Monday, March 23, 1998

The French Malaise: Why The National Front Still Does Well In Elections

The French Malaise: Why The National Front Still Does Well In Elections

by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Special to The Wall Street Journal
March 23, 1998

Early in the movie "Primary Colors," there is a scene in which the Clintonesque character campaigns for the Democratic nomination in a run-down New Hampshire factory. A good half of his audience have been laid off and the rest know more downsizing is on its way . "I won't lie to you," the candidate says. "Your jobs are gone for good and you won't get them back." His platform is education, he tells them -- the economy is now global, borders have opened up worldwide, and their old Rust Belt "muscle jobs" have gone to the Third World -- "which is why you must develop another set of muscles, the ones between your ears."

Such a speech (and the applause that greets it; the screenwriters are at pains here to establish the public merits of their character) would be unthinkable when portraying a Left-wing French politician. Or a Right-wing French politician, for that matter. Telling unpalatable truths on the stump? Even once in office? You're more likely to hear assurances to the French that their comprehensive health coverage, fat unemployment benefits, and pay-as-you go pension system is not at risk, even though the simple servicing of its debt takes up one fifth of the nation's budget.

No one dares dispute the Received Canon -- the State can create jobs, working shorter hours can fight unemployment... Our so-called wise men point out to the 1995 six-week transport strike as the fate automatically befalling a French government that tries, for instance, to align State employee benefits on those of the rest of the workforce.

It would be interesting to find out if straight-talking -- which hasn't been attempted since Premier Raymond Barre two decades ago -- would indeed prove fatal to French politicians. For certainly equivocation doesn't seem to have served them. Abstention levels reached unprecedented heights -- close to 47% -- in last week's regional and local elections. Of those who bothered to cast a ballot, over a quarter voted in protest, for extremists or weird lists - 4% for a Hunting and Fishing party, 5% for the Trostkyite Lutte Ouvrière, and of course 15.5% for the racist and xenophobic Front National. The traditional parties, left and right, were neck to neck with about 35% of the vote each. The only clear message sent by French voters seems to be one of mistrust and disenchantment with their politicians.

There is an element of kabuki in the ritual dance performed by French political parties. Only with a very familiar script can the inconsistency of reconducting a Left-wing regime in a right-wing-voting country be durably overlooked. Add up the votes of the FN and of several smaller parties to those of the moderate right, and you reach a solid majority of some 58%. Even with the help of the Greens and the Trostkyites, the Left falls short of anything approaching a quorum.

For even though many of its economic indicators are back in the black -- growth is predicted at 3% this year; the trade balance has record surpluses; inflation is kept below 2%; the budget deficit will be kept below the EMU-required 3% -- France is in a deep funk.

Unemployment stands at 12.2%, with European record peaks for long-term and youth unemployment. (One out of four French people between the ages of 18 and 25 are out of a job.) One full third of the country's workforce is employed by the State (in the civil service, education or State-owned monopolies such as the post office or railway system), with guaranteed job security and perks; while the others struggle in a difficult labor market. Taxes and social levies have reached 50% of income without reducing the health, welfare and pension system's deficit, it is regularly saved from the brink by new "exceptional" taxes that are never rescinded.

Economists have calculated that an amazing 70% of France's FF 8 trillion GDP transit through the hands of the State, two-thirds of which are public spending, and the rest divided between welfare and health payments and State-owned and partially State-owned industries (France still owns 80% of France Telecom (telco), 40% of Renault (cars), all of Aérospatiale (planes and missiles), etc.

This mammoth conglomerate, bound closer than any Japanese keiretsu to the MITI, is ruled by an amazingly homogeneous elite of upper civil servants and former upper civil servants, 80% of whom graduated from only one of two schools, Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) or Ecole Polytechnique ("X"). The same account for two-thirds of for the private or recently privatised sector bosses -- or for Cabinet ministers of both Left- and Right-wing governments. There are no premiums on original thinking in France.

No wonder that all the government has so far offered as solutions is still more regulations and taxes. The country's bosses are up in arms against the most recent measure, a bill limiting the workweek to 35 hours. Department of Labor inspectors (who traditionally have wide powers with which even the relevant Minister, in this instance Martine Aubry, cannot interfere), have decided the bill should be strictly applied to executives, and recently started clocking raids in various large companies, interrupting executives working late or during meetings with customers.

In one very recent Kafkaesque instance, the Human Resources director of Thomson Radars et Systèmes, the electronics company, was personally fined FF 100 million for contravening working hours regulations -- which the company is forbidden by law to pay for him. The rationale is that companies will be forced to hire more if they stick to the legal 35-hour workweek. It hasn't given rise to much hope among the very people for whom it was supposed to create jobs.

The French awareness of all this can be summed up in one word: lassitude. It's the same discouragement which variedly pushes some to vote for the Front National and others to leave the country. A poll taken last January by the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles showed an amazing 64% of young French people ready to expatriate themselves to look for a job. (Until very recently, France was one of the lowest emigration countries in the world, with fewer than 2% expatriated citizens: the French used to hate learning foreign languages and changing their comfortable lifestyle.)

The new French brain drain goes well beyond the usual college graduate crop. British hotels and restaurants employ thousands of young French people. (The number of registered French nationals at the Consulat de France in London has trebled to 100,000; in San Francisco it has jumped to 40,000 from 17,000.)

Today, the Front National shines its headlights so brightly on the rabbits of the moderate political spectrum, frozen bleary-eyed on the road to political alliances, that no-one seems to have made the fairly simple calculation that it, too, is a victim of French disenchantment. Its 15.5% score last Sunday is equal to previous results in past years: simple mathematics prove that if FN voters hadn't abstained in equal proportions to the rest of the electorate, the FN ought to have scored much higher. That it didn't could mean it has reached its all-time high for good -- the French are no more ready to believe in its backwards solutions than they trust the old-style politicos. This could be a reason for hope, but only if the rest of the political class seizes the opportunity for real reform.

© The Wall Street Journal & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1998.

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