European Civilization

European Civilization
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There were riots in France last week following a string of municipal elections. Evidently they were won by the wrong party. At least from the rioters’ perspective.

As is not uncommon in Europe, the French hold local level elections separate from their presidential and parliamentary ones, which allows races for mayor and city council to turn into a sort of mid-term referendum on the popularity of the national government. Since President Hollande, much besieged by economic malaise, petty scandal, party infighting, and romantic woe, is currently estimated to be France’s single most unpopular president in the entire history of the Republic, the March 30 vote was, as they say, “a critical test.”

And he flunked.

Hollande’s Socialist Party was dealt it’s worst-ever defeat, capturing only 349 of the country’s 921 cities, losing some that had been under Socialist rule since before the First World War. Of the remaining 572, the conservative party of ex-presidents Sarkozy and Chirac won most, but what’s made international headlines was the unprecedentedly strong showing of the National Front, a far-right party whose popularity has long served as a kind of ominous bellwether for Europe’s long-feared fascist relapse.

Led by Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, populist daughter of the party’s previous (and much — outside France, at least — reviled) boss, Jean-Marie, the NF elected 11 mayors and nearly a thousand city councillors. Though not terribly impressive on a strictly numeric level (no NF mayor will run a city with a population larger than 150,000, and 11 out of 921 is barely 1%), it nevertheless marked the once-fringe party’s biggest mainstream political breakthrough to date. Though France has seen NF mayors before, their elections have often been short-lived outliers within the stability of the traditional French two-party system — never a multi-city sweep, even if only a mild one.

Perhaps the best American way to think about this would be if a couple dozen Libertarians won several dozens seats in a couple state legislatures this November. Perhaps not enormously consequential for the actual governance of the country, but an ominous early crack in the permanence of the established political order just the same.

Talking of libertarians, I’ve noticed some like to draw analogies between the resilience of the National Front in France (and other far-right, no-longer-quite-so-fringe parties elsewhere in Europe) with the rise of the Tea Party in the States. Usually such comparisons are part of some armchair analysis of how tough economic times foster political radicalism and whatnot, and while that may be true, it’s worth understanding that not all far-right radicals are created equal.

European nations tend to jealously guard their cultural sovereignty. This is understandable; the great European wars of the 19th and 20th centuries were largely fought over nationhood and self-determination, the idea that common peoples deserve independent states to give shape and dignity to their shared identity, guarded by sturdy borders that outsiders have no right to infringe. It’s a right that was hard-won.

I always remember this powerfully nationalistic documentary I saw when I was in Luxembourg — Heim ins Reich — that looked at the Nazi conquest of that small but fiercely patriotic country. There was this striking scene where some Third Reich bigshot — I think it might have even been Dr. Goebbles — was standing on the balcony of the Luxembourganian Grand Duke’s palace shortly after the capital had been seized, delivering this almost cartoonishly condescending speech.

Isn’t it great that you people have been liberated from your tiny, stupid country, he said (in as many words). In time, you naive morons will learn to lose your dumb made-up identity and embrace the far superior nationalism of the all-powerful German Reich!

Modern-day Europeans are obviously not under any sort of comparable oppression, but some would nevertheless sympathize with those Luxembourgers just the same.

The swift rise of the European Union has led to the creation of an embryonic pan-continental super-state, complete with activist courts, a powerful regulatory bureaucracy, and executive branch-style councils where independent heads of government form joint policy like cabinet ministers running a common nation. The abolishment of border controls has led to unprecedented waves of inter-European migration, particularly from residents of the EU’s newest member states, the ex-Soviet republics of eastern Europe, into the established democracies of the west. And then there’s the matter of immigration from outside the continent altogether — nearly two million a year according to the European Commission.

In most cases, these tremendous social changes have been justified on the basis that there was something profoundly wrong with the way Europe used to work, something wrong with the hard-fought victories of the 19th and 20th centuries. The old continent was too closed, too parochial, and certainly too ethnocentric; only the creation of post-national governance structures designed to weaken local ones, and force the embrace of a more ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse population could correct these historic flaws. Europeans, the thinking went, should start thinking of themselves as just that, Europeans — if not citizens of the world — and embrace new egalitarian, transnational identities, institutions, and policies designed to cleanse them of those chauvinistic, competitive, and paranoid instincts that inspired the imperialism, pogroms, and genocides of the past. Which, lest we forget, were a big part of Europe’s 19th and 20th century, too.

