The French Fifth Republic may be at its end. Already strained by François Mitterrand's two terms in office from 1981 and 1995, French political institutions are increasingly at odds with French society. Were President Jacques Chirac to depart overnight, the French would barely notice. A recent poll showed that only 1 percent wanted the president to seek a third term. The discomfiture of Chirac's presidency overshadows even the stagnating governance of his predecessor. While Mitterrand managed to maintain some buoyancy, Chirac has lost all policy credibility.
Because President Chirac is, according to customary political labels, a conservative politician, his decline has implications for the future of French conservatism. It may seem odd to consider, but the future of conservatism in France may now reside in the advent of some sort of neoconservatism--French style. It would not be the first time that social or political developments in the United States gave birth to stepchildren in Continental Europe. The spur of economic liberalism under Ronald Reagan (and in Thatcher's UK) was imitated to some extent in the 1980s, with French privatization and overtly pro-market policies.
In the United States, a loss of faith in the efficacy of government to solve social ills helped to give birth to the neoconservative movement. The decay of French institutions under a neo-Gaullist president could lead to a Continental resurgence of U.S.-style neoconservatism of the 1970s and 1980s--not to be equated with today's movement so heavily focused on regime change. But before exploring how a French neoconservative movement may gain momentum, it is important to first delineate the depth of France's political disillusion.
Dueling strains of conservatism have enervated the movement in France, just as they have in America, over the past thirty years. While Nixon and Ford policies raised discontent among the gathering force of sunbelt Republicans in the 1970s, the moderate liberalism embodied by President Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81) alienated Chirac's neo-Gaullist base. Giscard's role in spurring the European integration process conflicted with de Gaulle's legacy of preserving national identities. Integration became a point of discord for the French Right.
Personal rivalries notwithstanding, popular resentment of Giscard's aristocratic, establishment-like style--what one may call a French version of "Rockefeller Republicans"--contributed to his defeat in 1981 and the election of a Socialist president (by a wafer-thin margin). Chirac's leadership in 1986 appeared to evoke a Reaganesque style, with deregulation and privatization. There was the pretence of a break with the diluted conservatism of the past; just as the Reagan triumph signaled a transition from the Nixon era. Free enterprise was defended with a certain defiance vis-à-vis the then-European Community. At the same time, more aggressive immigration-control policies, while clumsily executed, proved politically timely. The rise of Le Pen's National Front also contributed to a changing public discourse, similar to today's debate. But President Chirac proved himself more enticed by a statist culture than committed to path-breaking social and economic reforms.
Further, France never was able to produce a durable, cohesive and popular conservative force. The word itself is not commonly used in French politics, since it connotes a preservation of the status quo. It was only in 2001 that a single conservative party was created in France--an important legacy of Chirac's presidency. The rise of the currently ruling UMP party now offers an opportunity for French conservatives to articulate a vision on the eve of the 2007 presidential election. They should recognize that France's neoconservative moment has arrived.
Like in America, the French presidency is the cornerstone of political institutions. The Fifth Republic, founded by General de Gaulle in 1958, has traditionally rested on five pillars: the president's seven-year term, his power to dissolve the National Assembly, the holding of referenda, the appointment of the prime minister and the promulgation of laws and executive decrees. Each of these has been put in grave jeopardy, punctuated over the past ten years by two key examples.
In 2005, the president lost a referendum, having failed to convince the French to approve the EU Constitution. The defeat, which badly eroded French influence in Europe, could have been avoided had the president sent the treaty to a joint session of the House and Senate for approval, as authorized under the constitution. The president tried to restore his clout by appointing a new prime minister but unfortunately ignored the sentiment in his conservative camp against his choice: his unelected former chief of staff. Only ten months into the job, Prime Minister de Villepin faced sweeping disapproval, near the record low of the Fifth Republic's history.
