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France: Keeping the Demons at Bay


Few nations have been so successful at advertising their troubles, at turning their difficulties into dramas and fears into phobias, as the French. In a country where much has changed over the past half-century, the habit of loud self-examination survives intact.

The French have turned the post–World War II years into a myth, that of les trente glorieuses, the thirty years when reconstruction, state planning, and the opening of borders transformed the aging and paralyzed nation of peasants and shopkeepers into a major industrial and exporting power, and a predominantly urban country with a growing population. In fact things never were quite so simple—the economic “takeoff” became visible only in the mid-Fifties; the glorious years were also those of intense domestic political warfare, particularly over decolonization in Vietnam and Algeria. But the myth about this period now serves to reinforce French unhappiness with the twenty years of economic difficulty that followed the first world oil shock of 1973.

If French discontent seemed particularly strong during 1993, it is because what might be called the Gaullist after-glow is finally gone. De Gaulle’s psychological statecraft flattered the French (even those who disliked or distrusted him) into believing that France had become once again a major player on the world stage. France in this view emerged from the conflicts of the Thirties, from the defeat of 1940, the Nazi occupation, and the loss of empire as an independent, inventive, and advanced society with a workable set of institutions at last. The new disillusionment results from a series of blows to French pride and hopes, and from the sense that virtually all of the possible political formulas for dealing with the “twenty years crisis” that began in 1973 have been tried in vain.

In the mid-Seventies, many put their hopes on the union of the left—between Communists and Socialists—which finally came to power with Mitterrand’s election to the presidency in 1981. Between 1981 and 1993, France went through four phases: (1) Mitterrand’s aggressive economic policy of nationalization and public spending, which failed almost instantly, breaking up the union of Socialists and Communists; (2) his subsequent policy of economic austerity emphasizing the need to be competitive in an open world economy; (3) a return of the right to power in 1986 with Jacques Chirac’s quasi-Reaganite program of economic deregulation and privatization; (4) a renewal of Socialist rule, after 1988, devoted to preserving a strong franc linked to the deutsche mark. But the most salient fact throughout the period was the rise of unemployment, which none of the six governments—five Socialist and one conservative—had been able to stop between 1983 and 1993.

Unemployment has been the worst of the shocks inflicted on French self-esteem. Each government has tried to cope with it, but the many plans have only succeeded in making the lives of the unemployed marginally less awful. With more than three million people officially out of work—12 percent of the active population—the situation is unprecedented since World War II. (If unemployed immigrants and others who are not officially registered as looking for jobs are taken into account, the figure may be much higher.)

This is, of course, not an entirely French phenomenon, but why is France worse off than Germany? Nobody has come up with very convincing answers. It seems clear, however, that the policies pursued since the mid-Eighties, which aimed at preparing France for the single European Market of 1992 and for the Monetary Union described in the Maastricht treaty of December 1991, are to a large degree responsible. The end of “indexation”—the linking of price and wage increases—kept inflation down but also depressed domestic demand. Abolishing the regulations protecting workers from being fired has led French private and public enterprises to reduce labor costs by laying off large numbers of manual workers, clerical employees, and low level managers, in order to become more competitive. France never developed the kinds of cooperative links between unions and business that tend to protect employees in bad times—partly because of the weakness and divisions of French unions, partly because of the attitudes of French business. This may account for the difference between unemployment in France and Germany. Too few new jobs have been created, partly because the technical training of workers by business and by the state is far less effective than in Germany.

The rise of unemployment has drawn attention to the weaknesses of France’s modern industries, which are competitive mainly in processed foods and luxury consumer goods. Many French exports have been heavily subsidized, especially arms exports. But the subsidies are increasingly being banned by the rules of the European Union and of GATT, and the demand for French weapons has fallen drastically.1 With unemployment has come another phenomenon, familiar to Americans but new in France: l’exclusion—the estrangement of a wide variety of depressed and troubled people from society including the long-term unemployed, unskilled young men and women, illegal immigrants, drug addicts, and criminal gangs, many of them in grim suburbs. Somewhat unexpectedly the new prime minister, the Gaullist Edouard Balladur, called attention to the situation of such people in the last book he published before coming to power.2

Political life has also taken a bad turn. In France as in other democratic countries, the prestige of politicians and public trust in politicians seem lower than at any time since 1945. This has happened partly as a result of the politicians’ inability to solve pressing economic and social issues, above all unemployment, and partly as a result of the spectacular number of recent cases of proven or suspected corruption—les affaires such as the scandals that swirled around the Socialist prime minister Pierre Bérégovoy and may have contributed to his decision to kill himself on May 1, and those around the Marseilles business adventurer and Socialist politician Bernard Tapie, one of whose associates is accused of paying football players to throw games to Tapie’s team. In the legislative elections of March 1993, the Socialist share of the votes fell from 34 percent in 1988 to 19 percent, a sign of the voters’ disgust with the scandals and feuds that have splintered and demoralized the Socialist Party in recent years. The moderate right coalition of Jacques Chirac and Giscard d’Estaing was able to take power with around 44 percent of the vote—as against 44.5 percent when it won in 1986—but the main beneficiaries of the Socialists’ disgrace were the three “protest” groups: Communists, Ecologists, and Le Pen’s National Front, which got more than a third of the votes.

