The French Don't Know Their Place (In the Global Economy)

Parsing the Deglobalization Debate


Leader of the National Front Party, Marine Le Pen. (Pascal Rossignol / Courtesy Reuters)

An April 23rd, 2012 update to the original article: Over the weekend, the French electorate voted to send socialist presidential candidate François Hollande and conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to a runoff election, which will take place on May 6. Voters turned out in droves -- an estimated 80 percent of all those eligible cast a ballot. Still, their overall message is murky.

To be sure, Sarkozy's 27 percent (behind Hollande's leading 29 percent) can be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the sitting president. That outcome was generally expected -- first, because Sarkozy's personal behavior and demeanor had started to rub the French the wrong way, and second, because it is not easy to be an incumbent in a time of economic crisis. But less apparent is what the far right National Front's 18 percent of the vote signals. Or the Left Front's 11 percent. Indeed, tallying up the votes on the left and right misses the point.

The real divide in this round was not between the left and right but between openness and closure. Sarkozy, Hollande, and François Bayrou (the centrist candidate who received nine percent of the vote) all adhere to the idea that France benefits from globalization -- even if they don't say so -- and are supportive of continuing the adventure of European integration. But the National Front's Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, the Left Front's Jean-Luc Mélenchon represent "la France du non," those voters who turned down the European constitution in 2005 and believe that the key to a better future is reasserting sovereignty. These voters feel that they have lost their country. For them, France has been taken over by immigrants at home, by Eurocrats in Brussels, by technocrats in the international institutions, and by financiers in the global markets. They would like to send a loud message against the status quo.


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Only by acknowledging that the election in fact hung on the question of openness can one understand Le Pen's extraordinary showing. Of course, she leads a party united by nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment. Scapegoating the "other" -- especially if that other has North African origins or is Muslim -- plays well among the fraction of the electorate she represents. And the massacres in Toulouse and Montauban last month, which saw a French-born radical Islamist of Algerian origin savagely murder soldiers and Jewish children, certainly served as a focal point and helped Le Pen at the polls. But her calls to halt immigration and give France back to the French were only a fraction of her platform. 

Even more than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who tried to broaden the National Front's appeal with some success in the 2002 election, Marine Le Pen focused her campaign on freeing France from outside pressures and constraints. She railed as much against Europe, ultraliberalism, and global markets as she did against immigrants. Indeed, the social makeup of her voters -- young, with fewer chances at socioeconomic betterment than their parents, and working-class and retired people -- resembles nothing so much as American Tea Partiers.

In the runoff later this month, the choice for French voters will come down to Sarkozy and Hollande. And, as I argue below, that contest will not hinge on international economic policy -- mostly because the candidates who offered a different vision on that front are now out of the running. In the next few weeks, Sarkozy and Hollande will try to avoid the uncomfortable truth that they are offering the same economic platform. In doing so, they will emphasize societal issues. 

"The French Don't Know Their Place (In the Global Economy)" from March 30, 2012: Two electoral cycles ago, the French were uniquely obsessed with and almost unanimously negative about globalization. It was 2002, and Thomas Friedman's pro-globalization anthem, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was an international bestseller. It was never translated into French. Instead, Parisians were reading in droves The Economic Horror, Viviane Forrester's prize-winning anticapitalist tirade, and The World Is Not for Sale, the anticorporate diatribe by the national hero of the day José Bové. When politicians elsewhere lined up to be invited to Davos, French politicians were scrambling to be seen at the counter-Davos, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. 

At the time, the French gusto and apparent political consensus against globalization was singular. But then again, France was a special case. For one, by increasing the power of private actors in comparison to that of the state, globalization seemed to destabilize the very foundations of modern France, which relied on a highly centralized state to encourage entrepreneurship, redistribute wealth, and provide social programs. "Anglo-Saxon neoliberal" globalization was also accused of threatening French cultural identity. France's proud special role in international affairs also seemed menaced by a world in which money had replaced ideas in the formation of foreign policy. Add to this France's well-documented role as the world's most pessimistic nation, and the country's wariness toward globalization was understandable.

In the decade that followed, globalization took a backseat to security, immigration, and European integration in French electoral politics. But now, in the run-up to this year's presidential contest, denouncing globalization has again become de rigueur. It started with Arnaud Montebourg, an eloquent, ambitious young politician who made a surprisingly strong showing in the Socialist Party primary contest last October after running on a platform of deglobalization. The concept -- which calls for retreating from free trade and relocalizing economic production -- has since filtered into the mainstream public debate. According to LexisNexis, Le Monde published 73 articles between January and March 2011 about démondialisation

To be sure, in the wake of a global financial crisis and the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis, France is no longer the only deglobalist (something that surely feels like vindication to the French). Of late, publics across the West have been rallying around the French thesis that globalization is more a threat than an opportunity, that it has diminished democratic accountability and benefited companies, not individuals, resulting in increasing inequality.

