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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Socialism, High Taxes and Arrogance

The French civil war

by Nicholas Baverez

The urban unrest of last fall and the violent demonstrations that forced the president of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last week to throw in the towel on labor reform are testimony to the deepening crisis in France. Here we see the institutions of the state weakened and the ability of politicians to exert any leadership destroyed.

These increasingly frequent explosions of popular fury -- the far right's surprising showing in the 2002 presidential poll, last year's rejection of the EU Constitution, the strikes and riots -- can be explained in four ways. Most obvious is the economic crisis characterized by low growth (1.4%), mass unemployment (9.6%, but 23% for young people), and three decades of budget deficits that took public debt to 67% of GDP last year from 20% in 1980. Add to that the reality of a nation divided into social classes, by degrees of job security in the era of globalization, and by geography and ethnicity. These fault lines even run through the young, as shown by the violent clashes between students and gangs from urban ghettos.

The third cause is the feeling of humiliation and of sinking into nihilism, of which the ransacking of the Sorbonne and a number of other universities, copying the cultural revolution of 1968, offers a sinister illustration.

Finally, public debate is stuck in an ideological capsule sealed off since the 1980s. The closed and managed economy of the 1960s is the revered myth; globalization is demonized; the new geopolitical reality of a post-Soviet world is denied. All of this feeds a dynamic of hatred, fear and violence, bringing about a climate of civil war.

Social violence has as its corollary the dissolution of political power. The institutions of the Fifth Republic preserve their monarchic form but have been emptied of all authority and all capacity for action. The political legitimacy of the president has been annihilated from without by the weakness of his electoral base, which was limited to less than 20% at the first round of the 2002 election, and from within by his rejection of all forms of responsibility for the series of failures, electoral defeats and forced cohabitation with its political opponents.

The executive power has never been as impotent and divided since the days of the Fourth Republic: A president is hostage to the whims of a prime minister as stillborn as his reform projects, while the government is run day by day by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has wrested control of the ruling party from Mr. Chirac after a hard fight. An absent parliament, a judicial system traumatized by a succession of resounding scandals, challenges to established authority and nonexistent intermediary organizations. Add to that list an aged and discredited political class, as much cut off from French society as it is from the world of the 21st century.

Overwhelming as this all is, it does not doom France to be unreformable and ungovernable. First of all, although the mobilization against the Villepin project was excessive, its failure isn't illogical. None of the three conditions for reform were met. He didn't have a political mandate from voters, who have punished the ruling party at every opportunity since 2002. He didn't put forward a coherent and accepted plan for change, and he consistently defended the social model that the law was supposed to undercut. Nor was he able to bring strong leadership to bear, since his only "supporter" is a weak president in the late autumn of his career. Mr. Villepin lacked, in other words, what Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were able to bring to bear in their history-changing fights with the air traffic controllers or the miners.
The consequences of this crisis are chiefly political, though a fresh blow to France's image will dissuade investment and job creation. In the first place, the president and government no longer have any legitimacy to act or reform: 2006 will be yet another useless year, which can be added to the 11 others that can be charged to Jacques Chirac's account since he first moved into the Elysée. Mr. Villepin's ambitions of winning the presidency next year lie in ruins, while Mr. Sarkozy emerged stronger, able to take credit for the effective handling of the security forces during the nationwide strikes and his ability to mediate a resolution to the crisis.

But the main beneficiaries are on one hand the parties of the left and the unions, which have rebuilt their unity around opposition to the sitting government. On the other hand, the far right has been formidably reinforced by the violence and destructiveness of the young immigrant community.

The ability of France to reinvent itself as a nation will decide the fate of any reforms that would follow the pivotal 2007 election. The shocks of history at this beginning of the 21st century can be felt in all developed countries. From the American presidential election in 2004 to this month's Italian elections, we have seen electorates mobilized but also deeply polarized, thus limiting the ability of democracies to govern properly and bring about necessary changes.

Those changes are urgently needed in France more than any other country. Beyond the failure of the government, and the repeated crises, an awareness of the impasse that the French political, social and economic model finds itself in is developing. Also clear is that people see how crucial next year's presidential elections will be, possibly an opportunity to set the stage for peaceful reforms.

The first act of reconstructing the nation would be to have a straightforward debate on the condition and choices before the country. Without that, there can exist no clear mandate, no strong leadership, no mobilization of national interest beyond local or corporate interests. Without that, there can be no real possibility of the modernization of France.

Mr. Baverez, an economist, is the author of "La France Qui Tombe" (Perrin, 2003). This essay was translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell.

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