|The 11 candidates for French President. Only the top 2 will survive to Round 2.|
It’s no surprise that the terrorism of recent years will be a major factor in this weekend’s French elections. French citizens have reacted not only to the violence itself, but to the questions it raises about many pressing public issues: immigration, open borders, unemployment, free trade, religious integration, national identity, equality, globalization, and even the very idea of Europe.
Of course the French are not alone. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both represented responses to the same questions. I decided it would be timely to ask French people about the situation as they see it.
I interviewed more than a dozen people in six different locations: retired couples, former small business people, a pharmacist, a notary, artists, young professionals. I heard many differing ideas, but on one question--the idea of Europe--there was near consensus. And this consensus should be of interest to Americans in general, and especially to American Catholics.
I began describing my own perspective. As a student in Paris in the late 1960s, I was tutored by several people instrumental in promoting the young “Common Market,” which eventually became the European Union. The consistent message to me was that the movement underway in the 1960s to create an economic union did not have, as its primary goal, the advancement of prosperity or the enhanced wealth of any particular class. Rather, the notion was that economic union, using free trade to promote greater prosperity, was but the preamble to a second movement toward political confederation. And the goal of political confederation was peace in Europe.
It may be difficult for Americans to appreciate what this goal meant to post-War Europeans. They had just endured the second of two major continental conflicts that caused tens of millions of deaths, decimated whole generations, and left entire national economies in ruins.
But that was not all.
These wars were seen by Europeans as merely the latest episode in a centuries-long history of repeated and recurring warfare among the nations of Western Europe. No European could remember an extended period peace--in fact, no European going back a dozen generations had any such memory.
So the “idea of Europe” was nothing less than a massive project to eliminate war on the European continent. This at a time when the continent itself was still divided by an “Iron Curtain” symbolic of both the war just concluded and the Cold War currently underway. Realists would have said the project was impossible. Only visionaries would believe in it.
I asked my interviewees if, in fact, this had been the popular understanding of what was going, on beginning with the treaty of Rome in 1957, whose anniversary was just celebrated last month. Most of my interviewees are either old enough to remember this history, or had read about it in school.
All of them, except for one retired businessman, emphatically agreed with the key notions that (1) the Common Market’s trade union was simply an economic preparation for political federation and (2) the ultimate goal of federation was peace itself.
One person cited Winston Churchill’s opinion that the future would bring a “United States of Europe.” (This reminded me of my own seminar-related field trip to Common Market headquarters in Brussels in 1969, where I expressed the hope of returning in 20 years to find just such a United States of Europe).
Another person responded by saying, “But of course it was always about ‘Jamais Plus’…” (”Never More”). She was citing the slogan of the post-WWI French pacifist anti-militarist movement. Pope Pius VI made the slogan famous in his 1965 address to the UN General Assembly, when he cried out, in French, “Never more--war never again!”
All this implied that, for supporters of this idea of Europe, many economic and political concerns became secondary. They knew, for example, that free trade would lead to labor dislocations as the old protectionist systems fell away and businesses and their workers were forced to compete directly across borders. They knew as well that a political confederation could not be accomplished without some sacrifice of national sovereignty. Those who studied US history, for example, knew that the question of states’ rights has been controversial since the adoption of the US Constitution created the Federal government.
The same challenge would be true for Europe--except that Europe is not a continent of English speaking citizens from similar backgrounds and cultures, like the US at its founding. Few places on earth cram as many different languages, cultures, peoples, and histories into the small space of Europe.
But if this makes European unity especially challenging, it is precisely why building peace in Europe required deliberate institutions: so many people crammed so close together cannot coexist peaceably by accident.
But coexist peaceably is exactly Western Europe HAS done since World War II. For more than 70 years, no Western European nation has battled another. Such peace is nearly without precedent in the last 1000 years.
Almost all of my interviewees agree that such peace was the product of the idea of Europe, and the one who disagreed could not explain peace any other way.
But interestingly, my interviewees all pointed out that the younger generation--those under 35, the strongest supporters of the far right’s Marine Le Pen--is not even conscious of this accomplishment. My interviewees were unanimous: young people simply cannot imagine Germans fighting French or Dutch fighting Spanish or Italians fighting anybody.
