When I Think of France


First published in Le Monde. Translated by Loren Balhorn.

via Wikimedia Commons.

Seen from Germany, it is possible to envy, admire, and feel sorry for France all at the same time. One can envy their freewheeling public debates on topics like “globalisation” and Americanisation, Europeanisation and Germanisation, capitalism, neoliberalism, “competitiveness,” and “structural reforms." This is because, in France, it is still allowed to publicly ask what words like “cosmopolitanism” really mean; what societies have to accept in exchange for this cosmopolitanism, how much thereof a society really needs or wants and, moreover, what sorts of compromises societies must make in a global market characterised by a universalistically diluted form of constitutional patriotism. In Germany, by contrast, those who neglect to drink from society’s daily dose of the cosmopolitan nectar tend to be excommunicated from public discourse. There is no legitimate public discussion of the French questions — not in literature, not in the social sciences, not in the media, and not in the parliament (here, as an institution driven by allegedly eternal and unchanging “Western values," least of all). Such questions are shunned, pushed into the far-right corner. Maybe it has to be this way in Germany, and maybe German expectations that it should be this way in other countries as well are merely an expression of envy.

One can also admire the French for heroically persisting in their losing battle against neo-capitalist acceleration of their still comparatively slow pace of life (“like God in France”), refusing to surrender to the structural reforms that would rationalise away their vie facile. The pressures to accelerate come from Europe, or rather from the euro, which in practical terms means: from Germany. It’s difficult to say what exactly it is that’s at stake in this confrontation, especially in German. A good German would probably deny it even exists in the first place, despite the fact he likes to spend summers in the Provence in order to gaze curiously at it from a cautious distance. It also exists in Italy and more or less perseveres, albeit under a different name, maintained largely through passive resistance. In France, on the other hand, it has the potential to become a political issue unto itself (on this, see Wolf Lepenies’s Die Macht am Mittelmeer, and Giorgio Agamben on Italy).

At the end of the day, one must also feel sorry for the French — for their bankrupt political elite on both the centre-left and the centre-right, astoundingly irresponsible, astoundingly corrupt, and astoundingly cliquish as it relies on the hard German euro to drive out the vie facile from its stubborn citizens and ensure its continuation for themselves for the foreseeable future. And who would willingly share France’s fate, forced to choose between a puppet of the financial markets and a hatemonger who must loathe other countries in order to love her own? More likely than not, the French will end up with Macron. As with Obama, it will take several years for the hopes of renewed growth and security, less debt, and less oligarchy inspired by the public relations industry to wear off. Those yearning for clear lines of division will be disappointed, but for the little people living in stagnation capitalism and confronted with a finite lifespan, protracted insolvency may be a preferable alternative to immediate bankruptcy.