By Adnan Khan
The aftermath of the attacks in Paris, France, has seen a pouring of emotion from around the world and a deep reflection within Europe itself. Whilst politicians and the media have gone into overdrive regarding the culprits and Muslims generally, Europe has a long and difficult history with those who do not espouse their values. The global media gave extended coverage to the unity march that took place in Paris on January 11, attracting over 3 million French citizens. The fact so many people felt the need to demonstrate in the name of national unity indicates there is a deeper problem in French society. In fact, the deep division within French society has been a glaring fact for some time. Whilst RO concentrates on global affairs with a focus towards the Muslim world, France, as a power in the world, has been in a profound crisis for some time, that is effecting its internal cohesion and capacity to engage globally. France’s domestic politics have impacted its international affairs and this can be seen from a number of areas.
France established a strong state in the centre of Europe in 1789, through what came to be known as the French revolution. The French governmental structure, previously a monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, underwent radical change to form a nation state based on the Enlightenment. France at the dawn of Capitalism was leading change in Europe. Many French philosophers and intellectuals gained social, political and philosophical influence on a global scale. Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, all described the separation of powers and were all a catalyst for government and societal reform throughout Europe. But with two brutal occupations in both world wars, France ceased to be a key power in the world and has been on a downward trajectory ever since. This has created created a an insecure France who is very pessimistic about the future of its nation. For decades, Europeans agonised over the power and role of Germany — the so-called German question — given its importance to European stability and prosperity. Today, however, Europe is talking about “the French question,” Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s largest news magazines in 2014 called France the ‘sick man of Europe.’
After WW2 France perceived the United States and particularly the US dominance of European foreign and defence policies through NATO, as a threat that could make Paris irrelevant. At the time, the French saw their country as a key world power that did not need hefty alliances, and that needed to stand apart from the United States. French policy centered on European integration as France attempted to strengthen itself through Europe. During the Gaullist era, In 1950 France proposed a community to integrate the coal and steel industries of Europe – two elements necessary to make weapons of war. But despite being the centre of the EU, France has lost many of its colonies to the US, especially in Africa. The US has curtailed French ambitions in Lebanon and even in Darfur – a region both France and Britain trumpeted in order to frustrate US plans in the south of Sudan. The US not only separated South Sudan it even brought those loyal to it to power in Darfur. France only has a tenuous hold over Mali after a US trained captain conducted a coup against the French backed government in 2012. Across the world France has little political presence and with the rise of nations such as China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey, French citizens struggle to compare the past with the present.
The French established a social democratic nation with the threat of communism during the cold war. This combined the free market with a large central government presence in the economy. This involved the direct ownership of companies in key sectors of the economy, such as mining and steel production, oil and gas, aerospace and automobile manufacturing, but especially the sectors that provided social services such as health and education. These sectors in which a few companies employed large numbers of employees were considered vital to the national economy. Legislation made it extremely difficult for such companies to lay off personnel. France also put in place wealth redistribution policies such as very high taxes on companies and individuals with high incomes. This was used to finance an elaborate welfare system. With an economy built on social democracy, this was never sustainable as it stifled economic development, it actually caused high unemployment and the welfare state led to huge debts. These social welfare programs since the fall of the soviet Union been a central feature in the French economy in order to maintain social cohesion, but they are no longer sustainable as French debts now exceed the countries economic output. France must borrow $367 billion a year just to roll over its debts. With around 10% of the working population constantly unemployed or refusing to work, France draws upon immigrant workers from its former colonies to the jobs French people refuse to do. The European sovereign debt crisis has only exacerbated this and as a result a growing number of French believe that people from other cultures are threatening their national identities and livelihoods. Jacques Chirac set up the Stasi commission in 1998 to research and propose policies on the decline of secularism in France, eventually leading to the veil ban in 2010. The French also tried to start a discussion in 2009, when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a public debate on “what it means to be French” — an exercise that degenerated into a debate about the role of Muslims in the country.
Despite 85% of the French population being white, 9 million immigrants (6 million – North Africans (10%), 2 million, Blacks (3.5%), and 1 million Asians (1.5%) are threatening the social fabric of everything France stands for. French history and colonial history consist of spreading French culture and having its colonies actually like its culture. The French are notoriously sensitive—if not defensive—about France’s stature in the world. The French state spends vast amounts of money to propagate the French language and French culture. But this has been on a downward trajectory since WW2. In the African interior, Haiti, Syria, Lebanon and Québec the French language has all but ceased to be the language of choice, replaced mainly with English. The French have never got over Algeria, as the country showed it was less French as the decades went by, even attempting to usher in an Islamic government in 1991. With French Imperial ambitions effectively ended in North Africa the demand for labour resulted in Muslims coming to France for economic reasons and not to join in a cultural transformation. The attacks that took place in Paris on 7 January 2014 confirmed that France has failed to make successive decades of Muslim migration French. Considering the French role in bringing enlightenment values to Europe this is a failure of epic proportions.
The malaise at the heart of France is the fact that French culture is in decline and even migrants to France never embraced what it meant to be French. Despite blaming the foreigner for the malaise France is under, this is more telling of French culture than the foreigner. According to researchers, the French have been abnormally unhappy for decades, consistently failing to match their satisfaction levels with their quality of life. Research carried out since the 1970s consistently reveals France as a depressed, paranoid nation which consumes more antidepressants than the rest of Europe and suffers one of the continent’s highest levels of suicide. Even the French military, for long a symbol of French global strength is in decline. The military is struggling with 45-year-old refuelling aircraft, 28-year-old armoured vehicles, 30-year-old helicopters and a fleet of tanks of which as few as 50% are actually in working order. Even the nation’s nuclear capability, another symbol of French strength fundamentally rests upon its small nuclear submarine fleet, just barely large enough to sustain a continually patrolling presence of one boat
Whilst the attacks in France have been condemned by all, these have now confirmed the malaise at the heart of France. Many within France consider French culture to be dead. Whilst France at the dawn of Capitalism was leading change in Europe, today most thinkers, new ideas and philosophers come from the US. This has created a very insecure France who has become very pessimistic about the future of the nation. Whilst much of the blame has for long been directed at its small migrant population it is France that has failed to impose its culture on them and the world and this malaise has now permeated all section of the country.