The French resistance

Does France have anything useful to say in the debate on globalisation? The French have inflated expectations of politics but can still ask some of the right questions about the limits of the free market
June 19, 1998

Napoleon once sent to the Senate the flags he had captured in battles against the European coalition ranged against France. The flags are long gone, but the room in which they were installed still bears an inscription commemorating his victories. It asserts that the bravery of the French people will always overcome coalitions assembled by the gold of England, l'or de l'Angleterre.

The French of 1998 write with less flourish, but some of their arguments on globalisation seem to proceed from the same assumption: a belief that there is a conspiracy of money and business interests plotting against the French nation. Replace gold by multinational companies, and England by the US, and you find a troubling continuity. This is the mentality of l'exception fran?aise, and it is still a matter of pride for most French people, even if a growing minority entertains some doubts about its contemporary relevance.

To understand contemporary France, we must assess the relative strength of the modernists who want France to join the mainstream, and the various groups which cling to old-fashioned models of the nation state. It is easy to dismiss the latter as relics of the past, as evidence of the decline of a country which prides itself on proclaiming a universal message. There are, however, people who are less easy to dismiss, who want to hold on to French exceptionalism but who understand that if it is France versus the rest of the world, France might be on the losing side. These people seek a universal meaning in the problems of France: Emmanuel Todd, in L'illusion ?conomique (Gallimard, 1998) is one of their most eloquent spokesmen. He argues that we are witnessing not simply an economic crisis but "a crisis of civilisation." He analyses all the defects of modern civilisation, from the crisis in US education to the growing inequalities within and between nations. His answer to these challenges is one word: the "nation," a community of fellow human beings bound by a sense of solidarity. As the author of a book on the end of the nation state (the French title, "The End of Democracy," was even more pessimistic) I cannot accept Todd's conclusion. But I do share some of the French gloom, which is in part a reaction to the triumphalism which accompanied the end of the cold war. How much of that pessimism is the product of a purely French experience? How much is a reflection of a genuine debate, in which the French, provided they shed their exceptionalism, may have something to contribute? Put another way: how relevant is France today?

the history of France coincides with the history of the growth of the French state. Political analysts have often remarked that the state plays a bigger role in France than in many countries, not only in economics but in building a sense of national identity. The French are not simply afraid of losing the safety net provided by the welfare state; they fear that the retreat of the state could undermine their sense of collective purpose. Although most French people complain about the state, they are proud of its achievements and seem to accept financial burdens that in other countries, less preoccupied with their sense of "grandeur," would be considered excessive. The grands travaux which each president finds himself compelled to launch bear witness to this attitude.

Other countries in Europe have been built around a strong state; Europe is full of monuments to the ambitions of princes and kings who wanted to assert their supremacy over feudal lords and the church. But in most countries, democracy has brought with it a more modest and utilitarian approach to the state. People have come to expect services from the state, rather than a sense of identity. Why do the French continue to expect both?

These inflated expectations are the consequence of a sense of vulnerability that is typically French. France's various constitutions all stress the indivisibility of the Republic, and there has always been a great distrust of institutions which might fragment the nation. The intermediate structures between the state and the individual remain weak, and each citizen must be able to enjoy a direct relationship with the nation embodied in the state. (For example, the practice of referenda at the national level, first introduced by Napoleon III to weaken the parliament, was reintroduced by de Gaulle in the constitution of the Fifth Republic.)

The fear that the nation might unravel dates back to the bitter religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, but it acquired a new reality with the collapse of France in 1940. In spite of the strong recovery after the war, the French are still paying for that tragedy. The reluctance to address the responsibilities of the Vichy state, and the decision after the war to reaffirm the continuity of the French state as if Vichy had not taken place, suggest that the state is the beacon that provides for the historical continuity of the French people: it must rise above them, so as not to be tainted by their failures. (The significance of the Papon trial was that the abstraction of the state gave way to the concrete acts of its civil servants.)

This lack of self-confidence (often hidden behind a mask of arrogance) and the reality of French individualism have been a source of dynamism for France. France is a resilient country which has often surprised the sceptics. But its sense of internal weakness has also contributed to the taste of the French for enlightened despotism and fake unanimity. The problem of managing political differences peacefully and effectively has led to a constitution that puts more powers in the hands of the head of state than in any other democracy. Some people argue that it is an elected monarchy rather than a democracy.

The present left-right cohabitation appears to have changed that; you might infer from it that the French are now mature enough to control power and not just delegate it. But the division of power within the executive is no substitute for the democratic control of the executive through public debate. In fact, opinion polls show that the popularity of the president and of the prime minister tend to move in parallel, as if the French continue to dream of a reconciled France in which they would not have to make hard political choices. This contains echoes of more tragic times when, during the occupation, many people believed that de Gaulle and P?tain had complementary roles in serving the best interests of France.

