Sunday, 12 July 2009

New Auld Alliance



Two unrelated discussions on the internet have got me to thinking about Franco-British relations.

If nothing else, there is one positive thing about the financial crisis. It might knock the smugness out of the British media who sneer incessantly at the French. But of course it won't. No other inconvenient facts have.

I don't pretend to be unbiased. I support the economic egalitarianism and pragmatic foreign policy of France. Like most Scots, I have distant French ancestry. Some of the most 'Scottish' names (Bruce, Gordon, Menzies, Fraser, Stewart, Grant) are of French Norman origin and we have the Auld alliance.

Yet we Scots are also Brits and are thus part of a country that devotes itself to being not French. In this at least, we have succeeded admirably

-We do not have a world class transport system

-We do not have a world class healthcare system

-We do not have a world class education system

-We do not have influence on the world stage

-We did not avoid the debacle in Iraq

-We do not have a vibrant political culture with competing views

-We do not have a cohesive egalitarian society

-We do not have an intelligent film industry

-We were not not humiliated by Barack Obama's presents

-We are not not humiliated by America for our part in the war on terror

-We are not not deluding ourselves about a 'special relationship'

-We do not have proportional representation

-We have not such diplomatic achievements to our credit as securing peace between Russia and Georgia

It's good to know that Britain can still achieve something when it sets its mind to it.

My friend Bogdan discusses this on his website. He is right in his overall assessment that much of Britain is obsessed with past achievements and has a puerile attitude towards the French.

I'd agree with this, but add that France the material country that we defeated almost two centuries ago is one thing the neo-liberals moderately dislike. The theoretical France is something else: the hated embodiment of a theory that is at odds with neo-liberalism. It is based on a freedom that is unrelated to plutocracy or taxation. Where freedom IS freedom. Whilst France is regarded as an intellectual country, and has an excellent education system, the most famous recent philosopher is probably Albert Camus who stated that morality should be simple.

Ironically, it is Britain that has a far more contrived view of freedom. This is articulated by the neo-liberal media in terms that are blind to any type of freedom except financial freedom.


For the British neo-Liberals, the French form of positive-liberty has never washed off the stains of the French revolution, and egalitarianism will always lead to tyranny.

Instead, economical liberty is the only type worth having. Subsequently, General Pinochet brought freedom to Chile by lowering taxation.

Essentially there are people who think it would be a net contribution to freedom to use a starving rat and pair of pliers to torture dissidents if it means that top income bracket earners get a tax break.

France by contrast has a more cthonic Mediterranean view of freedom, which comes from being disrespectful to authority. Let's see how our two countries compare according to Privacy International:

Hmm. And before we hear the usual guff about Gordon 'McStalin' Broon thwarting the Anglo-Saxon love of freedom, let's also look at these statistics.

But... but... surely the French obsession with redistribution and state industry is a sign of fiscal irresponsibility, which will really hurt in the future compared with our pragmatic small government economy? Uh, no. The French foreign debt is roughly half that of ours.

The neo-liberal view of freedom is dead on its feet. Given that its leading lights include Pinochet, Yeltsin and Videla, I see no reason why it is still in existence.

Contrast this with the French view of freedom, which is far purer. Furthermore, their social structure is more economically egalitarian. However France is intellectually less egalitarian than Britain in the sense that high qualifications are necessary for power and influence. Yet they believe in promoting people due to their intelligence. Britain seems to prefer the caprices of the free market which usually over-promotes scumbags and goons (CF Murdoch, Rupert).

If Scotland gets its independence (which I think highly likely, especially if Cameron is elected and applies for an IMF loan: the tried and tested way of destroying a nation) I hope that we will have the wisdom to learn from the French and to form a special relationship. No, France is not perfect. Far from it. But some nations are further from perfect than other nations.

14 comments:

  1. Interesting take on things Gregor - I would like to write a longer comment - I love France and have a lot of things in my head I'd like to mull over and discuss about it, but I'm pretty busy at work just now so I'll make a couple of quick comments from my own experience on France:

    in your piece above you are pretty withering about the British notion of economic freedom - I agree with you that there are a lot of distateful elements to financial liberalism - hideous fat cat bankers, corporate monsters paying effectively 0% tax through loopholes, the list goes on.

    However for the individual there can be good outcomes from a liberal free market at a low level. An anecdote I've heard a few times is that the Californian computer industry couldn't have started in Germany (or France?) because health and safety regulations wouldn't allow a company to be set up out of a garage.

