By Jack Jodell, Apr. 2, 2012
Many here in America have a tendency to ridicule the French, whom we seem to view as weak, indecisive, conceited, and unreliable. While it is true that we had to assist them in both World Wars, and picked up the reins of battle from them to fight the Vietnam War, we conveniently forget that, were it not for timely French assistance in our own Revolutionary War, we might well have failed in our bid to become an independent nation. So I won’t join the French-bashing crowd, especially now that our prolonged period of political polarization and infighting is beginning to resemble periods of French political instability. I think we Americans, especially today, can learn something from French political history…
We tend to look at the French Revolution, which began in 1792, and was inspired by our own, with a mixture of curiosity and horror. On one hand, we are glad that the French people fought to establish a republic and cast off its monarchy, as we did with Britain. But on the other, we are aghast at what this revolution led to: the public execution by guillotine of not only French nobles, but thousands of innocent citizens as well in a fearsome reign of terror. This period was known in French history as the First Republic, and lasted from 1792-1804, when, after years of instability and upheaval, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control and proclaimed himself Emperor. He embarked France on a period of militarism, which led to spectacular military victories at first but eventual defeat and personal exile, as well as the restoration of the French mobarchy.
France took another shot at republicanism with the establishment of the Second Republic in 1848. Beset by continual intrigue and political turmoil, with monarchists, socialists, and even the church at each other’s throats, this experiment in democracy failed by December of 1852, when the Second French Empire was proclaimed by Napoleon III, to be run later by Emile Olivier and Charles Cousin-Montauban, respectively. Eventually, mounting changes throughout Europe, including both the rise of Prussia as the dominant continental power and the increasing attraction of the French working class to the revolutionary political and economic theories of Karl Marx caused this regime to fall as well, in 1870.
The Third Republic which resulted, managed to survive not only the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, but also World War I and the Great Depression. Its hallmark was a rather weak executive branch, and it began in turmoil, as monarchists first dominated it and then anarchists and other leftists opposed it. The Catholic church also jockeyed for political influence, with a large number of clergy and bishops supporting and arising from the consevative monachist class. French liberal republicans, buoyed by Protestant and Jewish support, passed numerous laws which weakened the church’s political influence. This created anti-Semitism as well as much suspicion of the church, and other deep rifts in French society, some of which persist to this day. At one point, all Catholic parochial schools within the country were closed down, and all church property was confiscated! In World War I, ever-fearful of German militarism and anxious to avenge its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War a generation earlier, Georges Clemenceau led his nation into war against Germany. His insistence on harsh, punitive measures against Germany following that conflict eventually led to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, the crushing French defeat by the Nazis in World War II, and the death of the Third Republic, with the occupation of France by Germany, in 1940.
What followed was a dark period known as Vichy France. Marshal Phillippe Petain, a World War I hero, managed to secure some autonomy for southern France after Germany had overrun the north and began an occupation there. His collaborate effort enabled him to set up a dummy government run by him (but heavily dominated by the Nazis) in the southern city of Vichy, which lasted until all of France was liberated at the end of World War II. After that disaster, Petain was tried and sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Following the war, the French people voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new cpnstitution, and so the Fourth Republic came into being. The concept of this new republic was widely supported, but its actual constitution was supported by only a slight plurality of voters. Nearly one third of French voters stayed home, not even bothering to vote for it. This lack pf support, characterized by numerous short-lived successive governments, along with French defeat in Vietnam and restless revolt in its African colonies evebtually led to its failure in 1958. The army was threatening a revolt, and, faced with possible civil war, French Resistance hero General Charles DeGaulle stepped in to save the day.
DeGaulle came out of semi-retirtrement to help draw up a new constitution creating a strengthened presidency. It was approved by voters and so began the current Fidth Republic. He himself was then elected President late in 1958 with strong center-right support, and ruled by decree, and with popular consent, umtil he had straightened out his country. He then guided France until he resigned following widespread student protests in 1969. His successors have consisted of both center-right and center-left, including socialist, political persuasions, but the important thing is that France’s national government has remained strong and fully functioning.
Here in the United States, we have managed to hold onto one republican form of government since 1776. Our forefathers were wise enough to see the need for future generations to be able to amend our constitution as needed from time to time to fit changing circumstances, so they provided for a means to do so, Not that we have always been fully cohesive in our political history, because we have not. We struggled early on with whether or not to have a a National Bank; through numerous panics and depressions; through debates, compromises, and finally a Civil War over the issue of slavery; through two world wars and a threat first from militant communism and later through radicalized Islam. We have survived even the assassination of four Presidents. Yet through it all, our American republic has managed to save itself by adapting itself and its constitution to the situations at hand. Unlike France, we have managed to remain one republic – the First American Republic, if you will. We have always been a nation built on a solid system of laws, and we have more often than not abided by these laws and changed them if necessary, as in the case of the Volstead Act, which brought on Prohibition in the 1920s until it was finally repealed in 1933. And we have always acknowledged the right of the opposite political party to elect candidates and pass laws, knowing that once our side returned to power we could modify those laws. Until recently, that is…
I read in the paper this past week that our corporatist, very activist Supreme Court may very well declare the recently-passed Affordable Health Care Act unconstitutional. That would be a tragedy, but not a complete disaster. Other laws have been declared unconstitutional and we have survived with our republic intact. The article went on to say, however, that the Court may very well eradicate Medicaid, a program for the poor which has been in existence for 50 years, and drastically redefine the relationship our federal government has with our individual statr governments, weakening it in the process.
Then it dawned on me. A pattern began emerging. I remembered how first, the Republican Party became swallowed up whole by the far-right. These reactionaries, who hate the federal government to begin with, want total and absolute control of all branches of government and will rely on sinister, self-centered and very monied resources to attain their goal. They have set up shadowy groups like ALEC to dominate the passage of legislation. They will lie (primarily through their corporately-owned media like the devious Fox “News”), cheat, steal, disenfranchise – whatever it takes – to realize their aims. One sees unmistakable signs of what they’re up to everywhere. They managed to elect a body of like-minded reactionaries under the name of the Tea Party to obstruct legislation in 2010. They have managed to give the richest 1% huge tax breaks and have prevented any tax increases on them ever since, in spite of record deficits. They have already bought-off large numbers of Congressional members and have thwarted very necessary attempts to re-regulate big business. Worse than that, they have now attained a working majority on the Supreme Court. That’s where this current nonsense of corporations being people and money being free speech has found a welcome home. They will use this court to eventually do away with virtually every single piece of pro-people and regulatory legislation passed over the past 77 years. In so doing, they will radically alter our entire country in all aspects. They will, in effect, destroy our democracy and supplant it with an autocratic, neo-Fascist corpocracy which will severely limit individual social and economic rights, to ensure the highest degree of profitability for a tiny elite few.
We cannot allow the ultra-rich far-right to destroy our democracy in such a fashion. To this end, we must throw every conservative Republican we can out of office to prevent this dirty, sneaky coup d’etat from happening. They have proven they have little regard for voters or for the will of the people through continued attempts to benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. The time has come for we Americans to emulate France and do a major overhaul on this republic. So say goodbye to our First Republic, people. The far-right has killed it, and now it is up to us progressives, through some sort of modern-day American DeGaulle, to construct a second, much better, and more egalitarian one.