Waking Up from Anesthesia: Decline and Violence in France
The LBD40 is a hand-held riot gun equipped with an electronic sight allowing it to launch forty-millimeter rubber bullets from a twenty-five meterm distance. Consistently used by the French police to repress the protesters who went on the streets to defy President Emmanuel Macron’s “reforms,” this Swiss-made non-lethal weapon left dozens dismembered and blinded. The LBD40 is the weapon of choice of an anxious state elite that fears that the society over which it presides is escaping its control and must be tamed with rounds of rubber bullets.
Indeed, French society is “growing increasingly savage,” according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. There is a severe “crisis of authority,” he argues, and the state needs to “reassert its power” and “not let anything pass.” In May 2021, the same minister, in a sign of full support of “his troops,” participated in a protest organized by French police unions. Gathered outside the National Assembly, they accused the justice system of failing them, of being too lenient towards rising criminality. Yet French prisons are severely overpopulated and the numbers of those incarcerated have never been as high as today. For the Interior Minister, however, prison cells are not full enough.
It is not only those at the head of the government who are nervous. In Spring 2021, a far-right journal published two letters written by a group of retired army generals and signed by thousands of current military officers, warning that a civil war is coming. The letters described a country under unbearable threats: anti-racist ideologues and religious fundamentalists preparing the terrain for a racial war, and masked rioters taking advantage of French people’s reasonable grievances to create chaos in the streets. According to the signatories, the army will inevitably have to intervene to restore order. In a public opinion poll conducted shortly after, French people expressed similar concerns: 73% of respondents believed that French society is breaking down, while 45% thought that a civil war is indeed about to explode.
Threats of military putsches, a growing feeling of insecurity and increased state violence are symptomatic of the entrenched economic decline that has gripped France. Like in most advanced countries, growth has been slowing down for several decades now. The French economy is not expanding as fast as it used to, thus failing to guarantee economic security and welfare for all. As the production of value is petering out, struggles over the distribution of existing resources become more intense, threatening social stability. Stagnation creates an environment conducive to witch-hunting as France looks for the sources of its downfall in migrant hordes, religious minorities, or young rioters.
The state is called to govern this tension-ridden society by fully unveiling its authoritarian face. Economic deceleration pushes more and more people to the brink of pauperization, creating overwhelming levels of social distress that the state is unable to address other than through violent repression. The Macron era has constituted the period where many of the tensions of governing under conditions of economic stagnation have manifested themselves in brutal fashion.
A Turbulent Presidency
Macron’s presidency has undoubtedly been one of the most turbulent of the Fifth Republic. His government’s determination to push through its neoliberal policy agenda was recurrently resisted by massive protest waves. Soon after his 2017 election, the government’s labor market reforms were already opposed by striking workers. Three years later, his pension reform saw the rise of a strike movement not witnessed in 25 years. In 2018–19, his widely contested pro-rich tax reforms saw the uprising of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), a national movement that shook the French establishment for months. In the midst of the pandemic, protesters and police clashed again over the announcement of a new security bill. For every significant reform it sought to implement, Macron’s government wrestled with a powerful social movement rising against it.
People’s zealous opposition to unwanted reforms was matched by the government’s authoritarian outbursts. The mass police crackdown on the Gilets Jaunes was even condemned by Amnesty International’s Anne-Sophie Simpere as being a threat to the right to protest “previously unseen in modern French history.” The aforementioned security bill sought to increase police rights and among other things intensify the everyday use of drones for the maintenance of public order. Later, in a McCarthyesque turn, the government urged the need to tackle the problem of “Islamo-Leftism,” a conspiracy-theory-imagined intellectual current that allegedly plagues French universities and erodes national unity. In a prematurely started electoral campaign, Macron’s discourse took a dramatic securitarian turn, in which the prioritization of law and order issues and vows to strengthen police forces figured prominently.
France is stuck in a situation of deep conflict: social movements fight the implementation of painful fiscal and labor market reforms and the government loses its patience towards dissent and will not hesitate to bypass it through intensified policing. This tension is the symptom of an underlying pathology of the French political economy, whereby existing forms of managing social discontent have become increasingly inadequate and are being progressively replaced by more authoritarian ones.
