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France: Past, Present and Future

With Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of affairs in France, income and wealth inequalities are likely to widen in the country; Islamic immigrants targeted by jingoistic nationalists; and real wage rates pushed downwards.

France: Past, Present and Future

With Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of affairs in France, incomeand wealth inequalities are likely to widen in the country; Islamicimmigrants targeted by jingoistic nationalists; and real wagerates pushed downwards.


icolas Sarkozy, France’s new president, believes that genes, not social conditions, determine whether an individual turns delinquent, criminal, suicidal or genial. Weeks before his election to the country’s top job, he told the Paris monthly Philosophie Magazine, that he was convinced that a child molester or a youth committing suicide (1,200 French youths kill themselves each year) were born with specific genetic disorders.1 Ultraright visions? Eugenics coloured with jingoism? Noted French genetician Axel Kahn came out thundering against the line about genetics determining good or evil among humans, but much of France’s mainstream media kept an ear-shattering silence. “Since Herbert Spencer, contemporary of Charles Darwin, the evolution theory then genetics have been God’s gift to leaders, thinkers and worshippers of liberal society”, said Kahn. “When capitalist society proves incapable of averting violence and despair, if it doesn’t actually exacerbate them, none of (its backers) see the cause in the disorders or excesses generated by the system, he wrote. Genes are held responsible”.2

Lower classes, the “inferior” races and their genes have long been the focus of attention under capitalism. Eugenics has been employed to keep particular ethnic groups out of the US. It is also been used in the US to explain violence by the poor, working class crime and delinquency. Monitoring even very young children in poor neighbourhoods for early signs of aggressiveness or misbehaviour is widespread in the US. Genetically driven crime, misdemeanour or even incapacity for intelligent behaviour (chiefly ascribed to Afro-Americans or Africans) was “theorised” in a book widely commented upon before serious scientific examination debunked its claims.3

France’s new leader is an adoring friend of the US, as he has stated several times. That he and his fans are striving to spread eugenics in France should raise poignant questions, but it is not. Protests from establishment left wingers are barely audible. In neighbouring Britain too, premier Tony Blair’s government is claiming to root out delinquency by spying on women in the country’s lowest income groups and reporting real or imagined misbehaviour, even before they give birth to pre-designated delinquents.4 Here in France, similar legislation was approved recently. In addition, policemen have been posted to schools in pilot projects in some towns in the Paris region to intimidate the youth.

In a speech in the south-eastern city of Nice on March 30, Sarkozy sought to spice up his presidential campaign with flagwaving jingoism. “I’m among those who think France needn’t blush about its history”, he proclaimed. In an audible jibe at its neighbour Germany, in theory France’s closest European Union partner, he asserted “(France) has committed no genocide, nor has it invented the final’s invented human rights and it’s the country which has fought the most for freedom in the world”. History books though tell a different story. They show the French capitalist elite taking an active part in the African slave trade, in the colonial massacres in Africa, or wiping out around a million Algerians during that country’s fight for independence in the 1960s.

Sarkozy’s talk of the “final solution” shows neighbouring Germany in an evil light, by referring to the Jewish holocaust looming large in all of Europe and the Germans, irrespective of class or political differences, are made to carry that burden of history alone. That most of Europe’s elite, barring those in the Soviet Union, were in cahoots with the Nazis during second world war is a forgotten issue these days. The reaction in the German media to this was strangely inhibited. Business daily Frankfuerter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) retorted mildly that “German citizens do not appreciate French politicians citing crimes committed by Germany to render credible their political utterances” (FAZ, April 12, 2007).

How can such exquisite politeness be explained? No doubt Germany’s rich and powerful and their main news organ prefer Sarkozy and his free-marketeers running France. The day after his victory, the FAZ commented cheerfully, Sarkozy won the poll brandishing plans for “change” and

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

a “clean break” with the past. Back in France, one of the country’s very numerous “philosophers”, André Glucksmann, a onetime radical left militant now a diehard far-right-winger, pontificated that sharp change is needed and would be “painful”.5 Painful surely for the country’s ordinary people, not for Glucksmann or France’s arrogant upper crust. “With a cumulated total profit reaching nearly 100 billion euros last year, big French companies had their best year in history...whatever the pessimists might say, there are surely reasons to be proud of our national champions rivalling the world’s giant firms”, ran a recent jubilant editorial in the Paris right wing daily Le Figaro (March 13, 2007).

