Will France’s president learn a lesson from a wild weekend?
Twenty thousand berserk fans watched the starting Bleus doubles squad hold off a tenacious Croatian comeback on Saturday to win a round in the weekend meet, giving another day of hope to France. The venue was the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium in Lille; the occasion the finals of the Davis Cup.
Meanwhile in Paris, a tax revolt morphed into a shot at overthrowing the president of the Republic. The rebels raised barricades and lit bonfires; the cops responded with water-cannon and tear gas.
When the weekend was done, French president Emmanuel Macron suggested his ungrateful subjects needed a “new grammar” to better communicate their grievances. French tennis captain Yannick Noah said he would be retiring after one of the most storied careers in the sport, while his players, having barely avoided a blow-out in losing their defense of the Cup they won last year against little Belgium, announced they would not participate in the new Davis Cup format. They say it will turn one of the most legendary and unique events in sports into an ordinary (and big-money) spectacle for the benefit of a Spanish kickball star turned sports impresario, Gerard Piquet.
And there would be no chance of redemption: the tennisocrats of the International Tennis Federation already had inked the deal for their souls, or at least for the great silver bowl (invented by Americans) they are supposed to protect.
The president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was on hand throughout to inspire her young champions. She looked composed, confident, reassuring, joyous, wise. The president of France was nowhere to be seen.
He had other concerns. Whether they were more important than keeping the Davis Cup — the 118th and last Davis Cup — in French hands, was a hot topic of debate in French newsrooms and cafes, which are not strictly speaking interchangeable but which tend to overlap. Many argued that without the Davis Cup, France would never have become a Tennis Power. The storied stadium in the west of Paris, Roland-Garros, named for an aviation ace of the Great War, was built for the purpose of defending the Cup, recently taken from the United States team led by the great Bill Tilden. René Lacoste and the other Mousquetaires held it for six years, until the Anglosphere, led by Fred Perry in England and Don Budge in the United States, reclaimed it. In the last year before the world went back to war and the tourney was suspended, the Australians crushed a Cuban team, a foretaste of future dominance.
It would have been nice to end the history of the Davis Cup where, at least for the French public, it began, but Roland-Garros is being renovated and they are behind schedule; and meanwhile, the Mauroy stadium can seat nearly as many as Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, N.Y. Also, the French, though a Cartesian people allegedly devoted to reason, are prone to tics and superstitions and this was the place where they beat up little Belgium; the magic might work again.
They forgot it is just a short ride from there to Waterloo.
Whether the tax revolt that reached Paris as the doubles rubber went into its fourth and final set will turn out to be the opening shot of President Macron’s own Waterloo remains to be seen. What seems certain is that he spoiled the promise of a fresh start with the idea that raising fuel taxes would be accepted cheerfully as a contribution to the war against pollution.
Where he found this idea, no one can say, but he pursued it with the same kind of contempt for the majority of French people that he expresses for American leaders who voice a sensible skepticism about supra-national deals like the Paris Climate Accords, which also allegedly would save the planet. Unlike their president, most French people do not live in Paris and depend on motor transport. With gasoline and diesel already costing seven, eight dollars in France, he could have guessed there would be trouble. The gilets jaunes, “yellow jackets,” as truck drivers are called with reference to the vests they are required to wear, had caused nationwide traffic jams to protest past “reforms” that they would pay for; what made him think they would stand up and cheer this time?
Macron triumphed in May 2017 by riding a wave of discontent with the traditional political parties, left and right. Himself a former private banker and minister of finance in the center-left government of Socialist president François Hollande, he represented youthful vigor and pragmatism, reformist energy and respect for tradition. The slogan, “En marche!” (“Forward, ho!”), may have been because it replicated his initials, but it gave enough voters a pleasant enough frisson to put him over the top and give his ad-hoc political party a working parliamentary majority.
In France reform is more readily talked about than done, as the Roland-Garros rehab demonstrates. There is surely virtue in caution, but the monarchial nature of their office tends to encourage French presidents to listen only to yes-men. Skeptics learn that, as one of them put it, “a minister either shuts up or quits.” Apparently no one told Macron that reforms require careful consideration.
Even before the tax revolt, Macron’s popularity was plummeting. Jupiterian, by his own description, in his poses and initial ambitions, he seemed to turn shallow and even bizarre as the first year of his reign turned into the second. A scandal involving his bodyguard and biking coach, a young tough of Moroccan background who somehow was named chief of presidential security and beat up peaceful protesters on his days off, eroded his credibility and cost him political capital. The president’s post-honeymoon slide continued as he sought to bring some fiscal discipline to France’s bloated public sector. He went to Denmark and insulted the “Gauls,” as he called his countrymen, as being hostile to innovation.