When I ask why, the response was unanimous: young people simply take peace in Europe for granted. I was reminded of the John Sebastian singing “Younger Generations”: “All I’ve learned my kid assumes.” The postwar generation of Europeans had to learn how to construct peace; their grandchildren enjoy it as a given, and are ready to scrap the structure that made it possible.
So then I posed the question to my interviewees: doesn’t this mean that the idea of Europe was a success? The response was unanimous: absolutely. The idea of Europe is a success. It has brought peace.
As a test, I offered an analogy with the experience of the Christian world since Vatican Council II. The ecumenical movement, reaching full speed in the 1960s, aimed to end conflict and hostility among the various Christian churches (Which, in Europe and especially in France, included several scandalous “Wars of Religion”).
I noted that in my youth we tended to think of “the Catholic religion” and “the Protestant religion” as if we had inherited two different belief traditions. And often the isolation and hostility across denominational lines even infected family relations.
But today, thanks to the ecumenical movement, baptized Christians have a different sense of identity: I belong to the Catholic Church, but my religion is Christianity--and I share that religion with Protestants. Thus I am a Christian of the Catholic variety. My identity is changed.
They found my analogy fit their experience—one older gentleman could even remember how in boyhood his Catholic playmates would attack and insult the Protestant kids in the neighborhood. He could not imagine that sort of conflict happening today. (I recall two Boston examples: Nat Hentoff describing the Catholic gangs from South Boston attacking his Jewish playmates on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, and a Catholic priest who in boyhood always referred “Jew Hill Avenue.”)
Has something like this happened to the political identity of Europeans, I asked? Do French people now think of themselves as “Europeans of the French variety,” enjoying common bonds with other Europeans?
“Of course!” my interviewees replied (again with one exception). “Our identity is not what it once was.”
The interesting part of the analogy for me is that both examples confirm the same point: creating a wider identity enhances bonds that promote Peaceable relations, whereas tightly defined identities and boundaries do the opposite.
This is important in France, which tends to have a very tight definition of what it means to be French. Many French at some level still agree that “France is for the French”--which can mean that France is not for Jews, not for Arabs, not for Muslims, or for gays, not for anyone who does not assimilate smoothly into the mainstream of French Life. In short, France is not designed to be a fully pluralist culture. My interviewees were shocked to know, as they approach their own elections this Sunday, that American ballots are often multilingual.
During my stay I also watched the televised presidential debate, which included all 11 candidates. One the section concerned the question of Europe itself. Three of the candidates, including far right politician Marine Le Pen, want out of Europe (“Frexit”). The other eight all want to stay. This was not a surprise, nor was it surprising that not a single one of the eight defended the European Union as it currently operates. All of these eight called for a variety of reforms that would make the European Union more democratic, more accountable to its national members, more committed to economic equality, lest technocratic and bureaucratic, fairer to workers and poor member-states, etc.
But it was crystal clear that all eight made a critical distinction between the actual functioning of the European Union and the idea of Europe that it embodies. Much as we Catholics say that we profess loyalty to a sinful Church, all eight of these candidates found flaws in the European Union but remained firmly committed to the idea of Europe. To use a US analogy: they proposed changes akin to constitutional amendments, rather than proposing to scrap the Constitution itself.
On Sunday’s election, it is likely that Marine Le Pen and one of these eight will finish among the top two candidates in the first round. It is generally expected that whoever goes through to the second round against Le Pen will gather the others’ votes and become president. If so, the new French presidential election will reaffirm the idea of Europe as something supported by the vast majority of French people.
It’s worth noting that the Roman Catholic Church has been a longtime supporter of the idea of Europe. All the French clergy I know are champions of the European Union despite its flaws, since they truly see it as the vehicle for peace.
Young French voters may not even realize, when they vote, that their choice either supports or rejects the vision of the postwar generation who believed that a peaceful future could only be built on international cooperation, beginning with economic union and moving to political federation. As Americans, we should be flattered that their elders took the United States as a model. If we are skeptical, we might ask ourselves: “Why should Europe not enjoy the benefits of federation that we have enjoyed?” And as Catholics, we can see that what they have accomplished in the last 60 years is much like what our Church, and our sister churches, have accomplished by pursuing unity amid all our flaws© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017