A few-weeks-long stay in France only confirms the impression that the European Union is in suspense and is sinking into a state of make believe. While the unpredictable Brexit process continues to take its toll, conservative and nationalist parties are moving into power or besieging the citadels of the ruling elites. In Germany, a weakened and tired Angela Merkel is veering to the right in response to the breakthrough of the “populist” Alternativ fur Deutschland, which has risen in the wake of mass immigration in the last three years. In neighbouring Austria, a 32-year-old Viennese, endowed with a movie star physique, has become the new conservative Chancellor in alliance with the “far right” FPO, which the enfeebled EU authorities no longer dare condemn. Further east, the nationalist Polish government has defied the European Commission by carrying out a reform of the judicial system and is suing Germany for long overdue war reparations, in reprisal for Berlin’s push for sanctions against Warsaw. Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are also rejecting the Union’s decisions on acceptance of immigrants and have repeatedly proclaimed their refusal to take in Muslim populations, while moving closer to Moscow in breach of the EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia, in keeping with the US game plan. They are together in requiring greater powers for national governments and less interference by the Brussels institutions. Greece has reinforced its historic bonds with the Kremlin, while bitterly complaining that it is being bled by her EU partners, which have, so far, unapologetically shared over 7 billion euros in interest extracted from suffering Athens by the European Central Bank. It looks from the Greek perspective as if the richer nations of the community are colluding to feed on the misery of the poorer ones. On the other side of Europe, Ireland, intent on maintaining its status as a tax haven for non-European multi-nationals doing business on the continent, refuses to abide by the European Commission’s demand to collect $15 billion tax arrears from Apple. 

Finally, to the south, Catalunya is locked in a tug of war with the Spanish government, which rejected, offhand, the possibility of a European mediation in its internal affairs and has taken over the government of the rebellious province after the pro-independence ruling coalition in Barcelona held an unconstitutional referendum to secede from the Union. The Catalans, early and enthusiastic supporters of the European Union since 1982, have attained a high degree of political and fiscal autonomy, and many of them would like to become an independent nation, so as not to deal with Madrid in their internal and international policies. For years, the Commission in Brussels viewed favourably the breakup of the continent into autonomous and theoretically sovereign provinces, which would not be as zealous about their independent prerogatives as the old nation states, but now that a new secession is looming, there are second thoughts as several countries worry about breaking up as well, from Belgium to Italy and not excluding France or Germany. If Catalunya somehow managed to exit Spain, Madrid would squarely oppose her admission to the European Union and would almost certainly gain the support of other member countries, unwilling to condone a dangerous precedent for their own territorial integrity.

The Catalan problem has shown the limits and the risks of the “federal solution” to regional problems, as excessive autonomy may foster desires for a complete separation, which satisfies the vanity and greed of many, eager to capitalise on the opportunities offered by independence. The Catalan autonomous community used its prerogatives granted by the Spanish Constitution of 1978 to cultivate its special identity and adopt an educational curriculum, which taught children a rather romantic and one-sided version of Spanish history. The effect was to lead to a growing alienation of the new generations from the rest of the country and produced a separatist mindset among many who see themselves as Catalan and European, but not Spanish, reflecting a mixture of ethnic-linguistic chauvinism and superficial cosmopolitanism, invoked mostly to replace the unfashionable national loyalty.

MEANWHILE, IN FRANCE

In this confusing context, the French government has embarked on a reform policy, which tries to elude ideological definitions, but is clearly guided by liberal market economic imperatives. The government is hard pressed for resources in a country which is on the verge of financial default. President Emmanuel Macron has launched a campaign for expense reduction and for squeezing money out of citizens through higher taxes and fines, while making generous allowances for large fortunes, which, he says, must be encouraged to invest in and not run out of the country. Naturally, his plans already arouse widening opposition and his popularity remains low, in spite of his eloquent efforts to argue his case to the point that he has become an obsessive presence in the media. 