Yet this drive to eliminate judgmentalism, led by the political elite of all mainstream European political parties, is of course profoundly judgemental unto itself, and the sort of top-down consensus Europe’s nouveau populist far-right is now so eager to rally against. Groups like the National Front draw on the unease many citizens feel navigating this brave new world of things you can no longer say, prides you can no longer feel, and stuff you can no longer like, and exploit reactive desires to reassert traditional elements of identity — particularly language, religion, and race — at the center of what “it means to be French” (or Dutch or Norwegian or  whatever).

Such patriotic movements invariably transcend traditional notions of capitalism and socialism, which is what makes Tea Party analogies so imprecise. Many European far-rightists are actually perfectly cool with a big government welfare state — socialist-style programs like universal healthcare being respected as policies designed to protect the health and happiness of the volk; the problem is when they’re driven to the brink of bankruptcy by giant waves of freeloading outsiders. Big business, likewise, is often far more villain than hero; a force that’s seeking to blur cultural distinctions with globalist consumerism — not to mention provide governments with an economic case for the mass import of third-world labourers.

It’s interesting to note that Anti-Americanism tends to motivate a lot of this movement too, as far-right Europeans increasingly view America as the originator and champion of the post-modern, ultra-capitalist, immigrant-centric, post-national nation-state value system they’re so eager to avoid. During the Crimea crisis, for instance, it was noted that many of Europe far-right leaders — including Ms. LePen — were far more likely to sympathize with President Putin’s chauvinistic aspiration’s for pan-Russian unity than the American defense of Ukrainian sovereignty over its diverse territories. Which only makes sense if you think about it.

The end result, in either case, is a Europe with an alienated, ultradefensive minority population determined to spread the feeling. Not just among fellow conservatives, traditionalists, reactionaries — and yes, out-and-out racists, xenophobes, and fascists, too — but those they’ve declared their enemies: immigrants, non-Christians, “cultural Marxists,” white liberal “traitors,” and anyone else on the postmodern left. But the left is prepared to respond in kind; as these existential questions begin to loom larger in the continent’s political discourse, European progressives are fast building passionate, well-organized networks of “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” whose allegiance to the New Europe is every bit as militant and uncompromising as the neo-right’s is to the old.

Thus the riots.

One suspects more are coming.


  1. robota rozum

    Mr. McCullough, the use of the term "volk" stands out quite a bit, especially in a piece whose only other mention of Germans involves the Nazis, and especially in a piece that otherwise seems to strive for even-handed treatment of right and left. Am I reading too much into it, or is the association intended?

    I've always thought that the transition from cities to nations (and tribes to cities before that) indicates that a transition from nations to something even larger is inevitable. Unlike the people who bled through those transitions, we have the advantage of the modern study of history. Why is it that people appear to honestly believe that Germany (for instance) sprang into existence fully formed a la Athena, rather than gradually and recently accreting from many smaller states? Isn't the fundamental German-ness that resists broader unification no more a barrier than the fundamental Prussian-ness and Schelswigan-ness before it, or the immutable and immiscible cultures of the Jutes and Frisians before that?

  2. Guest

    Language is a big driving force. Germany could be unified because its population was capable of mutually intelligible conversation. Contrast Austria-Hungary.

    Thus Europe, divided by languages, struggles to have its own identity.

    But equally it might be a strength. Consider instead Franco's language policy. Or Britain's in pre-independence Ireland. It's perhaps a good thing that Europe doesn't have a dominant language.

    Indeed a part – albeit contested – of what you might call eurocentrism is its recognition of minority indigenous languages which do not adhere entirely to borders.

    The far-right parties find themselves limited by their own chauvinism. In the UK, they have no sway outside of England. I cannot imagine Catalans having much truck with them either.

