciplined populations, and which worked to some extent in France too for a while – are doomed once the country loses cohesion. People must be re-linked drawing on principles other than language, ethnicity or history.
While people in France may still speak French, they are getting more diverse by ethnic origin, religion, customs and tradition. They certainly lack any common history – and the way history is now being taught in schools and universities, it has more chances to divide people further rather than unite them. The past alone does not keep people united. They need futures.
In this respect, the United States has stayed unique in having been built on the principle of uniting people not in terms of the past, but as a melting pot, and tolerant with experimentation, that is: everything being allowed unless explicitly prohibited (in contrast to most societies where everything is prohibited – unless explicitly allowed). But the US, as the Scandinavian states, did not start up as a welfare state, but it created its entrepreneurial, driven society by attracting people fitting that mold for few centuries by now. Only once a society drawing on these traits became successful did the state gradually move toward offering ever more welfare, starting with Franklin D Roosevelt’s policies and continued with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society.
The European community has also been pursuing a unique experiment – but in the opposite direction, creating a kind of rudimentary state first, hoping that somehow people within it will create a “society” – eventually.
Perhaps if Europe’s original tribes continued to have kids, the project could have had some chances to succeed. But with their numbers in decline (relative and soon absolute), with their “vital few” departing and unskilled immigrants filling the void and getting welfare – the appearance of politicians the likes of Marine Le Pen and other parties stirring passions promising to go back to a pure, national past is comprehensible – though policies based on such passions could never achieve their goals.
Like it or not, within a century the world moved from about 1 to 7 – ever-more mobile – billion people. Among the main problems European countries, France in particular, face is that their policies have not been adjusted either to the increased mobility of people; to their declining fertility; to their longer life expectancy; to the prospect of having their ethnic populations decline in absolute numbers within few years; to the fact that the present generous welfare system and Byzantine regulations (sustaining an ever expanding French and European bureaucracy) cannot be sustained under such demographic pressures, a pressure whose mitigation would require selection of immigrants, establishment of “foreign status workers” with a variety of rights and obligations.
Since Europe’s established parties have displayed no willingness to deal with any of the above problems for decades by now, the protest vote this past week-end did not come as a surprise.
But crises are the mothers of political inventions too. Let us hope that European leaders will come up with forward-looking policies and stop tinkering on the margins with the many failed ones. If not, it is good to keep in mind that crises are stepmothers of deception too, and that some politicians excel in that. The week-end’s protest vote shows that, not for the first time in history, European tribes may end up deceiving themselves.
Article originally published on Asia Times Online.