Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Threat of the (Prussian) Spiked Helmet Resurrected in France.

Old habits die hard, they say, but so do old-time prejudices, even when you think they are done and over with.
As much as you would expect the French (far-right) National Front to be prejudiced against anything non-French, including other Europeans -it is after all their raison d’être - and indeed they are, it was much more surprising, and even quite shocking to hear members of the French socialist party fall into the trap of anti-German sentiment.

Last week, a rising star but a maverick in the Socialist Party (PS), Arnaud Montebourg compared Angela Merkel to Bismarck.
"La question du nationalisme allemand est en train de resurgir au travers de la politique à la Bismarck de Mme Merkel"  (« The question of German nationalism has re-emerged through Mrs Merkel’s Bismarckian policy»). (Le Figaro)  
For those of you who might not know, Otto von Bismarck was the leader of Prussia in the late 19th century and, more interestingly, he won the war against France in 1870. In other words, Montebourg has hereby resurrected an old French figure of national humiliation - the Prussian spiked helmet. It is also a relevant metaphor for the left, as the 1871 defeat saw a surge in left-wing anti-german nationalism, during the Paris Commune that followed. 
It may also not be surprising that these remarks should have been made by a rather young politician born some 20 years after WWII, free of the taboo regarding Germany.

Worse however, another (but less prominent) member of the PS compared Sarkozy with Daladier, (Le Monde) the weak French Prime Minister (called President du Conseil back then) who negotiated the Munich Accords with Hitler in 1938, thus making an implied comparison between Mrs Merkel and Hitler. (see Wikipedia for details)
I understand that the German-driven austerity measures have upset a lot of people in Europe, among whom the Greeks have been the most vocal in their Germanophobia (see here). But that the French should fall into that trap is something unheard of since the end of World War II. Not only are these remarks ridiculous but as such they have (and as could be expected), caused great controversy France (TF1).

Arthur Goldhammer rightfully commented that this “has broken the taboo, which has largely held since World War II, against attributing policy differences to national character and ulterior designs rather than to identifiable interests.” and I also agree with his political analysis that this serves the National Front rather than the Socialist Party, which he claims to support.
The popular Franco-German green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit accused Montebourg of bad patriotism and using Left-wing National Front words. (“C'est du mauvais cocorico. Il fait du Front national à gauche" TF1)
This of course has been seized by the right-wing majority party to accuse the opposition socialistrs of resurrecting the “old demons of Germanophobia” (TF1).
Meanwhile, there is great embarrassment on the left and in the PS, especially for its Presidential candidate François Hollande who is expected in Germany next week. Even though he has personally made no comment, his campaign director Pierre Moscovici warned the left against anti-german sentiments (RTL).

This is a very unusual development as nationalist sentiments have been traditionally used by the French right to gain support of their electorate, at least since the 1930s. 
The main question is whether this is simple (bad) anti-Sarkozy political strategy or if it is the sign of a new left-wing nationalism? Might anti-german rhetoric appeal to the electorate in these times of great uncertainty and confunsion? I doubt it. 
That being said, a lot of people are angry at the idea that national budgets should be overseen by European institutions, as Markel suggested. This idea is indeed a blow to national sovereignty, which could mean the end of the socialisme à la française. Maybe not all a bad thing.

NOTE: During a debate on French TV last night on this topic, a former French president advisor, Marie-France Garaud reminded the audience that Bismarck is actually a popular figure in Germany because he unified the country for the first time. Indeed, contrary to France which has been more or less the same unified country since 843, Germany consisted of hundreds of small principalities, duchies and counties during the Holy Empire up until 1871. So what sounds like an insult in France, simply because Bismarck represents the enemy that defeated the French, is nothing of the sort to the Germans. Phew!
One last point: we should all appreciate that the name "France" is derived from that of Germanic tribes, the Franks who basically invaded most of northern France. In effect, we're all Germans!

Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units,principalitiesduchiescounties,

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