July 15, 2005

No Class

I have to say--coming so soon on the heels of the recent carnage in London-- this is astoundingly petty and cheap behavior even by the standards of Jacques Chirac.

President Jacques Chirac of France, raising the stakes in a verbal jousting match with Britain, said Thursday that the French were better than the British in many domains: they have more children, they spend more on research and they live longer.

Mr. Chirac, looking defiant, made his remarks in the traditional presidential Bastille Day interview, his first major television appearance since French voters handed him a political defeat by rejecting the European constitution in a referendum.

Over the past six weeks, setbacks have multiplied for Mr. Chirac, whose approval ratings have dipped to near record lows. Last month he faced off against Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain over the next European Union budget, delivering a heated defense of France's big agricultural subsidies. Last week, after Mr. Chirac traveled to Singapore to lobby for Paris's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to London.

But he also used the opportunity to criticize Britain.

"I don't think that the British model is the model that we should envy or copy," he said, sitting in a private corner of Élysée Palace's gardens. "If you take the major elements in society - health policy, the fight on poverty - we are clearly better off than the British."

When the two French interviewers pointed out that Britain's economy had been growing faster than France's and its jobless rate was half that of France, Mr. Chirac promptly reeled off a list of statistics that appeared to have been prepared for this purpose.

Mr. Chirac, who only 10 days ago made snide remarks about the quality of British food, cited France's higher birth rate and longevity, which he attributed half-jokingly to the French diet. In France, he added, only 7 percent of children lived below the poverty line, compared with 17 percent in Britain, and 2.2 percent of France's gross domestic product is spent on scientific research, more than the 1.8 percent in Britain.

But these are tough times in France. Things have gotten so bad that whether the Olympic Games went to Paris or London took on the trappings of a signal moment for the morale of the nation writ large. While New York yawned when the Olympic Games went to London (OK, Dan Doctoroff aside); Paris went from perpetually Gallic moroseness (like the perpetual 10% unemployment) to near full-blown melt-down, it almost seemed.

If Chirac had anything near the backbone and character of his presumed role model Charles de Gaulle he would have promptly stepped down after the crushing blow to the EU Constitution, as de Gaulle did in roughly similar circumstances. Instead Chirac carps on about the superiority of the French "social model" (recall this excellent quip from Patrick Devedjian re: this last: "The French social model isn't a model, because no one wants to emulate it. It's not social, because its caused record unemployment") while belittling the much more successful British one. But even banging the ancient drum of anti-British prejudice (or its more recent American cousin) in a wounded France won't help his abysmally poor poll numbers. Not anymore, anyway. He's deep in the cellar, has no way out, and should step off stage if he had a shred of dignity. Perhaps, however, he's concerned about the cold realities of life in a post presidential immunity world...

Posted by Gregory at July 15, 2005 11:15 PM | TrackBack (11)

Yes, but he did say that no country is sheltered from terrorist attacks. Finally some clarity from the French President!

If the single biggest opponent to the war in Iraq is arguing that Iraq is not the reason countries are getting bombed, perhaps someone should get the news to the Little Shoemaker in Madrid, and the academic and journalist-types in Britain who are carping about how it's Spain/Britain's fault it got bombed.

Posted by: Dan at July 16, 2005 04:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree completely that Chirac should go, and go now. If anyone needs evidence, just read De Villepin's op-ed in the FT last month "United way to a new political Europe", which was almost physically painful to read.

All of de Villepin's rhetorical and logical talents couldn't disguise the fact that the "vision of the future" and the "path mapped by Jacques Chirac, French president" is a dog's breakfast of incoherent opportunism. After outlining the crisis currently confronting Europe (which seems mostly to be the need to fend off encroaching globalization), de Villepin offers the following challenge:

Either we give ourselves the resources to build this new political Europe, or we resign ourselves to making our continent a vast free-trade area, governed by the rules of competition. Everyone must put an end to the ambiguity through action. We need ambitious projects.

Yep, that's just what the French and Europe need, and just what will turn around the national mood, reinvigorate the French right, and reestablish French leadership in Europe: ambitious projects. Sheesh.

Worse than Chirac's opportunism, worse than the false dichotomy between Anglo-Saxon capitalism and the "social model," is the fact that Chirac now has a tin ear. The discussion has passed him by. It's not just Sarko -- hey, even Christian Noyer of the Banque de France is pointing for economic restructuring (FT sub req'd), perhaps a la Scandinavia.

Chirac's downhill slide into embarrassing irrelevancy has been proceeding steadily for a number of years, but in recent months it has turned into a full-blown disaster for France and for Europe. Although France can sometimes be rather insufferable when it's feeling aggressively self-confident and insisting on its ancient European leadership prerogatives, Europe is actually far more dysfunctional when France is flailing around, feeling vulnerable, and being generally obstreperous. Now, in the aftermath of the referendum disaster, is an especially bad time for Europe to suffer the effects of a France which has lost its way.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the Sarkos of the Right are going to have to try to do a deal with some of the Socialists to engineer an exit from the Elysee that will protect Chirac from prosecution. Without that, his departure will be a many-year, painful and destructive soap opera. Unfortunately, if past form holds, it's unlikely that the French political class can rise to the occasion, putting national interest above partisan gain.

Posted by: nadezhda at July 16, 2005 04:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The French, if they do spend more than the British on 'research', have less to show for it. If I remember correctly, Paul Johnson, in 'Modern Times' said that by 1990 the US researchers had received about 138 Nobel prizes in the hard sciences, the British 66, the Germans some number in the mid fifties, and the French 22. If this is true, what it says to me is that the French are as wasteful and inefficient in 'research' as they seem to be in their economy. Not a model to follow.

Posted by: A.R. at July 16, 2005 09:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mitterand, as I recall, didn't want to step down while he still had breath left. Pompidou either. There isn't much reason to think that Giscard would have left on his own if the voters hadn't kicked him out.

De Gaulle was different, because his life had been different. Just sitting in the Elysee Palace was not a life's pinnacle for someone who saw himself as the savior of his country. If he could not run the government, he did not want to head the government. So, faced with opposition to his preferred policies he contrived to lose a confidence vote over a minor issue, and used that as an excuse to resign.

Americans are used to a different tradition in our Presidents; even before it was mandated in the Constitution, Presidents left after two full terms, with only one exception at a time of grave world crisis in 1940. Presidents don't hang on till the end now because they're not allowed to, but even when they were allowed to they didn't. It's worth remembering that they didn't, because Washington didn't. Much like de Gaulle, Washington had done his service to his country before becoming President, served his time as President conscious that he had become the symbol of his country, and left without reluctance. He was always aware that he was setting precedent for future Presidents; De Gaulle, leading a much older country with a monarchical tradition, could only set an example that subsequent French Presidents chose to ignore.

Posted by: JEB at July 16, 2005 09:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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