France: Keeping the Demons at Bay

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…

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