The French press has greeted the re-election of President Bush less than enthusiastically. On the morning after the result became known, the left-wing daily Liberation’s headline was L’EMPIRE EMPIRE: THE EMPIRE GETS WORSE. (The day before, it ran a picture of George Bush on its front page, with the headline, THE MAN TO BEAT.) The liberal Le Monde’s reporting was more measured, but its editorial began: “It goes without saying that the re-election of George Bush is bad news.” These are the only two newspapers that count for les intellos, the intellectuals, in a country with the lowest readership of newspapers in the western world.
The choice before the American public, according to the commentary in the two newspapers, was between reason and religion, tolerance and bigotry, cosmopolitanism and xenophobia, openness and close-mindedness, modernity and reaction. There are no prizes for guessing which of the candidates represented the former, and which the latter. For intellectuals, everyone’s mind is closed but their own.
An interview with Olivier Todd, published in Liberation, was typical. Todd is a highly intelligent and well-informed commentator, a demographer by training who predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, when most people thought of that nation and its bloc as a permanent fixture of the geopolitical landscape. It took some courage on his part to swim so strongly against the current of the time, and he proved one of the select few to understand the Soviet Union’s weakness. Now he is predicting the demise of the United States as the only great power.
Asked how he analyzed the re-election, he replied, “This election is going to force us to look reality in the face: the problem isn’t Bush, it is the United States as a whole and the evolution of the American people, ravaged by a regressive and aggressive philosophy.”
The philosophy is that of ultra-liberalism. (The French use the word “liberal” in its Adam Smithian, free-market sense, not its current American sense.) “In deepening inequalities, ultra-liberalism has profoundly transformed American society, fragmented and atomized it, filling it with uncertainties and fear. It has prepared the ground in which Bush’s nationalist, xenophobic, religious and militarist discourse can flourish.”
This analysis suggests America is becoming a proto-fascist state, where an aggressively predatory Hobbesian capitalism, unhindered by the law or even by any rules at all, stalks the land, turning everyone against everyone else, crushing all freedom, and making all normal social interaction impossible. For French intellectuals, President Bush incarnates this state of affairs.
There is no recognition here that the unemployment rate in France’s over-administered social-democratic welfare state is more than twice that of the United States, that the crime rate in France is far higher than that of the United States, or that the alienation from society found in France’s ghettoes is at least as great as that found in America’s, and furthermore that the alienated in France are far more heavily armed and dangerous to society as a whole. Self-examination has never been the strong point of French intellectual life.
In essence, Todd’s depiction of the United States recalls Andre Maurois’s depiction in his 1931 L’Amerique inattendue. When Maurois told an intellectual friend that he was taking up a temporary post at Princeton to teach French literature, his friend told him not to go. Because of the savagery of the society, he said, because of its economic individualism that leads to terrible criminality and the war of each against all, it was unlikely that he would come back alive. In other words, it did not really require Bush’s re-election for a portrayal of a savage land inhabited by violent bigots to gain a hearing. It has long been current.
Whether the man in the street believes it is another question. Here in la France profonde, where I write this, my wife went into the bar in the local village. The television was on. “What’s happening in the election?” she asked. “We don’t know,” they replied. “We’re watching soccer.”
Lyon were playing a team from Paris.