May 10, 1981: Francois Mitterrand became the first socialist President of the French Fifth Republic. This is my first political memory.
I still remember jubilant throngs dancing in the street, people honking their horns ecstatically; a country celebrating the good fortune Mitterrand pledged to bring to France. What the media then called the “Generation Mitterrand” - mostly baby boomers growing up during 30 glorious years of economic growth - brought to power a political ambition relying on the magical power of the state. According to the model presented by Mitterrand, the government would basically regulate every aspect of everyone’s life, ensuring their general happiness. The financial institutions were nationalized, taxes were created and subsequently increased, the Club Med flourished.
Twenty-five years later, the consequences of the process initiated by this election is frightening: France is stuck in a model incompatible with the world of 2006.
At the end of 1970’s, the GDP of France was higher than the GDP of the United Kingdom. While France developed a culture of assistance, the UK was shaken up by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s social reforms and subsequently jumped ahead in the modern economic world. In the 90’s, the GDP of the UK surged past that of France, which remains still in a slow state of decline.
As Tony Blair continued to mix up the conservative English establishment, Jacques Chirac, successor of Mitterrand (technically coming from the opposite side of the political exchequer) pursued policies isolating France from the rest of the world. The reduction of the French work week to a maximum of 35 hours was counterproductive to sustained economic growth. While increasingly more countries proved themselves able to compete on the worldwide economic stage, France crippled itself with the perceived credo “work less to succeed.” Would responsible parents say that to encourage their children? This stance taken by the politics in France contributed to the creation of a culture of assistance; where one expects the government to provide everything from guaranteed revenue to an apartment, from a job for life to a pension when one retires.
Nowadays, France appears deeply seeped in apathy. There are always exceptions; however most of the French people are terrified of globalization. Recent events played out on the world stage aptly illustrate this fear. Last summer, the referendum on the European Constitution was not approved because people thought they would be invaded by Polish plumbers. Cultures clash in Paris as immigrants try to carve out a life for themselves in a challenging environment. And most recently, the law introducing the “contract first job” was withdrawn under the pressure of the street protests. As a French native living in the United States, I watched these dramas unfold with as much confusion as Americans felt. Let’s detail this last example of the French dismay.
The French government tried to insert some “flexibility” in the labor laws by allowing employment-at-will for the two first years of employment for employees less than 26 years old. This law generated protests and anger all over France, as the world watched. In the US, it was dumbfounding as this is an economy which succeeds with employment-at-will. In a country, where the unemployment rate of those under 30 is at its highest (more than 40 percent in certain regions), this measure would have provided the opportunity to some young people to have a first job and develop this necessary working experience. Nevertheless, millions of people led by unions protested and students blocked universities until the government finally withdrew the law.
But still, it remains unclear to most Americans. What was the main concern of the protesters? It all boils down to one answer: Youth would not enjoy the same social protection than their parents of the Generation Mitterrand. Better to have young people unemployed that having them working under such a “precarious” status.
This is where France exists now: totally disconnected from the world, living in a paralyzing, quixotic model.
This country has many resources and assets that are waiting to be regenerated. A new generation of politics needs to take power and lead a turn-around strategy: reenergizing the growth with liberal measures, encouraging initiative and entrepreneurship, reducing the weight of the public administration. Unfortunately the France of today is not encouraging such potential leaders to voice their ideas. Many French leave the country to work which creates a brain-drain and an economic vacuum that needs to be reversed. This is leaving French culture of old moored in a sea of globalization.
French people face a decisive and urgent decision: keeping an archaic model which will lead the country to a black hole, or embracing the world by opening minds and eyes.