La Grande Vadrouille


The fact that French President Nicholas Sarkozy invited Saakashvili to the meeting seems to suggest that Paris does not mean to abandon Georgia in its parallel improving relations with Moscow. A statement by the French Senate over the Georgia-Russia situation confirms this notion as the Senate exhorted the European Union to be more active in resolving the conflict and called on Russia to implement all the conditions of the France-brokered ceasefire that ended the August 2008 conflict.
Many Georgians remember well the leadership displayed by President Sarkozy in developing the ceasefire and bringing the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to Georgia to monitor the situation near the conflict zones. Georgians also remember the declaration by the French president during a press conference in Tbilisi that Russian non-compliance with the ceasefire would not be without consequences. Nino Kirtadze’s film, Something about Georgia, was recently shown in France and also helps French society to remember Sarkozy’s promise.
Unfortunately, however, statements have proven futile. The six-article agreement has still not been fulfilled by Russia. “We have turned the page,” said Alain Besançon, a historian and Sovietologist, to Tabula. “The Russians have successfully managed to extract support from Europe’s leading countries – Germany, France, and Italy. And Germany has particularly special business interests with Russia – with Gazprom, Nord Stream, Siemens, and the like. In addition, the special relationship between Germany and Russia has existed for centuries. In Italy, the mafia supports their Russian criminal counterparts.”
The attempt by the French government to sustain and bolster its commercial ties to Russia is explained by many analysts as a bid to compete with Germany. France, the second largest economy in the continental EU, does not want to sit back and watch German and Russian ties expand from a spectator’s seat. “Pervasive anti-Americanism, which is quite strong in French political and intellectual circles, is also one of the reasons, too,” says Besançon.
For example, in 1966, French leader Charles de Gaulle made the decision for France to leave NATO’s military command and requested that US soldiers vacate the territory of the country. Then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk reportedly replied by asking de Gaulle if the order included “the bodies of American soldiers in France’s cemeteries?”
Nonetheless, from Besançon’s point of view, Russia has far fewer supporters in France than in Germany and Italy. Compared to Germany, France has far smaller pro-Russia business lobbies and less dependence on Russian energy. It is perhaps for this reason that in a recent meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Merkel saw fit to cite the problematic situation in Transnistria (a Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova) but did not mention Georgia.
At the same time, Pro-Russia support in France remains is mostly restricted to small segments of society balanced by a more widespread antipathy by the French population towards Russians. While the French are known for their love of Russian literature and culture, there is prevalent dislike of ‘classless’ nouveau riche Russian expatriates living in France. In certain expensive French resort regions, for example, it is not uncommon to find hotels where Russians are not welcome. The stereotypical lifestyle of these so-called ‘new Russians,’ and what is seen as their brand fetishes and uncouth habits is generally looked down upon in France and the subject of common derision in French media. The fact that much of France’s picturesque southern coasts, once host to international and French intelligentsia, are now a popular vacation spot for these new Russians is said to be a subject of great irritation to many French people.
France’s place as an attractive and desirable place to live is no secret. France has been in first place in International Living magazine’s Quality of Life Index for the past five years. France has everything from beautiful coastlines to Alpine ski resorts. Many would also add that French cuisine – delicious wine, bread, and cheese – is another great benefit.
France is also well-known for its attractive social programs, a robust welfare system, and an enviable health care system. For all these reasons, France is often a prime destination for poor immigrants. However, Such a public system comes at the expense of notoriously high taxes, a swollen bureaucracy, and a cumbersome, monolithic state. As a result, France’s economic growth has been minimal for years and looks to be headed into a permanent state of stagnation, causing unemployment to rise and wages to fall.
“Assuming the job of citizens by the state has brought about two negative effects,” says Pascal Salin, a libertarian economist and former president of the Mont Pelerin Society, in comments to Tabula. “One is that with the growth of taxes, businesspeople lose the motivation to create businesses and entrepreneurs are leaving the country. As a result, there is less accumulation of capital in France.”
“In addition, with generous social welfare, we tell people that they can survive without working and we make them forget the need to find work.”
It is true that in probably no other country do people spend so much for dinner as in France. France is the land of the 35-hour work week and seven-week paid leave of absence. It’s almost an impossible task to find a working pharmacy or store open on Sunday. And most shops are closed at lunchtime, when potential customers are outside in the streets.
“We attract a poor quality of immigrants – people do not come here for work, they come to be supported by the state,” says Salin. “I do not say that all immigrants are this way, but a large portion of them are.”
Over the last 30 years, approximately six million immigrants (about 10 percent of the population) have come to France, and about 90 percent of them are culturally Islamic. Both legal and illegal immigration is increasing to France every year. Unlike the Anglo-American model of integration and ‘melting pot’ societies, France is famous for stubbornly refusing to integrate many of its immigrants into mainstream French society. Former French President Jaques Chirac even went so far as to claim that choosing this model would spell the end of the French national spirit. Such attitudes put France in the position of an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Six million people without a place in French society is a problem in desperate need of resolution.
Immigrants usually live in the suburbs of big cities in areas known as the banlieu. Banlieues have often been powder kegs for destabilization and unrest, as in 2005, when the streets of French cities went alight with burning cars, looting, and rioting. During that time, then-President Jaques Chirac was forced to call a state of emergency in the country. Even today, there are such banlieues where police are unable to enter safely.