    Far-right political action is fuelled by anger of those who can no longer comfortably sneer at cultural minorities and get away with it. They've realised that people will call them out when they're rude, question their abuse of privilege. And now they're politicised by it, we'll tell them that nope, the majority want to get along and be nice to each other.

  3. Dryhad

    There was no "fundamental Prussian-ness". Prussia was just the part of Germany that happened to be owned by the Electors of Brandenburg/Grand Dukes of Prussia. Yes, obviously these national identities came from somewhere but they didn't come from the unification movements of the 19th century, that was the other way around. The history is complex and in some cases there's a connection to political borders, but this is not universally true. Especially in the case of Germany, which most historical maps depict as much more divided than its inhabitants might have imagined it. The Holy Roman Empire may not have had much political power, but it was a theoretically unified Germany.

  4. Guest

    You do know that a lot of the mini German-statelets during the time of the Holy Roman Empire were referred to as 'the Germanies', right? The idea of a Germany didn't spring out of the ether, it was born out of a common people with many shared interests among them language, historical traditions, culture and fear of the continually aggressive French military. The people themselves had different accents and particular economic interests, would follow different religious traditions (still generally overwhelmingly Christian of some sort, though) and so on, but they felt that they had a lot more pulling them together than pushing them apart.

  5. Devil Child

    This is one thing if the people involved in carving a bigger nation actually believe that a diverse group of races can actually integrate into a new identity: like we did in America with the Germans, Irish, Italians, Polish, British, Scots, Jews, White Hispanics, and certain Natives some of the time.

    In practice, most of the people who are advocates of nationalism hate other races, and would rather kill them, expel them, or permanently render them underclass: like we did in America with Blacks, Red and Mixed Hispanics, and most Natives most of the time.

    Any branch of nationalism that doesn't believe in true equality and integration is a toxic ideology at best, and a threat to humanity at worst.

  6. HeartRight

    There was a German Volk before there was a German State.
    There was a German volk for the Romans to observe, but it would be difficult to point at a German state before 814 – Treaty of Verdun.
    I take leave to note that under Verdun, Luxembourg did not belong to Germany but to Lotharingia, a broad strip of land from the Netherlands to Liguria.

    There was a broad strip of land which was inhabited by mixed Celtic and Germanic tribes, and I think it is valid to say that what you today think of as German ad France is the result of a thousand years of squabbling over Lotharigia.

    The Luxemburg anthem bears this naratve out: Tell it the Belgians, tell it the Prussians – mer wer blewe mer wer sind!

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Is it racism or ethnicism or something else that is also born out of hate? Yes it largely can be due to hate. However…

    I talked to a Norwegian once after the massacre of that children camp. He said that although it was a horrible incident the nutcase that did it, did touch on a point that many share in Europe. Without glorifying the nutcase who did the act. You know one of those events that spark a national conversation. Anyway, he said this.

    In short it was ( again without glorifying the nutcase or anything like that). Europe has had a ton of wars because of disagreements. Whether it was because of a lack of democracy or a fear of tyranny of the majority. Either way, Europe had wars and ended up divided into countries. Each group of people share ideas, cultures and religions.

    After all most European nations have official state religions. Albeit, in name only, although tax money do go to many of those churches. Each group, Norway for Norwegians, France or the Franks, etc., has fought centuries to build a nation/home for their group. What right does some Turk coming have to riot or even complain in Norway because they disagree with some policies? The country was there, they knew what they were getting into. Again this was him explaining the sentiments in Europe.

    I guess the American equivalent would be. When social conservatives leave some Idaho or North Dakota because it is too restrictive and says Nevada and California is too open or w/e else. It's like when gays go to Utah and expect the state to stop being Mormon overnight. Or when liberals leave Massachusetts for New Hampshire because of taxes and continue to vote the same way. You know what you are expecting.

    Not saying we have to tolerate discrimination. But what I do think he was saying is that, and it makes sense, is that you have to realize each place is different. And as you want to be tolerated you have to tolerate some things that are just completely part of the local culture. You don't move to Nevada and start complaining about gambling and say it should be ban. You can say it but it is a dumb move and neglects the entire point of the state pretty much.

