Thursday, August 27, 2015

Widening and Deepening in French and European Politics

Is this blog dead? Some might think so, but in fact I'm still here. Indeed, I should have more time to write than ever, because I've translated my last book--or so I tell myself. But retirement from translation has seen me working harder than ever on a variety of projects. I'm writing a novel and an historical essay, reviewing books, and developing a computer program that "reads" a dozen European newspapers and presents me with a morning news briefing in four languages, with hundreds of articles automatically classified in a number of categories. It's working pretty well, and I may even make it publicly accessible at some point. But none of this fits very well in a blog space ostensibly devoted to French politics.

So what's up with French politics, as opposed to the blog "French Politics?" Not much, at least on the surface, and that is the problem. Indeed, as I reflect on what's been happening over the past little while, it seems to me that Europe's problems, like the European Union itself, have grown deeper even as they have grown broader. "Widening" is of course in some ways the cause of "deepening" on the problem level, or, to put it the other way around, the absence of political "deepening" has made "widening" increasingly untenable.

Although the problem of the euro and its role in the Greek debt crisis have dominated the headlines over the summer, in the great historical scheme of things I think that the euro problem will recede. The crisis that will loom large in the history books is the refugee crisis and--still more broadly--the great population shift that is taking place before our eyes. Refugee troubles have lately displaced the euro from the headlines. Yesterday Angela Merkel spoke at the scene of violent attacks on recent immigrants by extreme right-wingers in Germany. France, which complains loudly about the burden of immigration, has been much less affected than other countries, including Greece and Germany. Indeed, France's main border control problem at the moment is dealing with refugees who are trying to get out, who prefer the greener pastures they believe await them in England and are camped out in Calais waiting for a chance to cross the Channel. Germany, on the other hand, is on track to receive more than 800,000 refugees this year, more than four times as many as last year.

This is an extraordinary number, a number so large in proportion to the population that any country would have trouble dealing with it. Merkel, to her credit, was quite outspoken in her defense of the refugees and of the need for compassion in this moment of tragic upheaval across a vast swath of territory, but of course talk is cheap. The German government faces enormous challenges, which France can only be thankful it does not yet have to confront. But it needs to do more, if only to alleviate the pressures on the Germans. Indeed, one path toward the much desired "ever closer union" would be to come to an agreement about the sharing of the refugee burden, but such an agreement would probably be even harder to achieve than the impossible but also necessary agreement about fiscal coordination, eurobonds, and the like.

The refugee problem is complicated by the fact that the very countries from which refugees are streaming into Europe (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa) are also foyers of an ideology that appears to be behind several recent terrorist attacks on European soil. The thwarted attack on the Thalys train last week was perpetrated, we are told, by an individual who had traveled to Syria and been in touch with elements of ISIS.

This situation strikes me as potentially explosive. Its implications for the electoral balance in France are quite worrisome. Marine Le Pen has been somewhat distracted by the contretemps with her father, but I expect that she will begin to exploit the compassion-vs.-security dilemma at the rentrée. The rhetoric will get ugly, and I am not at all confident that the current government will respond well. The challenge may divide the Republicans as well. It is easy to foresee a Sarkozy hard line confronting a disappointingly tepid response from Juppé about the need for "Europe" to shoulder more responsibility.

For the blogger, the problem has become that to write about French politics, one must write about European politics, because none of the salient issues of the day can be confined within national boundaries. And European politics is extraordinarily difficult to write about for the same reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to practice: all its actors are two-faced (in the literal as well as the pejorative sense: they must address both domestic publics and international interlocutors, and they speak different languages in each context).

In any case, I hope to be blogging more once the dog days of summer are over and political life resumes. But I am at the mercy of events. The blog form is perforce episodic and superficial--"event-driven" in the common parlance. But European politics has become increasingly subterranean, a matter of tectonic shifts whose surface manifestations are hard to track until "the big one" comes and permanently alters the landscape. My fear is that the likelihood of a large shock--an 8 on the Richter scale--is increasing daily.