Are the knives out for Le Coq? A broadside of news reports about French malaise has provoked a counter-blast from Paris. “Not a week passes,” wailed Le Monde this week, “without the Anglo-Saxon press mobilizing its analyses … on the failures and the excesses of the policies pursued by François Hollande,” France’s embattled socialist president.
The left-of-center daily was responding specifically to a Newsweek column, headlined “The Fall of France,” about how the country’s high taxes and rigid labor laws are chasing away its college graduates, entrepreneurs, and white-collar professionals to seek opportunities abroad. Despite a smattering of factual errors, even Le Monde acknowledged the story was “not illegitimate” given how its premise is shared by French supply-siders.
Over the last year or so, public laments and red flags over Franco-sclerosis have become as commonplace as brie. In November, the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded France’s sovereign debt to AA status, citing the country’s ten-percent unemployment rate and mammoth public debt. The European Commission has also piled on. Last April, its Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs warned the Hollande government of mushrooming trade and budget deficits, weakened competitiveness, reduced exports and productivity, spiraling debt, dwindling corporate profits, and muscle-bound labor unions.
As if that weren’t enough, an American academic guest lecturing in Paris published a sobering cri de cœur last week against institutionalized as well as street-level ethnic discrimination in France. “The right to live one’s life as a first-class citizen,” Justin E. H. Smith wrote for The New York Times, “depends in part on the conduct of a state and in part on the behavior of its people. Whether or not the right of immigrants to first-class citizenship is set up in conflict with the right of earlier inhabitants … has very much to do with both state policy and with popular opinion.” By this measure, Smith implied, both the state and its people have failed.
The problems confronting France are indeed severe. But are they unique? Absolute comparisons between the French republic and its cross-pond counterpart suggest they are not. American indebtedness is slightly larger than that of France and its politics are at least as dysfunctional. Washington is also no less derelict when it comes to immigration, having failed to pass related legislation thanks to nativist ringers in the Republican Party. The list of shared Franco-U.S. pathologies goes on, from America’s Christian-Zionist anti-Semites and France’s own, less exotic varietal, to exceptionalist fantasies that have led both nation’s into misbegotten military adventures - sequentially in fact, in Indochina. Of course, America is exceptional in one crucial regard: because the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency, Washington may rely on low borrowing costs both in good times and bad while France’s euro trades at the mercy of arbitragers as well as economic fundamentals.
There is, however, at least one Gallic faiblesse of which America is admirably free, and it was something I came across recently while reporting a story about France’s nuclear power industry: the intrinsically inbred quality of its political, corporate, and technocratic elites.
France is second only to the U.S. as the largest producer of nuclear energy. Following the 1973 oil shock Paris identified energy independence as a strategic objective and today nuclear plants account for three-quarters of the country’s electricity output. The sector is woefully inefficient, however. A pell-mell expansion plan has saddled it with huge overcapacity and it is brimming with stockpiles of spent fuel waiting to be reprocessed. The industry is failing to attract enough young engineers to replace its aging expertise - with potentially devastating consequences. Last year, an inspector general’s report concluded that efforts to repopulate the country’s nuclear-power maintenance skills “appear to be insufficient” even as it noted a “perceptible increase” in the number of “significant events” - a trade euphemism for industrial accidents.
While campaigning for president in 2011, Hollande - largely in response to public concerns following the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant - vowed to consolidate France’s fleet of nuclear reactors and to promote renewable sources of energy. Since then not a single reactor has been shuttered and talk of energy reform has been shelved. In contrast, Germany has turned its back on nuclear power altogether and is pioneering such energy innovations as “micro grids” that harness solar and wind power. In the U.S., meanwhile, nuclear power has been obscured by a shale gas awakening that is turning the country into a net exporter of hydrocarbon fuel.
France’s preoccupation with nuclear energy, say some experts, is less about meeting the country’s fuel needs than indulging elites heavily invested in atomic power. When it comes to energy policy, French lawmakers have been conspicuously under-represented; the country’s National Assembly did not discuss energy issues until 1989, for example, and the decision to develop a costly new nuclear plant, the so-called European Pressured Reactor, was taken before parliament debated the matter. Small wonder, critics argue, that a significant ratio of the France’s 58 reactors is furloughed at any one time due to demand shortfalls and that the ERP has been plagued with costly design flaws.
The capture of France’s energy sector by a cadre of policy planners and industrialists, as energy consultant Mycle Schneider puts it, “has made it possible to push through long-term policy orientations entirely outside election concerns. The mechanism constitutes … a significant disadvantage for democratic decision-making and it is a serious handicap for any significant policy adaptation or reorientation.”
Georges Vendryes, a godfather of French nuclear power, described the unchecked authority of France’s energy priesthood in a 1989 interview: “Since forty years the big decisions concerning the development of the French nuclear program are taken by a very restricted group of personalities that occupy key positions in the government or in the top administration of … the few companies involved in the program. The approach remains unchanged in spite of the change of ministers thanks to the permanence of these personalities that occupy the same position generally for some ten years.”
One could argue that Paris - unlike Washington, capital of the world’s second-largest polluter - at least has an energy policy. France, however, is grievously compromised by an education system that fosters a permanent upper class of parochial elites. As the Newsweek story pointed out, Hollande himself is a product of the Grandes Ecoles, academies of incestuous political relations that graduated all but a few former prime ministers over the last half-century.
However they may abuse the entitlements of dollar dominance, Americans have distinguished themselves by regularly turfing out failed political establishments in favor of new ones. (That’s one reason the dollar has remained a fiat currency for as long as it has.) At the same time, it has preserved its most compelling attraction for so many of the world’s entrepreneurs and businessmen: in America it is okay to fail and the pedigrees of success begin not with a diploma but a smart idea.
At the core of France’s existential crisis is not excessive debt nor even ethnic discrimination, neither of which are uniquely French. It is a political hierarchy that, for all its illiberal inbreeding and risk aversion may as well be Japanese.