Sunday, April 17, 2005

Les Pied Noirs

While revisiting the history of the French-Algerian war in 1954, I stumbled on an extensive quote -- at second hand -- from Paul Johnson's Modern Times, which though written before 9/11 provided a valuable key to understanding 'terrorism' as it emerged from the chrysalis of anti-colonialism. Colonialism died in part, Johnson argued, because it provided the demographic basis for its own demise. (Hat tip: FreeRepublic)

Algeria was the greatest and in many ways the archetype of all anti-colonial wars. In the 19th century the Europeans won colonial wars because the indigenous peoples had lost the will to resist. In the 20th century the roles were reversed, and it was Europe which lost the will to hang on to its gains. But behind this relativity of wills there are demographic facts. A colony is lost once the level of settlement in exceeded by the growth rate of the indigenous peoples. 19th century colonialism reflected the huge upsurge in European numbers. 20th century decolonization reflected European demographic stability and the violent expansion of native populations. 

Algeria was a classic case of this reversal. It was not so much a French colony as a Mediterranean settlement. In the 1830s there were only 1.5 million Arabs there, and their numbers were dwindling. The Mediterranean people moved from the northern shores to the southern ones, into what appeared to be a vacuum: to them the great inland sea was a unity, and they had as much right to its shores as anyone provided they justified their existence by wealth creation. And they did: they expanded 2000 square miles of cultivated land in 1830 to 27000 by 1954. ... But rising prosperity attracted others ... And the French medical services virtually eliminated malaria, typhus and typhoid and effected a prodigious change in the non-European infant mortality rates. By 1906 the Muslim population had jumped to 4.5 million; by 1954 to 9 million. By the mid 1970s it had more than doubled again. If the French population had risen at the same rate, it would have been over 300 million by 1950. The French policy of "assimilation", therefore, was nonsense ...

Algeria was lost to France even before the events of 1945, when the first troubles began. And because there is really no dividing line between colonialism and the counter-colonization Western Europe is experiencing today, Johnson's observation applies with at least partial validity to modern South Africa, Israel, France and the Scandinavian countries. Declining European birthrates and burgeoning Muslim immigrant fertility are making the policy of "assimilation" just as problematic in Western Europe as it was  in Algeria five decades ago. One answer to this problem is to redefine political entities so that ethnic Europeans are once again the 'majority'. It is probably accidental that beginnings of the EU in 1957 coincided with the final withdrawal of the shattered colonial empires to the European shore. But it is not improbable to suggest that it represented an attempt to stem the decline in the core sources of European power. The rise of United States and Japan and the meant the Old Continent was no longer the sole technological powerhouse. And after a brief postwar boom, European population was once again trending flat. Consolidating markets was an obvious counter to the advantages of the United States. Yet the European enlargement project had a secondary effect. It was the most audacious act of Gerrymanderying in history. It provided the opportunity to sidestep the changing demographics in Western Europe by redefinition. Long after Frenchmen were a minority in France they could still belong to an ethnic European majority, providing Europe extended to the Dnieper. Instead of mending the hole in the hull, the problem could be ameloriated by making the ship bigger so that it would take longer to sink.

Although the economic aspects of the European constitution that will be presented to the French on May 29 have been the focus of debate, its demographic dimension is as important and more viscerally understood. Jean Marie-Le Pen's humorless parable about EU enlargement nevertheless has a certain truth to it.

The government will use every means possible and imaginable [for a "yes" win]. Now, in confidence, the prime minister tells us that … it’s a French Europe that we’re trying to build—a sort of French colony. It's like an old joke during the war: “Come quick! Come quick! I took 50 prisoners, but they won’t let me go!” [Laughs.] Well it’s exactly that, isn’t it? France took 24 prisoners, but they won’t let it go!

But if the EU is a really an attempt to turn the continent into a French colony it has once again run into Paul Johnson's observation that a "colony is lost once the level of settlement in exceeded by the growth rate of the indigenous peoples" except now it is in the context of Eastern European entrants. At the heart of French electoral resistance to the EU Constitution is an unwillingness to accept the free-market policies that non-French members want. Sylvain Charat at Tech Central Station writes:

 The 1957 Treaty of Rome proclaimed four fundamental freedoms: the free movement of persons, capital, goods and services. This has been strongly restated in the Lisbon Agenda, which aims to make Europe the most competitive economic zone in the world by 2010. Convinced that liberalization of services would be an important source of wealth and jobs, the European Commission was asked by EU leaders to draft a directive ensuring it. This was done on January 13th, 2004 ... the two French commissioners at that time, Michel Barnier, now foreign minister, and Pascal Lamy, hoping to run the WTO, signed onto it. Additionally, the French government did not protest.

Those free market aspirations have come into shuddering collision with the French 'social model' where 25 percent of the workforce is employed by the government, 10 percent of the population is on welfare and French law calls for a 35-hour week. While European enlargement ordered British shopkeepers to sell wares in grams and kilos instead of pounds and ounces it was fine, but now that it lets "hairdressers, plumbers and accountants to work freely across Europe" as the Scotsman reports, it is no longer so fine -- and a French 'Non' is more than likely. This is bound to be met by the rueful echo of what one Muslim moderate, who was originally in favor of Algerian integration into Metropolitan France said five decades ago: "the French Republic has cheated. She has made fools of us ... why should we feel ourselves bound by the principles of French moral values... when France herself refuses to be subject to them?", except that it will be uttered in Polish, or worse, English.

Europe if not now then soon must accept that enlargement by itself can never fully compensate for the fundamental weakness of its demographics and economy. Even a ship as large as the Titanic eventually fills with water. French EU Foreign Minister Michel Barnier could not have spoken more eloquently of the dead-end French policy had become when he said the EU had no contingency plan in the event of a rejection. "We have no plan B. You cannot have a plan B. It is 'Yes' and that's the only way to discuss this item, so we go 100 percent for that outcome". If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

Will Hutton in the Observer understands the real need to address Europe's weaknesses -- to avoid the belated repetition of Algeria on its soil -- by a means better than bankrupt French strategy, though he can't state it clearly.

Fifteen consecutive opinion polls during April have confirmed that the 'no' vote in the French referendum on the Constitutional Treaty stands at some 53 per cent .... An improbable alliance of right and left is tapping the mood that French travails in general, and unemployment in particular, are because France cannot be true to an idea of France. France has been locked in quasi economic stagnation for more than a decade; unemployment is 10 per cent and youth unemployment even higher.

The original Common Market was a French creation, in effect, an extension of the French state and the accompanying subordinate relationship of capitalism. Now that the EU is being transmuted into a network of European states, of which France is but one and in which the market has a much more central role, France is losing control of both the EU and an idea of France. And what's worse, it isn't delivering results. Vote 'no'.

There is a realistic chance that there could be a 'no' vote in both countries, in which case the treaty is stone dead. What to do? One option will be to muddle through, adapting the current European treaties where possible, but that ... Even if it doesn't happen ... the dark forces in both countries have got to be addressed, and that means rekindling growth and answering the question of how the European project is to be squared with an idea of Holland and France. It's a political quagmire, demanding high skills from Europe's wooden and unimaginative leadership.

After sixty years of retreat from its colonial heyday, Europe is an idea whose back is to the wall. What it needs now is a new vision and leadership, which with some American help, may address the core of its weakness: suicidal demographics; cultural self-loathing; its oppressive socialist economies. The hour is late and the ship captained by fools but hope still remains.