The University Bookman

 
 

Winter 2017

The Future of France

book cover imageFaire
by François Fillon.
Albin Michel, 2015.
Paper, 313 pages.

book cover imageVaincre le totalitarisme Islamique
by François Fillon.
Albin Michel, 2016.
Paper, 155 pages.

Eamon Moynihan

Less than three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, longtime French politician François Fillon won the primary for the center-right coalition in their presidential election, which will culminate in a two-person run-off on May 7th. At this point, Fillon is considered a strong favorite, although recent developments could complicate his path forward. These include charges of no-show work for his wife, which he has strongly denied, and the surprising rise of a former investment banker, who created his own boutique party after splitting with the Socialists. The books reviewed here, which will not be translated into English, provide a good backgrounder on his unusual brand of politics. Moreover, they demonstrate why, if elected, he is likely to become a significant figure on the global stage. Somewhat paradoxically, he can be viewed as both a precursor to Donald Trump and as the anti-Trump. In effect, he is the kind of nominee that many American conservatives were hoping for in 2016 but which, for a variety of reasons, our political process did not or could not produce.

The title of the first book does not have an obvious translation, although as any high-school French student will recognize, the word faire means “to do” or “to make.” A blurb on the back reads, “A unifying theme: freedom! An obligation: faire. Finally!” For this review, let’s suggest “Action!” as a reasonable facsimile of the point that Fillon is trying to make. His belief in the need for action is suggested by the first chapter, whose title is “Bankruptcy,” a reference to a comment he made at a public meeting in September 2007, not long after being appointed prime minister by former president Nicholas Sarkozy. In response to a jeremiad from a Corsican union leader, he responded, “I am at the head of a state that is financially bankrupt.… I am at the head of a state that has not passed a balanced budget in 25 years. This cannot endure.” He is making these comments, it should be emphasized, a full year before the global financial crisis.

As befitting a campaign book, the next chapters are designed to personalize him. Thus, we learn that while he really liked politics, Fillon first dreamed of becoming a mountain guide. He says he has climbed extensively in both the Pyrénées and to a lesser extent the Alps. He also recounts his passion for car racing, noting with obvious excitement that he has taken private lessons on the famous race track at Le Mans, not far from his hometown in the Loire Valley. Significantly, he tells us that his father and grandfather knew everything there was to know about the war in the Vendée, the bloody uprising that broke out further west during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. He notes, interestingly, that one of his predecessors as mayor of Sablé-sur-Sarthe was the first “maire de couleur” in the history of mainland France. As Fillon recounts, he was a veterinarian from Martinique, first elected in 1934, who later joined the Resistance and died while being deported to Buchenwald.

With respect to his political program, two themes stand out. In a chapter entitled “Regaining Control of our Destiny,” he calls for a significant reduction in the size and cost of government, stating that on a percentage basis, France employs twice the number of government workers that Germany does; he has subsequently said that he wants to reduce the number of government employees by 500,000. As part of this reduction process, he plans to extend the work week from 35 to 39 hours. For those workers who are retained, he has promised to increase salaries. Fillon also says he will restore the age of retirement to 65 to reduce the cost of pensions. Further, he promises significant changes in labor law. In another chapter entitled “Belief in Progress,” Fillon makes clear that he has no time for modern environmentalism. Deriding what he refers to as a “new religion” that is dedicated to “décroissance” or “shrinkage,” he writes, “We have learned to be afraid of everything, of nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, fracking, nanotechnologies, globalization.” Rejecting what he calls the “absurd precautionary principle,” he wonders whether “the land of the Enlightenment” is still recognizable. “The world challenges us,” he says, “and we respond with obscurantism, jealousy, fear of progress, hatred of success, a blind egalitarianism that drives talent into exile and causes poverty to rise.”

Fillon’s politics also involve an unusual willingness to acknowledge his Catholicism and a more tentative willingness to support social conservatism. He tackles these issues in two chapters, one entitled “Faith” and the other “Authority.” In the chapter entitled “Faith,” he writes, “I see in religion an interior force that summons life to rise towards an ideal. It is, since its origins, a remarkable attempt to humanize a desperately untamed humanity and give it the hope of an eternity that can render its brief passage on earth more bearable.” In this context, he addresses two controversial social issues, abortion and same-sex marriage. Of abortion he writes, “I believe in the sacred nature of life that Catholicism has taught me, but I consider choice as a fundamental right. I made that decision in good conscience a long time ago.” With respect to same-sex marriage, he writes, “I understand the desire of homosexual couples to be recognized for who they are.” But, “I contest the desire to have children, which can only be satisfied through adoption or surrogacy, which puts into question one of the fundamental principles of our society, which is kinship [filiation].” And then: “There is no right to a child. This notion is profoundly unhealthy. It proceeds from an incredible egoism that makes a child into a mere instrument for the happiness of its parents.”

