Patriotism v. Nationalism? Macron Draws Wrong Battle Lines

On November 22, US President Donald Trump, asked who should be held accountable for the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pinned the blame on an unlikely suspect: “Maybe the world should be held accountable. Because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very vicious place.” (According to the CIA, the killing was probably ordered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, certainly one of the world’s most vicious dictators.)

Rarely has less wisdom been put in a nutshell, for the world is in fact assaulted each day by the viciousness of war, planet-poisoning capitalism and other affronts to its fragile integrity.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attend the Centennial of the 1918 Armistice Day ceremony Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Donald J. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, Centennial of the 1918 Armistice Day ceremony Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

A hundred years ago, amid the global wreckage of total war, German novelist Hermann Hesse warned humanity against ever again submitting to rule by powerful states “ruled by money and cannon.” Today, nine nuclear-armed states each have the power to kill millions of people in minutes, threatening the existence, in Noam Chomsky’s phrase, of “organized life” on Earth. One of the ‘Omnicidal-9’ is France, and at an Armistice Centenary ceremony in Paris on November 11, President Emmanuel Macron conjured a formula almost as wrong-headed as Trump’s (sitting, sour-faced, just yards away):

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.

Sometimes, Macron said, “history threatens to retake its tragic course and threaten our heritage of peace that we believed we had definitively settled with our ancestors’ blood.” But the root of World War One, and its legacy not of peace but of botched, vindictive ‘victory,’ was not nationalism but imperialism, the denial of other national aspirations in the name of an invariably racist, misogynist patriotism (‘Rule Britannia,’ La Belle France, etc.).

Nationalism, in fact, was a driving force of many anti-colonial liberation struggles (both violent and pacifist) and continues to influence democratic, non-violent separatist movements in Scotland, Catalonia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere: it is no more inherently reactionary than Macron’s beloved multilateralism is inherently a force for good. NATO, for example, is a prime example of malign multilateralism, an expansionist military-industrial bloc – which Macron now wants to supplement with an integrated ‘European Army’ –  in large part responsible for creating the conditions of a New Cold War, consolidating in the process an undeniably reactionary, authoritarian nationalism in Russia. In addition, by priding itself on its status as the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance, NATO massively frustrates global efforts to reduce the nuclear threat, spurning, for example, the progressive multilateralism of the 122 states who adopted the Nuclear Ban Treaty in July 2017.

In its sinister disdain of international law and organizations — its paranoiac suspicion of the United Nations as little more than an anti-American scam —  ‘Trump-ism’ is in political reality ‘Dubya-ism’ 2.0, the predilection, previously personified by George W. Bush, for assembling pseudo ‘coalitions’ (of the willing and the bribed) as fig-leaves for illegal acts of aggression, most fatefully the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Yet while then-President Jacques Chirac refused to drag France into that conflict — to the disgust, among others, of John Bolton, Bush’s anti-UN UN Ambassador and current national security adviser – Macron proudly joined the US and UK in bombing suspected Syrian chemical weapon sites earlier this year, an illegal act unsanctioned by the UN, unauthorized (or even debated) by domestic parliaments and risking wider conflict with Syria’s key ally, Russia.


Macron’s portrayal of ‘patriotism’ as the antithesis of ‘nationalism’ rang hollow at home. In addition to the unsubtly nationalistic flavor of the Armistice Day commemoration (complete with tricolour-plume fighter-jet fly-over of the Arc de Triomphe), a November 10 ceremony celebrated the military ‘achievements’ of the French generals in the Great War, including Marshal Philippe Pétain, a vicious anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator.

On November 7, Macron insisted “it’s right we honour the Marshals who led France to victory,” a sentiment at odds with the humanist insistence of French historian Annette Becker that “this was a veritable catastrophe, with millions dead, millions wounded, and widows and orphans left behind. And you call that a victory?” Ironically, in another example of how Macron can appear ‘peace-loving’ in comparison to more loathsome foes, Becker was responding to criticism from the French far right that, supposedly in order to ‘appease’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he wasn’t stressing ‘victory’ enough.

Secretary-General António Guterres (on stage) addresses the Paris Peace Forum during his visit to Paris. (11 Nov 2018)

Secretary-General António Guterres (on stage) addresses the Paris Peace Forum. (11 Nov 2018)

But Macron’s masterstroke of hypocrisy was the ‘Paris Peace Forum’ held at the Grande Halle de La Villette (site of a former slaughterhouse) from November 11-13, a ‘Global Platform for Governance Projects’ attracting 10,000 delegates including 65 heads of state, activists from hundreds of NGOs, innumerable pundits, academics, artists, celebrities and journalists – and business leaders from dozens of multinational corporations, including pillars of the global military-industrial complex.

