Monday, April 25, 2005

As some of you know, I spent the last ten days in France. Although most of that time was spent trying to keep my students out of trouble, I did at least manage to scribble down a few thoughts.

Without further adieu:

1) EU federalism is in serious trouble. Although France is a principal architect of European integration, all the recent polls show France voting no in its May referendum on the EU constitution. The 'oui' campaign is even doing so poorly that last week president Chirac all but announced he would sack his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, if a 'non' vote actually came to pass. In the short-term the French themselves wouldn't be much affected by a no vote, but the regional fallout would be enormous, particularly in Eastern Europe.

2) 'Gagnons les Jeux' is plastered everywhere, from soda cans to public monuments. Personally, I don't really care who gets the 2012 Olympics. But should it go to Paris, they really need to change their marketing strategy: you know you've gone awry when even I can tell that something is tacky. Adorning baroque architecture with technicolor neon lights just isn't a good idea.

3) There's a curious contrast in France where memorializing war is concerned. Visit Verdun, where 500,000 French soldiers died in WWI, and you'll find a relatively quiet town with an austere ossuary looking over rolling battlefields. Visit Normandy, where 50,000 allied soldiers died in WWII, and you'll find countless cemeteries, battle sites, and museums -- as well as a thriving tourist industry. Much of the contrast has to do with the clear historical significance of the Normandy invasion, whereas the battle of Verdun accomplished little for anyone. But the extreme commercialization of Normandy also has a lot to do with the peculiar nature of American remembrance generally. For us, history is yet another commercial domain, often in ways that would be anathema to others. That we ought to be reproached for this I'm not prepared to say; but I do think we should at least debate our habit of mixing profit and past before we instinctively revert to it again (in a place like, say, lower Manhattan).

4) As with Austria, the population of France is noticeably old. There are a host of reasons for this, but in my view the most salient is that the generation which made the case for sexual liberty in the 60s and 70s effectively bred themselves out. This is not to say that their case was misguided; now as then, the government has no right to interfere with the sexual lives of consenting adults. It is to say, however, that those who preach the value of sexual liberty need to be aware of the demographic gap it has historically led to. Offsetting that gap by increasing immigration isn't a big deal in the U.S., where the history of immigration is a defining one. But in countries such as France or Germany -- which continue to identify themselves, culturally if not politically, according to ethnicity -- it's another story altogether.

5) The latest evidence of globalisation: "Red Sox Nation" is everywhere. From the Eiffel Tower to Mont-Saint-Michel, there wasn't a single place I went where someone wasn't wearing a Sox hat or t-shirt. No doubt a large part of that has to do with their recent championship, as well the uniquely visceral pride of their fans. But even had Boston won ten or twenty years ago, I highly doubt I'd have encountered as many Sox fans trekking through France. While I may not agree with Thomas Friedman's unbridled optimism for globalisation, there's no denying that more people are travelling more places than ever before.


Blogger Richard Thompson said...

Good insights, especially on the feeling of "oldness" you get in Europe. I'm an American who has lived in France for 13 years (and counting). The French society is obsessed with the past--I call it acute nostalgia.

In my opinion, one of the reasons that the "yes" campaign is stuggling is that the "non" camp has succeeded in portraying the very concept of a Europe union as "old fashioned". If you're young (ie militant, rebellious, anit-globalisation, anti-GM foods, etc) you should be against the constitution.

The consitution was drawn up by Valerie G'Escard D'Estang(70+ ex president) and a group of wise old men and is being hawked by 70+ Chirac, who heads a government that people have grown tired of, and a bunch of tired old politicians, the same faces I first saw on TV 13 years ago.

I have yet to see a single interesting, mildly youthful politician, thinker or writer stand up and say how fun and exciting it is to live and work in a region of the world that is undergoing a history-making kind of mutation. In France at least, the exhiliration and has been squeezed out of the "European concept". If the "non" wins, ennui and gray hair will be the culprits.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Tim Rickards said...

Wow. That's too bad. From over here in the US the EU looks really, really exciting. A couple of books have been published recently describing how powerful and innovative the whole thing is...the huge market, the single currency, the freedom to work in multiple countries, etc.

To me, the EU looks like a great deal for the younger people. Strong currency, unprecedented freedom.

How typical of the French to take this opportunity and turn it into something negative. I love France, but the French have a whining, negative attitude sometimes that stifles innovation and change. Anti-success and anti-entrepreneurial.

12:30 PM  

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