La France qui tombe (France Is Falling Over)
By Nicolas Baverez
135 pages, Paris: Editions Perrin, 2003 (in French)
In his slim, controversial book, French historian and economist Nicolas Baverez proclaims the economic and political decline of his homeland. Not surprisingly, French politicians of all stripes are taking requisite offense. The left, which governed the country from 1997 to 2002, faces accusations that it contributed to the decline through misguided social "innovations," such as the 35-hour work week, introduced precisely as global economic norms demand higher worker productivity. And the right, currently in power, remains paralyzed by fear of social protest and does not dare implement the reforms needed to invigorate the economy.
Critics have lampooned and caricatured Baverez's arguments, whereas commentators in newspapers such as Le Monde have done little more than highlight the author's factual errors. (For example, France's private sector is generally considered far more competitive than the author suggests.) Nevertheless, La France qui tombe (France Is Falling Over) is the subject du jour among the social elite as well as France's popular classes. Indeed, such mournful, soul-searching books are also popular in Germany these days -- a regional phenomenon that The Economist calls European "declinism."
Baverez's thesis -- that France is slow in adapting to new realities borne out of the fall of the Berlin Wall, technological developments, and globalization -- is convincing as well as timely. Many of those who voted for French President Jacques Chirac in 2002 are now disappointed that he seems focused on foreign policy grandstanding at the expense of domestic policy and state reforms. The book also resonates with the business community, which has long believed that lazy government officials and public-sector unions stunt progress. "For the moment, we have no political project, or leaders to carry it out," Baverez explained in a recent interview. "Neither American growth, nor Europe, will reform France today. It is up to the French to reform their country."
In the international arena, the author contends that France remains frozen in a Cold War mindset. French leaders perceived the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attacks of September 11, 2001, less as revolutionary events than as the mere continuation of 20th-century geopolitics, with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden usurping the role of the Soviet Union. Baverez worries that if France clings to its feisty stubbornness on the global stage -- evinced by its opposition to the United States during the war in Iraq -- its leeway for diplomatic action will narrow dramatically.
Already, the gap is widening between France's proud diplomatic rhetoric and the nation's ability to translate words into action. Although it imagines itself a privileged interlocutor between the major powers, France has underestimated the potency of a revitalized Britain, the growing clout of Mediterranean countries, and the democratic awakening in Central and Eastern Europe. Even in Africa, France seems incapable of adjusting its diplomatic posture in the face of ethnic violence and the growing preeminence of South Africa.
On the Iraq conflict, Baverez agrees with many analysts that the White House dramatically underestimated the postwar complications. However, he criticizes Chirac for isolating France during the debate over the war. By aligning France with Germany's pacifism, Chirac not only failed to avert war, but also undermined the United Nations and isolated France (along with Germany) in Europe, with eight European Union countries opposing France by supporting U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Indeed, French arrogance ultimately quashed any hopes for French multilateralism.
"France has chosen to ignore the great transformation of the 21st century and cultivate a [culture of] status quo and rigidity," explains Baverez. "This denial leads to a diluted position somewhere between frontal opposition and abstention, forbidding any constructive propositions."
Modern-day France, a nation that talks a talk it cannot walk, has not thought to upgrade its defense options. France has enclosed itself in a nuclear deterrent shield, and its annual military expenditures remain less than 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). As a result, the poorly equipped French armed forces remain unable to participate in a large-scale operation. Incapable of mobilizing 45,000 soldiers, as the United Kingdom did in Iraq, France is limited to policing operations in the Balkans or Ivory Coast. It remains very difficult to plead convincingly against war when one lacks the means to conduct it, argues Baverez, echoing the sentiments of U.S. neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan.
Baverez also identifies the reason behind this diplomatic and military decline: France's economic stagnation. Today, France is "the weak link in the European chain," diagnoses the author. During the 1970s, French GDP was 25 percent larger than that of Britain. In 2003, it was 9 percent smaller. Its annual average economic growth since 1990 has been 1.8 percent, compared with an overall average of 2.8 percent among the world's rich nations. The French economy is becoming "an industrial and entrepreneurial desert," writes Baverez. France suffocates its private sector with taxes, while the sprawling state distributes fictitious social rights at the expense of a ballooning national debt that already surpasses 60 percent of its GDP. Baverez also blames the introduction of the euro and the creation of the European Central Bank in 1998 for paralyzing the French economy with a monetary policy that limits potential expansion.
Meanwhile, unemployment in France has reached 10 percent, and the French workers who do have jobs work only 35 hours each week, or 1,545 hours per year -- less than the Swedes (1,581 hours), Irish (1,668 hours), and Americans (1,815 hours). "The 35-hour week has from the moment of its inception been a massive mistake. We need to return to people the joy of work," argues Jacques Attali, a prominent economist and longtime special adviser to former French President Francois Mitterrand.
France no longer thinks about the future, but lives vicariously through the achievements of its grand programs of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the high-speed train, the Airbus, and nuclear power plants. But its industrial base is shrinking and its multinationals are in a fragile position, as illustrated by the demise of the Concorde supersonic airliner and by European opposition to French industrial subsidies. Indeed, some of the most powerful French multinationals now prefer to invest abroad.
In 2002, a similar book galvanized the French public by announcing the demise of another rich, powerful nation. French historian Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire: An Essay on the Breakdown of the American System argued that the economic and military might of the United States was crumbling. [See the review in FOREIGN POLICY, September/October 2003.] But today, Baverez challenges French thinkers to look within and realize that their nuclear deterrent, the overvalued euro, and the reform stalemate in the public sector are undermining the nation's standing in a rapidly changing global environment. Trapped in its statist model, Baverez contends, France is stagnating by refusing to open its eyes.