Much left-wing opposition to Macron has accused him of stubbornly pursuing a discredited neoliberal economic program that prioritizes the rich and neglects the needs of the wider population. His unpopular labor market and pro-business tax reforms quickly earned him the title of the “President of the Rich.” In addition, many have likened his governing style to that of Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” given his demonstrated contempt for the French popular classes and his flagrant ignorance of their everyday struggles.
There is no doubt that Macron’s policies have benefited the rich. However, personalized critiques that one-sidedly blame France’s problems on individual governments and their neoliberal ideological inclinations miss the underlying tensions of French capitalism. France’s social crisis is not simply the result of governments’ irrational political choices, but is shaped by the structural impasses generated by the slowdown in growth. The sources of the current malaise are deep-seated and can be traced back forty years, when the post-war boom ended and the economic decline that now plagues France began its march.
From Glory to Decline
In the thirty years that followed its liberation from Nazi occupation—the so-called Trente Glorieuses—France experienced an intensely state-driven form of economic modernization. At that time, France was still a predominantly agricultural economy and manufacturing was dominated by small establishments employing only handfuls of workers. The few larger plants were owned by a conservative domestic industrial class that, benefitting from domestic and colonial markets sheltered from foreign competition, lacked the incentives to invest in new production processes. To overcome the technological backwardness of French industry and allow it to catch up with its European and American competitors, French modernizers deployed a series of dirigiste institutional mechanisms that gave the state the discretionary power to control the pace and direction of the country’s industrial development.1 Activist industrial policies, public control of the domestic banking system and indicative planning were all key instruments used by French governments to accelerate modernization. Through the direct control over key nationalized industries or by strategically allocating credit to chosen national champions, whole sectors were made to abide by the developmental objectives set by the state itself. State-led modernization allowed French industry to make great headway, as many firms were now able to expand their capacities, reach larger international markets and even become multinationals.
Dirigisme was based on the marginalization of working-class concerns. In political scientist Jack Hayward’s words, French trade unions were “policy community outsiders,” as their capacity to influence the decision-making process was significantly curtailed.2 In place of an institutionalized social dialogue, workers obtained wage gains through wildcat strikes while employers in turn responded with price hikes to gain back their profits. This process, which Elie Cohen termed the “inflationist social compromise,” was tolerated by state elites as it allowed a militant working class to periodically obtain wage gains without obstructing the whole process of modernization.3 To protect domestic industry from inflation, the state frequently enacted currency devaluations to restore the price-competitiveness of French goods on world markets. May 1968 was the culmination of this social compromise. During the month-long upheaval that saw a series of factory occupations, ten million workers on strike, and daily student protests, the French establishment was brought to its knees. The upheaval ended with generous wage increases and the extension of unionization rights that became the basis for significant future wage hikes.
However, the inflationary spiral characterizing post-war growth increasingly handicapped French firms following the oil shocks of the 1970s. Inflation and growing labor costs had to be urgently tamed to avoid the further deterioration of the country’s trade balance. During the Trente Glorieuses France had massively expanded its world exports, but the global post-war race to ramp up productive capacities met its limits as manufacturing markets became glutted.4 On the one hand, the crisis revealed that French firms’ competitiveness still lagged behind those of German, US, or Japanese multinationals in advanced manufacturing. On the other, the crisis evidenced that its relatively high labor costs rendered it unable to withstand competition from newly industrializing economies in labor-intensive industries. Traditional textile and garment industries were threatened with extinction, more capital-intensive industries such as steel or naval construction still employed outmoded technologies, while national leaders such as automobiles could spearhead the export effort only by replacing existing plants with highly automated ones. France was pressed to reorganize its industrial apparatus to survive in overcrowded markets.
