Fran̤ois Mitterrand
Fran̤ois Mitterrand; drawing by David Levine


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

Another target has been la délocalisation—an odd term that refers to the transfer of capital from advanced countries with high labor costs to developing countries, mainly in Asia, with very low labor costs—and to the “invasion” of French markets by cheaper products coming from these countries, thus ruining old French industries and depriving French workers of their jobs. A report written by a committee of the French Senate presented a particularly hysterical view of this peril; it concluded that three to five million French jobs were threatened—even though only 8 percent of French imports come from Asia and Eastern Europe. The remedy frequently suggested is tariffs, quotas, and other forms of protection, to be imposed either by the European Union (“préférence communautaire“) or by France alone if the Union “betrays” its duty.8

It is not only the cheap goods produced by overpopulated poor countries that threaten France, it is also their miserable masses attracted by Europe’s wealth. As the Gaullist interior minister Charles Pasqua keeps insisting, the door must be closed to them as well. There is a glaring contradiction in his solution for keeping those masses away: he wants to give more aid to these countries—for example in formerly French-controlled North Africa—while either closing France’s borders to their products or refusing to open them any wider. Both the Senate report and the demand for an end to immigration evoke the image of a beleaguered and aging France (and Europe), imperiled by the goods and the peoples of alien cultures.

Large numbers of those foreign invaders are already within the walls; hence the government has shown a new vigor in defending the traditional model of an integrated French nation, and in fostering the already widespread view that multiculturalism à l’américaine would balkanize and dismantle the Republic. Foreigners who want to stay in France must be willing to become French by assimilation—by accepting French institutions such as la laïcité (i.e., the relegation of religion to the private sphere), by mastering French, and by absorbing French culture. Those who refuse to do so should be punished—expelled from school if they insist on wearing an “Islamic scarf,” and from France if they agitate for Muslim fundamentalism. The defense of the traditional ideal of an integrated French society has brought together “Jacobin” left-wingers like the ex-Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, assimilated Jewish intellectuals, and conservative nationalists.

France is not threatened only by the less-developed barbarians. Another threat comes from the overdeveloped barbarian: the United States. In 1992 and 1993 France’s complex post-1945 relationship with America and “Americanization” has taken a sour turn with predictable conflicts of interests transformed into a clash of cultures.9 The three main sticking points in the GATT drama were (1) France’s desire to protect a very small part of French agriculture, which is under strong pressure from American competitors demanding greater access to France’s market, (2) the American demand that France reduce its subsidies of French farm products competing in foreign markets; and (3) the French insistence that quotas limit the access of American films and TV programs to French screens, and that French films and TV programs be subsidized more than ever. The French have every right to defend the survival of French (and European) movies. But it seems highly questionable whether imposing quotas will produce better films or TV programs, and, as some French critics have observed, quotas seem a mechanical response to the basic fact that, on the whole, the French public prefers American films, while American demand for French movies, which are often more glossy and arty than exciting, is meager. The government negotiators also insisted that, during the coming years, the concessions on agriculture France would make to the countries outside Europe in the new GATT agreement should not exceed the concessions the French had already painfully agreed to in 1992, for the reform of the ruinous European Common Agricultural Policy. Their obstinacy paid off.

But the public debate went way beyond these technical disputes. During 1993 there was more talk than had been heard in years about France as a rural nation, although only 5 percent of the population is now rural. Many prominent French commentators proclaimed their hostility to an “unregulated,” “savage” economic liberalism which cares only for profits and amounts to the crushing of the weak by the strong. They defended French culture against Hollywood’s products as if all American films were hopelessly vulgar, and pictured France as a place in which what is good and fair for the country is properly decided by the state, not the market, and by the general interest, not private interests. Such plaintive and often angry convictions combine Catholic and leftist anticapitalist traditions, intellectual dislike for mass culture, and the widespread belief in the universal value of French civilization.


