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The Polish plumber

by Jerome a Paris Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 03:03:51 PM EST

The following is a letter to the editor published in Le Monde this afternoon. I have not found a link but provide a full translation. If you have never heard the expression before, please note that the "Polish plumber" was the bogeyman of the French campaign for the EU Constitution - a symbol of the foreigners supposedly allowed, under European rules, to come and work for dirt cheap conditions in France and steal "our" jobs.

The choice of an example is never free of meaning: behind an apparently anodie nchoice, you can find tensions and old conflicts. The "Polish plumber" is neither Czech nor Hungarian, and he is not a doctor or a violonist. (...) We can guess the arrogance of the intellectual and his disdain for the "small enterprise".

The main thing is the country targeted: Poland, to many French eyes, has 3 major flaws:

  • For the past 3 centuries (since the early blindness of the Lumières for Catherine of Russia), Poland disturbs the dubious relationship between France and Russia; faithful Poland embarassed Napoléon when he tried to split the wolrd with his "friend" Alexander I. We can note that Ukraine and the Baltic countries are tainted, to some extent, by the same thing - the amazing silence of France, supposedly the "country of human rights" during the orange revolution is proof enough.

  • Poland also disturbs the authority of the Franco-German couple over Europe. We cannot ignore the close links between Warsaw and London (and beyond, Washington) that were formed during the terryfing period of WW II. We thus see a new Europe appear, no less legitimate than that of the Rome Treaty (itself so young in view of a history started in the Middle Ages or earlier): facing the Franco-German couple, the Polish-British couple provides an equilibrium seen in France as a menace, especially when, as during the Iraq war, other European powers like Sapin and Italy join them

  • the third flaw of Poland is the least ascknowledged and the least forgivable: from Solidarnosc to John Paul II, but also from Jacek Kuron to Adma Michnik, Poland is the country that led, until its collapse, a relentless fight against communism. That ideology continues, in France, to seduce young people that have not known the atrocities of the USSR, and older peoplethat have not given up on "joyous tomorrows". It is a fact that Poland, after decades under aberrant economic planification, has chosen economic and political freedom; it is true that this liberty has cost its population - and still costs - a terrible price.

But the "Polish plumber" is not so much the victim of the economic choices of his country as of old historic grievances.

Dominique Triaire, Montpellier

"I'll stay here. Why don't you come over and visit?"
Attibuted to the Poland tourism board in France (although I have my doubts).

What sense should we take from Communism here? Does he mean social democracy, or honest to goodness Red Menace?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 03:13:45 PM EST
In the case of what the Poles were fighting, obviously talking about the ugly real stuff.  In terms of what the far left espouses today it's a bit more complicated. The PCF was very subservient to Moscow and has only half-heartedly apologized for that history. The trotskyists were always critical of the USSR. Today my impression is that the far left is for democracy and hence not in favour of Leninism. However, they are not social democrats. You hear plenty of talk of abolishing capitalism, of a 'grand rupture', etc.

 I don't think that resentment of the Poles for their struggle against communism is all that common.  On the other hand resentment of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the ex-dissidents are pro-American and supported the Iraq war does drive many French intellectuals nuts. They also seem to have the attitude that the Poles are too uppity, that some countries in Europe are more equal than others - a sentiment which seems to be more prevalent among the right than the left and is epitomized by Chirac imitating Rumsfeld when he told the East Europeans that they should just keep their mouths shut.

by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 03:47:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Might be true of the Polish dissidents. However, the Polish population at large opposed the invasion. I think this is in general true of Poland in other ways, as it is of Britain: the political elites in these countries tend to be much more pro-American than the population at large, because of geopolitical and historical reasons.

However, in many ways, Poland is an outlier in Europe. It is easily the most religious country on the continent, for one. It is much more religious than Britain, too - it supposed axis partner.

I think that letter has some truth to it, though. I think it is Poland that is blamed because of its tacit alliance with Britain, which I think many in France fear because it calls into question France's own leadership in Europe, as Britain is no longer marginalized.

However, it strikes me as a bit of a silly attitude, in that if France welcomed Poland, it would be much more likely to listen to France than form an adversarial relationship.

