France's Double-Talk on Globalization. (Dossier: The French Elections of 2002)

Article excerpt

France has become a worldwide champion of antiglobalization. France is home to Jose Bove--sheepfarmer turned McDonalds' wrecker and, in the process, world famous antiglobalization activist. France is also home to ATTAC, a vocal organization originally designed to promote the so-called "Tobin tax" on financial transactions, but which has since become a powerful antiglobalization lobby present in over 30 countries. France is a country where intellectuals have long denounced the cultural and economic shortcomings of US-led globalization, and where newspapers and other media outlets have endlessly documented how France was threatened by foreign entertainment, customs and values. In short, criticizing globalization "sells" in France. French politicians have understood and embraced this trend. On the Left as on the Right, for the past few years, political figures have loaded their speeches with rhetoric critical of a phenomenon that gets a lot less attention in other European countries and in the United States.

Yet at the same time, France is a country whose economy and society have adapted to this much-criticized globalization. Before the current economic downturn, the French economy thrived under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's tenure precisely because of globalization--that is, the increasing speed, ease, and extent with which goods, services, capital, technologies, people, information and ideas now cross borders. Thanks to profound, structural reforms of the economy, under the twin pressures of Europeanization and globalization, macroeconomic performance in France was unequivocally positive: growth picked up; foreign investment soared, and high levels of unemployment finally started to fall down.

While the French economy has adapted to globalization, this adaptation has taken place quietly, as if the only version of globalization that the French could tolerate was "globalization by stealth." (1) Both Jospin and conservative President Chirac took major steps in ensuring that France be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization, but both of them covered their tracks by holding a very public, almost interchangeable discourse about the need for globalization to be "managed" (Jospin) and "humanized" (Chirac). Interestingly, for all its media presence and seemingly acute importance in the past few years, the issue of globalization was quasi-absent from the official electoral campaign. Because this double-talk on globalization had been co-opted by the mainstream Left as by the mainstream Right, it was as if the issue was just better left alone for the time being.

Why this double talk? Why this disjuncture between words and actions? This article explores the paradoxical French attitudes towards globalization, analyzing why it is socially acceptable in France to denounce the ravages of liberalism but taboo to sing its praises. I argue that although the debate on globalization was quasi-absent from the electoral campaign, the issue did play a major, yet unnoticed, role in producing the surprising outcome of the elections. This article also reflects on whether the double-talk on globalization is politically sustainable in the long-run--and what options remain open today on the issue for the main political parties.

France's Double Talk on Globalization

In recent years, globalization has become an omnipresent topic in France--spurred on, among others, by Bove and his actions; by some prominent factory closings by multinational companies in France; by the successes and later debacle of France's most famous CEO, Jean-Marie Messier and his company Vivendi; by the debate over new technologies like the Internet and biotechnology; by the World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings allowing sanctions on traditional French products like cheese and foie gras; and by the spread of "mad cow" and "foot and mouth" diseases across Europe.

From this, and the posturing of French politicians on the issue of globalization, it might seem fait to conclude that France is experiencing a backlash against globalization, and even taking the lead in a growing international movement to slow or contain the phenomenon. …