This attitude reflects a reverence towards "the sovereign" that the French learn early in their lives, when they are taught in school that the greatness of France was built by such men as Louis XIV, Robespierre and Napoleon. The fact that Louis XIV expelled and persecuted the protestants and the Jansenists, thus destroying some of the most dynamic sections of French society; the fact that he was one of the most cruel warriors of modern times in the Palatinate and that he left the French economy weakened by too many wars counts for little in the French perception-he is the Sun King. The French tend to believe that the greatness of France was achieved because of its politics. The reality is that the contribution of France to civilisation has often been made in spite of it.

The declaration of the rights of man and citizen of 1789 is probably the most influential text to have come out of France, but it was the result of the age of Enlightenment and the philosophes, not of the bloody revolution that followed, which compromised those ideas and killed the few philosophes, such as Condorcet, who were still alive when it took place. The French are seldom aware that French influence abroad was built by men who had a very ambivalent relationship with the French state, and who were sometimes in conflict with it, such as Montaigne, Pascal, Voltaire, Rousseau and Hugo.

Is the contemporary distrust of politicians and of the higher ranks of the civil service a sign that the French are finally losing their reverence for the "sovereign" and asserting, as individuals, their democratic responsibilities? You might have expected persistently high levels of unemployment and fiascos such as the Cr?dit Lyonnais affair to undermine the view of the technocrat as enlightened despot. But it is difficult to despise politicians and continue to celebrate politics as the expression of national sovereignty.

the growth of Jean-Marie Le Pen's populist far right is a symptom of the ambiguities that can be found across the political spectrum. The traditional right hesitates between its rejection of a cumbersome state that constrains private initiative and its longing for a strong national power that asserts the identity of France. The left seems to hope for a strong state-and a strong European Union-that will protect the French people against what it considers to be the destructive forces of globalisation, but also fears that such institutions will merely negotiate away economic sovereignty on terms dictated by the global markets. The "market"-a modern version of the gold of England-is still the great corrupter. Across the political spectrum, sovereignty-whether at the national or European level-is still seen as the ultimate goal of politics, and globalisation as a threat to politics rather than an opportunity to redefine it.

The French debate on the euro reflects these prejudices. It pits supporters of the euro, who claim that Europe is gaining sovereignty, against its opponents, who claim that national sovereignty is being sacrificed. You might wonder how it is possible to claim that the euro is a step towards a European sovereignty when the management of the currency is in the hands of an independent central bank or, on the other hand, how one can assert a national sovereignty that has already disappeared in monetary matters. The inadequacy of the concept of sovereignty to describe the present stage of European integration underlines the limits of the French debate.

Does this mean that books such as Todd's L'illusion ?conomique are evidence merely of a French pathology rather than a contribution to the debate? Has the country of Benjamin Constant, Jean-Baptiste Say and Alexis de Tocqueville ceased to participate in the intellectual debate at the very moment when the liberal tradition in which it has played a significant role has become dominant?

Todd is obsessed with the apparent triumph of America, and takes great pains to show how the "Anglo-Saxon" world is in crisis. Such views will be perceived as another example of French anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism is indeed probably growing in France, in spite of claims to the contrary and in spite of the success of American culture among French people. It is a dangerous trend, which can only contribute to the political and intellectual isolation of France: it encourages the French people to withdraw into a world of illusions in which la francophonie stands up to les anglo-saxons in the same way that Asterix confronted the Roman empire. Asserting French exceptionalism cannot and should not be a goal in itself.

And yet Todd raises important questions which should not be dismissed offhand. He is right to stress that individuals exist within a set of values which define the community to which they belong, and that the homo economicus of the economists cannot provide a universal reference because its scale of preferences is determined by non-economic values.

When Todd suggests that the strength of the US is based on a nationalism of common values, not on the abstraction of an individual consumer/ producer interacting with an abstract global market, he has a point. It is a point which raises key questions for the future of the EU.

The French tradition stresses that the nation is more than a contract; it is an inherited community and the French people are only the trustees of that inheritance. The intensity of the conflicts between the US and France on cultural matters-including the French demand for culture to be exempt from free trade agreements-reflects this logic. When applied to culture, the concept of a world market averaging values that are not comparable, can only undermine cultures whose vitality depends on the strength of the links between artists and particular communities. Individuals, culturally as well as politically, do not exist without the mediation of the particular community in which they are rooted; and that community, if it is to have any permanence, cannot be only a community of choice justified by individual market decisions.