In the 1980s, as the crisis of domestic industry worsened, France underwent a neoliberal turn that sought to restructure and reorganize the domestic economy along more competitive lines. In 1983, the U-turn of Socialist President François Mitterrand—from a Keynesian-inspired expansionary program to austerity and greater European integration—was the watershed moment that catalyzed this transition. To reform the economy, the state withdrew financial assistance for unproductive industries and sponsored a job-killing technological restructuring in others. In nationalized industries, the socialists and subsequent governments decimated the workforce with endless rounds of rationalization measures while generously funding private firms’ attempts to employ the technologies of the future. Post-1980s governments also undertook important market-enabling reforms that included financial deregulation, changes in labor law, the loosening of business regulation, and large privatization programs. The rationale behind all these policy shifts was to expose the domestic economy to the disciplinary force of the world market while strategically intervening to support commercially strategic sectors.
European integration aided and abetted state elites’ endeavor to push through unpopular economic reforms. Policymakers limited the channeling of funds to obsolete plants by appealing to the European Commission’s competition policy and strict rules on state aid. Similarly, the fiscal rules on budget deficits inscribed in European treaties were seen by French elites as a way to facilitate the pursuit of austerity measures. In fact, the infamous 3% deficit-rule of the Maastricht treaty was a purely French invention that Mitterrand’s administration came up with as it was looking for a credible technocratic rule by which to limit state spending.5 The inflationary compromise of the post-war era broke down, as French elites made the choice of European monetary integration precisely in order to choke off the inflationary tendencies of the domestic economy and check income growth. In addition, the common currency deprived the French state’s capacity to cushion the blows of foreign competition through currency devaluations, as in the past. Instead, raising productivity at the firm level or bringing down labor costs were the only realistic strategies left for firms needing to adapt to the world market’s competitive pressures.
The pursuit of competitiveness in a context of intensifying global economic stagnation involved major social dislocations. Oversupplied manufacturing markets did not allow individual firms to massively expand their capacities, but competition’s pressures still compelled them to boost productivity and produce more efficiently to remain afloat.6 Output could not grow fast enough to compensate for the job losses accompanying technical change within leading firms and the shutting down of ailing plants. French production was compelled to adapt to world market conditions, but the result was an intense deindustrialization that has been ravaging the country for decades. As argued below, industrial decline came at a high social and budgetary cost, and this bill became increasingly difficult to foot as the economy struggled to revive its former dynamism.
European integration and the post-1980s liberalization measures sought to free the state from the burden of propping up lame ducks or negotiating directly with trade unions the fate of employment in different industries. State elites were hoping to shield themselves from domestic political backlash and pursue their policy preference for painful reforms by appealing to the supranational regulations of the EU or the inescapable pressures of globalization. However, such strategies failed to pull the state out of the spotlight of social contestation, as it remained the primary target of social movements resisting neoliberalization. To allay the social costs of deindustrialization, the French state built an expensive welfare apparatus that it subsequently sought to undo as stagnation intensified. A new wave of social struggles was thereby launched, this time over the future of a welfare state that, although insufficiently generous, has been nevertheless crucial for maintaining some form of social coherence.
The neoliberal reforms that continued apace during Mitterrand’s two consecutive presidencies came at growing social cost as unemployment soared, former industrial regions plunged into permanent economic decline, and workers were left worse off as their bargaining power weakened. Social discontent became evident in the waning support for Socialists in regional or legislative elections, but also on the streets. Inevitably, economic restructuring was resisted: autoworkers went on wildcat strikes, steelworkers marched into Paris, rail workers paralyzed the country. Every plan to reform the French economy ran the risk of reigniting the tensions that led to the mass upheaval of May 1968.
While the state saw these painful economic measures as necessary to improve competitiveness, it also needed to prevent the onset of a full-blown legitimacy crisis that would render the social order unmanageable. To address the specter of revolt, French policymakers initiated a mode of managing social discontent that Jonah Levy termed the “social anesthesia” strategy.7 State elites developed a relatively large welfare state to quell the social tensions provoked by the restructuring of the French economy. They launched a series of social measures—including various public pension schemes, social aids, and unemployment benefits—that sought to numb the pain of economic restructuring. Social anesthesia came to replace the inflationary social compromise of the Trente Glorieuses. Inadvertently, however, the 1980s set the foundations of what was to become the costliest welfare state in the OECD, as France now has the highest levels of social spending within this group of countries. Compared to other advanced economies, the French state puts its hands much deeper into its pockets to finance a welfare state essentially set up to buy social peace and patch up the wounds of deindustrialization.
