Plus ça change: Sarkozy is bound to meet his Waterloo
ZUT, alors! It is Marianne Thatcher in a red cap of liberty... this is Revolution indeed. Sarko is poised to storm the Bastille of French dirigisme and liberate the economy. He will guillotine the privileged orders in industry and the civil service. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive...
Or possibly not. Is Nicolas Sarkozy France's Thatcher? Is he truly the great reforming president who will drag France, kicking and screaming, from its three-hour djeuner into the competitive slipstream of the globalised free market? Either we live in more than interesting times, or it is business as usual. The clever money is on the latter. Sarkozy promises change? Oh, that kind of change - plus a change.
The essential epithet routinely attached to the French economy is "sclerotic". American commentators enjoy referring to France as if it ranked economically somewhere between Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea. The reality is that France has the sixth-largest economy in the world, with a GDP of around 1.7 trillion euros (1.2 trillion). It boasts (ad nauseam) the lowest poverty rate among developed economies, at 6% compared with 15% in the UK, and the best social services. That is the good news.
The bad news is that this welfarist utopia is sustained by a tax rate of almost 50% of GDP and unemployment hovering close to 9%; more ominously, among the under-25 age group it is 22%. Only recently has it become fashionable to acknowledge the connection between these figures. The purpose of the statutory 35-hour week is not to facilitate the digestion of foie gras, but to create jobs. It has done so, on a miniscule scale, at the expense of much larger job generation by economic expansion.
There is an uneasy recognition that this narcoleptic economic situation cannot endure much longer. If Sarkozy chooses his targets cleverly, he may achieve limited goals; whether that will be sufficient to halt decline is another matter. If, on the other hand, he tries to do a Thatcher (and she proceeded much more cautiously and selectively than is often thought), he will come up against the entrenched resistance of the public-sector unions. In such an encounter, victory would be historic and seismic; defeat much more probable.
There is much talk in French liberal circles of "the British model". Sarkozy would do well to be warned as well as encouraged by that paradigm. If the British model means hooligans fighting in the town square of Clochemerle and drunken ladettes spewing over passers-by, the French may not wish to adopt it. France is still a civil society, practising traditional courtesies. French people eat and drink discriminatingly; the Brits are a race of two-legged burgers dressed in outfits that have never been worn by any Frenchman since Quasimodo. It was notable that Sgolne Royal, although the representative of the supposedly proletarian faction in French society, exhibited more chic than any Tory woman.
The French believe in life before death; in Britain, frantic consumerism has generated a centrifugal force that has swept away family, leisure and community. One of the few interesting issues David Cameron has raised is the balance between work and leisure. The French are already on the case.
France is a country where a large majority of people unapologetically regard globalisation as a bad thing. In a cultural context, they are right. A monocultural whirlwind is destroying identity across four continents and creating a nightmarish uniformity of neon-lit internet-fixated societies that are clones of the least attractive features of the United States. Yet any country that refused to participate in the economic aspects of globalisation would condemn itself to poverty and eventual relegation behind China and India.
The real problem for France is its political culture. The nation is living a morbid myth. The state is heir to two of the most murderous criminal enterprises in European history: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. Bastille Day commemorates the mass murder, by the Paris mob, of the French equivalent of the Chelsea Pensioners, while liberating seven well-heeled sociopaths from luxurious confinement. At least in Germany today the anniversary of Kristallnacht is not a public holiday.
The Paris Commune of 1871, which murdered the Archbishop of Paris, and the relentless persecution of the Church by the Waldeck-Rousseau and mile Combes rgimes in the early 1900s symbolise the undying antipathy between two concepts of France. The phenomenon of Vichy was only possible because, to one half of France, the destruction of the sewer that was the Third Republic represented liberation, even if its authors were the hated Boche.
Deputies in the National Assembly are currently exploiting "holocaust denial" laws to force the state to acknowledge the genocide of 400,000 Catholics in the Vende during the revolutionary Terror. The government shot itself in the foot in 1989 when attempts to celebrate the bicentenary of the Revolution provoked revulsion, as the atrocities attendant on that crime were exposed. Support for restoration of the monarchy passed the 20% mark for the first time since 1877.
There is much more than the economy ailing in France. It is not a society at ease with itself. The cult of the fonctionnaire and the dead hand of the state is the poisoned legacy of 1789. A true national, cultural and spiritual renewal, in the challenging era of the 21st century, cannot be supplied by Nicolas Sarkozy. It was an unusually insightful American commentator, William S Lind, who recently prescribed the remedy: "A few of us, Americans and Frenchmen, know the new politics France needs is really an old, old politics. Its faith is in Christ the King, not cultural Marxism. Its banner is golden lilies on Bourbon white, not the hideous tricolor of revolution."
Most unusually for an American, Lind has divined the cultural trauma afflicting France and the radical solution. Although it may well take several generations yet, the most holistic assertion of national identity would be for France to summon the heir of its ancient kings to the throne of his ancestors.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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