French elections can be as entertaining as Russian roulette. Twelve years ago, in early 1995, it was taken for granted that Edouard Balladur, a conservative prime minister, would succeed the outgoing socialist president François Mitterrand without further ado. The Left was then a spent force. So, evidently, was Jacques Chirac, another conservative Gaullist and a former prime minister (and unsuccessful contender for the presidency). But then a satiric TV show, Les Guignols de l’Info (The News Puppets), started featuring Chirac as a French-style Forrest Gump who would answer questions on any topic, political or economic, with the phrase “Eat apples.” In April 1995, Jacques “Apple” Chirac won out over both Balladur and the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.
Two years later, Chirac called a new parliamentary election, not in order to solve a crisis between the executive and the legislature but simply to suit his political convenience. This, though allowed under the constitution, had never been done before, and the public did not like it. His parliamentary majority was ousted and replaced by the socialists. Jospin now became prime minister and remained in place for five years.
The next presidential election, in 2002, was even more sensational. Bidding for a second seven-year term, Chirac was challenged again by Jospin, who this time looked sure to win. But then France’s two-ballot system came into play. In the first round, a plethora of left-wing candidates pulled so many votes away from Jospin that he was reduced to the third position, behind Chirac and the far-Right agitator Jean-Marie Le Pen, and was ejected from the race. On the second ballot, some 80 percent of the voters backed Chirac over Le Pen. Chirac was foolish enough to believe they had elected him.
And now we have the elections of 2007. First the presidential election, with its first ballot on April 22 followed by a runoff between the two top vote-getters on May 6; then the National Assembly elections in June. Two years ago, everyone would have sworn that the presidential winner would be the maverick conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s minister of the interior. Then Sarkozy’s fortunes declined sharply, while those of another star—and another maverick—were rising: Ségolène Royal, the socialist governor of Poitou-Charentes in western France. Early this year, Sarkozy made a strong comeback, and Royal fell from grace. At that point a third candidate, François Bayrou, a nice, decent, articulate, over-ambitious centrist, unexpectedly entered the picture, effectively challenging both Royal and Sarkozy. Complicating matters still further was the perennial candidacy of Le Pen.
By the time this issue of COMMENTARY reaches subscribers, the first ballot will be over, and the two candidates with the highest number of votes will have begun battling it out for the May 6 runoff. But what does it all mean? Common wisdom—in America at least—is that the French are and will always remain an utterly fickle people, as individuals and as a nation. This may be true—up to a point. My own belief is that the vagaries of the French vote tell us a great deal about the profound uncertainties the country is now facing.
Books about “national decline” and the “growing national crisis” have been best-sellers in France for at least the past four years. The first and still the most trenchant was La France qui tombe (“Falling France,” 2003), by Nicolas Baverez, a lawyer and a graduate of the immensely prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration (National School of Public Administration, or ENA). The same year saw the publication of Le Grand Gaspillage (“The Great Waste”) by the distinguished Sorbonne historian Jacques Marseille, followed by the same author’s La Guerre des Deux France (“The War of the Two Frances,” 2004) and more recently Les Bons Chiffres pour ne pas voter nul en 2007 (“The Right Figures for a Sensible Vote in 2007”).
Both Baverez and Marseille can be described as moderately conservative free-marketeers; both write columns for Le Point, the right-of-center weekly of news and opinion. Two other declinists come from a very different background. Michel Godet, a professor of industrial economy, was originally close to the Christian Left but over time developed a robust critique of French industrial and social policy. His 2003 book Le Choc de 2006 (“The Shock of 2006”) pointed to the exorbitant price the country was paying for its extensive welfare state, a thesis elaborated this year in Le Courage du bon sens (“The Courage of Common Sense”). Claude Allègre, a geologist of repute, served as a minister in Jospin’s government, where he tried and failed to reform the French educational system. Subsequently he became one of the country’s best columnists, first at L’Express, the left-of-center weekly, and then at Le Point.
A fifth should be mentioned: Louis Chauvel, a young sociologist at the Institut de sciences politiques de Paris (Paris Institute for Political Science, or “SciencesPo,” as everybody calls it), who has produced a short, dry assessment of the collapse of the French middle class, Les Classes Moyennes à la dérive (“The Middle Class Adrift”). Like Godet and Allègre, Chauvel was seen initially as a man of the Left, and is still supposed to be close to that orientation—which makes his indictment all the more notable.