Following the December 2005 riots in the suburbs, the Villepin government responded with a welcome Equal Opportunity Law that included the youth-first employment contract law (known as CPE), which sensibly aimed at broadening job-access to youths under 26. The president's neutered reaction to the mainstream student rebellion against the CPE (which was unexpected, since the law addressed primarily unskilled labor) further undercut his credibility. Chirac said he would promulgate the law as he simultaneously requested parliamentary amendments that would alter its most contentious, key clauses. That unusual gesture, intended to save the face of his embattled prime minister, caused tremendous political damage. A reconquest of public trust is now in order.
Signs of social deterioration are evident in the suburbs, schools and labor market. A gaping fault line pits those with protected public jobs against those in the private sector. Unemployment remains near 10 percent. Purchasing power is dropping. An appetite for a new discourse is growing.
On the right, a newfound assertiveness is producing books about the dictatorship of political correctness, the enduring taboo in declaring oneself a rightist (read conservative) and derision of France's repentance for its colonial past. Even on the left, the currently leading socialist presidential contender for 2007 is calling for a "republic of respect", although respect in France is commonly equated with order, even hierarchy--values that are commonly associated with conservatives, rather than progressives.
In fact, a reappraisal of traditional values pervades the public discourse. The work ethic is making a slow comeback, as the Socialist-implemented 35-hour workweek (which is compulsory for a staff of over 25 people) has failed to create new jobs or lead to significant gains in productivity and runs against the exigencies of international competition, not to mention common sense. While social bonds weaken, respect for family ties and parental authority is on the rise, akin to Tony Blair's struggle to restore civility. In short, the public looks prepared to accept the restoration of authority and a functioning meritocratic education system as the means to bring disenfranchised groups back into the mainstream. Reflecting Patrick Moynihan's concern about urban affairs, construction programs are being geared towards reshaping the habitat in fracturing suburbs.
The rhetoric is shifting across a broad political spectrum. Following the December 2005 ethnic (as opposed to youth-labor law) riots, the president identified polygamy and other cultural practices in ethnic areas as impediments to civic integration. Alain Finkielkraut, a left-leaning intellectual, pointed to the racial and religious origins of young troublemakers as factors explaining the riots in an interview with Ha'aretz--triggering an outburst of outrage and denunciations of Finkielkraut as a "Jewish reactionary." His remarks depart from the anti-racist posturing carefully built in the 1980s by Socialist-friendly groups to uphold French multiculturalism. This divergence from traditional platitudes indicates that the French are welcoming an intuitively neoconservative approach that breaks with the liberal perspective.
Conservatives have a historic opportunity to combine a rhetoric more generally associated with the American right, such as on national security, with a new vision on the role of the state and the state elite in the economy and on individual freedom and responsibility. In America, the resurgence of so-called "Republican" values suggests conservatives should claim to be "the party of authority." French conservatives can also seize such preeminence in social and economic fronts by challenging a socialist strategy stressing safety nets and regulation. The French right could fuse some U.S.-"Republican" values with more socially progressive notions--as they have already done, supporting, for example, gay civil unions and promoting the creation of a representative body of French Muslims, recognized by the state. Combine that stance with conservative solutions for reckoning with the challenges of global competition and the stage is set for French neoconservatism. In addition to the substance of the movement, the right tone must be struck: a reassertion of firmness and authority, converging with vibrant libertarianism and American-like optimism for social mobility.
What would this all possibly mean in foreign policy terms? To start with, the eternal hate-love relationship between France and America may tilt toward better mutual understanding and France's undercurrent of anti-Americanism may be tempered. In 2003, while France was right about the dangers of invading Iraq, it squandered its good credit through its gloating posture.
Still, much would also greatly depend on the U.S. side. Take just two of the hottest issues in international affairs, the Middle East and China. France was the target of terrorist attacks of Islamist origin in the 1980s and 90s (long before America), and it shares a long history with various Arab and Muslim countries dating back to the American independence and before. America's bullish regime-change policies, which have led to the much-expected Iraqi quagmire, have substantially undermined confidence in America's leadership. To ward off the fundamentalist threat, France believes the solution lies primarily in gradual economic and political reforms--education, jobs and freedom of expression.Essay Types: Essay