Lionel Jospin
Lionel Jospin; drawing by David Levine


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.

Such a loss of confidence is connected with the belated recognition of a depressing paradox: the post-cold war world provides France with far less freedom of maneuver than the “world of Yalta,” the international system which divided Europe and subordinated each half to an external superpower, and which both De Gaulle and Mitterrand said they would “overcome.” During the cold war, France had both a nuisance value and its own original vision opposed to both superpowers, as well as a significant nuclear force. In the new situation, its claims to being independent sound hollow; and with nuclear forces relegated to the storage cellars, French power hardly counts.

Moreover, France’s chasses gardées, its private spheres of influence, in Africa have either collapsed (in Rwanda and ex-Zaire) or become blots on French democracy or financial burdens. De Gaulle had put French diplomacy on a path that the country could follow for thirty years—no mean achievement. But the path has come to an end, in a desert. French influence in Algeria, in the Middle East, has largely vanished. French capacity for military interventions abroad is limited—except for occasional demonstrations of force in former French Africa.

France seems especially weak in its relations with the US. It cannot persuade its European partners to turn the Western European Union, established in 1955, from a plan on paper into an autonomous and effective defense organization. Nor, when it comes to NATO, has France been able to persuade the US to share political command, or to redistribute military commands, or to grant genuine autonomy of action to the Europeans in exchange for France’s dropping its WEU ambitions and returning to most of the military organs of NATO.

Indeed, the US has tended to become the scapegoat of French national unhappiness. We are seen by many as the wrong modèle de société: a culture dominated by political correctness, by feminist shrillness and multicultural divisions, by a “capitalisme sauvage” that creates jobs, to be sure, but many bad ones, and leaves millions in ghettos, in decaying suburbs, and without social protection. The US is accused of violating other states’ sovereignty by passing laws preventing trade with them. It manipulates international organizations—the GATT, the World Trade Organization, the UN Secretariat—and it excludes others from vital decisions, such as the expansion of NATO or the Middle East peace process, even when, as in Dayton, or in the Washington ceremony of September 1991 that followed the Oslo breakthrough between Israel and Arafat, the terms of the agreements had been worked out by others. The US is suspected of wanting to replace France in Central Africa; it is denounced by French diplomats and politicians alike as a triumphalist, unilateralist, and imperialistic power.

French leaders are aware both of French weakness relative to the US, and of frequent American contempt for France (expressed, last fall, through the leaking of a private communication by Chirac to Clinton concerning the reform of NATO, a leak accompanied by press comments about France’s absurd pretensions). Many French politicians and others close to power realize that, here as in other matters, France’s reduced influence must be supplemented by that of a more united Europe—especially at a time when France’s prestige and opportunities for action abroad are eroded by its domestic failures. Such a Europe can only be built on the foundations of Franco-German partnership, demonstrated in countless joint statements and initiatives. But here also, the future of Europe poses problems. What the French fear is not German domination. It is true that they resent the diktats of the Bundesbank, which force them to defend the franc by harsh fiscal measures; but so far they have little anxiety about Germany controlling the EU. German economic might is still balanced by the weight of Germany’s past, and by France’s “soft power”3—i.e., its diplomatic skills and considerable influence in the EU bureaucracy.

What the French fear is the effect of their own weakness and paralysis on their position in Europe. But, like the British, they find it hard to give up an age-old tradition of acting independently, as in former Yugoslavia or Africa, and they realize that any effective joint European action on foreign or military policy will be extremely difficult because such decisions must be taken unanimously—and even more difficult if the EU is enlarged. The French also fear a deluge from Eastern Europe of relatively cheap food products, textiles, and steel at a time of high unemployment in France. All in all, they see the prospect of further expansion of the EU to the East as a danger rather than an opportunity.4

The result of such fears is that many French feel they are being submerged by a world they can no longer seriously influence. Aware that they live in a period of artistic and literary mediocrity,5 a time when the intelligentsia (a major part of France’s “soft power” in the past) is made up either of specialists in narrow fields or of wordy generalists “condemned to posturing and imposture,” they realize that the prestige of their language abroad is slipping, that their culture is a “culture of court, academies and universities,” but not a vigorous popular culture, and that the gap between their high culture and popular tastes has been filled by American mass entertainment, whether in movies, television programs, or pop music.

