February in Paris, 1983. A group of student leaders are ushered into the presence of President Mitterand by huissiers. They stay slightly more than an hour, discussing Marxism-Leninism, youth, and society with the ever-inconsistent, sometimes brilliant, sometimes crooked, sometimes socialist and sometime fascist president. Years later, one of them, Jean-Claude Cambalebis remembers the three questions Mitterand advised him to deal with if he wanted to “avoid becoming Minister of Public Works”.
They were as follows: the first, he said, was Poland, or more specifically that spiritual power had defeated political power there. The second was the way Britain would never be European and would always prefer to maintain ties with its favoured trading partners in the Commonwealth. For the third, Mitterand produced an electronic listening device (un puce electronique) from his pocket and remarked that such things would “turn the organisation of work upside-down”.
23 years down-range from that meeting with the UNEF executive committee at the ElysÃ©e Palace, and ten years on from Mitterand’s death, how do those part-predictions, part-suggestions stack up?
More in the geek hole..
Right, now we’re safely below the fold and the skim readers are gone..
Prediction number 1 looks like a banker. Depending on your definition of “spiritual”, secular and political power around the world is besieged by challenges from political Islam, evangelical Protestantism as a political tendency, and that old standby, the Vatican. Take a wider definition of spiritual, and you have to include to some extent a whole clawing, biting mass of conflicts over identity, tribe, belief. In a sense, the end of the Soviet Union was a victory of two forms of spiritual power – religion and nation – over Marxism. How obvious was this at the time? Certainly Catholic influence was at a local maximum with John Paul II at his most active. Shia Islam had put itself on the world agenda with the Iranian revolution, and the mujahedin phenomenon was the toast of the West – but nobody, I think, saw Sunni (Wahabite) Islam coming as the religious force that would have the most impact on world politics. The upcurl of the Christian Coalition in the US was well known, but I wonder how many people other than Margaret Atwood saw it enduring beyond the next Democratic presidency.
Nobody thought that the southern flank of the Soviet Union would go completely, and equally, did anyone else call the pace and depth of European secularisation, which is after all the triumph of a sort of spiritual power.
Prediction 2, though, went bust years ago. Presumably Mitterand was thinking along the lines (shared by some people in the Conservative Party) that the Falklands War marked some sort of swing-back to the maritime tradition in British politics, to preferential access for Australian and New Zealand exports, island bases and carrier groups manoeuvring on blue water. Far from it. Although the rundown of the Royal Navy’s oceanic and amphibious capability was stopped, and some of it restored, the basic direction of defence policy was still across the North German Plain from the BAOR barracks in OsnabrÃ¼ck and MÃ¼nster, where the British Army had long since built up the sort of ties of local business, families and such that characterised its pre-1968 locations in the Indian Ocean.
Britain, in fact, got a lot more European, and quickly. Despite rebates and tabloid yelling, economic integration went on apace, society perhaps changed a little too…but perhaps the real change in Mitterand’s terms was that Britain’s remaining ties with its “vieux comptoirs” in the Commonwealth went, to be replaced by far greater reliance on the United States?
Prediction 3 is fascinating. We know now that Mitterand bugged the hell out of everyone around him, legally or not, with absolutely no discrimination between opposition politicians, personal staff, lovers and journalists on Le Monde. It’s no surprise he happened to have a bug in his pocket – you get the impression he never went anywhere without one handy. Did he mean electronics in general, or specifically the complex of issues known as “privacy” or “digital rights” or (perhaps best of all) “all that stuff Cory Doctorow bangs on about”? Either way, he was bang on the money, but the significance changes with interpretation. Any fool could have seen the first coming in 1983 – even Maggie Thatcher was in the business of spreading BBC Micro computers. But the second would have been very smart indeed.
A few days ago, someone mentioned on this site (it may have been Ed) that much of French national gloom is accounted for by the arrival of the Internet; suddenly, an industry that had been considered a crown jewel was irredeemably blindsided by the Americans. Mitterand, of course, launched the Minitel, the vast program to give every household a network data terminal hooked into France Telecom’s brand-new fibreoptic backbone, itself a huge Mitterandiste national project. I recall being fascinated by the idea (and being kept away from the things on holiday in France for fear I’d try to reprogram them in BBC Basic). But it was a fatally bad idea – entirely they-control-you technology. You couldn’t own the terminal, still less see the source code, and FTel owned every server.
What if Mitterand had put the funding into giving everyone an Internet connection instead, and subsidising PCs?