    Whether or not this anecdote is true it's worth remembering that however much we might dislike America we have to accept that without its liberal freemarket it's highly unlikely any of us would be typing on these great tools of democratic communication and information.

    Anyway Gregor - I had some more things to say about France but I really have to get back to work so I wont be able to get into my stride here ! - will try to post the rest tomorrow,

    G

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  2. I generally agree but you might be forgetting some of France's problems-- race riots in the banlieus etc..

    You are 100% right about the British media's sneering attitude though.

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  3. Thank you for your comments.

    @Gareth
    I'm sure if a French businessman knew the right people and some money passed hands he could start a business in a garage ;-)... my father knows a French academic who scoffs at the official unemployment statistics in France and says that whilst on paper the French labour market is overly-bureaucratic, in practice many people accept work/ employees in private. I think this is because there is an inherently different attitude to the state in Britain than there is in much of Europe.

    However, my focus was mainly on freedom, and how the 'American' concept of freedom THROUGH economic liberty is rather flawed. A consumer society is generally weak and scared.

    'Whether or not this anecdote is true it's worth remembering that however much we might dislike America we have to accept that without its liberal freemarket it's highly unlikely any of us would be typing on these great tools of democratic communication and information.'

    I don't dislike America, which is a strongly multicultural society, but it is rather that I dislike the British religious attitude towards the USA. It reminds me of the Borges story Tlon, where these pople find these encyclopedias dedicated to an invented world, and use this to change the real world into 'Tlon'.

    Look forward to reading your further insights about France (as you've been there, which I haven't).

    @Blackcat
    You are right about the race riots and the lack of integration with some French immigrant communities. France also has a rather dubious foreign policy.

    However, it seems that they have different ways of dealing with domestic strife than Britain has, with less of a surveillance society and a state that does not portray itself as the great protector.

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  4. Just a point about how economical liberalism is often portrayed as more enterprising and flexible than state projects:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jul/14/steven-soderbergh
    'In the characteristically noble pursuit of authenticity he decided to film Che in Spanish, a decision that effectively blitzed any hope of finding significant investment within the US.'

    Good call on the investors, eh? Who wants to hear a bunch of foreigners babbling incomprehensibly?

    Oddly enough, one of the most important film-directors of recent times is the goofy action movie actor Mel Gibson. Yet (like many people) I was really stunned by Apocalypto. Then I shudder to imagine it done in English with injun accents (possibly dubbed by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong). You'd think Hollywood would have learnt that most people can read and follow a narrative, even if there is foreign talk in the background.

    Yet Mel is still not accepted by mainstream cinema companies (and I don't think his drunken rant and Holocaust denier dad are the sole reason). I think that a free market industry can be every bit as bureaucratic and stifling as any government organisation.

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  5. Hello everyone!

    I just wanted to say that I'm happy both Gareth & I are trying to prevent Gregor from becoming excessively anti-American :-)

    Maybe it's a bit offtopic, however, as a Eastern European (coming from a country that has been considered and considering itself francophone' for the past 159 years or so), I find British society (with all its faults) to be far more WELCOMING to foreigners than the French one.

    Britain is more open to strangers, and this makes the current anti-terror laws utterly 'un-British' :-(

    A little list of objections to Gregor's opinions:

    - French education system is overevaluated. Public schools may be better in France (compared to the current disaster in Brit schools!), but British universities are over French ones in all 'world best universities' tops.
    - the so-called French diplomatic 'successes' are no better than the UK's failures.
    - let's not forget what Czarny Kot mentioned about the race riots; fortunately, the UK seems to be far from that.
    - there is plutocracy in France as well; the State capitalism is in the hands of 'les riches' - qui sont touts tres bons amis de 'Sarko'.
    - many French intellectuals are fanatical leftists ('gauchistes') a 'species' of peopel as dangerous as the neoliberals as Gregor dislikes

    Anyway, I'm glad I inspired you, dear Gregor, in writing about how France is viewed by the Brits. What I don't agree with is the idea that France would be somehow 'closer' to being a perfect society than the UK.

    I just think that there are good things each nation could learn from each other, and the problem I noticed is that the Brits are rather unwilling to do so.

    These are too very pround nations, but the French are somehow cleverer than the Brits - they are proud, but also secretly 'stealing' good ideas from around the world. They will never openly admit it, yet they appreciate what's 'good' in other countries.

    The Brits are also very proud but, unfortunately, also too self-complacent :-(

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  6. @Bogdan

    ‘What I don't agree with is the idea that France would be somehow 'closer' to being a perfect society than the UK.’

