Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Internal Challenges For France

George Walden at the Times (UK) believes that Nicholas Sarkozy will win the upcoming election in France, but that the problems he will face in fixing the sick lady that is France are near insurmountable:

The country’s problems can be summed up in one dispiriting phrase: les droits acquis — acquired rights. Handing them out is electorally sweet, taking them back virtually impossible. Think of our own NHS: a Stalinist bureaucracy promising everyone everything free, which many politicians and professionals know can never work, but which popular sentiment makes untouchable. Apply that immobilisme to whole swaths of French life and you can see the new President’s predicament.

With typical chutzpah Jacques Attali, former head of the Bank for Reconstruction and Development, disagrees, claiming that we are all simply jealous of the French quality of life. “A kind of communism that works,” was how a French sociologist once described his country. . . .

The death of real communism has released a Hokusai-size wave of competition from the Far East in its wake, which points to more outsourcing, freer labour markets, social security cutbacks and the rest. In France, these will be ferociously resisted. Prescribing a dose of Thatcherism or Blairism is simplistic. The French are not only financially but also philosophically opposed to changes they believe would impoverish France humanly and culturally. Jacques Chirac proclaimed Anglo-Saxon liberalism the enemy not just of France, but of Europe, and millions on the Left and Right would agree. A highly educated French friend, who tells me he has “barricaded himself in a vigorous abstentionism” for the elections, thinks protectionism is the only choice, and he is far from alone.

So France this weekend faces both a moment of truth and a limited field of action. What could Mr Sarkozy do on immigration? After the recent riots he suggested that compulsory integration was failing, and perhaps the multicultural British had the answer. Ironically it was the moment that Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, began admitting that multiculturalism was a recipe for segregation. If both policies have similar results in practice — ghettos, unemployment, alienation, riots or terrorist attacks — where does France, with twice as many Muslims as Britain, go from here?

In foreign policy the options are equally few. Mr Sarkozy could unfreeze relations with America only as far as opinion in a secularised culture, which delights in regarding George Bush not just as a moron, but a God-struck moron, would allow. As for Europe, it is at the top of no one’s agenda.

And what could any president do about culture? It is not only in economics that there is a sense of backwardness, even if French productivity remains higher than ours. Young people envy the British cultural scene, for all its froth, but it is America’s all-round superiority that truly hurts: in universities, in science, in orchestras, in films, in the best popular culture, in literature. Where is the French E.O. Wilson, or Don DeLillo? Where are The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Simpsons? Like us they can nod their heads sadly but knowingly at the Virginia shootings, but they are not so prejudiced as to believe that one atrocity defines a country. The new president could increase cultural subsidies farther, but the best American universities, like The Simpsons, are financed privately.

A Frenchman once described America as having no identity, though wonderful teeth. But what happens when France’s own identity fades, and its teeth are still not the best?

Read the article here. While I agree Sarkozy faces a mission impossible, I think that he will be a vast improvement over any leadership France has had since 1945.

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