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Latest Criticism of France Is a Domestic Product

A debate flares after some intellectuals say the nation has been plunged into decline by its leaders and a resistance to change.

October 26, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The France-bashers are at it again.

This time, however, they don't work for the Pentagon or the British tabloids. They aren't emptying bottles of Bordeaux into American gutters or canceling tours of the Riviera.

This time, the people announcing that France is going to the dogs are respected and influential French intellectuals. This country enjoys a good old rip-snorting, two-fisted theoretical debate, so the outburst of lament over France's supposed decline has reverberated far and wide.

Nicolas Baverez, a historian and economist, has led this fall's doom-and-gloom pack of books and essays. His manifesto: a 135-page bestseller titled "France Is Falling." His thesis: The country's economy, politics and society have sunk into paralysis because leaders have consistently and self-destructively resisted change and refused to accept the realities of a modernizing, globalizing world.

Baverez blames an antiquated, statist mentality for unemployment mired at near 10%, economic growth near zero, crippling strikes, the deaths of almost 15,000 people during an August heat wave that overwhelmed a health system on vacation, and other maladies both tangible and existential.

In contrast to the United States, Baverez writes, French leaders believe "the more things change, the more must be done to change nothing.... This political, economic and social immobility, which is also intellectual and moral, has plunged France into decline.

"The autism of a political class moored to the models of the 1960s and 1970s has ... [degraded] the nation."

Those are fighting words. And the French take them seriously because they don't come from a chauvinist of the kind seen prowling the American heartland lately. A number of academics and analysts echo Baverez's description of a stagnant society whose frustrated scientists flock to U.S. universities, whose restless entrepreneurs head for boomtown London and whose average wage earners show "aristocratic contempt" for work, in the words of commentator Pascal Bruckner.

"The French are afraid of the world, afraid of others and even more afraid of themselves," Bruckner wrote in a fall edition of the journal Commentaire that was dedicated to the question of a national malaise. "And they are afraid of their fear."

The response to the decline theorists breaks down partly along ideological lines, reviving a long-running war. Critics, especially on the left, say Baverez uses statistics selectively. They point out that he and many of his partisans come from the free-market, neoliberal school, which they suspect of wanting to dismantle France's generous social services and strong labor protections in order to impose savage frontier capitalism.

"In the area of economic and social policy, he is fundamentally rooted on the right," reviewer Laurent Mauduit wrote in the newspaper Le Monde. "That's the trademark of this new current of 'declinist' thought: It finds its intellectual origin in neoliberal theories."

France's economy remains an international powerhouse, analysts point out, and even many blue-collar workers benefit from good wages, long vacations, low-cost health care and an array of government-funded services in everything from arts to sports. Baverez simply goes too far, Mauduit says, when he makes catastrophic pronouncements -- such as his view that France has carried out a "euthanasia of production and work."

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin seems close to Baverez on the political spectrum, but he was not spared -- or amused -- by the book's volley of attacks on his conservative government.

Raffarin told journalists this month that it was time to stop parroting a "frozen theory of decline" resurrected "every 20 years by people who are supposedly great intellectuals." The prime minister rubbed it in by declining to mention Baverez by name.

On the other hand, Raffarin's policies and rhetoric are based on the premise that the time has come to clean house. Raffarin was appointed by President Jacques Chirac because of his reputation as a pragmatic trouble-shooter with an ear for the woes of everyday people. Chirac took office last year after a disturbing first-round election seen by many as a watershed: In historic numbers, 35% of voters cast their ballots for extremist and protest candidates, and 40% of the electorate simply stayed home.

Raffarin has grappled with a giant bureaucracy that is seen as the millstone of French leaders regardless of their ideology. He has tried to reduce retirement benefits that threaten to bankrupt the pension system and has tinkered with a 35-hour workweek blamed for flagging productivity and employment.

At the same time, Chirac has charged into world affairs. His advocates say he has skillfully used the United Nations to project French power on issues such as his opposition to the war in Iraq.

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