When the so-called student revolution erupted in Paris in May 1968, President Charles de Gaulle was on a state visit in Romania, and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou on a parallel visit in Afghanistan. Both men were asserting France’s “grandeur” abroad and its “world role” as a champion of “national independence” against both “American and Soviet imperialism.”
Within days, they had to shorten their tours and return to Paris unceremoniously to face a chaotic situation at home.
Radical students had turned the Sorbonne University into a “liberated territory” ; there were barricades all over the Latin Quarter, in the very heart of the French capital; strikes were choking the economy to death; red and black flags were being waved on public buildings. So much for “grandeur.”
One cannot help but recall the 1968 precedent now, as France just convened an international conference in Paris to “restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” Twenty-nine countries and international organizations attended the conference’s grand opening on June 3. However, very few of them did so at a significant level. Secretary of State John Kerry obliged. So did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. That was it.
One reason why the conference’s opening failed to attract as much attention as the French sought is simply that France is — again — in a mess.
President Hollande’s popularity is down to 11%. Prime Minister Manuel Valls fares almost as miserably at 14%.
Although a state of emergency has been declared since the jihadist massacres in Paris last November, street riots are still rampant and demonstrations ubiquitous.
The socialist cabinet was unable to pass new labor legislation in a socialist-dominated parliament, and had to resort to Article 49-3: a constitutional provision similar to what is known in America as an executive order.
This move enraged the unions, which started strikes in the public transportation sector from planes to trains to petrol distribution to garbage collection.
What saved Hollande and Valls, for a while, was a natural catastrophe: heavy rains and subsequent floods devastated much of the country, even Paris, for about two weeks. Even die-hard unionists had to relent under such circumstances.
Hollande and Valls expected a further respite from Euro 2016, the UEFA European soccer contest taking place in Paris and other major French cities until July 10. They were wrong: strikes were renewed with a vengeance on June 10, the very day Euro 16 was started.
There is something puzzling about the recurrence of domestic crises in France over the past fifty years and the French insistence, throughout the same period, to be a major player in world politics — unless one takes it as the two faces of a single coin. The French are convinced they are a great power, and thus entitled to a world role, because they have a strong statist government — arguably the strongest and most statist in Europe.
They don’t quite realize, however, that statism tends to be counterproductive beyond some limits and to generate cumulative mismanagement. Even in the much hallowed sphere of foreign affairs.
Some of them, of course, do realize this. Much is to be learned in this respect from a newly released book by Vincent Jauvert: La Face cachée du Quai d’Orsay (The French Diplomacy’s Hidden Face).
Jauvert, who writes for L’Obs (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur), France’s flagship liberal media, is a veteran and thorough investigator who knows only of well-checked facts, figures, and names. His report carries all the more weight.
What Jauvert makes clear is that French diplomacy works as a self-contained universe, adverse to intrusions from elected officials or the press. This may be true of any foreign service in the world, including the American State Department. But it reaches unprecedented — and at times comical heights — in a super-statist environment.
French diplomats, most of them graduates from the elite National School of Administration, tend to cover each other in case of misdemeanor or even plain criminal activities : from embezzlement to sex harassment or pedophilia. Likewise, they tend to mutually whitewash their mistakes and blunders, whatever the consequences.
Admittedly, they must report at some point to at least one official: the foreign minister himself. According to Jauvert, two cases are to be considered here: the minister can be an idiot, or he can be an “imperator.”
Both the French president, who is supposed to be the last-resort decision-maker in foreign affairs, and the French prime minister, who is wary of would-be competitors in the cabinet, are prone to put idiots in charge.
They tend to select individuals with little knowledge of the Quai d’Orsay arcanes or of diplomacy itself. Such people can be manipulated, or — if they prove less subservient than expected — subjected to character assassination.
It was reported about Philippe Douste-Blazy, a foreign minister under Chirac, that he asked — while in Jerusalem — how many Jews the Nazis murdered in Britain. It was also reported that he mistook Taiwan for Thailand. It was rumored that Philippe Kouchner, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (the famous “French doctors” NGO), he mispelled the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in China, as “Yoghurts.”
When such vignettes accumulate — and they usually do — the minister is in bad shape. If one or two scandals are added, either verified or unverified, he is finished.
It happens as well that the Foreign Ministry can be “imperators”: experimenting and ruthless politicians who know how to bend it to their own ends. They get the job because they could be even more powerful or potentially dangerous for the president or the prime minister in other positions.
Jauvert draws an impressive portrait in this respect of former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Laurent Fabius, who served as foreign minister from May 2012 to February 2016. Fabius resisted the Iran deal as long as he could, but he also initiated this French Middle East conference project.
Even more interesting are Jauvert’s remarks about the Quai d’Orsay doctrines. To cut it short, most French diplomats, either conservative or socialist-minded, still stick to the grandeur cum national independence line laid forward until 1968 by de Gaulle and Pompidou. In practical terms, it translates into an uncompromising anti-American and anti-Israel line.
However, there are also brilliant dissenters — some of them so brilliant as to climb up to the Ministry’s highest echelon — who advocate a more balanced approach. Guess what their nickname is ? “La secte.” “The Cult.”
Apparently Fabius listened to The Cult on Iran, but switched to the Gaullist doxa on Israel. A heritage he passed to the less-formidable Jean-Marc Ayrault.