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For France--and Europe--It's About Anti-Americanism

June 15, 1997|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an associate editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — With the end of the Cold War, the European left seemed to be finished. In the West, conservative leaders such as President George Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl claimed victory over communism. In Eastern Europe, liberal governments rushed to adopt pro-capitalist policies. Socialism was out; capitalism was in. The American model of democracy and free markets was sweeping the globe.

But now the recent upset victory of the Socialists in the French parliamentary elections suggests a backlash against Americanization is taking place. The French have just staged what amounts to a new revolution against global capitalism as espoused by the United States. This revolt of the French electorate against President Jacques Chirac's ruling Gaullist Party is the latest sign that in Europe, far from descending into oblivion, the left has never left.

The French are rejecting the American recipe of slashing the welfare state and embracing raw capitalism. Like many Europeans, the French see American-style democracy as, in fact, wildly undemocratic. Europeans want jobs, but they also want generous health insurance, day care, unemployment insurance and a redistribution of income. That is why the Communists and the Green Party, as well as the Socialists, made strong showings in the elections. The French have decided that capitalism really doesn't work.

The main thing French voters were rebelling against was the attempt of the European Union to copy the United States. The aim of the EU is to create what Winston Churchill, in a famous speech, called a United States of Europe. The role of the United States in pushing for European integration cannot be exaggerated. The 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan this year offers a reminder of how much the United States did after World War II to rebuild Europe. American leaders saw European integration, that is, the creation of a superstate located in Brussels that would run the continent, as the much-desired ideal.

European integration has proceeded by fits and starts. In many ways, Europe has united economically. Yet, it still lacks the most important symbol of a united continent: a single currency. Until the currencies are united, so the thinking goes, Europe will remain un-unified. But a United States of Europe has started to look like an increasingly remote possibility. Because a single currency would depend on the French. And the French, who have always resented the influence and power that America exercised on the continent after World War II, are looking askance at a United States of Europe.

As long as the French thought that they would control a single Europe, they were happy with the idea. Europe was supposed to be a vehicle with which to challenge the United States. It was the United States that had usurped the leading imperial role the French had grown accustomed to exercising. But now the United States, more than ever, is setting the tune on both military and economic matters in Europe.

So the French, among others, have begun to see the EU as the ultimate threat to national sovereignty. They don't want to be swallowed up into a single United States of Europe, with no control over their finances. The way a single currency is currently structured, countries have to meet strict debt limits. That means keeping down spending on public projects, including work for the unemployed.

This is why the French, like many other Europeans, have begun to see the single European currency--the euro--as the most potent threat to the postwar welfare state. The Communists and Greens are see monetary union as stripping France of power over its own affairs. The French see a single currency as a part of a move toward global capitalism. And capitalism looks like a disaster for social benefits, because it doesn't just exacerbate the differences between classes--it cements them. The response of Lionel Jospin, the new prime minister, to global capitalism has thus been to call for a new social charter that protects the working class from the economic shocks of the world economy.

In Britain, Tony Blair ousted John Major; in France, Jospin defeated the Gaullists, and in Germany, Kohl will face a stiff challenge from Social Democrats in federal elections in 1998. These Social Democrats may vary in the extent to which they regard unbridled capitalism with anxiety, but they all call for a new social compact with their electorates. This call means the focus in Europe is no longer on slashing the welfare state and maintaining restrictive monetary policies of high interest rates. Quite the contrary. It is on creating jobs. The declared focus is on the individual, not on autonomous corporations.

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