These bitter and often exaggerated protests have led some observers in France and abroad to wonder whether a kind of collective hysteria has been rising in France. And yet, behind the confusion and petulance, one can find many reasons for being, if not optimistic (the French themselves are more pessimistic than ever about their immediate future), at least somewhat reassured. This is not the first time that the French politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and intellectuals have indulged in a grand psychodrama that leaves what De Gaulle referred to as “the nation in its depths”—most ordinary French people—rather cool.

It may, however, be the first time that in a period of crisis and selfdoubt, the scapegoats have been almost exclusively foreign ones. During the 1880s and in the 1930s, not only émigrés from Italy and Eastern Europe but their French accomplices (usually on the left) were accused of being “agents of dissolution.” Today the defenders of nationalist rectitude have few targets among French citizens. The Socialists have become the advocates of managerial efficiency while the party is still divided among competing baronies, and communism isn’t even a scarecrow anymore. In other words, the feverish condition one finds in France today is not a matter of a war of French against French. This is quite a change.

The main reason for believing that the fever will go down and cool heads prevail is provided by Edouard Balladur’s remarkable performance. He presents himself as a Gaullist reformer; so far, in fact, he has introduced few reforms but he has skillfully skirted dangers and corrected mistakes. The electoral law provided the moderate right with the largest majority any party or coalition has enjoyed in the National Assembly: 486 out of 577 seats. But Balladur has been shrewd in giving key positions in the government to members of the majority’s second party, the conglomeration of business-minded politicians known as the UDF who are less “statist,” less nationalist, and generally more pro-Europe than the Gaullists. In doing so he has weakened the influence in the UDF of such potential rivals to the Gaullists as Raymond Barre and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Indeed, two of Balladur’s UDF ministers, Simone Veil and François Léotard, have publicly suggested that he should be the right’s presidential candidate for 1995. Balladur has also maintained a delicate balance among the different Gaullist tendencies. The two anti-Maastricht leaders, Séguin and Pasqua, have their hands full with domestic affairs, and the pro-Maastricht group, which includes Balladur and the foreign minister Alain Juppé, control foreign policy. Contrary to what Balladur had promised before coming to power, he also has left members of Parliament with practically no leeway for initiatives of their own.

Without quite saying so Balladur takes the plausible view that economic recovery depends much more on what happens to the American and the German economies than on what France can do alone. He also knows that the National Front’s progress, both in percentage of the electorate (12.5 percent in 1993 as against 8.5 in 1988) and in all the traditionally conservative sectors of French society—particularly in rural districts and in the urban lower middle and even upper-middle classes—is a major threat to his own moderate right constituency.10 With the enthusiastic help of Interior Minister Pasqua, he has proceeded to appease right-wing voters and impatient deputies with tougher laws on immigration and on the requirements for French nationality.11 In fact the new conditions for becoming French are not very drastic; they preserve the traditional jus soli—residence, not blood, is what matters—and merely require that the sons and daughters born in France of foreign parents explicitly request French nationality between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, instead of receiving it automatically, a change which a distinguished non-partisan commission had already proposed.

The changes in immigration policy have been far more aggressive: they increase the powers of the police and of bureaucrats to control and punish illegal immigration, particularly from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. They make it more difficult for foreigners to become residents and to bring their families to France; and they try to prohibit marriages of convenience between French and foreign nationals. When some of these provisions were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council, the government got Parliament to amend the Constitution so as to restrict the right of foreigners to ask for asylum in France, a right the council had said was guaranteed by the preamble of the Constitution of 1946, which was incorporated into the Constitution of 1958. A special new branch of the police has been established in order to repress illegal immigration.12

With very few exceptions (Michel Rocard was one—another was Le Monde) the left has reacted tepidly to the new measures, perhaps because, in matters having to do with immigrants, there has been since 1984 a vast discrepancy between the Socialists’ rhetoric and their acts. As a clever Machiavellian, Balladur, without making any fundamental changes in French practice, may have pacified the fears of the voters who supported him that French national identity is being eroded. Restrictions on immigration were imposed in 1974 without stopping the flow of immigrants. In a country with open borders, and despite the police’s new powers, the new measures may also be ineffectual. There is, however, a change in tone: before Pasqua, nobody except Le Pen had ever proclaimed that France would no longer accept immigrants.

