Look Back in Anger

The repudiation of Jacques Chirac’s right-wing government by a majority of French voters only two years after he was elected president was not just the result of a fateful miscalculation on his part. It expressed a mood of national dissatisfaction and self-doubt comparable to the mood that hung over France in the last years of the Fourth Republic, before De Gaulle returned to power in 1958. Only if one understands the reasons for this feeling of drift and decline, which affects both French citizens and their leaders, does the outcome of the legislative elections of May 25 and June 1 make sense. And where France with its new Socialist government will now go remains a mystery.

The most obvious causes of national discontent were the persistence of unemployment—almost 13 percent of the work force—and a sense of blocage, which was powerfully reinforced by the fiasco of Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s attempt, in November 1995, to reform the French system of social security. His attempt to cut back benefits led to the biggest wave of demonstrations and strikes since 1968 and to the abandonment of much of his plan. There was also rising anger against a government whose policies were unclear but often seemed to go in directions that were the opposite of those that Chirac had promised. Juppé was giving priority not to increasing employment and growth but to economic austerity and to meeting the strict budgetary standards required if France is to join the new European monetary system. The public was angry, as well, at politicians generally, many of whom—the Socialists before their defeat in 1993, the Gaullists and their allies now—were embroiled in financial scandals or caught using their political positions to obtain small but enviable privileges, such as rent-controlled apartments.

There were deeper causes, too: the trap of the Maastricht treaty, the pettiness of the political parties, the fading of French national power. From the signing of the Maastricht treaty—which the French approved only by the narrowest of margins in September 1991—until recently, France has been tormented by what its opponents call la pensée unique: the idea that only by cutting government spending and by other measures of austerity could France meet the “criteria” for deficits, inflation, debt, and interest rates demanded by Germany as necessary for thecreation of a single European currency, the euro. Even many of the critics of the single currency believed that there was, in fact, no alternative to such policies, unless France wanted to derail the entire European system which it had begun to build in 1950 and from which its economy had profited enormously. Many economists and politicians also believed that the disciplines imposed by the European Monetary Union, especially the reduction of the public deficit, would be necessary even if there was no EMU. But the combination of European economic and monetary integration and the internationalization of capitalism—“globalization”—threatens the cocoon in which France has been sheltered for so long.

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