Wed, Jun 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

French public idealism versus private pragmatism

By Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Eloi Laurent

One puzzling and often overlooked feature of the France that elected Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president, and that is now poised to give his political allies a powerful parliamentary mandate, is its mix of private optimism and public pessimism.

Consider this: France has the highest fertility rate in the EU (just under two children per woman), even ahead of booming Ireland. Of course, that rate alone is not enough to sustain France's current population, but it's far stronger than its European neighbors and almost equal to that of the US.

Yet, despite this, Eurobarometer polls repeatedly show that the French are the most pessimistic of all Europeans when it comes to their country's future. How can it be that people who are so negative about their common future as a nation go about confidently building their private futures within their families?

Indeed, strained by decades of governmental failure to curb massive unemployment, the French are nowadays often perceived as having retired from the political sphere to concentrate on their lives and leisure. Museums, gardening, clubs of all sorts are blossoming in today's France. Private associations, it seems, have picked up where political parties and trade unions have left off.

But if the French have turned their backs on the public sphere, how are we to make sense of the record-high participation in the recent presidential election, when more than 85 percent turned out to vote in both rounds? How do we explain the passion aroused by the campaign and by Sarkozy himself, including the massive affirmation he received in the parliamentary election?

Political fervor, it seems, has not vanished in the land of Rousseau and Danton. So the truth must lie elsewhere: The French are not hopeless about politics; they are simply waiting for a genuine leader.

As a matter of fact, a case can be made that the French will never come to believe that the state lacks power -- globalization or no globalization. The French still expect greater things from their government than from an integrated Europe or the boundless world.

Yes, the French are incorrigible lovers of the welfare state (they are not the only ones). And Sarkozy seems to understand this instinctively. His agenda appears to aim at domestic liberalization -- moving beyond the 35-hour working week, ending the special pension regimes accorded to particular professions, increasing incentives to work and gain wealth. But it also seeks protection from the dizzying effects of globalization, which probably will mean strong support for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, skepticism toward further trade liberalization and the will to improve the EU's economic government.

Nevertheless, precisely because they care about the future of their numerous children, the French are much more amenable to some wise reforms than most commentators (and politicians) generally assume. Secondary and higher education are rightly near the top of the agenda of the new government. But so are measures aimed at harnessing the state to efforts to encourage entrepreneurship and boost economic dynamism such as public guaranties for housing and start-ups, and fiscal rebate for investment in small enterprises.

France is also in desperate need of a reality check on the nature of its current cultural diversity. And no one should forget that, despite his campaign rhetoric and his apparent unpopularity with many immigrants, Sarkozy himself is an immigrant's son who favors bold affirmative action policies. Besides, the nomination of a woman with a North African accent as justice minister made that clear from the start.

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