A distraction from rather grim economic prospects is the noisy government-backed campaign to reform not only society, but human nature in a politically correct direction. The revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misbehaviour have bred a storm in France, at least, where many celebrities and anonymous individuals are under the scanner for any allegations of harassment, since a Twitter campaign was launched to “expose the pigs”. Yet, it was known for years that Weinstein was one of many powerful figures in the movie and media industry, as well as in other sectors, who abuse their positions and influence to coerce/cajole women into giving them sexual favours. This kind of trade-off is as old as human society, unfortunately, and it is unlikely that a shaming campaign like the current one will have long-term success. It may strike fear in many about making or even accepting advances, which could then be used by others to take career or financial advantage through blackmail. In an openly amoral society, where fame and financial gain are the main criteria of success and where crudeness and sexual availability are commonplace in the name of gender equality, instead of old fashioned gallantry, which is regarded as “sexist” and outdated, it is unrealistic to expect standards of modesty, propriety and decency to be high, and threats of police action and drastic legal sanctions against real or alleged infractions are only likely to make society more suspicious and unhealthy.

There is a logical inconsistency when females are encouraged to provoke for self promotion, according to the examples set by many popular celebrities, à la Kardashian, whereas men are expected or even mandated to ignore their behaviour. Women who refrain from such indiscretions are however also victims of the prevailing social mores. One only has to glance at the reality shows that teenagers are fed on television to notice that vulgarity, promiscuity and scandal-mongering are the rules of the game. Yet the actors of those pitifully inane “sleep in” telecasts become temporary idols, who often increase their incomes by promoting cheap consumer items on social media to their many “followers”. Famous personalities such as the late Yves Saint Laurent are routinely praised to high heavens and treated like icons in the media and by official authorities, even while their depravity is complacently recalled. A public impression is thereby created that the rich and powerful are admired even when they indulge in drug and alcohol-induced orgies involving persons of lower social status, who are evidently exploited by the privileged because of their vulnerability, while the average citizen risks ruin and imprisonment if ever he (or she) is accused of making an inappropriate pass at a stranger or even at an acquaintance. It is one more aspect of the prevailing schizophrenia of post-modern societies which claim to guarantee freedom, but are, in fact, turning more restrictive and repressive even when they pride themselves on being permissive.

President Macron has decided to deprive Weinstein of his Légion d’Honneur (bestowed on him by President Nicolas Sarkozy), without waiting for a trial of the errant producer and on the sole basis of the multiple public accusations being voiced by the alleged victims. This situation highlights the fact that the Legion d’Honneur is often given to wealthy and famous foreigners, mainly, it seems, to make them well disposed towards France, and not as a reward for good behaviour. Likewise, foreign heads of state are routinely inducted in the same prestigious order ex officio. However, political correctness is now butting into this tradition of statecraft and calls are rising for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to be stripped of his Légion because of the allegations of crimes against humanity levelled against him. This sort of international verdict without trial handed down to statesmen of foreign countries is clearly devoid of legitimacy and one can easily conclude that the Syrian President is to be punished in this desultory manner for failing to obey the western alliance diktats to resign from power and hand over the country to rebel movements backed by his enemies. The West’s inconsistent attempts to maintain global leadership by invoking abstract human rights and other seemingly altruistic but concretely self-serving principles, as and when convenient, are being exposed once more.

LESSONS FOR INDIA

The situation of socially and technologically advanced nations such as France and her western partners carries an object lesson for developing countries, including India, which are beginning to be affected by some of the same problems and dilemmas and will increasingly fall into a similar paradigm, if specific measures are not taken ahead of time. The menace of rampant computerisation and robotisation is tangible in wealthy countries, where the citizen has to deal more and more with sophisticated machines for any and all daily transactions and less and less with other human beings. A number of lower level jobs are now controlled by computers so that, under the compulsion of raising productivity ever higher, people are supervised and constantly monitored at work by automatic processes, which put them under tremendous stress (as in the goods packing sector, for instance, but also in stock market trading). A new category of precariously employed slaves to the robots is being created, whose sole use is to maximise return for a minority of corporate leaders and shareholders. The stratospheric expansion of colossal fortunes only demonstrates that a global nomenklatura of billionaires, numbering in the thousands has taken over the levers of society whose compliance is ensured by the machines entrusted with the job of organising and surveilling economic and political life. On the other end of the economic spectrum in France, one third of agriculturists—who only account in total for about 2% of the population—is officially held to live below the poverty line, that is in a situation of virtual destitution in partly deserted villages and isolated farms, even though they feed the nation, not to mention other countries. We are indeed heading towards the scenario of Blade Runner.

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