The French Conundrum
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
The French Conundrum
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Story Stream
recent articles

France is in the midst of political change. After years of economic decline and shaken by a spate of terrorist attacks at home and elsewhere in Europe, many French voters are disenchanted with traditional political parties, dubious of the country's economic prospects, and uncertain of its role in Europe and the world. During the next presidential election, set for April 2017, voters will reveal the extent of change in France, setting the course of the country's future and that of the European Union as a whole.

In the aftermath of World War II, France built its national strategy on three pillars. The first was to develop a strong alliance with Germany, securing peace on the Continent. Conditions were ripe for accomplishing this goal. Germany was occupied and divided. Meanwhile, Britain was exhausted by its war efforts, and the United States was pumping money into Europe and pushing for greater political and economic cooperation among its nations. Although France had its own postwar reconstruction and a crumbling colonial empire to contend with, Paris found itself in a unique position to lead European integration. What resulted were the European Communities, forerunners to the European Union.

France's second priority was to protect the independence of its foreign policy. As the political realities of the Cold War congealed, President Charles de Gaulle wanted to secure the most leeway possible for Paris. Following this premise, France sought to forge its own relationship with Russia, build its own nuclear arsenal, and protect its interests in the Arab world and its former colonies. At the same time, de Gaulle mistrusted international organizations. Under his rule, France left NATO's military command and opposed British membership in the European Economic Community.

Finally, France aimed to build a strong republic with a solid central power. For almost a century, fragile coalitions, weak executive power and short-lived governments characterized the French parliamentary system. In 1958, as decolonization in Africa and Asia strained the French political system, de Gaulle pushed for reform, introducing a semi-presidential system in which strong presidents were elected for seven-year terms (the term was eventually reduced to five years). The resulting structure featured a two-round voting system whose main goals were to ensure that the president had robust democratic legitimacy and to prevent fringe political parties from attaining power. The system also relied on infinite layers of public administration, a constant attribute of the French state, and on inflation-fueled employment thanks to a fluctuating franc.

Throughout the postwar years France has guarded its national sovereignty jealously. Despite the European Economic Community's progress between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when barriers to trade were lifted and an internal market was created, French leaders remained skeptical of initiatives that could weaken France's autonomy on noneconomic issues. For instance, in 1954, the French Parliament rejected (and thus halted) a plan to create a European Defense Community. In 1966, France temporarily withdrew its representatives from the European Commission to protest plans to reduce the participating governments' role in administering the bloc's agricultural policy.

Strategy Under Strain

But over the past two decades, France's economy has been flagging. Average gross domestic product growth fell from 2.2 percent for the 1995-2004 period to just 0.7 percent for the 2005-2014 period, and unemployment has been above the EU average most years in the past decade. France's elaborate bureaucratic system still provides around a quarter of all jobs, but at the cost of high taxes and public debt levels. The country's complex labor regulations and generous employment benefits often inhibit job creation. Furthermore, eurozone membership prevents Paris from devaluing its currency to boost competitiveness, and France's share of world exports has contracted since the start of the century.

As a result, France's postwar strategy has come under strain. To start, the terms of the country's alliance with Germany have changed. Unlike during the Cold War, when French governments worried about the instability of a divided Germany, Paris in the 21st century is concerned about the political influence that its neighbor's economic power has yielded. As the eurozone crisis has made clear, Europe's political beacon these days is not France, but Germany. But this could threaten France's sacrosanct independence, especially if Berlin tries to implement its own vision of how the European Union should work. Germany, like France, is dissatisfied with the European Union's operations but for separate reasons: Officials in Berlin balk at their southern neighbors' resistance to reform and at the European Central Bank's expansionary monetary policies. So it is that the Continental bloc's two largest powers are at once unhappy with the union and at odds on how to reform it.

Moreover, while the French economy continues to languish, a growing number of people are losing faith in the republic's leaders. Given the tradition of strong French statesmen from Napoleon to de Gaulle, people are frustrated that their modern leaders lack the talent and charisma of their predecessors. This explains why the political cycles in France are becoming shorter. Socialist President Francois Mitterrand enjoyed two terms in office from 1981 to 1995, as did his conservative successor, Jacques Chirac, from 1995-2007. By contrast, center-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy served only one term, ending in 2012, and if opinion polls prove correct, so will the incumbent center-left president, Francois Hollande. Approval for Sarkozy and Hollande dropped soon after they assumed the presidency, which shows that the French are tiring of their leaders faster than before. Both the hyperactive Sarkozy and the meditative Hollande failed to deliver on their promise to restore economic growth. Consequently, voters grew disenchanted with them quickly.

Realizing that the world is changing around them, the French are unsure how to react. Many voters, from left to right, consider globalization to be more of a threat than an opportunity and therefore see protectionism as the answer to the country's global challenges. Along with fears of economic decline, the French public harbors concerns that immigration has put France's national identity - and, more recently, its national security - in jeopardy.