Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The French curse

In a recent book, the French writer Marcel Gauchet deciphers the contours of French pessimism, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Understanding the French Curse” is a recent book by the prominent French philosopher Marcel Gauchet in the form of a long interview with journalists Eric Conan and François Azevi. It is a must read. Generally speaking, we in Egypt know about France by looking at it through specific lenses, those of the business community, for example, or of the international media or even of the extreme left. We should pay attention to what others have to say.

The French are pessimists and in a peculiar way. Most of them think their lot is alright, but they also think their country is on the wrong track and is declining and that their children will face terribly difficult times. But here there is a huge gap between the assessments of the French elite and those of the French people. The elite thinks things are going wrong because France has been unable to change its ways and adapt, whereas the people think things are going wrong because globalisation has been a huge challenge for France and the reaction of the elites has been that France should change its social and political model, the present one being too costly and uncompetitive.

The French people cling to the old model. They understand that it needs considerable modernisation. But to modernise a model is one thing. To adopt a new one is another.

In his book, Gauchet says the narrative of the French elite is coherent and is not inherently absurd. However, it does not take into account how deeply people feel threatened by globalisation. Some of his points are interesting: Globalisation is a relentless daily pressure for the average European. If he does not improve his performance, if he does not work more and more hours, if he does not grin and bear it if wages stagnate or decline, firms and investors are going to look elsewhere and to outsource their production.

French products may be of high quality, but ever fewer people can afford the luxury of buying them. They have become too costly, and the French people have to buy Asian products, which are cheaper but, some say, less robust or less modern instead. This new constraint is an unreported symptom of the deterioration of living conditions in France.

Gauchet also explains the growing hostility in France to the European Union. The directives and instructions from Brussels seeking harmonisation are forcing the French authorities to introduce radical changes in the traditional way of organising professions, standards, laws and markets, and more often than not these new forms of organisation act to destroy familiar models. For instance, the nursing profession in France has been radically reorganised, and the new model is not efficient, to say the least.

Gauchet’s thoughts on “laïcité,” the French form of secularism, are also noteworthy. For the average French person, this secularism is not only a way of guaranteeing the state’s neutrality towards religion and equal rights for every citizen regardless of his or her religious or racial origins and beliefs. It is also a very strong protection of private life. Nobody should be able to know what religion you practice and how you vote. The French do not like communal life, and they do not like to intervene in their neighbours’ private affairs. They like individuals.

Religion should be private – this is a strongly ingrained attitude in France. Multiculturalism, the French think, inexorably leads to communitarianism, and hence it is considered to be an attack on traditional social organisation.

This is not the only problem. The traditional French model rested on the school system, which was the main way to climb the social ladder.

Now this too is declining. It is no longer a tool of social ascension, and people are distraught as a result. They have a simple explanation: If schools are declining, it is due to the massive presence of the sons and daughters of immigrants in them. These young people do not speak French at home, and they know nothing about French culture. It is to be noted that Gauchet also says that the French elite also knows nothing about French history and culture.

All these insights are illuminating. Of course, nuances could be introduced. For 26 years, France was led by two presidents, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, and by governments, especially that of Lionel Jospin, which in essence claimed during electoral races that people could earn more while working less and were accordingly criticised for it. At some point, all these men switched their views when they were in power, with the exception of Jospin, feeling that unfortunately the truth is that people will have to work more and earn less. Then they complained that the people did not trust them.

Moreover, as Gauchet points out, a small managerial and business elite grew richer in France and became an easy scapegoat – globalisation could be described as the plot of a few oligarchs against the rest. Some French people might have felt that they were returning to pre-revolutionary times when the happy few enjoyed a lot of privileges they did not deserve, while the majority’s lot kept worsening.

One friend, the French political philosopher Gil Delannoi, once told me that “people are afraid of becoming servants and maids once again.

This for them is the real nightmare.” Gauchet adds that the new aristocracy, like the pre-revolutionary one, seems to be leading the country to bankruptcy and disaster, so its privileges increasingly look like rewards for people who deserve punishment. Moreover, the new oligarchy owes its position to the favours of the executive and to patronage networks and not to the privilege of birth, adding insult to injury. This is an interesting case of political memory deciphering the present and activating strong feelings.

Of course, many Asian products are not only cheaper than French ones but also of good quality. We could also add that French schools’ ills run very deep and that Gauchet does a fine job of exploring them in his book. Gauchet underlines the decline of the ideology of progress in France. For a long time, French political leaders have said that the future looks bright and we should move towards it. Now they say they do not know how the future looks, that probably things will be harder, but we have to move forward nevertheless.

This is a hard sell for any politician.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and visiting professor at Cairo University.

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