Nicolas Baverez: France Needs to Reform

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sebastian Rotella, writing in the LA Times (Oct. 26, 2003):

The France-bashers are at it again.

This time, however, they don't work for the Pentagon or the British tabloids. They aren't emptying bottles of Bordeaux into American gutters or canceling tours of the Riviera.

This time, the people announcing that France is going to the dogs are respected and influential French intellectuals. This country enjoys a good old rip-snorting, two-fisted theoretical debate, so the outburst of lament over France's supposed decline has reverberated far and wide.

Nicolas Baverez, a historian and economist, has led this fall's doom-and-gloom pack of books and essays. His manifesto: a 135-page bestseller titled "France Is Falling." His thesis: The country's economy, politics and society have sunk into paralysis because leaders have consistently and self-destructively resisted change and refused to accept the realities of a modernizing, globalizing world.

Baverez blames an antiquated, statist mentality for unemployment mired at near 10%, economic growth near zero, crippling strikes, the deaths of almost 15,000 people during an August heat wave that overwhelmed a health system on vacation, and other maladies both tangible and existential.

In contrast to the United States, Baverez writes, French leaders believe "the more things change, the more must be done to change nothing... This political, economic and social immobility, which is also intellectual and moral, has plunged France into decline.

"The autism of a political class moored to the models of the 1960s and 1970s has ... [degraded] the nation."

Those are fighting words. And the French take them seriously because they don't come from a chauvinist of the kind seen prowling the American heartland lately....

"France finds itself in complete isolation in the world and in Europe," Baverez writes.

Such sweeping statements are hard to prove and give ammunition to critics. But they make for spirited discussion, especially in an intellectual culture that loves a provocative theory.

Another cultural factor also may be at work. The French devotion to the glories of the past often goes hand-in-hand with pessimism about the future. In a recent commentary on the crop of France-is-fading books, the editor of Le Monde said that the authors are bright and talented, but offer only one slanted way of seeing the country.

Their analyses suffer from ingrained negativism, said the editor, Jean-Marie Colombani. This tinges even apparent good news, such as the announcement that Air France would absorb Dutch airline KLM, a deal that would create a new airline juggernaut, Colombani wrote.

"Instead of saluting the brio of the owner of Air France and the perspectives for development that have been created, voices from all sides raise warnings, denounce the risks of the operation, announce a social catastrophe," Colombani wrote.

"Whether bad, medium or really good news, we lament. As if we were destined for decline."

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