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.

The crisis in the banlieues last autumn showed what this movement towards de-institutionalisation might signify once it affects whole sections of young people. It was by far the most serious crisis that France has experienced in many years. For several weeks, gangs of young people, in both large and medium-sized towns, laid waste to the infrastructure of their own neighbourhoods, set fire to public buildings, businesses and cars, attacked the firemen who had come to put the fires out and launched an urban guerrilla war against the forces of law and order, with no apparent aim other than to improve on the statistics of destruction proclaimed the day before in the media. Everyone struggled to find ‘reassuring’ explanations for this wave of anomic violence (an Islamic plot, the absence of authority figures in the family, polygamy, unemployment, urban blight etc). But when 12-year-old children set fire to their younger brother’s nursery school or their neighbours’ cars, or assault firemen, and have no words with which to explain their actions, we find ourselves face to face with something much more serious, which we might well call mass de-institutionalisation.

Far from being concentrated in the most marginalised sections of the population (who are its main victims) this délitement originates at the heart of the state and affects the social fabric as a whole. Thus the torching of the banlieues had as its immediate cause the statements made by the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. Having made the fight against delinquency the main plank of his electoral programme, he had referred to young people in the banlieues as ‘riff-raff’ whom he intended to ‘power-hose’ off the streets. The fact that a minister could talk like a gangster and so put a match to the powder that had long been collecting in the most deprived neighbourhoods of the Republic, is not simply a sign of incompetence. It is first and foremost a sign that an age-old achievement of our Western juridical systems – the distinction between a public office and the person who occupies it – is being called into question. Initially intended to characterise the office of sovereign, this distinction signifies that the office does not die, that it has a dignity transcending the human being who provisionally occupies it and who must respect it. When that respect is erased, public office, from the highest to the most modest, is perceived as the private property of the present holder who can use it as he sees fit. In this way, the political arena, like the media, becomes entirely taken up with the swearing of allegiance, clan warfare and the betrayal of one trusty liegeman by another, under the powerless gaze of the lower orders. In France, this move towards the privatisation of public office is affecting the whole political and administrative apparatus. The subjection of one and all to a common set of rules is being replaced by personal ties of domination or allegiance that individuals have succeeded in establishing. In this context, fine words about the ‘integration’ of the Republic lack all meaning. You don’t integrate with something that is disintegrating, and once the political elites no longer believe in state institutions, it’s no good expecting them to be respected by second-generation immigrants. Promised that they would be fully accepted as French citizens and then finding that promise has been broken, they look for salvation in a communal attachment to a gang, religion or neighbourhood.

This de-institutionalisation syndrome appeared in the United States some twenty years ago, with the first cases of young murderers who didn’t have any access to notions of culpability because they hadn’t learned to distinguish between what is and what ought to be, between the world of facts and the world of their imaginations. Today it has taken on a collective form and the ‘big brothers’ of the rioters in the banlieues found the ideal term to describe it: ‘they live in their Game Boys.’ Put less colourfully, de-institutionalisation produces idiocy, in the original sense of the word – confinement within the self, loss of contact with the real world and an inability to subscribe to a shared meaning. Lacking a common reference point, their only reference is to themselves and they are no longer capable of relating the world ‘out there’ to their representation of it. It might have been possible to reach some cynical accommodation with this condition if it affected only the margins of society, but it shows itself even more starkly among the ruling elites, who are prey to a self-referentiality that cuts them off almost totally from what ordinary people are experiencing and thinking. This phenomenon is made worse by the endogamy of the ruling class, since a single ‘noblesse d’état’ monopolises the exercise of political, economic and media power.

This situation is not peculiar to France, but rather forms part of a fundamental tendency to see the law as merely a neutral instrument, a product that everyone ought to be able to use in the service of their individual interests. This is the doctrine currently being promoted by the World Bank, which in its ‘Doing Business’ reports treats national rights as rival products in a world market of norms and aspires to evaluate them according to the financial yield that may await investors. There is a striking continuity here with the Marxist vulgate, which looked on the law simply as a superstructure serving the economy. The only difference is that this is no longer a struggle between classes, but between individuals competing in the marketplace, and to make the struggle of all against all the sovereign norm of life in society can lead only to madness and to murder. ‘Man is not born man, he becomes man,’ as Erasmus said. This is a process that can’t take place in a world that no longer believes in the civilising powers of its own institutions but treats them as mere products available to this or that individual.

