Like many foreigners attracted to France, I long associated the country with a certain brilliance. We call Paris the “City of Light” and we are drawn to it like butterflies, we the 3 million foreigners who live here and the 75 million tourists who visit France every year. Whether we are Japanese photographers making our obligatory stop in front of the Eiffel Tower or Ryanair plane-loads of Britons heading to the Dordogne to eat foie gras in our holiday homes, we all want our share of the cultural richness, the beautiful countryside, the intellectual debates and, above all, the sweet lifestyle. The Germans even have an expression: “Wie Gott in Frankreich leben” – to live like God in France.
It came as a surprise, then, when I moved to Paris for the first time in 1992, to discover that France was swept up in a wave of pessimism. FranÁois Mitterrand was in the ElysÈe, sick, tired, and increasingly unpopular. The coarse-tongued Edith Cresson was fighting to salvage her credibility as Prime Minister. The two favorite words of the time were “fin de rËgne” and “malaise.” Bookstores were filled with tomes calling for urgent reform, and lamenting the loss of national pride and a France that was “broken.” To be honest, I found it hard to take this self-doubt seriously. I had just spent four years in Moscow as the correspondent of an American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, writing about the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. If anybody had reason to be pessimistic, it was the Russians not the French. Yet the mood in Paris was bleaker than the one I had left behind in Moscow. Most Russians at least had hopes of building a better future, polls showed, while the French seemed resigned to a glum present. At the time I shrugged off this mood as a temporary fit. I assumed that France had been caught off guard by the fall of the Berlin Wall. I left the country after two years, believing that it would soon regain its footing.
How wrong I was. By the time I moved to Paris for the second time, in 2002, the earlier wave of pessimism had turned into a veritable deluge. Malaise had given way to a deeper sense of foreboding – a foreboding clearly manifested in that year's Presidential election, in which Jean-Marie Le Pen and his extremist Front National beat Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party leader. I found a France on tenterhooks. Coming from Los Angeles this time, I was again caught by surprise. The America I was leaving had taken some massive blows to its legendary self-esteem: the collapse of the high-tech bubble that had been billed as a “new paradigm;” the fraudulent bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom, and, above, all the traumatic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on the two centers of American power, downtown Manhattan and the heart of Washington. Viewed from the outside, France appeared to be fine. The economy was struggling, to be sure, but all European countries were suffering from weak growth at that time, and France seemed better off than most. “After years of economic stagnation and unemployment, France has experienced a period of job-rich growth. The efforts made to consolidate the budget situation, bring down inflation, reduce labor costs, open markets to competition and privatize public enterprises have finally paid off,” is how the OECD viewed the situation in an upbeat Nov. 2001 report. Moreover, with the introduction of the euro, France had achieved a key economic and political goal, the realization of a dream first articulated by Jean Monnet more than 50 years ago. If anybody had reason to feel out of sorts, it was Americans. Yet it was the French, outwardly self-confident in their opposition to the Iraqi invasion, who were in crisis. It was France that was “falling” and “afraid,” as the bestsellers proclaimed, a France that was incapable of reforming itself.
In the meantime, neurosis has turned to psychosis. Jacques Chirac in the ElysÈe, hospitalized, tired and increasingly unpopular, sees hostile forces lined up against France everywhere he looks. The Americans, the British, Brussels, the Chinese – everyone is to blame for France's predicament except for France itself. How disheartening it was to watch Chirac on television during the 2005 European referendum campaign TV first warning a group of young people about the dangers of “ultra-liberal” globalisation, and then, when they questioned him about it, berating them for being so afraid. Chirac's latest prime minister, the eloquent Dominique de Villepin, can be no less alarmist. He criticizes France's prophets of doom, but this is how Le Monde quoted him in a profile after his first 100 days in office: “Did you see the numbers (Finance Minister) Breton gave us this morning? We must find ways to save money. It's June 1940, and our backs are up against the wall. Do the people realize?”
Then, in March 2006, France piled into the street in protest against a new youth employment contract designed to create jobs. The unelected prime minister, who loves singing the praises of French democracy, used emergency measures to push through the measure. The president first signed it into law and then gutted it. Millions of demonstrators rallied in defense of a system that doesn't work. The streets were filled with slogans dating back to May 1968.
Such are the symptoms French vertigo. The country is so giddy with itself that it's spinning round and round. Defeatism has destroyed French reason. As Jacques Chirac would say, it's all “abracadabrantesque.”
The current situation is the fault of a blind policy practiced by governments of both right and left over the past 25 years, namely that of writing big checks rather than tackling root causes with real reforms. The results are self-evident: soaring national debt, one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, paltry growth even in the good years and increasing social unrest. But this is neither 1940 nor 1968. France's back is not against the wall. The situation is not as disastrous as the doomsayers proclaim, and the changes that are required are considerably less drastic than the French fear. Neither decline nor revolution is inevitable.
While people here like to talk about a French “exception,” the truth is that there isn't anything particularly unique about the problems France faces. The world economy is rapidly changing with the emergence of big new players such as China, India and Brazil, and the increased competition they bring poses a challenge for everyone. Many other countries from Canada to Sweden – not to mention Brazil and Argentina – have pulled themselves out of government debt crises that were more severe, and they have done so in three to four years or less. America has fifty years experience dealing with the sort of racial and social tensions that caught fire in France's banlieues in November 2005. Ireland, Denmark and Austria have halved their unemployment rates to below 5% in the past decade. Even neighboring Germany, which has been in a far worse economic state than France as a consequence of its historic reunification, has managed to improve the growth of its exports dramatically in the past three years by focusing on emerging countries such as China and Russia.
While others have acted, France has become bogged down in a sterile debate about the ideology of reform. Successive governments have tended to reacted with seat-of-the-pants efforts that are incoherent, ineffective and expensive. Every proposal for real reform is immediately attacked as “liberal” or “ultraliberal” by the various interest groups who feel remotely threatened. Farmers, tobacconists, teachers, students – all are ready to take to the streets at the slightest hint of change. Everyone complains about the status quo, but everyone fights to preserve it. The clear suggestion is that the only alternative to doing nothing is to destroy all that is great and good about France. At the same time, you can also hear calls for a “rupture.” This revolutionary talk is fundamentally counterproductive. It merely serves to confirm public fears that any change at all will be for the worse.
Such paucity of public discourse and lack of decisive action is not worthy of a country that has long seen itself as a font of intellectual innovation. France in 2006 resembles ever less a proud Gallic rooster and ever more a terrified rabbit, caught in the headlights of an oncoming Chinese truck.