France: old or new?

Dateline 30 May 2007

It was Donald Rumsfeld who divided Europe into “old Europe” and “new Europe”. Old Europe means the hardcore of countries which comprise the European Union. Of those, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg were hardline opponents of the Iraq war. New Europe incorporated the swathe of ex-communist countries which entered the European Union in 2005 and 2007. Where Britain, and Spain – longstanding EU nations which joined the Iraq War Coalition – or Italy and Holland, founder members which did the same, fit on this analysis is unclear.

Europe, of course, has never accepted any such division. Though Jacques Chirac told the reform countries in central and eastern Europe that they would have to “grow up” if they wanted to join the EU. By that he meant learn to agree with France, not the US.

In France, the debate is not about old or new Europe, it is about “les Anglo-Saxons”. Anglo-Saxon economics means free trade, free markets, globalization and tax cuts – Reaganomics and Thatcherism. It means reforming the labor market and confronting labor unions. It means McDonalds.

In politics it means lining up with the United States. Chirac’s opposition to the liberation of Iraq was hugely popular in France and endorsed by the opposition Socialists. Only one leading member of Chirac’s UMP (conservative party) criticized him for the damage to relations with the US. Only one leading Socialist spoke out calling for Saddam to be deposed on humanitarian grounds.

France was the heart of old Europe and the heart of resistance to Anglo-Saxon reform. It was. Over the past two weeks, everything has changed.

Is France hostile to new Europe? Ask its new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father was Hungarian. Only one of Sarkozy’s grandparents was French. Does France hate les Anglo-Saxons? Ask its new Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, whose wife is British.

The one member of the UMP who criticized Chirac for damaging relations with the US was – Nicolas Sarkozy. He campaigned on a pledge of repairing relations with both America and Britain and introducing Anglo-Saxon style reforms to the economy. He won the largest first round vote of any candidate in almost 20 years. The largest for a non-incumbent in more than 30.

The one Socialist who thought opposing Saddam Hussein was a higher priority than opposing George Bush was the popular former Health Minister, Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner is a former Communist, a physician who worked with the Red Cross in Biafra, and founder of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors without borders). He was later UN administrator in Kosovo. Sarkozy has reached across party lines to bring Kouchner into his cabinet as Foreign Minister.

Kouchner has been hurriedly expelled from the Socialist Party for joining Sarkozy’s cabinet, but remains more popular than most of those who have expelled him.

France has legislatively established a 35-hour working week, to combat unemployment. In 2006 unemployment was 8.7%. Britain’s was 5.4% and America’s 4.4%. Sarkozy not only wants to repeal this, but to encourage overtime by making it tax free.

Since 2003, pro-American leaders have lost power in both Spain and Italy. But anti-Americans have lost power in Germany and now France. Of the European leaders who took a high profile for or against the Iraq War, only Tony Blair remains in power. And he is going on June 27th.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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