In the chapter on “Authority,” he makes a strong defense of the family in general. “Nothing,” he says, “can replace the family in terms of human development, in how we learn to master authority and respect.” In a reference to the massive but unsuccessful protests against the imposition of same-sex marriage in France, he says, “The movements that were born in opposition to mariage pour tous were all based on a belief that I share: the essential role of the family. Without it, society would be dehumanized, totalitarian, “socialist” in the sense of the stultifying regimes in the East that lost fifty years of history to the twentieth century. Without it, life consists of loneliness, filling out forms, and waiting in line.” In this chapter, Fillon also weighs in on transgenderism, which arguably is the Lysenkoist cousin of the effort to redefine the family. Here he writes, “The force of popular opposition to the wacky [farfelu] project of introducing gender theory into the school curriculum is explained by the exasperation of seeing the State intrude everywhere, going directly into the home, trying to regulate everything.”

In the event, at the end of the book where he lays out his agenda for the first three months of his administration, Fillon makes clear that the social issues will not be his first priority. He writes, “The social questions, which the Left has waved like a red flag, will in particular become the subject of calm and patient reflection.” And yet this could be where Fillon has his greatest influence, especially in the United States, where the consequences of family breakdown have been most acutely felt. There are two reasons for this. One is the teleological conceit on the part of the Left that “History” favors a progressive agenda. In this regard, President Obama never grew tired of referring to the arc of history, which always seemed to be bending wherever he wanted it to go. If France can puncture this conceit and implement the reforms that Fillon supports, this will undoubtedly encourage conservatives in America and elsewhere to believe that they can as well. The second is that in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court went out of its way to argue that changing the definition of marriage would be good for children in same-sex households, who otherwise would “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.” A French reversal on same-sex parenting would take direct aim at the underlying presumption of this essentially political assertion.

Another timely matter relevant to the United States concerns Russia. In a chapter entitled “Lunch with the Devil,” which refers to a day-long negotiating session he held with Vladimir Putin, he explains why he believes that France and Europe more generally have to engage with Russia, regardless of who may govern the country. Going all the way back to 1994, he says, when he was Minister of Research, he helped launch a joint Franco-Russian satellite program called Starsem. He says people in France did not like it. Nor did people in Russia. But because of this and other efforts, he argues, France has reaped significant economic benefits. The lunch in question occurred in November 2011. The focus was supposed to be on commercial issues, but Fillon says he took the initiative to pressure Putin on Syria. This was the response: “The Americans, after the Soviets, wanted to settle the Afghan question; they failed.… They plunged Iraq into chaos.… They abandoned Mubarak, paving the way for the Muslim Brotherhood.… In Libya, they lent their hand to the execution of Gaddafi, which can only lead to the return of tribal warfare.” Putin, for his part, saw no reason to replicate this pattern in Syria. What should the right approach to Putin be, according to Fillon? He recommends “hard negotiations” plus “lots of skill and patience.”

A key chapter in the book focuses on his likely opponent in the second round, Marine Le Pen. Arguing that it serves no purpose to accuse her supporters of being would-be fascists, he writes, “All the supporters of the National Front are not nostalgic for Maréchal Pétain.” Rather, he says, “they are tired of the pervasiveness of ‘political correctness’ and ideological conformity.” The problem with the National Front, he says, is twofold. First, “everything is blamed on scapegoats, foreigners, and Europe.… It refuses all comparison and competition. But a great country cannot be isolated from the world.… From this point of view, a European currency is a standard that makes it possible to evaluate and differentiate the economic performance of the different countries that share it. Leaving the Euro would be like breaking the thermometer instead of treating the illness.” And second, “the National Front defends completely unrealistic policies on government spending that rival the utopianism that one hears on the far Left. Roughly speaking, the reasoning is: Let’s get rid of these scapegoats and we will be able to do anything you can imagine, the money will flood in, no effort will be necessary.” Does any of this sound recognizable in an American context? Sadly, of course, it does.

An additional criticism that Fillon makes of the National Front does not have an American parallel, but is worth mentioning as it relates to how Americans should view the upcoming election. To this end, he makes the argument that from the beginning, the far right in France has never been a political movement that wishes to govern. Rather, he contends, its main purpose has always been to undermine the center right. He cites two historical examples. First, he recounts how François Mitterand cultivated the support of the veterans of the Algerian far right in the election of 1981 as a way of peeling off certain votes that would otherwise have gone to the conservative candidate, Giscard d’Estaing. He then cities a chilling experience he had as a young parliamentarian sent to Chad in the 1980s during a conflict with Libya. There, around a campfire, he started talking with another MP, Pierre Sergent, newly elected as a member of the National Front, who once had been involved in efforts to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. “I asked him if sometimes he had regrets,” Fillon writes. “In a theatrical manner, he looked at me and said, ‘Yes, I do have one regret. I missed.’”

The second book, Vaincre le totalitarisme Islamique was published in wake of the murderous truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day and arguably catapulted Fillon to victory in the presidential primaries later in the year. It can be translated as “Defeating” or “How to Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism.” Having criticized “political correctness” in Faire in 2015, he now raises the ante. As the blurb on the back states, “Let’s forget political correctness and the usual preconceptions: it is long past the time to call a cat a cat [yes, the French say that] and totalitarianism a totalitarianism. Yes, the bloody invasion of Islamism in our daily life could presage a Third World War. Yes, the real question will be how to overcome this terror that has taken aim at France and the French people. Enough with the rhetorical evasions, enough with the demagoguery. In lieu of the spirit of Munich that now emanates from the highest reaches of government, this challenge calls for the approach favored by Clemenceau: in politics ‘it’s necessary to know what you want. When you know it, it’s necessary to say it. When you say it, it’s necessary to have the courage to do it.’” Here Fillon lays out his approach to this exasperating problem.