The magnitude of the crisis provoked by the CPE will not be grasped by anyone who has doubts about the explosive force of social injustice, once it is written into the laws instead of merely being cultivated on the ground. The one truly new element in this latest measure (the umpteenth) in the war against youth unemployment consisted in the explicit statement that a young person could be dismissed at any point during the two-year contract, on the sole ground that he or she was young. Licking their lips at the prospect of being able to fire young people without saying why, the economists who suggested this brilliant idea to the prime minister imagined that employers would be taking on young people en masse. This was not only wrong, as so many economic calculations are, but dangerous as well. It was wrong because, by treating all under-26s alike, whether rich or poor, uneducated or with degrees from the grandes écoles, it confused an age group with a sociological category. Above all, it did not tackle the real difficulty that young people encounter, which is not finding work (the figures show that they remain unemployed for much shorter periods than older workers) but finding stable employment – the turnover is much greater among this age group – without which they cannot easily gain access to credit or to housing.

The CPE is merely one more item on an already long list of employment measures – temporary jobs, fixed-term contracts, subsidies to employers etc – and might have gone almost unnoticed had it not legally stigmatised young people as a whole. This is where it proved to be a dangerous miscalculation. Authorising employers to treat young workers as disposable was an attack on a principle that the economy ignores, yet which is of vital importance to human beings: the principle of their own dignity – the right to be treated as human beings and not as human raw material. The attack was launched in a chemically pure form – there was nothing at stake financially for either the employer or the wage-earner – and led to a chain reaction, revealing the solidarity first between students and lycéens, then between the young people and their parents, and finally between the various trade unions who found themselves standing together for the first time in many years to demand (and obtain) the law’s withdrawal.

A feature common to all the reforms in employment conditions carried through in France over the past thirty years is that they have targeted the most vulnerable, while carefully avoiding any challenge to the exorbitant benefits enjoyed by those at the top. This is certainly the case with employment law: measures favouring the best protected wage-earners continue to multiply, at the same time as legal instruments that make the working lives of the young, immigrants and the least qualified more precarious. This is true both in the public sector and in the independent professions, where the most extreme forms of job insecurity exist alongside the highest and least justifiable levels of secure income. What is specific to France is that these injustices are fostered in the shadow cast by the Republican principle of equality. In all professions that derive their income from the public purse – farming, medicine, the civil service – the biggest earners use the least well-off as a shield against attacks on their own privileges. Thus the young farmworker up to his eyes in debt is brought forward in order to ward off any challenge to the system of agricultural subsidy, the doctor practising in some rundown neighbourhood in order to claim an increase in fees for all doctors, the young, underpaid university teacher in order that professors can keep on being able to earn money outside the universities. Although we often have a sense these days in France that we are living in 1788, there is one major difference between the way things are today and the way they were under the Ancien Régime. Today, we have social inequality and, underlying it, a formal equality, a principle which remains untouched. It is because it forgot this, and tried to incorporate into the law an unequal treatment of the young, that the Villepin government came a cropper.

In many respects, all this crisis does is reveal that the status of work has been degraded in the globalised economy. If the French case is in any way exceptional, it’s only that with us the process is being strenuously resisted. The deterioration shows itself in the pressure to bring down labour costs and the vertiginous rise in incomes derived from capital, which now absorb all the gains made from productivity. In the United States, per capita GNP has grown by more than 75 per cent since the beginning of the 1970s, while in constant dollars the average income of wage-earning males has gone from $15.24 in 1973 to $15.26 in 2004. This evolution corresponds to the obsessional belief among the international economic bodies and their political and media mouthpieces, that employment laws are the main thing standing in the way of the modernisation of the countries of ‘old’ Europe, and that all these countries need to do in order to become efficient and competitive is to deregulate the labour market. By digging a deep ditch between a small number of winners and a large number of losers, this policy can’t fail to exacerbate the tensions that have led to the recent tribulations in France: riots, delinquency, the rise in the extremist vote, xenophobia etc. As Francis Bacon observed long ago, in his essay ‘Of Seditions and Troubles’, ‘Above all things, good policy is to be used that the treasure and moneys in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread.’

A British rejection of the proposed EU constitution would have surprised no one, whereas the French ‘no’ in May 2005 was experienced everywhere as a seismic shock high on the Richter scale. Paradoxically, the difference shows how faulty the picture is of the United Kingdom turned into a world without frontiers and France clinging onto the myth of the nation-state. The deep and enduring British mistrust of European institutions shows that, contrary to received opinion, the UK is the most deeply attached of all European countries to the old idea of the nation-state, while the surprise occasioned by the 2005 referendum shows that, contrary-wise, it was being taken for granted that the French had given up on the idea.

