Going back to France after spending a year in the western United States brings the ills that stubbornly plague French society into even sharper focus. If Mr. Sarkozy, the new President of France, is to break with the past, as he promised during the campaign earlier this year, and revitalize a sclerotic nation, he will have to take up one formidable challenge: initiating a genuine cultural and psychological revolution in a country where l’exception francaise precludes national self-criticism. Described in very basic terms, France is a socialist country where Thomas Hobbes’ theory of man’s natural state has been fully objectified not despite, but with the full complicity of, Leviathan, leading the nation to decadence.
To put it differently, successive French governments, equally from the center left and the center right, have, in stark and willful contrast to some of their more enlightened Anglo-Saxon counterparts of the early 1980’s, traditionally resorted to the power of the state to insure that all members of society, regardless of merit and abilities, have access to material well-being, fostering irresponsibility and an entitlement mentality in the process.
Egalite in Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite has maddeningly come to be expected to mean equality of outcome.
Cajoling or shoving the French into thinking in terms of self-denial, discipline, self-regulation, and independence will assuredly take more than mere campaign rhetoric. President Sarkozy has shown himself disappointingly conscious of the risks: he has so far basically taken the bite out of his promised reforms in higher education and trade union laws in order to rumple as few feathers as possible.
No wonder the French claim to be happy with President Sarkozy’s elaborate window-dressing so far, as a recent opinion poll shows. Even more ominous is their disapproval of Mr. Sarkozy’s already diluted plans to reduce the number of public employees. Cutting a bloated bureaucracy down to size was counterintuitively not what French citizens expected from their new President when they voted for him back in May.
The reason? The French generally much prefer the law of the jungle to more civilized methods of government. How much more convenient and rewarding for many of them to selectively get together as a group and blackmail a subservient government into extorting for them a share of a pie that others have painstakingly and legitimately prepared and cooked by and for themselves!
Large battalions of selfless bureaucrats are only too happy to oblige. How much more mature of lookers-on to throw tantrums at that particular group’s audacity and success and to blubberingly vow to do the same! How much more electorally worthwhile for Leviathan not to guarantee the rights of the weak against the strong as Hobbes theorized but to cowardly crush the weak in the stampede started by the deceptively strong!
Do the weak really mind? Not a bit! After all, they know they can band together some day too and ransack the nation with a nod and a wink at the only reaction the government can summon enough courage and strength to have. In this context, no one should be surprised that the French word for “qualms” should, to all intents and purposes, have disappeared from the French language.
The importance of social cohesion based on such ideals as responsibility, character, charity, the work ethic, the sanctity of individual freedom consistent with order, free enterprise, and constitutional checks and balances sounds terribly passé, if at all intelligible.
In the five years ahead of him as President, if Mr. Sarkozy is to reconcile the French with each other and steer the country back in the direction of civilization and a constructive role in world affairs, he will have to spend many more summer vacations in Wolfeboro, N.H., … and read John Locke.
Note: "Paoli" is the pen name, or should we say nom de plume, of our French correspondent, a close student of European politics and a good friend of America. He informs us the original Pasquale Paoli, 1725-1807, was the George Washington of Corsica.