    So I think that at least some of the backlash is that. European countries even right wing ones are willing to have this socialism that is for the nation. Aka Norway for Norwegians. Not just blonde hair and blue eyed people who happen to be born in Norway but for anyone who becomes whatever is defined as Norwegian. So people get pissed at anyone who is trying to change that. Regardless of what that group might be.

    It just happens the main group this time around are Muslims. I'm sure in a few years it could be another group of people. And it will start all over. Again not saying this is right. All I am doing is explaining the EU mentality. Or at least of the rioters that are not doing it purely out of hate.

  8. Jake_Ackers

    On pan-Europeanism. A European identity is only viewed and used when talking about EU versus some other place. Like "those backwards Americans" versus "the old and cultured ways of Europe." Or w/e else. The US was not the US until the Civil War. Just now is EU becoming EU.

    If Russia invaded a core EU country or even a few of them. We would of seen a rise in a EU identity. But because it was the Ukraine. It doesn't have the same affect. I remember in a class about Europe. Nobody wanted to say their relatives came from Eastern Europe. Croats, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, etc. all said they were "Central European". And this way back in like 2009 or something.

    Maybe the US is just a rarity among nations. Or maybe EU is pushing too much for the EU. And should backoff into a more of a straight up confederacy (which it technically is anyway). What does it mean to be "American?" Guns? Beef? Fast cars? Big houses? Capitalism? What does it mean to be "European?" Surveillance? Wine? Small cars? Tiny houses? Socialism/State-Welfare? If you disagree then what?

    Personally I do get pissed when Canadians or some European comes to the US and complains about guns. Go live in the middle of nowhereville. And see if you can wait 2 hours for some cop to show up while you are getting mauled by a bear. Or people that say, "In my country…" No one cares about your country. If it was so great you would be leaving there. Yes yes yes I know. We as the US can always improve and do have a problem with violence and what not.

    Difference is that the US was built on immigration. So tolerance is demanded more or less. And people who come to the US come to the US for more than economic reasons (at least they did). It has always been ideological. For "freedom." If you go to Europe. It's because of money. Most likely. So you don't share the ideals, whichever they may be, of the rest of Europe or the country to happen to arrive in.

  9. Guest

    'Far-right political action is fuelled by anger of those who can no longer comfortably sneer at cultural minorities and get away with it.'

    I call BS. The basic problem is failure to strictly enforce Cultural Monism.

    The BJP in India is not the result of anger of those who can no longer comfortably sneer at cultural minorities – the India Rebirth Party is the result of the unacceptable division of India.

    Complete self-identification with India – or a Winnie Mandela necktie.

  10. Virigil

    I liked the analysis. I think it did an excellent job of explaining the differences between the European far right and the American (basically Nationalism vs. Libertarianism). I think that the differences are profoundly important because each extreme has a gravitational pull on the rest of the electoral system.

  11. Marginalia

    I figured I'd comment as a French…

    I think you're slightly mistaken in your analysis of the rise of the National Front as a sovereign nation movement, and a fear of immigration one. Those two things are the bases of the National Front's public success (it started as a conglomerate of all the far right movements in France, including movements that should not have been compatible), but I don't think they account for all of the people who have voted for them this time. I'd say, based on their scores at several election, that perhaps 10% of the voters really agree with the core ideas of the National Front ; the rises one sees at some elections are more based on the current economic and ideological crisis, which makes people cast "fuck you" votes, (the National Front being a "fuck you" vote) or refrain from voting, making the National Front scores more prominent.

