Is France Our Future?

[Reihan] You know what else is striking about Jane Kramer's insightful article on the French presidential election? Well, there are two things. The first is her conviction that France's most obvious challenge is economic.

The country has stalled. Its growth is minimal.  Its protectionist policies are disastrously out of touch with global reality, let alone with the realities of the European Union, which it helped to found and enlarge (and then to undermine, in 2005, when it voted against an E.U. constitution).  Its business, beyond the realm of luxury labels and designer clothes that the rich will always pay for, is not competitive.

Now, this is a fairly conventional neoliberal reading of the French predicament, easy to imagine in the pages of The Economist or Forbes. It has the added virtue of being, in my view at least, mostly sound. (As Perry Anderson reminds us in a still-fresh essay from 2004, France actually has gone through a pretty wrenching period of economic reform. That's not to say there isn't room for more, but try telling that to hard-pressed workers.) But then, just a few sentences later in that same paragraph, she has this to say about the plight of France's Muslim underclass.

(Part of the problem is education; the rest is simply French xenophobia and racism.)

There you have it, a sharp assessment in a neat parenthetical. What is it that these quick takes have in common? On the surface, not very much: one is commonly associated with the right (France needs a healthy dose of market economics), the other with the left (education is the solution). But both quick takes reject narratives embraced by the French working class, who voted overwhelmingly against an E.U. constitution that at least seemed to threaten a new wave of neoliberal reform and who've turned in ever larger numbers to anti-immigration rejectionist parties of the far right and left.  Right or wrong, I doubt struggling French families who feel besieged by gang violence are likely to buy Kramer's characterization of France's cultural dilemma. Sarkozy, the alleged Thatcherite, has made a play for Le Pen's voters by talking about "national identity." (Keep in mind, of course, that Sarkozy has also been willing to experiment with positive discrimination and other policies designed to advance the interests of the neo-French.) And Royal has embraced the "left-nationalist" Jean-Pierre Chevènement. France is only the latest example of Europe's left-right spectrum decomposing from below, as the lower-middle (heirs to the Poujadists and the Trotskyists) revolts against the orthodoxies of the upper-middle.  The mostly shallow fusionism of Ségo and Sarko marks a clumsy attempt to reconcile with the new political reality.  European politicians, at least, "Are All Pim Fortuyns Now." I think it's only a matter of time before a similar political landscape emerges here in the United States. We have the considerable advantage of a large and growing economy, and yet we also have a sky-high rate of incarceration that might soon become for us what tension over assimilation and immigration has been for Europe -- and then some.