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Coda: Plus Ça Change: Along the Rue de Caumartin [Doing No Harm]

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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

By David A. Andelman

PARIS—The first meal I ever had in France was in a small bistro on the rue de Caumartin just down the street from No. 37—the office that served for half a century as the Paris bureau of The New York Times. It was to this bureau that Timesmen returned as the Allies re-took Paris at the end of World War II, astonished that it was still much as they’d left it when the Nazis had first rolled into town. As for myself, my arrival took place a quarter-century later—September 7, 1969. I’d just touched down in Paris, for my first visit, on an Air India flight from New York. When I exited the subway at the Havre-Caumartin stop, the streets were as quiet as central Paris can only get on a lazy Sunday afternoon, barely a week after “le grand retour” brought the hordes back from their August vacances to the real world. The Times’ bureau was shifting into high gear, churning out copy for the next day’s editions. My new boss, Seymour Topping, then foreign editor, had warned bureau chief Henry Tanner that his news assistant would be pitching up there and to treat him right. So with Tanner’s door closed as he crafted his story, the curmudgeonly reporter John Hess suggested I duck down the block to a little bistro and have a bite until Tanner was free to begin the process of inculcating me in the French way of life. So I did. I ordered “un hot dog” and was taken aback as they served me a long, grilled dog smothered with melted cheese. Not likely something they’d have served up at Fenway Park.

Georges Pompidou had just succeeded Charles de Gaulle as president of France with an overwhelming mandate, won after he’d led the effort to defuse the violent May 1968 student-worker uprisings that tore Paris apart. The year 1969 represented a return to a quieter, simpler time—to the Gaullist era when France was the intellectual, gastronomic, and stylistic capital of Europe. A united Europe, not to mention a common currency, were only dreams in the minds of a handful of visionaries, more often ridiculed than embraced.

This past October, I went back, purely by chance, to that very bistro. I was accompanied by the same former Le Monde journalist who, those devoted followers of this Coda may recall from last spring, was my host at a long lunch with a number of other journo friends. Most had expressed their unadulterated support of François Hollande in his efforts to challenge incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy for a five-year term as president of France. At the time, back beneath those chill, gray February skies, my host and most of his guests had observed that Sarko, as he was both derisively and affectionately known, had done little to address the most intransigent economic problems that were then, and remain, the bane of most French voters, not to mention those who lead them. While change was very much on the minds of most French—as it was for most of those who went to the polls in so many nations this year—this trend that led many of us to look to this year of the electoral tsunami has faded with the receding tide of hard-nosed reality.

“I don’t at all exclude that people at the moment they vote will tire of Hollande, be bored by him,” sniffed one guest last February at our luncheon, a senior journalist at La Tribune, one of two leading French business dailies. “Apparently he is quite droll in private, but that does not translate, alas, to his public discourse. Still, I don’t know how a president can be re-elected if unemployment continues to rise here in France, as it does. It is not imaginable.”

HARDLY BORED

She was right on just about every score. The French electorate was not bored by Hollande back in April when they went to the polls and voted him in and Sarkozy out. But fatigue has set in—not to mention an ennui that only the French have learned to master—and they are now quite bored with Hollande and much of what he’s brought into the corridors of power. Especially since unemployment has only continued to rise, along with the taxes that Hollande pledged to enact in an effort to return the nation to a semblance of solvency and avoid the horrors still unspooling in Greece and looming in Spain, Portugal, Italy and perhaps elsewhere on the European continent. Of course, no one believed Hollande would actually implement most of these taxes. But he has.

My host’s son—a brilliant enarque, graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration near the top of his class, hence designated un inspecteur de finance—is working for Hollande’s carefully hand-picked prime minister, the now roundly detested Jean-Marc Ayrault. The young man has been assigned, somewhat, it seemed to me, to the chagrin of his determinedly socialist papa, to the task of drafting the very tax laws so anathema even to much of France’s decidedly leftist middle class. My host, a socialist from the first days we’d met nearly four decades ago, now suggests that what he really was trying to convey at last February’s dinner table was his antipathy to Sarkozy, rather than any deep affinity for Hollande. Ah, the benefits of rose tinted rear-view mirrors.

