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The End of French Exceptionalism

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In this year of 1989, France has been celebrating the bicentennial of its revolution at a time when the myth attached to that event is in the process of dying out among the public at large. The French have spent the past two centuries building a dream of their revolution, either to damn it or to exalt it.

During the nineteenth century the dominant attitude was one of condemnation; in this century the event has become definitively sanctified. So much so that the dominant ideology up to this point in the twentieth century has seen the revolution as a kind of "legend of saints." One Marxist school of historical thought, which holds the revolution to be unfinished, has seen the event as a kind of happy precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. From this point of view, the terror was a cruel but essential stage in the human race's long march of progress. For the past century this perspective colored not only the opinions of the French left, but also that of most teaching in state schools. It is this myth that has given French politics its singularly lyrical quality, making Paris for so long the center of theatrical ideological debate.

At the present time that particularly French passion which leads intellectuals and politicians to want to build society according to theoretical constructs is coming to an end. It was born from a revolutionary mythology and it is dying at a time when that mythology is fading away. The current phrase in France is that "the revolution is over," which means that modern historians have blown to pieces its legendary dimension, and that above all, the long ideological furrow plowed by the country's history through two centuries is coming to an end. Thus, the bicentennial marks the end of a historical cycle.

The French people are proud to have given the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But they are no longer one bit proud to have invented the guillotine in 1793, and along with it a theory of political violence that would claim Lenin as one of its later disciples. The French are proud to have been among the first countries to have laid down the sovereignty of the people as a basic principle of their republican constitution. But at the same time the French are conscious that six of the 12 European Community countries remain monarchies, and that the citizens of those lands are no less free than they.

The French are proud to have played a leading role in the history of the West in 1789, but they no longer believe that their model is unique. They have since learned, in their schools, on films and TV, that both England and the United States had preceded and inspired their revolution. They are even pretty well convinced today that the process that pushed events toward revolutionary terror also ushered in, after the dictatorship of Napoleon, a long period of political and economic stagnation that cost their country the leadership which it had enjoyed on the eve of 1789, both in terms of population growth and industrial creativity. Asked recently to pronounce a new sentence on King Louis XVI, after a television dramatization of his trial, French viewers voted against execution; they would have preferred to send him off to quiet exile-to Monaco, perhaps.

II

This change in the political mentality of the French marks the end of a certain dissonance in the concert of Western nations. And it is only the latest in a series of rapid changes. France has no doubt seen more of such developments than any other European country, the most traumatic of them being the defeat of 1940. For although they may pretend to have forgotten all about it, the French know in their heart of hearts that their country collapsed in humiliating conditions, even if later de Gaulle, the Resistance and above all the Allies allowed France to scramble onto the bandwagon of victory.

But then in 1945 the rise of the strategic power of the United States and the Soviet Union and the internationalization of the world economy were to sound the death knell of France's status as an imperial power. For the next 25 years, until 1970, France was to spend a good part of its political energy on one of the most delicate operations in its history: the decolonization of its vast African empire and the repatriation of some two million of its citizens from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Fourth Republic (1945-58) was to start the process in sub-Saharan Africa and in Morocco and Tunisia. But de Gaulle had to return to power in 1958 to realize the hardest part: the independence of Algeria, which the local French settlers and some of the army were refusing.

Throughout that difficult period one man, General de Gaulle, applied his prestige and historic authority to the much needed liquidation of long-standing national traditions. Not only did he crush the military revolt, but at the same time he ended the French right's resistance to change and its nostalgia for nationalistic causes. And then, 25 years later, it was the turn of General de Gaulle's main opponent, François Mitterrand, a representative of the doctrinaire socialism of the left, to end the "exile" of his own political current, which had channeled itself away into a Marxist ideological ghetto.

The convergent paths of those two irreconcilable adversaries highlights the mysterious, roundabout ways in which French history works. Just as de Gaulle started out with the support of the right and the Algerian settlers, only to prod them gradually, using both cunning and teaching, toward acceptance of a historical necessity, so Mitterrand in 1981 became the presidential candidate of a Socialist movement that claimed to break with capitalism, and which was to have the upper hand in France until 1983. But Mitterrand had taken care to avoid a split with either the Atlantic alliance or with Europe. He was soon to realize the unsustainable contradictions between his international commitments and his Socialist project; his adherence to the system of the market economy was seen to be inconsistent with his national utopia. By 1983 the obvious failure of French-style socialism (nationalization, increased spending on social programs and accelerated cuts in working hours) had painted the government into a corner; Mitterrand opted abruptly for a return to economic and monetary rigor.