Having satisfied the members of his majority at the expense of immigrants, Balladur proceeded to remove the obstacles his own Gaullist party had used to block both France’s European policy and an improvement in France’s relations with the US. He rejected both populist and business-inspired protectionism. After all, he argued, France’s economy is twice as open as those of Japan and the US. French exports in 1990 were 23 percent of production, and imports 23 percent of consumption.13 He has preserved the policy of the franc fort, arguing that the softer money and low interest rate policies advocated by such critics as George Soros could not guarantee any faster recovery, and would damage French competitiveness through inflation, and, eventually, a devaluation of the franc.14 After the financial hurricane of July 1993, in which international speculation against the franc obliged the members of the European Monetary System to increase the margin of fluctuation allowed among the European currencies, the franc, in a very short time, recovered the value it had lost.

Balladur had written that France should not lock itself into a purely Franco-German partnership; he nevertheless has given the highest priority to preserving the alliance with Germany that Mitterrand pursued, after some hesitations at the time of German unification. This policy wasn’t dictated by any conversion of Balladur to a Federal Europe; he is a Gaullist of the pragmatic Pompidou variety—i.e., someone for whom Europe is not “the ultimate objective of French policy,” just “a means at the service of France’s interests and permanence.”15 But he also understands that the European Community can be used to accomplish specifically French goals. By repudiating protectionism generally and clinging to the Franco-German scheme for gradual monetary union, he was able to obtain first German and then general European Union support for French demands that French agriculture and movies be protected in the GATT talks; he could claim credit for the US concession allowing France to continue to subsidize agriculture and the US retreat on free entry of movies into France. He could thus appear before Parliament both as the successful defender of French interests and as the man who avoided a crisis between the European Union and the US: no mean accomplishment—even if the defense of French interests often appears crass, as in the case of France’s courting of the China market instead of continuing to sell arms to Taiwan, and in the case of two Iranian terrorists who were sent back to Iran instead of being extradited to Switzerland.

Balladur has also tried to keep the temperature low in domestic affairs. Many politicians, especially but not exclusively on the left, have sought a panacea for unemployment in a drastically shorter work week of thirty-two hours. Balladur has quietly resisted this trend, saying that it could easily lead to generalized partial unemployment instead of a “new distribution of work.” Many politicians, especially but not exclusively on the right, have called for sharp reductions in social protection (especially against illness, unemployment, and old age); but he has preferred incremental cuts, based on agreements with the representative of the groups concerned. His concern for social peace and quiet led him to scrap the imprudent and authoritarian plan to cut back employees his minister of transport tried to impose on the financially troubled Air France, which resulted in a disruptive strike. Balladur had been Pompidou’s chief aide when Pompidou negotiated, at the cost of huge financial concessions to the unions, an end to their nationwide strike of May 1968. He now applied once again the lessons his master had taught him.

Indeed he did so twice. He allowed his minister of education to rush through Parliament a revision of a law of 1850, aimed at allowing local governments to subsidize the investments needed by private (i.e., mainly Catholic) schools—a measure opposed by Mitterrand and the laïc left, but designed to appeal to the Catholic and centrist elements of the majority. He decided to drop the matter when the Constitutional Council declared that the bill violated the principle of equality among citizens and after a rally in support of public schools, whose needs are just as great, attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. (Conversely, an attempt by Mitterrand’s government in 1984 to tighten state control on subsidized private schools had drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets and forced the Socialists to retreat.) Balladur has now reverted to his favorite means of dealing with social issues that divide the French: consultation with a variety of national leaders.16

He still faces a daunting situation. The relatively small economic stimulus plan of the summer (financed largely by a very successful loan) has had little effect; although the recession is not getting any worse, unemployment is expected to keep rising for some time. The efforts to reduce deficits, connected with the franc fort policy, have led to cuts in the number of new academic teaching positions planned for a system of higher education that is increasingly, and explosively, overcrowded and understaffed.17 Yet after nine months in office, Balladur is immensely popular. The esteem in which he is held reminds one of Poincaré, who both stabilized the franc and calmed the public mood after the disastrous financial failure of the left-wing parties in 1924 and 1925.

