Is France as Unprepared for the Future as We Think?

From the Roman writers of old to Tony Soprano’s anxious musings in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, navel-gazing is as old as Western civilization itself. Even now, American students who take French long enough will inevitably be asked to write a response to the following prompt: “Les Etats-Unis sont-ils en déclin? Repondez avec des exemples.”

If the prospect of American decline does not lend itself to optimism, American writers are all too eager to focus on our French partners-in-decline on the other side of the Atlantic, as both Janine di Giovanni and Justin Smith have done this past week in the pages of Newsweek and The New York Times, respectively.

Di Giovanni blames the socialist policies of President François Hollande for France’s decline, which — in her view — has led to “a frantic bolt for the border by the very people who create economic growth – business leaders, innovators, creative thinkers, and top executives. They are all leaving France to develop their talents elsewhere.” To illustrate this alleged brain drain, she claims that the French have no word for “entrepreneur,” a ridiculous claim that could be easily refuted by anyone possessing even a cursory knowledge of the language.

Le Monde posted a point-by-point rebuttal to di Giovanni’s piece, but the argument remains: an overweening, leftist state has and will continue to hurt economic innovation in France, where the unemployment rate stands at a lofty 11%, more than double that of Germany. Not exactly a recipe for another belle époque.

Smith’s piece, meanwhile, examines the attitude of the French themselves vis-à-vis immigration’s effect on France’s cultural identity. Whereas immigration has historically been a source of prosperity and dynamism for the United States, France has yet to harness the potential of its immigrants because “Europeans can more easily imagine themselves to be their own natives, and so can imagine any demographic impact on the continent from the extra-European world as the harbinger of an eventual total displacement.”

To students of American history, this should be a familiar narrative. Perhaps more than any other particular issue, immigration perfectly reveals Americans’ uncertainty over our own identity. On the one hand, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Minutemen, and the pack of restrictions against immigration from “undesirable” countries in the 1920s — not to mention the Klu Klux Klan — were all expressions of nativism. Though much progress has been made over the past several decades in the American public dialogue over immigration, nativism still occasionally rears its head, as in the debate over a protective fence meant to span the length of the U.S.- Mexico border. On the other hand, the United States remains one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world thanks to continuous waves of immigration over the centuries. The famous plaque on Ellis Island reflects the aspirations of those immigrants and articulates the ideal of America as a haven for persecuted peoples the world over:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

If pointing a finger at the French is an attempt by Americans to deflect anxieties over our own shortcomings — our Cold War victory having grown stale more than two decades later — many legitimate questions about France’s future remain: will the European Union continue to benefit from French leadership as it has in the past, or will France’s lagging economy hold back the Eurozone? Will the nation whose language was once the language of international diplomacy maintain its diplomatic clout, or will the United States and other world powers continue to pivot towards Asia? Will France’s emphasis on a generous social safety net, ample leisure time and what many would call the finer things in life sustain itself for the next 50 years, or will its society have to undergo a fundamental transformation of expectations?

As for the economic issues, the jury is still out until Hollande or whoever next takes up residence in the Élysée Palace fully implements his or her programs. For what it’s worth, Hollande has promised to make unemployment a top priority in 2014, having recognized the embarrassment of trailing the UK, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Turkey in overall employment. How he will lower unemployment in the face of a trenchant parliamentary opposition remains to be seen, though his recent proposals to lower taxes indicate that he may be open to compromise.

In terms of diplomacy, predictions of France’s demise have been premature. The end of 2013 saw Hollande reassert French primacy in international affairs on two key occasions. First, the French delegation’s hard-line stance on Iran’s nuclear program nearly torpedoed a potential deal in November, when the United States sought an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic that would pave the way for further negotiations. Though the tougher deal that was eventually reached will go into effect later this month, France’s rare public stand put itself and Israel against the U.S., an alignment that had not been seen since the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which the U.S. sought to prevent the two countries from taking military action against Egypt.

The second event was Hollande’s decision in December to deploy military personnel into the Central African Republic to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in the region. Dubbed Operation Sangaris after a rare species of butterfly found in Central Africa in the hopes that the engagement will be short, France’s intervention represents the second such engagement in Africa in recent years, following 2012’s Operation Serval in response to Mali’s own crisis. Though Hollande has promised to withdraw from Mali as speedily as possible and is loath to expand France’s military commitments just 10 years after Jacques Chirac famously criticized America’s own military adventure in Iraq, the president has demonstrated a strong belief in the ability of French diplomacy and arms to solve problems if deployed responsibly. If Americans still view the French as a nation of peaceniks and defeatists, then Hollande’s actions run counter to that view.

As for what French society will look like 50 years from now, only a fool would attempt to predict such a thing. Unless the scope of current military missions increases dramatically, France will not have to spend major cash on a bloated military as the U.S. will. France enjoys NATO protection and has its own nuclear guarantee, meaning it can continue to earmark those Euros for social programs rather than flexing its military muscle.

On the other hand, France has an aging population (its average age is about 40 years old) and souring youth unemployment. Its day of reckoning may come when younger citizens will be forced to support the pensions of an ever-growing number of retirees.

The reality is that both the United States and France will no longer be able to rest on their respective laurels, as international competition demands more of each. In that sense, there may be more similarities between the two countries than either would like to admit.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Is France as Unprepared for the Future as We Think? From the Roman writers of old to Tony Soprano’s anxious musings in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, navel-gazing is as old as Western civilization itself. Even now, American students who take French long enough will inevitably be asked to write a response to the following prompt: “Les Etats-Unis sont-ils en déclin? Repondez avec des exemples.” If the prospect of American decline does not lend itself to optimism, American writers are all too eager to focus on our French partners-in-decline on the other side of the Atlantic, as both Janine di Giovanni and Justin Smith have done this past week in the pages of Newsweek and The New York Times, respectively. […]

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