Seeking a second wind as a leader of Europe, Macron took aim at little Hungary in the name of “European values.” He sounded the alarm against “populism” and “nationalism” and warned of the return of the “specters of the 1930s.” For good measure, he insulted the U.S. by choosing Veterans Day to issue a flaky proposal about a European army, a subject he obviously knows nothing about, including the fact that a similar idea was proposed many years ago — with American encouragement — and then scuttled in the French parliament.
Hungary is an easy target, a small (pop. 10 million) country that is far away, and whose prime minister has referred to “illiberal democracy” as the fount of his political program. However, Viktor Orban has explained what he means by this, as opposed to the empty abstraction of “European values” that Macron opposes to him. He is well worth quoting at some length:
… I personally believe that the success we have achieved so far owes much to the fact that we have always openly declared that the era of liberal democracy has come to an end.It has proved unable to protect the dignity of man, it is unable to give him freedom, it can no longer guarantee him physical security and can no longer even defend Christian culture.Some in Europe are still trying to tinker with it in hopes of fixing it.They do not understand that it is not the structure that has been damaged, but that the world has changed.Our answer, the response of the Hungarians to the change of the world. is that in the place of liberal democracy we intend to build the Christian democracy of the 21st century, which guarantees the dignity, liberty and security of the individual, protects equality between men and women, respects the traditional family model, puts a stop to anti-Semitism, protects our Christian culture and gives a chance to the sustainability and development of our nation.We are Christian Democrats, and we want a Christian democracy.…
Such a speech could have been spoken, give or take a phrase here or there, by Konrad Adenauer, Maurice Schumann, Alcide De Gasperi, even Hugh Gaitskell — the great liberals (Gaitskell was an anti-communist Socialist) of the late 1940s who joined with Harry Truman to rebuild and defend the Western Democracies. They were patriotic nationalists who understood how close the continent had come to a new dark age of tyranny and was still not home free. Half of it was not free at all.
Hungary’s leaders engaged with hideous consequences in the two great tyrannies of the past century. Deprived of a third of its territory in the aftermath of World War I, its foreign policy focused obsessively on regaining the grandeur it imagined had been its own as one half (and not a particularly loyal half) of the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire.
Led by an anti-Semitic old admiral, Miklos Horthy, who privately despised Hitler, Hungary threw its lot in with the Axis, ethnically cleansed (the term comes from these years) territories in Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine that had Hungarian populations, and did its share to resolve what the Germans called the Jewish problem. When Horthy realized he was on the losing side, he sought a separate peace with the Anglo-Americans, which brought the Wehrmacht into Hungary and his overthrow by the local Nazis, known as the Arrow Cross.
Nearly a million Jews lived in Hungary proper and its claimed territories; they constituted a quarter of the population of Budapest. They were down to at most 50,000 at war’s end.
Peace under the protection of the Soviet Union quickly devolved into secret-police terror and virtual slave labor: the Budapest working class, soon joined by practically everyone else, rose in revolt in October 1956.
suddenly uprose hungary
and she gave a terrible cry
“no slave’s unlife shall murder me
for i will freely die”
The Soviet forces briefly left Budapest, producing a magical moment of bliss and hope. They were back in a week, and the repression was ferocious, tanks against schoolboys with gasoline bombs. The world watched, protested, and let it happen. There were reasons; but then there usually are.
uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps “I’m busy right now”
The famous e e cummings poem, however unmindful of the geostrategic facts, expressed the shame and dread many in the West felt, and it would not be sentimental to believe that for many Hungarians, the sense of betrayal sits in the mind and shapes their expectations in international politics.
To be scolded by Emmanuel Macron about the specters of the 1930s must strike many Hungarians as, at best, risible, at worst insulting and dangerous. They know they are getting so much attention because they — and others in Central Europe — are reluctant to accept the migrants from non-European countries that the major European powers ordered them to take in. They feel this, like the United Nations directive on immigration, threatens their sovereignty and their security.
They believe just because the ruling circles of France and Germany do not want to recognize mass migration from the Middle East and Africa as impractical and dangerous, they should not be forbidden to demur. Moreover, many in western Europe agree with them. Michel Gurfinkiel, a French writer and geostrategist who cultivates a habit of cold clarity, puts it this way in a recent essay, “Macron’s France, Immigration, and Anti-Semitism”:
Immigration from non-European and non-Judeo-Christian countries, and especially from Muslim countries, has reached such proportions [as of this year — ed.] that the gradual replacement of the native populace and culture by a new population and a new culture seems entirely plausible. Leftwing radicals tend to welcome it as a change for the better. Rightwing radicals see it as a cosmic disaster — except for some of them who are ready to strike an alliance with radical Islam in order to topple the « plutocratic » and « Jewish » Western democracy.
