The State of France
Christopher Caldwell writing in The Weekly Standard has a full on analysis of the politics of cultural decline
in France. From falling overall employment, rising public sector employee benefits, declining productivity and an agreessively expanding "ghetto Muslim" population, France appears to be in a death spiral. Caldwell suggests parallels to the 1930's are not misplaced.
It makes for depressing reading and partially explains the desperation with which France has tried to cling to its presumed role as a great power and a founding power in Europe. But it also illustrates how hollow that presumption has rung as France's economy and birthrate have tanked since the 1960's.
Caldwell is particularily good on the politics of nostalgia which infect the largely agendaless, anti-tech, anti-globalism, left alternative - Social Forum. My sense is that a great majority of the Left, not only in France, are now engaged in politics as a nostalgic exercise. They have been left with very little more than acute, and irrational, Bush hatred and the hope that somewhere a new Soviet will emerge to counterbalance the Americans.
Boomers are just as capable as their parents were of longing for a better yesterday tomorrow and declining into a fusty romantic toryism fossilized in long lost "good old days". While there are still people under thirty who are hooked on the feel good, anti-corporate slogans of the Naomi Kleins and Michael Moores, there are not very many of them.
Here, again, the old story that demographics explain 2/3rds of just about everything kicks in. The Boomers - and I speak as a trailing edge boomer myself - ensured that youth was in oversupply. Now, the baby bust and the relatively small size of the boomers echo cohort means there is a scarcity of youth in virtually every Western nation. Youth is in demand for everything from entry level retail jobs to universities to innovation in business.
Being in demand means sub thirty people are having a vastly different experience than their parents did and that changes the terms upon which politics are conducted. Rather than a yearning for the good old days where life was rendered meaningful by the politics of protest and group identity, for many young people right now is as good as it gets. There are jobs, there is money and there is mobility.
For France, locked in a social contract which is geared towards providing pensions for every member of a generation which has not worked very hard and has not worked very long, the real political cleavage is likely to be about the wrinklies' unaffordable future burden. At some point, likely sooner than the French currently believe possible, their economy will no longer be able to borrow enough money to meet the commitments the politicians have made. (The first sign of this pending collapse was the French (and the Germans) demanding and getting an exemption from the euro deficit requirements.)
The democratic Left in France, as in most Western nations, is caught between its romantic idealism and its complete incapacity to create meaningful and actionable alternatives to a capitalist system which seems to work rather well. While the Left can beat the distributionalist drum, it has had to come to grips with the fact higher taxes do not lead to re-distribution of wealth to the poor but rather to the entrenched interests in the public service. And the fact the major succcess stories for the poor tend to be situations in which the demand for labour rises rather than those in which taxation or regulation are used to remove inequality.
Blair's New Labour got this. But Blair is alone in the western social democratic tradition in that "cool Britannia" is as much about the legaccy of the Thatcher cuts as it is about any brilliant new thinking on the left.
For people of a left tilt, the real challenge in France, England, Canada or the United States is to present a vision and an agenda which recognizes the critical success of market economics in generating wealth as an axiom. Which, in turn, means genuinly re-imagining what a humanistic social and economic program looks like when the primacy of the marketplace is taken for granted.