These being the two oldest European states, the differences in attitude are rooted deep in history and geography, notably in the different ways in which they were affected by the trauma of World War Two. Where Britain emerged victorious after having at one point stood alone, France experienced the oblivion into which national passions can lead. Revived by the fires of Gaullist oratory – which achieved the tour de force of changing an unarguable defeat into an apparent victory – it then placed the project of Franco-German reconciliation and the unification of Europe at the heart of its policies and its identity. Carrying over onto Europe its dreams of greatness and universalist illusions, it stripped itself of an ever greater number of rights and prerogatives to the benefit of Community organisations. A traditionally protectionist country was in this way converted to the virtues of free trade and the ‘wider market’ before getting rid of its currency and giving up control of its borders with other member states. A Jacobin country wedded to its theory of national sovereignty submitted itself to the authority of the Commission in Brussels, to government by the judges in Luxembourg and to the authority of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. At the time, these sacrifices were confidently embraced, because France saw itself as the soul of Europe, its inspiration and its political tutor, while Germany gave Europe its body, its efficiency and its refound wealth. Thus was the celebrated Franco-German coupling formed, in both the affective and technical sense of the word.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Anglo-American coalition was a last opportunity for this coupling to show what it was made of, even as the death knell sounded for dreams of unifying Europe politically. Fundamentally, the Franco-German position was the just one. It was also representative of public opinion across Europe, which manifested itself for the very first time on this occasion. But the Franco-German position led nowhere, for at least two reasons, reasons which largely explain the impasse in which France finds itself and the uncertainty about its identity into which it has now plunged. The first reason is the unwavering allegiance of numerous European governments, beginning with those that experienced Soviet occupation, to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This brutally awakened the French from their dream of a political Europe which might be a factor for peace in the world. They have been made aware that, like the monster which rebelled against Frankenstein, his creator, the European Union they played so large a part in bringing into being is not a faithful political servant but a heterogeneous creature control of which has escaped from them and which might very well ignore them or turn against them. In this light, the 2005 referendum looks like an attempt to kill off this monstrous creature that they built from scratch, grafted their own heart onto, but which, now it has come to life, is showing its warrior instinct, berating and threatening them and trying to cut out their tongue – the French tongue! On the question of tongues, too, the French have been deceiving themselves, oscillating between francophone bluster and an acceptance that English now rules, instead of working with other large countries to enable several working languages to be used by the European institutions.

The second reason we have been unable to convert the just opposition to the invasion of Iraq into a political trump-card stems from the fact that this opposition has remained a critical reaction rather than leading to positive forms of action or political organisation. We had no difficulty in seeing that the Bush administration had committed itself and its allies to a dead end, even if it took political courage to refuse to follow them. But criticism of American policy is not enough to create a foreign policy with some potential for the future. We have yet to find methods and objectives other than those the Bush administration has displayed in its dealings with the rest of the world.

To define such a policy presupposes, it’s true, that we start out from what is, for the French, a very painful recognition: not only is Paris no longer the centre of the world but neither is Europe. More generally, the West itself has lost that position, which is the reason US aspirations to go on occupying it are destined to fail. In the long term, the only wealth lies in numbers of people, and 85 per cent of these, starting with the youngest, don’t live in Europe, North America or Japan, but in countries like China and India, which are taking off economically. Even if the West continues to be admired for its science and technology and envied for its wealth, it has lost its moral authority over the rest of the world and can now rely on little except its weapons to maintain its domination. In which context, the key to the European problem, and the one road of escape from the current impasse in the EU, would be to start rethinking its relations with the countries of the South, and seeking along with them the paths to a balanced and just world order.

One of the burning issues is that of the free circulation of people. Instead of, for example, treating Africa as a reservoir of raw materials, and subcontracting to the countries of the Maghreb the building of a Maginot Line to protect us from being invaded by populations driven out by absolute poverty, Europe should be working to put together a trading system that enables those populations to work and live decently in their homelands. Whether on the Mexican border or in Palestine, the building of walls is not a viable response to the injustices that are tearing the world apart and dragging it towards an unprecedented catastrophe.

On these central questions, French leaders seem to have nothing to say, except to propose gimmicks (such as taxing airline tickets in order to help poor countries) or stirring up fears of immigration for electoral purposes. The opposition to the Iraq war was a bit of bravura that has not been followed up, and it’s not too much to say that since then our leaders have not once dissociated themselves from the positions adopted by the Western ‘camp’, so throwing away the credit which their earlier opposition had earned them around the world.

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