Globalization and French Cultural Identity

Article excerpt

The nature of the French economy has changed radically in recent years. Breaking with its mercantilist and dirigiste past, France has since the early 1980s converted to market liberalization, both as the necessary by-product of European integration and globalization and as a deliberate effort by policymakers. Whereas the French state used to own large sectors of the economy, partly to keep them from foreign control, now even a Socialist-led government proceeds with privatization, with scant regard for the nationality of the buyer. French companies themselves have also been adapting to globalization, largely through a wave of international mergers and acquisitions over which the once all-powerful state has had little influence. France's adaptation to the global world economy is finally paying off in terms of performance, which is now arguably better than it has been since the 1960s. It seems that for many in France, the loss of state control and growing inequalities that result from globalization may be a price worth paying for increased prosperity and jobs. Indeed, it is fair to say that where the economy is concerned, France has been quietly, steadily, and highly effectively adapting to globalization.(1)

Yet this is not the image that one usually associates with the French reaction to globalization. Instead of France's remarkable adaptation, most observers have focused on France's resistance to globalization--above all symbolized by the actions of the sheep farmer Jose Bove, who in August 1999 dismantled a McDonald's restaurant to protest against US sanctions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and globalization in general. France, of course, is hardly the only country worried about the consequences of globalization, and the street protests that took place at the November 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle showed that even in the United States many are apprehensive. Yet given the widespread public support for Bovd in France (after his court trial 45 percent of the French said they supported or felt sympathy for him, compared to just 4 percent who were opposed or hostile), the countless number of articles, books, and TV programs denouncing globalization, and the rhetoric of French politicians about the need to maitriser la mondialisation, it is easy to understand why there has been far more focus on France's resistance to globalization than on its adaptation.(2)

Globalization poses a particular challenge for France for three main reasons. First is France's statist, dirigiste political and economic tradition. Because globalization implies that the market, and not the state, determines economic relationships, it is particularly difficult to accept for a society that is used to looking to the state to provide jobs, redistribute incomes, protect against unwanted imports, and promote prestigious industrial sectors and perceived national interests. Prompted in part by European integration, the French economy has evolved significantly away from dirigisme over the past twenty years, but the process has been slow and painful, and it is far from complete. Today France still has one of the largest state sectors in Europe (the government spends 54 percent of GDP, and nearly 25 percent of French workers get their paychecks from the state) and the French still look to the state, rather than the market, to ensure their well-being. All this makes it particularly difficult for the French to accept that their economic, social, and cultural fate is controlled less and less by Paris, and more and more by the rest of the world.

Second, globalization is a particular challenge for France because it is seen to threaten the global stature of a country that has long prided itself on its international prominence. Whereas smaller European countries largely got out of the global diplomatic game after World War II (and larger ones like Great Britain felt they could best maintain theirs by working closely with the United States), France has never given up its desire for global influence in the name of its universal values. …