Sunday, December 19, 2010

Imperial History, Imperial Attitudes,

As I was watching a French documentary on 'Françafrique' (a term that refers to the political and economic relations between France and Africa), I couldn't help drawing a parallel between France's policy in Africa and the United-States' in Latin America.
Both France and the U.S. have supported authoritarian regimes and instigated coups for economic (oil, raw materials) and idealogical reasons (the cold war) in their respective 'backyards', through their military and secret operations and mercenary expeditions for the profit of private companies.

Of course, there are also huge differences: France had been a colonist power (and imposed its language) and as such, it has "special ties" to its former colonies, whereas the U.S. was merely an imperial power de facto. The other major difference is that Françafrique was also a network that financed French politicians and political parties until recently. It was a political scandal that did not bring down any politician.

Interestingly, since the end of the cold war, there has been a backlash as both our 'backyards' have cut ties if not revolted against both our countries to the point that questions about losing our control of our backyards have been asked in both our countries - Latin America to socialism and to war on terror - think of the pink tide in Latin America - (see here as well) and Africa to the Chinese, the Russians and even to the Americans.

Well, of course, our countries will not let go without a fight: the US continues to play a major role in Latin America, through Free Trade Agreement or even a strong military presence (here).
As for France, its oil firms (Total) and other private companies (such as Bouygues or more impressively, Boloré whose CEOs are friends of the French president - here and here) continue to play a major economic role. Politically, the latest developments in Ivory Coast have also shown that Sarkozy is willing to keep France as a key player.

One last point, the vast majority of French and American people are either clueless about what the policies of their countries in those 'backyards' of theirs. Well, they don't know and don't want to know. They will not see, for instance, that the immigration that some French or Americans fear is also in part the result of French and American plunder of the local economies where the immigrants live. After all, the Africans have been 'independent' for 50 years and the Hispanics have their own countries - the say.

As a conclusion, one can look at the events unfolding in Ivory Coast with a different perspective - this country that used to be the jewel in the crown of the post-colonial African empire of France for decades.
Even though Gbagbo has some nasty politics (such as his xenophobic concept of “Ivoirité”, or Ivorianness), even though he has also instigated a coup, AND even though Ouattara (his opponent) is probably the legitimate elected president, France should not mingle. precisely because it has lots of interests at stake, 15,000 nationals in the country and zero credibility when it comes to supporting African democracies.
Of course, Gbagbo has been using anti-French sentiment, indeed:
French opprobrium could strengthen the hand of the populist leader, who has claimed to be the victim of neo-imperialist conspiracies. (FT)
But of course, Sarkozy is not necessarily the most subtle leader France has had while trying , like any other President, to hold on to French elite's sense of empowerment.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Two Continents, Too Populist.

This week's news from the heart of Europe is yet another example of the rise of political extremism in the West these days.

There is a clear pattern here, it be in Denmark (with the Danish People's Party), in Italy (with the Northern League), in Austria (with the Freedom Party), in Belgium (with the Flemish Block)in Switzerland (with the Swiss People's Party) or even in Sweden and Germany, where Angela Merkel declared the "failure of multiculturalism".

Just like the Tea-Party in the United-States, European right-wing populism is defined not by constructive proposals but by what it is against - immigration and the establishment. Of course, this general movement takes different forms, according to local particularities.
One interesting comparison, (and one I'm familiar to) is between the United-States and France. It is all the more interesting that both national extremist rhetorics claim to make a revolution, albeit a different one, both use the myth of the revolution to give historical credibility to their anti-establishment agenda.

The Establishment.
For the Tea-Party supporters, the establishment is the 'liberal' media and government, whereas for the French would-be revolutionaries, it is the capitalist system (the banks, Wall Street, and "les patrons", i.e. the bosses) and 'Brussels' (i.e. the European Union political elite).
Last week, a French former soccer star called for a new kind of revolution by urging people to withdraw all their money from the banks on Tuesday.
"We must go to the bank. In this case there would be a real revolution. It's not complicated. Instead of going on the streets you simply go to the bank in your country and withdraw your money, and if there are a lot of people withdrawing their money the system collapses." (The Guardian)
Of course, Cantona's call is so ridiculous that it is unlikely to have any impact but it is nonetheless very telling, especially if you consider that the bailout of banks by the Bush and Obama administration is one of the reasons for the rise of the Tea-Party movement.
Another interesting point is that even though Sarkozy himself is very unpopular, there is no anger towards the French government (i.e. l'état) because France has a Jacobinist culture (i.e. with the centralized government seen as a guarantee of égalité, fraternité and even liberté). But there is nonetheless anti-political establishment rhetoric as well, only it is set against the European Union :
According to a recent poll, 50% of the French see the EU with fear rather than hope (compared to 29% in 2003).

'Brussels' is usually accused of being at best "out of touch" and at worst having a hidden agenda. Reminds our American audience of anything?

In both France and the US, anti-immigration is most visible on the right end of the political spectrum. Because of the differences in political culture, it has different shapes in either country - in the U.S. it is mostly seen at the local (towns or counties) or state level (such as Arizona's infamousSB 1070 law) while in France, it is used by national leaders, even the French president (such as with the Roma expulsion last summer) to channel and capitalize on the anger of the white majority. In Europe, it is also fueled by the fear of Islam, while in the U.S. it is the fear of drug-related gang violence, and the abuse of public funds. (although anti-Muslim sentiment is becoming prevalent)

In both cases, the political elite (Washington in one case, and Brussels in the other) is accused by local politicians of not doing enough. In both cases, the rhetoric is anti-illegal immigrants when in fact, it smacks of racism under the disguise of legality.

Of course, this sort of things should probably be expected in an economic crisis like this one, and how much more popular will this anti-establishment xenophobic nationalistic populism be probably depends on how much longer and deeper the hard times will go. The news about American unemployment yesterday does not bode well for the immediate future.