Indeed, the French newspaper Le Figaro, an unabashed supporter of Sarkozy from the get-go, is now reveling in the latest poll numbers that show a stunning 64 percent of the electorate “declares itself discontented with the actions of the president of the Republic, while just to the right of this startling headline is a teaser to the cover of its weekend magazine that shows a puzzled Ayrault scratching his head in dismay with an accompanying story that explains, “Why he just can’t seem to get there,” a rather snarky Francophone pun on his various incapacities. And in a sidebar, Le Figaro even has probed the heart of the ruling Socialist Party where the broadening fear seems to be taking hold that we are witnessing “une ‘droitisation’ de la société” (a move to the right in society). Even the center-left Le Monde, every inch a supporter of Hollande and his Socialist Party during the Spring campaign, seems to have tucked its tail between it legs when a leading French political polling company, TNS Sofres, admitted that barely 34 percent of the French “have any confidence in Ayrault,” while Hollande himself manages just 2 percentage points better. Only Edith Cresson, appointed prime minister by France’s last Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1991, managed a lower score—22 percent popularity—and she was gone in less than 11 months.

 “The executive does not always find the good rhythm,” Le Monde proclaimed in a banner headline in late October, then elaborated, “Between delay and precipitation, the actions of the couple Ayrault-Hollande become unreadable.” Or worse. Then the paper quotes an anonymous cabinet official, who asks, “Who is the master of the clocks?” Except there really is no master. And Le Monde continues to hammer this theme, asking, “Hollande, did he underestimate the crisis?”  Replying promptly, it adds, “The optimism of the head of state could play tricks on him.”

 WHO'S AT THE HELM, ANYWAY?

And this, more than any other reality of European, certainly of French, government is at the heart of the questions of who’s at the helm and and how perceptive these leaders have been in recognizing the crisis. The more immediate issue is how effectively they are implementing a solution. The fear that there is an all but total vacuum at the top is spreading unease across an increasingly fractured continent.  For the same day Le Monde was proclaiming its concerns about the pace of change in France, it was pointing out that “electoral detours accentuate the disarray of Spanish socialists.”

French Socialists, of course, should have learned their lessons—change for the sake of change is an empty set of values. In 1981, when Mitterrand took over in France, he nationalized banks, welcomed communist ministers into his cabinet, and promulgated a host of new taxes—publicly and proudly. Within a matter of months, certainly a couple of years, much of this had been reversed. Mitterrand, perhaps the most singularly astute French politician since de Gaulle, recognized quickly that the vast mass of his electorate had no real stomach for the pace of change he had suggested. Since he was anxious to win reelection, he needed to move judiciously. After nearly a decade and a half of transforming France gently, subtly, his legacy endures—the stunning glass pyramid that is the entrance to the Louvre museum, the preservation of the core of old Paris, and an unparalleled national health system before whose universality Obamacare pales in comparison.

Today, it’s been rather amusing to watch the French press chronicle a number of the nation’s wealthiest captains of industry and investors decamping, as many had threatened to do three decades earlier, to Belgium, Switzerland, and Britain in an effort to avoid the new French taxes—pegged to 75 percent of income above €1 million, not to mention a new 5 percent levy called a “richesse” tax on everything the nation’s wealthy own from chateaus, yachts, and townhouses to just about anything expensive the “fiscs” can locate. Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man and CEO of the LVMH luxury goods empire, said he would be seeking Belgian citizenship. At a breakfast in October sponsored by our French partner Politique Internationale at the majestic Hotel George V, one of France’s leading women CEOs confided to me that she was half French, half American, but several years ago when she returned to Europe, she was prescient enough to set up her official domicile in Switzerland and start commuting to Paris. She then smiled smugly with a certain degree of self-satisfaction.

