Apres moi le deluge
As Emmanuel Macron moved toward his landslide victory in the French presidential election, the fashionable media outlets noticed a stunning reality about Europe’s current political leaders:
- Macron, the newly elected French president, has no children.
- German chancellor Angel Merkel has no children.
- British prime minister Theresa May has no children.
- Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni has no children.
- Holland’s Mark Rutte, Sweden’s Stefan Löfven, Luxembour’s Xavier Bettel, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon—all have no children.
- Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has no children.
So a grossly disproportionate number of the people making decisions about Europe’s future have no direct personal stake in that future.
Is it possible for a politician to rise to the top of the heap without having earned a college degree or the equivalent? It would be difficult, wouldn’t it? And shouldn’t it be? We expect our leaders to have a strong academic formation. But doesn’t the experience of raising children form character far more than a few years in school?
You may have very little in common with your next-door neighbors, still less with people on the other side of the country. But if you can all recall seeing your newborn baby for the first time, and staying up at night with a sick child, then you share some powerful bonds. You don’t share those bonds with the childless European leaders. They don’t know what your life is like.
Or then again, perhaps they do, if you are a typical resident of France or Germany or Italy or any of the other affluent countries (including the US) where the fertility rate has dipped below the replacement level. Perhaps it makes sense to choose childless leaders for an increasingly childless society. Surely it is significant that, at the same time Western societies have stopped reproducing, they have begun rolling up unsustainable public spending, piling debts onto their children—or someone else’s children.
And who are those children, who will be expected to pay off the debts and to run the old-folks’ homes? They are the children of immigrants. Maybe, if enough families from the Middle East and North Africa arrive in Europe, they can furnish the workforce that will pay off the debts and entitlements, and staff the old-folks’ homes. Macron’s victory is, it seems, a wager on that possibility: an endorsement of current European Union policies, and a repudiation of Marine Le Pen’s call for restrictions on immigration.
However, a Europe populated by the children of immigrants will be a very different society. And while it is theoretically possible for a society to accommodate and assimilate a flood of immigrants—the US did it in the early 20th century—to date Europe has not been particularly successful in absorbing the latest influx.
Christopher Caldwell, perhaps the most perceptive American commentator on the European crisis, analyzes the French failure to assimilate Muslim immigrants in an article for the City Journal, The French, Coming Apart. Caldwell reports that current French policies have promoted the interests of the elite, the “knowledge class,” while squeezing out the middle class. He adds: “As for the migrants themselves (whose views are seldom taken into account in French immigration discussions), living in Paris instead of Bamako is a windfall even under the worst of circumstances.” The wealthy and well educated are thriving in Paris; the poor immigrants are hunkering down in public housing. The shopkeepers and clerks and blue-collar workers have faded into the countryside and into the political background. Perhaps they are having children, too. In any case their views are no longer relevant to political leaders. If they dissent from the PC standards established by the elite, they are condemned as bigots. Caldwell writes:
Since Tocqueville, we have understood that our democratic societies are emulative. Nobody wants to be thought a bigot if the membership board of the country club takes pride in its multiculturalism. But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its legitimacy but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place.
In this year’s election the French people rejected the radical change of politics advocated by Le Pen and the National Front. But the status quo cannot endure, nor can Macron’s political dexterity stave off the eventual reckoning.
Pierre Manent, the leading political theorist in France (if not the world) today, wrote about that reckoning in Beyond Radical Secularism. He argues that the greatest challenge facing France today is the restoration of a true political community. As he sees it, the upheavals of the 1960s were not truly political; they involved “the great withdrawal of loyalty from the community.” More and more, people came to see themselves as autonomous individuals, motivated by various impulses and desires, rather than as participants in a common endeavor. “The citizen of action was followed by the individual of enjoyment.”
“We are probably the first, and we will surely remain the only, people in history to give over all elements of social life and all contents of human life to the unlimited sovereignty of the individual,” Manent writes. Political leaders gain influence today by promising to expand the realm of individual autonomy indefinitely, to invent new “freedoms” that must be protected, to promote new forms of self-expression and self-satisfaction, to make “diversity” a primary goal. Now, with the rise of Islamic immigration, France faces the ultimate test of its own new political ideals: the growing strength of a minority that rejects diversity, rejects the supremacy of the individual, and therefore rejects the very ideology that allowed the minority to grow.
The only solution, Manent argues, is for France to insist that Muslims accept a role as French citizens, as participants in a common enterprise. But that cannot be if native French citizens do not first acknowledge their role as citizens rather than autonomous individuals.
What is the difference between citizens and individuals? Citizens recognize their duties along with their rights. Small children will always behave as individuals. In a healthy society their parents behave as citizens—because there is no better way to train people in the habits of accepting responsibility than giving them the care of their own children.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: rjbennett1294 -
May. 10, 2017 12:11 PM ET USA
A superb analysis - and a supremely appropriate title.
Posted by: WBSM -
May. 10, 2017 9:20 AM ET USA
Prime minister of Hungary: 5 children (from the same mother who is his lawfully wedded wife)... That is not the reason he won two consecutive terms, but it is an interesting fact. @ James W. Anderson Yes, thank the Lord, there is quite a bit of difference between the USA and Western Europe.
Posted by: tomdwyer42076294 -
May. 09, 2017 9:17 PM ET USA
It is striking to me that in my local Catholic parish, every family has at least 3 children, with the average seemingly 4 children. Our liberal friends may have 2 at best, if any. If this is common in a majority of parishes, and we in can be successful in passing the faith onto this next generation, there is some hope for future social and cultural stability.
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
May. 09, 2017 8:46 PM ET USA
To the best of my recollection most Presidents of the USA of recent years have had children. Do you see that much difference between us and the Europeans?