In fact, and without admitting it, on the day in March 1983 that French socialism decided not to leave the European Monetary System in order to pursue a more traditionally leftist economic policy it was making the same radical switch that had pushed West Germany's Social Democrats to reject Marxism at their 1959 Bad Godesberg congress. The French Communist Party speeded up even further its impressive decline: from 28.3 percent of the vote in 1946, it slid to only 11.3 percent in the 1988 parliamentary elections, and 7.7 percent in the European Community (EC) poll of 1989. Since 1983 the French left, led by Mitterrand, who was reelected to the presidency in 1988, has quietly brought an end to the ideological war that had split the country's public opinion for a century. A strong majority consensus has now formed around the principles of a market economy, and a political system similar to that of the other major Western democracies.

The outcome of all this has been that in less than half a century an essentially traditionalist and elitist right has accepted modernity and democracy in social life, while an egalitarian and protectionist left has thrown in its lot with the selective laws of the market and free trade.

As a result power has passed from the right to the left and back again three times in seven years-in 1981, 1986 and 1988-without the slightest disorder. And we have even seen a left-wing president cohabiting with a right-wing prime minister. It is true that the latter episode does not stand out as a model of strong and coherent government, but at least the acceptance of political institutions won out, perhaps for the first time, over age-old passions.

It should not be concluded from the above that the political scene has ceased to be characterized by conflict. The Communist Party remains on the scene as a small but determined electoral rallying point for the discontented, while Socialist activism remains tinged by backward-looking ideological beliefs that may yet have a last fling. But overall, and in spite of spells of egalitarian demagogy during election campaigns, the general drift sees the extremes withering away.

This change in French political life, which in fact has taken place with relatively little upheaval, has only reflected the accelerated tearing-away of civil society from the past, perhaps the most abrupt change that France has experienced in all of its long history. In forty years, the number of French people living in cities has grown from 20 million to 40 million, while the ranks of the farming population have shrunk from 7.5 million to 1.5 million in 1985. The number of non-salaried workers-farmers, shopkeepers, craftsmen and so forth-has been cut by half, while that of white-collar executive staff has doubled.

When one considers how many French political traditions had their roots in rural culture and individualistic economic activity, and remembers that even in the nineteenth century France was already falling behind England and Germany in terms of industrialization-if one thinks of what the transformation means for French lifestyle, ideas and behavior-one realizes that France has been through perhaps the most profound economic, social and cultural changes of any country in Western Europe. The strong wind of modernization has blown like a tornado through the old France of dreaming spires and peasant lots. True, it has not yet worn down the centralizing Jacobinism of Paris, but the new era has seen the renaissance of several large regional cities whose economic interests have suddenly spilled over France's borders: Toulouse and Montpellier now look toward Barcelona, Lyons toward Geneva and Milan, Lille toward London, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Meanwhile the educational system and television have in two generations succeeded in unifying a language that less than 50 years ago was still characterized by defiant regional dialects. A society formerly rooted in the earth, in provincial tastes and self-sufficiency, divided by well-marked ideological frontiers between Christians and non-believers and between clannish left and right political factions, has been tumbled and turned and mixed up as never before. The result is that a political consensus, previously so elusive, has been built upon the ruins of France's old order.

III

This consensus can now be found, more or less explicitly expressed, on the three key foundations of the French state: its institutional arrangements, foreign policy and defense.

France's current institutions, those of the Fifth Republic, were the result of General de Gaulle's determination to create a strong executive. This was required in order to cure the country of the instability of the Fourth Republic, in which the party system had led to precarious and ever-shifting majorities: between 1946 and 1958 there were no less than 22 governments, of which 11 lasted less than six months.

The bedrock of the current system is the election every seven years, by universal suffrage, of a president who appoints the prime minister, and who has the power to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections. It was an institutional system strongly and consistently criticized by François Mitterrand during the rule of de Gaulle. But then once he was elected, Mitterrand slid easily, and with apparent pleasure, into a mold that he had formerly found so hateful. And although he continues to say, without insisting too much, that the system is imperfect, he has not so far chosen to change it. Whatever the imperfections of the system-the main one is that it favors a drift toward a type of "monarchical" government-public opinion has taken to it without any major problems. The most one can expect is that the seven-year term of what is in essence a "republican monarch," a concept so well adapted to the French mentality, might one day be shortened.