Income and Wealth Inequalities

The Observatory for Inequalities, a Parisbased think tank warns that income and wealth inequalities would probably widen under a Sarkozy presidency. France’s statistics board INSEE puts the monthly median income at 1,300 euros per head, before deducting health insurance and pension contributions6 (the figures are for 2004). After those deductions, monthly earnings for half the working population come down to around 1,100 euros. Now a one-room flat in Paris rents at around 500 euros, a little less in the suburbs, and somewhat lower still in France’s small towns. Thus half of France’s active population, wage-earners in the main, spend a third to half their salaries paying rent or reimbursing housing loans. Price inflation is officially kept at around the 2 per cent required under eurozone rules, but the country’s prominent consumer group Que Choisir notes prices of products of daily use (food, clothing, heating or cooking fuel, etc) going up sometimes in leaps and bounds.

Among France’s working population, the 20 per cent making the most money earn 4.2 times what the lowest-earning 20 per cent take home. The average for European Union (counting 25 memberstates) is 4.8.7 The figures are cited by the Observatory of Inequalities which recalls that in France 12 per cent of the population are considered poor. The European Union says anyone making 60 per cent or less of the median income in each of its member states is poor. Going by that definition, poverty strikes 15 per cent of the residents of the European Union’s 25 countries. Champions in the EU poverty league are Ireland (usually puffed up as the “Celtic tiger”) and Greece at 21 per cent; Portugal, Italy, Spain follow at 19 per cent each, and Britain flies high with 18 per cent, despite neoliberal hype about the country’s streets “paved in gold”.

At the other end of the earnings spectrum stand France’s industry and finance bosses. Paris’ prominent daily Le Monde laments that the salaries of the top men (women are few) of the CAC-40 blue-chip companies stagnated in 2006 for the second year running.8 LVMH luxury goods company chief and main stockholder Bernard Arnault chalked up over four million euros gross last year, plus stock options that enjoy confortable tax rebates. Other luminaries, like Henri de Castries of the AXA insurance giant scored slightly below Arnault. The boss of chemicalpharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis falls way behind with 3.36 million euros yearly. Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn too fares well with a salary hike in 2006 taking him to 2.6 million euros, again not counting stock options and the like.

Most of France’s corporate bigwigs are good friends of Nicolas Sarkozy, though they are not fundamentally hostile to the social-democratic options proposed by Sarkozy’s presidential challenger, the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal. But this time they have chosen, according to what the Paris business daily Les Echos “drawing inspiration from what’s efficient abroad”. This would mean, more freemarket policies (though Sarkozy is also rooting for a European Union preferential system of sorts), more anti-labour legislation, and greater inequalities despite claims to the contrary. In keeping with precedent, there’s likely to be greater police repression, security clampdowns, and hunting down imaginary genetic disorders to fight lower class crime and delinquency inherent in an unequal society.

Immigrants and Islam

The immigrants, mostly at the bottom of the social hierarchy, are generally good targets for far-right and right wing activists. Establishment “left wingers” too enjoy a good hunting season or two at their expense. These days in France, a perceived “Islamist” influence among the black and brown youth have political opinion manufacturers crying themselves hoarse. The wealthy and famous Salman Rushdie, and even the not so well-heeled Tasleema Nasreen were lassoed in to sign a petition against purported Islamic-fascist tendencies in what’s now known as the affair of the Mohammed cartoons, originally published by a Danish extreme-right daily paper. A French satirical paper of anarchistic orientation some years ago but these days ever more pro-US, pro-Bush and violently anti-third world, launched a petition: “after having defeated facism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world faces a new totalitarian-type threat: Islamism”. Islamo-fascism is a term in vogue among the neo cons in the Bush administration. Are French intellectuals following the leader from across the Atlantic?

