Can France stay distinctive in a globalised world?by prospect / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
What galileo said about the solar system-that it defied common sense, with the earth actually orbiting the sun-could be applied to France, too. Many analysts, after establishing the long list of France’s failures, reluctantly concede that this strange country remains the world’s fourth largest economy and still has an influence which extends far beyond what economic and demographic logic might suggest. This paradox is the starting point of a new book, The French Exception by Andrew Jack, a former correspondent of the Financial Times in Paris. He writes that “the principal reason to examine French exceptionalism-and the main weakness of any argument that is too critical about its system and culture-is quite simply that while it is different, it works.” His book does not suffer from being too critical, and it is attractive-to a Frenchman at least-because, while balanced and well-informed, it remains sympathetic to France. But I am not sure it fully explains the paradox. The author eventually suggests that France cannot afford to be “so special” any more-that the hour of reckoning is coming and France must fall into line. This strikes me as a very French way of looking at France. I wondered whether Jack’s analysis was not influenced by the sense of impending doom that sometimes appears in French conversations. But whether he is right or not should concern not only France, but also the rest of Europe: if France were to slip behind, at a time when similar worries have been expressed about Germany, it would have a big impact on the future of the European Union. The question has to be asked once again: ten years after the end of the cold war, is France condemned to a choice between remaining “special” and losing ground, or accepting radical change-with the risk of losing its “Frenchness” and maybe the secret of its success? Outside its borders, France is often perceived as an arrogant country. If Flaubert could publish a new edition of his famous Dictionnaire des id?es re?ues, he might be tempted to define France as that country which keeps reminding the rest of the world qu’elle n’a de le?on ? recevoir de personne; that it has no lesson to learn from anybody… Not a good starting point in an interdependent world. But this puffing Gallic rooster should not mislead outsiders about the reality of France. I submit that the best-kept secret of French dynamism is French insecurity. The French have been-and still are-terribly insecure. This makes them sometimes unpleasant, but also resilient. In the past 200 years, France has had more than its share of disasters: foreign troops camping on the Champs Elys?es at the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars; loss of Alsace-Lorraine-a French province since the 17th century-in 1870; rapid and complete defeat of the French armed forces-then considered world-class-in 1940. Add to those military disasters frequent revolutions and social upheavals, and you begin to understand the sense of fragility. This lack of self-confidence and fear of collapse partly explains the apparent strength of the French state: the drive towards centralisation over several centuries was an effort to counter-balance centrifugal forces. The conventional wisdom is that a crisis of the French state is a crisis of France. And it is probably true that the state has a greater impact on the prosperity of the country than it has in other European countries such as Italy. The French have a harder time getting things right when their state malfunctions, and they have greater expectations than most democratic countries vis-? -vis politics and the state. But this interpretation does not tell the whole story. There is a profound ambivalence in what the French expect from the state, which is reflected in their attitude towards Paris. Everybody complains about the power of Paris, but in some ways the capital has remained what it was in the novels of Balzac: a place in which to escape the narrow horizons of provincial life. The French are suspicious of intermediate structures between them and the nation-which is perceived as a liberating force as much as a crushing one. The French state challenges localism and corporatism; today, the problem is often its weakness, not its strength. When, confronted with nation-wide strikes in 1995, the French state postponed a reform of social security, it was not statism which was preventing change but rather corporatist forces opposing reform from Paris. In education, the national management of schools does not reflect the power of the central government, but rather the bargaining power of the national teacher unions, which are co-managers of the national system. In this particular case, there is just enough state to dilute local accountability, and not enough to take decisive action. So you can never be sure of what the French really expect from their state: a force for reform which can overcome vested interests; or a remote power which has the appearance of authority, but actually lets the French get on with their private lives within the comfortable setting of corporatist arrangements. The French cling to group privileges-job security in the public sector, tax breaks for various professions, a monopoly for solicitors, limited access for pharmacists-and call upon the state to provide an answer to their egalitarian urge as well. In other words, any analysis of France which seeks to contrast an immobile state and a dynamic “civil society”-or the opposite-misses the point, because it does not understand the ambivalent nature of the relationship between the state and French society. The French are ambivalent about their state in part because they are ambivalent about themselves. As with all nations, there is a big gap between what the French say about themselves and what they actually are. The French have drawn a lot of energy from their collective fables, and the most convincing story teller was De Gaulle, who played a key role in rebuilding the self-respect of France after the humiliations and dishonour of defeat and occupation. Every country has a particular way of creating its own momentum, and the state is part of the self-image of France granting its citizens a certain status. Everywhere, politics is less about social engineering and more about shaping perceptions, giving confidence and avoiding over-confidence. The French are never quite comfortable with themselves, and may not want to be comfortable. France, which in this respect is strikingly different from Britain, is at its most effective when it accepts that it is a country of “parvenus” who are never happy with their social position, always pretending that they are higher up in the social hierarchy. The French are “egalitarian social-climbers,” willing to accept discomfort and hard work so as not to be outdone by others. This attitude may explain the contrast between the reality of many French lives and the image the French like to project. France is perceived around the world as the country of the good life and good food, the force tranquille of a peaceful village. (In fact only about 5 per cent of the population work on the land down from 20 per cent as recently as 1973.) P?tain used to say that “land does not lie”; some farmers sustain this tradition when they contrast the dangerous artificiality of globalisation with the authenticity of village life. The French have some sympathy for such pronouncements but they are also eager to show that they live in a high-tech country; they are often slightly irritated with the traditional image of France entertained by many francophiles abroad. Where is the truth? Has France become a fundamentally conservative country scared by change and clinging to an outmoded way of life, or is there still a French restlessness which is the source of its dynamism? Can France, once again, reinvent itself? the answer lies partly in the future evolution of the complex relationship between