In one sense, this is hardly surprising; the benefits of globalization can be diffuse and invisible, while its costs are tangible and concentrated. At the same time, globalization no longer equals Americanization. In the past, the number of McDonald's and Starbucks outlets in France and the ratio of Hollywood blockbusters to national ones were constant worries. Today, however, few in France believe that the United States still holds the keys of globalization. The 2008 financial crisis weakened the United States' international prestige and revealed its own vulnerabilities. Today, the United States has fallen from its pedestal, and a plurality of French incorrectly believes that China is already the world's largest economic power (47 percent compared to the 42 percent who believe that the United States still is). Indeed, Chinese factory workers have replaced McDonald's as the face of globalization.

As for the fear of cultural homogenization, it has all but disappeared from the French national debate. Most likely, that is because the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India and the other BRICs brought with it a new set of cultural concerns that have little to do with the United States. Today, the French are more worried about the lowering of all welfare standards and the ineluctable loss of unemployment to perceived unfair competition from emerging economies than they are about Hollywood producing blockbusters and displacing French auteurs. 

It also helps that globalization has not ushered in the kind of cultural homogenization the French so feared. To be sure, the Champs-Élysées glitters with billboards that could as easily be found in Ginza, on Rodeo Drive, or on Nanjing Road. But these signs, from Japan to Shanghai, read "Louis Vuitton," "Cartier," and "L'Occitane." Moreover, rather than unification, globalization has meant diversification, with everyone able to access goods and cultural content from everywhere.Beyond that, the French economy has become heavily dependent on globalization. About seven million French jobs rely on exports. In 2010, France was the fourth-largest destination for foreign direct investment after the United States, China, and Hong Kong. Moreover, French multinationals are often international leaders in their fields, from construction to luxury goods; in 2011, among European countries, France had the most companies listed in the Fortune 500.

Yet even if the French have less reason than before to take a strong stance against globalization, the issue still dominates the current electoral season. First, the French continue to focus almost exclusively on the negative consequences of globalization, not on the opportunities it has offered or will offer. Polls have repeatedly shown that they regard France as the least well positioned country in the global economy. Partisan affiliation does not seem to matter: 71 percent of Socialist Party sympathizers and 75 percent of Sarkozy supporters favor protectionism. 

Further, the French hardly see a convergence between the interests of firms and the interests of citizens. The problem is not, as U.S. President George W. Bush famously flubbed, that the French have no word for entrepreneur. The problem is that, in France, enterprise (firm) often feels like a dirty word. That is no surprise given the low rates of unionization and an absence of basic private-sector experience among French politicians. 

Finally, the global financial crisis entrenched the perception that the European Union did not hold up its end of the bargain. The European Union is no longer seen as a buffer against the bad effects of globalization, as it had been sold to the French public in the 1990s, but rather as a Trojan horse forcing the diktats of markets and draconian austerity onto European countries. If the European Union cannot manage globalization, who will?

So, yet again, deglobalization is a political watchword -- not an object of real debate but rather a given toward which candidates must nod. From the far left to the far right, everyone advocates protectionism, although generally a qualified version: "European protectionism," or protectionism at the borders of Europe (Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leftist candidate of the Front de Gauche); "social and economic protectionism," a catchall synonym for nationalism (Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front). Even Sarkozy, once regarded by American commentators as a neoliberal reformer, declared in a major speech on globalization in 2006 that his first duty would be to protect, and he reiterated this objective in his biggest 2012 campaign speech. Antiglobalization was not off the agenda between then and now because the French had swallowed the neoliberal Kool-Aid; rather, its central themes have been coopted into mainstream politics. 

As a result, the electoral contest cannot play out in the global economic policy sphere. There is no fundamental difference between the international economic visions of Sarkozy and François Hollande, who was the first secretary of the Socialist Party and is Sarkozy's main competitor, even if there is space between them on domestic matters such as fiscal policy. Both understand that globalization is essential to France's economic growth. Of course, neither can really say so aloud. They will both continue to defend free trade and investment staunchly but by stealth, hiding their actions behind rhetoric to appease the pessimistic public. Instead of globalization policy, which will still be at the forefront of public conversation, the presidential election will hinge on questions of style and personality, of European governance and austerity, of Sarkozy's balance sheet on immigration and integration.  Sarkozy chose the slogan "A Strong France" for his reelection campaign. Through his activist foreign policy and a constant presence on the European scene during his first term, he has tried to conjure the image that his country still has a loud voice in the world. That will be a tough act for him to reconcile with conventional narrative that his country has been victimized by globalization.

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