April 26, 2002


France: Dangerous Illusions . . . (Salman Rushdie, April 26, 2002, washingtonpost.com)
Every so often, an electorate will shrug its shoulders and decide there isn't much difference between the main contenders for office. The day after the election, reality bites, but by then it's too late. When it last happened in Britain, the consequence was Margaret Thatcher's long, damaging reign. Voter apathy was also a crucial factor, perhaps the crucial factor, in the Bush-Gore presidential election; as a result, the fiasco in Florida turned into the decisive event it should never have become. Now the malaise has struck France, and although Lionel Jospin has rightly accepted the blame for an Al Gore-ishly lackluster campaign, he is not the only one at fault. It's an old adage in politics that the electorate is never wrong, but in this case, by golly, it was. Maybe it's the French electorate that should resign instead of Jospin, and make room for new voters more interested in shouldering their responsibilities.

It's a terrible truth about our awful times that the people who seem to care least about freedom and democracy are the ones who have the readiest access to these treasures.

While it is absolutely necessary to condemn the racism, anti-Semitism, and fascist tendencies of Le Pen, it is also important to take seriously the reasons that people might support him. Exterminating or expelling immigrants is unacceptable but it is a response to a legitimate concern--the deterioration of French Culture. Now, the French themselves are to blame for most of that deterioration--with their existentialism and sophistication, their belief in and dependence on the State, their failure to produce children, etc., etc., etc. But even with all these problems, France could at least go to its grave still French were it not for its immigration problems. Western Europeans may have lost faith in their own culture, but the Islamic immigrants have not lost faith in theirs. So France becomes a country with more mosques than churches and the French, who don't mind cultural suicide perceive instead a cultural murder, themselves the victims. No people of any pride whatsoever could tolerate this state of affairs. And the French, if nothing else, have their pride.

It seems significant that the British and American examples that Mr. Rushdie cites are also cases where a fed up bourgeoisie perceived its culture being destroyed and lashes out. He's right about apathy playing a role, but it's a particular brand of apathy that brings conservatives to power. If everyone in a society voted the conservative candidate would never win. Conservatives, as is often said, are the Daddy Party, the party that tells you that you're responsible for yourself and that you'd better shape up. The parties of the Left are Mommy Parties--the parties that tell you your problems are someone else's fault and who promise to take care of you. More folks want to hear the latter than the former.

But Moms are so permissive and so "generous" that sooner or later a family or a nation requires that the stern and fatherly hand be applied. When these moments come for a nation, the masses do indeed stay home, as if recognizing the need for discipline but unwilling to ask for it, while the middle classes turn out in even greater numbers than usual, outraged at the state that affairs have been allowed to reach. The more apt example that Mr. Rushdie might have chosen was the 1994 Congressional elections, the Republican Revolution that was mostly a function of angry white males outvoting shame-faced Democrats. France can listen to the Rushdies and pretend that this was all a big mistake, which need not be repeated. But it will be making a tragic error. If the problems that so disgusted French voters--of Left and Right--are not addressed, even worse election results will follow in the future. And since the Left seems congenitally incapable of addressing such problems, what is necessary is for Jacques Chirac to turn his party into a truly conservative party, capable of enacting the more sensible measures that Le Pen is calling for but strong enough to reject his neo-Nazism.

Finally, Mr. Rushdie is quite wrong when he conflates freedom and democracy, for the two are frequently opposed and never identical. The masses don't believe in freedom; to the extent that they "believe" in anything they believe in equality, or at least in redistributing the wealth of others to themselves as a way of leveling inequality. That's why the parties of freedom, conservative parties, only come to power when the masses are apathetic. For freedom to prevail, democracy must malfunction (though presumably not always as manifestly as it did in Florida). The malfunction of Europe's democracies offers a chance for freedom to return to the continent, but for this to happen responsible political parties must listen to the message that the Le Pen vote sent.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2002 12:06 PM
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