To understand where these various authors are coming from, it helps to bear in mind the bedrock fact that France is one of the founding nations of Europe—that is to say, one of its oldest nation-states. Since the Great Revolution of 1789, since Napoleon, it has been a modern, secular society. In the 19th and 20th centuries it grew into a world leader in science, technology, finance, culture, art, and literature. It conquered and then emancipated a large colonial empire. And it took a decisive role in the formation of what is set to become a 21st-century superpower, the European Union.
Very few countries can lay claim to such a glorious destiny, or to a more stable national identity. To be endowed with a special destiny and identity is, in itself, a political blessing. But what if that glory is challenged, and the national identity eroding? What if the actual stuff France is made of—its shared culture, its assurance of a common heritage—is disintegrating?
It has happened before. The early decades of the 20th century were a time when France, suddenly mired in a demographic and economic slowdown, seemed to hover between national pride and national despair. This culminated in the full-fledged disaster of 1940, when France was crushed by Germany and subjected to nation-wide occupation. Fortunately, Germany was crushed in turn by the Anglo-Saxon powers and Soviet Russia, and France was allowed to recover. And so it did, with a vengeance. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, there was much talk in the world of a Japanese miracle, a German miracle, even an Italian miracle. France was a fourth and no less impressive miracle. National independence and national influence were restored, demographics improved, the economy boomed once more. France felt like France again.
Despite warning signs, like the simultaneous rise of Le Pen’s National Front on the far Right and of various Trotskyite and other radical groups on the far Left, this newfound optimism lasted for two more decades. Since the mid-1990’s, however, it has become untenable. Drawing from the works of our four or five whistleblowers and others, we can reliably paint the following portrait of France today.
Before the 1789 revolution and the Napoleonic wars, France, a very rich agricultural country, was the most populous state in Europe, with 27 million inhabitants. Right after the defeat at Waterloo, the birthrate started to decline, and by the last third of the 19th century had fallen close to zero. From 1800 to 1900, the French population increased by only 30 percent, whereas all other European nations experienced a growth rate ranging from 100 to 300 or even 400 percent. (Although differing on the reasons, most present-day demographers believe that France was one or two generations “ahead” of a cyclical population bust that ultimately affected the entire Western world.)
France was dwarfed by its neighbors—a leading factor in its defeat at the hands of Germany in 1870 and its desperate quest thereafter for anti-German alliances with Russia, with England, with the United States, with the small Central and Eastern European States, with anyone. Hence, too, its second and more humiliating defeat in 1940.
After 1945, the country made a startling demographic comeback. This could be attributed in part to another cyclical phenomenon known as the postwar baby boom—whereby, after the carnage of World War II, all combatant nations started to produce an average of three to four children per family. In France, additional factors were also at play, including immigration from other European countries or from overseas colonies. All in all, the French population grew by 25 percent in the fifteen years between 1945 and 1960, leading Michel Debré, General de Gaulle’s first prime minister, to draw up plans for a “100-million-person France” by the year 2000.
It did not materialize. By the late 1960’s, France had swung, just like all other largely Caucasian nations, from baby boom to an even more drastic baby bust. The overall birthrate fell below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Thanks to the generous natalist incentives of the French welfare state, and to the much higher degree of immigration from overseas countries with very high birthrates, the decline was not as pronounced as in other European countries; nevertheless, by 2007 France’s population stood at only 63 million. According to the UN, it is likely to be no higher than that in 2050.
True, most other European populations are also forecast to decline sharply; by these standards, stasis may sound like good news. But the French population as a whole is aging: in 2005, almost one-fourth of the population was above sixty, while citizens between the ages of twenty and fifty-nine—i.e., those whose labor supports the rest of the population, either directly or indirectly—amounted to just 50 percent. Then, too, immigration, which is sustaining the French population, is at the same time gradually displacing the native French community. But that brings us to the next element of the picture.
