It remains to be seen whether France's military intervention in Mali will be considered a military success, but it already seems possible to count it a political one. The war has earned support from across the French political spectrum, President François Hollande has garnered acclaim for his leadership, and the French public broadly supports the country's stated humanitarian mission. The intervention recalls the days when “la grande nation” laid claim to an ambitious international role, particularly within its former colonial empire.
But in today's France, this portrait of unity and resolve is actually something of an aberration. Far from expressing a confident sense of mission, the French public has recently been more inclined to a sense of decline, malaise, paralysis and crisis. And it is at least partially justified.
Effective action of any sort has been largely missing from the French political scene for some time. The economy continues to sputter, with the overall growth rate close to zero for the past year. Unemployment has not fallen below seven percent for twenty years, and currently stands at well over ten percent. Economic competitiveness has fallen badly, with France’s share of world exports dropping by more than half over the past fourteen years. The Euro continues to bleed under a mass of band-aids, and its crisis could eventually spread upwards from southern Europe. Whereas Hollande’s last Socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand, came to office in 1981 with a program of radical reform (nationalization, decentralization, increased workers’ rights and benefits) Hollande’ initiatives have been mostly small scale. And France’s constitutional council has already quashed the most provocative of them, a proposed 75 percent tax on annual income over one million euros. The most widely-reported anti-socialist protest barely even rises to the level of farce: actor Gérard Dépardieu’s acceptance of Russian citizenship so as to avoid the threatened high taxes. Hollande provoked a massive protest rally last weekend with his support for marriage equality, though this measure, in the end, is likely to prove far less divisive than its opponents hope.
It's an anxious moment, and the public has been lashing out at the political class as a whole. Last year's election was less an affirmation of Hollande than a rejection of his opponent, the incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. In place of the vulgar and hyperactive Sarkozy, the placid, reliable Hollande promised to be a “normal president.” But with the memory of Sarkozy fading, Hollande’s popularity has plummeted, and 63 percent of the electorate now disapprove of his record. The main bright spot on the President’s otherwise gloomy political horizon is that the conservative opposition, Sarkozy’s UMP party, is in even worse shape. After a nasty fight for the party leadership last fall, both candidates claimed victory amidst accusations of fraud, leading to a split in the parliamentary party. The popularity of the apparent winner, former budget minister Jean-François Copé, hit an impressively low 17 percent before the sides worked out a tentative peace deal by which he takes charge for a shorter-than-usual term.
Meanwhile, contrary to what the Mali intervention would seem to suggest, France has less international influence today than at any time in the recent past. During the Cold War, its status as an nuclear power allowed it to carve out an quasi-independent role vis-à-vis the rest of the Western alliance, and the country also asserted a special role in its former colonial empire. Between 1960 and 2000 it dispatched troops to Africa on nearly twenty occasions. In contrast, until this weekend Hollande categorically ruled out intervening in African trouble spots, and it took a desperate appeal by the president of Mali for France to provide what will most likely end up being limited and temporary military help against Islamist, Al-Qaeda-linked rebels there. Hollande has publicly apologized for a massacre of Algerian-born protestors by French police in 1961, and on a recent visit to Algeria itself came close to apologizing for France’s colonial record as a whole—welcome developments, given the dreadful nature of this colonial record, but ones which also make it more difficult for the country to claim any sort of continuing sphere of influence.
Yet do these travails amount to a simple case of national “decline”? Not really. It is worth remembering that the first book-length treatment of the “decline of France” was published by a British economist, Arthur Young in…1769, soon after the country’s catastrophic defeat in the Seven Years War. Since then, few decades have gone by without some prominent observer declaring France fit for the last rites. In 1832 a British journal claimed that the country’s “feeble and ephemeral Government—nay, the social edifice itself, appear tottering to their fall.” Eighteen years later, Claude-Marie Raudot’s On the Decadence of France went through four best-selling editions in a single year. And in 1884, the American politician Henry Cabot Lodge declared that “the decline of France […] is destined to increase more rapidly in the future than it has in the past, […] due mainly to the colossal conceit of her people.” Similar pronouncements have followed in connection with the bloodletting of World War I, the early defeat in World War II, the violent and chaotic period of decolonization, the student rebellion of 1968, the oil shock of the 1970’s, Mitterrand’s election in 1981, and every major episode of turmoil since.
It is also worth remembering that for all its problems, France still possesses the world’s fifth-largest economy, and that overall economic growth since 1985, while more uneven than America’s, has actually been stronger. A few years of sustained expansion would do much to alleviate the problems which currently seem so grim. France’s physical infrastructure puts America’s to shame, as anyone knows who has zoomed from Paris to Marseilles in three hours and twenty minutes on the relatively cheap, reliable trains that run twice as fast as Amtrak’s expensive and inefficient Acela. The country’s public health system is one of the best in the world, and many of its leading industries—especially luxury goods—remain healthy. Mediocre politicians are hardly a novelty in France.
In short, it is too facile to mock France as an “economic basket case… over-indebted, over-taxed, over-regulated, spendthrift, poorly governed,”—to quote a typical Anglo-American assessment (in this case, by the British conservative Simon Heffer). The country’s serious long-term dilemmas stem from different, and more complex problems, notably involving the question of how France can make use of its national institutions in a world for which they have become too small. Most obviously, the demand for a common European economic policy, and especially the lack of independent national currency, place huge constraints on what any French government can hope to accomplish in the economic realm, as do the broader exigencies of global markets. In foreign policy, in contrast to the days of Charles de Gaulle, successive French governments instinctively seek out a wide range of partners before attempting any meaningful initiatives. Even in Mali, Hollande has insisted that the French military role will only last until an African force can take the field.
France’s well-travelled political and economic elites end up exacerbating this dilemma, because, to a remarkable extent, they now instinctively address national problems in terms of international cooperation and exchange. While earlier French leaders like Mitterrand grew up in an age of French empire, and claims to major power status (as Interior Minister in the 1950’s, Mitterrand actually oversaw the government of Algeria), their successors came to political maturity in a world where France had a far more diminished and interdependent role. The commitments to Europe and to international cooperation are admirable in most respects, but also, inescapably, imply a relative subordination of national institutions and policies—and therefore of the national electorate that ultimately lies behind them. Both major parties, whose leaderships remain heavily dominated by the graduates of a handful of elite schools, share this cosmopolitan outlook, and, in large part as a result, the ideological differences between them have grown vanishingly thin. Despite the hopes of Anglo-American conservatives, Sarkozy was no Thatcher. Hollande, despite the grand gesture of the 75 percent income tax, is no Mitterrand. In truth, last spring, the voters had much more of an echo than a choice.
French voters still have little reason to be jealous of the ideological battles that now convulse American politics (in an odd historical irony, the country once famous for its ideological passions and the country once famous for its convergence politics have effectively traded places). Nonetheless, it is unclear how long political and financial institutions can preserve their legitimacy when they appear so massively constrained in their policy choices, and therefore, in a fundamental sense, unresponsive to the popular will. The intervention in Mali is a tonic that seems to have had beneficial effects for French self-esteem in the short-term. But foreign adventures of this sort are hardly a sustainable long-term solution.
Given the perceived constraints upon the country’s national institutions, can François Hollande possibly take the sort of effective action in the domestic sphere that he has just tried to demonstrate in Africa? It seems unlikely, but if he cannot, the long-term consequences may be severe. The people of France have survived centuries of perceived decline—survived quite well, in fact. But a France that has lost the capacity for collective self-expression will no longer feel quite the same.