Language and culture were the elements that traditionally integrated the different regions of France and its successive waves of immigration. Hence the formidable defensiveness of French politicians and officials insofar as language and culture are concerned, their passionate defense of the virtues of French and of French cultural products (such as movies) against the “American onslaught,” and their determination to get the EU to support them in the name of Europe’s own cultural superiority.

The French conception of French distinctiveness has several ingredients. They tend to see their language, culture, and history as the carriers of universal values, including articulate, rational argument. Secondly, they see the Republican state both as the definer and the guardian of the public good, which is superior to and distinct from the private interests (we are far closer here to Rousseau than to the Federalist Papers). The state and its powerful institutions give shape to the nation, and the French identify citizenship with the embrace of French nationality. Finally, there is a lingering aspiration for grandeur on the world stage.

All three elements are now felt to be under siege at home because of political mediocrity and the deterioration of the traditional means for assimilation that functioned so well in earlier times: the school system, compulsory military service (now abolished), and the collective consciousness of workers that sustained both class solidarity and national pride. In external affairs, the loss of control over the flows of goods, capital, and people into France and a sense of increasing irrelevance deeply affect a nation that was used both to self-mastery and to rayonnement, the spread of French influence around the globe.6


Jacques Chirac’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly—in which his coalition had a large majority—a year before the end of its mandate was made after a period of intense behind-the-scenes argument. (It could be compared to Mitterrand’s spectacular decision to reverse economic policy in the spring of 1983, to discard the left-wing program of nationalizing industries and to follow a program of austerity while dropping the Communists from his coalition.) The government of Alain Juppé was unpopular: criticisms of its apparent aimlessness were growing among both the neo-Gaullists and the UDF centrists making up the majority; and Chirac and Juppé knew that meeting the conditions for EMU—especially reducing the deficit to 3 percent of the GDP—before 1999 would require tough new measures, especially cuts in public expenditures, in subsidies, and in the social security system.

These cuts would probably cause more unemployment and lower the French standard of living. By the time of the regular legislative elections in 1998, the majority, they calculated, would certainly lose, and Chirac would have to coexist with a left-wing majority for the remaining four years of his presidency. By dissolving the National Assembly now he would undoubtedly find himself with a shrunken coalition, but he and his close advisers thought that they had a fair chance of winning. In 1993, the Socialists had, on the first ballot, no more than 17 percent of the vote—half the figure they had achieved in the 1980s. A surprise election thus seemed a better way to shore up the government than appointing a new prime minister or otherwise shaking up the cabinet.

The arrow, launched in the dark by politicians out of touch with the public mood, turned around and landed in the President’s breast. The Socialists, with over 32 percent of the vote, regained control of many of the seats they lost in 1993 and, even though their much-publicized decision to present 30 percent women candidates resulted only in 17 percent being elected, this still led to a doubling of the number of women in the Assembly (62 instead of 32—and 49 are from the left). The National Front, with almost 15 percent of the vote on the first ballot, achieved its best result so far in legislative elections.

Le Pen did particularly well along the Mediterranean, around Paris and Lyon, and in Alsace-Lorraine—regions where antagonism to foreigners runs high—and less well in strongly Catholic districts such as in Brittany. By maintaining his candidates in most of the constituencies where he did better than the 12.5 percent required to take part at the second ballot, Le Pen provoked on June 1 seventy-six “triangular” contests involving his own party, the Socialists, and the pro-government parties. Sixty-nine of these three-way races were in districts previously represented by the Chirac coalition, and in forty-seven, the left won. This help from Le Pen, plus an effective mobilization of people who had abstained on the first ballot, gave leftists their narrow final majority (48.2 percent as against 46.1 percent for the moderate right). In the constituencies where the National Front did not compete on June 1, only one half of its voters of May 25 voted for the moderate right on June 1; the other half either abstained or voted for the left. LePen’s clever tactics ensure that right-wing deputies eager to regain their seats will have to make deals with him despite their parties’ orders. Or the right-wing parties may eventually lift their ban on such deals.