Not surprisingly, British Prime Minister David Cameron was not long to capitalize on this opportunity. At June’s G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Cameron smiled that he’d “welcome more French businesses to Britain, and they can pay tax in Britain and pay for our health service and schools and everything else.” The French were horrified at this effrontery. Such offers are simply “not done,” Hollande’s new Labor Minister barked, then posited that the British leader was drunk. One French communist trade union leader sniffed that it was “sad to see Britain’s ambition to be Europe’s tax haven.” Still, that’s worked out quite handsomely for the likes of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

 Indeed, a report by the French Senate in July suggested that such legalized tax evasion was costing the government some €50 billion a year in lost tax revenues.  Of course, Mitterrand, who served as president of France longer than any other man including Napoleon Bonaparte and de Gaulle, tried the same kind of tax regime back in the 1980s. Jacques Faizant, the brilliant editorial cartoonist of Le Figaro, gave me a signed original of a cartoon that appeared on page one back in the summer of 1981 showing a scowling Laurent Fabius—then the minister of finance, later prime minister, with his unmistakable, prematurely bald head—glaring down at a Breton fisherman standing in a tiny rowboat at a dock, who’s clearly astonished that he’s just been told his little dingy would subject him to the richesse tax. “Discutez pas!” Fabius proclaims. “Si on vous dit que c’est un yacht, c’est que c’est un yacht!” (No discussion! If you’re told that it’s a yacht, that’s because it’s a yacht!)

My little bistro on the rue de Caumartin has changed hardly a jot since I first walked in the door 43 years ago. The fact is that in France, as in much of Old Europe, not very much changes from year to year, administration to administration, even in many cases century to century, despite the most valiant efforts of politicians across the political spectrum, and despite even the apparent desires of much of the electorate.  As I chronicled in my Coda in our last issue of World Policy Journal, the desire for “change,” or at least the appearance of change, has been overwhelming in this election year. But changing the frontman (or woman)—a head of state or government—does not necessarily, as it turns out, signal any fundamental change in the mentality of the French, or indeed of most other Europeans. Au contraire.  Indeed, there are far more fundamental forces of inertia at work here.

ELECTORAL TSUNAMI

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, we’ve had an electoral tsunami this year—more new leaders in more nations selected by their voters than at any previous time in history—an extraordinary period that promised to revolutionize the way half the planet is governed. As we near the end of this year, however, our high expectations have been dashed against the rocks of inertia and expediency. The opportunities this wave might have opened have proven thus far less substantial than many of us had hoped at the outset. We have been cursed, it seems, by a crisis of diminishing expectations. How circumscribed, we small legion of optimists have discovered, is the potential to work the transformations that so many of our would-be leaders had promised in their campaigns and that voters professed to want as they cast their ballots. The reality is that much of these desires for change are only barely skin deep. In the end, these new national leaders can only effect whatever their societies, their economies, or their cultures can absorb. We optimists should hardly have been surprised. It is not the first time we have been tricked in this fashion. We simply have short memories. Or we’ve failed to learn from history.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the diminished expectations we’ve seen during this year of the global electorate was suggested to me by the remarks of a luncheon guest I’d welcomed shortly before I left New York for Paris in October. The resumé of this distinguished European includes membership on the committee that selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. So I asked him what President Obama had done, barely nine months into his presidency, to merit that award. He paused for a moment, then replied that it was more a sense of the spirit of the world that he had altered than any constructive action. Passive, not active. When I suggested that it was more the fact that he had reversed direction from his predecessor and had done nothing (yet) to imperil the cause of peace—in short, that he had done-no-harm—my guest smiled and, I think somewhat sheepishly, nodded his agreement. We are guilty if we settle for less than dramatic change, in indulging diminishing expectations in our rulers who should be held to account for their failings or their ditherings.  

 A DEADLY DO-NO-HARM

In retrospect, not change but rather do-no-harm has become the mantra of this supposedly watershed year of 2012 in global politics. And certainly, that is one way of approaching it. If you look at the world as simply a place to do-no-harm, you are unlikely to cause death or destruction—at least not actively. But passivity can itself be as dangerous, even as deadly, as activism. The non-dispatch of planes or battalions can lead to more death, destruction, and mayhem than the active use of force.

