Debating the Republic

France may be in decline, but at least it's talking about it.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Politics

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France is suffering a crisis of confidence. What does it stand for? Where should it go?

‘How has such a brilliant country…become such a mediocre power, so out of breath, so indebted, so closed in its own prejudices?’ the philosopher Chantal Delsol asked recently in Le Figaro. Her article was part of a series entitled ‘What is it to be French?’ that has dominated Le Figaro’s opinion pages this summer; the series itself follows a spate of books concerning French decline, such as Nicolas Baverez’s La France Qui Tombe, which made number two in the bestseller charts. Soul-searching is in.

In one sense, this ‘declinism’ has a simple origin: France is declining. Its influence in the world is waning. Forced out of the driving seat of Europe, it recently suffered the humiliation of being handed the lowly transport brief in the European Commission (1). Its predominance in west and central Africa is coming to an end as South Africa becomes more ambitious. And it failed to stop the war in Iraq.

The French economy is stagnant. In the 1970s, French gross domestic product (GDP) was 25 per cent larger than UK’s; in 2003 it was nine per cent smaller. Unemployment remains at around 10 per cent of the active population (2). Previous convictions are also eroding: the controversy about headscarves in schools showed the shaky state of the Republic’s founding values, such as secularism (3). These reverses have provoked this summer’s public identity crisis.

De Gaulle once wrote that ‘our nation must, on pain of death, aim high and stand tall. In short…France cannot be France without grandeur’. Now the novelist Jean D’Ormesson retorts: ‘We have lost our cheerfulness. We have lost our grandeur. Not only have we lost our Empire, but we are no longer even very proud of having had one.’

But are the French over-doing the self-doubt? ‘The enemy of France is less Brussels or Washington than the propensity of the French for self-denigration’, commented the writer Denis Tillinac. ‘France is gripped by an outbreak of introspective morosity’, claimed The Economist (4). The defence analyst Daniel Hervouet was stronger still: ‘Stop this melancholic narcissism!’

France isn’t the only European nation-state gripped by self-doubt and identity crises, points out the cultural commentator Alain-Gerard Slama in his piece. ‘Holland is as divided as we are by the headscarf controversy…the impetus of Basque and Catalan separatism threatens to split Spain into as many different entities as it has provinces and languages. Germany is worried by the mounting battle in its schools between the crucifix and the crescent…Italy sees itself more than ever as a federation of European regions.’ And in Britain, David Blunkett’s decision to institute citizenship tests in 2003 led to the criticism that British people don’t themselves know what Britishness stands for (5). In trying to impose a coherent national identity by ministerial fiat, Blunkett exposed the fact that we don’t really have one.

The identity crisis is just more obvious in France. Rather than repressing it, they’re discussing it. The fact is that France is in comparative decline – and how could it be otherwise? How could France still be a Great Power given its limited resources? Delsol is surely right when she says that she feels ‘ashamed of those elites who try to mask our decline so as to let the people live in artificial contentment’.

It’s easy to scoff at Le Figaro’s ‘What is it to be French’ series, as the Guardian did, calling it ‘an orgy of introspection and existential contemplation’ and a ‘powerful, soul-destroying bout of self-doubt’ (6). In fact, the series is admirable. It reveals a culture unafraid of intellectualism. The writers in the series refer without embarrassment to Plato, Hegel, Camus and others. Many of the pieces are beautifully written and personal. As Girard says, ‘It’s pretty much only in France…that essays find such a large audience’.

French commentators are at least debating what their country should become. The trouble is that there are few ideas of substance. Jean-Louis Guigou, a development expert, believes that France’s problem is that it lacks a vision of the future. ‘The proof of it is the nervousness of our society. Without a dream, without a project, without a future, society is paralysed because a people cannot go forward without knowing its destination.’ Because its politicians have failed to provide such a vision, such reforms as they do attempt seem arbitrary and pointless. For Guigou, ‘the future is a collective representation’, and one that both politicians and intellectuals play a crucial part in creating.

Reflection also allows for rebirth. Although Delsol’s article starts with the self-lacerating passage already quoted, it ends by striking a note of optimism: ‘In quiet times, the nation defines itself by its institutions and customs…. In times of upheaval, in order to save itself, it has to rid itself of the very mainstays which once supported it. That’s where we are now. To be French is to love France enough to want to redefine it, to give it new foundations and new dreams.’

As they say in therapy, acknowledging the problem is half the battle. Even if all this talk ends up achieving nothing, it was worth it.

(1) EU commissioners’ posts unveiled, BBC News Online, 12 August 2004

(2) La France qui tombe, Nicolas Baverez

(3) France stands firm on scarf ban, BBC News, 8 July 2004

(4) ‘France’s Autumn Blues’, The Economist, 2 October 2003

(5) UK ‘citizenship test’ unveiled, BBC News Online, 31 January 2004

(6) Summertime, and living is not easy for French racked with self-doubt, Guardian, 10 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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