France faces up to anxieties of the global society

Mary Dejevsky, leaving Paris after a two-year posting, finds that Gallic angst about the modern world is misplaced
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Just over four years ago I was preparing to leave my last foreign posting, in Moscow, and looking back over the uniqueness of what we correspondents had witnessed: the accelerated decline and fall of a world power. The Soviet Union was disbanded at midnight on 25 December 1991 and vanished into history.

So it was with a sense of deja vu that I found my departure after two years in Paris coinciding with frenzied discussion of a book, Will France disappear?, by Jean-Claude Barreau, head of the Institute of Demography, which broaches the possibility that France as we know it might not survive the social and economic spasms of the next generation. It might be dismissed as another bout of introspection to which Gallic souls are periodically disposed, but the book, and the attention it has received, suggest something more is afoot.

A hitherto confident nation seems to be assailed by self-doubt. The question people are asking, taken to its conclusion by Barreau, is whether the French state and being French are compatible with participation in the modern world. This question is quite different from France's nostalgia for its dying villages and rural way of life. It is different, too, from the fervent defence of the French language and culture against the perceived "Anglo-Saxon" (mostly American) onslaught.

Rather, it has to do with a Europe that seems to be encroaching on French identity and threatening sovereignty. It has to do with first-, second- and third-generation immigrants who resist assimilation and turn to Islam. It has to do with an "apartheid" that has developed between the suburbs of French cities and the chic city centres.

It has to do with standards of education and assumptions about behaviour; it has to do with the decline of colonial influence, the Cold War victory for market economics and "globalisation". All these are treated by Barreau as threats that impinge particularly on France partly because, he argues, of its lack of a single ethnic identity and its secular state. The past two years have certainly given the French a taste of what "joining the modern world" might mean. Opposition to the resumption of nuclear testing was found shocking and "disloyal" when it came from France's partners in Europe. By itself, France was unable to match action to rhetoric in Bosnia or in its traditional stamping grounds in Africa.

At home, unemployment, at 12.7 per cent, is one of the highest in Europe. There have been race riots on housing estates and Islamic terrorist bombs, with agents among French-born and French-educated young men, and there have been strikes and protests.

The first round, in autumn 1995, came within an ace of overthrowing the government and halted the rationalisation of state pensions and reform of the railways.

Round two, this winter, reduced the pensionable age for lorry drivers and halted public transport in a dozen cities.

Barreau may exaggerate when he asks whether France will "disappear". To broach the question in such sweeping terms, however, well illustrates a feeling that permeates almost every area of French life: the feeling that France is at a junction between tradition and modernity and must choose one or the other.

A widespread impression, born of the labour and anti-privatisation protests, is that the French have dug in their heels and that the government is reluctantly letting them have their way. A machiavellian interpretation would be that this is exactly the impression a reformist government of a conservative people wants to create, while pursuing, by stealth, the modernisation it deems necessary.

And there is evidence not only that more change is in progress than many realise, but that the French are more change-minded than they are given credit for - even if the changes they would like to see do not coincide with those wanted by the government.

Notwithstanding the protests of the past two years, the welfare system, including such sensitive areas as health and social security, is being reformed. Domestic finances (with the help of a little cheating) are being brought into line; road haulage, air routes and telecommunications are being opened to competition, albeit slowly and reluctantly. The restructuring of the railways has begun.

So much for the changes engineered from the top. Other - perhaps even more telling - changes are being demanded from the bottom. The elite caste that comprises the French political establishment is being challenged. To an outsider, the challenge seems timid. To well-protected insiders, who include the Prime Minister and President, it probably seems to shake the very pillars that support their authority. Political links with the judiciary; political links with big business; the elite administration school, ENA (should ENA be burnt down? asked one magazine recently); the tameness of the national media - all are coming under scrutiny.

A whole system of patronage, which benefits the establishment of the left as much as the right, is under threat. France is still a country where the establishment, compared with the "Anglo-Saxon" world, is closed and where the media - or enough of them to make a difference - can be controlled in the name of stability and national cohesion.

The weakening of France's traditional, centralising underpinnings - good and bad - however, would not mean that France had ceased to exist. Nor are they all likely to be lost. A recent OECD report blaming France's generous benefits system and job security for high unemployment and budget deficit was dismissed by Paris with the words "the OECD's choices are not those of France". Trying to balance the requirements of a "social state" with the demands of the market is what is loosely described by French politicians, perhaps wishfully, as "the third way".

France could be fortunate. It might just find that its "third way" eventually meets up with the "Anglo-Saxons" as they start to retreat from the consequences of all-out competition and find themselves acknowledging the need for state social intervention to keep the peace. To reach that point, however, in terms of competitiveness, openness, and social mobility, France still has a long way to go.