France and the European Union. Andrew Jack points out that French leaders (like so many others) have used “Brussels” to force through change which they themselves were unwilling to take responsibility for, and he wonders whether in the long term this might endanger the EU’s credibility. It is tempting to answer that the French will eventually have with Brussels the same ambivalent attitude they have had with the French state. They will complain about the bureaucrats in Brussels, but at the same time they will be proud of the achievements of the Union, and prepared to make sacrifices for its success. This process will undoubtedly make the French “less French.” Moreover, the dominance of English, the growing importance of the law, the lesser role of national state institutions, all point in the same direction-and may look like a break with French traditions. Certainly, the French have become wary of any abuse by the state in the name of the “general interest,” and the judiciary is replacing the state as the guardian of legitimacy. The recent resignation of the minister of finance, one of the best France has had, was remarkable-not only because Dominique Strauss-Kahn took a quick and honourable decision, but also because the political crisis which resulted has been relatively limited. The French now expect less from the state and more from the law, and this change can be partly explained by the importance of the law in the process of European integration. From a British perspective that may seem an ironic comment, given France’s refusal to accept the EU decision on beef. The “mad cow” crisis, however, shows the tensions created in France by two parallel developments. Because the EU commission has to enforce the free movement of goods in a unified market, it has wandered into the field of public health at the very moment when the French government, traumatised by the political fall-out of the contaminated blood scandal, was creating a new national health authority, independent from the executive. The national health authority’s lack of support for the EU risk assessment has reinstated the French government role as ultimate protector of the citizen. The beef crisis has raised the issue of who shall decide how much risk and what kinds of risk a human community is ready to accept. In today’s fast-changing world, it is the equivalent of the state’s role as military protector against foreign threats (and thus may bode badly for defence integration in the EU). coming to terms with the fact that Europe will not be France writ large is a painful process which is not yet complete. The cold war enabled France to maximise its influence: it could play the part of the poacher, in a world divided into two big domains, and thus challenge the east-west divide; it spoke for all those who felt excluded in the east-west confrontation, while being safely ensconced in the western camp. Today’s world is different not only because it has become more fluid, but also because this renewed fluidity has put European countries, and France among them, in a stronger position to influence the shape of global politics. But all European countries have to move from a culture of dependence to one of responsibility. How well prepared is France for such changes? The pessimistic argument is well known. It is a catalogue of French anxieties: France is supposed to have lost its grip on Germany; to be caught in a withering “francophonie” which insulates it from the global debate; to be afflicted with a hierarchical state incapable of reforming itself; just when globalisation puts public institutions in competition with a variety of new, and more efficient, actors. The common thread of these concerns is the exaggerated role attributed to the French state, for better and worse. It is reflected in the opposition between those who regret that France never had a Thatcher revolution, and those who fear that creeping Thatcherism might endanger French identity. Both concerns are probably unwarranted. In the early 1980s, when Thatcherism was in full flow across the Channel, France was moving in the opposite direction, nationalising industries, but also embarking on a sweeping programme of decentralisation. The nationalisation has been reversed, but the decentralisation has been consolidated, and it has significantly changed-mostly for the better-the dynamics of France. The contrast between the slowness of reforms at the national state level, and the new ambitions of regions and big provincial cities, is striking; it partly reflects the respective budgetary constraints. But the contrast has deeper roots. If you try to define a strategy for reforming the French state, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of relative impotence: the very logic of the system makes it difficult to change one piece without affecting all the others. But the perception changes when you visit cities such as Lyons or Lille. The relationship between the local business community and government is less ideological than it is at the national level, and you often feel that local elites are pulling together to show that they can make not just their region, but France, work; the “pr?fet,” instead of being the all-powerful representative of the central government, becomes a mediator, defining a new relationship between the various levels of government, between public and private interests, between EU authorities and local beneficiaries. France does not change in the same way that Britain does. In both countries the government plays a significant role, but the French are belatedly learning from their history that the most lasting changes come from below, not from above. The changes which are now taking place are less visible, but no less real. This does not mean that the government is irrelevant and that the French will manage change-as the Italians used to-by putting their bureaucracy on the sidelines and finding imaginative ways to circumvent outdated regulations. In France, government matters. But the medium-term evolution towards a more circumscribed state is unambiguous: the continuing appeal of “cohabitation” (between president and prime minister), the new prestige of the judiciary, the withdrawal of the state from the economy, all reinforce it. The French are beginning to understand that it is too easy to expect the state to deliver change from above, or to blame it for their own conservatism. Cohabitation has its drawbacks-it dilutes responsibility and makes radical changes more difficult. But a growing number of French people now believe that incremental changes are preferable to radical breaks. Such an attitude, in the country of Louis XIV and Napoleon, will be considered by some as proof of the fact that France is no longer French. And it is indeed true that there is a growing convergence between European countries which in the past had quite different political traditions. Everywhere, politics seem to become less important, as people focus on their private lives. What is striking, however, is how France continues to speak up, and how much it still matters for the French to have a role that is not confined to France. The French still need to tell themselves a story which gives them a sense of collective purpose. Maybe the French urge to understand, to deliver a message, and eventually to dominate events with the mind if not with raw power-annoying as it can sometimes be-is what keeps France going. Ideas have always mattered to the French. Sometimes it makes them pompous, lacking the elegant irony that Robert Cooper sees as the hallmark of the post-modern age. But, as Cooper himself has noticed, our world is far from homogeneous; it is pre-modern and modern, as well as post-modern, and certainly not lacking in tragedies and passions. In a virtual world, a questioning mind, an ability to worry about public affairs, and an obstinate refusal to limit one’s horizon to private life may prove to be France’s greatest asset. It keeps the French restless and unpredictable, for themselves and for everyone else.