It is true that Mitterrand's reelection in 1988 to a second term raises questions about the wisdom of concentrating power in the same hands for 14 long years. And although it seems out of the question that the constitution would be reformed in its basic principles, one may see a growing demand for either a term of five years, renewable once, or for a non-renewable term of six years. If things start to get difficult for the current president toward the end of his second term, he may decide to give himself some breathing-space by proposing such a reform. But the basic point is that up to now the institutions of the Fifth Republic have been well accepted by the population as a whole.

The same progressive movement toward consensus can be seen at work in the field of foreign policy. Here it is the Gaullist right that has gone through the biggest changes. Its often stormy nationalism has been relaxed; above all it has progressively shed its objections to the European Community. And the European Parliament elections of June 1989 saw the Gaullist party of Jacques Chirac throwing its weight behind the centrist and very pro-European list headed by former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

On the question of Europe, and the idea that France and West Germany should form the basic tandem pulling the rest of the European Community along in its wake, Giscard and Mitterrand have very few quarrels. Unlike Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, both are in favor of pushing for the quickest possible progress toward a shared EC currency. And neither is against giving up certain aspects of national sovereignty to Community mechanisms. When the integrated economic foundations of the EC have been laid, both favor building a political Europe, a project that for the moment is only opposed by minority extremes in the Communist Party and a small far-right group that is not currently represented in parliament.

On other fronts, Mitterrand is pursuing the same policies as his predecessors with respect to the Arab and African worlds. Even though his "Third-Worldist" tendencies are more pronounced-witness his support for reducing the debt burdens of various poor countries-and in spite of the divergences he has expressed in the past from U.S. views on Latin America, continuity has been the keynote of his foreign policy. It has caused absolutely no major divisions in public opinion.

On East-West relations, France has for a long time shown more prudence than its European partners concerning the progress of disarmament. In fact the views of France's public and its president are today more in tune with the careful approach of President George Bush than they were with the idealistic policies of the Reagan Administration at the time of Reykjavik summit. It has to be added that the proven popularity of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has never sparked the same enthusiasm it has in "Gorbymaniacal" West Germany.

On the third and last point, that of defense, Mitterrand dropped his hostility toward France's independent nuclear deterrent even while he was still in the opposition. And since he has been in power he has cast himself as the heir to the Gaullist tradition, the vigilant defender of France's nuclear industry, both in the military and civilian fields.

IV

Such impressive changes in the French political landscape could not have taken place without leaving scars. Although the political scene today appears calm, civil society has been deeply affected by its various upheavals. The most spectacular of these has been the decline of Christianity. In fifty years the country that liked to call itself "the Roman Church's eldest daughter" has seen the decline of the political, moral and social authority of Catholicism, with spectacular effects.

Consider that for centuries the Christian system was the major source of inspiration and unification of the French nation, that it inspired French law along with both individual and collective morality, and you will get some idea of the hole left behind by its decline. For a time the socialist ideology, with its promise of a heaven on earth, provided a kind of substitute religion, a secular source of hope for those on the left. That too has now collapsed. And the psychodrama of the failed student mini-revolution of 1968, with its quickly extinguished fireworks, brought the demise, more cultural than political, of an old social and psychological order, that of authoritarian social relations in the school and workplace. It also hastened the advent of more permissive sexual mores, which have now become general throughout the West.

The economic crisis, the huge industrial transformation that has accompanied the decline of such old sectors as steel making, coal mining and textiles, has left ten percent of the active population out of work. The phenomenon of unemployment persists, and is today much worse than in Britain or West Germany. In spite of a welfare system that makes it less explosive, unemployment increases the isolation of hundreds of thousands of people and has given birth to forms of delinquency and insecurity that are worrying to a people who in spite of their individualism are great lovers of public order.

Finally, an immigrant population estimated at around 4.5 million, of whom some two million are of North African origin, sparks feelings of alienation and exasperation in areas in which thresholds of acceptability are exceeded. The French people, themselves the result of some twenty centuries of racial mixing, have a well-established ability to assimilate newcomers. But through its size the influx of Arab Muslim immigrants is proving much more difficult to integrate than was that of Italians, Poles and Spaniards at the start of the century. The current immigration, amplified by a difficult-to-control phenomenon of illegal entry, is a key question in determining the future of France; it could become an advantage, if it does not get out of control, in bolstering France's birthrate. The French fertility rate of 1.8, though one of the highest in Europe, is nevertheless insufficient to ensure renewal of the population. On the other hand, immigration could also present risks if the rate of integration falls and if schooling and professional training for the newcomers are inadequate. Then Islamic and North African ghettos within France could reach a flash point.

