Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Une maxime française (?)

There is a French maxim saying nothing kills as surely as ridiculousness
writes John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune.
It probably goes back to the royal court at Versailles where the wrong ruffle, or faulty flounce, or stocking hue (not peach, you fool, but apricot! ) first meant hilarity, then dead men walking.

Much the same rule seems to pertain to European politics in 2005. Ridiculousness continues to look lethal.

I'm thinking of a separation from reality these days that overwhelms the acceptably contradictory and becomes grotesque - the equivalent of generals ordering their vanquished armies to defend destroyed fortifications to the death.

This is not insisting that politics should survive without contradictions and maneuvering, which, like digressions, are often the best part of the story.

But after the rejection of the European Union's constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands, and Gerhard Schröder's mortifying defeat in a regional election in Germany's biggest state, there is a degree of political slippage, a mortal skid, really, whirling Schröder and Jacques Chirac at the heart of Europe in the direction of the absurd.

The […] French-German-supported diversion might successfully offload attention for the moment from Chirac and Schröder's leadership to Tony Blair's supposed budgetary intransigence. But it concretizes a kind of ridiculousness - offering, instead of a ruthless post-mortem discussion, the deathly internal EU tactics that Europeans have now shown they despise and that the president and chancellor just may not outlive.

In any event, neither man will die from an overload of coherence.

From fear of popular revolt, Chirac and his novice prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, are quixotically saying that no economic reform will be allowed in France that would challenge the 1960s welfare state apparatus they insist on calling the "French social model."

Schröder, in turn, claims he will defend the thin structural reforms he has undertaken. But he bases his argument for new elections in September on his reported confession to the German federal president - who will decide in July if the national vote can go ahead in September - that his own Social Democratic and Green parliamentary majority no longer has confidence in his course!

… Not everybody takes this on straight-faced. Elements of Chirac's Gaullist party openly mock his sworn "social model" bottom line. Patrick Devedjian, a right-hand man to Nicolas Sarkozy, the party's president, said over the weekend: "The French social model isn't a model, because no one wants to emulate it. It's not social, because it's caused record unemployment."

… In the middle of this, the following brainstorm: Villepin, who had toyed publicly with the idea two years ago, said in his first major policy speech that the countries ought to move toward a French-German Union in "specific political areas." Whacked upside the head by this added incongruity, Schröder's government first responded that it "is not on the current agenda."

In fact, if Villepin is talking airily about union, it's a next-to-ridiculous concept in real time. The French have no plans to share their most treasured international lever with their neighbors: Take it on good authority, it was French insistence earlier this month that led Germany to drop its demand for UN Security Council veto-power from its very shaky bid for a council seat. …
Speaking of ridicule, Roger Cohen listed 10 points about the Constitution that "have become clear", even before the French vote took place. Nr. 7 was:
The U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase "We the People of the United States." The German, in its first sentence, says "The German people have adopted, by virtue of their constituent power, this constitution." But the EU constitution begins by saying that "His Majesty, the king of the Belgians" and other European heads of state have "agreed on the following dispositions." The French, in their unease over the treaty, have seized on something antidemocratic in its drafting and presentation. By so doing, they have already done Europe a service.

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