Casting a vote and spending money, being a citizen and being a consumer, cannot be compared; the democracy of the market, created by the millions of independent decisions made by producers and consumers, is not the same as political democracy. The French stress this difference because they have, in certain respects, an aristocratic vision of politics which leads them to believe that politics is something more than the organised clash of interests. In Britain and the US, the opposition is between private and public interests-both categories are considered legitimate; in France, the "general interest," which rises above "particular interests," is the point of reference. While the French are less and less inclined to let politicians freely define what they consider to be the "general interest," they still entertain high expectations of politics and cannot reconcile themselves to a purely functional definition. They expect politics to help them escape the trappings of everyday life, and look for broader, more noble interests.

Such a vision helps to explain the ambiguities of the French attitude towards Europe. On the one hand, European integration cannot be a political project if it does not have an emotional dimension which goes beyond its economic logic: when the French describe the Europe they do not want they talk about a "big free trade area." Europe has to be a "power" and not just a "space"; it has to provide Europeans with a political experience, because politics are a key element of European identity. But on the other hand, precisely because the French have such an emotional approach to politics, they have been at times more reluctant than the Germans to abandon any aspect of national sovereignty, and their minimalist vision of a common foreign and security policy has often been interpreted as a sign that France is closer to Britain than to Germany.

These contradictions are not only French contradictions; they will have to be overcome if the EU is to progress. European integration has combined a historical vision born of the tragedies of two world wars with a more down-to-earth economic logic based on the assumption that the bigger the market, the better. The single currency, acclaimed as a political milestone as well as a core element of the single market, has not lifted that ambiguity; nor have the conflicting expectations of member states been clarified: is European integration a means of side-stepping the difficult issues of hard power, as some Germans seem to believe, or is it a way to recreate at the European level a superpower which could stand on its own, as the French sometimes seem to hope? Can the EU still be a political endeavour, or is it simply the institutionalisation of globalisation?

Emmanuel Todd's ideas reflect only partially the French debate on globalisation, with its inflated view of politics and its search for an elusive "European model." But they have one merit: they remind us that politics and emotions still count, that individuals exist within particular communities defined by shared values, and that power has to be managed and controlled. The challenge for Europe is to accept-as the Germans do-the limits of politics in an interdependent globalised economy, and yet to recognise that economic logic alone cannot answer the questions thrown up by globalisation.

confronted with globalisation, Germany, Britain and France seem to have three different attitudes which reflect their diverging historical experiences. The Germans would like to replace historical and geopolitical determinism with a more reassuring functionalism; they act as if they believe that nations can now be gracefully complemented by global institutions built to deal with global issues. The British and the French, having fonder memories of their national pasts, are less prepared for an eclipse of the nation. The British, however, perhaps because their national identity has been less dependent on the state, can more easily live with a widening gap between global economics and national politics. The French, because their history has left them feeling less secure and because the state has been an integral part of French glory, are more sensitive to its continuing prestige; they see the dangers of a direct confrontation of the individual with the global market and fear that the weakening of traditional communities will give way to sectarian groupings and unpredictable reactions. This fear is shared in many countries of the developing world, which also have a sense-generally for better reasons than France-of the precariousness of all human communities.

This concern is a useful antidote to the benign neglect of politics. But the French are more credible, and become more effective participants in the debate on globalisation, when they do not promote a grandiose definition of politics. Many French people feel secure enough with their nation and do not feel any conflict with European integration. They are comfortable with multiple identities and are often more interested in developing their city, their region and their local business, than in Parisian politics. This is not parochialism; the reaction against Paris, if it is allowed to develop, is an important aspect of the transformation of France, which now places more emphasis on management and less on symbols.

Modern freedom, as Benjamin Constant said, does not have to be heroic; there is no need to transfer to Europe the passions on which the French nation has been built. The EU will not-and should not-become an escape from politics and power, but it can invent a new, more modest definition of politics, which neither claims to provide all the answers, nor to be the defining experience that shapes our identities. Not all French people accept that; and the temptation remains to blame our uncertainties on "the gold of England," to frame complex issues in the old categories of nationalism, whether it be a French nationalism resisting new steps in the process of European integration, or a European nationalism which requires anti-Americanism to define European politics.

Today's world is the product of the Enlightenment: the nation state and capitalism were both born in the 18th century; and the story of our age sometimes looks like the story of their conflict. This conflict should never be resolved, in either the triumph of the market or the permanence of the nation. Both are problematic. As the British know, the identity of European nations is not only political; it will survive further European integration. And the same can be said of the differences between Europe and America. They will also endure, in spite of the rhetoric of the "transatlantic community." A world market does not create a world community. Our identities are not shaped by one dimension of experience. The best that can be said about Europe is precisely that it teaches us that there are several ways to combine multiple identities and to find an equilibrium between the individual and the community. France will continue to be relevant by raising some of the right questions, even if it does not always provide the right answers.