France is in a mess. But in hesitating to embrace the new certainties of neo-liberalism the French may have a point. The recent triumphalism of the Anglo-Saxon world is misplaced, and in Britain it may now be giving way to a less defensive/assertive stanceby George Walden / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
It is said that when Lady Thatcher heard that the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was planning to buy a house in the Lot, she was most disapproving. Was it true, she is said to have asked one of his friends, that Patten was buying a house in the south of France? “Oh come on, Margaret,” the friend replied, “It’s not so unusual. After all Peter Lilley’s got a house in France.” “Ah yes,” said Lady Thatcher, “But that’s in the north.” (Lilley, right-winger and Eurosceptic, indeed has a house in Normandy.)
Normandy is acceptable because it is close to home, exhibits Tudoresque beams, and because many of the best Englishmen have been Normans. The south, besides being more distant, is peopled by the kind of heliotropic sybarites who enjoy its illicit douceurs. This worm’s eye view of the world, opening on to vast plains of ignorance, tells us much about Conserva-tive attitudes to Europe. Intelligent and energetic as she was, it is doubtful whether our former prime minister knew anything of our closest neighbour beyond the Faubourg St Honor?, residence of the British ambassador and the French president, preferring to spend such leisure as she permitted herself in the clockwork countryside of Switzerland, where even the cow-bells ring on time. When it came to France, in the best traditions of the trade union leaders whose parochial myopia she so rightly deplored, she did not want to know.
Another example. Doesn’t it say something special about Britain, Michael Portillo said recently, that the son of an immigrant such as himself could get into the cabinet? Well, it doesn’t actually. What it says is that Portillo looks at the world through the same spectacles as his heroine. In a country he could reach by train faster than his former constituency, Enfield, on a bad traffic day, he could have found people with names as outlandish as his own in more distinguished positions: Pierre B?r?govoy (prime minister), Michel Poniatowski (interior minister). A Ukrainian and a Pole, both sons of immigrants, as proud to be French as Portillo is to be British, but who did not go on about it. I do not wish to cavil-we all inhabit vast plains of ignorance-but it does seem time that we thought about France in larger terms than we are used to.
To listen to debates in parliament, or to read the British press, you would think that all we need to know about France is that the country is in a mess. So it is. Twenty years ago the boot was wedged firmly on the other, gouty foot. How did the French react to one of the low points of recent British history-the late 1970s? At that time I lived and worked in Paris and remember the French watching, disbelieving, while the British went about burying their future, if not their dead. Although a few gallic hearts must have risen at the spectacle of our tottering political economy, I recall no open expressions of schadenfreude or triumphant editorials. Crowing over a humbled historical adversary was both unbecoming and unnecessary. After all, the French sorpasso, set in train under de Gaulle and carried forward under Pompidou and Giscard, was long complete.
But there was a more self-serving reason for this forbearance. The politicians and journalists I knew who could spare the time from the perpetual crise that is French politics (the country was in fact doing rather well at the time) gazed across the channel not with self-satisfaction, but in anxious incredulity. Their response to our troubles was one of intelligent self-interest, their fears not so much for the British as for themselves. From communists through Mitterrandistes to right-wing Gaullists the fear was the same. What was Britain playing at? We owed it to France, as much as to ourselves, to get a grip. If the most stable democracy in Europe was falling apart, what price the rest of us?
Today the roles are reversed. For the time being, at least, the French are still burying their dead; the problem is that they seem intent on burying the living alongside them, immuring the entire nation in a cultural and economic sepulchre. In Britain (even since May 1st) there has been little sympathy, and not much intelligent self-interest, which is strange. Do we really want to see the rise of the National Front? Do we really want France to go under, and leave Europe to the Germans? And how does it help British exports if the French are broke? Much as our press would love to see the pavements ripped up in Paris and the barricades aflame, it is not actually in our interests that the country should fall apart.
