by Graham Lea
(Swans - April 20, 2009) Swans is one of the diminishing redoubts for the essay, usually regarded as a particularly English literary form, as was seen recently in Julian Barnes's essay on that quintessential essayist Eric Blair, aka George Orwell. (1) Interestingly, both redoubt and essay derive from the French redoute, and essai. In this petit coin of Swans we shall, through English spectacles, look at l'Hexagone (as France métropolitaine is often called, to exclude the DOM -- the départements outre-mer -- overseas departments that remain part of France). Before we explore in the future some delightful aspects of French rural life (where the word Paris is never uttered), it is perhaps useful to offer a few comments on the political scene in Europe and France, and how Obama was received when he did Europe recently.
He came as a celebrity, along with an entourage of some 900 persons -- not all wearing sunglasses. He did six countries, three summits (the G-20 meeting in London, a NATO summit in Strasbourg, and a European Union Leaders conclave in Prague), together with five press conferences and myriad meetings. Not surprisingly he always looked tired, but mercifully he was seen to be utterly different from his predecessor, a more consummate performer. It was, however, clear that until he can get his legislative programme through Congress, and most of his 300 million fellow citizens behind him, he could do little abroad other than wave his flag. There is an underlying realisation here that Americans are more concerned with their job security than national security, and with paying for food and excessively over-priced health care, than with contributing to more than a trillion dollars for international banks to waste on projects that might enrich a few dictators and the odd US contractor. As for how the United States is seen by the world, this is clearly far less important to most Americans than their debts and their declining assets.
Obama came to sell outmoded American projects, such as US/NATO, in order to enrich the US war industries -- about all that's left in the U.S., it would seem. The French rejoined NATO's two-tier command structure (the U.S., and the rest), but strange to relate, nobody had missed them. Turkey was persuaded with some concessions to agree to the former Danish prime minister Anders Rasmussen becoming NATO secretary-general. Obama explained how the US/NATO has great respect for Muslims (provided you don't cross the Turkish border to Iraq, of course, or talk about the Kurds). At least the war industry interests of those Turkish generals will remain safe, as former CIA agent Philip Giraldi pointed out. (2)
As for US backing for Turkey's wish to join the EU, the U.S. of course has some history in this. We know -- for example from whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (3) and the documentary Kill the messenger by Mathieu Verboud and Jean-Robert Viallet (4) -- that Turkey was fiscally most generous to Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Dennis Hastert, Marc Grossman, and others. The saga involves bribes, drug trafficking, arms dealing, and nuclear secrets sales. Perle became a major advocate for Turkey's EU membership application, but managed to antagonise the EU into slow-tracking it. Obama's advocacy of Turkish EU membership during his visit to Turkey was not well received -- both Germany and France are uneasy about it. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing expressed his reservations in 2002 when he spoke of "a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life" -- and Turkey not being "a European country." (5) The US strategic interest in Turkey (since 1997) is a mistake: the Russia-avoiding BTC pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, via the now unstable Georgia, to Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast is probably doomed because Caspian oil production is disappointing, and the pipeline is vulnerable to attack.
Here in old Europe, we have long since had more than enough of war -- and an aggressive United States. US troops in Europe can go home -- or to Afghanistan -- especially as the Obama plea for European combat troops to go to Afghanistan was firmly turned down. As for Iraq, it should be born in mind that the Spanish, Italian, and British prime ministers were put out to pasture for the Iraq invasion fraud -- those absent WMDs, that false link between Saddam and 9/11, and of course the constant breach of the Geneva Conventions, with the atrocities at the torture prisons. Obama tried to persuade Europe to take Guantánamo prisoners. France said it would take one; Austria said none; while Maria Fekter, the German interior minister, observed that if the prisoners were not dangerous, why not keep them in the U.S.?
French president Nicolas Sarkozy made it clear that he and his chum Angela Merkel, the German chancelloress, wanted tighter regulation of financial markets, whereas les Anglo-Saxons wanted fiscal stimuli. He threatened an empty chair at the G-20 if he didn't get his way -- only to discover that nobody really cared if he were there or not. Sarko has effectively taken over the prime minister's job as well. The unknown PM, François Fillon (who has a Welsh wife) suggested, after observing the British cabinet system, that the job of prime minister could be abolished in France, so when he was given the job he knew he would have plenty of time for his hobbies -- bullfighting, mountaineering, and driving a Ferrari at Le Mans. (6) Sarko had advocated a rupture in French political life, which was quickly softened to a rupture tranquille, so that député Dominique Paillé pithily suggested that La rupture, c'est Nicolas; la tranquillité, c'est François.
American media construed the trip as an exercise in American deal making. European media divide into those providing news entertainment, and those with some more serious analysis. At the former level, the British Daily Mail had an amusing photo of Sarko (1 metre 65) standing on his toes to be photographed with the Obamas (variously reported as 1m85 to 1m88). (7) Sarko is also 6 cm shorter than his wife, so she wears flat shoes, and he has elevator shoes. The serious Der Spiegel headlined Obama's confession at the final G-20 session that "It is true... that the [financial] crisis began in the U.S. I take responsibility, even if I wasn't even president at the time." The US media buried it. (8)
Thankfully, a fashion war did not break out between Michelle Obama and Sarko's new wife, former model Carla Bruni. Le Canard enchaîné, a venerable satirical weekly newspaper in its 94th year, has a spoof Le Journal de Carla B in which she told Mrs Obama that she admired the Americans for electing a black to the White House. Mrs O. responded Moi aussi, j'admire ces frenchies qui ont élu à l'Elysée une femme de la gauche caviar et son mari de droite magyare [she admired the French for electing a champagne socialist and her husband from the Hungarian political right]. Sarko's father, Pál Sárközy de Nagy-Bócsa, told Omega TV that he hoped that les Sarkozy vont devenir une dynastie en France [would become dynastic]. Oh dear.
Obama received a good mark for observing that "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening ... when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility." There is goodwill for Obama, but the celebrity will need to become a statesman if he is to make progress abroad.
1. The New York Review of Books, 12 March 2009. (back)
2. Philip Giraldi: Deep background. The American Conservative, 24 April 2006. (back)
3. Chris Gourlay, Jonathan Calvert & Joe Lauria: "For sale: West's deadly nuclear secrets." The Sunday Times, 6 January 2008.
4. video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6063340745569143497 (53 minute version of the original 90-minute film, originally entitled Une femme à abattre).
5. Charles Bremner et al.: "Turkey's EU membership challenged by Giscard." The Times, 9 November 2002. (back)
6. Ros Taylor: "How Sarkozy found his Blair." The Guardian, 17 May 2007. (back)
8. James Hagengruber: "German magazine bags Obama 'confession' at G-20." The Christian Science Monitor, 10 April 2009. (back)
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