France at a Crossroads

What Europe are we expected to wake up to? What political culture are we going to live under? Would there still be a place for descendants of immigrants in the continent where the Crusades were launched and two world wars were started, when its bigots begin rejecting even fellow white Christian Europeans?

I reckon we need realistic–not falsely reassuring– answers.

Today French voters are voting in more than just another presidential election. They are making a choice between two distinct cultural identities; either they chose sliding towards a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ imbued with hatred, animosities and selfishness the consequences of which would go further than Europe, or opt for an ‘institutional government’ and the logic of dialogue and mutual understanding inside and outside France.

Thus, no choice has ever been starker or more clear-cut, and no bet has ever been higher.

Personally, I do understand why many French, indeed, many Europeans and Westerners – including Americans, Canadians and Australians – are unhappy about the current state of affairs.

I realize there is a demographic time-bomb. The ‘West’, as symbolized by white Christian Europeans and their descendants, no longer dominates global affairs, nor does its population size work in its favor. Even economically, the ‘west’ does not have a monopoly on decision-making. It does not fully dominate the international markets anymore.

All this means that ‘globalization’ poses a threat to a ‘West’ whose populations are worried about being diluted in their own countries, and fear what might the future hold.

With this fear, as proven by statistics, even polite diplomatic pronouncements and sincere calls for co-existence may prove futile; more so, when anti-democratic tendencies begin to take root in what were ‘cradles of Western democracy’. Then, add to the above the collapse of the ‘classic’ national and ideological identities against a background of rising ‘religious’ revival brought back to life by the criminal actions of zealots raising religious banners and using religion as a justification for murder and terrorism.

Blue-collar French men and women workers, with limited educational and hi tech qualifications, moved a few decades ago from voting for the Left, led by the French Communist Party – that used to be the second largest in western Europe after its Italian counterpart – to the extreme Right groups, such as the National Front.

The reason for this radical shift is simple. The unskilled worker was competing in the job market with a poorer immigrant worker willing to earn an even lower wage. Hence, all what this French worker had heard from the venerable ‘comrades’ about ‘class struggle’, ‘capitalist greed’ and ‘fat cats and bosses exploitation of their workers’ disintegrated when his/her bosses confronted him/her with the argument that they were not their enemy. There real enemy was the ‘foreign immigrant’ worker who was willing to work more for less.

This ‘logic’ became acceptable in France, specifically, in the industrial and mining ‘departments’ of the north near the Belgian borders and in the areas of high concentration of North African immigrants in the cities of the Mediterranean south.

It even went beyond the traditional French Left voter. In Britain too, traditional bastions for the Labour Party in the industrial cities of northern England and former mining valleys of Wales voted in favor of “Brexit”, i.e. leaving the EU. The position of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a radical Leftist, was particularly dubious. The day after the night that was, the British woke up to a strange reality: The extreme Right and extreme Left voting for the same cause!

As far as the Labour Left is concerned, this largely happened as a rejection of European integration that would allow cheaper East European labor force from competing in the local job market. However, for the extreme Right, which hid itself well under the cloak of the Conservative Party, the “Brexit” referendum was its ideal platform to show its true colors under the banner of UKIP (The United Kingdom Independent Party).

It is worth mentioning here that the sudden surge of support for this isolationist Anti-Europe party caused the then moderate Conservative Prime minister David Cameron to panic and call for the unnecessary referendum in the first place. Subsequently though, after the referendum, the true size of UKIP was laid bare for all to see, as it suffered a wipe out in the recent local elections; proving it was always a protest single-issue platform, which has now lost its raison d’etre, and hence, all isolationist Rightists and xenophobes returned home to the Conservative Party.

Also in the US, the major destination for immigration in the West, the “Mother of Free Enterprise”, and the enemy of protectionism and ideological beacon for competitiveness, we saw a Rightist billionaire defending workers’ rights by calling to stop “exporting American jobs”, build a wall on the border with Mexico, and tighten immigration procedures in order to ‘protect’ America against cheap foreign labor and terrorists!

As was the case with “Brexit”, minus the immigration issue, Donald Trump’s calls were in a sense similar to those of Democratic Leftist presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Both were actually pushing their supporters to vote against ‘The Establishment’, its ethos and symbols such as pragmatic moderation, intersection of interests, broadly based cross-party deals.

In all three major western countries, America, Britain and France, which rebuilt the post WW2 ‘world order’, we notice that “The Establishment’ has suffered painful defeats, and that ‘globalization’ has lost a strategic battle, against a background of retreating moderation and rising isolationism and extremism.

The capitalist system, however, cannot comfortably sustain such a status quo, i.e. powers dominated by nationalist isolationists. War is usually the natural outcome, but in this day and age wars are pretty costly and devastating.

Anti-Western powers, led by Russia under its current leadership, know this fact; and this is why the Kremlin has been virtually fuelling civil wars within the three countries and perhaps others. Circles close to Russian leadership did not hide Moscow’s preference of a Marine Le Pen presidency in France. It also openly supported “Brexit”, and Trump’s electoral position against NATO.

Thus, the choice before the French in the decisive election day is either choose war, or a world based on mutual understanding, tolerance, and willingness to deal together with the challenges confronting humanity as a whole.

It is truly a crossroads.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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