Six million legal immigrants, 90 percent of them from the Islamic lands of the southern Mediterranean or from sub-Saharan Africa, have entered France over the past 30 years. The rate of entry is accelerating, and so is the rate of naturalization: 150,000 new citizens yearly since 1999. For its part, illegal immigration seems to be keeping pace—at a rate, according to some sources, of 100,000 to 200,000 every year. Most of these illegals stay, and are eventually granted immigrant rights. Moreover, any child born on French soil, whether of French or immigrant or illegal alien parents, is given French citizenship.
The immigrant and post-immigrant community is estimated today at more than 15 million. It is much younger than the native French population, and it tends to have a much higher birthrate. In all likelihood, then, its share of the population will rise dramatically over the next two decades, to the point where the 63 million people forecast for France in 2050 may inhabit a southern-Mediterranean, African, Islamic country that also happens to include native French enclaves. The trend is magnified still further by the growing sense of identification between the immigrant community and the 5 million non-white French natives living either in the overseas “departments” of the West Indies and Réunion Island or in France proper, many of whom are also converting to Islam.
The 2002 presidential election was the first in which immigrants and post-immigrants showed their muscle: when the anti-immigrant Le Pen was defeated by Chirac in the second round, thousands celebrated in France’s major cities while waving the flags of their countries of origin, especially Algeria and Morocco. This year’s election campaign has highlighted even more dramatic changes. Every single political party, including that of Le Pen, has been wooing immigrant and post-immigrant voters, now a sizable chunk of the electorate. All the candidates surround themselves with immigrant aides, and in televised meetings of candidates with panels of ordinary citizens, immigrants, post-immigrants, and non-white native French are routinely overrepresented. Political leaders are quite candid about the leverage these “neo-French” will exert, and are entitled to exert, on the nation’s future.
Classic French society—the one that lasted from the revolution to the end of the 20th century, that is on display in the pages of the great French novelists, and that features in the work of the great film-makers from Renoir to Truffaut, from Chabrol to Sautet—was based first and foremost on strong nuclear families. As designed by Napoleon’s civil code, divorce was allowed in principle but very difficult to obtain in practice; legitimate children, although strictly equal among themselves, were favored over natural ones; fathers wielded greater authority than mothers.
French society rested also on a pervasive but highly respected state apparatus that included the military forces and the civil service as well as the school system, the universities, and a whole array of state-run industries and workshops; on the franc, a gold-related currency; on special arrangements in religious matters according to which a secular government and a large free-thinking minority coexisted with a nominally Catholic majority and other faiths; on a very substantial class of small farmers, and an even more substantial urban working class with a distinct socialist or Communist subculture; on the predominance of Paris, the “city of lights”; and finally on a broad and vitally important middle class, comprising (in the words of Louis Chauvel) “senior civil servants, academics, engineers, entrepreneurs and tradesmen, executives and bureaucrats, craftsmen and shopkeepers,” all sharing a common education and a common culture and committed to the maintenance of the national heritage.
Naturally, there were constant changes and adjustments; but these, until recently, were brought about in a piecemeal and cosmetic fashion. While the modern French polity was proverbially unstable—fourteen constitutions, three royal dynasties, five republics, and some 50 revolutionary crises from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the suburban riots of 2005—French society itself was remarkably stable. Just to give one stunning example: the baccalauréat, the test that monitors access to French universities, and the concours des Grandes Ecoles, the highly selective exams by which a slim elite is filtered into the top super-universities, were suspended only once, during the German conquest of France in June 1940. Four years later, they were conducted as usual amid the no less feverish liberation of the country by the Allies.
All that is now gone.
The main contributing factor is probably the disintegration of the family. The divorce rate has grown from 12 percent in 1970 to almost 40 percent in 2005; 20 percent of all French couples are unwed; one third of all mothers are living alone; 40 percent of all children are born to unmarried parents. Indeed, the “recombined family” has become the French sociological and ethical norm, the result of successive unions and separations in which children wander from home to home under arrangements of “shared parental authority” and must learn to get along with a host of similarly forlorn children produced by the companions of their biological parents. In order to keep up with the trend, the civil code itself has been revised—thus accelerating the process. Full equality has been introduced between fathers and mothers, between legitimate and natural children, between married and unmarried couples; although same-sex marriages are still not legal, same-sex civil unions are.