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 04:11:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Polish population did oppose Polish participation, albeit by a smaller majority than in most of Europe, but it was not an important issue to them, making it politically cost free for the political elites.

As for the elites there were actually a fair number who quietly thought the war was a stupid idea. However, they tended to feel that regardless of whether or not the war was good policy, it was in the Polish national interest to support the US in order to strengthen the alliance with America. Particularly in light of the French and German love fest with Putin. (Zbig Brzezinski, strongly opposed to the war in America, offered lukewarm support in Poland decision to send troops to Iraq)  The dilemna for the French and Germans is that the price for drawing Poland away from its Atlanticist stance would be a diametric shift in relations with Russia to one of hostility.  The only political camp to share the strong hostility towards America, the neocons, and to the war, plus to want good relations with Putin, is the extreme right. The problem for the EU supporters in France and elsewhere is that the extreme right also views the EU as a dangerous masonic-'zionist' plot.

by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 04:26:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Interesting point about the Polish elites, too. I think this was true of the British political/chattering classes, too, but to a lesser degree. I mean, ultimately, the default position for Britain is to back the United States, and it has been at least since '45, and was cemented by Suez. Its not so much that Britain loves American - certainly not anymore, the population at large is quite anti-American, I've seen a number of Americans comment on how surprised they have been by this, that they assumed Britain was just some kind of "mini US" - its that there is a history of Britain backing the US, and for good reason, and that to change this habit is hard. Its like breaking up with a spouse: its often easier to stay with the status quo than to chart the unknown. It would have to take a radical turn of events for Britain to align itself with the EU over the US when it comes down to it. The fact that the Iraq War came at least somewhat close to this happening - ie if Blair had been deposed - shows you the treachorous ground the US walks on.

The US can ignore France and even Germany, but it can't ignore Britain.

Ben P

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 04:41:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You make some really good points, there, Ben, on the US/UK/EU triangle.

One wonders how far Blair shares your analysis and is driven by it -- in his current stand-off with France and Germany, in particular. My feeling is that Blair is not an analytical politician, but is driven by his guts (and, imho, his guts turn out to lead him further to the right every time).

But the logic of it seems to lead to variations on two themes:

  1. The US and UK are forced to "accept" they screwed up badly by going into Iraq, and will now more or less let each other down;

  2. They hold on against the odds and it's the EU that pays the price.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 11:11:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure I understand your points.

I will say that, funnily enough, Blair is actually a relatively pro-Europe British PM. He certainly was until the Iraq War. Blair has actually taken some significant steps in drawing Britain into the EU, at least substantively. Looking back, only Ted Heath and maybe Major could be characterized as more pro-Europe.

That said, I have sympathy for some of the hositility towards Chirac and the Gaullists. After all, DeGaulle himself vetoed British EEC membership twice in the 60s. Knowing the nature of British society vis-a-vis Europe, that was just incredibly short-sited.

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 12:02:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I understand your not understanding -- there was some fairly woolly speculation there...


by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 02:02:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Reading this again, I really only agree with his second point. Really, France doesn't trust Poland because it is too Atlanticist, and many fear that this will create a scenario that will contribute to an EU that is not led by the French and is not differentiated enough from the United States. I think this is probably a similar reason why they weren't especially enthusiastic about events in Ukraine.

His first point is just bizarre - maybe I'm out of the loop here, maybe this is Chiraciquian/Gaullist thing I don't get. There is a lot that is nasty about this tradition after all.

His third point, well again, I don't know. That seems to be projection more than anything else. Just how strong is radical leftism in France today? Almost certainly stronger than in the states, but surely in decline.


by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 06:08:51 PM EST
I agree that the whole Napoleon stuff is ridiculous, though it may well be a dig at Villepin, a great admirer of Napoleon.  But the dilemna of how to maintain good relations with Poland and at the same time with an autocratic, repressive Russia led by a man who is clearly nostalgic for the Soviet empire is a real one.  That, btw. is a major difference between Polish atlanticism and the British variety. For Poland the historical grounds for supporting the US are both more recent and supplemented by current security concerns - namely getting support against its chief strategic enemy. That is also IMO why Bush slammed Yalta - not as some bizarre genuflection to the hard right in the US but a gesture of support to his Polish and Baltic allies freaking out over Russian officials regrets over the loss of its East European colonies and admonishments to them that they should be grateful for their brutal subjugation.
by MarekNYC on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 12:00:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, yes. The reason Poland looks to the US as a benefactor is geopolitically obvious, as it finds itself between Germany and Russia.

