PARIS -- Most Americans don't care what happens in France. But the oldest country in "Old Europe" remains the Western world's intellectual capital and one of its primary originators of political trends. (Google "May+1968+Sorbonne.")
The French are reacting to a situation almost identical to ours--economic collapse, government impotence, corporate corruption--by turning hard left. National strikes and massive demonstrations are occurring every few weeks. How far left? This far: the late president François Mitterand's Socialist Party, the rough equivalent of America's Greens, is considered too conservative to solve the economic crisis.
A new poll by the Parisian daily Libération finds 53 percent of French voters (68 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds) favoring "radical social change." Fifty-seven percent want France to insulate itself from the global economic system. Does this mean revolution? It's certainly possible. Or maybe counter-revolution: Jean-Marie Le Pen's nativist (some would say neofascist) National Front is also picking up points.
One thing is certain: French politics are even more volatile than the financial markets these days. In yet another indication of How Far Left?, the Communist-aligned CGT labor union is on the defensive for not being militant enough. "We're not going to put out the blazing fires [of the economic crisis]," the CGT's secretary general said, trying to seize the initiative by calling for another strike on February 18th. "We're going to fan them."
Two new entities, a Left Party (PG) umbrella organization trying to unify opposition to the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy (who'd be to the left of Obama in the U.S.) and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), have seized the popular imagination. The NPA claims to have registered more than 9000 "militants" willing to use violent force to overthrow the government if given the word.
"Only combat pays," read a banner at the NPA's first convention.
Communism is dead, most pundits--the mainstream, stupid ones anyway--have been telling us since the USSR shut down in 1991. As it turns out, the libertarians were wrong. Half-right, anyway: Human nature may be inherently individualistic, as free market capitalists claim, but it's also inherently social. When economies boom, most people are sufficiently satisfied to leave well enough alone. Who cares if my boss gets paid 100 times more than I do? I'm doing OK. As resources become scarce, however, we huddle together for protection. The sight of a small rich elite hoarding all the goodies violates our primal sense of fairness.
"In Soviet times," a man in present-day Tajikistan told me, "we lived worse than we do today. But we were all the same. Now we live a bit better, but we have to watch rich assholes pass us in their Benzes." Which would he choose? No hesitation: "Soviet times."
In America, a French cliché goes, people are afraid of the government. In France, the government is afraid of the people. With good reason, too: the French have overthrown their governments dozens of times since the Revolution of 1789. The French are hard wired with class consciousness. Strikes, demonstrations and general hell-raising are festive occasions. Only when things spin totally out of control--as when Muslim youths rioted in the suburbs of Paris and other cities--are conservatives like Sarkozy able to make headway.
Riots over police brutality by disenfranchised minorities make the French nervous. But contempt for American-style "harsh capitalism," where citizens pay $800 a month for healthcare and write nary a letter to their local newspaper to complain, is 100 percent mainstream. The French don't think they should have to suffer just because some greedy bankers went on a looting spree.
Even Sarkozy is getting the message. "We don't want a European May '68 in the middle of Christmas," he warned his ministers in December. He shelved proposals to loosen regulation of business. Arnaud Lagardère, CEO of the Lagardère Group, told the financial daily Les Echos: "We're seeing, in renewed form, the most debatable aspects of Anglo-Saxon capitalism called into question."
The French and Americans face similar problems. But their temperamental differences lead them to different conclusions. An average working-class Frenchman possesses a deeper understanding of economics, politics, history and economics than most college professors in the U.S. Go to a bar or café, and sports will be on the television--but not on people's lips. They're talking politics and how to force their leaders to protect their quality of life.
Americans, on the other hand, don't expect direct help from their government. They're giving Barack Obama time to see whether his economic recovery program will work. It won't, of course; economists say so. But indolent hopefulness is less work than chucking Molotov cocktails.
Back in France, the NPA sets off rhetorical bombs Americans wouldn't dream of. "We're not a boutique party out to get votes, or an institutional mainstream party, but a party of militants," says the NPA's leader to the Le Monde newspaper. "We're real leftists, not official leftists." The NPA is currently negotiating a temporary alliance of convenience with the Communists.
A communist revolution in western Europe would be greeted by curiosity and derision in the U.S. state-controlled media. But if such a social upheaval were to protect French living standards from a global Depression spinning out of control, it might also prove inspiring to increasingly desperate Americans.