None of these upheavals have so far resulted in any civil disorder. On the contrary, social change has been peacefully managed. But it has nevertheless created points of tension, and stiffened the resolve of the conservative resistance.

The most spectacular and most talked-about phenomenon has been the emergence of a far-right movement under Jean-Marie Le Pen. From 1983 to the presidential election of 1988, when its vote peaked at 14.3 percent, the success of Le Pen's National Front party has mainly been built on fear of change.

Contrary to what has often been said, and in spite of the racist tendencies of some of its activists, Le Pen's party is not "fascist" in the true meaning of the word. It is the product of the shock caused by modernization; it attracts voters from outside the regular parties, who have suffered from the effects of the economic crisis. Its influence spreads among working-class people who are in contact with immigrants. Like the recently emerged West German far-right party, the so-called "Republicans," Le Pen targets fears of AIDS, of homosexuals, outcasts and all other kinds of "differences." But his basic political platform, for tradition and order, is not very different from that of the old-fashioned right in many Western democracies. In France, however, the right-wing parties that take part in government, be they Gaullist or not, have now become centrist and modernist, and have no time for the simplistic messages demanded by a part of their working-class electorate, who seek a return to the past and the defense of traditional moral values and patriotism.

Le Pen therefore fills a need; he is to the right what the Communist Party, or rather the remains of the Communist Party, is to the left. But his influence today is weak; in the last parliamentary elections in June 1988, held under an electoral system which admittedly worked against him, he lost two million voters-i.e., the equivalent of half of the people who had voted for him for the first time in the preceding month's presidential tally-to win only one seat. In the Euro-elections of June 1989 he took 11.73 percent of the vote and will send 10 of France's 81 members to the EC Assembly in Strasbourg.

A second effect of the great upheaval in French ways of thinking has been a certain political listlessness among the public. A turning-away from collective interests has occurred in several Western democracies; in France it appears more marked than elsewhere. And as elsewhere, it has gone hand in hand with a strong trend toward individualism, even narcissism, a desire for personal well-being and "making it." The recent appearance on the scene of several private TV channels, where previously there was only the state broadcasting monopoly, has resulted in a huge increase in exposure to advertising, sharpening the French passion for "keeping up with the Durands." The media explosion has replaced the idea of success through ability with that of success for the sake of success, at a time when critical thought has been devalued by the vanishing of France's traditional intellectual authorities, and the collapse of the influence of academics.

The decline of political passions has weakened even the French people's image of their own nation, so that politics is now viewed with irony, disillusion and skepticism by many people. The result is that no less than 34.3 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the last parliamentary elections, an unprecedented development for France. And in the June 1989 Euro-elections only one voter in two went to the polls, although it has to be admitted that the issues to be decided in that vote did not strike most people as being very clear.

At the same time France's political parties are recruiting fewer and fewer new members. In fact, France has a lower proportion of card-carrying members of political parties-less than two percent-than any other nation in the EC. As for the trade unions, which have always attracted fewer recruits than elsewhere in Europe, they are experiencing a new and impressive decline, losing around half their members over the past decade. Only around ten percent of salaried workers are now members of unions.

V

The transformation of French society is running into two major types of resistance. The first is caused by the high burden of spending on social programs. Over the past thirty years successive French governments have sought to ease the pain of modernization by continually broadening the scope of state aid to various categories of people. The left did it out of conviction, and from what remained of its ideology. But the French right was for a long time also a big spender on social programs, beating even Social Democratic governments in other European states. Ninety-nine percent of French people are now protected by a health insurance system that is both the most protective and the most ruinously expensive of any in the West. The unemployment benefit system is the most generous in Europe. French companies have of course played their part, a very onerous one, in financing this increase in costs. But the result is that the level of all types of statutory deductions from earnings-taxes plus health insurance and other social programs-is one of the highest on the continent.

President Mitterrand, during his socialist utopian period from 1981 to 1983, piled on further pressure, in particular by reductions in the retirement age which have proved so expensive, and which are now slowly and painfully inching back. But even under the liberal governments of the Giscard d'Estaing presidency, from 1974 to 1981, France had a more "socialist" economic structure than did West Germany under the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. The coming to power of the Socialists under Mitterrand in 1981 inevitably accentuated the process. Since 1983 the Socialists have mended their costly ways, but commitments already made in the fields of health, unemployment benefits and retirement rights have already had a ratchet effect, making it difficult to turn back.