One could argue that with the social anesthesia strategy, the French state found only a temporary way to wed the objectives of economic reform and social peace. Indeed, there are fundamental limits to it, the most important of which is precisely the waning dynamism of the French economy. Long gone are the golden post-war years (1950-1974) when the economy was growing at an average yearly rate of around 5%. In the post-2008 era, the economy has been running at a third of this rate. France’s economic underperformance is reflected in faltering aggregate productivity growth rates, which began a gradual decline in the 1980s and accentuated with each passing decade. The French economy is simply unable to emulate the standards of economic growth and growing affluence set during the post-war boom.
According to the French National Productivity Board, the relatively weaker qualifications and skills of the working population, the slow spread of digital technologies within French firms, and the sluggish private investment levels in research and development have all to different degrees contributed to the slowdown of productivity in the French economy.8 Yet economic anemia is not a France-specific phenomenon, as the productivity slowdown has enveloped its OECD counterparts too. For aspiring reformers, economic decline appears as the result of domestic deficiencies and persistent institutional rigidities that still prevent the country from realizing its full competitive potential. But as much as they might be looking domestically for the sources of national decline, France’s economic slowdown is a local manifestation of the global downturn defining the world economy since the 1970s.
France’s own problem is that it began building an expensive welfare state at a period when this economic downturn was underway, when it could afford it less. The slowdown limits the resources available to the state for sustaining high levels of social expenditure. To finance it, the state inevitably, on the one hand, had to expand its taxing capacities to the extent that now France has the second highest tax-to-GDP ratio in the OECD after Denmark. On the other hand, it accumulated high amounts of debt as year after year the county’s budget remained in the red, with French authorities being for the most part unable to meet the 3% deficit rule imposed by European treaties. The resources necessary to fund social anesthesia are dwindling dangerously, and European fiscal rules have proved unable to discipline public spending.
As growth rates continued their downward movement, the social anesthesia strategy weighed increasingly heavier on the French state. From the mid-1990s onwards, consecutive governments perceived it as an obstruction to sustainable finances and economic competitiveness. A series of economic reforms sought to deconstruct this costly welfare state with limited success. Attempts to reform welfare and the labor market came at the cost of social upheavals such as the 1995 strikes and the 2006 student movement, which led to the retreat of proposed reforms in pensions and employment contracts, respectively. The untimely expansion of a costly welfare state in an age of stagnation is the background against which the contemporary social struggles in France are fought.
Dismantling the Welfare State
For the past decades, the main challenge for state elites has been to break free from the expensive shackles of the social anesthesia state while still keeping the threat of revolt at bay. But clearly, as Macron’s presidency demonstrates, it has proven impossible to navigate these clashing imperatives successfully. Pulled in two directions, the state faces significant economic pressures to dismantle the welfare state and bottom-up pressures that render such a strategy socially and politically unsustainable, given the costs it imposes on the French population.
For state managers, the post-1980s welfare state constitutes both a fiscal and a competitiveness problem. In addition to contributing to high debt levels, social spending absorbs a large chunk of public funds that could be re-allocated to allegedly more productive endeavors. For instance, the reforms in public pensions or the unemployment insurance system promoted by Macron’s administration seek to free the state from some of its costly social commitments in order to liberate the funds necessary to finance skill formation, R&D, and scientific innovation projects that could place France at the leading edge of the technological frontier. From the state’s perspective, the unemployed and pensioners are paid to merely exist when the money could be instead thrown into reindustrializing France.
In addition, French reformers have long argued that the comparatively high levels of taxation required to finance the welfare state asphyxiate firms and deter further investment. The high level of social contributions French firms have to pay relative to their competitors in the OECD prevents them from making the investments needed to regain a competitive edge in the global productivity race and capture back some market shares lost to foreign competition. State managers have sought to help businesses by reforming what they consider to be a rigid labor market that increases the cost of hiring (and firing) for employers and a welfare system that is eating away the private resources that could instead be invested in productivity-enhancing areas.
