Friday, October 31, 2008

Old World Wiles

As the European press from L'Humanité to the Financial Times (what were they smoking?) endorses the Imminent Coming Of Saint Barack, we other Europeans are seized by a strangely familiar feeling. We have been here before. Namely in 1981, when 23 years of conservative (Gaullist, at any rate) rule in France finally ended with the election of the Socialist François Mitterrand. Mitterrand appointed four Communist ministers among his cabinet, and proceeded to nationalize the banks (sounds familiar?) as well as most large industrial corporations. France resolutely ploughed into the Reagan-Thatcher Eighties in deep contrarian denial: exchange controls, punitive redistributive taxes, a shorter workweek, legal vacation time raised from 4 to 5 weeks annually, a 10% raise on the minimum wage, etc.

Wealth had to be shared. The byword was solidarité: the new wealth tax went by the acronym ISF, Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune (it has never been abolished since all our successive presidents believe our Marxist-lite media-massaged public opinion wouldn’t stand for it.) Keynesian economics would inevitably provide jobs and prosperity. When newly-flush consumers had the bad taste to prefer Japanese-made VCRs to French-produced goods, stiff tariffs and regulations were slapped on faster than you can say WTO. The result was predictable: inflation; more, not less, unemployment; and successive devaluations of the franc.

It took Mitterrand’s sobered cohorts, minus the Communists who did not survive the first Cabinet reshuffle, less than two years to make a complete u-turn. By the mid-80s, France was dipping a collective toe in the uncharted waters of stock-market deregulation. By 1990, a nominally-Socialist Finance minister (later PM), Pierre Bérégovoy, prided himself on the success of Paris’s derivatives exchange.

It would be tempting to resign oneself to the likely election of Barack Obama as a coming moment of painful silliness, tinged with vainglorious ideology, to be endured for a relatively short time, before its more noxious side-effects can be reversed. Some points, after all, have to be made. The French wanted to show that the Fifth Republic was not the property of a single party. Americans would like to prove - to themselves first - that they have put behind them for good a past of racism and bigotry.

Mitterrand and Obama, both lawyers with little actual practice but ample oratory gifts, have a lot in common, foremost a burning ambition and far less ideological principles than their troops. The Obama who cites as solipsistic proof of his executive experience the very fact that he is running a large campaign, is not so far removed from the maneuvering Fourth Republic hack who showed an undistinguished but long career as evidence of his capacity to lead the Republic. Supporting in turn Vichy France and the resistance, French Algeria then anti-Colonialism, anti-Communists then the Socialist-CP alliance, François Mitterrand never failed to reinvent himself in the direction he felt would more advance his personal ambition. (The Socialist Party he remodelled to his own specifications ended up with a lot in common with the Chicago Democrat machine, too.) In throwing under the bus his pastor or his foreign adviser, Obama shows signs of a similar flexibility.

Yet the situation is hardly comparable. In an interesting reversal, a President Obama might well find himself the Leftmost head of State at any forthcoming G8 among the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel and Harper, just as the Socialist Mitterrand had to deal with Maggie and Ronnie. But the world was a far less interconnected place a quarter of century ago. Economic decisions in France affected the world economy even less than they would today. The leading position of the US, despite constant claims that it’s been overtaken by the New Tigers, means that a housing slump in North Dakota influences the Italian stock market - and an Italian stock market plunge destroys jobs in Detroit. The stakes today are higher, faster, riskier.

And, of course, there’s the rhinoceros in the room - foreign policy and the threat from Islamist extremism. For all his faults - he misread, and mistrusted, the collapse of Communism, and appointed as his last Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, the architect of codified international anti-Americanism - François Mitterrand fell on the right side of the fence at critical moments, such as when France sent troops to Beirut in 1982, or joined the first Gulf War coalition. The worst terrorist attacks on French soil occurred under Mitterrand, masterminded by Algerian Salafists or Pasdaran-commissioned Iranians. A Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 58 of our paratroopers at 6:20am on October 23, 1983, precisely two minutes after another hit 241 US marines at Beirut airport. An old man with a very long memory and an acute sense of the balance of power, Mitterrand would never have opened talks with Iran without stiff preconditions.

Obama has none of these old world wiles. Surrounded by superannuated Carter administration hacks, frisky neo-Marxists, and UN-admiring CFR alumni, he buys into the al-Jazeera image of the US and believes America can gain the world’s affection with the same charming techniques he employed to win a seat on the Illinois State Senate, or that his wife deployed to soften her image on The View. He may realize his error at the first lost round of negotiations, but by then it might be too late.

© Copyright Hudson Institute New York & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

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