Vivé la France: Resurrecting global democracy

Dhaka,  Sat,  27 May 2017
Published : 15 May 2017, 20:25:39 | Updated : 15 May 2017, 20:26:20
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Vivé la France: Resurrecting global democracy

Imtiaz A. Hussain
Not without reason, Vivé la France is, in May 2017, a global chorus. The very country where the masses first chanted liberté, equalité, fraternité, in other words, exposed a bottom-up democracy desire, has again risen to the occasion to decisively snatch democracy back from the jaws of a stubborn populism. Emmanuel Macron just happened to be the right person at the right place at the right time to etch another landmark in France's illustrious history. How this might pluck Europe out of its downward spiral and restore global faith in democracy must surely play second-fiddle to acknowledging France's decisive, mature voters.

They had more reasons than many, if not all, other Europeans to turn populist and champion that cause. Experiencing more terror incidents than any other European country, they had more justifiable reasons to build border-walls than the constantly complaining US politicians and people about low-wage import-floods. François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy refused to do so, even as public patience ran thin. Marine Le Pen exploited that sentiment but with principles and prescriptions too extreme for a seasoned public: the populism resonated as much as it reviled, in fact, more so. Those voters showed the political maturity not evident across the English Channel over Brexit or on the other Atlantic shore with Donald J. Trump's election. Salvaging democracy inside France may have nipped West Europe populism for now.

Dutch voters had stopped the populist stride across West Europe only a few weeks earlier. Nowhere would the relief sighs ripple more freely than in France, where the dominant parties of the entire Fifth Republic (from 1958), the Gaullists (Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou), neo-Gaullists (Jean Chirac and  Nicolas Sarkozy), Socialists (François Mitterand and François Hollande), and Republicans  (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing), were already being routed out of the political playground; and in Germany, where, in reversed Schlieffen fashion, should the Netherlands and France have fallen to the populist enemy, Europe's heartland would have been defenceless. Whereas Dutch voters 'dyked' populism, their French counterparts upturned it robustly. On its 72nd anniversary, VE (Victory in Europe) Day, May 08, commemorating victory against Nazi-ism, coincidentally fell on France's election result celebration day in 2017, a Victory in Europe against populism this time.

That does not mean a firmer European integration will now be automatic, especially as one 'spoilsport', Great Britain, has opted to leave, and the more endogenous populist threat lingers still in the nooks and corners, and at the gates. Brexit and Le Pen supporters exposed the frail and fickle European fabric. At no other time has Franco-German collaboration been more urgently needed than right now: not to enhance the European project just yet, but to make the vessel seaworthy again, meaning displacing the elitist for a people-level infrastructure to win full confidence, then to outwit dissonance and disagreements. Reforming Schengen, the Euro, and the entire Mediterranean economic malaise must pave the way for a more workable European Union. Tempting as it is to say today this could be the 'last call', as even defanged French populism remains the strongest opposition force to Macron's presidency: not the mainstream parties, nor the central terrorist apprehensions, but sheer political and economic neglect. I return to this point.

Even more reasons why Europe must be united and strong under the Franco-German axis is the apparent retreat of the United States from the world stage, or if not retreat, then the antagonism accompanying Trump's administration. With US global leadership so dramatically clipped, the emergent vacuum demands urgent attention and stewardship, which Europe is as qualified as any other region to undertake. Scribes and scholars already see German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the leader of the free world; and with the popular telegenic Macron, she can only strengthen European credentials. Before any economic revitalisation, which is Europe's sine qua non in the viciously competitive world today, confidence must be restored to the public, building upon that 'last chance' permitted by Dutch and French voters. The monumental subsequent tasks of reviving the French economy, then pulling Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain from under water, would supply the impetus to confront Europe's many other challenges.

Europe's second post-World War II reconstruction allows the opportunity to repay the United States for the first one (in the 1950s). It will be less economic in content and kind than political; and less political than psychological: how to persuade the US voters to ditch populism as decisively as the French. Once upon a time, France and the United States were the only democratic lighthouses in turbulent oceans of authoritarian, imperial, monarchical, and marauding entities. Both must hold democratic hands again if the opening years of the 21st Century are to avoid the pathways and outcomes of the opening years of the 20th Century.

Russia's menacing presence reminiscences the World War II reconstruction era, though less on the battlefield and market than in cyber-space. Macron's democratic home-run completely quashed a cyber election threat that must now be seen as another weapon of mass destruction. The verdict is still out in the United States if Trump's victory was aided, abetted, or both, by Vladimir Putin's official hackers. France's similar scarring through election-eve leaks was temporarily halted abruptly and appropriately. Germany's pre-emptive measures illustrate how such an elusive, evasive, and ephemeral weapon necessitates some game-changing democratic election exercise. France and Germany more than the United States can handle this defensive capability better for a number of reasons: with many more invasive interest groups, chances of colluding with the 'enemy' forces gets higher in the United States; the US preference of a posteriori assessments over the a priori does not pre-empt the problem; and the more unscrupulous Trump-Putin and Le Pen-Putin relationships than the Merkel-Putin counterpart. We might learn within our own life-times how deeply Trump and Le Pen were compromised by Putin and Russia.

Without a Macron victory, the cyber threat would become literally lethal, killing with it the very rubric of democracy; the European Union would not get the breathing space from the populist threat that it badly needs, not just to get back on its own two feet, but to also sensibly negotiate its maiden TEU (Treaty of the European Union) Article 50 negotiations; France would plunge into a political pit at a time when its economic recovery requires more urgent attention than populism, nationalism, or xenophobia would permit; and democracy aspirants the world over would only hide deeper in the cracks than perform in the open-field where democracy unfolds without a 'mature' democratic country to lean on and be inspired by.

Healing and changing trajectories take much more time, patience, and skills than preparing to win an election. Macron's bigger battles remain ahead of him, but for the youngest French chief executive since Napoleon Bonaparte, to stand on the winner's side of Waterloo than the loser's, unlike his infamous counterpart, France may have a lot more to gain than lose. A combination of Macron's inexperience, multiple local-level and peripheral needs, uniting a divided people, and re-negotiating France as a part of Europe than as its own sovereign self may easily make him the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong place. We hope not, since he is all there is before the dyke bursts again, this time possibly irreparably. Adroit leadership under the circumstances carries the thrill of another cheer for democracy: in addition to admitting variety and permitting criticism, as E.M. Forster once noted (that, too, against the fear of 1930s populism), France's liberté, equalité, fraternité instinct to resurrect fading, failing European, US, and global democracy. Vivé la France!

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd


 
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