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Anthony de Jasay: The Hobbling of Private France

How France got to love the state, and got used to carrying it on its back.


In the lengthening list of French scandals involving money and influence-peddling whose perpetrators tend to come to little harm - the case of Jacques Attali is among the least grave but the truest to form.

Mr. Attali was, and remains, a leading "ideas man" of the Socialist party, having authored some 30 or so books about every imaginable subject, but mainly about what passes for philosophy and economics in Paris. He's also a most agile denizen of the corridors of power.

Fairly early in his career, he was found to have lifted large chunks from Ernst Junger's "Hourglass" and deposited them into his own 1982 work, "History of Time," without the benefit of quotation marks or attribution. Anywhere else, plagiarism of such audacity would have earned him derision and dishonor first, obscurity afterward. In France, people just shrugged. His publishers went on publishing him. A confidant and close aide of then - President France Mitterrand, his role and influence kept growing.

When he got too close to Mitterrand for the latter's comfort, he was kicked upstairs into one of the prize positions in the international bureaucracy. His alleged lavish spending of public money for private luxuries, serious questions about his expense account and about his reign in general, finally led to his resignation as head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Opinion outside France regarded him with outrage, within France with indulgent indifference. The scandals at the EBRD have clone him no more harm than the earlier plagiarism. Though belonging to a Socialist Party clan that's not exactly at the center of power at the moment, he is still part of the political establishment. Most recently, he has been advising the government on how to reform the country's elite graduate schools.

Collectivist Submissiveness

Mr. Attali's invulnerability to discredit and dishonor is not untypical of the way France, in contrast to most other civilized countries, treats its public men. No illusions are harbored about their devotion to the common good, no high standards are set for their probity. It is well understood that sitting on the seats of power confers privileges, and believed that honesty in a politician changes things only marginally if at all. There is in France an astonishing readiness to treat the arrogance and corruption of the ruling elites with indulgence and the exorbitant weight and authority of the stale with acquiescence and indeed with positive approval. This collectivist submissiveness of a people that likes to think of itself as individualist is odd. Why does the private France so willingly pot up with the public one?

For private France is bright, has better than average skills, taste and manners and a civilized life style. It is sober, thrifty and bard working. Despite its limited understanding of the outside world, it is doing remarkably well in International competition. Labor relations are as good in the private sector as they are ghastly in the public one. The private France carries on its back a largely parasitic political authority that maintains its power by extensive redistribution, siphoning off and spending half of which the private France produces. Costly social provisions bring forth the national shame of chronic double-digit unemployment. The unemployed, living on the dole, swell the battalions of public France, securing a built-in majority for ever more social provision. All this private France must bear.

There are deep historical roots of the enduring relation between a burden-bearing and yet vital private, and a parasitic public, France. Power in France has been gravitating from the provinces to the centre, Prom subject to king, at least since the 13th century. Cardinal Dutrat, the Duke de Sully, Cardinal Richelieu and Jean Baptiste Colbert are but the outstanding names in an unbroken line of strong centralizing ministers. When the country was bled white and impoverished by the wars of Louis XIV, a potential turning point and a revolutionary situation was reached. Stale power under Louis XV and XVI began to weaken. It was at ths point that the wrong turn was taken. While the English revolution of 1688 and the American one of 1775 shifted power from the king to the individual, the French Revolution of 1789, whether by accident or by "historical necessity," did the exact opposite. With great violence, the revolution forced society back into the great and age-old centralizing, collectivist mold of the Valois and the previous Bourbons. There have since been no independent structures of countervailing, private power in France; the monopoly of state power is undisputed.

History dealt one further blow to the chances of a freer society emerging in France. From the late 17th century to its final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France fought a second Hundred Years' War for supremacy in Europe (which at that time meant world supremacy). This autocratic design, pursued by a great administration and great armies, was cruelly frustrated by the ships and the money of prosaic England, the incipient liberal free-trader.

Craving greatness and admiration, the French have never forgiven the English and perhaps never will. For some obvious and some less obvious reasons, this resentment was soon extended to America. The need to rely on English and American help in two world wars has not helped matters either. Much of the antipathy against the "Anglo-Saxons" is reflexive, visceral and hardly conscious. Its effect, however, is that "Anglo-Saxon" ways are automatically opposed as a matter of patriotic self-assertion, and "liberalism" has become a near-obscenity.

Foisting Free Trade

With a straight face, Maurice Allais, the only French Nobel Prize-winning economist, has asserted in a recent series of articles that the cause of unemployment is the trade liberalization that he says has been foisted upon France since 1975. With an equally straight face, others (though, to give them credit, not all economists) assert that the compulsory shortening of the workweek will reduce unemployment. Liberal arguments and policy proposals are seldom understood, let alone accepted, in this environment.

The effect of having a huge, monopolistic state hovering above civil society, feeding on it, yet being accepted by it, is manifold and often veiled. Some aspects, though, stand out clearly enough. There is, as Marxists like to pot it, an "internal contradiction" between the private and the public personality of the country. The private one would like to get on with its life, prosper as modern countries with reasonably free economies generally do, keep what it earns, be rid of the intellectual terrorism of political correctness, and send its children to decent schools of its own choice.

This same private France clings however to obsolete beliefs about the indispensable role of the state in protecting national independence from the evil forces of global capitalism, and wants the state to see to it that the weak are not "trampled under" by the strong. This mission is concocted from second-rate theories, but the first-rate ones do not go clown well in France. Once the mission is entrusted to the stale, up springs the public France, subjecting all to the priorities of dirigisme and its attempts at redistribution.

Swept along by the present world-wide upswing, France for the time being manages to eat its cake and have it too. It makes some inglorious U-turns but comes to no major grief. No law of nature tells us that this talented country cannot go on muddling through, "internal contradictions" notwithstanding. It is a fair conjecture, however, that anything better than muddling through tan emerge only from a passage through the purgatory of failure, humiliation and disgust. It was this type of experience that led to the rejection of dysfunctional political regimes in Britain in 1979; the United States in 1980 and the Soviet ex-satellites in 1989. Does one always have to pot one's hope on despair and calamity?