    I hope it came across that I was not putting France forward as another idealised society (I think even the greatest Francophile would have to admit the French have issues with modesty ;-) it is rather to demonstrate that the French concept of freedom seems to be more viable than the Anglo-American one. And given that (according to Privacy International) Britain is just above Communist China in its civil liberties, I really think that we are in a crisis and need a better model. Especially as America has become so mismanaged that it is also in a black zone.

    ‘Many French intellectuals are fanatical leftists ('gauchistes') a 'species' of peopel as dangerous as the neoliberals as Gregor dislikes’

    I think everyone from the National Front to the Communist party (and of course neo-liberals) should have an active role in debates. I find it funny here that the BNP are treated as ‘anti-democratic’; however much we dislike their politics they have been elected. That we have a tedious middle-brow centre-right media that tells us which neo-liberal candidate we should vote for will probably lead to totalitarianism in the long run.

    Have you ever seen the footage of Bill O’Reilly yelling at a young man who lost his father in the WTC attacks? Neo-liberalism can be as brutal as any ideology. Yet it is most dangerous because it appeals to the affluent political classes, and unites social conservatives and social liberals both of whom feel they are served by it.

    My main secular philosophical hero is Karl Popper, with whom I had several disagreements in his outlook, but whose ideas of falsifiability are very important. Every political ideology will fall and be replaced, and it is dangerous to force it to remain. Sadly, given that I loathe the Republican Party, I have to say that Donald Rumsfeld best articulated my motto: ‘there are things we don’t know we don’t know’.

    The race riots are indeed nasty. However, I know very little about these immigrant groups and it does seem that the countries they came from are rather unpleasant places, politically speaking. A recent film Hidden was very controversial for mentioning a massacre in Paris of North African protestors. Very nasty and utterly inexcusable, yet it says something that the French are prepared to listen to it. Have the Algerians made any films about what happened to the North African supporters of the French Republic when the French Army left the country? It wasn’t pretty.

    ‘I just wanted to say that I'm happy both Gareth & I are trying to prevent Gregor from becoming excessively anti-American :-)’


    I do not think I am anti-American. In some ways I feel a kinship to American culture. Whilst I am not very ecumenically minded, I think it is a positive feature that the Americans treat abortion seriously, whilst I’ve found that British people treat the issue as if it is already solved and you must be a fundamentalist misogynistic right-winger to see an unborn child as a human being.

    Most Americans support freedom and want stricter abortion laws, yet the two party system means they end up voting for what they perceive as the lesser evil.

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  7. I actually find the term Anti-American odd in itself. Most Americans I’ve known seem to define themselves as hyphenated Americans. Also I thought the Americans themselves demonstrate the short-comings of their own political system. I don’t want to be cruel, but putting the senile John McCain up as a Presidential candidate, with a VP who thinks Africa is a country and people lived with dinosaurs is as severe an indictment of the FPTP system as you could get.

    However, it is America as the Vatican of neo-liberalism that I find disturbing. James Angleton actually planned a coup in Britain when we were under Harold Wilson.

    Speaking of which:

    ‘the so-called French diplomatic 'successes' are no better than the UK's failures.’

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Weren’t you pleased to see that Sarkozy helped secure peace between our Russian and Georgian brothers? What I find most ironic is that neo-liberals will often distance themselves from the religious right, despite resembling them. The religious right believes that Israel should be exempt from international law so that it will spark Armageddon and the Jews will either perish or convert to Christianity. This is almost identical to the neo-liberal view of Georgia. They claimed they were so pro-Georgian they wanted to give Saakashvilli carte blanche to bomb his own civilians and start trouble with Russia. Do you really think those neo-liberal pundits that patronised the Georgians as a brave little democracy cared how many Georgians would die in an escalating conflict? If Russia flattened Georgia, the British neo-liberals would have rejoiced that they could frighten their own population with news of evil Eurasia. They’d take away our few remaining liberties.

    And the French managed to avoid conflict in Iraq. If the official story is correct that 4 British Muslims blew themselves up in London to protest the Iraq war, surely that is worse than a race riot?

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  8. I'm sorry that I'm too busy now to return with another 'charge' diagreeing with at least some of your opinions.

    Anyway, do you find this joke correctly describing the attitudes English people have towards the French?

    An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Welshman

    Three guys, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Welshman are out walking along the beach together one day. They come across a lantern and a genie pops out of it. "I will give you each one wish" says the genie.

    The Welshman says, "I am a farmer, my dad was a farmer, and my son will also farm. I want the land to be forever fertile in Wales."

