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Published:April 25th, 2007 01:30 EST
The Last King of France

The Last King of France

By Krzys Wasilewski

France's politics is full of paradoxes. The nation is disappointed with its corrupted and ossified politicians, nevertheless, the turn-out for the Sunday presidential election was record-high: almost 85 percent of the 45 million allowed to cast their ballot. In Paris– the cradle of the European integration– it is chauvinism and xenophobia which now win applause. Not to mention that the conservative candidate is the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants while the Socialist hopeful bears the taint of aristocracy in her name. This is the legacy of the outgoing president, Jacques Chirac.

In several weeks, after Jacques Chirac bids adieu to his second and final tenure, France will be a completely different country from the day he moved into the presidential palace in 1995. Center-right Chirac inherited from his Socialist predecessor a country strong both economically and politically. Up to the 1990s France enjoyed decades of stability and ever-increasing prosperity, which only buoyed up the conviction that the French third way, combining the free market with extended social covers, was superior to the buccaneer American capitalism. Moreover, no one questioned France's political dominance on the continent with Central and Eastern European countries of the former Socialist Block pledging allegiance to Paris as their dearest friend and mentor. Paraphrasing King Louis XIV, Chirac could have said: I am Europe.

But France does not like her kings-- especially when they turn out to be inept and corrupt. No sooner had Chirac been sworn in than the media accused him of misappropriating state funds when he was the mayor of Paris. What is more, the investigation uncovered that more than 30,000 comfortable posts, which are at disposal of the mayor, were granted to Chirac's political friends, regardless of their competency, or rather lack thereof.

“I can explain everything.” said the newly appointed President of the Republic who skillfully slithered away from facing the trial. If France can forgive her leaders’ numerous love affairs, she can forgive their greed and nepotism. Paradoxically, the financial scandal distracted public attention from France's waning economy. The surpluses from the previous decade were quickly consumed by overstretched social services while the 1990s worldwide economic fallout severely hampered the country's international trade. With 35-hour-long work week, the minimal wage of 1000 Euros (about $1500) and early retirement for one third of the active population, France's budget began to resemble Swiss cheese with its abundant holes.

The financial crisis superimposed itself on more chronic political problems on the international stage. United Germany became the most powerful state in Europe, successfully luring post-communist countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic to its camp. The idea of the European integration was a French solution to keeping its eastern neighbor in reigns after two annihilating wars had almost turned the continent back to the Stone Age. As long as Germany was divided, France could feel solid in its paternalistic position; however, facing a new, 80 million people strong country, more powerful and richer than ever, was something else. Suddenly Paris became the staunchest voice of opposition against the expansion of the European Union, fearing it would steer Germany away from the Paris-Berlin cooperation.

“They are too poor.” and “Cheap labor from the East will flood France.” were among the many foul predictions churned out from the Elysee Palace. Nevertheless, 10 new countries joined the EU in 2004, a fact received in France with a visible grimace.

Around that same time, the war in Iraq broke off and President Chirac did not squander such a chance to shore up his image among pacifist voters. Along with Germany and Belgium, France worked tediously to construct a European-wide coalition, not as much against the war itself as against America as a whole. Across the English Channel (in France– not surprisingly– known as the La Manche Channel), Great Britain would not hear of any plan that could tamper her special partnership with the U.S., so it gathered a handful of other countries, mainly from Central Europe, and masterfully blocked France's moves. Again, Chirac had to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.

If there is something President Chirac succeeded in, it is isolating France in Europe. Not only did he anger other countries by telling them to "shut up” when they dared to criticize France's anti-American policy, but he turned the French people into one of the most nationalistic nations on the continent. While the French media was informing the public of “growing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe” the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and shrines at home passed unnoticed. The only positive reaction was the admittance by Chirac that France bore responsibility for the death of thousands of French Jewish citizens whom the Vichy government sent to concentration camps during World War II.

On the other hand, the French society grew restless with the soaring number of immigrants, mostly from Africa, but also from poorer parts of Europe, demanding they “love France or leave it.” How serious the problem was, the entire world could see in late 2005 when Paris suburbs– a traditional hub for France's immigrants-- waged an open rebellion against the entire political establishment. Burning Peugeots and hordes of youngsters armed with bats and knives is not a picture one imagines when Paris is mentioned; however, for several weeks it was the reality of the French capital. Although everything returned to normal, the French still have not answered the question “what is normal in a country where a palatial villa is neighbored by African-like slums?”

The French people will not miss their last king of France, as Jacques Chirac is dubbed at the Loire. His successor, whoever he may be– the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy or the Socialist Segolene Royal– is bound to introduce a new way of governing, untainted by old establishment cliques. And there is a lot to be done.  First of all, the country needs draconian cuts in social services if it wants to remain competitive. Then, Sarkozy or Royal will have to sweat profusely to bring France back on the pro-European track and solve the burning immigration problem. One thing is certain– France, in six years' time, will not resemble France AD 2007.

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