Monday, September 10, 2012

L'Europe, la grande absente

I mentioned the other day a certain nombrilisme in the French press, which devotes much less attention to European issues than, say, the German or Italian press. In this respect, François Hollande was representative of his countrymen in his TF1 interview last night. Although he claims Jacques Delors as his second mentor, after François Mitterrand, both of whom were committed "Europeans," and although he enjoys a reputation as a staunch European himself, there was not a word about the crisis of the euro, the Draghi plan, or the fiscal pact in Hollande's discussion with Claire Chazal. France's budgetary problems were presented in strictly Franco-French terms. The need for labor-market reform was discussed as a "competitiveness" measure, without describing the nature of the competition or the strategy for adapting the structure of French industry to meet it.

The avoidance of Europe is comprehensible, given the sourness of French public sentiment toward the EU at the moment. In every respect, the EU is seen as a fetter on French autonomy, so it is easy to understand why a "normal" president who wishes to enhance his reputation for "action" would avoid touching on anything that might inhibit his freedom to act. But this is no way to build support for Europe, which is badly needed and may become an explosive issue as the austerity measures implicit in the Hollande budget wreak their anticipated havoc. The French will ask why they must suffer this pain, and Hollande had better have answers. Those answers must include a robust defense of the EU as the vehicle for eventual French success in global competition. The argument can be made, but Hollande has been remarkably reticent about articulating it, creating an enormous opening for Europe's vociferous detractor J.-L. Mélenchon--and soon, presumably, Marine Le Pen, although she has been strangely silent since the election.


brent said...

"... Europe's vociferous detractor J.-L. Mélenchon ..."

But IS JLM anti-Europe? Only if 'Europe" is synonymous with the debt reduction treaty and the rest of the EU's current neo-liberal bent. Mélenchon and others on the left, on the contrary, are great advocates for a different Europe, a 'social Europe,' guarantor of immigrant and migrant rights, social protections, and a sustainable economy. Equally connected to social movements in Latin America, JLM is an internationalist, which makes comparisons with the truly chauvinistic Marine LePen all the more inappropriate.

Art Goldhammer said...

Perhaps I should issue a blanket Mélenchon exemption: "Yes, he's pro-Europe but only if it's a different Europe." Granted. He's an internationalist. Granted. Guarantor of immigrant and migrant rights. Granted--although I'm not sure how many of his supporters share his enthusiasm in this respect. Sustainable economy? If we leave this at the level of pious wish, granted. But I'm quite sure Hollande is in favor of all these fine things as well. If we look at how "Europe" actually functions in Mélenchon's rhetoric, it's as an alien force threatening to overwhelm French sovereignty and transform French life against the will of the French. So Hollande chooses to avoid the issue entirely rather than be dragged into a polemic about whether "actually existing Europe" is a friend or an enemy.

As for Le Pen, yes, I stipulate that Mélenchon and Le Pen are different animals. It's tiresome to have to repeat this. But both are hostile to "actually existing Europe," and this complicates life for Hollande, who isn't.

PF said...

Agree with brent, with the caveat that a not insignificant contingent of JLM's supporters on the left often seem to miss this distinction (or find it unimportant and not at all a priority as a political issue).

And they, along with JLM, have not often been in the business of coming up with constructive ways to forward their European social agenda and build transnational European movements. Rather, rhetorically and tactically, domestic demands are too often simply counterposed to "Europe," full stop.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ PF,

I think inasmuch as JLM and his supporters are against the neoliberalism that is reflected in the recent actions of the ECB, particularly the power grab by Mario Draghi which Matt Yglesias has been writing about, it seems unreasonable to criticize them for failing to come up with constructive ways to do something they don't think should be done at all. My assumption is that the FG, like the FN, the UMP and probably the vast majority of the rank and file of the PS care far more about France than about "Europe" and they care not at all about saving the euro.

Many commentators have been saying for a long time, you can save Europe or you can save the euro but you can’t save both. JLM and his supporters (and indeed most Frenchmen of all political stripes) support saving France, Europe and maybe the euro in that order. I too think that democracy and the social welfare state should be saved in preference to the euro. If I were French, I would surely put the interests of my country well ahead of a commitment to a Europe run by unelected eurocrats for the benefit of the superriches. The job of the president of France is to save France, not to save the euro or some kind of neoliberal experiment in shift power from democratically elected governments to unelected Platonic guardians.

Moreover, JLM is quite right in saying that all of the economic pain was largely unnecessary. This is a point which figures as diverse as JLM, MLP and Silvio Berlusconi have been making, namely, that the response of Germany and the ECB has turned a minor economic downturn into an economic catastrophe of biblical proportions. Which, in turn, has allowed Mario Drahgi to seize power so that he can reshape the social welfare state into something more pleasing to the neoliberal "free marketeers" and the superriches.

France needs to stand up and make it clear to Drahgi that either its interest shall be properly represented by the ECB or it will leave the euro and it will not not be a part of an antidemocratic movement to overthrow European governments elected by the people and replace them with unelected eurocrats whose only loyalty is to their neoliberal masters.

PF said...