A series of other, analogous disruptions has affected every aspect of the French way of life. While the state has grown inordinately, most of its rule-making functions have all but disappeared. Everybody knows that the ultimate seat of power, in terms of laws and regulations as well as in terms of judicial recourse, is now the EU rather than the French Republic, the Europarliament and the European Commission rather than the French parliament and the French government. State schools, once excellent, have been crippled by the combined effects of the feminization of the teacher corps and immigration. In most urban areas, school premises have been effectively consigned to teenage thugs who make a point of constantly challenging and humiliating female teachers and principals. State universities, once outstanding, have steadily deteriorated since 1968, and the super-universities or Grandes Ecoles have faced fierce competition in the global learning market. (According to a March 2007 report, not a single French academic institution is listed among the world’s 100 best universities.) Since the abolition of the draft in 1995, the state’s armed might has been reduced to a largely symbolic nuclear capacity and a rather small rapid-deployment force for peace-keeping missions only. And the franc has been replaced by the euro.
As far as religion is concerned, the Catholic Church collapsed in the late 1960’s and has never recovered: according to one recent poll, only 51 percent of the French own to being Catholic, and only 17 percent of these observe Catholic rituals. Evangelical Protestants are trying to fill the Christian void—there may now be twice as many evangelicals as mainstream Protestants—and the Catholic Church itself, or at least the laity, is attempting to fight back, so far without discernible success. As for the French secular religions (the free-thinkers, the so-called “humanistic” schools of thought, the old socialist and Communist sub-cultures), these are faring even worse.
Agriculture, industrialized and now EU-sponsored, still plays a sizable role in the French economy, but farmers have virtually vanished as a class (constituting only 3 percent of the working population), and whole sections of the countryside have reverted to fallow land and untended forests. The industrial working class is shrinking as well: from 38.5 percent of all jobs in 1974 to about 20 percent in 2005. Workers are deserting both the unions and the left-wing political parties. Thanks to the depredations of urban-renewal projects, historic Paris has been emptied of its traditional working- and middle-class population and turned into a yuppie theme park: much of its unique vibrancy is gone, and other French cities have so far not been able to replace it or to compete with the so-called Eurocities of London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Berlin, Zurich, Milan, Barcelona.
The French middle class, Chauvel sums up, is haunted by “a sense of impending doom.” Salaries have not kept pace since the 1980’s; meritocracy no longer seems to work as a vehicle of social promotion; unemployment is climbing, devastating the lives of people already deprived of a functioning family; property has become unaffordable unless one inherits; prospects of a secure retirement grow dimmer every year. The parents of today’s middle class, Chauvel writes, “dramatically improved their own standards of living,” but the children “know they will not enjoy a similar fate. In fact they fear they will be downgraded to an impoverished condition.”
Finally, as if all this were not bad enough, there is crime. Until the 1960’s, France was largely a safe country: people like my parents would slip their keys under the doormat or just leave the door unlocked. It is now an extremely unsafe country, rife with violent assault, arson, armed robbery, and murder, often savage. According to the Institute of National Statistics, the overall crime rate—the ratio of reported criminal activity to population—grew from 12 percent in 1960, to over 60 percent in 1980, to about 70 percent in 2000. The rise may be related to all sorts of circumstances, including economic ones. But it is incontrovertibly related to immigration. According to police sources, over 60 percent of the criminals and over 90 percent of the crime bosses operating on French soil are either foreigners, immigrants, or the children of immigrants.
France is still indisputably one of the richest and most economically successful countries in the world. It has a GDP of $2.2 trillion. Its per-capita national income is above $30,000. In other words, it is in the same league as Japan and Germany, two much more populous countries.
Present French wealth rests in part on traditional occupations like agriculture, tourism, and fashion; in the past 30 years, these have turned into high-value-added activities. It is also rooted in traditional industries and services (think of Airbus in aviation, Carrefour in mass distribution, Accor in the hotel business, Total-Elf in oil, Renault and Peugeot in the car industry, international banks like Société Générale and BNP-Paribas) as well as in high-technology fields (nuclear energy, telecom, pharmaceuticals). But more disquieting developments have been surfacing over the past two decades.
Whereas most big French companies have been profitable for years, the French GDP has been growing very slowly or not at all. What this means is that French industry and services derive the bulk of their revenue from activities overseas rather than from the domestic economy. In fact, some companies have already drawn the logical conclusion and moved out: a flagship French company like Renault is now registered in the Netherlands.