One of the signatories to the petition warning of Islamist totalitariansim is French pro-choice activist Caroline Fourest, whose other less respectable activity is raising a scare about Islam conquering Europe. Her book called the La Tentation Obscurantiste (The Obscurantist Temptation), striking out at left wingers holding dialogue with Muslim groups, got her the French national assembly’s “political book of the year” prize last year. In an article published complacently by the notoriously neoconservative US daily, the Wall Street Journal (February 2, 2005), Fourest thunders against what she dubs an Islamist campaign to capture Europe, “where they take advantage of free speech and democracy as well as the failure of Arab immigrants to integrate”.

Note “the failure of Arab immigrants to integrate”. In reality, aside from the “Arabs”, there are black Africans and French West Indians with a problem integrating. Low qualifications and general working class handicaps worsened by the failure of a once dominant communist party to defend the poor sections of society have taken their toll. Official unemployment figures in France hover at just below 9 per cent, youth unemployment at close to 25 per cent. As for joblessness among the foreign-born youngsters in the one time industrial belts around Paris and France’s other main cities, the figure is at around 50 per cent. Working class youth are, as usual, doing better in sports than in science, as the number of blacks in France’s soccer team attests. Blackblack-black, France’s footballers have become the “laughing stock of Europe”, jibed another of France’s numerous “philosophers”, Alain Finkielkraut, a diehard zionist and supporter of Israel. Interviewed by the Israeli daily Haaretz (November 18, 2005), the philosopher trotted out a rabid jingoist line about Islam inciting riots in France. Suburban youth do go on riots on occasion, but Finkielkraut shocked the paper’s hardened reporters by asserting that “in France, there’s a trend to view these riots only in their social dimension, as a revolt of the youth against their situation...”. The problem, says he, is “that the majority of these youth are black or Arabs with a Muslim identity”.

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

According to the French statistics board INSEE, there were just under five million immigrants in mid-2004, about 8 per cent of the French population, a tiny bit more than the 7 per cent back in 1931. INSEE notes as well, that immigrant women are now nearly equal in number to men, and many more immigrants are into higher studies, gradually attaining proportions similar to non-immigrants. Of course, the figures do not include the better integrated French citizens of immigrant origin. France indeed is a sizeable immigrant country, with workers having moved early in the last century from countries like Spain, Italy, and even Poland and Russia. The later immigrants are mostly of Muslim origin, though usually not fervent believers. As jingoism would have it, however these immigrants hate France, practise arranged marriages, and slaughter lambs in their bathtubs come Aid-ul-fitr. Some months before his election win, Nicolas Sarkozy ranted on France’s TF1 TV channel (February 6, 2007): “None is forced, I repeat, to reside in France, but when one lives in France, one must respect its rules, that is, not practise polygamy, nor excision on young girls, nor even slaughter lambs in one’s appartment”. Such practices are rare, but do the sentiments of the foreign-born really matter when drawing the jingoist vote?

Shrinking the Jobless Figures

As in the rest of Europe, social inequalities are on the upswing, and indicators point to a widening gap between the rich and the poor, a trend now viewed as good for economic progress. Many of France’s establishment thinkers have spent the past few years yearning for a lost paradise of sorts. France is on the decline goes the line from prominent free-market ideologues. Britain and the US are their, and the new president Sarkozy’s, models. Despite inequalities in Britain and the US, goes the pitch, growth rates are higher, unemployment islower, and the economies are more dynamic. Against France’s official unemployment figure of just under 9 per cent, Britain sports a 5 per cent official jobless figure, but here’s what Britain’s National Statistics Online has to say: “In July to September 2004, just under eight million people of working age in the United Kingdom were either not looking for, or not available for, work and were therefore classified as being economically inactive. The working-age inactivity rate stood at 21.5 per cent for this period.” This can be interpreted to mean that crowds of people have been taken off the jobless register to produce those remarkably low unemployment figures. Also some 2.3 million people in Britain have been declared long-term sick and dusted off the unemployment list.9 France’s longterm sick are about 1.3 million. French governments have thus failed to erase people from the jobless register by declaring them invalid or inactive, nor have they tried to solve the problem by locking people up. In the US, 2.2 million able-bodied people are in jail, 737 per 1,00,000 population. France has 60,000 in its prisons, around 90 per hundred thousand.10 Unlike in the US, those outside jail do show up in France’s unemployment figures.

