The disaster striking France

`The nation's decadence has no other explanation than the anachronism and cowardice of her political class'

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It is a serious mistake to equate the victory of the Socialist Lionel Jospin and his plural left alliance (radical socialists, communists and ecologists) in France with the Labour victory of Tony Blair in Britain which put an end to 18 yearsofConservative government.

This last was a sensible decision by the voters of the United Kingdom, aimed at guaranteeing the liberal reforms that have made the British economy the most dynamic in Western Europe and the fastest generator of employment; and at punishing a Conservative Party which, under the mediocre leadership of John Major, had been held captive by a handful of ultra-nationalists (Redwood, Portillo, Lilley) whose demagogy might well have provoked a definitive break between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which now absorbs 60 per cent of British exports.

The electoral results in France bear witness to the confusion and lurching disorientation of a society which, for 20 years now, has been swinging from left to right and from right to left, each swing ending in frustration, because of policies that have been systematically aggravating unemployment, social burdens, taxes, and the weakness of French enterprise in competitive world markets, and attenuating the international influence of France. It is this failure of the two great ideological currents - conservative and socialist - which has made possible the alarming growth of extremist, xenophobic nationalism manifest in the increased vote for the Front National of Le Pen (15 per cent).

The decadence of France has no explanation other than the anachronism and cowardice of her political class and, within this class, of an illiberal right. Having won the most crushing majority ever enjoyed by any government in the Fifth Republic, the right did not dare to make a single one of the basic reforms in the economic and social structure (those which from 1979 on, Mrs Thatcher had made in Britain) required to modernise France and enable her to enter the 21st century through the front door.

That is why France still has the largest, most interventionist state and the most rigid labour laws in Europe, which explains why unemployment is 13 per cent, while Britain's is only 6 per cent - and a scale of taxation so heavy that its "black economy" has been burgeoning to Italian proportions.

Why should the voters have granted the renewed mandate Chirac desired of them when, in four years of government by the right, they have been frustrated in all their expectations by unreal populist promises? Chirac, let us remember, promised to increase employment and reduce taxes, assure growth and to reinforce the welfare state, while defending the "French identity" against the diluting or dissolving influence of globalisation. As those promises were incompatible, he did not keep them; and as the last straw, amused himself by setting off a few atomic bombs at Mururoa atoll in a costly and ridiculous operation.

It was soon evident to the whole world and to the French themselves that the right was opposed to liberalism; and that when accused of being "ultraliberal" or "Thatcherite" it was prone to panic and fell to gesturing confusedly, denying in its deeds what in the speeches of its leaders it claimed to be doing.

First Balladur then Juppe talked of the need to privatise the public sector, but the mere mention of privatisation sparkled a reaction from the trade unions. They backed down immediately every time, and came near to apologising for their rashness. So it is one or the other; either they never really believed in the need for these reforms, or their irresolution and tactical opportunism outweighed their convictions. I am inclined to believe there was a little of both. Largely on account of Gaulist nationalism and its cult of the big state, liberalism was always something of an exotic flower on the French right.

The oddest thing is to read how, according to observers in the politically correct press worldwide, Chirac and his party have been dethroned on account of their "ultra-liberal policies". Which ones? Has not France, now, a prebendary system even more obese than it did under Mitterrand? Have "social services" increased or diminished since that time? How many significant public companies have been transferred to the private sector in the past four years? The regulationism and interventionism that strangle French economic and institutional life - have these jungle vines been dealt even one chop of the liberal machete? Are taxes lower or higher? Has one twig of the bureaucracy been pruned?

If these are ultra-liberal policies, then what word should we use for those that braked and reversed the decline of the British economy in the 1980s, opening it to world and returning to private business the responsibility for creating wealth, which had been expropriated by the bureaucrat and the politico?

How many new proprietors have Messrs Balladur and Juppe created? In Britain, thanks to privatisation, several million were created in under 15 years, allowing a massive spread of shareholding among consumers and giving reality and meaning to the notion of "popular capitalism". Fortunately, there now exists - as in Chile and New Zealand, where similar liberal revolutions have taken place - a consensus shared by Conservative and Labour. Has anything remotely similar been done in France?