In such places, there is a desperately low standard of living and education. Residents of the banlieues live a life very differently from mainstream French society and face extremely difficult barriers to lives as successful, productive citizens.
Dominique Sopo, a leftist activist and president of SOS Racisme, a French anti-racism group, believes that the inactivity of the government in relations to the minority is also defined by the attitudes of the French elite. “There is a huge fear that immigrants will take the place of the ‘white French’ among the elite,” says Sopo. “They forget that being French does not necessarily mean to be white and Catholic, but that being French means a commitment to the principals of the republic, which is based on freedom, equality, and brotherhood.”
Other than the difficulties with the country’s minorities, another serious issue in France is that of unemployment, which inordinately affects young people. There’s even a joke which says that being young in France is “like being handicapped.” The prime reason for this is the over-regulation of the labor market. French legislation makes it extremely difficult to dismiss employees, which has had the effect of making French companies biased against younger workers in favor of older, experienced workers instead.
In addition, it is almost impossible for one to be in France for any meaningful amount of time and not to be a witness to a strike by teachers, pilots, post office workers, or some other aggrieved group. English writer Steven Clark once said that the strike is the favorite sport of the French.
Pascal Salin says that so many strikes can be explained by bad politics. “The main problem with social democracy is that in such a system, people fight each other to grab their piece of the social pie. People know that with such strikes, they can extract many concessions from the government if they do it correctly,” notes Salin.
“France is ruled by trade unions – not by the government – which is why it is unimportant who heads the government. Whether it’s leftist François Mitterrand or right-wing Jaques Chirac, the government is always socialist.”
However, it’s worth noting that the election of current president Nicholas Sarkozy was taken by many observers as a sign of radical change in areas of politics, foreign policy, and economics. Sarkozy was keen to speak up about prosperity and spoke of the importance of constitutional reforms toward for making the state more flexible. However, to date, Sarkozy has made few positive steps in reform. Just as Salin notes about the nature of French government, Sarkozy has given ground as soon as he is met with resistance.
However, an important way that Sarkozy differs from previous presidents is what many see as a more positive disposition towards the United States and a desire to increase France’s role as an global player. Some in the press even called him an “American neocon with a French passport.” The same has also been said about the current Foreign Minister, Socialist Bernard Kouchner. Unlike Sarkozy and many other French politicians, Kouchner supported the US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003. “When it’s about overthrowing an evil dictator, an intervention is justified,” said Kouchner.
However, it may be because of Sarkozy’s pro-American stance that makes him grate against what many see as Obama’s foreign policy of apologism. “President Obama, I support the Americans’ outstretched hand,” said Sarkozy in 2009 to the UN Security Council. “But what did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing.”
Sarkozy also felt the need to remind Obama that “we live in the real world, not the virtual.”
Sarkozy has often labeled himself a pragmatist, and is keen to remind others of this fact. However, critics often find fault in Sarkozy’s ‘pragmatism’ as it seems to lack a long view and instead takes action for short-term gain.
Sarkozy’s pro-Russia policies can be seen as a case in point. The growing friendship between Russia and Germany and the US ‘reset’ policy towards Moscow has compelled the French president to increase their own relationship with Russia, lest France become the odd man out.
“If we expect Russia to behave like a partner in all fields, including defense nd security, we should treat it like a partner,” Sarkozy has often said about France’s growing relationship with the Kremlin, including in his discussions with Saakashvili.
And two days after Saakashvili’s departure, Vladimir Putin was himself a guest of France. The reason for the visit was officially cited as the opening of a Russian art exhibition – ironically led by ethnic-Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, the president of the Russian art academy.
However, the main topics of conversation between France and Russia were not art, but the still-ongoing negotiations over the sale of four Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia and energy partnerships, particularly future investments by the French energy company Total. Total, it should be noted, has controversial investments in Burma, which is controlled by a brutal military regime, and theocratic Iran.
As for the Mistral, no new news has yet to come out over how many ships will be built in France, how many in Russia, and what the final resolution might be over the tug o’ war between the two countries over the issue of military technology being included with the ships. President Sarkozy has made it clear that France would not permit the sale to Russia with the advanced technology, but Putin has similarly made clear that there would be no purchase without the high-tech systems and has publicly expressed interest in comparable platforms in other European countries as alternatives.
When asked about the ships, Putin has cynically tried to compare the actions of Russia to France. “Do French forces have such helicopter carriers? Yes. Does France plan to attack anybody? No. Why then do you think Russia would attack somebody?”
Interesting question – why do you think that is?
Without a doubt, the French president’s decision to break bread and make deals with the deal-breaker of his ceasefire understandably undermines confidence in his intentions. However, these issues should not become a source of permanent tension between Georgia and France, as Georgia cannot afford it. “Disagreement between allies should not turn to crisis,” said Sarkozy of Jaques Chirac’s passionate – and some might say grating – opposition to the US war in Iraq. Georgia should repeat this phrase, as Sarkozy is correct in this. After all, as Sarkozy himself has said, “France remains one of Georgia’s most powerful supporters in the EU.”


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