The picture at the top of this page was taken moments ago at a department store in France. It is not at all uncommon to find literature sections replete with new releases about political hot topics or key players and they are often snapped up by the reading public. In this image there are books on newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, as well as failed first round contenders Banoît Hamon and François Fillon, and Florian Philippot – right hand man to the losing second round candidate Marine Le Pen.
Elsewhere in the world 19 years ago, nearing the dawn of the new millennium a provocatively titled book called Can Asians Think was released by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. The scholarly work attracted no shortage of attention due to its eye-grabbing title and also its content and analysis.
The book talks about the decline of Asian civilization which, after being in the forefront of human advancement for centuries according to the author, was suddenly caught up to and utterly outpaced by Europe, as related by this quote.
“Can Asians think? Judging from the record of Asian societies over the past few centuries, the answer should be no — or, at best, not very well.”
Incidentally, the essence of Can Asians Think, i.e. asking the rhetorical question whether Asia had slid this far because it was no longer coming up with the winning formula that the West had mastered in projecting itself around the world, is the intellectual auto-critique equivalent of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s crude and haughty assertion in 2007 that Africa had not yet had an effect on the history of the world. Sarkozy was in effect saying “Africans Can’t Think”.
The Economist described Mahbubani as a man “preoccupied with the rise and fall of civilizations”. In this piece, I am preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of modern French political civilization, so to speak and its ever thinning plot that has seen major political parties lose their footing, the far right make gains and everyone eventually concede victory to a man with little political experience and no political party to speak of. Not that France is on some sort of grand decline, but its upper spheres of power are admittedly in a shambles, and its voting populace are as apathetic as can be.
The year in which Can Asians Think made a splash in intellectual circles the world over, 1998, was a year in which France experienced one of its greatest moments of collective pride and euphoria when its national football team won the World Cup. For a fleeting moment all of France rejoiced in the triumph of its multicultural and many hued football team boasting players of sundry North and sub-Saharan African, as well as Caribbean decent.
Fast forward 4 years, and that heart-warming moment gave way to the heart-wrenching reality that the xenophobic far-right had made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. In the end, the National Front, then led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, was crushed by the incumbent centre-right President Jacques Chirac. Victory for Chirac was not gained because of his convincing campaign platform, but quite simply because the entire political class coalesced around him and called on their supporters to vote against Le Pen. It was an electoral denouement that saw everyone from Communists to Christian Conservatives throw their support behind Chirac, handing him an 82%-18% landslide win.
Now in 2017, the same thing has happened. No need to repeat in detail what has dominated the news in recent days and weeks; simply put, current National Front leader Marine Le Pen was on the receiving end of a 65%-35% drubbing at the hands of political neophyte Emanuel Macron. Again this time, the left and right magically ceased to be at loggerheads for 2 weeks between the first and second rounds of voting in order to ensure that the “enemy of the Republic” that is the National Front did not get into power.
During the 2 weeks of anti-National Front campaigning, many public figures were clear in indicating that they did not believe in Macron’s platform, but were voting for him because it simply was the thing to do in case of the National Front making it to the second round – like an unwritten rule.
Politicians and journalists alike held nothing back in their onslaught against the candidate and party that they were just supposed to snub for snubbing’s sake. The one major political figure who did side with the National Front – the almost equally as frowned upon Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – was subjected to a cocktail of vitriol, ridicule and tastelessness that saw public figures abuse him on Twitter and even joke about the recent death of his mother.
Emmanuel Macron, sensing that victory was near automatically his, went on record as declaring that he would not change even the smallest element of his campaign platform in order to convince undecided voters to cast their ballots for him.
If there were to be a Can French People Think book, the review could echo the following comment by Paul Volcker, economist and former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, who said “Mahbubani asserts that Westerners are largely unaware of their condescending attitudes and practices toward the East and maintain that outdated worldview at their own peril – Asia’s economies are poised to surpass those of Europe and North America within the next fifty years.”
Left-wing daily Libération wrote following the second round that Marine Le Pen lost but still won in a way because she had garnered the most votes for the National Front in the party’s history.
A Can French People Think review could read something like:
“Many in France are largely unaware of their condescending attitudes and practices toward the National Front and maintain that outdated view of the nation at their own peril – the National Front is poised to surpass other parties within the next five years.”