As for those remaining at home, they are not able to provide enough jobs for the present working population of approximately 30 million. And so about 9 percent of French residents are unemployed—roughly twice the rate in Britain, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, or the United States. Among able-bodied persons under the age of twenty-four, the unemployment rate jumps to 22 percent. To top it off, over 50 percent of today’s jobs are thought to be more “virtual” than “actual,” i.e., they fail the test of rational business management. According to an index compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average number of hours “effectively” devoted to work is only 617 yearly for France, as against 801 in Britain and 865 in the United States.
How do the French cope with this? Simple: they rely on an ever-expanding welfare state that takes care of the unemployed, the poor who are beyond any prospect of a viable job, the uneconomical state-run companies, and the supernumerary petty civil servants or “public-convenience” workers. And this does not count the various handouts and incentives, usually in the form of tax rebates, bestowed by the government on companies that agree not to shut down and move elsewhere.
This aspect of the system started in 1936 with the introduction of paid holidays and official recognition of the role of trade unions. It became firmly entrenched in 1945 with the creation of Securité Sociale, an extensive program of health, retirement, and family benefits. More social programs were to come in the 1950’s, including large-scale public-housing works.
A guaranteed minimum wage was introduced in 1950, to be replaced in 1968 by a constantly upgraded “guaranteed-growth minimum wage.” Working hours were gradually reduced, either by the constant expansion of paid vacation time (from two weeks in 1936 to five weeks in 1982) or by the downsizing of the work week from 40 to 35 hours. Retirement was made compulsory at age sixty-five, in some cases much earlier. “Pre-retirement,” that is, early retirement with full benefits, became a usual practice in the 1970’s. Dismissals were made subject to bureaucratic review, and were frequently compensated by special benefits. Both the civil service and the state-run companies were supposed to create jobs for jobs’ sake.
The state also covers education. Elementary schools and high school have been free since the days of the Third Republic; attempts in the 1960’s to raise tuition fees for colleges to a meaningful level failed abjectly, as did efforts to introduce more competitive selection for college admission.
The process reached its apex in the 1982 Revenu minimum d’insertion (“minimum social-integration income”)—which provides a state income to the long-term unemployed, either French or alien—and the 1999 Couverture médicale universelle (“universal medical coverage”), which gives the same group free access to the (already subsidized and low-cost) health service. All in all, the state budget now eats up 54 percent of the nation’s GDP, while taxation absorbs 44 percent of real income.
As Jacques Marseille points out in Les Bons Chiffres, France is becoming a dual country, in which the majority lives on its “guaranteed-growth minimum wage” and a not so fortunate minority pays the “tax on fortune.” Even so, the state cannot make ends meet and has been borrowing extensively. The public debt grew from the present-day equivalent of 213 billion euros in 1978 to 454 billion in 1990. It then jumped to 740 billion in 1995, and grew again to 1.2 trillion by the end of last year.
But what is called public debt in France is less than half of what would be listed under that heading in countries like the United States or Canada. The category does not include the retirement funds for the civil service (between 800 billion and a trillion euros), the national-health-service deficit, or various private debts (like that of Crédit Lyonnais) taken over by the state. In fact, the true public debt amounts to something like 2.7 trillion euros, or 130 percent of GDP. Marseille warns that it may double over the next fifteen years. This is on the scale of the debt of the Ottoman empire in the late 19th century.
Jacques Chirac was the worst or at any rate the least effective president in the history of the Fifth Republic, the regime founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. It was in his two terms—1995 to 2002 and 2002 to 2007—that the French crisis turned into a catastrophe.
In fairness, one must acknowledge that Chirac realized at the outset that things were deteriorating, and instructed his first prime minister, Alain Juppé, to implement several key reforms. Unfortunately, neither he nor Juppé managed to mobilize public support for the effort, or for that matter to focus on the appropriate measures. Less than a year after his election, protracted strikes and demonstrations forced him to withdraw most of his reform bills. He would never recover, and never again try in earnest to salvage the country.
