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”.