The resulting situation is a serious handicap for France at a time when the mechanisms of EC integration require that the 12 member nations harmonize their tax systems in order to lay the groundwork for monetary union. France may well try to persuade its partners to bring their systems closer to its own, but many European countries-and not only Thatcher's Britain-will refuse, considering such a course of action to be harmful. Which means that, to start with, France will be obliged to cut its indirect taxes, and in particular its value-added tax rates, thereby slashing state revenue. And as the 12 have agreed that from July 1, 1990, capital must be allowed to circulate freely among them, France is going to run into a new difficulty. If it tries to make up the shortfall by a new wealth tax, as some observers have suggested, money will immediately flow out toward other member states that tax capital income at lower levels.

Although France's economic outlook is fairly good, with growth at 3.7 percent in 1988, up from the previous year's 1.9 percent, unemployment remains at around ten percent. The risk of a new wave of social unrest arising from this situation cannot be ruled out.

The second major handicap for France is the state's own resistance to change. Thanks to the decline of ideology, the state has lost much of the historical prestige it inherited from the Jacobins. It nevertheless continues to be a heavyweight machine, too much so for a modern economy founded on liberal principles. The privatizations carried out by the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac stripped off a bit of the excess weight, and the present Socialist government has not threatened to turn the clock back. But the rate of state spending as a proportion of total national income still remains one of the highest in Europe. It is true that the French state can claim some clear technological successes, such as a space program, nuclear power, high-speed trains and an aeronautical industry that includes such projects as the Airbus passenger plane. But at the same time the state's inherent growth, which equals or exceeds that of the economy as a whole, has turned it into an obese, insatiable monster employing no fewer than 4.5 million civil servants.

And the more the state grows, the poorer its parts become. The teaching profession, for example, with its mass of one million badly paid employees, has been described as "the biggest army in Europe after the Red Army." It has become a giant, difficult to administer and even more difficult to reform. Meanwhile, the budget of the Justice Ministry is no longer big enough to cover necessary expenses.

To sum up, reform of the state system, a break-up of civil service pay scales and the modernization of an old-fashioned tax system that still affects to ignore the principle of deduction at source have become urgent necessities for France.

In a system that has been through such profound renewal, the bloated state apparatus has become the last refuge of the sclerosis that used to be called "the French disease." It is the only sector that has so far escaped reform. Above all, the culture of the sovereign state maintains a system which is unique among the major democracies, that of a top-level administrative elite, a caste whose members not only occupy the key state posts but also hold the reins of the political parties (of the left and right), of state-run industries and often of major private companies to boot.

In this field the "French exception" is by no means a thing of the past. The same old state aristocracy still holds the reins of power. Although technically competent, its political efficacy is low, and in general the mistakes it makes are only the ones that really count. Nine of the ten prime ministers who have served under the Fifth Republic have been members of the caste, and its members at present hold two-thirds of all cabinet posts. Meanwhile only three percent of members of parliament come from the ranks of salaried employees, even though that category accounts for two-thirds of the nation's earned income.

The problems posed by this caste system from the point of view of democracy are obvious: politics has become the business of civil servants, and at the same time civil servants have become politicized. And above all, the concentration of various types of power in the hands of a small elite, with a Parisian outlook and training, acts as a brake on the circulation of ideas and the interaction of the diverse outlooks of different professions, regions and social circles. The system therefore militates against the variety and political representation needed to run a modern democracy.

VI

If one takes a step back to get a clear view of the French situation, one sees a former great power with a long history, which in less than half a century has succeeded in carrying through rapid change without going through a major upheaval.

However, France's modernization crisis is not yet over. In many respects, its people are still in a state of shock from the rapid transition. The legitimacy of the state is now accepted, but the nation's identity has become less clear-cut. The French as a people are less sure of themselves, less "patriotic"; they are looking for a new course and think they have found it in Europe, even though that avenue contains risks as well as opportunities. The main opportunity is for a collective future capable of giving back to the French people their former ambition and desire for historic challenges. The risk lies in having to submit to Community constraints that are likely to prove tough indeed for a country which has a heavier and more thoroughly socialistic state structure than its partners.

In this Cartesian country which likes clarity of thought, the processes of change seem often obscure and disconcerting. But that is one of the paradoxes of France. For even three hundred years ago, Cardinal Richelieu expressed wonder at the fact that a country "which is so incapable of adhering to goodness finds it so easy to pull itself out of evil."

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