Monday, April 23, 2007

Mais Apres Nous, la Deluge...

I find the results of the first round Presidential elections in France both heartening and dismaying; heartening because it is nice to see that my own country is not alone in having a political class beset by paralysis and bereft of the capacity to solve pressing problems, dismaying because France will be ill-served by either candidate.

Forgetting for a moment the contortions Mme. Royal and M. Sarkozy are performing in order to attract the critical 18% of centrist voters who put their support behind Bayrou in this most recent round, let’s examine the two candidates’ visions for the future of France. The French, it seems to an outsider, have three central political issues to resolve as the 21st Century moves out of the starting gate. The first is European integration, that is, how much further to enmesh France politically and economically within the E.U., and how to relate to that body now that its growth in membership precludes France being its undisputed boss. The second is the effective integration of non-European immigrants, Muslims in particular, into France’s economy and society in a way that is fair and just but that does not produce a socially corrosive xenophobic backlash. The third is the economy writ large, namely, how to build a dynamic French economy capable of effectively competing in the global market without dismantling the mechanisms of economic justice that the French hold so dear.

These issues are, of course, all linked. To cite some obvious examples, one main question with respect to the European Union concerns France’s support of Turkey’s admission to the body, an event that would surely have a huge impact on Muslim immigration. Economically, France’s soaring unemployment rate, hovering somewhere around 9%, is disproportionately concentrated among immigrant youth, exacerbating cultural tensions with parallel divisions of class. Any solution to these myriad problems must be holistic, integrated and dramatic. Neither Mme. Royal nor M. Sarkozy present such a program.

Ségolène Royal, the socialist who has made much of breaking with the aging “elephants” of her party seems to lack the direction and resolve to institute the difficult reforms that her people sorely need. She has some good ideas, true, particularly with respect to reforming the education system to make sure France has the human capital necessary to compete in a global economy (would the leadership of a certain other country could make some similar propositions); however, she does not propose any serious measures to shake the stagnant French welfare state out of its lethargy, encourage dynamic entrepreneurship (so very Anglo-Saxon I know) or increase per-capita productivity.

This may sound hypocritical coming from the last American on Earth to hold a 35 hour per week job (the nonprofit sector is a wonderful thing), but a modern industrialized economy simply cannot remain competitive with a citizenry that lives as relaxed a lifestyle as that of modern France. The advantages in education, technology, infrastructure and military prowess that have kept Western nations wealthy for the last two centuries are rapidly fading, and nations like France will have to figure out how to compete with rising behemoths like China and India on a more level playing field. This will not happen if 25% of the workforce continues to be employed in stable, safe, low-stress, wholly unproductive government jobs. If France wants to arrest its slow-but-steady decline from wealth and economic prominence, its people will have to accept a job market that is a bit more fluid, a social safety net that is a bit less robust, and a schedule that allows for a bit less time camping by the Loire. Mme. Royal has spent her campaign in the unfortunate pursuit of promising everything to everyone, and I fear that many will have to be disappointed should she take office.

M. Sarkozy, on the other hand, combines marginally more sensible economic principles with barely-masked xenophobia, a bullish attitude towards the poor and immigrants, and a vision for the future of Europe that would make Samuel Huntington proud. His economic policy, calling for a reformed tax structure and a reexamination of the 35 hour work week among other things, may indeed rouse the French economy from its zombie-like state. Unfortunately, his overly-nationalist vision of France will only serve to alienate other members of the increasingly moribund E.U. His opposition to the entry of Turkey, the one secular Muslim democracy on the face of the Earth, would do almost as much as the U.S. invasion of Iraq to cement the notion of a civilizational clash between the West and the Islamic world, and given France’s large number of Muslim immigrants, that clash is as likely to play itself out in the banlieux of Paris as it is on the streets of Beirut. Also, much as it pains me to say it, while Bush is in office I’d caution against a French leader getting overly chummy with the United States.

As I say, heartened and dismayed. Looking at this election from abroad, I cannot help but get the sense that neither candidate has a real, integrated, dynamic vision for twenty-first century France. I am reminded of the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s comments about American politics in 1985: “our masters are intellectually baffled and analytically impotent before the long-term crises of our age – … they know neither causes nor cures and are desperately improvising on the edge of catastrophe.” In many ways, it’s a small world.

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