In Other Words

Le Modest Proposal

L’Edit de Caracalla ou Plaidoyer Pour des Etats-Unis d’Occident par Xavier de C*** (The Edict of Caracalla, or a Plea for the United States of the West by Xavier de C***) By Régis Debray 140 pages, Paris: Fayard, 2002 (in French) With anti-Americanism on the rise in Europe, it’s hard to believe a European would ...

L’Edit de Caracalla ou Plaidoyer Pour des Etats-Unis d’Occident par Xavier de C*** (The Edict of Caracalla, or a Plea for the United States of the West by Xavier de C***)
By Régis Debray
140 pages, Paris: Fayard, 2002
(in French)

With anti-Americanism on the rise in Europe, it’s hard to believe a European would publish a book in which the hero, a Frenchman, renounces his citizenship to become an American. It’s even harder to believe when the author is the French homme de gauche Régis Debray — a man whose résumé includes fighting alongside revolutionary Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, advising Chilean President Salvador Allende, serving as a confidante to French President François Mitterrand in the heady days of his first government, and supporting Serbia during the NATO campaign in Kosovo.

But in March 2002, Debray published The Edict of Caracalla, or a Plea for the United States of the West by Xavier de C***. His book makes the ostensible argument that resistance to the United States’ overwhelming power is vain and that Europe’s only hope for survival is in its absorption by the United States.

The Edict of Caracalla takes the form of a long letter, purportedly written to Debray by a former classmate, Xavier de C***, who became a U.S. citizen after a long career as a French high official. Written in English, his adopted language, the letter is de C***’s attempt to justify his decision to make common cause with the United States after the devastating terrorist attacks of 2001. For de C***, becoming American is a way to get on the winning side — and could be Europe’s only hope for survival. "By changing allegiance, I feel I have fulfilled the agenda Dei,” de C*** writes. "That I am realizing rather than renouncing our millennial heritage by anticipating its only possible future."

De C*** hopes his individual act will be repeated by all Europeans. The nations of Europe are subservient to the United States, he argues, and have no say in decisions made in Washington that affect their lives. Therefore, it would be beneficial for all if an institutional framework existed that would reflect this de facto situation. He proposes the creation of a "United States of the West," a federation in which each nation-state of old Europe would have roughly the same degree of sovereignty as U.S. states. This new arrangement, de C*** says, would elevate Europeans from their current status of "second-tier Americans to that of full-fledged Americans."

He appeals to an inspired U.S. president to take as a model Caracalla, the Roman emperor who granted citizenship to all free men of the empire in a.d. 212. "Becoming Americanized in the twenty-first century is like becoming Romanized in the first," de C*** says. It is to evolve from the status of "Syrian, Spaniard, Gaul or slave, to that of man."

For Europeans, the benefits would be immense. There would be obvious economies of scale: a streamlined foreign policy, military force, and civil service. But most important, the people of Europe would gain the right to vote for the U.S. president. "By electing directly the president of the Western United States," de C*** says, "the integrated Europeans will at last be able to exert some influence over what happens to them. They might even rediscover the feeling of having a collective manifest destiny." De C*** also provides a list of benefits Americans would accrue if they were to embrace Europeans as compatriots. He cites, for example, the expertise in regulation that the U.S. government would gain if it were to integrate European civil servants into its bureaucracies.

Ultimately, however, de C***’s adoptive patriotism proves as destructive as readers of the old Debray would expect. In fact, it proves fatal. Propelled by his sense of duty as a newly minted U.S. citizen, de C*** volunteers his services as a Central Asia expert to the Pentagon and is killed in Afghanistan — by an errant U.S. bomb. His letter, we learn in the epilogue to The Edict of Caracalla, is being published posthumously.

Debray intends his book as satire, and the book is often quite funny. But de C***’s presentation is also perversely seductive. And for some in France, it turned out to be uncomfortably close to the bone. The slim volume was greeted with stunned silence in Paris literary circles. Jean Daniel, a close friend of Debray’s who edits the left-leaning magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, echoed the sentiment of disquiet the book’s publication received. "The demonstration a contrario by the anti-hero ends up being too effective," Daniel wrote. "The tongue-in-cheek inventory of humiliations becomes more and more convincing."

In an interview in July 2002, Debray said his goal was to give France a jolt and make his compatriots confront their nation’s "Swissization," by which he meant its creeping irrelevance and mediocrity. Using the same technique as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Debray hoped to outrage.

But when he finally rebuts de C***’s arguments in the book’s epilogue, Debray is without passion, as if disarmed by his creation’s superior logic. An even greater problem: Debray appears no longer to believe in the France he is writing, purportedly, to save. De C*** emerges as Debray’s alter ego, echoing the author’s oft-expressed despair about the degraded state of France and Europe’s failure to be more than a "stock market without borders." Like his character, Debray believes the European Union is little more than an illusion, an anteroom to the complete destruction of the French nation and identity by the U.S. hegemon, or as de C*** puts it, a "transitional object" on the road to denationalization. And Debray only thinly disguises his own feelings when de C*** writes of France: "Apart from a certain quality of life, this country has nothing left to offer the world. It is too busy preserving the circumflex accent, its Roquefort."

Beneath the facile agitprop, Debray’s book offers valuable insight into the growing resentment in Europe at the perception of U.S. unilateralism. The book allows him to demonstrate how this antipathy coexists uncomfortably with the profound identification and mimetic desire generated by American culture. This portrayal is more nuanced — and accurate — than is the image of blanket hatred Americans now imagine exists toward them abroad. Particularly shocking to Americans after September 11 has been the discovery that hostility toward the United States is not restricted to the Middle East and the developing world but is also sometimes shared by the denizens of Hampstead and the Left Bank. But as Debray suggests, Americans would do well to remember how complex and conflicted these feelings are. Many reporters have had the jarring experience in recent months of hearing a virulent critic of the United States move seamlessly from expressions of support for Osama bin Laden to questions about obtaining a visa to study at Harvard or Stanford. De C*** puts it thus: "Your passport is from the European Union… but your libido is made in the U.S."

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