    With a blink of the genie's eye, 'FOOM' - the land in Wales was forever made fertile for farming.

    The Frenchman was amazed, so he said, "I want a wall around France, so that no one can come into our precious country. Again, with a blink of the Genie's eye,'POOF' - there was a huge wall around France.

    The Englishman asks, "I'm very curious. Please tell me more about this wall.

    The Genie explains, "Well, it's about 150 feet high, 50 feet thick and nothing can get in or out."

    The Englishman says, "Fill it up with water."

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  9. Hi Bogdan

    There is the same joke here, except it's the Englishman who wants a wall around his country, and the Scot wants it filled up ;-)

    On a personal level, I don't think the English like the French much, but nor do they dislike them that much.

    Our media is not so much full of hatred for the French as it is full of an unthinking condescension: because they have state run industries, protectionism and regulation, they must be fiscally irresponsible and indebted with poor regard for individual liberty. In fact both economically and in terms of liberties things look rosier for the French.

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  10. Well, I guess you're right...

    ...it's not necessarily 'hatred' for the French, but some kind of 'envy'. Fiscally irresponsible as they might be, thing do look rosier for the average French than for the average Brit - from the point of view of 'economic security', what the materialistic world of today wants most.

    Whether the French Republic really offers much genuine individual liberty... I really don't know. Nevertheless, what I know is that the French policemen ('les flics') are much more respected and feared than British Bobbies.

    The UK was famous for its 'nice policemen' before this whole anti-terrorism maddness began, whilst the French policemen have always had the reputaion of being 'touch'. There's nothing funny about the French Gendarmerie, as in Louis de Funes movies.

    It's a military structure with law enforcement attibutions (like the Romanian gendarmes of Carabinieri in Italy) which I don't think has any equivalent in the UK.

    Sadly, Big Brother doesn't need special agencies... it's enough to have electronic eyes everywhere :-(

    Then, the French have both an industrial oligarchy (les amis riches de Sarko), and a bureaucratic one - every year, no more than 90 people become graduates of the École Nationale d'Administration. These people are everywhere, controlling everything, most of 'em are Freemasons... Thus, there's no reason for the Brits to envy the French that their society is somehow more 'democratic'...

    Yes, France has a better economy, and the whole system appears to be more just, but I wouldn't day that French democracy is better than the British one. For instance, thanks to the British Euroscepticists, many 'fishy' things from Bruxelles are becoming public all over Europe.

    Then, I agree that the French don't have such a sickening 'celebrity culture', and, as a matter of fact, the French media finds it a taboo to go into politicians' beds. Mitterand, Chirac had mistresses, as adultery is common in France. It's something as normal as going to the toilet, and this is why the media doesn't report this, not that despicable things wouldn't happen.

    Oh, dear Gregor, I know the problems in the UK are great, but don't dream that it's better in France or that Russia is not 'as bad as described in the British media'!!!

    There's a lot of indecency in the UK, but - generally - the UK is a decent country; there's social injustice, but it's not a completely unjust country... the UK is almost a pagan country, but let us not forget that the Orthodox Church is revived in some (little) places in the UK.

    And let's not forget that this wonderful monastery...

    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Patriarchal_Stavropegic_Monastery_of_St._John_the_Baptist_(Maldon,_Essex)

    ...was raised on British soil. From many perspectives, it's really a wonderful monastery, where Athonite humbleness can still be found (in such a secular country!). And yes, Romania, Greece, Russia etc may have hundreds of monasteries, but probably only a handful can mach the one in Essex!

    Our Lord can save people anywhere, and even in 'depraved America' one could find a few monasteries (in Arizona, California, New York etc) like this one.

    I've derailed, and I'm gravely offtopic, so I must stop here now :-)

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  11. Dear Bogdan

    Thank you for your message. We had a wonderful service today with your compatriot Fr Marcel. There were about 14 Romanians in an Inverness service!

    As to your points, we do not differ as much as you may think. When you say ‘depraved America’ those are your words and there is a lot that I like about America and Americans, but… perhaps it is difficult for someone not British to understand… it seems that our media is just blinkered to learning ideas from any country but the USA. It’s probably a bit like living in a Warsaw pact state when one could only hear of the USSR as a model.

    Sometimes Britain’s relationship to America reminds me of an optical illusion. People have a strong concept of what America is, but that is just what comes across in the media, or rather what people can ‘consume’ in American culture. So Brits tend to think Americans are misogynistic, weird and primitive for opposing abortion. Yet this is one thing that I admire about America that no British politician would openly praise because it’s nothing to do with selfish consumerism. Yet Brits are obsessed with the American loathing of the public sector, even if that fails (as it has done spectacularly in Britain, with transport and industry) so we are left with two ‘democratic’ parties that are utterly out of ideas so we are like a boat with one oar can only go round in circles.