At the same time, the dismantlement of the welfare state comes at a high social cost that people logically are not willing to pay. France’s economic underperformance has slowed the rhythm of job creation. As a result, it has seen substantial increases in precarious forms of work (i.e. fixed-term, part-time) and a stubbornly high unemployment rate that has fluctuated around ten percent for the past four decades. In this context, the state’s social aids play a crucial role in supporting people’s living standards: today a little more than a third of households’ total disposable income is composed of social aids, up from only one seventh in 1949.9 Withdrawing this aid without a solid replacement would propel inequality and poverty statistics to yet unprecedented levels.
Moreover, in recent years, tax breaks conceded to firms and increases in various forms of taxes on personal income or consumption have signaled a move towards shifting the burden of the welfare state from capital to households. Especially since the 2008 crisis, reductions in firms’ contributions are increasingly compensated by increases in housing taxes, VAT rates, and eco-taxes paid by consumers. Characteristically, the Gilets Jaunes revolt was sparked by a tax hike on fuel, which was itself preceded by the abolition of a tax on wealth called ISF. In other words, people’s living standards are put on the line both by the progressive retrenchment of welfare and continuous tax hikes that eat up chunks of households’ incomes, especially middle-class ones.
As it stands, France has lower levels of inequality, precarity, and low-wage earners than the OECD average precisely because of the redistributive effects of the social anesthesia state. However, its unraveling will push people into the arms of a dysfunctional labor market, in which a growing share of newly created jobs are badly paid and precarious.10 Reformers suggest that with the further deregulation of the labor market and the rationalization of social benefits provision, the economy will create more jobs, as it will be cheaper for firms to hire while making long-term unemployment unviable for those it “tempts.” French state elites seek to emulate the sort of welfare reforms already undertaken in other European economies, such as the UK or Germany, where the proliferation of zero-hour contracts or so-called mini-jobs have allowed them to reach something resembling full but precarious employment. The not-so-publicized downside of French welfare reform is that, in a stagnant economy, the alternative to publicly-financed unemployment insurance is not job security, but labor market precarity.
Nevertheless, French social aids do not necessarily lift people out of poverty, but simply offer the means to cope with it. According to the Health Ministry's statistics, two out of three recipients of the RSA, an income support given to households with low earnings, live in poor living conditions as their capacity to satisfy certain health, housing, or dietary needs is severely constrained.11 The assistance offered by existing welfare mechanisms is in some ways insufficient to live a dignified life. Yet the economic imperatives pursued by French elites not only preclude their further expansion, but on the contrary compel them to find ways to curtail them in a desperate effort to redress finances and competitiveness.
The global pandemic amplified these underlying tensions. Like many states, France undertook massive fiscal measures to maintain people on payroll and avoid large-scale bankruptcies. The efforts that will be required to bring down the massive debts recently incurred to more sustainable levels—if only to find more leeway to respond to the next crisis—will raise even more explicitly the distributional dilemmas riving France’s anemic economy: cut welfare and tax people’s consumption at the risk of revolts à la Gilets Jaunes, or increase firms’ contributions at the risk of deterring the already low rates of new investment and job creation.
From Welfare to Drones
In response to the Gilets Jaunes crisis, the government promised to add another 17 billion euros to the 2019 and 2020 budgets through measures seeking to enhance peoples’ incomes. Despite Macron’s pre-electoral promise to break through “the Gauls’ resistance to change,” in the face of an unpredictable social movement he succumbed to the temptation of priming the social anesthesia pump. Yet his 17 billion was not enough to quell existing tensions and was rapidly followed by his own promises to cut down on social spending by completely reorganizing the public pension and unemployment insurance systems. In a context of intensifying stagnation, state elites find that existing tools for managing social discontent are quickly becoming obsolete and are forced to devise alternative ways of pursuing economic reform despite social resistance. As the carrot of social spending has become too expensive and the stick of European budget rules has proven too soft, the recourse to the crude repression of social resistance appears as a tantalizing option for desperate reformers unable to gather popular consent for their painful policies.