After rousing opening statements from Macron, Merkel and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, attention shifted – in a 48-hour blur of ‘brainstorms,’ ‘pitches’ and ‘fishbowls’ – to 121 projects purporting to point the way to multilaterally-managed sustainable peace and development. Of these, none envisioned a world free (to quote the UN Charter) “of the scourge of war,” and two dealt with nuclear weapons: a ‘Youth Initiative’ highlighting the work of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) “to build partnerships to promote a world free of nuclear testing” (though the 1996 Treaty remains in limbo, unratified by key states including the US); and a program-of-action by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winners of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, to promote the aforementioned, NATO-spurned Nuclear Ban Treaty. The official description of the ICAN project awkwardly noted that the Ban Treaty “tends to inform on resources for a world free of nuclear weapons in order to reinforce international security,” odd phrasing perhaps reflecting the tension between the French/NATO position that one day, after ‘international security’ has been ‘reinforced,’ progress towards abolition may be possible, and the ICAN line that moves towards ‘Global Zero’ will itself help secure global peace.


The Ban Treaty, in fact, emerged from a ‘Humanitarian Initiative’  (originally proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross) seeking to define ‘international security’ far more broadly — in far more natural, human terms — than the national security of a minority of pro-Bomb states: and of this powerful, ‘money-and-cannon’ clique, France has perhaps been the most outspoken in denouncing the humanitarian reframing of the issue.

In their review of this year’s discussion of nuclear disarmament in the UN General Assembly, for example, Katrin Geyer and Ray Acheson of the 103-year-old Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) noted that “the increasingly hostile rhetoric of the nuclear-armed stares culminated in France’s observation that ‘nuclear disarmament cannot be decreed by or targeted at’ states with nuclear weapons. Which leaves one to wonder, who is responsible for nuclear disarmament?”

In her editorial, ‘Standing Firm for the Rules of Law and Humanitarian Disarmament,’ Acheson (a Canadian activist and leading ICAN light) declared:

Disarmament is crucial part of the path to prevent war. WILPF knew it in 1915 and we know it now. We have seen enough bloodshed. We know where weapons take us. We need instead to bolster the norms, tools, and techniques of peace and non-violence. And we need to work together. As a handful of countries seek to dominate and destroy, it’s up to the rest of us to build something new.

With few exceptions, this radical anti-war critique was conspicuous by its absence at the Paris Forum. Is it cynical to wonder whether ICAN was only invited due to the immense prestige of the Nobel Prize? Certainly, when the main ICAN-affiliate in France, the UN-accredited Action of Citizens for Nuclear Disarmament (ACND), requested a media pass it was denied due to “constraints of space and exceptional security measures.”

On 31 October, ACDN expressed its indignation directly to the president in a letter on ‘The Paris Peace Forum and the Question of Disarmament,’ asking “how the presence of our special correspondent” would “threaten security?”

Through his freedom of speech? Or is it through ACDN’s viewpoint, shared by 85% of French citizens (according to a recent IFOP poll)? … But in that case, Monsieur le Président, what is the objective of the Paris Peace Forum? To maintain peace or polish France’s reputation while preserving her from the gravest danger that threatens her as a nuclear power and as the world’s Number 3 arms merchant: the danger of disarmament?


A closer look at the work of ACDN is instructive. The group is currently leading ICAN’s efforts, as part of its ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’ campaign, to ‘shame’ the French banking giant BNP Paribas into divesting from a staggering $8 billion in nuclear-weapons related activities; on September 26, UN International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, protests were held at BNP branches in over a dozen countries.

Riffing on the Bank’s slogan, ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn (who led the ICAN delegation in Paris) stated:

The ‘bank for a changing world’ has the opportunity to deliver real change and contribute to a nuclear-free world. They are investing in weapons that are inhumane and violate humanitarian law and the laws of war. They are neither a sound nor ethical investment.

Yet BNP was one of the main corporate presences at the Peace Forum, showcasing a project on, irony of ironies, ‘sustainable finance’ to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); goals explicitly identifying “a nexus between disarmament, arms control and development.” At, appropriately, the eleventh hour on November 12, the Forum saw a BNP ‘brainstorm’ asking “is there a market in the financial industry to develop sustainable investment firms?” and “What could be the business model of such corporations?” “Have a say,” the official program concluded, “with leading entrepreneurs!” But only if you don’t ‘threaten the security’ of the status quo.

The Paris Peace Forum is envisaged as an annual event. As a potential terrain of debate — a chance to review progress, shape priorities, build alliances, and hold the powerful accountable –- it should not be abandoned or rejected on the basis of its generally lightweight debut. ‘Peace’ is, for sure, a process encompassing not just disarmament but social, economic and environmental justice (rather than a trendy tweaking of the status quo). But for the Forum to effectively address existential threats, anti-war voices must be allowed to challenge the legitimacy of militarism in general (even when multilateral), or the particular notion there are ‘right hands’ and ‘real reasons’ for the world’s worst weapons.

Or, indeed, the idea patriotism will rid the world of violent nationalism.

There some things you just can’t polish.

Featured image: French President Emmanuel Macron addressing the Paris Peace Forum. (Source: France ONU)

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.







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