    However, my point was not merely about America, but about the ideal of freedom spreading through consumerism. The map I linked to seems to demonstrate that this is not the case. Depending on our supermarkets and credit cards to earn our security has given us CCTV saturation and an increasingly brutal police.

    About your point on the police, Anatoly Karlin agrees with me about the bad situation with British civil liberties, but says that he likes ‘liberal democracy with an authoritarian streak’. The strange paradox is that maybe it takes dubious police to make people respect their liberties. I partially agree with you; until recently, it seemed that British police were treated with trust and affection. Yet maybe this let our guard down so we did not protect our liberties when we still could. As I pointed out, the Greeks also have a good civil liberties record, but a very dodgy police.

    ‘Then, the French have both an industrial oligarchy (les amis riches de Sarko), and a bureaucratic one - every year, no more than 90 people become graduates of the École Nationale d'Administration. These people are everywhere, controlling everything, most of 'em are Freemasons... Thus, there's no reason for the Brits to envy the French that their society is somehow more 'democratic'...’

    This is related to my earlier point. The strange paradox is that I think that the state should be subjected to a selection process which allegedly comes through the free market, but often doesn’t. It is as Neil Clark says modern Britain ‘privatises the profits and nationalises the losses’. I don’t think that politicians should be loved, and seeing Blair and Cameron getting by through being smarmy makes me sick. However, the French do seem to have very intelligent leaders (despite their ethical failings) who have planned industry and infrastructure projects in a way that is far wiser than the British.

    Incidentally, I am sceptical about the freemasons. I don’t think the NWO would be a part of such a public group with so many members.

    I hope that you are well my friend, and that Romania is not suffering too badly in these times. I think we Brits could learn a lot from your attitude towards liberty; let’s just hope we don’t have to become a dictatorship first ;-)

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  12. Having lived in France I must say that Britain is in many respects behind.

    1)Good food and drinks in France are heaven, in Britain they are costly and French.

    2)In France there are race riots in banlieus, but they are in the banlieus not like in Britain where there a council estates in Chelsea and you never know where you can get mugged.

    3)They didn't go to war, now they have money for health care.

    The French are great.

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  13. Thank you for your comment Leos.

    You are right that Brits are not a nation of food lovers. In a story by Neil Gaiman a tourist thinks 'the British seem to view eating as a form of punishment'. Furthermore, whilst there are riots in France, Britain also has troubles.

    However, the last is rather ambiguous. French foreign policy (especially in Africa) is not very pretty. However, they were wise to avoid the Iraq war.

    And as I said to Bogdan, Sarkozy did help secure peace between two Orthodox countries whilst Britain was calling for Georgia to join NATO. For this I feel some gratitude towards them (as much because I care about Georgia as because I care about Russia; those who patronised the Georgians would probably rather see them caught up in a nasty conflict rather than be seen as 'appeasers').

    Incidentally, I think the Afghan war has turned into a stupid and meaningless conflict, where the only plausible 'point' (capturing Al Quaeda leaders) has been lost, I think both of our countries should get out. Yet whilst France has been actively employed they have lost 28 casualties whilst we have lost 185. Many of these deaths could have been avoided through proper transport.

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  14. France would have some influence over Africa for years to come, this is unavoidable. Just as US would influence Latin America, China would make inroads into Central and Southeast Asia and the Russia would would also play a role in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We know geopolitics is a dirty business and I would personally not judge France and the other countries' foreign policy other than through the lens of their objective realism. I think French policy in Africa makes sense, although morally it cannot often be defended.

    Afghanistan was a misguided response to an atrocity planned and executed largely on American soil. You do not invade a country to catch and bring terrorists to justice. The Americans could have achieved it through covert operations which would be effective and far less costly. They didn't because they had far greater ambitions in Afghanistan which are now costing them dearly. It must be said that the involvement in Afghanistan of other nations is limited and can be seen in the casualties count. I do not know how much the British hardware is problematic compared to the French but my guess is this is not the major factor behind the casualties count. The Czechs stationed in Afghanistan serve under the British command and have been recently 'disgraced' (or better made the smart move of) by refusing to obey British orders. Their casualties number 3, that says a lot about their involvement.

    The Germans and the French have their own policy regarding relations with Russia and NATO expansion, Britain seems to follow the American line.

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