If Chirac presided over a “falling France,” the three main contenders in this year’s presidential race were all born, so to speak, after the fall. They are younger than Chirac, by about two decades—Bayrou is fifty-six, Royal fifty-four, Sarkozy fifty-two—and their colorful personal and political narratives, each in its own way, fit with the present chaotic situation. None of them would have been a feasible candidate in previous elections. But that is not to say that any of them, if elected, could be expected to stop or easily reverse France’s downward curve.*
Viewed against the grim backdrop of France’s decline, indeed, this year’s election campaign seems almost irrelevant. For that decline is related not so much to the policies of this or that national leader, past, present, or prospective, as to the essential workings of the country’s political system ever since the inception of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
France is nominally a democratic republic, with a popularly elected president, a bicameral parliament (where most power lies with the lower chamber, the National Assembly), 22 regional governments and about 40,000 local councils, a constitutional court, and a more or less independent judiciary. It adheres to the original French bill of rights, issued in 1789, and other bills or declarations including the 1948 UN Charter of Human Rights and the two European charters of rights, the first issued by the Council of Europe in 1950 and the second promulgated by the European Community in 2000.
The reality is different. There are strange, outlandish, Pinochet-like authoritarian elements in the 1958 constitution and in the way that constitution is interpreted. The president can bypass the regular lawmaking procedures and call a referendum on any legislation or even on any constitutional change he favors. Under Article 16, he can declare a state of emergency and rule as a near-dictator for a period of months. “Domaine réservé”—“private domain”—a concept that appears nowhere in the written constitution but is nevertheless part of it, gives him almost exclusive control in matters pertaining to national defense, foreign affairs, and state security. Even the right to pass a bill, that hallmark of modern democracy, has been largely withdrawn from parliament, since government-initiated bills, dubbed “projects,” have priority over parliamentary bills, known merely as “proposals.”
True enough, there are countervailing powers, most of them unintended by the redactors of the constitution. Referenda can be lost. The executive branch is weakened by latent competition between the president and the prime minister: the former may appoint the latter but may not dismiss him. Even when both belong to the same party, conflicts are frequent, and such conflict can lead to a state of dual authority (a/k/a “cohabitation”). France then has to resort to ridiculous measures like sending both its head of state and its head of government to international venues like the European Council or meetings of the G-7 and G-8.
But what really undermines France as a democracy is the constitution behind the constitution: that is, the role played by the non-elected state bureaucracy. As Chauvel puts it:
What used to be said of Prussia—other states have armies, but Prussia is an army that owns a state—applies to France today, with a slight difference. Other countries may have a state bureaucracy, but France is a state bureaucracy that owns a country.
Statism in France is hardly a new issue. Tocqueville devoted a book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, to the subject. He contended that the 1789 revolution, for all its upheavals and radicalism, had ended by reinforcing rather than destroying the monarchical nature of the French state; everything still revolved around the central power and its hierarchically organized agencies. And bureaucratic statism was to play an even more pervasive role in the late 19th and especially in the 20th century.
In 1940, the Vichy regime set up some 60 “leadership schools.” After the liberation of France, one of them, located in the southern Alps, became the model for the Ecole nationale d’administration, founded in 1945 by de Gaulle. Better known by its initials—ENA—the new institution was the epitome of meritocracy. Entry was subject to a competitive examination and in practice highly restricted. The curriculum was very broad: it included economics and management as well as public or administrative law. ENA students traveled a great deal, both in France and elsewhere. What was deemed essential, however, was the school’s spirit: a fierce resolve to make the country great again, and a feeling that ENA graduates were not so much civil servants as the nation’s mentors and guardians.
It took the ENA a decade to mature from a mere project into a full-fledged operation. By the time its graduates, soon renamed “enarchs,” became numerous enough to fill up most senior positions in public administration, France seemed mired in disaster again. The Fourth Republic was a weak all-parliamentary regime, riddled with ministerial chaos and corruption and reeling from defeat in Indochina and the outbreak of war in Algeria. On the other hand, the “French miracle” was under way, thanks to developments like the baby boom, postwar economic growth, the Marshall Plan, and European integration. The question was whether France could seize the moment.
De Gaulle saw to it. Living in apparent seclusion since the early 1950’s at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, a hamlet in rural eastern France, he still had many loyal—even fanatical—supporters. In 1958, when part of the French military rebelled in Algeria, a frightened political class called on the old general to “rescue the republic.” He obliged, but in doing so insisted on remodeling the constitution in his own way and on having it approved by referendum. The Fifth Republic was born, de Gaulle was elected president, and he stayed in charge for ten years.
