France on the Brink
by

In April and May, French voters will head to the polls to decide who will succeed François Hollande as their President. France’s constitution invests the French presidency with even greater powers than an American president’s. But for all the power of the office, Hollande’s presidency is ending in failure. A somewhat hapless figure, he’s not even running for reelection. His approval-ratings averaged 4 percent at the end of 2016.

Whether it’s center-left newspapers such as Le Monde or mainstream conservative outlets such as Le Figaro, the French press is full of anxiousness about the future. The angst proceeds from many sources. These include a deeply troubled economy and the near certainty of more Islamist terrorist attacks. Above all, there’s a sense that time is running out for France: that it’s close to the type of fall from which societies don’t easily recover.

So while France’s 2017 presidential election will concern bread-and-butter issues, this particular election is shaping up as one of those “it’s time to make an existential choice about our future” occasions.

Economically speaking, France is hardly a poor country. In terms of nominal GDP, France has the world’s tenth-largest economy. Yet some of the most obvious manifestations of France’s problems are economic.

Unemployment, for instance, has hovered between 9.5 and 10.5 percent since 2012. During that same period, youth unemployment has gone from 23 to 26 percent, labor costs have steadily increased, and annual GDP growth averaged a mere 1 percent or so. Since 2013, the ratio of government debt to GDP has surpassed 90 percent. This is the ratio, many economists argue, at which government debt starts to negatively impact growth. State expenditures, incidentally, have consumed over 56 percent of annual GDP since 2009.

There’s no shortage of French politicians on the right and left who understand that this combination of statistics is unsustainable. They also know that addressing these problems will require tough political choices. These include radically shrinking the sheer number of les fonctionnaires who work for the ubiquitous and heavily centralized French state, reducing taxes, liberalizing the regulatory environment for small business, and diminishing subsidies to powerful special-interest groups like farmers.

As difficult as such choices may be for French politicians who have hitherto restricted themselves to the type of minor tinkering that allows the system to lurch on for a few more years, even more daunting and intractable is the most significant cultural challenge facing France: Islam.

Plenty of Muslims in France are well integrated into French society, and they are just as much the practical atheists that large numbers of non-Muslim French citizens are. Many, however, are not.

Whether recent migrants or descendants of North African guest workers who helped fill the demand for labor in the 1950s and 1960s, some Muslims in France have not assimilated, barely speak the language, endure higher unemployment levels than other French citizens, and live in many instances on the fringes of criminality. This has proved fertile ground for native-born or imported Islamists preaching hatred of Jews, Christians, non-believers, and the West more generally to gain traction.

The response of France’s political leaders to this situation is best described as incoherent. On the one hand — and what has been one of François Hollande’s very few policy successes — the French military has played a major role in containing and, in some instances, defeating jihadist-movements in former French colonies in West and Central Africa.

Domestically, however, the response to Islamist ideology and terrorism remains as disparate and fractured as anything else in French politics. It ranges from the hard left’s increasingly hollow “religion of peace” happy talk and confidence that more welfare will solve most social problems, to those on the outer extremes of the right who advocate mass expulsions of Muslims.

Part of the difficulty is the realization that addressing this issue requires discussion of a question that, until recently, many French politicians didn’t want to address. And that question is whether Islam as a religion is capable of accommodating itself (as Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism did long ago) to life in a republic that prides itself on its secularity. On that subject, the jury is still out — way, way out.

It’s not at all clear that the 2017 presidential election will produce a winner able to address this potent mixture of economic and cultural problems. The present poll leader, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, has purged her party of its wilder elements and anti-Semites and capitalized on widespread frustration with France’s professional political class. She will surely make it into the second round of voting.

In cultural terms, Le Pen certainly promises a reassertion of French identity: one that’s best described as an essentially secular nationalism. In policy terms, this would most likely translate into France reestablishing border controls with other European Union members (thus provoking a confrontation with the EU that Le Pen would likely turn into a Brexit-like moment) and terminating immigration from Muslim-majority nations.

Economically speaking, Le Pen’s program doesn’t even come close to the type of shake-up that France’s economy needs. Indeed, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the heavily interventionist economic program of the Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon, a Jeremy Corbyn-like figure who comes from his party’s green-left wing.

Then there is the self-described centrist, Emmanuel Macron. A former minister for the economy in Hollande’s government who left to create his own political party En Marche!, he recognizes that France’s economy requires liberation from its statist ways. What’s more, Macron has outlined some concrete ways to achieve this.

Macron, however, is also a social liberal whose pronouncements thus far about the Muslim question and cultural issues more generally reflect all the naïveté of the liberal banker-technocrat who’s lost as soon as he moves beyond the world of supply and demand.

Finally, there is the Gaullist candidate, François Fillon. A former prime minister, Fillon won the primary for Les Républicans by building a formidable coalition of pro-market reformers, middle-class professionals from the provinces, and conservative Catholics. He did so by (1) promising significant economic liberalization, (2) pledging an end to the Socialists’ social engineering policies which have outraged wide segments of French opinion, and (3) speaking very directly about the challenges associated with radical Islam.

Until January, polls suggested that a plurality of French citizens viewed Fillon as well-positioned to tackle both France’s cultural and economic difficulties. Fillon, however, has since been laid low by accusations, now the subject of formal judicial investigation, of using public money to fund fake political jobs for his wife and children. Whatever the truth of the charges, they have severely damaged Fillon’s reputation for having clean hands in a political world where financial scandals are a dime-a-dozen.

The sad thing about all these developments is that they reflect just how far France has fallen as a society. We’re a long way from the time when French was the lingua franca of the highly educated and in which people followed the pronouncements of France’s head of state as closely as they paid attention to the words of the presidents of America, Russia, and China, the prime ministers of Britain and Japan, or Germany’s chancellor.

But whoever replaces Hollande in the Élysée this year, there’s no question that he — or she — will have to opt for either (1) fundamental change to France’s political, cultural, and economic settings and all the tensions associated with such a transformation; or (2) continuing the status quo of managed decline.

In that regard, France is somewhat of a canary in the tunnel for the rest of Western Europe and the open question of whether, geopolitically speaking, it will matter very much in the upcoming century.

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