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France's crisis after crisis

Patrice de Beer
25 April 2006

French students have just returned to their universities after their protests forced the withdrawal of the government's now-discredited contrat première embauche ("first employment contract" / CPE). As they do so, and as political and media attention returns to the contest for the successor to Jacques Chirac in the 2007 presidential elections, two further crises are eating alive what is left of the political credibility of Dominique de Villepin's government.

First, the prime minister has asked the health ministry to shelve a plan to ban smoking in public places (as has been imposed in many European countries). The political calculation behind Villepin's latest retreat is fear of the anger of thousands of bureaux de tabac which hold a monopoly over cigarettes sales; yet the proposal is massively popular with public opinion as well as holding out the prospect of saving thousands of lives each year. This can only be seen as a fresh sign of weakness, one that contradicts Villepin's gung-ho attitude of charging against any enemy (or pretending to).

Second, another and perhaps even more serious crisis – the so-called Clearstream scandal, after the Luxemburg-based international clearing and settlement organisation at its heart – is shaking the highest echelons of the state, as well as focusing attention again on the rivalry between the right's two arch-opponents: Dominique de Villepin himself and his putative deputy, the interior minister and head of the UMP party, Nicolas Sarkozy.

An adulterated list of what appeared to be Clearstream's customers – which included the names of businessmen and of four politicians (including Sarkozy, and the socialist ex-minister of finance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) – has been circulated by anonymous emails. Early investigations led to the search by two magistrates of the offices of the head of France's secret services (DGSE) and of the defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie. An outraged Sarkozy is demanding both the truth and legal redress, knowing full well that an exposure of who benefited from as well as who wielded the poison-pen could target the higher echelons of the interior ministry of his adversary Villepin.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the well-informed director of the weekly news magazine Le Point, in his latest book La Tragédie du Président: Scènes de la Vie Politique 1986-2006 (Flammarion), quotes Villepin as saying about the circulated list: "Sarkozy is finished. If newspapers do their jobs and have balls, he won't survive this scandal". Yet at a minimum, Villepin didn't bother to inform Sarkozy that the list had been forged and "Sarko's" name added – possibly by someone stringing for the DGSE.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

The art of the impossible

It might still be too early to write a post-mortem of the twelve-year presidency of Jacques Chirac, without any doubt the worst experiment in the fifth republic's history since its foundation in 1958. But even if Villepin remains the official head of government, it is difficult to imagine now what could save his tenure from a verdict of disaster.

One protective argument would be to invoke the familiar image (often repeated in France as well as abroad) that France and the French are ungovernable – and one only has to read Julius Caesar's War of the Gauls to see that in this respect there is nothing new under the sun. But what of another proposition that might be cited to explain the failure of Villepin's policies, that the French are unable and unwilling to accept any reform? Here, things are more complex.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. On these grounds, the saga of the CPE reform revealed that the aristocrat-turned-poet Villepin has failed twice. First, he misjudged public opinion by thinking that he could force the unpopular employment law reform through the political process (as he has been quoted as saying – with his aristocratic taste for vulgarity la France a envie qu'on la prenne, ca la démange dans le bassin [roughly, "France just wants to get laid"]). Second, and more important, even if it is true that the French are reluctant to accept "reform" – which in any case has become a dirty word as it always means downsizing on social protection – Villepin managed to turn the CPE side-issue into a casus belli. This has made reform in this area even more impossible, at least until after the 2007 elections.

It didn't have to be this way. The pro-CPE argument might have been won if Villepin had followed a strategy of negotiation. After all, the French grudgingly accepted far-reaching reforms before: the changes to pension regulations in the mid-1990s (compelling them to work two-and-a-half-years more for a smaller pension) and even the CNE (employment labour contract) of 2005, which was very similar to the CPE.

True, French citizens don't like to see their living standards and way of life threatened by changes they associate with globalisation – but who does? True, they might be more assertive and ready to take to the streets than others – but they are not alone. While their British neighbours vote in the secret of the ballot-box, the French vote in the streets in the face of unpopular measures. If this less passive attitude had been taken into account – and if conviction behind a clear-cut, comprehensive reform of the French labour problem had combined social protection with openness to competition, principled action with caring words – the government might have carried the day. Instead, Villepin tried to rewrite the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade as a political farce, and all for the sake of his war against Sarko.

Also on France's political crises in openDemocracy:

Patrick Weil, "A nation in diversity: France, Muslims, and the headscarf"
(March 2004)

Johannes Willms, "The big fear: the European constitution divides France" (May 2005)

Aurore Wanlin, "European democracy: where now? "
(June 2005)

Alana Lentin, "The intifada of the banlieues"
(November 2005)

Henri Astier, "France's revolt against change"
(March 2006)

Henri Astier, "In praise of French direct democracy"
(April 2006)

France's dilemma, Europe's problem

Behind Dominique de Villepin's political failures – which have given France's weak trade unions and divided left a boost they desperately needed in the approach to the 2007 polls – lies the predicament of a France which has not yet recovered from a political cataclysm: the "no" to the European constitution in the May 2005 referendum.

France's public landscape is shattered. All the main political actors are weary of the future, nursing their wounds from the last battles and planning their revenge for the next. The lassitude helps the extremes – from Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National to the piecemeal groupuscules of the far left (which seem more interested in stabbing the dominant Socialist Party in the back than in uniting to win the elections). But it also helps explain the surge in support for Ségolène Royal, head of the Poitou-Charente Region and former minister in Lionel Jospin's government, who presents herself as above such petty rivalries.

But if France is in trouble, she is not alone. The other three "pillars" of Europe are, each in their own way, in dire straits. Britain may have an unemployment rate France should try to emulate, but Tony Blair's image is suffering from New Labour's open flirtation with business and money, and Blair's own unconditional support for George W Bush's disastrous war in Iraq.

Silvio Berlusconi's five years of disastrous government in Italy has now been ended by an election that gave Romano Prodi a wafer-thin majority; but squabbles among the many members of the centre-left coalition may make Italy even harder to govern. The still-young Gross Koalition led by Angela Merkel in Germany is something the Germans cling to as a lifebuoy; but it has yet to be truly tested, and the debate over "integration" following a Berlin case of "honour killing" suggests that the country seems destined – despite Merkel's lonely support for the European constitution – for a period of introspection.

Only Spain, the fifth of Europe's four musketeers, seems to be faring better; and this despite the fact that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government lacks an absolute majority in the Cortes. Spain is currently the most dynamic country in the European Union – politically, economically, socially and culturally – yet refrains from lecturing other EU members.

Thirty years after the death of its dictator Francisco Franco, and notwithstanding problems of terrorism (Islamist, as revealed on "11-M", and from the Basque ETA) and regionalist pressures (principally Catalan and Basque), Spain is an example of what Europe can achieve. To see that a modern European state can work – overcoming its petty conflicts, bringing a progressive voice to the international order, offering a sense of hope – the French need not look west or east but south, just across their border.

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