France, the very word evokes romance of all sorts, even the clichés. After all, 90 million tourists flock to France every year and capture the Insta selfie shot that sums up the Douce France image. But for those who know France and her complexities, one can’t help wondering if France has turned herself into the perfect backdrop for titillating tourists. At the same time, people in every section of France is now frustrated.
France’s motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité has already taken a beating with a rising number of our citizens unable to afford the basics. The French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) claims that 14% – or about 9 million – French citizens fall below the poverty threshold. The ongoing pandemic is further proof of the inequality; poorer children who depended on their school canteens for their sole meal of the day were left with an empty stomach because schools were closed.
One in five French people can’t afford three meals a day. Sure, one can argue that Africa and India are worse off. However, for a nation that gave the world the ins and outs of gastronomy, it is ironic that a vast number of our citizens can’t afford the degustation experience we have so proudly exported to the rest of the world. So, how did the French Republic go from enshrining equality to delivering inequality on an unprecedented scale? Michel Pinçot and Monique Pinçot-Charlot are sociologists who have worked for years to document how the elite in France have turned themselves into a caste of people who are beyond reach and reproach. It is interesting to observe that a growing number of sociologists in France now borrow the word ‘caste’ to highlight the impunity of the elite ruling class. The caste system is the oldest known form of stratification. Although it is far more complicated in modern-day India, it can teach the rest of the world about impunity for a specific ‘caste’ of people.
Since the ’90s, France’s political structure has allowed for its ruling elite to bypass the democratic sentiments of our society. Large factions of the Left believe that the Republic has been undermined since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. In 2005, France rejected the treaty in a referendum, but Nicolas Sarkozy decided to disrespect the wishes of his population.
The Sarkozy years were fraught with corruption, and he still has cases pending against him. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy threw his presidential victory bash at Fouquet’s, which was viewed with deep suspicion not so much because of the venue but mainly because of the list of invitees. Sarkozy never hid his love for the glitter and glamour, so his victory soirée was turned into a billionaires-only list along with the loyal band of journalists who showered words of praise upon him. They had turned a caste of people who were truly untouchable. Shortly after his victory celebration, Sarkozy declared he was exhausted and deserved a break, so he sailed away to Malta on a luxurious yacht whose owner happened to be the French billionaire Vincent Bolloré, who just happed to be on his Fouquet’s invitee list. Sarkozy went on to reward his billionaire caste with French honours, medals and titles for their grand service of putting their money to his good use.
Five years later, a frustrated France took to the Left; François Hollande won but only strengthened the political and business class. The business class and the political class have always had to make do with each other. They have either shared power or grabbed power from each other. There is a growing trend to fuse the two classes because the ‘streamlining’ would give the new class direct access to State funding and legislation. From giant countries like the United States to smaller ones like the Czech Republic, businessmen are now the new breed of politicians.
In 2017, France voted a self-conceited Emmanuelle Macron to dodge Marine Le Pen whose party has a disturbing history of anti-Semitism and casual racism. Macron had never stood for even a local election, but his marketing campaign presented him as a fantastic choice. The French electoral system has two rounds, and if the extreme-right ends up in the second round, racism takes centre stage, providing the perfect smokescreen for flawed economic policies. And so, Macron made his entry onto the scene. His style has effectively reduced France from a democracy to a technocracy, robbing the nation of its passion and pride. Macron belongs to a breed of politicians who care little for democracy and push for technocrats to achieve results that undermine the democratic process. Even France’s foreign policy reflects his views. For instance, the recent tragedy in Lebanon will cost the Lebanese an estimated $30 million to rebuild their capital. Lebanon lacks the required finances, which means that they will need donors. Naturally, those who donate get to dictate state policy and perhaps even shape leadership. The Macron model of Technocracy is ignorant of the reality that Lebanon is rife with sectarian politics, and a technocrat style might boomerang.
Closer to home, Macron’s technocratic policies speak for themselves; from social issues to security concerns, France is now under attack from our elite on the top of the Pyramid who are too busy creating self-wealth. The vast majority of politicians move quickly from the public sector to lucrative private sector jobs. This is referred to as Pantouflage and is systemic and helps grease the wheels of corruption. To be fair, France is not alone here; Tony Blair (the ex-Prime Minister of the UK), Gerhard Schröder (the ex-Chancellor of Germany) and many others have ensured their smooth exit from the public sector into the lucrative private sector. What is worse, France has an ancient history of civil unrest; after all, the nation gave Europe its sense of revolutions too. The revolutionary spirit flows deep through French veins. While striking is dismissed and ridiculed by the rest of the world, the spirit of change through marching is alive and well in France. While people often complain of France striking, they tend to forget the fact that Germany and the UK have lost that democratic right. In most cases, they simply don’t have the democratic option to organise pickets; if Germans are allowed to strike for better working conditions depends on if they work for a private employer, the church or the state, amongst many other things.
One of the key reasons why France’s sense of equality has been ruptured is the fact that French identity has gone through the biggest cultural change in its history. France is home to perhaps the largest Muslim population of Europe. While some have assimilated in the French terms – which involves adopting the French lifestyle and culture as theirs – many seem at loggerheads (to say the very least) with French values. From random knife attacks to ‘mentally unstable’ individuals carrying out attacks in the name of Islam, France is terrorised by sections of its own populations. In times of economic turmoil, people tend to find comfort in their culture. France’s youth of immigrant origin are unemployed and some may argue unemployable because they lack the skills and education required for proper jobs. As a consequence, they tend to cling to their culture which offers solace. While Muslims cling to their sense of an Islamic society, the rest of our society longs for douce France.
The loss of shared values and the absence of nation-building have led to a fragmented society where France as a civilisation is under scrutiny. It was Aimé Césaire, who rightly said ‘Une civilisation qui ruse avec ses principes est une civilisation moribonde’, meaning, a civilisation that betrays its principles is a dead civilisation. The trouble is the new France is deeply divided even about its principles and so we are incapable of telling ruse from reality.
- Some like it haute: Fouquet’s in Paris, 27 January 2012, The Financial Times.
- Nicolas Sarkozy’s image as bling-bling president returns over Crillon lunch, 12 April 2012, The Guardian
- Has France’s Macron lost his charm?, 25 September 2018, BBC World News
- France’s Macron pushes for a government of technocrats to rescue Lebanon
- Workers’ rights in Germany: Not everyone can go on strike, 11 October 2017, DW Deutsche Wellb