Y’all have sent me a couple of great articles about France’s travails. I don’t have much to say about either, except that you should read these pieces. Though they bum me out as a Francophile, they’re worth a look.
The first is an entertaining Vanity Fair snarkfest by A.A. Gill about how the much-disliked Socialist martinet François Hollande stands for France’s diminished state. Excerpt:
What happened to France? To that savoir faire? And to French culture? To the country that we all loved enough to make allowances to put up with the casual hauteur and the studied rudeness? Because, after all, this was la belle France, and they could teach us a thing or two. They had something worth sharing.
But when was that? When was the last time you enjoyed, say, a contemporary French film? How many must-see French actors are there? Their most famous actor has now taken out Russian citizenship (and moved to Belgium). Name a living French painter worth the wall space. Name a great French musician. A novelist, apart from Michel Houellebecq—and the French hate him. Their vaunted cuisine has become a moribund tourist performance. Unable to change, terrified of innovation, France has become the Bourbons, who famously forgot nothing and learned nothing.
The thing is, the Gill piece sneers, but it has a point. I have heard the same thing from French friends. Earlier this year, Janine di Giovanni wrote from Paris that the country’s fear of change is smothering the future. Excerpt:
Granted, there is much to be grateful for in France. An economy that boasts successful infrastructure such as its high-speed rail service, the TGV, and Airbus, as well as international businesses like the luxury goods conglomerate LMVH, all of which define French excellence. It has the best agricultural industry in Europe. Its tourism industry is one of the best in the world.
But the past two years have seen a steady, noticeable decline in France. There is a grayness that the heavy hand of socialism casts. It is increasingly difficult to start a small business when you cannot fire useless employees and hire fresh new talent. Like the Huguenots, young graduates see no future and plan their escape to London.
Elsewhere, Christopher Caldwell pens in the Weekly Standard a long, fascinating piece about the changing cultural politics of France, and how political correctness in the hands of a powerful state has created a volatile situation. Here’s how it begins:
On a bright Wednesday afternoon in late February a bunch of French Muslims gathered in an upstairs room at the Café du Pont Neuf on the Seine. They had summoned a group of Internet journalists before whom they intended to lay out a few grievances. Their leader, Farida Belghoul, a 55-year-old Frenchwoman of Algerian Kabyle background, is a veteran of the movement that, back in the 1980s, sought to rally North African immigrants’ children (known as beurs) behind Socialist president François Mitterrand. Belghoul was the eloquent and camera-friendly voice of the so-called Second March of the Beurs in 1984, but she drifted from view after that. She has spent the intervening years teaching, writing novels, making films, studying, and, most recently, living in Egypt. Journalists who have written about ethnicity, immigration, and left-wing politics in decades past retain a vague memory of her name.
Those who have reacquainted themselves with Belghoul in recent months have been shocked to see what has become of this onetime hope of socialism. She has seen a few things. She has drawn closer to God. And she has become the sworn enemy of the French Ministry of Education’s ideas about what children should be taught about sex. In the audience at the café, silhouetted against the windows that face across the Seine toward the towers of the Conciergerie, there were women in headscarves. But the speakers sitting at Belghoul’s side included leaders of Christian organizations, conservative politicians, a priest, and a former member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet. Many of them until quite recently thought of Muslim immigration as a menace to the Republic. All were there to pay their respects to a woman who, for now at least, has become one of the most important right-wing leaders in France.
PC has acquired institutional redoubts in France that it never did in the United States, and it now appears almost invincible. This may have to do with France’s Jacobin tradition, which centralizes everything governmental and discourages wiggle room. Right now the Ministry of Education is conducting a monomaniacal campaign to persuade schoolchildren that there is no difference whatsoever between boys and girls, other than the ones they have been taught by a sexist culture. The ministry aims to fight centuries of sexism and bigotry through a kind of counter-brainwashing: giving girls trucks and balls, boys bottles and dolls, and turning Little Red Riding Hood into a boy. So much for Vive la différence.
Opponents call such teachings la théorie du genre, or gender theory. In February, conservative UMP leader Jean-François Copé publicly criticized a list of books that were either required or suggested for use in schools. It was a bold move, a real coup, and might have had more effect on French voters had not the UMP already introduced a certain amount of gender theory to the schools under Sarkozy. The books Copé publicized included Does Miss Zazie Have a Peepee?, Daddy Wears a Dress, andEverybody’s Naked!, which contained vivid pictures of children and adults (“The babysitter is naked,” “The policeman is naked,” “The teacher is naked”) and promptly rose to number one on Amazon’s French website.
Two things turned the controversy over théorie du genre into a scandal. The first is that education minister Peillon and his associates claimed there was no such thing. Peillon professed himself “absolutely against” gender theory; he was just for teaching children about the interchangeability of the sexes at ever-younger ages. “You mustn’t confuse it with gender studies,” said women’s rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. “What they’re teaching [kids] is the values of the republic,” said finance minister Pierre Moscovici, “those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” They were, it turns out, taking their voters for dummies. The conservative television gadfly Éric Zemmour claimed that what was being taught came not from child psychology but from gay political activism. The new school materials were “carbon copies” of activist documents, he said, and he began to produce them: a plan to have the national railways “educate against homophobia,” memos from the Socialist party group Homosexuality and Socialism, last year’s government “Teychenné Report” on “LGBT-phobic Discrimination in Schools.”
The théorie du genre was the principle on which the government had been legislating in practice for the past two years—why on earth wouldn’t they avow it? If you accept that sexuality is chosen, not given, then there’s no shame in taking steps to broaden the options on a child’s sexual menu. It was obvious to everyone except the government that this new vision of the Rights of Man was precisely what parents did not accept. Normally in such circumstances, confronted with dug-in resistance, the government would adopt a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone and explain that the country was changing. It was getting more diverse. Our schoolbooks had to be opened to a greater variety of people. . . . But apparently there was a limit to diversity. In the weekly Marianne, the journalist Éric Conan noted a striking omission in this dynamic, multicultural time. “The Ministry of Education and the editors,” he wrote, “have carefully avoided Mohammed Has Two Daddies or Fadela Has Two Mommies.”
That is where Farida Belghoul came in.
I can’t begin to summarize the complexity of all this. Do, do, do read the whole thing. Caldwell concludes that the French establishment — governmental, educational, and media — has worked so hard to enforce a certain soixante-huitard version of political correctness, waging culture war on its own people and their traditions, that it has made some of the most regressive social forces in France — including anti-Semitism — respectable as a way to stand up against the Leviathan state. A similar thing happened a decade or so ago in the Netherlands, when Pim Fortuyn was on his way to becoming Holland’s prime minister (he was assassinated) because the Dutch establishment — governmental, educational, and media — was so overwhelmingly politically correct, especially on the subject of immigration, that a somewhat outrageous character like Fortuyn rose because he was willing to say what many, many people were thinking, but weren’t allowed by elites to express.
All of which is to say that if France gets a National Front government, it will have its established parties of the Left and the Right to thank.