Today's date:
Summer 2007

The Truth About the French Model: The Rest of the World Is Jealous

Jacques Attali, president and CEO of PlanetFinance, was the top aide to President François Mitterrand and the founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate for the presidency, was an assistant to Attali at the Elysée Palace.

Paris —During the hotly contested election earlier this year in France, the fate of "the French model" was much discussed.

I am very much aware that France is seen as an odd animal, able to call a gigantic strike at any moment for obscure reasons. I realize that my country is often seen as the last reservoir of bureaucrats in the world, a kind of sleeping Titanic. The huge strikes organized to prevent young employees from being fired with no explanation puzzles a lot of people. Many take the view that the French denial of work flexibility is just a refusal to face reality.

The truth is very different. The fact is, the rest of the world is jealous of France.

If France is attracting more tourists than any country in the world as well as high levels of foreign investment, it is because the quality of life is so high. When I hear the British bashing France's supposed weaknesses, I wonder why so few French people buy houses in the British countryside, while so many Britons are doing so in France. The reason is the same: The quality of life in France is one of the highest in the world, if not the best. No doubt about it. And France is not going to decline: French productivity per hour is also one of the highest in the world. France is number one, two or three in many fields, and will stay so. I wonder how long the caricature of a lazy France can survive.

There are, of course, some good reasons to criticize France. One is the nature of its political elite: old, in place for more than 30 years, fascinated by the past, unaware of world realities. They are as pathetic as young people in France are dynamic. A revolution is inevitable. When? How? Rapidly? Quietly? Profoundly? A new elite will emerge, in phase with the deep dynamism of the French people. In this regard, the election will shed some light.

But lest foreigners get the wrong impression, let me be clear: France, and the French left in particular, is not going to surrender to any model. France will never become a carbon copy of any other country. And the French left will continue in its own way, albeit modernizing all the time with the help of new technologies.

Yes, France is an exception, but no more than any other country is an exception by its history, geography and culture. There is no reason, therefore, why the French left and right would seek to imitate any other doctrine or set of rules coming from outside. The French left is a mirror of French society, pursuing social justice and social mobility.

France has been built around a strong central state, a unified language and grand projects. This has made France what it is today: a strong nation, with a high standard of living, life expectancy increasing by three months each year and excellent transport infrastructure.

If France is an exception, it is happy to be one. It cannot, and should not, destroy its main attributes just to please its competitors. There is no such thing as a universal, ideal model for the left that France and others should imitate. There are only national situations. In policy terms, the future of the left lies not in surrendering to an overwhelming market economy, but inventing new ways of balancing the market with democracy. This balance, and the means of achieving it, are specific to each country.

That is why there is an agreement among all the parties of the center left to keep a balance between the power of the state (crucial for welfare as well as for protection of the language, industrial policy, policing, defense, foreign policy, social security, social integration, energy, health and pensions) and the power of the regions (in charge of culture, innovation, the environment, roads and schools).

The defense of the French language as the cement of the nation is one of the state's key roles for the future at a time when globalization suggests that other nations are failing in that fight. Neither left nor right in France wants the country to become a patchwork of ethnic communities.

France has many problems—high unemployment, lack of mobility, weakness of higher education, affordability of housing, inadequate integration of minorities, public debt and threat of industrial decline, to name a few. But there is no model outside France to solve these problems.

The French left is happy to consider the so-called British model and to admire some dimensions of it, such as its employment policies. But it should be warned against imitating the whole recipe. For instance, it believes passionately in assimilation, and should be wary of imitating the dangerous shift toward atomized lives or separate communities as we see in Britain or Holland. It is also not convinced that a nation can survive without a strong industrial backbone. The United Kingdom, for example, cannot consist solely of the city of London.

France, therefore, will build on its assets: a strong state, an efficient health system and a strong industrial base, and try to reduce its main weaknesses by improving mobility, research and competition.

The next challenge will be to introduce new ideas to the doctrine of the left, in France as elsewhere. Globalization has so far taken place only in the economy. We need a globalization of democracy, too. For that, we need to imagine the use of new technologies in politics, the wider provision of information and a new concept of participatory democracy. We need to consider the acquisition of skills as an activity worthy of a decent salary rather than exploitation. We need to reorganize and revive the institutions of global world governance.

These are some of the things that all social democratic parties of the world should work for, together, instead of trying to export their own very specific recipes to environments that are totally unsuitable for them.

©New Statesman/Global Viewpoint