The Condition of France

Alain Supiot

For many observers, the storm unleashed in March by the adoption of the Contrat Première Embauche, or ‘first job contract’, was evidence of a sickness peculiar to France, and showed that the country was incapable of reform or of accepting the discipline that comes with globalisation. French young people, it was said, had proved as incorrigibly conservative as their elders and were foolishly clinging to a social model that history has condemned. This interpretation of events has little connection with reality. Like every other European country, France has been involved in a process of international standardisation that has already produced numerous reforms. We can argue about whether they were well-founded, but not about their existence or their import. Yet France is not doing well for all that; indeed, it is doing very badly. Rocked by a series of major crises from which the ruling elites have been incapable of learning any lessons, the country is in a state of moral and political disrepair almost without equal in Europe. The sense that the regime is in crisis and that the state is coming apart is shared by everyone, and made worse by all the plotting and settling of accounts currently taking place at the summit of the executive. Everyone sits waiting for new earth tremors without knowing where or when they will strike.

One thing is certain, however: not one of these recent tremors can be attributed to strictly national factors. On the contrary, each of them was the expression of structural problems which affect every European country to a greater or lesser degree. The presence of the far right in the second round of the presidential election was an expression of the disrepute into which the ruling class has fallen, as well as of the temptation to xenophobia which can be found in various forms all over the world. The rejection of the proposed European constitution was an expression of the disillusionment with the EU project prevalent throughout the Union. The revolt of the banlieues last autumn was evidence of the marginalisation of immigrant populations, an issue that concerns every Western country. And lastly, the student revolt against the CPE came in response to a deterioration in the employment situation, which again isn’t specifically French but is, on the contrary, one of the characteristics of the globalised economy. It’s not the ills it is suffering from that are peculiar to France, but the form in which they have expressed themselves.

If we want to understand this, we need to start by abandoning the cliché of a country frozen in its certitudes and incapable of reform. Anyone even vaguely informed about the situation in France will know that the country has been through an unprecedented period of change over the last two decades: anyone who left the country in the 1980s would find it unrecognisable today. A large part of the public sector has been privatised or opened up to competition; whole swathes of French sovereignty have been ceded to EU institutions; all the regulations that enabled the state to preserve a measure of control over the circulation of capital and goods have been abolished; the pension system was modified root and branch in 1993 and again in 2003, as was the system of unemployment benefits in 2001; employment law has undergone continuous reform and is now frighteningly complex, but it authorises just about every imaginable form of flexibility; a regulatory, Jacobin administrative model has given way to decentralisation and contractualisation; where morals are concerned, France has pursued the trend towards liberalisation that began in the 1960s, by making divorce easier, opening the way to homosexual partnerships and abandoning distinctions between children born in and out of wedlock.

Lack of reform isn’t the problem, but the content of these reforms. A number have been imposed from on high and don’t answer to the real living and working conditions of those they affect; other, undeniably necessary ones were not undertaken at all because they would have disturbed powerful vested interests. In reality, the French délitement, or ‘unbedding’,[*] reveals something much more serious than a mere ‘delay’ in the glorious march towards an economy without barriers: it reveals the chasms into which that march is dragging us. The subjection of the public sphere to the laws of the market is having a deleterious effect on the old nation-states and this has taken a particularly virulent form in France: institutions are giving way from within, social justice is being abandoned and there is a loss of direction on the international stage.

The first thing to note is the délitement of state institutions, which is both the first and the weightiest of the long-term consequences. A single episode may be enough to make clear what this means. In answer to the demand that the proposed law instituting the CPE be withdrawn, the president of the Republic solemnly declared to the nation that he had decided both to promulgate the law and to ask that it not be applied. This declaration, worthy of King Ubu, goes to the heart of the problem. In order for human beings to live together without killing one another, they need to agree on common rules to which all alike are subject. The institution of these rules, which was for a long time the province of religion, is the business today of the law of the land. Once the sovereign guarantor of our institutions orders that a law which he is promulgating not be applied, he is giving us a glimpse of a de-institutionalised world, where words no longer carry any meaning and where the principle of non-contradiction no longer holds good: a world with neither faith nor law, where nothing any longer protects us from violence.

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[*] The term comes from geology, where it is applied to rocks that have been dislodged from their bed or stratum.