The progressive exhaustion of the social anesthesia strategy is reflected in the changing patterns of protest management. As Olivier Fillieule and Fabien Jobard suggest in their recent book, Politiques du désordre (Politics of disorder), from the late 1990s onwards French governments became more and more intolerant towards protest movements that opposed government reforms. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé was forced to retreat from a controversial pension reform in the face of a strike wave not seen since 1968 and which at its peak saw two million people marching on the streets. Subsequent governments sought to avoid repeating Juppé’s traumatic defeat. In discourse and in practice, they strived to delegitimize and suppress protest movements in order to restrict their influence on policymaking. As the authors argue, post-1995 governments increasingly came to depend on the police to maintain public order and essentially granted it carte blanche to crack down forcefully on protest movements at even the slightest sign of agitation. The result has been the outburst of violence that we have seen on French streets in recent years.12
That growing precarity and state repression go hand in hand is a banal observation for France's deprived suburbs (banlieues) and so-called priority neighborhoods. These areas concentrate the highest levels of unemployment and poverty, and by consequence also a high number of social aid recipients. There, people—many of them Muslim and of immigrant descent—are constantly subject to racialized policing, impromptu everyday identity controls and the excessive use of force by the anti-crime brigades that roam France's banlieues. Destitute areas and neighborhoods are perceived not as sites disproportionately suffering the effects of a deep-seated economic crisis, but as sites of delinquency and rioting that must be disciplined through increased surveillance.
Much of the French periphery had benefitted from booming economic activity during the heyday of dirigiste industrialization. For instance, the Parisian banlieues were home to some iconic automobile and metallurgical manufacturing plants. From the 1970s onwards, in the context of deindustrialization, these plants either shut down or automated and employed only a fraction of their former workforce, leaving the region exposed to permanently high unemployment levels. In the next two decades, consecutive governments initially threw money into solidaristic urban policies that sought to transfer funds from richer to less fortunate communes and mitigate some ongoing labor market dislocations. Yet as economic decline aggravated and social anesthetics subsided, the urban crisis came to be viewed as a threat posed to state authority and national cohesion.13 Unable to re-open the closed factories, the state began addressing economic insecurity by increasing local police presence and strengthening the judicial apparatus.
The increasingly authoritarian management of social discontent appears as a quasi-natural response to the difficulty of juggling market and social imperatives in a wobbling economy. When people lose their ability to contest policy in the streets, they are often forced to find alternative, often riotous, ways to make themselves heard. What from people’s perspective is a form of resistance to the immiseration of their lives appears to state managers as a threat to public order. While in the past the state would seek to pacify discontent by loosening the purse strings, it becomes increasingly prohibitive to do so today in the context of a stagnating economy and growing debt. Whether Gilets Jaunes occupying roundabouts or rebellious young people raising barricades in the streets, whatever cannot be pacified with public expenditures is therefore to be policed, disciplined, and brutalized.
As the rapper Nakk says in Chanson Triste (Sad Song), a jewel of French hip hop, “there are no window-breakers, only guys who want to exist.” While the French economy denies the means for achieving a dignified life, the demand to simply exist becomes louder and louder, but the state just hears the incoherent and unreasonable expectation of an unruly rabble.
Macron’s turbulent and authoritarian presidency is a moment within a longer trajectory of French politics in which the state has struggled to contain social discontent by boosting public spending. Today, the state is pressured to dismantle its expensive welfare state, but there is nothing to replace it with aside from rubber bullets, drones, and teargas grenades.
Amidst a years-long rain of rubber bullets and a mist of tear gas, the injured protesters and police forces can be counted in the thousands. Some lost their lives, others their eyes, others their hands. Macron’s turbulent presidency will end with an equally turbulent and much apprehended election. Yet it is doubtful that the structural problems underlying French society can be solved electorally.