Meanwhile France’s position in the world also suffered. Having “overcome Yalta,” i.e., the division of Europe—a goal shared by De Gaulle and Mitterrand—the French found themselves far worse off diplomatically than during the cold war. With Germany unified, France faced an unhappy choice between a policy of European integration that could lead to a European Union dominated by Germany, its most economically powerful member, and a policy of “independence” in which France’s main asset—its nuclear force—has lost much of its meaning.3 During the cold war, the French, longing for high international status, could always assert themselves against American “hegemony”; today, the French often complain more about America’s withdrawal from Europe than about American imperiousness. They once assumed that as American and Soviet power in Western and Eastern Europe diminished, a Europe led by France would become one of the major forces in the world. But now, in diplomatic and defense matters, Europe remains a congeries of distinctive states without a collective will or adequate military forces. The complete failure of the European Community to act in Yugoslavia has contributed heavily to the post–cold war disillusionment in France.

The intellectuals, for their part, have not been of much help. Between the mid-Seventies and the late Eighties, a strong liberal current swept away most of the Marxist tendencies that had been dominant in French literary and university culture. The main target of liberal intellectuals such as Jean-François Revel and the writers for the quarterly Commentaire was French and Soviet communism, and while their analysis of sterile leftist ideas could be refreshing, their anticommunism sometimes sounded like that of the American neoconservatives. A secondary target was French socialism, insofar as it was tactically allied with the Communists and advocated a program of nationalization and state intervention. As the Communists declined and the Socialists reversed their economic policies, some liberal intellectuals, such as the historian François Furet, announced the advent of a “Republic of the Center,” in which a kind of Tocquevillian consensus was to overcome the old ideological divisions and bring France closer “to the liberal democratic regimes of America and Britain.”4

No doubt the liberal thinkers succeeded in discrediting the myth of revolution as the necessary force of social change,5 but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of the French left they have found themselves without a clearly defined cause. The end of the cold war and the persistent economic and social difficulties of France have dissolved many of the old ideological alignments, and writers who once were allies have now split over European integration and over Yugoslavia, as well as over the issues of immigration and nationality. Some ex-Communist intellectuals have been engaging in a bizarre dialogue with extreme right-wing ideologues, expressing mutual sympathy over the “rediscovery” of the Nation, anti-Americanism, and even anti-Semitism.6 A broad consensus among intellectuals and journalists on the values of liberal democracy has done little to cure the rest of France of its phobias.


Indeed, during much of 1992 and 1993, what was most striking about French political life was its regression into a kind of shrill, defensive, and protectionist nationalism, which recalled previous episodes of chauvinism in French history. In the 1880s, also a period of economic difficulties, the Republic adopted protectionist policies both for agriculture and for industry; the best-selling book of Edouard Drumont, La France Juive, denounced Jewish cosmopolitanism and corruption as bringing about the decline of traditional France. In the 1930s, when the world recession finally reached France, governments took steps to restrict both competition at home and with foreign countries while tolerating the wave of xenophobia that culminated in the Vichy regime. Despite the extensive changes in French society since the Fifties—far larger than those between 1880 and 1930—many of the old reflexes and prejudices, particularly against poor immigrants, are again evident.

During the last couple of years, it has often seemed as if many of the French were making the outside world responsible for their domestic and external woes. To some, Germany was mainly at fault and, particularly, the Bundesbank, whose policy of high interest rates was aimed at preventing inflation while Germany financed reunification through deficit spending. Some French politicians have denounced the bank’s policies as the direct cause of France’s recession and unemployment since French leaders have felt they must hold down inflation if the close link between the two currencies in the European Monetary System is to be maintained. Philippe Séguin, the populist Gaullist leader who is now the president of the National Assembly, has been the articulate champion of a radically different economic policy, based on giving priority to employment, a greater measure of state dirigisme, and the independence of French monetary policy.7

  1. 1

    See Le Monde, December 22, 1993, p.20.

  2. 2

    Dictionnaire de la Réforme (Paris: Fayard, 1992), pp. 118–120.

  3. 3

    For a fuller discussion, see my chapter, “French Dilemmas and Strategies after the Cold War,” in Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, and Stanley Hoffmann, editors, After the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 1993).

  4. 4

    See Sunil Khilnani’s Arguing Revolution (Yale University Press, 1993), a stimulating discussion of the rise and fall of the intellectual left’s love affair with the idea of revolution in postwar France; but the book suffers from an insufficient understanding of pre-1945 left-wing French thought, which was far richer than he seems to think. And, like Tony Judt in Past Imperfect (University of California Press, 1992), he neglects Camus.

  5. 5

    Another nail into the myth’s coffin is driven—rather obliquely—by Jean-Claude Milner, in his somewhat arcane assault on “progressisme,” L’Archéologie d’un échec (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993).

  6. 6

    Le Monde has been particularly exercised over this; see the issues of July 1, 1993, p. 7, and July 13, 1993, pp. 8–9, which include a “call for vigilance” signed by a group of distinguished intellectuals, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, François Jacob, the historian Georges Duby, etc.

  7. 7

    He has collected his speeches in two books, Discours pour la France (Paris: Grasset, 1992) (this is mainly his onslaught on the Maastricht treaty, seen as destructive of the French nation: “1992 is literally the anti-1979,” p. 17) and Ce que j’ai dit (Paris: Grasset, 1993) (this is his call for a new economic and social policy, anti-European Union and anti-GATT).

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