    Your analysis of the way the European Union is seen is also a bit simplistic. One has to understand that outside of minority opinions (the 10% of the National Front, and a few sovereignists here and there), the idea of Europe is immensely popular among the people, especially the youth. Precisely because Europe is about overcoming the warfare and the idea of nations that spawned the 19th and 20th bloody wars. It's about embracing a long history and a feel of brotherhood beyond frontiers. One also has to remember that intra-european migrations happened a lot during the 19th and 20th century. One of my grand-fathers was born in Poland, he grew up in Vienna and arrived in France in the 30s, fleeing the nazis. I never knew him, but he was all about Europe. I also am, and so are most of the people I know, whether they have an ancestor from another European country or not. Most of us can travel easily (and did) to other European countries, many student go for a year studying in another european country, we encounter the same kind of problems in spite of the cultural differences : all reasons to feel an european fraternity.
    However, being all on board on the idea of Europe doesn't mean that one agrees with the European Union, above all as the European Union takes more legislative power without having satisfactory democratic structures to make sure these are seen as legitimate choices. When france rejected the European Constitution in 2005, it was not about nationalism : the nationalists couldn't have made the decision fail on their own. No, it was rejected because about half of the left wing pointed that, while they all did agree with the idea of Europe and of a political Europe, the bases the Constitution placed were already politically biaised : the whole third part of the Constitution was about laissez-faire policies that would go against the national welfare policies.
    Back in 2005, I for one still voted for the European constitution, while considering that the political issues were valid, because for me, it was more important to enforce the idea of a political Europe, I thought that we could change its politics then. I'm not sure I would now. We pro-european leftists got the exact contrary of why we wanted : the political idea of Europe was ditched after the French no in 2005 and the Irish refusal next, but the economical part of the treaty that seemed dubious to many of us was enforced as the Lisbon Treaty. The European Union currently lacks any kind of political vision, and instead spends its time playing the financial and economic cop, enforcing austerity measures in all countries and strangling the countries most in crisis, such as Greece.
    This situation fuels resentment against Europe, which are much more economical than nationalist ones. The anti-European among my friends just think that a French nation out of Europe (and international instances) would be freer to make policies that could change the system and make the situation better – but if the economic crisis wasn't here and if it was just about a political Europe, they'd be way less critical.
    Marine Le Pen has been surfing on this resentment, convincing some that she could get France out of the rut by leaving Europe. That is a shift in the National Front, which traditionally doesn't give a damn about social issues, considering that all issues are national ones (and that employment issues could solely be solved by kicking the foreigners out). That's why, I think, it got more votes this time. If the situation was better and the National front just had its nation platform, things would be different.

  12. Marginalia

    (Part 2 : comment was too long)

    The problem with the European Union as it is now, also, is not solely the problem of the European Union or bureaucracy : it is first a political problem, a political crisis that plagues all of the Europe and perhaps more. Basically, the elites in most countries in Europe are unable to develop and promote a compelling political project, be it at a national or at an european level, beyond the TINA "there is no alternative" following of European agreements, of international rules, of appeasing markets, making sure we don't scare off finance, blah blah blah. The states have given up their powers not so much to Europe but to plenty of economical powers, and are unable to show the political will to change these things. Voting for any of the two major parties doesn't seem to change much anything when it comes to general laissez-faire politics : last week our "socialist" new prime minister Manuel Valls made his general policies discourse, which was a right-wing one on fiscal, economic and societal issues. Most of the left-wing people out there who think that these policies won't solve our problems are pretty much disgusted. That also fuels the "fuck you" votes, as well as not voting.

    One note on the immigration. Here in France, most of the immigrants actually share a sizable part of our History, because they majorly come from the former French colonies. The biggest wave happened in the 70s when we needed the work force, and the family reunification policies that happened in the 80s made them a sizable portion of the French population. The youth of immigrant descent, now, is French – and there is no way I wouldn't include them in what I consider my nation. That's where, I guess, I can see that I and the National Front don't share the same idea of nation. One of the major achievement of the French revolution was freeing the slaves, and as a revolution obsessed with the idea of freedom, the liberation of the black slaves was seen as one of the most powerful symbol of this lofty ideal. We have Toussaint Louverture and Félix Eboué in our panthéon. I have photos of my great grand father, sailor in the French navy, with black sailors, also in the French navy. For long, our way of teaching History shunned this diversity, but it is an actual part of our History and I have no doubt that it makes us a better, stronger nation for taking it into account. It fits perfectly with our national values – much less so with the closed vision of nation of the National Front (which however has significantly opened itself on these issues lately). So, well… I'm rather optimistic on this ground.

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