In Britain, any real liberal would have voted for Blair so as to curb the nationalism which, like a poisonous tumour, had proliferated in the councils of the Tory party, jeopardising the achievements of its governments. Blair's merit consisted in the renewal of the Labour Party, putting it abreast of the UK's impressive transformation and, even more - a real dialectical leap - turning it into the best guarantor of those changes that have so wonderfully rejuvenated and energised a country which, only 20 years back, seemed as somnambulant and backward as France today.

Unlike French socialism, which still believes in the entrepreneurial role of the state, distrusts private business and defends public social security and a captive labour market, New Labour has opted resolutely for market policies and private enterprise, renouncing nationalisation and admitting that the best way to speed job creation is with a flexible labour market.

French socialism - still seasoned with cultural and economic nationalism - views interdependence and globalisation with sullen resentment and distrust. "Dehumanised" was the word used by Jospin in one of his campaign speeches. New Labour, on the other hand, welcomes the phenomenon as an opportunity for poor countries to emerge from poverty, and for the prosperous ones to reach new levels of development and civilisation. And thus Labour defends a pro-European policy (moderated by legitimate concerns about the directive and bureaucratic bent with which Brussels has been infected by so many socialist governments).

Under Blair, Labour has gone so far as to admit that in the field of education - the last bastion of socialist and social-democrat ideological statism - it might be healthy, democratic and efficient for there to be competition between the public and private sectors and to give parents greater freedom of choice. If this is still "socialism", then who needs liberal parties? The fact is that Blair's win has been a signal vindication of Thatcher; blunt proof that the courageous reforms she brought to pass are now irreversible - an inheritance which British society as a whole has made its own.

Lionel Jospin is not Tony Blair but his opposite, a relic of the 19th century at the end of the 20th. He is a good and candid soul, whose honesty - he was uncontaminated by his participation in the Mitterrand government, when so many had their fingers in the cashbox - and frugality are beyond all doubt. He has not bought a new car in 10 years, and still lives in the modest flat he had when he was a schoolteacher. However, his programme of government, if does not betray his voters by doing the exact opposite of what he promised (which would be a lesser evil for the country), will add a new burden to the chronic slump of France and will aggravate what the French have become accustomed to call "the crisis".

Among other fairy tales, Jospin has promised to create 700,000 jobs with public money. He has yet to see that spending state resources on artificial jobs not only fails to solve unemployment but rather aggravates economic and social problems. He also proposes to "reform" Maastricht so that the criteria of monetary and fiscal orthodoxy may afford more room to "policies of solidarity" - a fair phrase which, in the first week of his government, caused a general slump in European stock markets, and visible signs of investment withdrawal from France. At this rate we shall soon see, as in the two first years of the presidency of Mitterrand, prudent French savers scurrying to Swiss banks and tax paradises further abroad.

With great conviction, Jospin has promised he will put an "end" to privatisation - as if there had been any under way to begin with. Few doubt that, in this at least, he will keep his word. Under his government French "social services" will wax fatter, with a corresponding rise in taxes. The social and economic reverberations of that will lead French voters, exasperated by sinking living standards, the spread of unemployment and consequent social agitation, to defenestrate this good soul and replace him by a conservative as cave-dwelling and palaeolithic as the socialist they have just elected.

Such a see-saw cannot go on indefinitely without provoking one of those historical cataclysms so frequent in the belle histoire of the country that invented the guillotine (belle enough to read about in treatises and novels, but not so belle to live through).

The seed of the next cataclysm has already been sown. It is called Le Front National; and, watered and manured by the malaise and insecurity haunting ever wider reaches of a society which, in the ineptitude of its political class, refuses to address the indispensable liberal reform of its institutions and political culture, the weed has grown mightily, sprouting everywhere and becoming a determining factor in national elections. If that process continues, it is not only impoverishment or economic backwardness that looms on the horizon of a country which - oh, paradox! - was the cradle of the most lucid liberal thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and of several worthies in the 20th. It is, purely and simply, the risk of a collapse - overt or covert - of its democratic system.

In a celebrated metaphor, when the fires of the Paris Commune were blazing, Marx hailed the idealism of the French, remarking they were bent on "taking Heaven by storm". Everything seems to indicate that on the threshold of the third millennium, these stubborn dreamers are still loath to turn their gaze from Heaven and, ill-educated by their mediocre and short-terming politicians, they still refuse to look at the concrete, real world we live in. The longer they delay in doing so, the harder their awakening will be.

Copyright Mario Vargas Llosa

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