What is most striking in such commentaries as there are on France is their pharisaical, self-regarding tone. Thirteen per cent unemployed? Pension entitlements beyond the state’s ability to pay? Inefficient nationalised industries? My poor deluded lambs, what can you have been thinking of? Does the word “markets” mean absolutely nothing to you? Permit us to smile down, from the pagoda of our self-righteousness, while you reap as you have sown. We look into the mirror of French politics not with puzzlement and anxiety, but for a reflection of our own virtue. To read our right of centre press one would think that every unemployed Frenchman was a jewel in the crown of our own success.
Yet perhaps all this tells us not just about Britain, but about the mores of the times. As Edward Luttwak pointed out, in the space of a few years the world has switched orbit, from geopolitics to geo-economics. In economics, unlike politics, there is no room for sentiment, and little for history. The very notion of alliances or historical fellow-feeling is disappearing along with those less attractive aspects of geopolitics-territorial covetousness, ideological crusades and the settling of disputes by war.
What the French call le lib?ralisme sauvage is doing its work internationally as well as at home: each man for himself, and the weakest to the wall. Along with the atomised family and atomised societies we have atomised states (which is not to say that France, in modern times, was ever an outstanding example of international solidarity). The cash nexus universalised-which is what we mean by globalisation-does not tie nations together, it prises them apart. Countries are rival businesses, their peoples mere economic data. They are either employees to be hired or fired, or customers whose tastes are to be homogenised by television and advertising. In its crudest forms economic rivalry can be seen as a return to Hobbesian times-a perpetual war of all against all-although this time it is a price war. We no longer think of France as a fellow European culture-down on its luck, perhaps, but not completely contemptible-confronting agonising decisions about its future. As employees of “GB plc” we think that the worse the French are doing the better for us.
There is an element of gamesmanship in it (as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga pointed out, all human activities, whether war or economics, are in a sense games), but games can be played in different ways. The new ethos is reflected even in the gentlemanly English sport of cricket. It is no longer enough for the batsman to see his wicket fly. Every step of the way to the pavilion he hears the ugly whoops, feels the ramming motion of the bowler’s triumphal arm: gotcha! Not that he minds. When it is his turn, he will do the same. The British are jeering the French all the way to the pavilion. Beaten nations get sympathy, but not beaten economies.
Another difference between now and the 1970s is that then no one claimed to have universal panaceas: the British, French and Germans operated different but comparable systems with varying degrees of success. Today, we are afflicted by new certainties. All that social democratic mess and muzziness has dissipated like mist in the sunlight of the one true faith: markets. There can be no bucking them, just as there was no bucking Marxist economic determinism. And as in the cold war, talk of compromise, convergence and moral equivalence are dirty words. Anglo-Saxon moralism has been transferred from foreign policy to economics. In modern economics there is only one correct line and the French are on the wrong side of it.
For the moment, the evidence supports the dogma. Never mind what we are saying about the French, look what they are saying about themselves. In his Regarder la France: Essais sur Le Malaise Fran?ais the late Jean-Marie Domenach (editor of the journal Esprit and professor at the Polytechnique who died, sadly, shortly after publishing this book) lays about his country mercilessly. His compatriots are guilty of building Maginot lines around themselves, of succumbing to a “national Bovaryism,” full of dreams and self-deception. Especially provocative is his suggestion that France has many of the characteristics of a sort of more successful Soviet Union. It has a fortress mentality, huge, hidden deficits, and bureaucracy is a scourge: there are roughly the same number of public employees (5m) in France as in the whole of the US. “The state, like God, is represented everywhere by its angels.” It has its own nomenklatura (such as the teaching profession) where promotion is based less on competence than on time-serving. And as in the former Soviet Union, attempts are made to mobilise the masses through longterm plans and objectives which never work but have the advantage of distracting attention from the present.
