• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

First, the demands made on France if it is to compete more successfully—higher productivity, a stable currency, a labor market flexible enough to allow for successful exports and to attract foreign investments—are incompatible with traditional French economic practices. These include the passionate French attachment to droits acquis, i.e., to holding on to any acquired rights. The result is a labor market in which it is still difficult for employers to fire workers, and a huge social insurance system, largely financed by employers, that is extremely difficult to change. The high costs incurred by employers, and by a state that employs and guarantees the job security of five million civil servants (proportionately five times as many as in the US) are widely seen as the major causes of high unemployment. Juppé’s attempts to introduce more flexibility (including part-time work, euphemistically called “temps choisi“) have met fierce resistance. Piecemeal attempts, in publicly owned companies, to reach agreements with the unions on early retirement may have prevented even greater unemployment. But they also raised the costs of retirement pensions—already very high in an aging society—and they hardly promoted greater competitiveness.

Secondly, European integration means more than the transfer of French powers of decision to the Byzantine institutions of the European Union in Brussels. It means the partial dismantling of France’s powerful yet constricting Jacobin state. The French remain proud of their expensive public services—their railroads, their postal and telephone systems, and their utilities. “Le service public à la française” makes up well over one third of the economy. It provides a large variety of privileges to its employees (in exchange for mediocre pay), and requires heavy subsidies from the state; but the result is often far superior to what American private companies offer. Directives from Brussels oblige France to open these services to competition, provoking fierce resistance from the state employees and from their colleagues in the bureaucracy (as in the recent case of the state-run Crédit Foncier, which finances real estate, and of the attempted sale—to a Korean firm—of the non-military activities of the state-owned Thomson firm, which makes electrical equipment).

Moreover, the power of the state over the economy generally has already been sharply reduced. The state had been largely responsible for the spectacular transformation of post-1950 France into a major industrial and exporting power (something many foreign experts had deemed impossible).1 But now the terms of external trade are partly controlled by Brussels; so are the prices of agricultural goods and antitrust policy. The EMU, if it is installed, will govern both exchange rates and interest rates. What is left? Tax policy?But the French pay far higher taxes than Americans, and the opposition to higher taxes is strong (especially since all recent governments have failed to keep their promises to lower them). Control of wages and other income? But this was never successful in France. And the pressures of international competition mean that businesses and the state, as a major employer, have to avoid rising labor costs. As for policies to increase employment, such as granting subsidies to companies that hire trainees, these have been fiascos since the mid-1980s, despite a bewildering variety of gimmicks, “contracts,” and incentives, all weighing heavily on the budget.

Thus France has moved to a period of stagnation and unemployment from the “trente glorieuses” (in fact only twenty: from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s), during which French economic growth was financed largely by inflation, with high wages and strong state intervention. Now, the state, which is losing power (to the European Union and, through deregulation, to the market), seems more and more impotent. In an age of Europeanization and globalization France’s old weaknesses have become serious disadvantages, particularly its habit of either depending on the state (as with business and agriculture) or of looking on the state as a potential enemy (as with labor). Compared to Germany’s, French job training and technical education are inferior. The people who run its educational system tend to dislike capitalism and distrust links to business. Its business executives have been insufficiently aggressive in investing abroad. And, compared to their counterparts in Thatcherized England, they have often failed to attract investment from abroad, which is understandable in view of the rigidities of the labor market and the bureaucratic regulations a foreign capitalist must contend with.


Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front is the party that seems to have done best out of the recent discontent: deprived by the French electoral system of access to parliament, it has concentrated on gaining influence, and in some cases power, in towns and villages. It is no longer a party that exploits the single issue of immigration in a few troubled parts of France; although Le Pen continues to use bullying tactics and to denounce other politicians in the vilest terms, his party is becoming instead a truly national, well-organized force attracting voters of all classes who are fed up with the failure of the major parties to deal with unemployment. It got its best results (between 22 and 25 percent) among workers, the unemployed, and the least well educated. On the question that increasingly dominates French politics—not so much “whether Europe” as “what kind of Europe”—both the moderate and the Gaullist right and the left are deeply divided. The UDF of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Léotard, and the centrist Christian Democrats is more “pro-European” (i.e., for the Europe of Maastricht) than Chirac’s neo-Gaullist RPR. The RPR is deeply split over the issue of Europe—Juppé and Balladur are opposed by the populist, nationalist, and forceful Philippe Séguin, who has long been deeply skeptical about a common European currency, among other European arrangements. The Communists remain passionately attached to a fading national sovereignty. Thanks to their alliance with the Socialists, they gained almost forty seats in the National Assembly (and only barely missed their goal of 10 percent of the votes). Their Socialist allies range from Chevènement, who shares the views of Séguin, to the remaining “Mitterrandistes,” faithful to the policies of the man who was the driving force behind Maastricht.

These splits over European economic policy are something new. Since the mid-1980s, all successive governments—left-wing from 1981 to 1986, and again from 1988 to 1993; right-wing from 1986 to 1988 and 1993 to 1997—have, whatever their promises, followed similar economic policies. All have suffered from having financial and personal scandals of their leaders exposed in the press and in the courts. It is not surprising that many French voters came to the conclusion that all politicians were guignols—bad jokes. In a nation where confidence in government is not seen as a virtue—the most respected political philosopher of the Third Republic was Alain, who taught that the people needed to distrust the powerful—trust has fallen to new lows. The climate of disgust about a small political class whose members often occupy several high positions at once (such as deputy and mayor of a city, or deputy and head of a regional council, or senator and deputy to the European Parliament) has caused many voters either to “retire” from voting or to be more receptive to the shrill nativism of Le Pen.

Indeed, underlying the more immediate concerns—threats to social benefits, the mediocrity of politicians—is a deep worry about the fate of the nation, the fading of what a sociologist has called le roman national—the narratives and myths the French have long believed in—and the fraying of what Jean-Marie Domenach in a wise and brilliant recent book calls Le Moi idéal.2 Describing this concept, Domenach writes of “the form taken by the desire to conform one’s wish for grandeur to models that can be heroic, aesthetic or artistic, and to love oneself through these ideal representations.” This moi idéal has in the past balanced the fierce, unruly individualism of the French (what Domenach calls “l’idéal du Moi“: “the courage to think for oneself all the way to insolence and revolt”). But the “models” Domenach points to—whether based on admiration for De Gaulle or Camus or Jean Jaurès—have become less and less convincing.

  1. 1

    S. Hoffmann, C. Kindleberger, L. Wylie, J. Pitts, J.-B. Duroselle, F. Goguel, In Search of France (Harvard University Press, 1963), was written against such predictions.

  2. 2

    Regarder la France—essai sur le malaise français (Paris: Perrin, 1997), p. 174.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print