Similarly, the following can be read in a review of Can Asians Think by Foreign Affairs Magazine:
“Even more chastening is the way he chooses to advance his case. Rather than making a substantive argument for Asian economic success, he insists that the West is in decline. […]
But the challenge of understanding the modernization of Asian cultures is far too important to be treated as a debaters’ game.
Macron and the ideological oxymoron that is the circumstantial band of supporters he amassed after the first round appeared dead set on spending most of their time saying that the National Front was morally bankrupt and unfit to rule, and not making a case for why Macron himself was the opposite of those things.
At least one political figure broke ranks with this chorus and had a unique point of view, albeit one that is difficult to make sense of.
Christian-Democrat party leader Christine Boutin had the following to say ahead of the second round vote:
“It’s an impossible choice between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen. I see that there is a revolutionary vote, which is a paradoxical vote consisting of voting against your own side. My side is apparently Mr. Macron, seeing that he is backed by everyone from the right. In order to weaken him I have to vote against him, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
She went on to say:
“My vote is absolutely not one of support for the National Front; it’s not a vote for the National Front, but rather one against Mr. Macron. I have no other choice; if I vote blank it won’t be counted and I don’t want to vote for Mr. Macron. It’s almost a sure thing that he is going to win, but I want him to win with the least possible margin of victory so that he won’t hold absolute power. He’s biting at the bit to exercise power.
She concluded that:
“The political shakeup resulting from a Macron presidency would be a minor one; if Ms. Le Pen wins, it would be a shakeup leading to a long needed reorganisation of the right, and if she wins I’ll be part of the opposition against her.”
In effect, she adopted the same stance vis a vis Macron that everyone else concerning Le Pen.
Apart from the political class, what of the ordinary citizen, you may wonder?
Well, as the image below shows, it’s safe to say not every Jean Q Public in the country was making the most informed and thought out choice they possibly could. These 2 young men hadn’t even bothered to turn out to vote in round one (almost 3 in 10 didn’t vote in round 2), and now they were just going to vote the way it seemed everyone naturally was supposed to, just because:
Translation: “We have to vote for, Me… Ma… what’s his name again? Macron, yeah, and that’s it.”
Apart from this, earlier in election season Les Républicains voters mind-bogglingly picked François Fillon over Alain Juppé as their nominee; Fillon shamelessly attempted to brush off a litany of corruption allegations; his supporters inexplicably still voted him even though he ran on a platform of cutting back public spending all the while dipping into public coffers himself; Fillon rode the momentum of conservative Catholic group Sens Commun during his campaign to lift off during his party’s primary only to make the whopper of a claim 4 days after bowing out in the first round that the anti-gay marriage group had in fact weighed his campaign down; the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon refused to join forces with former Socialist and infinitely more popular Jean-Luc Mélenchon thereby depriving him of more than enough votes to make it to the second round; François Hollande the outgoing president and former head of the Socialist Party didn’t even vote for his party’s own candidate in the first round, voting instead for Macron the defector; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan repeatedly stressed the differences between himself and the National Front and said that party could not govern, then joined them the first chance he got; Manuel Valls lost the Socialist primary and committed to supporting the party’s nominee, before going back on his word and voicing support for Macron, and whereas he said Macron was not a serious candidate at the outset, the former head of the French government is now reduced to make a laughing stock of himself by claiming to be part of Macron’s team only to have a public disclaimer from the Macron camp abruptly end his attempt to weasel his way in.
It is as if Valls were desperately attempting to grip on to the back or top of the Macron campaign bus as it drove in to the compound of the Elysée presidential palace.
Or, even better, it’s as if he were trying to climb the wall of Macron’s En Marche party headquarters because he couldn’t get in on the ground floor, as the satirical news site Legorafi poignantly said poking fun at Valls this week.
In 2014, the closest equivalent I can think of on France to Can Asians Think was released. A book called The French Suicide by polemicist Eric Zemmour discussed France’s perceived downfall. Contrary to Can Asians Think, however, Zemmour’s pessimistic book bemoans the stagnation of French society and claims to provide a post-mortem of France’s demise over the previous 4 decades, without any prediction of a bright future that pervades Can Asians Think. Reprising this book title, a contributor to the Mediapart news site opined last month that “its expected result augurs so badly in terms of powerlessness and stagnation of the country that this election gives the strange feeling of an impending French suicide”.
So, can French people think?
For what it’s worth, an astute observer could point out that Manuel Valls is originally from Spain…….