British Atlanticism is very different, BTW. As you point out. British Atlanticism largely grew out of realization that gradually occurred during the middle of the 20th century that if Britain wanted to maintain any pretension to "great power" status, it would need to stay close to its American linguistic relative, who they (rightly) observed to be the world's ascendent power. In many ways, the US bankrolled the British Empire until it collapsed, as well as a good deal of its military spending, particularly its nuclear arsenal, who PMs like MacMillan saw as vital to British pretensions.

As a side note, this is why it is important - I think especially for the French, who seem to view the "special relationship" as some kind of devious plot between good friends to screw the French - as more an alliance of convenience. Case in point: my sister's boyfriend (French) was quite surprised when he first came to the US because he expected it to be much more like Britain than it is. I wonder if a lot of French people don't think this way also (incidentally, I think a lot of Americans are surprised that Britain isn't simply a mini version of itself when they go there - I remember a Tom Friedman column a while back to this effect). Yes, lair is congenitally pro-American, but the British people as a whole aren't. This isn't to say they are anti-American either (although they're anti-Bush). But the US and Britain are really rather different places - and the special relationship, IMO, is more historic and geopolitical than it is cultural.

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 12:12:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the third point he makes about pro-Communist nostalgia leading the French to dislike the Poles for having been anti-Communist is bunk. Today in France there are very few people who feel any kind of support (even going down memory lane) for soviet communism. And dissidents like Lech Walesa were extremely popular in France (at the time when they were fighting, precisely, soviet communism). And why not be equally against the Hungarians because of Budapest '56, or the Czechs for Prague '68?

A point he doesn't touch on is French history with regard to the Poles as immigrants. Unlike the Czechs, Hungarians, etc, there were fairly large numbers of Polish immigrants into France, mostly to the coal-mining areas around a century ago, and they were considered as cheap labour brought in to undercut local miners' wages. This, I believe, has far more to do with the choice of Poland for the plumber's country of origin (apart from alliteration!), than the rather tortuous explanations of Dominique Triaire.

After all, people involved in what was a demagogic referendum campaign don't go looking for such complicated backing for an effective slogan.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 11:26:29 PM EST
I think I disagree with you on the topic of Communism (with a capital C, i.e. the Idea). It is still very much prevalent in France today, and a lot of the "non" vote was again part of the left going back from compromising and compromised centrism to go back to the ideals and utopias that are still associated with Communism.
You still have a permanent core of 10-15% of hard left voters in France (and by hard, I meand really hard: Laguiller's LO voted - in the European Parliament - against measures that improve workers conditions so as to get them angry enough for the real revolution), and a good chunk of the socialists seem tempted to join them. To these people, Communism is still a Good Thing.
And the fact that the poster boys of the fall of communism in the East are people like Reagan and the Pope (i.e. the reactionary right) does make it less palatable for the left.

As to your secodn point (about immigrants, this is certainly true. I keep reminding people that say that the Muslims will never integrate, that they are too religious, different, etc,... that the exact same thing wes said about the Poles last century - never integrate, too religious, etc...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 11:57:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're right there are hard-left voters in France. My point is that few among them have any nostalgia for the Soviet Communism the Poles were up against, and that, even on the left, many people were sympathetic to Solidarnosc.

As for what kind of Communism the Trots would like to see set up in France, I'm not sure and, to be honest, I'm not sure they are either.

In the context of the Polish Plumber question, anyway, I don't think communism/Communism is relevant. I mean, are we to imagine this cut-price Pole is a reactionary, sneaking into France to take away the work of left-wing French plumbers?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 02:35:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
that's basically what was said. It was really unseemly.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 03:52:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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