Fillon begins by decrying what he considers “voluntary blindness.” In his view, this applies to many on the establishment left—he refers to what he calls a new trahison des clercs—but also the Islamic community. Here he singles out a French expression, which is not used in the United States but is easily recognizable. The French word is “amalgam,” which apparently has become something of a reflex reaction whenever there is a terrorist attack. The idea is that people should not lump the terrorists in with other law-abiding citizens. Fillon isn’t buying. “Ah, these words, ‘no amalgams.’ How many times do we hear them after each attack. Honestly, we still hear them ad nauseam.” Fillon also denounces the term “Islamophobia,” which he considers another kind of dishonest diversion. In terms of practical policy steps, Fillon makes two substantive criticisms. First, he complains that France did not establish the equivalent of a 9/11 commission to investigate the obvious failures by the security forces. Second, he criticizes the Hollande government for backing down from promises to work with Russia to defeat ISIS in Syria, apparently because of pressure from the Obama administration.

According to Fillon, the threat of Islamic totalitarianism is similar in many ways to the threat that totalitarianism posed during World War II. “To some this reference seems excessive,” he writes, “and yet we find ourselves before an adversary that pursues total war against us, not for the purpose of enslavement, but rather to annihilate us.” In this regard, Fillon argues that the roots of Islamic totalitarianism are deep indeed, and stem from a long alliance between religious and political authority. More than just a war against colonialism, he argues that the Algerian War was also a war for Islam, although, he says, it was never fashionable to admit this. Fillon also weighs in on the Iranian Revolution with a reference to those two madcap monsters, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. “The Iranian Revolution of 1979,” he writes, “represented the first truly public expression of Islamic totalitarianism.” Yet the West, he says, “was disbelieving, fooled by the silly interpretations of certain intellectuals, like Jean-Paul Sartre, who saw Imam Khomeini as a modern defender of liberty, and Michel Foucault, suddenly a devoté of ‘Discipline and Punish,’ Persian style.” The second expression of this totalitarianism, he says, occurred in Afghanistan, contributing in his view to the conflict in Bosnia. In defense of his use of the word totalitarianism, Fillon also underscores the close relationship between the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Lastly, he argues that the current destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East is a continuation of this underlying philosophy.

So what would Fillon do? In his view, the top priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Toward this end, he says, the global community must work with Russia. “That Russia has its own interests in the region is obvious, but let’s stop the naïve moralizing [l’angélisme]; who doesn’t in the Middle East? Having long been at odds with Islamic fanatics on their own soil, the Russians have chosen their camp.” With this thought he mind, he calls for an end to the “absurd” Russian embargo. He also says that Iran must be integrated into the effort to defeat ISIS. At the same time, he calls for punitive measures against Gulf States that continue to finance ISIS and other forms of radical Islam. At home, he calls for an increase in the defense budget, more support for the police, an expansion of the prison system, the renegotiation of Schengen, and the creation of a European version of the “no-fly list.” In a chapter entitled “Reconquering the Lost Territories,” he also calls for a crackdown on home-brewed anti-Semitism. More generally, he wants an end to policies that accommodate anti-Republican sensibilities, such as separation of the sexes. Finally, he decries the media that prefers to showcase people like Tariq Ramadan as the supposed face of moderate Islam, while ignoring many defenders of Western values who have spoken up at great personal risk.

Vaincre is a powerful book. As he does in Faire, Fillon adopts a strong rhetorical tone. Clearly, he recognized that there was deep antipathy to François Hollande and his left-wing policies that in many ways paralleled those of Barack Obama. Fillon also wears his Gallic pride on his sleeve, often invoking France’s significant historical achievements in terms of culture as well as science and technology. In Vaincre, he offers an impassioned argument for celebrating French history. “No, France was not born in 1789, and it did not pass from darkness into light in 1981.” And then, “But, apparently, some on the Left believe that teaching the rich hours of our past is tantamount to post-colonialism.”

As noted, Fillon is the kind of candidate that many American conservatives were hoping for in 2016, a champion of both free markets and traditional values. As such, his campaign is one that should be watched closely. It will be a test, first, to see whether his ideas can currently win an election in a Western nation, and second, if Fillon wins, whether his ideas can achieve their stated purpose. In the meantime, it will be particularly interesting to see how Fillon is covered in the American media, especially by such outlets as Drudge, which seems more intent on highlighting candidates on the irresponsible right, such as Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders. This will be a good barometer of the state of our democracy.  

Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.

Posted: January 29, 2017

Did you see this one? book cover

Celebrated Minor Contemporary American Poetry
Eugene Schlanger
Fall 2011

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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