@ Mitch,
But see that's just it: your point regarding the difference between Europe (the EU) and the euro is important, and I agree. (I'm pretty sure we share many political values.) JLM and his supporters have indeed developed their critique of the EU by pinpointing it as a neoliberal wedge against the welfare state. Nonetheless, while it would certainly be unfair to demand a comprehensive proposal of constructive measures, many of the fragmented lefts across Europe, including JLM's faction, have done precious little in thinking through what governing and management measures would be required to transform the EU or extricate themselves from it in a sustainable and non-catastrophic fashion. Too often there is mostly just a recourse to expressions of national frustration. When they're at their best, they provide strong narratives of the eurocrisis along transnational class lines. The suggestion you cite at the end of your comment is to threaten an ultimatum, geared toward influencing ECB monetary policy. That could be one element, but only one element, and I'm not sure ultimatums would be effective.

Over the years, JLM has given some speeches that emphasize that a European nation-state cannot return to relative sovereign autonomy and hope to deal with contemporary challenges and sustain a future of security and prosperity. So yes, he is an internationalist in this sense. But the implications of that understanding of the world are never really acted upon in a clearly effortful sense. Or at least they're hard to make out, overwhelmed by other priorities or only integrated in a very shallow fashion into his political programs and coalitions.

You rightly say that "the job of the president of France is to save France," but saving France requires engaging deeply in European politics and institutions, reforming the EU's institutions and pushing for a new politics.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ PF,

Yes, I think we agree on many things. The point to which I think everyone seems to be giving short shrift is that the current incarnation of the European Union is profoundly antidemocratic and has very little in common with its founding Principles. The pell-mell expansion of the EU and the ill-advised creation of the euro were not the desired by most of the people of Europe and, indeed, the were never really consulted about these things.

Besides which, it is difficult to see how one can unite the European left because the EU’s pell-mell expansion means that nobody can really explain what it means to be European nor can we all agree on what are the principles of today’s European Union. Right now, the democrats and the left are struggling to save the economies, the social safety net and democracy in the own countries. And how can they be expected to do more?

The EU is fragmenting not because Mélenchon or even Le Pen speaks or acts irresponsibly but because the leaders of the institutions of the EU are acting irresponsibly and anti-democratically. When it became clear that one could either save the euro or save democracy, Europe’s leaders chose to save the euro. If you want to save the European Union as a way to prevent another world war from ever occurring again, you must change that. Nothing else really matters.

How can the left unite in favor of “Europe” when they don’t know what or even where it is? What is Europe? The European Union is no longer a core group of democratic states in Western Europe seeking to integrate politically, socially and economically as a way of making sure that killing and destruction of the two World Wars can never happen again. Those are the historical roots of the European Union. Yet, the hugely expanded EU of today is held together by little more than a desire of the peripheral states to receive subsidies and economic support on the one hand and the desire of the eurocrats to rule an ever larger empire on the other. There is nothing that binds the left in Europe together except, now, there is the beginning of a rebellion against neoliberalism and in favor of preserving the democratic institutions of the individual countries.

You are right in saying that Mélenchon’s concerns are surprisingly nationalistic. On the other hand, he is a French politician and the Front de gauche is a coalition of political parties competing in French elections. Surely it is understandable that Mélenchon’s first concern the future of his country and the welfare of her people. Just as I have said that the job of the president is to save France, now I suggest that Mélenchon’s job is to make president Hollande do his job.

I believe that the French Republic is as much danger today as it was during the Algiers putsch of 1961. I hope that Hollande responds as resolutely to this power grab from Frankfurt as did De Gaulle.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Art,

With respect, I think that Mélenchon is right to see the institutions of the European Union as “an alien force threatening to overwhelm French sovereignty and transform French life against the will of the French.” That is certainly how I and many others from increasingly diverse parts of the political spectrum see things, too. In particular, the seriousness of the recent power grab by Mario Draghi has yet to sink in with people who are simply evaluating the efficacy of his new bond buying program without considering the very far-reaching implications for European democracy.

Armin Mahler had a very interesting commentary in Der Spiegel (English version on website: )

Mahler points out that even though Draghi himself has no democratic legitimization he has “...he has taken it upon himself to make the most important and possibly momentous decision in the history of the monetary union: defending the euro at all costs.” What’s worse, it turns out that the ECB could have done this bond buying program at any time (it hasn’t received any new authority) as people like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and a host of others urged and with no strings attached. Time and time again, we were told that a bond buying program wasn’t within the bank’s mandate. Unless, of course, Draghi wants not so much to rescue the PIGGS as to compel their democratically elected government to adopt his secular faith of neoliberalism. As Mahler concluded: “ Mario Draghi is the most powerful man in Europe, undeterred by courts or parliaments. The euro may be irreversible, but apparently democracy is not.”

I think you need to look beyond whether this reform or that is a good or bad idea. There is much more at stake here. Democracy in Europe is on life support. Draghi or his predecessor could have done this at any time but they chose to let the people suffer. The people of Europe have been forced to endure a horrible economic crash and round after round of murderous austerity not because it was unavoidable but because people like Mario Draghi wanted to be certain that Europe would bow to his neoliberal faith.

This really is as close to a coup d’état as France has been since 1961. The combination of the EU independent institutions bent on promoting neoliberalism and German intransigence has been devastating for European democracy. The eurocrats have already staged two coups against the democratically elected leaders of member states and they intend to tolerate no democratic resistance. Today it is Spain and Italy. Who will be next? If Hollande is ordered to make neoliberal reforms, will he fight or submit?

This is Hollande’s moment. Hollande needs to act decisively to support democracy in Europe, as De Gaule acted decisively to put down the Putsch des généraux. There are many things Mélenchon is wrong about but the necessity to act to support France in time of crisis isn’t one of them.