- On the Brink: The Trouble with France by Jonathan Fenby
Little, Brown, 464 pp, £18.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 316 64665 2
There is a general impression, both inside the country and abroad, that France is floundering in the face of its many political, social and economic problems – which is why winning the World Cup was held to be so important. Jonathan Fenby’s fine book, On the Brink: The Trouble with France, explores the multi-faceted nature of this crisis, from the decline of the baguette to widespread political corruption.
Many British observers (though not Fenby) derive a certain amount of pleasure from the mess France seems to be in: the country’s supposed decline appears to confirm the wisdom of the policy choices made in London. While we privatised, so the story goes, the French naively maintained the state’s role in the economy. We broke our unions while they repeatedly cave in to theirs. We deregulated and gleefully espoused the economic philosophy of the New Right; they insisted on the need for a ‘European social model’ and generous welfare payments. We chose the US: they chose Europe, and preserved a highly irritating anti-Americanism. Many commentators in Britain and, increasingly, in France, have compared France’s political leadership unfavourably with New Labour and its self-congratulatory commitment to ‘modernisation’ and a broadly neoliberal economic programme. According to such analyses, the French, in order to sort themselves out, simply need to become more like us. The bicycle ‘race’ in Amsterdam last year after the EU summit, in which Lionel Jospin laboured behind a triumphant Tony Blair, symbolised the political reality.
It is, however, easy to exaggerate the degree to which France represents an alternative ‘model’ to that espoused in Britain. While privatisation has not progressed nearly as far there, the French state has, nevertheless, retreated. During Chirac’s premiership between 1986 and 1988, privatisations took place at a faster rate than at any stage in Britain. Despite promises by the left-wing Jospin Government, and the presence of a staunchly anti-privatisation Communist transport minister, a limited privatisation of Air France was announced in February this year. Although the French have long been, and still are, more sensitive to foreign ownership of key elements of their economy than the British, General Motors recently took control of the company which owns the Eiffel Tower, while despite regular outbursts by the political élite against the effects of American ‘hegemony’, fast-food outlets are the most rapidly growing sector of the Paris economy, putting many traditional cafés out of business. A cursory glance at the outskirts of any provincial French town illustrates the extent of this Americanisation. When I visited Poitiers recently I was struck less by the cathedral than by the hideous grills and burger bars that line the roads on the outskirts. Despite the aggressive rhetoric distancing Paris from Washington and the refusal, since 1966, to participate fully in Nato, France has always maintained tight military links with its Western allies. Here again, France isn’t as different as it might seem.
Nor has its recent economic performance been as poor as proponents of the crisis idea have suggested. With a population approximately the same size as Britain’s, France has an annual economic turnover of about a third more. Inflation is down and falling. Not only has the country had a regular trade surplus in the Nineties, but this hit a record figure – 231 billion francs – in 1997. All this despite a strong franc which, unlike the pound, did not depreciate following the spectacular implosion of the ERM some six years ago. (Britain has had a persistent trade deficit despite its massive de facto devaluation in 1992.) Nor has France suffered from the impact of globalisation and international capital mobility as many predicted it would. When, in the early Nineties, Hoover decided to move its headquarters from France, citing high social security contributions as its reason, this act of ‘social dumping’ spawned widespread fears that companies would move out of France in search of cheaper labour. Yet France is the world’s fourth largest recipient of foreign direct investment. In 1994, its multinationals were the third most prominent – after the Americans and the Japanese – in a list of the top 100 non-financial firms. Commentators in this country point eagerly to French unemployment figures as proof of its economic decline. Yet even here, there is room for caution, given the misleading nature of British unemployment figures.
What economic indicators fail to illustrate are the problems that lie ahead. France is doing pretty well for the moment, but its success is based on precarious foundations. This is not to say that the French face cataclysmic decline – the word ‘crisis’ is best reserved for states such as Russia or Indonesia – but in order to maintain the relative prosperity of recent years, political leaders will need to make changes that might well prove unpopular.