So is electing a passive president more likely to lead to peaceful conclusions of international crises—letting the world take its own course however that may happen? In the past year, we can see a firsthand laboratory for how these two approaches have worked out. In Libya, the West plunged right in virtually from the get-go, taking out Gaddafi’s air defense system, then establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone, finally using a flock of cruise missiles to interdict heavy armor at a host of critical junctures. In Syria, the opposite approach has prevailed. Hands-off. Laissez-faire, non intervention in any real operational sense. That’s worked in a less than optimal fashion, it would appear. In the first case, a democratically elected government has come to power in Libya. And despite the catastrophe in Benghazi, whose origins are still somewhat murky, there is a degree of respect for human rights that was all but absent under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Syria, by contrast, has been a bloodbath, with the still looming threat of sucking neighboring nations—Turkey and Iran in particular—into the maelstrom.

Certainly, few leaders are able to influence the course of history in quite the fashion of an American president or, for that matter, a Soviet leader during the Cold War. But so many of these new leaders we have been selecting this year do have the capacity, directly or indirectly, to transform their own nations, even their regions, constructively, for the greater good of their own people and their neighbors. What we do not need in these parlous times are leaders whose sole claim on a place in history is their ability to do-no-harm. We need bold leaders, prepared to take bold initiatives, to break the mold. Russia had just that in Mikhail Gorbachev, and while it ultimately got him ousted and shoveled off into a netherworld of Louis Vuitton ads and book signings, he did change the course of history.

Yet real, innovative courage is too often held hostage to inertia, or to be kinder, the concept of do-no-harm. In a conversation I had with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I asked whether he had ever considered that the world body he leads might be more effective if it had some sort of standing military force that could be brought to bear more quickly, more immediately than the peacekeeping system now in force that requires a new set of officers and soldiers to be assembled from volunteer nations for each international crisis. Recoiling, he shot back that the United Nations was not in the business of military intervention, but rather in helping peace to be negotiated, then assured. Some years ago, in The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage in the Age of Terrorism, I and my co-author, the late great spymaster Alexandre de Marenches, who headed France’s intelligence service for a dozen years under four French presidents, suggested that just such a standing force might be the one institution that could spell the difference between peace and global or regional chaos in many situations. It should not, would not, be called into action unless a domestic situation threatened to spill beyond its borders or the actions within these borders transcended some global standard of civilized human behavior.

Clearly, the crises in Libya and Syria would meet both of these conditions. In the first case, other regional powers, banded together in the Arab League, sought outside intervention, giving western military forces diplomatic cover that the UN Security Council was unable or unwilling to provide—paralyzed, as it so often is, by the veto of one or more of its permanent members. The Arab League, for its own reasons, has been unable or unwilling to provide the same cover for any action against Syria. Not to mention the fact that with its powerful neighbor, Iran, poised on the brink of becoming a nuclear power, and hovering very much in the wings, there has been no “invitation” for the West or any nation, even neighboring Turkey, to intervene. Such intervention might have prevented, or at least cut short, bloodshed that has already far surpassed even the charnel house of Muammar Gaddafi.

Eschewing do-no-harm doesn’t mean saber-rattling—and only in the most extreme circumstances involves American or Western boots on the ground or cruise missiles in the air. It does mean acting boldly but wisely and hopefully predictably—developing a set of moral and political principles that uses the West’s still unquestionably immense power, or the implications of such power, for good. We should not deploy, indeed do not have, the resources to serve as the world’s policeman. But hopefully we do still have the moral compass to assure nations that they will be able to choose their own system and their own rulers without fear or favor. This means we may often be challenged and tested—as China is doing today and as dictators in a host of nations have done. We, the Western democracies, will have met these tests if we simply act wisely, not back away, hands off, do-no-harm. Any regime in its infancy or its youth may test its limits and see just how far the international consensus will allow it to go—much as infants or small children, even teenagers, may do with their parents. Such youths, such nations need desperately to understand the rationality of such limits if they are to grow up to be responsible and mature adults.