Beyond the intricacies of electoral geography, three lessons stand out. The first concerns a demand for democracy. Jean-Marie Domenach argues that “democracy has never been popular in France”—that the French Republican tradition was a counter-religion based on state power rather than on popular participation, and that even now the only effect of decentralization, instituted by the Socialists in 1982, is to multiply local mini-states, run by politicians and bureau- crats in the regions and towns who exhibit the same contempt as the central state for “civil society”‘s associations, interests, and initiatives. But it is hard not to see that the moderate right lost eight percentage points since 1993 and reached its lowest level—36 percent on the first ballot—in the Fifth Republic.

This was at least as much a resounding repudiation of its style of government as it wasa rejection of its relatively austere policies, including, for example, an unprecedented increase in taxation. Again and again, decisions were made without adequately consulting any large number of people—or only after consulting leaders of unions and other groups who acted far more as bureaucrats than as representatives of working people. Above all, the policies were not explained to the public. It seemed as if techno-cratic concoctions by the self-assured graduates of the grandes écoles were being presented abruptly as being good for France. (This behavior was unlike De Gaulle’s, with his many speeches and magisterial press conferences.) Juppé appeared cold and arrogant, and Chirac, who is verbose, resorted to rhetoric that was as vapid as it was effusive.

As the polls made clear, many French not only felt neglected and disdained; their self-respect (and their respect for their rulers) was also wounded by the sense they had of being deceived. Chirac seemed to have forgotten what he had said in 1995, when he emphasized the need to heal the “social fracture.” During the campaign neither he nor Juppé talked to the French as if they were adults, capable of understanding why strong fiscal measures and cutbacks of some state programs were needed.

The Socialists’ program, by contrast, was stuffed with promises of consultations—“concertation“—with the interests concerned, in matters such as wages, the length of the work week, and the reform of social security. Their proposals themselves have serious defects, but at least they promised a more democratic style, and Jospin, a former minister of education, has a knack for simple and direct talk. He is less eloquent and appealing than Pierre Mendès France was forty-odd years ago, but no less believable. Socialist promises that the justice system would henceforth be independent of politics made him seem more trustworthy.

A second lesson of the election is less obvious and yet perhaps more important. The Socialists reasserted a kind of French fundamentalism, a refusal to adapt to the “iron laws” of global capitalism and to the realities of the electronic information revolution, if adaptation means giving up French distinctiveness. Many American commentators are full of snide condescension for a nation that thinks it can preserve a comfortable and guaranteed good life and still dream of grandeur. They seem incapable of understanding why the French workers and middle classes are reluctant to dismantle a welfare state that was fought for over decades and finally established after 1945 by a coalition of Communists, Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Gaullists, and to which they owe a degree of well-being and security that is, in many ways, a progressive and humane achievement. It is true that the welfare state has degenerated and it has been the cause of excessive deficits and growing bureaucracy; but what the French were saying is that they wanted to see the essentials preserved, with any reforms patiently negotiated and not just dictated to them.

A third lesson of the vote is that the French are ambivalent about modernization in general and “Europe” in particular. On the one hand, they have gone, in forty years, through a process that has completely transformed that old, rural, and protectionist nation, and replaced its traditional hierarchies with a middle-class society whose members live predominantly in cities. Half of what the French produce is exported. They have not yet entered the age of the personal computer—but in the 1960s they didn’t even have a decent telephone system. There are no reasons of “national character” that condemn the French to stagnation. But, like an Ionesco monster, unemployment inexorably keeps growing among almost all levels of society (especially the young), and there is much talk of the “stress”—now a French word—caused by the prospect of being unemployable and unable to adapt to new, stripped-down methods of production and marketing. One hears about the “fear of novelty.” A higher education system that mobilizes ever-growing masses of young men and women in a race for degrees that lead to no jobs contributes powerfully both to stress and to disillusionment.

The Socialist program contains many promises of further modernization: it says the state will make efforts to improve productivity and job training, to “reconquer the future,” to sponsor research. The program promises not to reject “the evolutions that are going on,” but to master them. It was written by the group around Jospin, including such former leaders as Michel Rocard, who, after 1983, carried out Mitterrand’s 180-degree turn toward modernization and “the spirit of enterprise.” These people also supported Mitterrand’s other great turn, that of 1984, toward further European integration.

