In the French Style

Economic Planning in France

by John Hackett, by Anne-Marie Hackett
Harvard, 481 pp., $7.00

This is a book of the utmost importance for the United States—a book whose relevance and potential educational influence can hardly be overstressed. On the face of it a scholarly analysis of the French planning system, the Hacketts’ book is, in fact, a treatise on the compatibility of planning and capitalism. The book is reticent about drawing conclusions from the French experience and applying them to other nations, yet one conclusion forces itself irresistibly on this reader: that the experience of the French economy makes it no longer possible for the government of the United States, or for the spokesmen of American business, to excuse the increasing malfunction of this economy on the grounds of the incompatibility between planning and “free enterprise.” On the contrary it is now possible to state on the evidence presented in this book what could before only be advanced on faith—that a conservative nation dominated by large corporate enterprises can plan with reasonable effectiveness, and that the failure to do so is a national disgrace.

It is extraordinary how little is known in this country about French economic planning. For the past fifteen years we have been so absorbed in watching the permutations of French political policy that we have almost entirely lost sight of the remarkable progress that France has made in economic policy. Most of all we have been unaware that France has become, in the Hacketts’ words, the most “advanced” example of planning in the capitalist world. Not only has the planning structure become inextricably integrated into both public and private economic life, but what is more important, the idea of planning is no longer even a controversial question. What Pierre Massé, who is at present the head of the General Planning Commission, calls “the French style of planning” is now regarded, like many other styles of France, as a national asset.

What is that style? The Hacketts say it “is a way of providing permanent arrangements for a collective and systematic reflection on the problems and prospects of the economy with a view to action.” That is surely a considered definition but it is hardly an enlightening one. I should rather say that the French style is an attempt to work out a framework of future economic development which is precise enough to appear to many enterprises as a concrete business objective, yet general enough not to demand specific performance from any single enterprise; binding enough to evoke from the private sector of the economy those responses necessary to insure success, yet open enough to permit deviation and shortfall without penalty; subject to sufficient control from the public sector of the economy to offset the normal disturbances of growth, and yet so deeply based on the voluntary cooperation of the private sector that it becomes not merely a governmental but a truly national undertaking.

But this is rhetoric, and what is remarkable about the French style is its avoidance of rhetoric and its insistence on practicality. Hence let us …

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