Even the decentralisation of 1982 led to a series of new, local centralisations, in which democracy itself has been bureaucratised-France has no less than 501,588 municipal councillors-and public associations are not encouraged. As for the media, there is a shortage of information and national scandals go unexposed. Domenach goes so far as to speak of the “bankruptcy of a system.”
Even the most francophobe Anglo-Saxon should be satisfied with that. Yet, viewed by any objective outsider, there are problems with Domenach’s critique. Except when you are confronted with the rudest and most bone-headed of bureaucrats, France has never felt like the Soviet Union. And how is it that this bankrupt collectivist system remains richer, in GNP per head, than ourselves? That it continues to export half its production, and that the Paris basin is one of the most dynamic areas of Europe? And why is it that millions continue to flock to France, Conservative politicians included-Thatcherites to the north, wets to the south? Perhaps because, romanticism apart, the average small or medium-sized town in France remains a more civilised place to live than its British or American equivalent? For many of the British who go there each year France offers that lost Arcadia for which the British pine: a countryside with genuine rural life. Domenach’s explanation for these contradictions is that, for all its failures, for a while at least France achieved “a unique marriage between socialism and the douceur de vivre.”
So how did the French get themselves into their current mess? Not overnight. By far the most revealing section of this book is its analysis of the French political temperament, which Domenach sees as being as contradictory as other people’s, only more so. “Let’s be frank, democracy has never been popular in France… To call oneself a democrat, even an ‘advanced democrat’ (like Giscard d’Estaing) sounds a little ridiculous.” What matters is equality, and as Michelet said, “The revolution made 34m nobles.” In France equality and aristocratic feeling, fraternity and les droits acquis, go together. As Rousseau foresaw, the passion for equality excites envy-itself an incitement to inequality. Which means that elites are simultaneously deferred to, imitated, envied and disparaged. To be really equal is to excel. It is to be against selection, become a member of the highly select Ecole Polytechnique, and to march in a demonstration holding a banner (as one student did in 1986) proclaiming “L’Ecole Polytechnique contre la s?lection!” This is the France where the defence of acquired rights-whether to a lifetime’s employment or tax breaks or a pension at 55-goes together with the slogan of the 1995 demonstrations “Tous ensemble!” All together to defend the acquired rights of some!
The most notable aspect of Domenach’s otherwise painfully honest book is his reluctance to spell out the conclusions towards which his own analysis tends. He accuses France of hesitating before taking the obvious modernising measures, yet he himself hesitates to spell them out. He shrinks from naming the solutions because they have a harsh, utilitarian sound. He urges France to go with the tide but is unsure where that tide is taking us. His true state of mind emerges in passing phrases, such as “technical innovation is advancing quicker than reflection.”
You do not have to be clever to know what these solutions are-it is never clever to echo the truths of the day-and the French, a not unintelligent people, know full well what modernity is about. The solutions to their economic problems they know especially well, but their hearts are not in them. Having no rational answers, psychologically the Frenchman is in a mood of defiance. Don’t you know that Indians/Chinese/Indonesians can produce exactly the same item as you at a tenth of the labour cost? Yes, I do know. It is primitive economics. But I am not a Chinese, an Indian, or an Indonesian. I am French, and not primitive. Don’t you know about the flexible labour patterns in the US? Yes, I do know. But I have no wish to be flexibly unemployed. I am French, and on that I am inflexible. Don’t you understand that if you carry on this way you will go against the world trend? Yes, I do understand. I am French, and not stupid. Also proud to go against the trend. Don’t you see that the world doesn’t owe you a living? Who says it doesn’t? Think of what we French-a global civilisation-have done for the world. If the time has come to retire from history we expect to do so on generous severance terms, and an indexed pension.
The tepid, civic-minded Englishman follows his economic nose, eyes to the road, doing what the market tells him, privatising, firing, keeping down wages, telling himself we must adapt to a new era. The narky Frenchman looks ahead, sees what is coming, and says “If that is reality, I reject it!”