But among such Socialists, as well as among the moderate right, many seek “another Europe” instead of that of Maastricht. In their view the EMU seems to lead to a “dictatorship” by, in effect, an enlarged Bundesbank that is independent of control by European governments, which will then be deprived of an essential instrument of national policy, while monetary questions will be decided by a clique of central bankers accountable only to themselves. This formula is seen by many as both undemocratic and “antinational.” The concentration on monetary unity and stability has driven the concern for employment far down on the list of priorities, and subordinated growth to austerity.

The Socialist program, which proposes four conditions to soften the impact of the EMU,7 reflects this ambivalence. Jacques Delors, when he headed the European Union’s Commission, succeeded in getting a consensus on the EMU but failed to persuade governments to pay equal attention to the claims of “social Europe,” i.e., the need to protect citizens from excessively harsh effects of monetary policy. It turns out to have been a mistake to identify the EU with a plan for a single currency that remains an abstraction for people other than bankers and businessmen and that appears to many of the French to be a German-inspired scheme—even though the Germans themselves have little enthusiasm for it. It would have been far better to move more slowly and consensually toward a common monetary policy by first coordinating employment and fiscal and industrial policies among the EU’s members; and it would have been better to undertake at the same time a drastic reform of the EU’s institutions in Brussels, so as to make them more democratic. Like the extension of NATO, another unnecessary and misguided move, the EMU is a mistake whose time has come—in the sense that it is hard, at this late stage, to reverse it without causing even greater havoc.


In demanding that the EMU (and the “stability pact,” requested by Germany, which obliges members to respect the criteria forever) be accompanied by a European “pact of solidarity and growth,” and that in addition to the European Central Bank there should be a “European economic government” that will coordinate the states’ economic policies, the Socialists are putting France on a collision course with Germany. If the fiasco of the European Defense Community, in 1954, is not to be repeated—the other European countries rejected the last-minute changes requested by Mendès France, and the French Assembly then rejected the treaty itself—a compromise will have to be found. It will require greater flexibility on the German side, but, on the French one, assurances that there will be no return to inflationary policies, no growing deficits, no weak Euro. Without such mutual concessions, one side or the other, or perhaps even both, will reject the EMU. A first compromise, which amounts to diluting the Socialists’ proposals, was reached in Amsterdam on June 16. A final compromise later this year could take the form of either a postponement of the common currency or of a more flexible interpretation of the criteria (which the text of the treaty allows, and which would “save” the deadline of 1999). Neither solution would be disastrous. Far more serious, however, are the problems raised by two other aspects of the Socialist program. First, in economic and social policy, its vision seems unreal. It reminds one both of the frequent French preference for fiction over fact, and of the Socialist platforms—and failures—of 1936 and 1981. In 1936 a law reducing the work week to 40 hours in order to end unemployment actually led to a decrease in employment and production. In 1981, Mitterrand abruptly nationalized five major industrial groups, and later had to turn some of them back to private owners. How will the government find 700,000 new jobs for young people without increased spending (especially since one half are to be hired in the public sector)? The claim that the cost will be no higher than that of present, inefficient programs to increase employment is hard to believe. The Socialist program also assumes that a major cause of sluggish growth is insufficient demand; hence the government proposes to increase the spending power of the poor and to reduce the amounts paid by workers for social security. But such measures could all too easily increase the deficit and rekindle inflation. The major problem is posed not by demand but by the failure of enterprises to hire, despite successful sales of exports. In some cases they refuse to do so because they find labor regulations excessive and the required charges for social benefits too expensive. Bad relations between management and the representatives of workers also discourage hiring. So, in general, does pessimism about the future. Jospin’s plan to gradually reduce the work week to 35 hours, with no cut in salaries, may not even help eliminate unemployment, and will not make French business more competitive.

As has been said, many of these measures, as well as the reform of social security, will be the subject of consultations and “états généraux.” But with whom will the state negotiate? The business community is divided, with some leaders advocating a form of Thatcherite laissez faire; labor is divided into rival unions, and the unions themselves are often pushed aside by ad hoc groups and spontaneous eruptions of protest. French social policy for decades has been plagued by a lack of leaders who can confidently represent powerful groups but are willing to put aside rivalries in order to make agreements and have them enforced. The French want to have their say, but they are not well organized to make their voices heard. The Socialists will have to show great creativity and skill in choosing the players for the consultations they have promised.