The US magazine Business Week (February 9, 2007) cites a study by two economists at Northwestern University in Illinois, who found that in the US, real wages and salaries for the media worker had risen by only 11 per cent or at an annual average rate of 0.3 per cent a year between 1966 and 2001. By contrast, wages and salaries for the 99th percentile group, meaning the big-earning 1 per cent, jumped 121 per cent or about 2.26 per cent a year, for the same period. “America’s top earners are enjoying riches worthy of the Robber Barons of 1890s or the Gilded Age of the 1920s”.11

Strategies are planned in France to generate jobs by making hiring and firing rules easier, and – this remains usually unsaid – putting pressure on the wage levels. The European Union’s so-called Lisbon Strategy, agreed in 2000, had talked of pushing forward the frontiers of technology, and creating employment in knowledge-intensive sectors. Despite drumbeating from politicians and commentators, Lisbon has remained grounded. The US still leads the world, and Europe, in investment in higher education and research and development. Economist Philippe Aghion,12 at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels recommends innnovation, investment in higher education, plus reforms in credit and labour markets as the way out for western Europe. He notes that 39 per cent of the US population aged 2564 had attained tertiary education in 2004, against 23 per cent for the European Union’s (then) 15 countries. The US devotes 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to tertiary education, where the EU spent only 1.3 per cent. Higher education investment enables a country to make cutting-edge innovations, whereas primary and secondary education are more likely to make a difference in implementing existing technologies, says Aghion. Again, the European Union 15 (back in 2003-04) had been spending 1.9 per cent of their GDP in research and development, against 2.6 per cent for the US. Aghion counsels that research and development (R&D) intensity must increase in all industries when an economy gets close to the technological frontier, because the survival and growth of all industries in a high-cost, high-productivity economy depends on their ability to innovate.

French politicians, from presidents to opposition stalwarts, all say yes to innovation. But piercing the atmosphere is the steady wail about France’s declining status in the world, whatever that means. Social and economic indicators compare reasonably well with other major rich countries. As eminent French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi13 writes, “taking a closer look at the basic trends rather than at the froth, one would note that France is better adapted for the future than many think and assert”. Fitoussi underlines the country’s strong points: diversity, secularism, a fundamental sense of solidarity among citizens, a highly respectable technological capability. But that is not what the country’s new president-elect bellowed in his first postelection address. Nicolas Sarkozy underlined respect for hierarchy, authority, and security. France currently has 12 million people aged above 60, a fifth of its total population. An overwhelming majority of these voted for the right-wing president and ensured him his victory. The younger folk voted in large numbers for his rival. The question is: who does the new leader want to build his country with?14




1 Philisopihe Magazine, Paris, No 9, 2007.

2 Marianne, weekly, Paris, April 2, 2007.

3 The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein, Charles

Murray, Free Press, September 1994.

4 Problem children targeted at birth in The

Independent, London, September 1, 2006.

5 Le Monde, daily, Paris, May 3, 2007.



7 Observatoire des inégalities, Paris, citing

European Union figures from Eurostat.

8 Le Monde, daily, Paris, April 24, 2007.


nugget_print.asp?ID=1012 10 International Centre of Prison Studies, London, 11 Results of a paper at Northwestern University

by economists IanDew-Becker and Robert

Gordon. 12 A Primer on Innovation and Growth, Bruegel

Policy Brief, Brussels, October 2006. 13 Jean Paul Fitoussi, Le Figaro, daily, Paris,

March 23, 2007. 14 Population forecasts say that those above 60

will number 18 million in 2020 and 22 million

in 2040.

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

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