The presidential elections of 2017 are the last chance to reform the country in a democratic way, before it subsides into violence and extremism.
The draft legislation on employment – which Manuel Valls has assured Parliament has the full backing of the government – has simply turned into a great deal of political noise and outbreaks of street violence with no effect whatsoever on the economy. After the failed revision of the Constitution proposed in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks, it symbolizes both the shipwreck of François Hollande’s five-year term of office and the inability of France to reform.
The outcome of this latest lost opportunity to modernize the job market is that there will be not enough job creation in France to counter the aberration of mass unemployment that affects 5.7 million people. Unemployment could even increase if fixed-term work contracts were to be taxed more highly. On the other hand, disturbances have become widespread throughout the country, even though a state of emergency exists because of the degree of the terrorist threat. Distrust between indivudals as well as distrust between civil society and the State has been deepened.
Far from entering recovery, France is heading for bankruptcy. And yet France has some major points in its favour. Also, the cures for its ills are well-known: the turnaround of company margins in order to boost innovation, labour flexibility, a reworking of the education system, a reduction in numbers of the 5.64 million civil servants, a reduction in public expenditure which has risen to 57.5% of GDP, and investment in goverment powers so as to restore civil peace. But France remains the only major developed country not to have undertaken any major reform of its economic and social model despite the fact that the 5th Republic, hardly liberal or democratic, was designed to manage crises, and despite the fact that most French people are in favour of change.
Democracies are by their very nature conservative regimes. Mentalities often evolve less quickly than structures, which change less quickly than the economy or technology. Reform is not easy anywhere, as has been shown in Spain and Ireland where economic recovery is going hand in hand with the rise of populism and institutional blockage.
France is finding it particularly difficult to take account of changes in capitalism and geopolitics, as was the case at the end of the 19th century, in the inter-war period, and during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The reasons for this are historical and political: the legacy of the French Revolution, which bases freedom on direct dialogue between the State and the citiizen; the authoritarian and centralized nature of its institutions; and the fusion of the political class with the upper echelons the civil service. In short, the State which, in France, is a force for modernizarion, has become the main hindrance to it.
The 2017 presidential elections will provide a last chance to reform the country in a democratic way, before we see it subside into violence and extremism. As the elections approach, the politcal forces show signs of break-up and unpreparedness, notably in the opposition camp (the Républicains) which has left its choice of leader, strategy and policies to the outcome of the primaries in November.
Lessons must be learned from the failure of both François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy to reform France. Whilst priority measures are naturally necessary, it is essential to think about the means of change. For this, inspiration may be taken from successful reform strategies undertaken by Gerhard Schröder in Germany, David Cameron in the United Kingdom, Mariano Rajoy in Spain and Matteo Renzi in Italy.
Each nation must modernize according to its history and its own particular strong points, but there are a few general principles. Break with denial, face the truth about the country’s situation and get a clear mandate from the electorate. Make recovery a vision of the future, far more than just a catalogue of measures. Eliminate client-centred positions and reasoning so as to bring everyone in the community together around a modernization strategy. Mobilize economic, social and geographical forces in order to circumvent any blocking of central government. Give everyone a clear understanding of policies and report regularly on the results. Carefully prepare the content and the scheduling of government action.
Pierre Mendès France told us that “Governing is making choices, no matter how difficult the choices may be.” In 2017, France must choose reform over the temptation to revolution – a temptation which has now swung across to the far right. The 2022 objectives must be to recreate the French model, for this is intrinsic to an in-depth renewal of the way in which the country is governed and of the political class.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 16th May 2016)