Despite all their efforts to push through unpopular economic reforms, governments cannot redress the productivity slump at will.14 Since the 1970s, the economic slowdown has been global in scale and interrupted only by short-lived booms that were in turn followed by busts and feeble, jobless recoveries. Moreover, even if French firms manage to regain a competitive edge in the world market, it is doubtful that this will necessarily translate into a more secure life for people. Germany, often held up as an ideal economic model by French reformers, transformed from Europe’s “sick man” to its most competitive industrial exporter, yet it has not been able to ward off the simultaneous rise of precarity and in-work poverty.15 German firms gained in export shares just as the share of low-wage earners grew to be one of the largest in the EU.16
In the run-up to the election, it is worth judging the existing political choices against the structural impasses faced by the French economy. The right-of-center parties—including Macron’s La République en Marche or Les Républicains, led by Valérie Pécresse, just wish to remain on the current socially unsustainable trajectory that consists of removing pieces of the welfare apparatus in the hope of regaining international competitiveness. In particular, Macron seeks to redeem himself and implement with even greater fervor some hallmark reforms of his program which were postponed by the Gilets Jaunes, the strike, and the pandemic—notably the pension reform. Macron’s presidency promises to be his previous one on steroids: more reforms, more police.
On the far-right end of the spectrum, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has in the past years successfully capitalized on France’s social crisis with its anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric. Nevertheless, if ever in power it will have to confront the fact that economic deceleration, not fast-paced immigration, has been depleting the country’s resources. Sooner or later, it will run the risk of alienating part of its own electorate when the time comes for painful reforms.
The Rassemblement faces newfound competition from another far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, who also stands a chance to figure in the second round of the presidential elections. Zemmour, a long-standing political commentator with well-known Islamophobic views, is a proponent of the great replacement theory, advanced by far-right conspiracy theorists, according to which the white French population and its Western values are being displaced by unfettered waves of extra-European immigration. To remedy France’s decline, he proposes the outright expulsion from France of “non-assimilated” migrants (e.g., those unemployed or with a criminal record) while cutting any form of social aid that might “entice” foreigners to seek refuge on French soil. However, his over-politicized and passionate call to barricade France’s borders against the alleged threat of immigration, stands in contrast with his fully depoliticized discourse on economic affairs. In his words, “the revolution lies elsewhere,” not in economic policy. Characteristically, his program includes a rather mundane defense of the status quo and an unoriginal proposal to cut taxes for firms in order to rebuild France’s global competitiveness. By couching France’s decline in civilizational terms, the economic pain of adjustment is made to seem like a small price to pay. As the populist far-right monopolizes the attention of the media and other leading candidates (including Macron and Pécresse) shift their discourse towards immigration matters too, the “economic question” is relegated to a state of quasi-irrelevance.
The left, on the other hand, resembles an oversupplied market, with the vote fragmented between seven different candidates, and currently poses no serious threat to right-wing candidates. In addition, both the country’s recent political history and the current conjecture raise doubts about the viability of existing social-democratic proposals. The Parti Socialiste—which at the time of writing has its lowest level of support, claiming around 2% of the vote—has long ceased to pose a serious alternative to the right, as demonstrated by its impeccably pro-market record in the past decades.17 In a U-turn somewhat reminiscent of Mitterrand’s in 1983, President François Hollande (2012–2017) repealed his 75% tax on the earnings of millionaires during the second year of his presidency over concerns regarding the economic attractiveness of France. Furthermore, his administration, in which, notably, Macron was Finance Minister, saw the implementation of labor market and business tax reforms that were simply radicalized by the current government.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has, on the other hand, a radical social-democratic platform. Among other things, its plans include a democratization of political life, an ambitious state-funded ecological transformation of the economy, a green re-industrialization of France with secure jobs for all, and the elimination of poverty by boosting welfare spending and heavily taxing capital. Yet the party’s relationship to economic growth is ambiguous. It condemns aimless economic expansion that destroys the ecosystem, yet the realization of its plan’s objectives assumes the conditions of booming growth. La France Insoumise’s merit is to put on the table the social and ecological questions at a time when other political contenders bet on law and order, immigration or religious issues for votes. Yet, its propositions are just not radical enough to break the social dependence on capitalism’s grow-or-die dynamic.
