France

A report
Faceless and Gaullist

Thus, the regime which drifted to the crisis is even more faceless Gaullist than before. The problems which the crisis exposed and which the government now faces are problems which it should have been facing fivce years ago – the education explosion, need for decentralization of France’s Napoleonic administrative structure, concerted regional development, better population distribution, industrial expansion and productivity, the eternal farm problem, better distribution of the national budget, more refrigerators, and fewer nuclear bombs. The problems have been here all along, but Gaullism by its nature seems to reinforce conservatism and traditioanlism. Until the events of May and June, economic problems were kept submerged and not allowed to disturb France's artificial calm – not even the problem of half a million unemployed.

Essentially France is an underdeveloped country. Alongside Great 'Britain and West Germany, which play a much bigger role in world trade, it is easy to forget that France is almost twice the size of either in area with about 5 million fewer people. France has about 92 inhabitants per square kilometer against 240 in West Germany and 225 in Britain. Nearly half the French people live in villages and towns of fewer than 2000 inhabitants. On the other hand, even though 17 percent of France's population is engaged in farming, where incomes are low (against 10 percent farmers in West Germany and less than 4 percent in Britain), the French still have achieved a higher per capita income than either of their big European neighbors. The most recent OECD figures show a $2060 annual average for each Frenchman, $2010 for West Germany, and $1910 for the British.

In other words, the French do well economically as far as they have gone, but the country could expand and do enormously better. It is, after all, a land of incomparable natural richness and balance, the closest to self-sufficiency of all nations of comparable size anywhere in the world. It could support millions more in population, feed more, and produce more. In agriculture, fewer farmers with better equipment could easily increase the farm output, with higher per capita income as well. If the farm population could be reduced by 5 to 7 percent, and this manpower transferred to factories, it would mean more mouths to feed in the towns and cities plus more industrial production. But to move a nation takes more than son et lumière.

Paradoxically, one of the major impediments to France's achieving its full economic and social capacities is Paris itself the overwhelming political, economic, administrative, financial, educational, and psychological centralization of everything French in the capital. Paris grows and grows – now past the 9 million mark, with 20 percent of the French population concentrated in the Greater Paris area. The next largest French city is Marseilles, and it has not yet even passed the million mark. After that comes Lyon, with fewer than 700,000 people, and then Bordeaux and Lille, with barely half a million each. There is no French area of population and economic and productive concentration such as Manchester-Liverpool or Birmingham-Coventry in Britain; the Ruhr, Hamburg, Munich, or Frankfurt districts in West Germany; Turin or Milan in Italy.

As a result, an area like Brittany, once healthy and prosperous in simpler economic times and still at least as independent and nationalistically prideful as, say, Quebec, watches its farms turn to grass, its fishing fleet rusting away, and its small local industries closing down for lack of business or capital. The roads are poor, and it takes six or seven hours for trucks to drive to the capital, which means that Brittany farmers cannot even compete with Dutch ones in Paris shops, now that the Common Market is beginning to have its full effect. It is an example of a region which once contributed to France's greatness and now contributes to its problems.

But under the centralized administrative structure established by Napoleon over a century and a half ago, in which each departement is run by a prefect appointed from Paris, local initiative becomes a long and stifling uphill struggle with the bureaucracy of the capital. In any hotel de ville in the country, you can collect stories about how plans for a road, for a schoolroom, or even a monument to the local war dead must wait for decision in Paris. Mayor Gaston Defferre of Marseilles says: "Before I can appoint a new secretary to the Marseilles hospital board I have to have the signatures of three ministers in Paris."

Overblown centralization affects education no less than government administration and regional development. France has twenty-three state universities, all rigidly controlled and directed as to budgets, teaching staff, curricula, buildings, and administration by the Ministry of Education in Paris. At the top is the Sorbonne—the Promised Land for any aspiring professor in the provinces. There are no private universities in France (again a decree by Napoleon) -no Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, or Cambridge. No industrialist in France would dream of endowing a school. The French educational system has been admirable in producing an elite from its grandes écoles, the graduate schools where it trains its civil servants and scientists after rigorous screening from below. But this very success has also contributed to the rigidity and stuffiness of the system which produced the student explosion of May and June.

Decentralization and greater autonomy for the provincial universities seem at least to be a chief priority for the new education minister, Edgar Faure, who, as the only politician of the Fourth Republic who is serving General de Gaulle, is the most ambitious and active member of the Cabinet. He has been giving interviews and making public statements overtime in the hopes of defusing the students before the universities reopen in mid-November, with a large assist from the police and the public works department, which has emplaced a thick layer of asphalt over the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank as a deterrent against another round of barricade battles in the winter. But the education minister cannot build school buildings in three months, or provide libraries, lecture halls, and dormitories.

For President de Gaulle, postcrisis reform centers almost entirely on the word 'participation." In education, it has already been decreed that schools are now to organize councils of teachers, students, parents, and community leaders to discuss school problems and decide local policies within the framework laid down by the Ministry of Education. All this produced a cynical student conjugation exercise: “I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they rule."

In industry, De Gaulle has decreed that participation will mean that all should be adequately informed of the enterprise's operation and be able, through representatives freely nominated by them all, to participate in the company and its councils so as to defend their interests, viewpoints and proposals." But the French President is almost alone enthusiasm for the scheme. Trade union leaders sneer at it as a diversion and delusion so far as labor’s true interests are concerned, and management does not want to led with yet another layer of obstruction in decision-making.

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