Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Land of Two Countries

There are all sorts of countries and then, of course, there is France, or, to put it better, La France, a state but also a being, with its pretensions, its contradictions, its lapses and its loveliness that make us love it or loathe it or, more likely, both at once
writes Roger Cohen in the International Herald Tribune.
As he set out his "project for France for the 10 coming years," Chirac embraced competition, but not, he hastened to add, "savage competition." He praised economic openness, but not at the price of solidarity. He said the 35-hour work week would never be revoked, but made clear ways should be found to get around it.

Some stock-market profits should be taxed less, he suggested, but lest anyone imagine that the lure of the Bourse might alone inspire creativity, he called for the establishment of a new state agency to foster industrial innovation, financed — yes, it's true — with money from privatizations.

Say what you like about Chirac, he knows his country. Decades in politics, and a lifelong obsession with securing his current post, have assured that. So if the vision he describes seems almost schizophrenic in its contrasts, at once a defense of the state's role and a plea for a less fettered economy, it is worth considering whether this dualism it not the essence of the French condition.

There are at least two countries here trying their best to ignore each other. One is that of some of the world's most efficient companies, battling it out in the global economy, circumventing the 35-hour week as best they can, innovating without state aid, offering top executives some of the best pay in Europe, using stock options as an incentive, and driving up productivity.

The other is the vast universe of public employees, several million strong, holding fast to acquired privileges, suspicious of the market forces equated with the "Wild West capitalism" of the United States, always ready to descend into the streets to protest some proposed modification of their status, conservative beneath their left-leaning politics, full of the discourse of "solidarity" and "social partnership" that is de rigueur on an ossified French political scene where anyone under 50 is deemed unready for the big time.

"There is one part of France that does not want to change and another competitive France that knows it must change every day in order to survive," said the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande. "There is a society of movement and a society of immobility."

… the price of this unresolved dualism is also clear and it weighs on France, deadening it, confusing it, holding it back, and pushing its president into verbal contortions that poor Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, will have to try to sort into policy.

France also pays a price for its divided state in the spread of a culture of grumbling rather than grit, and in the constant temptation to grasp for a compensatory glory on the international scene because its domestic state is rather less than glorious.

Chirac is aware of these contradictions and tensions. He has heard for a long time from many people that things cannot go on this way. But things do go on, of course, and France is still beautiful. He reckons that Nicolas Sarkozy, the upstart conservative who wants to shake things up, will get his comeuppance soon enough when he learns that France does not like to be buffeted from its conflicting habits.

So presidential speeches become exercises in a little bit of this and a little bit of that. One message goes to the entrepreneurial France, another to the dependent France; a wink to the world of business is offset with another to the legions of state functionaries; praise of America's coherent economic policies and flexible mortgage market is compensated for with a stout defense of equality as a guiding principle. …

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