Secondly, the Socialist program is fundamentally statist, and there is always an implicit contradiction between celebrating the state and calling for democracy and consultation. Does France really need 350,000 more state employees, as the Socialists promise? What an encouragement for those who view the state as a shelter, or as a constant source of free, or cheap, goods!8 A recent documentary by Frederick Wiseman on the Comédie Française shows its governing board applauding a speech about the state’s duty to provide free telephone service to retired actors. The Socialists also refuse to further privatize public services because they claim that education, health care, postal service and telecommunications, and public safety must not be turned into “objects of profit”—as if privatization could not in some cases lower costs and improve services.

Such a view promises a collision with the Brussels Commission. As was shown recently at the international meeting of Socialists in Malmö, Sweden, the gap between Blair’s New Labour—with endorsement of the free market, along with measures to combat the inequalities it breeds in access to education, health, or housing—and Jospin’s “new democratic pact” remains very wide. In its concern to fight a rate of unemployment that is far higher than in “deregulated” Britain, the French left risks slowing down, if not abandoning, the trend toward less dirigisme and more laissez-faire that it began in the mid-1980s. And yet, the French economy, if it is to return to growth and to reduce unemployment, will need more than concertation—i.e., the agreements negotiated among social forces without which major reforms, such as that of social security, will provoke riots and strikes. The economy needs patient removal of the many ties that bind enterprises to the state and impair the capacity for initiative and experimentation in society. It hardly makes sense to ask for a “European economic government” at the same time as a shoring-up of the state’s role in the French economy.


Still the Socialist program has some excellent measures: for instance, the promise to abolish the laws on foreigners, which are punitive, often unenforceable, and cruel. But neither the left nor the right has addressed what may well be the key issue for France’s future. France remains a nation of individuals and groups swaddled by a state that is both niggardly (as with the universities’ budget) and profligate (as with the disastrous financing of the corruptly managed Crédit Lyonnais bank). State and society are held together by incestuous networks of connected elites, culminating in a grande ecole, the ENA (l’École Nationale d’Administration), which was supposed to train generalists for the higher civil service but now provides the top layer of the political class (including two presidents and several prime ministers) and of public and private business leaders. Dismantling these networks, untying the French Gulliver, reducing the state to the kind of “modesty” the sociologist Michel Crozier has pleaded for9—all of this is rarely discussed in the Parisian world where the decisions are made. But if it is not done, “the arrogance of the ruling classes” will keep “preserving the irresponsibility of the ruled ones.”10

One can still argue that the lament that has accompanied the French malaise is excessive.France is a nation where the level of general education is high, capacity for creation and independent thought is vast, and aptitude for assimilating foreigners still far higher than many of the French think. But the lament is justified insofar as the deep French proclivity for strong government allows government excesses that are not adequately controlled, or eliminated,11 and insofar as the liberation of stunted and repressed energies will run up against centuries of hierarchical restraints and dependence on bureaucracy.

The Socialists, under Jospin, a sober Protestant, have a large opportunity. The new cohabitation with the president is unique. Between 1986 and 1988, Mitterrand could both contain and fight Chirac because his hold on the Socialists was intact. In 1994-1995, he could cooperate with Balladur because their differences in policy were minor. This time, the differences are considerable, and the President is weakened both by the turmoil in his own party, and by the increasing interplay of foreign policy (his domain) and domestic policies(especially over Europe). During this cohabitation, far more than in the past, the French government will function like a parliamentary system, not, as previously, like a mix of presidential and parliamentary power. The Socialists, rather than Chirac, will have to redefine France’s position in the world and France’s role in Europe. They will have to find a compromise between the defense of statism and droits acquis and a “Thatcherism à la française”—and there can be no such compromise without extensive tax and welfare reforms. They will have to overhaul a higher education system that is bursting at the seams and where resistance to change has left room only for small reforms.

They cannot afford to add one more failure to the depressing story of the fight against unemployment, which they are entirely right to treat as the top priority. If they fail, Chirac could dissolve the legislature again, and the French discontent would benefit only the patiently waiting and tenacious National Front. If they succeed, they will have shown that the new global economy does not have to destroy the bases of social cohesion, that “a new balance between market and society” is possible.12

This Issue

July 17, 1997