The 1958 constitution was drafted by Michel Debré, a fervent Gaullist who had also been the main architect of the ENA. No French constitution since the Second Empire so drastically enhanced the executive branch or downgraded the legislature. Even more pertinent, however, was its preferential treatment of civil servants and enarchs over elected politicians. In a complete break with the Westminster model, members of parliament had to resign before joining the executive, but administrators could be elected to parliament or be appointed as cabinet ministers without resigning from the civil service. Moreover, the moment they quit politics, they were allowed to resume their former jobs, with full social benefits.
The logic of “enarchization” was overwhelming. It has been estimated that since the 1970’s, 70 percent of all members of parliament have been civil servants of some sort, including university professors—almost all universities are state-run—and high-school teachers. When it comes to cabinet members, almost 90 percent are enarchs. Out of seventeen prime ministers since 1958, six have been enarchs and another nine have been civil servants or former civil servants, former military men, or former employees of state-run companies. Among presidents, only one, Mitterrand, was a private person; the other four were essentially state servants, and two of them, Giscard d’Estaing and Chirac, were enarchs.
What gave the civil servants even more absolute power was their control of the economy. Ever since 1936, many large companies had been gradually nationalized, from banks and insurance companies to railways and airlines, from mining companies to the steel industry, from radio, TV, and media agencies to aviation and cars. The post-1958 Fifth Republic went much farther, embarking on large-scale industrial schemes that blurred most distinctions between state-run and private companies. The latter became so dependent on government contracts as to behave like de-facto divisions of the former. Some government contracts were also tailored to help favored private companies against their competitors. As enarchs managed the state sector, other enarchs—or the same ones—would be “lent” to private companies in a practice known as pantouflage (“slippering”).
One need not be familiar with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to surmise that such comprehensive sway over a country will gradually become counterproductive, and worse. The more absolute their power, the more the enarchs have tended to run France in their own interest, while assuaging the citizenry with bribes of all sorts. One such bribe, rhetorical but no less effective for that, has taken the form of nationalistic posturing, usually directed against the United States; a favorite slogan of the enarchs is that France’s mission is to uphold and protect a superior continental civilization based on the welfare state against the Anglo-Saxon model of “predatory” free-market capitalism. Structural problems—an aging population, swelling immigration, the public debt—have been ignored.
There was some resistance to the enarchic takeover, to be sure, mostly in the form of social unrest among those who were hit the hardest. There was the so-called student revolution of 1968, which rocked the Fifth Republic for a few weeks and diminished de Gaulle’s personal standing, and there was a brief romance with left-wing terrorism in the early 1970’s. By and large, though, statism prevailed. One reason was that it seemed to be working, and indeed to have fulfilled its primary mission of saving France. Then there were the emollient effects of the ever-expanding welfare state. Finally, under the socialist François Mitterrand, just about every single elite or quasi-elite body in the country, including the Communists and the intellectuals, was brought into—or bought into—the system. In the ensuing decades, the only real challenge has been European integration, especially in the form of “single-market” provisions that have brought more transparency, competitiveness, and fluidity into European economic life.
So what chance, really, is there for a change in 2007? Interestingly enough, three of the four front-runners as of the end of March—Sarkozy, Bayrou, and Le Pen—were not enarchs. And Royal, though an enarch, seemed to have fallen out of touch with that milieu. Of the four, Sarkozy, openly pro-American and a (cautious) critic of the welfare state, was probably the only candidate to have given serious thought to France’s necrotic condition, hinting at various constitutional reforms—from the abolition of the prime minister’s office to a stronger parliament and stronger parliamentary commissions, not to mention progressive cuts in the civil service—that would bring the republic closer to the American political model. Not to be outdone by Sarkozy, Bayrou announced in early April that, if elected, he would abolish the ENA altogether.
But suppose a reforming, anti-statist president were actually elected. Who would assist him in carrying out his declared program, when enarchs and other state servants are all there is?
* At the end of March, the poll rankings had Sarkozy and Royal more or less even at 26 percent, Bayrou at 20 percent, and Le Pen at 15 percent.