Western Europe has dominated global affairs for at least the past five centuries. From enormous empires built by the British, French, Dutch, Spaniards and the Portuguese spanning the world to stunning advances in science, technology, literature, art and democratic politics, nary a corner of the earth has not felt the influence of the European continent.
But now, in the second decade of the 21st century, Europe appears to be in serious, perhaps irreversible, decline. France, in particular -- long the cultural, philosophical and spiritual center of all things European – has found itself in the unenviable position of looking backward to its fading glories.
International Business Times spoke to an American expert on French politics and society to assess the apparent decline of France and Western Europe as a whole.
Douglas Yates is a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as the American University of Paris. He has lived in France since 1995.
IB TIMES: We keep hearing bad news from Europe (economic crisis, high unemployment, hysteria over illegal immigration and asylum-seekers, rise of far-right groups, "lost generation" of youths, etc.). But does this pessimistic picture reflect reality? Is life really so bad on the continent now? Is it worse than the darkest days of the 1980s?
YATES: Life is very bad for many people on the continent, yet at the same time, it is very good for others. The rising gap between the experiences of those who have, and those who have not, is creating this apparent paradox.
Overall, the perception of decline, the sense that the future will be worse than the past, and the pessimism about the possibility of politics to produce progress, is something particularly pronounced among the French. I have perceived this pessimism, as someone coming from an optimistic society, as simply part of French culture. It sometimes has its charm -- but it's contagious. In the end, the pessimistic outlook is a defense mechanism. Since change is constant, it does keep one from being disappointed when things turn out poorly.
IB TIMES: Americans (and many, perhaps most, people in Asia, South America, Africa and Middle East) still view Western Europe as the center of global culture, fashion, style, intellect, art and gentility – even if the world’s economic engines have moved to the emerging economies. And France is at the very core of this “Euro-philism.” So, what is really wrong in France now? Have they really lost the “joie de vivre” that has made French culture so admired and envied across the globe?
YATES: The perception of France as a wonderful, rich, exciting place to be is largely the illusion of its luxury industry, which in our mass consumer society is about all the effort most people will make to discover Europe. Looking at photographs of pretty people in antique locations gives the illiterati an aesthetic experience, inducing them to "buy the product."
But those who read contemporary French literature, the French press, and other print sources of information, are well aware that all is not well. However, the tourist industry sells luxurious images.
IB TIMES: Does not Western Europe (and France in particular) have a problem with illegal immigration specifically because life is so pleasant there and so many people want to live there?
YATES: The problem of illegal immigration does stem in part from the desire to benefit from the better standard of living -- compared with the poverty of the Middle East, of North and sub-Saharan Africa -- including social services which the European welfare states continue to provide to all who live within their borders.
Yes, part of the problem is this economic pull. But there is also the geographic reality that Europe remains at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Asia and the Atlantic. It remains in the center of things, so to speak. So as proximate regions collapse into political anarchy, economic underdevelopment and environmental exhaustion, there is also a push. People want to leave, or they must leave, to survive, and so they are desperately seeking any kind of escape. Europe is next door, globally speaking. Geography continues to play a major role in this scenario.
IB TIMES: I have known many Americans who have traveled to Western Europe (and France) since the global crisis struck in 2008 – and they all had a wonderful time there. Are they simply ignoring all the "bad things" in Europe and sticking to the "tourist program" of castles, cafés and museums?
YATES: North Americans like myself often come to Europe looking for a historical and cultural patrimony which is largely absent in our own countries. We feel that we really have nothing to compare with Rome, the eternal city, or Athens, the cradle of democracy, or Paris, the city of lights, or London, or Vienna or Barcelona. So when we make the expensive voyage across the Atlantic, we do not do so with any intent to see the poverty, the misery or the suffering. Sometimes it is hard to avoid, but we usually manage.
IB TIMES: Do you think Americans generally have a very distorted, exaggerated and inaccurate view of France, its people and culture? Perhaps overly simplistic and shallow focusing on such trite items as wine, Eiffel Tower, etc.?
YATES: I think that we imagine a world different from our own, and since that world exists only in our imagination, it is filled with images and ideas and idealistic dreams. But as Gertrude Stein wrote almost a century ago, “there is no there there.”
IB TIMES: The French have long complained that the "Anglo" nations (UK, but more so the US) have "polluted" their culture – with the entry of English words in daily conversations, fast food, vulgar TV shows and movies, sports, hip-hop music, etc. Do they have a point? Has globalism permanently eroded French cultural values?
YATES: American popular culture is a powerful source of "soft power" which threatens not only the social traditions but also the political influence of ex-hegemonic powers like France, whose universalist pretensions and cultural policies have always been a source of grandeur and pride ever since the spread of Enlightenment values through the French Revolution. Today, however, fear of globalization often becomes confused in the minds of the French, who think of it as Americanization.
I believe that as China and India rise in power, and as other emerging regional powers assert their own cultural invariance, the fear of "les américains" will subside in France, and an understanding that television, Internet, pop music, and a money-based status system, is probably something too powerful, too seductive, for any traditional value system to withstand. Besides, it's not that far from traditional French bourgeois culture, despite all their objections to the contrary.
IB TIMES: Is France (and, by extension, Western Europe) really in decline? If so, how -- aside from aging demographics and weak economies? Are their very cultures and "core values" dying?
YATES: Yes, France is in decline, but it is a long, slow decline. And it will take centuries, and not decades, for Europe to lose its central place in the world. While the world economy continues to shift to the Pacific, the economic system of capitalism remains a European construct. While the military and strategic weight of America and Asia are preponderant, the diplomatic and international organizational influence of Europe continues to shape world politics.
Also, while the demographic replacement of aging populations with new groups is ineluctable, those new groups are being assimilated into European culture and civilization. In addition, as the former great powers that once ruled world empires have now become modest or even minor powers, the construction of the European Union may help them to retain great power status in the international system.
IB TIMES: For you, what makes living in France better than the States? What do you think makes life in the U.S. better?
YATES: What makes life better here are the public services, like schools and hospitals and public transportation, and museums, and gardens, and historic sites, and libraries, all made available to the public.
What makes life better in the United States is the frontier, the wilderness, and the spirit that goes with all of that.