Those of a nervous or dyspeptic disposition should not read on, for I am about to say something in-admissible. For behind the “national Bovaryism,” behind the attempts to deafen themselves to the sound of the oncoming train, what if, in hesitating to take the great leap into modernity, the French have a point? The political consequences of declining to face reality are there to be seen. It is, as the nihilistically minded French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about the recent French elections, as if no one wants to govern. Chirac must have known he risked losing by his anticipated elections, and Jospin was visibly horrified to win.
Baudrillard is indulging in a typically mischievous jeu d’esprit, but let us take the game further; since we are talking about France, we are allowed a little fantasy. Louis Blanc once pronounced these vainglorious words: “France runs adventures on behalf of others.” He meant of course the revolution and the empire, but let us forget those particular adventures and think in modern terms. In hesitating to do the obvious thing-liberalise the economy-France is once again running an adventure. There is a large admixture of stubbornness and nostalgia, yet French reservations about taking the plunge are more intelligent than that. Domenach himself raises the spectre of a “normalised” France, a culture reduced to a machine for producing at the lowest prices, and goes on: “Such is the sombre horizon which demoralises the French. To produce ever more ever more quickly. To consume ever more. And then?”
The French are not blind to the future. They have seen the future and decided, not that it does not work-it is working, for the moment, in Britain and the US-but that they do not like it. On one level you could say that France is in a sulk. On another, is there not something imposing in this defiance, recalling Dostoyevsky’s bloody-minded hero in Notes From Underground? He too is in revolt against modernity: “Twice two is four is not life, gentlemen… I agree that two and two make four is an excellent thing; but to give everything its due, two and two make five is also an excellent thing.”
And is the defiance of the French so extravagant? Until now we have thought in terms of linear, technology-driven progress-life as a tunnelling machine boring relentlessly towards the future. Yet the benefits of linear optimism are beginning to seem uneven: looking at today’s balance sheet they include the curing of diseases, the expansion of education, a ruthlessly competitive global marketplace, the steam-rollering of inconveniently lumpy cultures, and a large hole in the sky-which at least will enable us to live out our increased longevity in the sun (science thinks of everything). Why should anyone look forward to being normalised, their culture flattened, their livelihoods thrown around like packages in a sorting office and posted God knows where? Luddite, reactionary? No, just a mildly caricatured description of what many people in and outside France are feeling. What is reactionary is to see individuals as chaff in the economic wind, or as serfs to be harried hither and thither at the push of a button in the automated marketplace. Could it be that the French are taking a stand which-however doomed-reflects a wider disgruntlement with modernity, and that once again, for not entirely disinterested motives, they find themselves running an adventure on behalf of others?
End of fantasy. To revert to two and two make four, the political truth is that the French are coming to the end of a period in which they enjoyed the best of both worlds: capitalism and collectivism. That does not mean that the choice has to be between them: it means that a new balance has to be struck. Like Tony Blair, the French will be obliged to map out their own space between raw capitalism and the unaffordable douceurs of socialism. Yet Jospin is in a far more difficult position than Blair. Unlike the Labour leader, no one cleared the ground for him by tackling the unions, deregulation and the rest. You cannot have a Blair without a Thatcher, and Jupp?, his name notwithstanding, was no dame de fer. In Britain, patriotism and the market were moved to the centre ground, and somehow made compatible. In France, everything is at the extremes: Le Pen is trying to monopolise patriotism, and Jospin is forced to rely on the communists, who oppose the market.
Whatever the French solution, it will be different from the British. In the new space both countries must clear for themselves, nothing is black and white. Take transport. The French super-trains are marvellous, publicly owned and in debt. British bumble-trains were lousy, publicly owned and in debt. Now they are quasi-privatised and we await improvements. The excellent French turnpikes on motorways have always been public/private. The solution envisaged for the crapulous London underground is public/private too. In transport-a key economic/environmental factor of the future-who is now the correct thinking, free-market gentleman?
