A silent revolution in France?

January 2, 2008

drapeau_francais.jpgSomething fundamental is happening in France.

Today is the day when a general ban on smoking in all public spaces including cafes, bars and clubs comes into force….

Public transport users in Paris will benefit from quite hefty discounts on their monthly “carte orange” this January to compensate for the inconveniences and loss of money incurred during the strikes last autumn. When I heard this announcement in the Metro during the week-end after the strikes ended in November, and again during my stay in Paris for New Year’s I couldn’t believe my ears. To my knowledge this never happened before. In all the seven years before 2004 when I lived in Paris I was never compensated for having to walk and paid a monthly card for nothing during public transport strikes. However, I heard this exactly on that Sunday when a new wave of “race” riots started outside trendy central Paris, in an immigrant banlieue “Villiers-le-Bel”.

The last public transport strikes in France this autumn were a first-time defeat of a powerful but small group of public sector workers that has often spearheaded opposition to market-friendly reforms, as well as social security and pensions reforms. The last strikes were about pensions, and this time there was no policy retreat; the public clearly no longer supports these groups and overall public sentiment was in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform programme.

I have been looking at France’s leftwing paper Liberation more often lately again, and I am discovering that the paper (after having been saved from bankruptcy by a very capitalist group belonging to the Rothschild family) has been changing tone as well. As an adecdotic example: they had an economist proposing market-based price mechanisms to regulate the supply of bicycles in the new bike hire system called Velib’ introduced by Paris’ popular mayor Bertrand Delanoe. Another example is the fact that a brilliant economics lecturer who co-writes a now very popular and widely-known blog Econoclastes, and who is clearly on the economically liberal side, was called upon by that same paper to write a piece on immigration. A few years ago all this would have been unthinkable. One can now be leftwing and be open to market solutions – on the contrary, this even has an aura of trendiness. Old-school antimarket dinosaurs are definitively dying out.

So yes, France is moving. When one walks by newspaper stalls, one notices a flurry of magazines lauding “la France qui bouge” (“France on the move”) and the spirit of entrepreneurialism. A new sense of self-confidence is emerging. All sorts of reforms from tax to social security to working time are generally accepted as necessary – one cannot say they are liked. It seems that the general gloom that had been prevailing in the last years is fading away. It had culminated in political crises triggered by right-wing Jean Marie Le Pen’s almost 20% score in 2002 presidential elections, or the no-vote to the EU constitutional treaty in 2005, with the backdrop of decades-old mass unemployment touching above all the young generation. The Sarkozy vote in 2007 was a mandate for change – even if unclear exactly into which direction.

After a bit more than half a year since the elections, it is still hard to say where the country is heading. The market reforms the outside world expects have been easier to introduce than I personally expected (please read here; I am happy to announce that The Economist got it roughly right and that I was roughly wrong), but they are not finished. There have been signs of watering down. [The FT’s Thornhill had an excellent analysis, and warned that reforms might be ineffective]. Reform of the 35-hour week might not be effective because it entails a new layer of red tape for employers and government. Many projects have been launched but the final deals (pensions, state reform and slimming-down) are not yet out. Others are still only projects – what about introduction of competition in product and services markets such as promoted by former Mitterand-sherpa turned report-commissioner for Sarkozy, Jacques Attali? Competition, the heart of market-friendly reforms, remains a big, very big question mark in Sarkozy’s policies. He pushed the scrapping of the word “competition” from the stated goals of the European Union in the Lisbon Treaty, and is in favour of protectionism. What seems clear is that Sarkozy is for business – and especially for government-brokered deals with Chinese or Lybian decision-makers promoting government-controlled/supported business in oil, energy, weapons or aerospace. But pro-business is not pro-market.

On the social side, Sarkozy’s presidency coincides with a – finally – deep and passionate debate about France’s colonial past and about immigration. The creation of an Orwellian-style new ministry dealing with everything from national identity to immigration and “development” policies and Sarkozy’s general tendency to be on the side of those who say that colonialism also had “good sides” show where the government stands. After all, Sarkozy is a right-winger. His right-wingness is also reflected in his open endorsement of the catholic religion at a recent trip to the Vatican, breaking the taboo of a religiously neutral republic. Back to colonialism: one has hardly ever seen so much being talked about and published on that topic recently. French bookshops are full of books and magazines on the colonial era, and everything surrounding it. Immigration: is a topic arousing passions in a country that loves debate. A new Museum of Immigration was opened this autumn – France seems to be beginning to see immigration as part of its history and identity: this is very new and positive. The museum itself which I visited treats the topic in a very emotional matter – showing that France is still in the beginning of the process of accepting itself as a modern immigration country. In government spheres, the tendency is to close borders outside (even introducing DNA controls for relatives of immigrants) and crack down on illegal low-skilled immigration, but to promote better integration inside. France is not yet witnessing the introduction of admittedly difficult affirmative-action policies – initially proposed by Sarkozy as a candidate but dropped when he ventured into wooing France’s far-right constituency. Yet the government wanted to allow statistics to be made along ethnic lines to be able to measure discrimination. The constitutional court rejected the project on the ground that allowing such statistics risks introducing discriminatory filing of people. This is clearly the backlash of an old-style Republican conception of equality: everybody in France is considered equal, La Republique is colour-blind; so colour-blind that it has become blind to a few obvious social inequities that need to be measured to be better tackled. Nobody knows what is the extent of racial discrimination in France, because those statistics are not allowed: researchers have expressed their “perplexity”.

The final new phenomenon is “populism” and the introduction of personalized politics. Newspapers and glossy magazines have broken taboos with their coverage of Sarkozy’s private life – his divorce, his new singer super-model girlfriend Carla Bruni, his pay rise, his holidays….He is presented as a normal everyday man – not a chic quasi-aristocrat with a secret private life like most presidents before him. The president is everywhere, the government nowhere. Constitutional reforms tabled – but not adopted yet – propose a stronger role in government for the president. This to avoid paralysing “cohabitation” between a parliament and a presidency potentially on the opposed political spectrum. This was the case with Jospin’s premierministership under Jacques Chirac: it was characterized by general government paralysis and infighting; it resulted in the terrible May 2002 where Le Pen made it into the second round. But one could theoretically propose a shift of power towards the parliament and the prime minister, and relegate the presidency to a more honorific role. This would solve the cohabitation problem. But this solution doesn’t seem imaginable right now in France. So: paradoxes again here. Sarkozy’s victory is a sign that France has wanted to do away with the state-centered, state-enamoured, “noblesse d’Etat” (“state-nobility”, term forged by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; Segolene Royal, Sarkozy’s contender in the last elections, and many of the now quasi-defunct Socialist Party leaders surrounding her represented this “caste”). But the French elitist government system is not yet fully reformed, not to mention open to those from below, or from the margins. Populism, personality cult and personalized politics are a good way of filling the void and overcoming reform hurdles in a country characterized by strong institutional inertia. Long-term it is a danger for democracy in France. Especially if the economic and state reforms launched remain as shallow as they have been so far and do not lead to growth and therefore to an opportunity for real social change, more jobs for all, and better prospects for the young and coloured. The race riots in November were a warning.

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