Nicolas Baverez: The French Are in Decline

Historians in the News

Lara Marlowe, writing in the Irish Times (Dec. 3, 2003):

The theme is as old as the Romans and crops up through history with persistent regularity. A decade ago a book about "the fall of the American empire" was a huge success in the US. This autumn France was seized by its own bout of declinisme, thanks to the economist and historian Nicolas Baverez.

Mr Baverez's book, La France Qui Tombe (France is Falling), has remained on the best-seller list since early September. "I was surprised by the effect it had, and by the violence of some reactions," he said in an interview. "I've received piles of mail, all of it positive, but the reaction of the polticial and media establishment has been very negative." The decline of France, real or imagined, has been debated on virtually every radio and television programme. The Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, reportedly hates Mr Baverez's book. Yet when given the opportunity to debunk the careful accretion of facts and figures demonstrating two decades of diminishing economic and political influence, Mr Raffarin is silent....

Mr Baverez sees only one way to reverse France's decline: reform, reform, reform. "Europe cannot do it for us," he says. The US, Britain and now Germany have made the effort, he notes.

Reducing the highest taxation in Europe, abrogating the 35-hour working week (which translates into a 2 per cent annual reduction in the number of hours worked by French people) and tackling the health system's E30 billion deficit are "urgent measures" recommended by Mr Baverez.

Reform would thin the ranks of France's 5.1 million civil servants, he says, but that would be the result, not the beginning.

It was a sure sign of decline when French diplomats went on strike for the first time in history on Monday. Paris maintains the world's second-largest diplomatic service on a shoestring budget.

The Foreign Ministry's paper supplier stopped deliveries because of late payments. Staff were asked to use both sides of every sheet, and the European Affairs Minister had to buy her own notepads.

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