One of the odder things about Domenach’s book is his assumption that France’s problems are unique. Although he scoffs at the notion of the French exception, in this sense, he appears to accept it. For an Englishman reading his book the similarity of our social problems is glaring. In education he laments “the discrediting of the baccalaureat and the unequalness between schools which gives rise to a covert selection.” Declining A-level standards? Grant maintained schools? “Health, like culture, are for the French goods that must be distributed free, because they are, so to speak, goods of a supraterrestrial kind.” The NHS, museum charges? Local taxes in France are said to be spiralling out of control; in Britain, as direct taxes are reduced, the council tax rises at double inflation. At another point Domenach expresses the hope that the peculiarly French virtue of being d?brouillard might see them through; I thought muddling through was peculiarly British.
The parallels extend to culture. France is said to be museumised, but the heritage industry is doing the same for Britain. The French are said to have lost their literary gifts, the best French writers tending to hail from abroad. Rushdie? Ishiguro? The French love of nostalgia is illustrated by the fact that its television series tend to involve a lost rural life peopled by nests of gentlefolk. But what of the Englishman watching Brideshead Revisited or Jane Austen adaptations in his suburban chateau?
The British may have taken the plunge into the icy waters of neo-liberalism. They may be defying the French to join them, insisting that it is invigorating and excellent for the health. But their dream is still to be spread out on the bank in the sun, and be handed a drink by Ishiguro’s butler.
A coda. In Mayakovsky’s futuristic play Klop (The Bed Bug) an evil-smelling tramp, representing stubborn, drunken humanity, is collected from the streets and taken into a phalanstery by white-coated orderlies. There he is cleaned up, sobered up and locked up to prevent him escaping. Left in his disinfected, sanitised room he comes to the front of the stage, scratches, feels under his clothes, fishes out a bed bug that has escaped detection, and clasps it to his breast. “Klopik!” he exclaims in a delirium of affection. Dear little bed bug! At last, something human!
So it is with Domenach’s book. After chastising his country for its romanticism, its escapism, its culpable failure to conform, at the very end of his book a bed bug creeps from its pages. It takes the form of remarks on feminism which could never have been uttered by his Anglo-Saxon equivalents. When all the catechising is done and the appeals for modernisation are issued, listen to what he says about women: “I am convinced that the field of the most decisive battle will be between men and women. If the indifferentiation and masculinisation of women wins the day, the keystone of French civilisation will have gone. More than 70 years ago Hermann Keyserling wrote that the French were the only people who could rescue love from what he already saw as the threat from the progress of ‘amazonism’ (what he called the aggressive feminism which was beginning to develop in the US). It is in the loving practice of sexuality that the model and the test of difference, and the secret of ‘distinction,’ in both senses of this word, lies… It is that which has come to designate that elegance of body and mind which is the mark of what has received in France the name of civilisation.”
What are we to make of a country whose modern-minded intellectuals dare to insist on the difference between men and women and call it civilisation? No risk of normalisation there. The case of France, it seems, is worse than we imagined.
Meanwhile, the case of Britain may be becoming better. Tony Blair’s shamelessly enjoyed holiday in Italy and France was in abrupt contrast to the wary, defensive/assertive national self-consciousness displayed by Thatcher and Portillo. Try to imagine them appearing in d?contract? mode to tell the French media in good, idiomatic French that they had come to France because they liked it, and retained fond memories of youthful days in Paris. It reflects more than a change of government or generations-Portillo being roughly the same age as Blair. What it marks is a growth of national self-confidence, and hence a diminishment in the need for self-assertion. It would be good to think that after the “heavy” attitudes of the later 19th century, at once moralising and patronising, and the moping declinism of the second half of the 20th century, our sensibility towards the continent is recovering a more 18th-century spirit, typified in Sterne’s frisky sketch of France in A Sentimental Journey. Could it be that in their relations with foreigners the Brits-those unlikely cosmopolitans-are finally lightening up?