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Saturday, May 27, 2017

American - French politics- those who ignore history are doomed to repeat

Mais vous  savez ce qu'on dit : Ceux qui ignorent l'histoire sont condamnés à la revivre.

(A concept most often attributed to huge massacres and wars, in particular The Holocaust.)

Emmanual Macron's French History Lesson for Donald Trump

By Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker


The first meeting between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, at what was billed as a “lengthy lunch,” during the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium—complete with veal filet, chocolate mousse (though no reports yet on whether Trump demanded his usual double share of dessert), and a super-strong competitive handshake—is a reminder that the French Presidential election resembled its American counterpart in every way but one. Well, two, counting the result. In France, as in America, the election pitted an extreme right-wing nationalist against a moderate technocratic liberal, but in France the leaders of the “Republican” right recognized the extreme nationalist right as a threat to democratic values and, after one round of voting, supported Macron, a man of the center-left who had served in a Socialist government. 

In the USA, (unfortunately) the leaders of the Republican Party made the opposite choice.

That difference made all the difference. 

Vive la différence

The space between the conservative, François Fillon, the defeated right-wing candidate, and Macron is, in ideological terms, every bit as large as the space between, say, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton. 


Donald Trump probably thinks "Molière" is an exotic French resort; but French President Macron can quote from the playwright's popular opening lines.

But Fillon understood that a Marine Le Pen in power would be a threat to the nation’s constitutional structure. The irony was that the French, with their (mostly unearned) reputation for craven surrender and opportunism, held fast to their deepest principles, while mainstream American rightists discarded theirs.

The reasons for this seem rooted, above all, in collective experience—in history. The French right has an institutional memory of the Vichy government, of the nineteen-forties, and of what collaboration between the honorable and the dishonorable right cost the country. It also understands the meaning of Charles de Gaulle’s example. The right still knows him as the man who, despite belonging, ideologically, to the most reactionary part of the right, grasped the essential difference between patriotism and nationalism, and insisted that no decent Frenchman could collaborate with evil, even if that collaboration put him in league against many of his lifelong enemies. The notion, put forward by some American conservatives, that Le Pen was de Gaulle’s heir is absurd: the French learned from Vichy that you can’t make a deal with the devil, even if the deal that the devil promises is to keep some other devil out. In this country, a “French”-style unequivocal denunciation of Trump by Republicans would have had an essential effect in an election that was decided, after all, by a handful of votes in a few states, and was clearly won, in the popular vote, by moderates.

As it is, Trump’s contempt for truth, law, democratic tradition, and what was once called “the good opinion of mankind” is on display every day. So much so that the one consolation has become the frequency of his scandals. Interfering with an F.B.I. investigation for personal political reasons is the sort of thing that led to Richard Nixon’s fall, but we are so engulfed by each revelation that the last outrage hardly registers with its proper force. (So here we are, debating Trump’s next choice to head the F.B.I., even when we should still be aghast at what he did to the last one.)

This week, though, no one should, under the pressure of Trumpism, sentimentalize Macron, or underrate his difficulties. It is wonderful to have a President who knows the opening lines of Molière plays by heart (and he plays the piano), but France has had erudite, and literary leaders before, such as François Mitterrand, and brilliant technocratic centrists, too, such as Valéry Giscard D’Estaing. Unfortunately, they have not been wholly successful in solving the country’s predicaments. 

Macron operates without a strong political base on the left or the right, and when, as is bound to happen, his policy proposals provoke demonstrations in the streets, he will somehow have to find more backbone to stand up for reform than any previous French President has found. At the same time, he has to stand up against the still-powerful right-wing nationalists. It’s a tall order for a master politician, and so far Macron has shown himself only to be a lucky one. 

Yet it’s hard not to envy France a little, too. How bad can it be? That was, invariably, the question that reasonable conservatives asked before, and even just after, Trump’s election. They believed that people were exaggerating Trump’s personal flaws and underestimating the power of the Party and the constitutional structures to contain and moderate him. They also thought that he would at least help move the country toward what they happened to view as desirable goals: reshaping President Barack Obama’s too-timid foreign policy, or confronting Islamist extremism more robustly, or simply treating government-controlled national health insurance as the abomination that conservatives honestly believe it to be. The other side insisted that people were wildly underestimating Trump’s pathology, and failing to learn the lessons of how nationalist autocrats and tyrants take over countries.

The other side, the “alarmists” in this case, have proved to be right. Yet the challenge remains for the left to avoid falling prey to tribal habits, as the right did. You see this risk in the insistence, surprisingly widespread, that there is no real point in resisting Trump, since the Republicans in Congress are complicit in his program. Mike Pence would be more dangerous to liberal causes, this argument runs, because he shares the Republicans’ beliefs and brings none of the chaos. Trump is almost better than Pence because he is more nakedly unfit for the office.
That is a Vichy-style mistake in itself. Democracies die when they can no longer distinguish between honest opponents of another ideological kind and toxic enemies who come from far outside all normal values. The Republican Party has functioned, by and large, within the constraints of liberal democracy. There are many obvious exceptions—the issue of the legality of government-sponsored torture, during the George W. Bush Administration, is but one key instance from recent years. 

Yet, it’s a legitimate reproach to liberals that, by maximizing Bush’s violation of the norms, as substantial as they were, they helped make it difficult to distinguish adequately between the Bushes and the Trumps of the world. We can, perhaps, blame the Bushes, as well, for failing to distinguish themselves adequately from Trump. Muttering under your breath, “That was some weird shit,” as George W. Bush is said to have done at the Inauguration, is not as significant as it would have been to say it before the election, when the weirdness and the darkness were already visible.

What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France—not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan. Broadening the opposition may help return us to the saner side of life. 

It might be a lesson we can learn from the French, who learned their lesson from history. 

(MaineWriter- Donald Trump doesn't know anything about Molière , never mind being able to quote from any of the French playwright's dialogues. Instead, he probably thinks Molière is a French resort, like Mar-a-lago.) 

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