The French Exception; France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality, and Globalization Since 1980

In This Review

The French Exception

Edited by Emmanuel Godin and Tony Chafer
Berghahn Books, 2005
240 pp. $50.00
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France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality, and Globalization Since 1980

By Timothy B. Smith
Cambridge University Press, 2005
308 pp. $65.00
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These two volumes fit into the venerable tradition of "Anglo-Saxon" writers puzzling over French distinctiveness in cultural practices, economic and social policies, and politics. Godin, Chafer, and their collaborators have a rather mixed reaction to the notion of French exceptionalism. They find that it conflicts with the idea of French universalism; they also find that, although it has deep roots in "a distinctive republican model and an old attachment to the state," it is more a form of discourse that has its ups and downs than a genuine framework of analysis or an adequate account of French behavior. Under the label of the French exception fall many different, and sometimes loosely connected, forms of behavior and policy. Some of these features are indeed very tenacious; others are much exaggerated. The one glaring omission in their volume is a study of France's difficult relationship with the European Union and the European enterprise. But many of the short essays are still timely and shrewd.

Smith's book is directly relevant to the debate that engulfed France during the campaign for and against the European constitution and that has since the victory of the no vote. He shows how the much-vaunted French model of social protection coexists with a high level of unemployment and various glaring inequalities and exclusions. He stresses the high cost of the French pension system. He discusses the French unemployment conundrum and argues that states such as the Netherlands and Sweden have done better by using "social policy as a means of supporting the market -- not a means to fight and punish it." He regrets that globalization and the market have been "so thoroughly discredited intellectually that no French government would dare to embrace [them] as a source of wealth and the potential solution to unemployment" -- only "short-term statist solutions" have been offered, and they have failed. Smith is eloquent in his criticism of the policies offered by both conservatives and socialists, but he is no champion of "savage capitalism" or "the Anglo-Saxon model." Unfortunately, what happened in the spring of 2005 showed that the center is on the defensive, besieged by a strange alliance of far-left and far-right nationalists, "sovereigntists" and "anti-globalizers" -- anything but a sign of health.