The imagined and the real in France’s Choice
France does not face any direct enemy. It enjoys major influence within the European Union. It has a unique relationship with the US - close enough to be taken seriously, and yet far enough so as not to be taken for granted there. And although France is at the core of the Western camp, she has maintained a smart, strategic positioning vis a vis the rising global power, China – consistently mindful of what Simone de Beauvoir called: La force de choses (perhaps suitably translated as the power of circumstances).
France’s economy is strong. Inflation often bites; youth unemployment is a problem; and several sectors need major reforms. However, the foundations of the economy are solid. Its industry is competitive, including vis a vis rising Asian economies. And its educational system remains extremely successful at producing world-class talent in both science and technology as well as in art and the humanities.
Yet, France is restless, for she correctly sees major changes on the horizon.
The first change concerns Europe’s security. France knows that the order that had prevailed since the end of the Cold War collapsed, and that for few years now we have been in a transition towards an emerging new global order.
In this new order, the US does not rule supreme; China widens its presence in the world; its influence transcends economics to politics; Russia attempts to resuscitate features of the Soviet Union by different forms of force; and the West is far from the economic and technological global hegemon it was in decades (and centuries) past.
This emerging new order imposes acute challenges not only on Europe’s security, but also on its living standards, relationships with its neighbourhoods, and on its view of itself.
In turn, these challenges impose a crucial question on France. Is France fully committed to the European project in its fundamental premise and true end: political unity on the continent? Or does France want only a trading union of closely coordinating members with intimate cultural affiliations?
The more challenges intensify the more the nature and ultimate goal of the European Union will need to be stated clearly and followed through in practice. Given her size, richness, and political weight, France will have to put forward her views and answers. This will be one of the most important responsibilities of the resident of the Elysee Palace in the next few years.
The second change on the horizon is increasing social inequality, where developments in and out of France will impose on the country more difficult questions.
Emerging from the recent global pandemic, and still reeling from the lasting effects of the financial crisis, and with rising levels of national debt across Europe, almost all of the continent’s economies will undergo a period of challenges, and perhaps adjustments.
Technology will exacerbate the situation. This is because many jobs that were lost in the past decade will not come back. The gig economy is here to stay, and many previously in social segments that saw themselves as only customers of the gig economy will become also workers in it. Wealth creation will become even more skewed than it was in the past few decades. Social mobility will become slow, especially as the standards of living of middle classes in most European countries will decline.
This will impose a responsibility and a question on France. The next President and Government will need to devise policies that lessen the impacts of these coming strong winds on its economy and society. This will heighten the need for some sectoral and social reforms, and as such will require serious, intelligent, and credible leadership.
The question that these economic and technological changes impose, links back to France’s relationship with Europe. Because of its relatively strong economic position, France will be tempted to distance herself from those in Europe whose economic conditions and levels of competitiveness, and therefore future prospects, are challenging. There will be voices invoking the idea of two (or three) tiered Europe, seeing benefits in a cluster of rich Europeans, as opposed to the others who will certainly suffer from the coming problems. Again, in this situation, will France choose to commit and work towards the European Union’s ultimate goal? Or will she decide that the difficulties on the horizon necessitate a transformation of the Union?
This leads us to the third change France faces. Amidst the threats and challenges, there’s the seduction of escaping, in the mind, to an imagined past, anchored on stability and tranquilly, and when supposedly there were no acute problems and difficult questions.
Escapism to a comfortable mental fantasy is an extremely powerful psychological strategy, particularly when people are afraid or traumatised. And today many people in the West are fearful of the coming changes. And if indeed these approaching changes result in economic traumas (not necessarily in France, but in its immediate neighbourhood), we can expect more and more people, within and without France, to retreat into fantasies.
Fantasies call for comfort, which call for conformity. In France this means reducing the most palpable feature of difference in the society: Arabs and Muslims - whose otherness, in the minds of many, is cultural and civilisational. Of course, this difference has been, for centuries, a source of fascination, enchantment, and enrichment in French psyche. Yet, often, it was a feature of differentiation, defining for many in France what she is not.
I doubt that this escapism will take hold of large segments of the French society. Indeed, France has often, in its long history, toyed with hard-headed dogmas that were anchored on narrow definitions of what France means and constitutes. But rich, adventurous, refined, and crucially confident French culture and identity are, France has repeatedly prevented brief flights into fantasy from becoming falls into fanaticism. France repeatedly stood confidently in front of the narrow-minded within her people, baring her beauty as both guidance and reprimand. Her fiery eyes, exquisite beauty, commanding stance, and the loud voice of her marvellous culture, an antidote to the poison that often seeps from the veins of the fearful.
Still, it will be a difficult and probably long cultural fight within the society, for the true soul of France to vanquish fear and resentment. This fight will put another major responsibility on the shoulders of France’s wise in the coming few years.
Many in France today look around them and see in their neighbourhood and beyond landscapes that have been subjected to serious devastation in the past decade. They sense the coming winds. Many know that their house has strong foundations. Yet inside the house there are some who are afraid, their eyes oscillating between statues of the Virgin of beauty and refinement and shadows they see growing larger and appearing closer.
Amidst the looming challenges and the questions they impose, France’s answers will be highly consequential for her experiences in the coming few years, as well as for Europe’s shape, and place in the emerging new global order.