December 2, 2003

French Declinism

A great piece by Christopher Caldwell on the decline of France. The virulent anti-Americanism serves only to divert attention from real homegrown problems, political and economic. For starters, the move to shorten the work week hasn't worked:

The short week was meant to spread limited jobs around; it wound up doing the opposite, serving as what Baverez calls a "weapon of mass destruction for industrial production and employment." Today France has the highest youth unemployment in Europe, at 26 percent; only 37 percent of its over-55 population works, a world low. Its employment rate of 58 percent is at the bottom of the developed world. (The figure is 62 percent in the European Union and 75 percent in the United States.) And this grim employment picture is worsened--some would even say caused--by a political inequity. Over the past decade, public-sector employees have been able to enrich themselves in ways that private-sector ones cannot. Government employees can retire after 37.5 years on the job, versus 40 for private workers; they get 75 percent of their salary as a pension, versus 62 percent in the private sector; and the salary in this calculation is based on the best-paid six months for government workers, versus an average of their last 25 years for workers in private industry. So the latter wind up subsidizing the former.

France's decline on the foreign-policy stage has the same root cause, Baverez thinks: a desperate, retrograde clutching at institutions that no longer serve their original purpose. Nostalgic for the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War--not just because it was stable but also because it provided a context in which France could leverage its international power--France is stuck in the 1960s. It has shown "reserve" towards the new democracies of Eastern Europe, from its early opposition to German reunification to President Chirac's condemnation of America's East European allies last spring as "not very well brought up." (Must have been that Communist education.)

And a new "hard left" is forming that resembles its U.S. counterpart in that it doesn't make much sense:

While the country and its leaders have been spinning theories about globalization and American hegemony, a fresh problem has arisen--the resurrection of a hard left. In mid-November, the second annual European Social Forum was held in three Communist-controlled suburbs around Paris. With 55 plenary sessions and 250 seminars, the Forum gathered the losers of postmodernity under the banner of opposition to global capitalism.

With its roots in the World Social Forums held annually in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this European social movement has taken strong root in France, Spain, and Italy. Its motto--"Another world is possible"--promises a Marxist utopia with no program for getting there. Unlike Soviet communism, it offers little mystery and enigma--it's a nullity wrapped in a zero concealed in a nothing. In a certain light, it appears thoroughly ridiculous. Its adherents will tell you with a straight face that they seek a "Third Way" between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. When you sign up for a press pass to the ESF, you're asked to check, under "gender," either "Homme," "Femme," or "Autre." What's more, as with many such movements, you cannot study it up close without risking death by boredom. Even Bernard Cassen, spokesman for one of the organizing groups, tells reporters: "From one forum to the next, we're always kind of repeating the same thing, and we never arrive at anything concrete. We can't go on this way." According to Cassen, the "main weakness" of the Forums is that they leave the working classes cold.

Yes, but they're "anti-war".

Posted by dan at December 2, 2003 12:03 AM