John Lichfield: Has France left revolution behind?

'It has moved forward reluctantly, truculently, without losing its essential Frenchness, but without great dynamism'
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The Independent Online

By common consent of historians, Britain is a country of evolution and France a country of revolution. In Britain, we are told, the pattern of things ­ society, the constitution, the economy ­ changes unpredictably but relatively painlessly.

By common consent of historians, Britain is a country of evolution and France a country of revolution. In Britain, we are told, the pattern of things ­ society, the constitution, the economy ­ changes unpredictably but relatively painlessly.

In France, there are long periods of blockage and frustration, punctuated by explosions, at once destructive and creative, that propel the country forward. Thus, in the 1790s, the French had to chop off thousands of heads to acquire the bourgeois freedoms gathered accidentally by the British over the centuries. In 1968, French youth had to throw cobblestones at the riot police to acquire the same right to wear long hair and purple trousers as students across the Channel.

That, in any case, is how it used to be. It has been little noticed that, in the last 20 years, the two countries, as if bored by their own history, have swapped their traditional roles. With the accession of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Britain became a revolutionary country, with all the progress and pain that that implies. The old, stuffy British certitudes and restrictive practices were dynamited but ­ just as in the French Revolution or any revolution ­ far more was destroyed than deserved to be destroyed.

Tens of thousands of British manufacturing jobs were piled onto the tumbrils of monetarism. The ancien régime of public investment in railways, education and health was overturned. A new dynamism was created but at a cost that we are only now learning to count (just as some revisionist French historians are finally pointing out that the French Revolution arrested economic and industrial development in France for 30 years or more.)

France, meanwhile, has been going through a period in which things change slowly, if they move at all. France is no longer the inward-looking, impenetrable, state- dominated, clientelist country that it was until the 1970s or even the 1980s. It has moved forward reluctantly, truculently, without losing its essential Frenchness, without the destruction of its public services, but without great creativity or dynamism either.

With the official opening of the French presidential campaign today, the question arises: is France evolving? Or is France in one of its traditional periods of blockage before a great explosion?

It would be nice to say that the result of the election (over two rounds on 21 April and 5 May) will answer this question. It won't (although the choice made by the French people may be important in other ways.) Whether the left or the right wins, whether we have a President Lionel Jospin or a President Jacques Chirac II, the great questions facing France ­ taxation, pensions, education, health, the French role in Europe ­ will be shelved or fudged in the next five years. As one provincial baron of the centre-right told me last week: "This is a nothing election, a transitional election, at best. I think that many people understand that, which is one of the reasons for the unhealthy sense of frustration in the country. The real issues cannot be solved until this generation of politicians, the Jospin and Chirac generation, has disappeared."

From the 1980s, Britain and France took different turnings, amounting almost to a controlled experiment in rival approaches to modernity. As a consequence, the two countries are obsessed with ­ and frequently misinterpret or misrepresent ­ what is happening in the other.

Seen from the British end of the Channel tunnel, we have a contradictory view of France. It is (a) the country that has got everything wrong. It has high taxes, rigid employment laws, an excessive bureaucracy, a state of permanent surrender to unions and pressure groups and, as a result, higher unemployment and less dynamic growth than Britain.

Alternatively, it is (b) the country that has got many things right. It has public transport systems that work well and cheaply (for the passengers); it has the most up to date, high -speed train system in world; it has a public health service which has been judged the best in the world by the World Health Organisation for the last two years; it has a public education system that has many faults, but which is still used by the vast majority of middle class and wealthier parents.

And, what is more, the French growth record in the last five years is not at all bad, better than Britain's year for year, even though this is partly explained by a natural recovery from the deep recession of the mid 1990s.

Of course, in part, these are two sides of the same euro. France pays higher taxes, has more civil servants and is less dynamic economically, partly but not wholly because it has better public services. Britain has a more flexible, creative economy, partly because it has low taxation and disgraceful public services. We are looking for ways to rebuild them, which will inevitably mean higher taxes (as even the Conservatives now recognise).

The central question for France ­ a question sometimes raised in the election debate ­ is how long the high-taxation public service model can survive in the world of mobile investment and global competition.

The underlying problem ­ and a question never raised in the election debate ­ is how to break down the entrenched interests that resist reform, when the French public has acquired the baffling habit of supporting narrow interests against the national interest ­ in other words, their own interests. Wherever you go in France, from the big cities to La France Profonde, you hear the same complaint: "Politicians? They promise a lot and deliver nothing." The politicians, if they were brave enough, could make the same complaint: "The electorate? They ask us to do a lot and then support the forces that resist all change."

Any attempt to wrestle with real and necessary reform in the last 10 years ­ on state pensions, education, the overblown size of the French financial administration, the health service ­ has been defeated by the selfishness and bloody-mindedness of sectional interests. In almost each case, whether they be lorry drivers or teachers or civil servants or farmers, the French public has displayed an extraordinary indulgence, even support, for the protesters.

Margaret Thatcher broke the power of similar sectional interests in Britain; unfortunately, in doing so (as a true revolutionary) she also dynamited the tradition and quality of investment in public services and infrastructure. The two things do not necessarily have to be destroyed together. To evolve, rather than stagnate or explode, France must find ways to preserve the quality of its public services, while breaking down its entrenched interests.

This means continuing to invest in TGV lines, but not continuing to tolerate a system that allows train drivers to work only 12 hours a week and to retire, on full pensions, at 50. It means preserving the collapsing state pension system by allowing private pension plans (which are currently illegal). It means preserving, or restoring, the quality of the education service by breaking the power of the teachers, who run the system in their own interests, rather than those of the pupils.

The capacity of France to move forward is blocked not by statism but by corporatism. In a sense, the state is too weak to force through the kind of changes that intelligent politicians, on both right and left, know are needed.

Neither a President Jospin nor a President Chirac II is likely to have the breadth of vision, or support within the country, or their own political camp, to be more than a crisis manager. France faces five years of fudge and drift. The question remains whether, at the end of that time, France will be ripe for evolution ­ or revolution.