Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why France Today is NOT Like France of Vichy Times.

This week's American magazine Newsweek had an article with this provocative title : France Today Looks Like France of Vichy Times, by David A. Bell. I must say I was a bit in shock when I saw see this in a so-called serious international magazine.

In France, it is usually the French opponents to Sarkozy on the extreme left who tend to make such nonsensical comparisons, but then again, that's excepted, they're on the extreme fringe and have little credibility precisely because of their extremism. (it's like comparing Arizona governor Jan Brewer to Hitler).

In case you're not familiar with French history, the comparison between France today and 1940 does not stand for many reasons and a couple big ones that are very obvious:
  • France of 1940 was deeply shocked by the debacle and the defeat after the short "phony war"
  • not only the defeat, but also the stigma of WWI some 22 years earlier partly explain why the National Assembly voted to grant extraordinary powers to P├ętain, an 84 year-old man with the reputation of outstanding military leadership in the previous war who was seen as the savior of France.
  • The Vichy government promulgated the first law of racial segregation in its homeland territory ever with the Statutes on Jews in October 1940. There is no such thing today. Even the much discussed anti-Burqa law does not even begin to compare.
Strangely enough, most of the article is actually about how different France today is from what it was in the 1940s, although in the 2nd paragraph, the writer points out that "70 years later, France is still very much, well, France.". Well, what do you expect? France to be ... the U.S.? Spain? This is clearly a ridiculous statement - the same can be said of any country, including - I'm afraid - the United-States.

Mr Bell seems to believe that the United-States has changed more and that "certain things about French society have remained remarkably constant since the blitzkrieg, particularly in comparison with the United States."
That may be, but it still does not mean that a comparison between France today and France in 1940 is fair and historically accurate.
Most important, the French state retains an outsize role in society. In a tradition of dirigisme (from the verb "to direct") that stretches back to the Old Regime, the state encases markets in thick webs of regulations while itself managing health care, most major cultural institutions, and most education from preschool to postdoctoral.
When President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, conservative American observers hoped he would emulate Margaret Thatcher and slash the state sector. But despite some tentative reforms, the state's authority remains largely unshaken (government expenditures consistently account for more than 50 percent of GDP, compared with barely 36 percent in the United States before the recession). And as in 1940, the most attractive career track for smart, ambitious students is the elite civil service.
This may be true but the same can be also be said of France of the early 20th century or of the 1930s, or of the 1950s.... or even of the 19th century. As Bell himself noted, dirigisme in France is nothing new. You may argue it is a bad thing, but it is certainly not a distinct feature of 1940. So why pick 1940?

Bell's second point is about the "furious outbursts of prejudice and agonized debates about 'French identity.'" both in 1940 and today:
In 1940 the worst outbursts were directed at the Jews, and they set the stage for the anti-Semitic policies of the collaborationist Vichy government, which willingly sent 76,000 French Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps.
Today, the far less noxious but still objectionable National Front party derives its support largely from hostility to French Arabs, and the debates focus on whether the secular republic can "integrate" Muslim populations. The Sarkozy administration has wrestled awkwardly with the issue, creating a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, and trying to ban women from publicly wearing burqas. Concerns about "Islamicization" are in fact mostly exaggerated, and the anger expressed by young French Muslims (for instance, in the massive 2005 riots around depressed housing projects) results less from a generalized hostility toward French society than toward the isolation they feel from it."

How is it exactly that the Vichy government sending 76,000 French Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps can compare to creating a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, and trying to ban women from publicly wearing burqas?

I am not the last person to criticize Sarkozy for his policies (see here, here, here or here) which I think are too nationalistic (in the wrong sense of the term) but the comparison to Vichy is absolutely outrageous - particularly since it trivializes the genocide of the Jews and the other victims of the death camps.
I agree with Mr Bell that "the debate over immigration is passionate and intense." but precisely, there IS a debate which was not the case in 1940 and the debate , by the way, is not about whether France should send Arabs to death camps or even have them wear yellow badges.
You may find the current climate in France detestable or even nauseous - I do - but it is not very different from what is going on in the rest of Europe (Italy or even Britain) or even in the United-States with illegal immigration or the tea-party movement (and its racist undertone).

Overall, the articles makes some interesting points but its basic thesis is strangely not up to the game. As we say in French, "Comparaison n'est pas raison" (i.e. comparison proves nothing). In this case the comparison between France today and Vichy France is not only an intellectual fallacy - which is all the more surprising coming from a writer who is a respectable historian from Princeton - it is also a dangerous one which falls into the trap of Reducto ad hitlerum (or in this case, Reducto ad petainum) which as the Godwin Law states, robs the valid comparisons of their impact.

Finally, the last sentence of the article, while being extremely condescending, may be the truest :
But in its very passion and intensity it reveals yet another continuity between 1940 and 2010—namely that the subject on which the French speak most eloquently, and most engagingly, is still themselves.
But again, isn't that true of any given country? Watch the U.S. news, and you'll see how much is devoted to international issues. It seems almost ironic for an American to criticize the French for being self-absorbed. If I used a cheap argument, I'd say that at least, the French do it eloquently.
(and that, by the way, is just as condescending except it is a French joke which is based on the assumption that my American readers have a good sense of humor).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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