The last best hope for western civilization

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Among the doubtful contributions of France to world civilization is its role as an imperial power.

Paris — Sixty years after the liberation of Paris from Nazi domination, France remains at the centre of European and world politics. The texture and quality of daily life here is unequaled in Europe. While France represents a delightful puzzle for the foreigner, there is a mysterious welcome about it: It almost feels like home.

The attractive familiarity of the French way of life has to do with more than cultural references. The real story of France is its civilization. The French enlightenment, the age of reason, the Republican spirit, and the great accomplishments and works they produced (mostly, though not always, for the benefit of the planet) are still on display here, though under attack, and losing ground elsewhere. Itâe(TM)s what makes France important today.

The fall of France, so soon after the opening of hostilities in 1939, was the defining moment of World War II. Fascists had taken power in Spain, Italy and Germany; now France had a collaborationist government, and the Nazis marching on the Champs Elysées by June of 1940.

When you visit the memorials to the dead in the two world wars, in the village squares across France, the contrast between the number killed in the Great War of 1914-18 and its successor is what stands out. France lost a generation of young men in the first war; casualties in the second war were very light in comparison. It is as if the French people had understood: marching men to war was more destructive than waiting for the peace, and resisting the occupation.

A day, any day, in Paris is a visual treat. Thought went into making the city; its great street plans were laid out by in the 19th century by the civil servant, préfet Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The pedestrian zones which tourists enjoy today were brought forward by city hall. The magnificent public buildings are not all left over from the period of absolute monarchy. The “great works” continue today.

Itâe(TM)s no wonder Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world. Perhaps the Governor-General could lead a delegation of local Canadian politicians to France. It would give them some insight into the role of government in creating a civilization.

When François Mitterand was President of France, he used to slip away from his office in the presidential palace, and walk along the quays next to the Seine, visiting the book sellers, and buying their wares. Often he would start his day with a visit to his favourite book store. The contrast with Mike “never read books” Harris is too cruel to bear. (Yet from 1983 to 1986 Mitterand used the counter-espionage service to plant electronic bugs on his enemies. The trial opens this week in Paris.)

Among the doubtful contributions of France to world civilization is its role as an imperial power. The bloody civil conflict in the Ivory Coast is in the public mind right now in France and is unlikely to fade from view shortly. France continues to bear the shame of what it did in its overseas empire in Indochina and Algeria, and its neocolonial presence in Africa remains especially troubling.

And, yet French civilization represents the best of western civilization. Its fierce attachment to public education has produced a citizenry capable of carrying on a public conversation. There is a public market at least once a week in villages across France. People come out, meet and greet each other, transacting the business of the Republic, as well as choosing the best fresh produce available in the world.

You can read Le Monde; it gives a daily example of what a newspaper is supposed to be, impressive for the breadth of its coverage and no less for the general literacy and culture it demands from its readers.`

As we watch, stunned, the accession of George W. Bush to the American presidency for a second time, the comparison with France becomes more significant. Can the French hold off against the American economic model being pushed here by the political right? Will French democracy deteriorate the way American democracy is detonating?

When the Nazis were defeated, the French led the way to rebuilding Europe in partnership with the Germans. There is an expression in German, “go and live like God in France.” France: the last, best hope for Western civilization.

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