 LA MEME CHOSE

So how does, or how should, we react in the future to our more profound, even deadly, challenges? Clearly, the world needs to band together in a host of circumstances where it has thus far found itself reluctant or powerless to act. The world still needs America’s steady hand. But it needs to be a steady, reliable and, yes, predictable hand. One that is guided by principles for all to see and understand and, hopefully, respect for the wisdom by which they are applied. But there are power centers as well where such actions should be anticipated—provided the leadership is there to take an active role. Above all, it must take charge in cases where passivity can do harm, while at the same time understanding that change for the sake of change is no panacea for apathy or stagnation.

One of my stops in Paris was at the École Militaire where I spoke to one of its most distinguished units—the École de Guerre. My audience consisted of the entire student body—some 200 French officers and 100 other officers from 70 nations and every branch of service. Dating back to Louis XV, who established the institution on the urgings of his chief mistress Madame de Pompadour, it’s housed today in a sprawling, low-slung, largely 19th-century complex that overlooks the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. A warren of courtyards and colonnades, its elegant gray walls are pockmarked by bullet holes left untouched to recall the fierce fighting that engulfed the institution, indeed much of Paris, at the end of World War II. A stable still houses the last remnants of the cavalry, whose meticulously groomed horses spend more time on parade grounds these days than in battle.

The students, most of them mid-career officers who’d already seen service in many parts of the world in the army, navy, air force, and the gendarmerie were most concerned about whether America would be likely to adhere to its commitments to its allies—and what their role might be in future conflicts or in preserving the peace in circumstances that many might never have imagined of even a decade earlier. As I attempted to take them through the role of the United States in a host of circumstances and in the positions of our two candidates for the American presidency, they had many questions about the parts of the world most important to each of them.

Afterward, as we headed off to a champagne reception in the quarters of Admiral Marc de Briançon, commandant of the ecole, near the rooms once occupied by Napoleon when he served as emperor, one of the young French officers in my audience approached. He was concerned about China and troubled by a statement I’d made in response to a question that we must learn to understand China as a partner rather than as an adversary. “How is that possible?” he asked. “Won’t they see that as a sign of weakness? Don’t we have to stand up to them at every opportunity? Should we not rather see them as our principal adversary?” I assured him that the new breed of Chinese leadership was more concerned with preserving its rule at home and strengthening its economy, since a failing or stalled economy could prove to be their greatest challenge to assuring domestic stability. At the same time, China unquestionably is a teenager testing its limit. While the leadership of a united China dates back to the Qin emperors two centuries before Christ, its current iteration is barely six decades old—an eye blink in the long history of this great empire. So when the Zhongnanhai seeks to expand its mandate into the South China Sea—to the Spratly, Paracel, and Senkaku Islands, confronting Vietnam and a determinedly non-weaponized Japan, it is up to those forces of good to make certain that boundaries are respected. In such cases a simple do-no-harm strategy will hardly serve, though it is equally inappropriate for China’s opponents to raise the levels of tension in a region of the world that has through history known more than its share.

Of course, in most such cases, we return to the theme of change. As we wind to an end of 12 months that at the outset held so much promise of dramatic change, there has not fundamentally turned out to be very much in the way of transformation—merely new challenges to be met in old ways. In 1839, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a well-known French critic, author of popular autobiographical novels, and epigrammatist, took over as editor of Le Figaro, then just 13 years old and more a journal of satire than serious news. Karr achieved immortality for a single expression, first published in January 1849 in Les Guelphs, a satirical magazine he also edited: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Its empire gone, its language, culture, and certainly its economic leadership fading, there is nevertheless much that France has given the world. But especially there is Karr’s enduring lesson for today’s rulers and tomorrow’s aspirants. 

*****

*****

David A. Andelman is editor of  World Policy Journal.

[Photo by Andrew Stawarz; Illustration by Damien Glez]

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