In talking of a European army, presumably needed for the defense of Europe, Macron did not breathe a word about an invasion force of millions that is already inside the territory to be conquered. There are zones in west European cities where the police do not venture, on whose sidewalks it is dangerous for a girl with uncovered blonde hair (or for that matter red or auburn or black hair) to walk. If there is a specter of the 1930s that Macron might usefully worry about, it would be the attitude of denial that aggressive totalitarian threats were on the march, or the morally dubious illusion that mutual respect was possible.
Gurfinkiel suspects Macron nurtures just such an illusion:
Macron’s explicit gamble is to solve the demographic question and prevent the « war of cultures » through a rapid « modernization » of the country. He may also have an agenda within the agenda: rebuilding the government’s authority step by step and reestablishing traditional French and Judeo-Christian culture as fully normative.
Macron had a certain talent, as a young finance minister and presidential candidate, for conveying the sense that he was a can-do pragmatist who understood the need for strong measures to get Europeans to deal with their common problems. His opponents expressed anti-American, anti-Semitic canards that really did sound like throwbacks to earlier, hideous decades.
The focus on a gasoline tax as an ecological measure is silly, if mean-spirited and even shameful in the contempt for the public, notably the working class, that it implies. It certainly subverts the idea of Macron as a hard-headed realist, and casts doubts on the seriousness of the reforms he has proposed, allegedly to loosen the grip of the administrative state on the economy of France and the EU. The focus on Hungary, and on Viktor Orban in particular, is alarming for a different reason; it suggests Macron is seeking to distract from his failure to deal with pressing issues.
Orban’s political style would not earn points with the League of Women Voters, but it is not one that Americans are unfamiliar with. Comparisons are tenuous, but there is a whiff of Frank Hague in Viktor Orban; at a stretch, Huey Long. To him Christian democracy, or what he calls illiberal democracy, frames his stated purpose to protect his people and his nation’s sovereignty, its sense of itself. It is not necessarily in opposition to the aims of the European Union — freedom, prosperity, peace; on the contrary.
Accusations of cronyism, bossism, meddling with the media, the universities, are not light matters. Governance — in Central Europe as in American cities and states, is not static, however. Hungary, a country with little historical experience in democracy, does not claim to be a model for France; but nor should France’s elites forget the paths their nation took to reach the kind of liberal society they claim is what their compatriots want, or at least should want, or at the very least should be thankful for.
If a member state of the EU can be expelled for defending the cultural norms that its people consider basic, does this not suggest a supra-national tyranny that has lost all sense of measure and justifiable purpose? Hungary has refused its Brussels-decreed quota of refugees and migrants from alien cultures because, looking at some of the reports from places where they have been welcomed, it fears it cannot assimilate them. Should this cause a row, or is it something that can be discussed? The fact that Macron prefers verbal abuse to dialogue suggests he does not want to admit his own country’s experience may not look tempting to others.
Hungary has never been in a Davis Cup final. The truth is, despite some success in kickball years ago, Hungary is not exactly a sports powerhouse. There was a great Hungarian champion on the women’s tour, Zsuzsa Kormoczy, who won the French Internationaux at Roland-Garros in 1958. A small town Jewish girl, she somehow made it through the 1930s and ’40s and lived to a great old age as the grande dame of Hungarian sports.
There are some fine clubs in Budapest, the preferred surface is clay. Hungary’s best players are Marton Fucsovics on the men’s tour, Timea Babos on the women’s; they are very good, but there probably will not be a critical mass soon to form a team that could be a contender in international competition.
On Sunday, in the last-ever classical-format, best-of-five sets Davis Cup singles rubber, Marin Cilic, 2014 U.S. Open champ, made short thrift of France’s rising young star (and local favorite, as he grew up near Lille). Lucas Pouille wilted under the pressure of his last-stand match, and even more so under Cilic’s relentless dominance of the points. The crowd that had been wildly partisan for three days, such that even Yannick Noah had to beg for calm, finally switched to good sportsmanship and gave the Croatians a big ovation. The French team, some of whose members live outside France (for tax reasons), were correct and kept their chins up, though young Pouille could not hold back the tears.
In Paris, the tears on the Champs Elysées were due to tear gas. It had to be done. But the president of the Republic may be well advised to consider what made it necessary.
BBC (Screenshot); Waterloo reenactment (Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)