France in Crisis

Article excerpt

FRANCE IN CRISIS Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980 Timothy B. Smith Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi, 296pp, $21.75 paper (ISBN 0-521-60520-2).

There are times when procrastination can be a good thing. This is one such: when I agreed to provide these comments, I assumed I would be doing so in the early autumn of 2005, instead of nearly six months later. In fact, I had taken Tim Smith's book with me to France, where I spent much of the summer of 2005, in expectation that I would get around to reading and reviewing it prior to the new academic year's having had a chance to set in. Had I kept to my original schedule, I would most certainly have raised, in these pages, an objection to the book's very title, for my recent visit to the country convinced me that France remained as it had been for some time-a nice place through which to travel, and hardly a country consumed in "crisis." It was, after all, summertime, and the living was aisé.

Now, had I been spending time in the Parisian banlieues, with their Soviet-style outcroppings of low-rent, high-rise barracks (HLMs, or habitations à loyer modéré), I would doubtless have seen things differently. But who goes to Clichy-sous-Bois if he can help it? From where I was reading it in divers corners of Aquitaine, Provence, and the Savoy alps, Smith's book surely had to be about a country different from the one I was experiencing. And then came the autumn of 2005, when France's suburbs erupted, leaving few in doubt that a crisis was indeed at hand. Suddenly, the author I had been preparing to take to task for alarmism turned out to be remarkably prescient.

Now, being critical of current aspects of France's social and economic life hardly makes one a member of a minority. To the contrary, the line of those who descry a France in "decline" stretches around the block, and by no means are the nay-sayers' ranks populated chiefly by Queen's University professors of history and other such étrangers. French policy intellectuals are to be found among the leading enthusiasts for the argument that the country is in profound trouble (think of Nicolas Baverez's 2003 blockbuster, La France qui tombe, detailing the latest chapter in the country's fall from grace and fortune). Nor is the tendency particularly new; even during the reign of Louis XIV, when one would have least expected to encounter it, the thesis had been circulating within the country that France's decline, like that of Spain before it, was simply a matter of time. By the igth century, it appeared as if decadent trends-depopulation, sinister foreigners, underdeveloped technology, overambitious foreign policy, you name it-were so firmly entrenched as to render decline unstoppable. Yet France, not without the occasional geopolitical hiccup, managed to endure, even to progress, and in so doing to continue to be an important player on the international political chessboard.

So one might think that a volume in this well-established genre would have a hard time distinguishing itself from all that has gone before in the dedinist industry. Think again. Smith's book is a hard-hitting critique of French society that comes at the problem in a refreshingly original manner. So often, critics of France's malaise (especially if they are French critics) like to point the finger of blame at those outside forces neatly subsumed under the rubric of "globalization," that much-maligned phenomenon that itself constitutes a not-too-veiled synonym for "Americanization." Smith, in contrast, turns his gaze at internal dynamics, and in abundant detail shows us what is truly rotten at the core of the French welfare state. Before the reader gets a chance to leap to the conclusion that here is just another "liberal" (or, worse yet, "neo-liberal" or "ultra-liberal") savager of French socioeconomic absurdities, Smith makes it plain that his purpose is to assess France's performance not according to how it might pass muster among the high priests of economic orthodoxy, but rather according to how it delivers "welfare" to its population. …