Home truths from trusted source shed light on French stagnation

Socialist politician Hubert Védrine’s new book has all of France talking

 Former foreign minister Hubert Védrine (right), seen with former ministers Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia and Boris Tarasyuk of Ukraine, says France has been unable to reform itself. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/EPA

Former foreign minister Hubert Védrine (right), seen with former ministers Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia and Boris Tarasyuk of Ukraine, says France has been unable to reform itself. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/EPA

Mon, May 12, 2014, 01:00

Hubert Védrine has been an influential voice in France for more than three decades. He was a top aide to president François Mitterrand at the Élysée, then France’s foreign minister for five years. His consulting group now advises leading French companies on geopolitical risk.

In his new book, France Challenged, Védrine explains why France has been unable to reform itself. He proposes that left and right form a coalition to tackle a few well-defined issues, thus breaking France’s “self-blocking system”. The politicians have not responded, but the book is a non-fiction best-seller, much discussed in government and media circles.

Public expenditure
In Europe, France holds the record for the highest public expenditure in terms of GDP (57.1 per cent) and the highest spending on social programmes (33 per cent). Interest on the debt consumes €47 billion annually, more than any government ministry. Exports collapsed in the past decade, from a €3 billion trade surplus to a €70 billion trade deficit.

Despite France’s proud history, military might and technological prowess, the country’s psychological condition is alarming. “The French are handicapped by their pessimism,” Védrine writes. “France today is worn down by melancholy in the medical sense of the word. She no longer feels capable of reforming herself, of pulling herself together or even adapting.”

France’s frailty is undermining its influence, Védrine warned in an interview with The Irish Times. “At the moment, if France has inspired ideas about resolving conflicts, other countries say ‘Put your house in order first. Then we’ll talk about it’.”

Political scientists claim the French prefer revolution to reform. “In fact, it’s neither,” he says. “They don’t like change. To quote [the late French politician] Edgard Faure, ‘The status quo is on the march and nothing can stop it’.” At the same time, the French “have a problem with the truth”, often clinging to chimeric solutions that fly in the face of reason.

In other European countries, Védrine notes, an average 20 per cent of the population follow populist parties. In France, 25 per cent support far right and far left parties who reject Europe, capitalism and globalisation. Almost 30 per cent think France should pull out of the euro. “Why not the solar system too?” he asks sarcastically.

Navel-gazing about the past has led to a form of self-hatred, Védrine says, “as if France were the only country to have fought in the crusades, waged religious and colonial wars, or collaborated with the Nazis”.

That guilt is combined with dread of globalisation. “No one in Europe asked to compete with hundreds of millions of poor Asian peasants,” Védrine says. “Except that others adapt. The ‘we’ll get through it’ attitude has been missing in France for a long time.”

Cradle of human rights
France likes to think of herself as “universal; the eldest daughter of the Church; the cradle of human rights”, Védrine continues. “That pretentious part of France feels humiliated.”

He quotes philosopher Roger Pol-Droit, who says France is “a country that is prompt to give lessons to the world, but won’t accept lessons from others”.

France has ignored reforms that worked elsewhere, in Canada, Sweden and Germany.

Polls indicate the public may be more courageous than their politicians. Last September, 63 per cent of respondents said France should take inspiration from the German model. In December, 94 per cent said the country urgently needed to undertake reforms.

Védrine believes François Hollande, like Nicolas Sarkozy before him, wasted his first two years in office: “In theory, the right wants to limit public expenditure. In practice, they do the opposite. The left believes it has a duty to care for the downtrodden. It’s cruel for the left to have returned to power at a time when they have no choice but to act against their militant base and their convictions.”

Védrine says the socialist party has regressed since the 1997-2002 Jospin government, in which he served. “I am sorry to have dedicated such a large part of my life to modernising the left from within,” he says. “The last few years, we reverted to being simplistic, understanding nothing about the outside world, hating the economy.”

He cites “absurd” criticism of Hollande for “giving presents” to the business sector by decreasing social charges on labour.

High-blown rhetoric
Europe contributes to the French malaise. Védrine pleas for a “eurorealistic” programme based on practical, concrete co-operation. He blames the high-blown rhetoric of a few “Europe-ist fanatics” for convincing the public their countries risk dissolution in a “United States of Europe”.

What Europeans really want, he says, is “a big Switzerland. Prosperity, tranquillity, the end of history.”

The right-wing National Front (FN) and far left Front de Gauche are “europhobe” rather than “eurosceptic,” Védrine argues. There will be horrified commentary if, as polls tend to indicate, the FN places first in the May 25th EU parliamentary elections.

Rather than make “ridiculous” comparisons to the 1930s and demonise the FN as “fascists,” the political class should explain how silly its policies are, Védrine says.

The majority of Europeans are in fact eurosceptics. With some 60 per cent expected to abstain from this month’s EU parliamentary elections, “The abstentionists are the leading party in Europe.”

Védrine does not believe Vladimir Putin has a secret plan for the reconquest of the former Soviet Union. Nor does he believe there will be a war between Russia and Nato. Some western leaders are “spoiling for a fight” with Putin, however, who has given Nato “the extraordinary gift of being threatening, of letting them believe they’ve returned to the 1950s”.

Putin’s methods in Crimea were objectionable, Védrine says. But “historically, Crimea was incontestably Russian” and should not be confused with the problem of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

After the Soviet Union fell, Védrine says, the West treated Russia as vanquished, and indulged in the “pointless provocation” of Nato enlargement and plans for an anti-missile missile shield that fanned Russian fears of encirclement. “Even paranoid people have enemies,” Védrine jokes.