France’s dilemmas confirm the urgent need to find alternatives to the capitalist growth paradigm, as economic booms are ultimately both ecologically suicidal and unlikely to come back. In the US, forecasts have already suggested that Biden’s fiscal plans—which Mélenchon welcomed as the death knell of neoliberalism—are expected to boost GDP growth for two years, only to taper off by 2023 and return to rates more familiar to a secularly stagnating economy. If the largest stimulus package in the post-war history of the world’s largest economy is unable to sustainably revive growth, one can reasonably express doubts whether French elites can do any better. Many of the candidates—from the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, to Pécresse, to Zemmour—have furthermore explicitly pledged to reindustrialize France and restore its industrial might on the world stage. Yet, as the German case suggests, such a strategy of reindustrialization might allow the country to recuperate some export shares, but it will hardly constitute a bulwark against social penury and precarious work.
Every five years the French electorate is called to choose between the evil, the lesser evil, and social-democratic projects that have been discredited by a history of U-turns and inter party divides. Yet focusing on individual candidates misses the bigger problem that characterizes French electoral politics: there is currently no political force able to formulate a program that can realistically reinvigorate the country's economic vitality and prevent the accelerated precarization of the French people’s lives. The political choices on offer are reflective of the miserable condition of late capitalism. Promising tougher immigration rules and a robust crackdown on anything that defies public order appears as a safer bet than trying to change the trajectory of a globally declining capitalist economy.
France’s political experience under Macron’s presidency is the national variation of a wider trend towards more authoritarian forms of governance in Europe. As the labor market provides less viable opportunities for people, the resources that states would need to maintain some form of social coherence grow. Yet, stagnation produces a zero-sum distributive conflict between the resources that must be mobilized to remain competitive in tight global markets and the resources needed to buy social peace. As traditional means of managing dissent are exhausted, states are racing to ramp up their repressive apparatuses, with new police bills being passed in national parliaments from the UK to France all the way to Greece. Such authoritarian maneuvers represent the only rational alternative left for states faced with an impossible task: to govern an ungovernable world.”18
If economic stagnation is here to stay, then Macron’s presidency was nothing but a snapshot of France’s future: masses of precarious people and riot police clashing among the ruins of an ailing economy that delivers growing levels of social distress but nothing to allay it.
- John Zysman Governments, Markets, and Growth: Financial Systems and Politics of Industrial Change, Ithaca, NY 1983
- Jack Hayward, The State and the Market Economy: Industrial Patriotism and Economic Intervention in France, New York 1986
- Elie Cohen, L'Etat Brancardier: Politiques du Déclin Industriel (1974-1984), Paris 1989
- Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence, London 2006
- Pavlos Roufos, A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past, London 2018, p.33
- Aaron Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work – I,” New Left Review 119, September-October, 2019, p.28
- Jonah Levy,”From the Dirigiste State to the Social Anaesthesia State,” Modern & Contemporary France 16: 4, 2008.
- Conseil National de Productivité, Productivité et Compétitivité: Où en est la France dans la Zone Euro? Paris 2019
- INSEE, Trente Ans de Vie Economique et Sociale, Paris 2014, p.14 ; INSEE, France, Portrait Social, Paris 2020, p.283.
- Olivier March and Claude Minni, “The Major Transformations of the French Labour Market since the Early 1960s,” Economie et Statistique, no. 510-511-512, pp.89-107.
- Mathieu Calvo and Lucile Richet-Mastain, « Les conditions de vie des bénéficiaires de minima sociaux et de la prime d’activité fin 2018, » Dossiers de la DREES, no. 61, 2020, p.5
- Olivier Fillieule and Fabien Jobard, Politiques du Désordre, Paris 2020
- See Mustafa Dikeç, “Two Decades of French Urban Policy: From Social Development of Neighborhoods to the Republican Penal State,” Antipode 38: 1, 2006.
- Marc Levinson, An Extraordinary Time, London 2016
- Oliver Nachtwey, Germany’s Hidden Crisis, London 2018
- According to the latest (2018) available Eurostat data the share of low wage earners in the working population was 20,7% in Germany and was only slightly preceded by Eastern European economies including Latvia (23.5%) Lithuania (23%), Estonia (21.9%), Poland (21.9%) and Bulgaria (21.4%). Characteristically the share of low-wage earners in France is 8.6%. Source: Eurostat, Low-wage earners as a proportion of all employees 2006-2018
- See Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, The Last Neoliberal, London 2021, pp.42-72
- Pavlos Roufos, “Governing the Ungovernable,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2021