The Economist has an interesting piece on the deep pessimism that has settled over France and what it means for the upcoming 2007 elections. France’s economy, societal, and political system have all become unsettled in recent years as the system of privilege and power that keeps them afloat has chafed against the will of the people. The rejection of the EU Constitution, the protest votes for Le Pen, all of these things are symptoms of the profound disconnect between the French state and the French people.
The Economist notes the parallels between today’s France, and the Britain of the 1970s:
Just as Britain battled through its winter of discontent in 1978-79, when rubbish went uncollected, school gates unopened and ambulances undriven, France has fought its way through a series of social upheavals in the past 18 months. First, its electorate revolted over the European Union in May 2005, rejecting a new constitution for the European project that its own countrymen co-founded. Next, its multi-ethnic underclass revolted against exclusion, with 20 consecutive nights of rioting in nearly 300 banlieues across the country, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency. Most recently, its students and unions revolted against insecurity, holding countrywide strikes, university sit-ins and protest marches to contest a plan to make it easier to hire and fire the under-26s.
France’s “social model” just doesn’t work. The French want to argue that they’re concerned with the social welfare of all — but apparently that doesn’t apply to the ghettoized banlieues that surround Paris and other major French cities. The French economy is mixed at best — the corporations that exist in an incestuous relationships with their patrons in the state are doing fine — the small businesses that could lift many of those rioters out of poverty and into society are failing.
Making things worse, the French are following the path that many failing societies do: blaming someone else for their problems:
Even so, politicians have consistently failed to explain to the citizens why the country cannot afford to go on as before. This is the third source of French electoral dissatisfaction. Instead of making the case for change, successive politicians have preferred to blame, and thus to discredit, outside forces—usually Europe, America or globalisation. “The French political class has constructed a wall of lies against the globalised world,” comments Nicolas Baverez, author of “France in Freefall”. No wonder there is no consensus for reform.
The French need shock therapy: they need to face the reality that their system of economics and politics are not working. They need to realize that their “social model” isn’t producing the opportunities that could lift their growing and increasingly violent underclass out of poverty. They need someone who is wiling to stand up for reform. They need someone who doesn’t come from the bureaucratic womb of the École National d’Administration where the elites of France are inculcated in the old ways of doing things.
In short, they need a Thatcher.
The problem is that the French are more likely to elect a socialist like Ségolène Royal that someone who will make the hard choices necessary to keep France from falling further. The French clearly know that they’re in trouble — the French popular press makes the American press look almost sunny in comparison. The big question is whether they’ll do anything about it, or whether they’ll retreat into their own fantasy where their “exception culturelle” means that they’re right and the rest of the world is wrong.
France provides a lesson in what happens when governments go too far down the road to socialism — and the rest of the world should take a long look at what is happening there and take it as a valuable warning about why dynamism is preferable to status.