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French socialism: In a class of its own

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As one of the few remaining earthlings to happily call himself a socialist, I have now decided that if anything (Stalin and Mao aside) were to drive me away from my lifelong ideology it's the way it's practiced in la belle France. If you jump to the conclusion that I'm referring to the squalid case of "DSK," you are not wrong but only one-third right. (An audience in Rwanda understood instinctively last week when I compared Dominique Strauss-Khan's alleged violation of an African maid to the way the International Monetary Fund has treated Africa for the past many decades.)

Beyond the DSK scandal, it so happens that I have had the great misfortune of running into socialism a la France on other piquant occasions.

Older readers will recall without much nostalgia that among the great causes of the entire left wing during the Cold War era was the demand that nuclear testing not continue. Okay, that's not completely accurate. The nuclear powers in those innocent times were few -- the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, France and Israel -- and while socialist parties in opposition were passionate advocates of Banning the Bomb, becoming government as always had a way of changing their perspective.

Accordingly, during the 1980s, France was carrying out underground nuclear tests in a big way and, in order to safeguard French citizens, did so far from home where only Pacific islanders would suffer. In 1985, Greenpeace decided to send a ship, the Rainbow Warrior, into the area to protest the tests. In order to show these meddling activists who was running the show, the French government proceeded to blow the Rainbow Warrior out of the water, in the process killing a photographer on board. The president of France who authorized these nuclear tests and who, according to the head of French intelligence, personally authorized the attack on the ship, was François Mitterrand.

Do I have to add that Mr. Mitterrand was, of course, a socialist.

It transpired that I had represented the NDP at a Socialist International meeting in Europe shortly before this incident, as did Lionel Jospin, then (like me) first secretary of the French socialist party and eventually (unlike me) prime minister of France. During one discussion of world peace, which most SI delegates quite favoured, I took the floor to report that while I couldn't speak for socialists everywhere, in Canada at least part of the unchallenged catechism of every lefty was to make the ending of nuclear tests a huge priority. So I was somewhat confused, I explained fraternally, to figure out why the socialist government of France didn't share this passion.

Seated on either side of me were Michael Harrington, the wonderful American socialist intellectual, and Olof Palme, the remarkably principled prime minister of Sweden, a man who scandalized everyone by actually practicing in government much of what he had preached in opposition and whose untimely murder on the safe streets of Stockholm has never been solved. Both, I'm thrilled to report, warmly congratulated me on being innocent enough to express publicly what all in the hall strongly believed. Okay, not all. Mr. Jospin rose immediately, and with an icy stare that suggested the same fate for me as soon after befell the hapless Rainbow Warrior photographer, announced that he was not prepared to discuss, let alone defend, internal French policies at such a meeting. And he never did.

Mr. Mitterrand remained in power for many many years, until 1995, which meant -- you'll see where I'm going, I imagine -- he was president throughout the entire period in the early 1990s when Hutu extremists in Rwanda were plotting the genocide against their Tutsi co-citizens. Under this socialist head of state, France armed, trained, advised and publicly lied about the Rwandan genocidiaires whom Mr. Mitterrand had made his beneficiaries. Without the French president's intervention, the genocide may never have occurred at all. In fact, I have little doubt that he could have halted the entire diabolical conspiracy in its tracks with a single phone call to his cher ami and dependent, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, threatening to withdraw his political and military advisers, to end all military shipments, to refuse foreign aid and in general to make offers to Mr. Habyarimana and his venomous family that they could hardly refuse.

Not only did Mr. Mitterrand never try to stop the genocidaires, he never ceased his active complicity in their terrible mission. Why would he? Musing on what he made possible in Rwanda, and reflecting presumably something of the curious world of French socialism, Mr. Mitterrand said: "In such countries [as those in Africa], genocide is not too important." An interesting French twist, I've always thought, on the central socialist value of egalite. (Neither Mr. Palme nor Mr. Harrington lived long enough to witness another example of French socialism in action in Rwanda.)

Enter Dominique Strauss-Khan. For all I know, he's as innocent as the driven snow and Stephen Harper really is a trained economist. In my little corner of the universe, however, everyone accepts his accuser's word, at least when it comes to him. It's not HER background that's at issue here; it's his. It's his reputation that should convict him, and anyone who has even a smidgeon of sympathy for him should look at New York magazine's issue of June 29 with its long list of what we are obligated to call allegations about DSK's well-known history with women. If you care for a larger perspective on his accuser, I also recommend a column in the July 6 issue of The New York Times called "Before you judge, stand in her shoes."

As far as I can make out, just about everyone in France who ever heard of this man is fully aware of his tawdry record, including his many brothers in the French socialist party who can hardly jump fast enough to embrace him as their forthcoming presidential candidate. It's not that they think he's innocent. It's that they don't give a damn what he allegedly did to a hotel maid and what he has allegedly (as we're forced to say) done before.

I give you the words of Jack Lang, a prominent and respected member of the French party and an excellent culture minister for many years: "There was," he declared definitively, "no loss of life." Oh, that's okay then. My old Socialist International comrade Lionel Jospin, now the grand old man of the French socialist party, still full of deep compassion for the vulnerable, was outraged that DSK "was thrown to the wolves."

There are many varieties of socialisms around the world. I'm by no means proud of all of them. And then, helas, in a class of its own, there is France.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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