Poincaré, however, had been France’s president during the First World War—whereas Balladur was trained as a civil servant and spent years as a man behind the scenes, first with Pompidou and, after 1980, with Chirac. He was minister of the economy only between 1986 and 1988. But both Poincaré and Balladur have a reputation for personal integrity and devotion to the public good; above all, both are men of few words, who promise little and avoid the jargon—langue de bois—of professional politicians, and who deliver more than they promised.

François Mitterrand is therefore being quietly overshadowed as he ends his reign. Balladur has been careful to avoid humiliating him, to respect his prerogatives in foreign policy, to consult with him over most constitutional changes. Mitterrand has tried to capitalize on Balladur’s popularity by suggesting he is the prime minister of his own choice. He may be delighted that Balladur’s popularity could destroy the presidential prospects, in 1995, of two men he dislikes: Chirac on the right, Rocard on the left. But he can no longer conceal the fact that he now does little more than live at the Elysée Palace. The indiscreet memoirs of his former aide Jacques Attali suggest that since 1983 he has had two preoccupations: appointing his men to key positions and overseeing in minute detail the audio-visual channels of communication, because, as Mitterrand put it, “everything that is médiatique is politique.”18 Now these two powers have been transferred from the Elysée to the Matignon, the prime minister’s office, and Balladur’s performance has revived the Gaullist Party, Mitterrand’s most overt object of dislike (the less overt one, the Communist Party, he helped to destroy).

None of this means that calm will now descend upon France. Elections for local government and for the European parliament will take place in 1994, and a new president will be elected in 1995. If the economy does not improve, this will give the Socialist Party of Rocard, if he can reorganize it, a better chance to be heard and to emphasize issues on which there are continuing differences between left and right. On many of these issues, however—immigration, privatization, even private schools—the public today clearly leans to the right. Continuing high unemployment will also exacerbate tensions and ambitions within the moderate right: Giscard still wants to give the French a chance to correct the mistake he thinks they made when they threw him out of office in 1981, and Chirac’s leadership of the Gaullists is threatened by the superior popularity of Balladur. To date, Chirac is still expected to be the candidate for president, but Balladur is already, if silently, his rival. The drama taking place between the two men, who have been close associates for many years, is intense.

Beyond the struggle among the politicians, France’s future remains difficult. The population is aging, which means that the younger people have to pay more for the security of their elders.19 France shares in the general West European predicament: it has to compete both with advanced and dynamic societies like Japan and (perhaps again) the US, and with the cheap goods of developing countries. The French will try to switch from a long and heady emphasis on independence, which was almost an absolute goal, to a strategy of influence within the groups that France needs to belong to, among them the European Union and NATO. This is a shift that Balladur clearly believes must be made,20 and a Gaullist may be better able to bring it about than a non-Gaullist; but it remains a delicate gamble.

Today the French are grateful to Balladur for the very modesty of his proposals, for the quiet, if somewhat woolly, elegance of his language. But will lowering the temperature of public debate be enough? Especially in difficult moments, the French like to turn to leaders with a vision—sometimes reactionary and disastrous, like Pétain’s, sometimes heroic, like De Gaulle’s, sometimes utopian, like Mitterrand’s—at least for a few moments in 1981. Balladur’s notion of a strong state concentrating on a few essential tasks appeals both to the atavistic French need for a state in firm control of society and to their equally strong instinct of resistance to it. Balladur combines a calm, avuncular, reassuring manner with a vision promising little more than gradual economic recovery and piecemeal bureaucratic reforms. He has only twelve months or so in which to show whether he can provide sufficient inspiration, and sufficient jobs, to keep the demons at bay.

February 3, 1994

This Issue

March 3, 1994