- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

“Between hamburgers and the Red Army, there is no choice. I prefertheRed Army.” Quick, who could say such a stupid thing? In today’s climate, the answer undoubtedly would be a Frenchman and more precisely, a French intellectual.

That happens to be correct, although the thinker in question is a man of the right, not the left. But there are equally silly quotes that appear in Roger Kaplan’s “Conservative Socialism,” which is also a brilliant dissection of the French left, the Socialists, in particular. As such, it should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Gallic mentality.

Submerged in the analysis is what I think is an explanation of why the French find the United States so unacceptable. The French have yet to come to terms with Vichy and all that implies, including ongoing anti-Semitism and their colonial experience, which means the twin disasters of Vietnam and Algeria. Under these circumstances, dealing positively with a comparative paragon of virtue (us) is not acceptable.

Indeed, the French have yet to come to terms with their own revolution — the aftershocks including the disgraceful Dreyfus affair, in which an innocent French army officer (more precisely, an Alsatian Jew) was framed by the French high command on a charge of treason.

Within this unhappy milieu, Mr. Kaplan looks at the Socialist Party, primarily the party of President Francois Mitterrand, who took the once feeble socialists to victory twice in 1981 and 1988. Indeed, Mr. Mitterrand, who died in 1996, is at the center of this book and is also the central enigma.

In Mr. Kaplan’s convincing portrait, Mr. Mitterrand emerges as a man of carefully constructed contradictions. Not a conventional man of the left, he was raised a provincial conservative and served Vichy with friends he would never disavow only to join the Resistance and eventually the winning side. After the war, he would serve in a variety of Fourth Republic governments de jour, finally emerging as the founder of the modern Socialist Party in 1971.

In a party of ideologues, Mr. Mitterrand maintained a stance of utter pragmatism beginning and ending with the only question that interested him: How to achieve power? That was no easy task since Charles de Gaulle told a generation of Frenchmen that only he stood between them and a red deluge. Mr. Mitterrand convinced them otherwise and he promised “to change life.” Mr. Mitterrand didn’t, and gave up any real notion to do so within the first three years of his first administration.

While much of Mr. Mitterand’s party became anti-European, anti-Israeli and anti-American, Mr. Mitterrand was never any of these things. He was far more supportive of the Atlantic Alliance than was de Gaulle — he put his political life on the line in supporting Pershing missiles for Europe.

And yet, he was hardly perfect. Mr. Mitterrand approved hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal wiretaps. He was not faithful to his marriage vows — his mistresses included one of his prime ministers — but then he never denied being an adulterer. The French simply shrugged and let it go at that.

More seriously, Mr. Mitterrand seems to have learned nothing about economics — how France was to finance the new republic was left vague — and this ignorance was shared by many in his party, which may account for the rearguard nature of socialist intellectuals in France, who considered such questions as too mundane for them. It is a theme I wish the author had explored in greater detail, but the point is clear: To be a Utopian means economic folly on a grand level.

So, where exactly does this leave the French left, and the Socialist Party in particular? Pretty much where it is now: leaderless; no longer in the Elysee Palace; and a distinct minority in the legislature.

What will this party of schoolteachers do about it? The author doesn’t quite say, but here are a few suggestions. Yes, they could abandon their Marxist, quasi-Marxist views. After all, the German SPD managed to shelve Marxism in 1959, and Tony Blair got Clause Four out of the Labor Party charter some years ago.

They might try to be less anti-American and less Third World. And, of course, they could come back promising better management of the government with less corruption. If anything is clear, the age of Jacques Chirac will not continue forever and, just where France will be without a coherent and responsible opposition is equally clear.

It would make even a Frenchman stop shrugging.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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