Its project envisaged an ideal union of the principles of the sister republics of the Enlightenment. For liberals, what counted more? An atomistic individualism with no logical stopping-place, breaking the nation into so many rival micro-cultures, whose unification must become ever more formal and fragile? Or a collective identity anchored in common obligations and stern institutions, holding the nation resolutely — but perhaps also oppressively — together? It was over this dilemma that the anti-totalitarian front fell apart.
The next occasion for dispute was, predictably enough, posed by the Muslim question, with the first affair of the foulards , in the late s. Could head-scarves be worn in schools without undermining the principles of a common secular education founded by the Third Republic? This time the split was more serious, pitting advocates of a tolerant multiculturalism, American-style, against upholders of the classical republican norms of a citizen nation. Eventually, simmering ill-feeling over these issues burst into the open. The disintegration of the comity of the late s was complete.
By then, however, a much larger change in its position had occurred.
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From onwards, when Mitterrand made the decisive turn towards the logic of financial markets, the French electorate has unfailingly rejected every government that administered this medicine to it. The pattern never varied. In twenty years, seven governments, an average of less than three years a piece. All devoted, with minor variations, to similar policies. Not one of them re-elected. No other country in the West has seen such a level of disaffection with its political establishment. In part, this has been a function of the constitutional structure of the Fifth Republic, whose quasi-regal presidency, with its till yesterday seven-year terms of office, has both encouraged and neutralised continual expressions of electoral ill-humour within an otherwise all too stable framework of power.
The Fourth Republic combined instability of cabinets with rigidity of voting blocs: the Fifth has inverted the pattern, uniting apparently immovable policies with congenitally restless electors. Such restlessness has not just been a by-product of institutional overprotection. More and more plainly as the years went by, it reflected disbelief in the nostrums of neo-liberal reform that every government, left or right, unvaryingly proposed to its citizens.
These did not remain mere paper. Over twenty years, liberalisation has changed the face of France. What it liberated was, first and foremost, financial markets. The capital value of the stock market tripled as a proportion of GNP. The number of shareholders in the population increased four times over. Two-thirds of the largest French companies are now wholly or partially privatised concerns. Foreign ownership of equity in French enterprises has risen from 10 per cent in the mids to nearly 44 per cent today — a higher figure than in the UK itself.
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The rolling impact of these transformations will be felt for years to come. By Anglo-American standards, France remains an over-regulated and cosseted country, as the Economist and Financial Times never fail to remind their readers.
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But by French standards, it has made impressive strides towards more acceptable international norms. Such progress, however, has done nothing to allay popular suspicion and dislike of Anglo-Saxon ideas about them.
But in the divorce between official policies and popular feelings there was another element as well, more social than political. Since De Gaulle, the rulers of the Fifth Republic have become the most hermetic governing caste in the West. The degree of social power concentrated in a single, tiny institution producing an integrated political, administrative and business elite is probably without equal anywhere in the world.
The ENA accepts only students a year — in all about five thousand persons since its foundation, out of a population of more than fifty million. But these not only dominate the top rungs of the bureaucracy and the management of the largest companies: they furnish the core of the political class itself. The inbreeding of this oligarchy has inevitably spawned pervasive corruption.
On the one hand, the practice of pantouflage — high functionaries gliding noiselessly from administration to business and politics, or back again — gives many an opportunity for the diversion of public, or private, funds to partisan purposes. On the other, since the main political parties lack any significant mass memberships, they have long depended on milking budgets and trafficking favours to finance their operations.
But no matter how crushing the evidence, the judiciary has so far been unable to put any significant politician behind bars. But since left and right are equally implicated, and close ranks against any retribution, the venality of the political class is proof against consequences within the system. There is little moralising strain in French culture, and less vocal indignation at corruption than in Italy. But this has not signified mere indifference. What it has fed is a deepening alienation from the elite running the country, and contempt for its revolving cast of office-holders.
Electoral abstention, rising to levels well above the EU average, has been one symptom of this disenchantment, even if Britain under New Labour has recently beaten all comers.
Another has been more distinctively, indeed famously — or infamously — French. From the mids onwards, the Front National attracted at least a tenth of the electorate, climbing to nearly 15 per cent for Le Pen in the presidential contest at the end of the decade. At the time, the size of this vote for an openly xenophobic party, organised by veterans of the far right, set France apart from any other European country.
Widely thought to be fascist, the FN appeared a peculiar national stain, and a potential threat to French democracy. What could explain such an extraordinary recidivism? No other European society had received such a large settler community from its colonial empire: a million pieds-noirs expelled from the Maghreb, with all the bitterness of exiles. That combination was always likely to release a political toxin. But the conditions of its real take-off lay elsewhere.
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The neo-liberal turn of did not lead the Communist Party, which had four unimportant seats in the cabinet, to break with the government. Rather, as it would again under Jospin, it clung to the crumbs of office, regardless of the political cost of doing so, let alone considerations of principle. Its reward for adding to the follies of the Third Period those of the Popular Front — first, blind sectarianism in , then feeble opportunism — was self-destruction, as more and more of its working-class electorate abandoned the Party.
It was the gap created by the resulting compression of the political spectrum that gave the FN its chance, as it picked up increasing numbers of disgruntled voters in decaying proletarian suburbs and small towns. The arrogance and self-enclosure of the political class did the rest.
The more left and right united to treat the Front as a pariah, the more its appeal as an outsider to the system grew.
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Overt racism against Arab immigrants and a somewhat more muffled anti-semitism took their place in its repertoire alongside a generalised, raucous populism. The two stresses that eventually cracked liberal hegemony apart, the tension pitting multiculturalism and republicanism against each other, and the resistance of opinion to the virtues of the market, were exactly the terrain on which it could flourish, at the most sensitive intersection between them.
The limits of the Front as a political phenomenon were at the same time always plain. Shunned by the right, after initial furtive overtures by Chirac, overdependent on the personality of Le Pen, it lacked any professional cadre and never acquired administrative experience, vegetating between polls in a resentful subculture. Its brawling style at the hustings alarmed as much as it attracted.
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Above all, its main calling card — the immigrant issue — was inherently restrictive. The appeal of Fascism between the wars had rested on massive social dislocation and the spectre of a revolutionary labour movement, a far cry from the tidy landscape of the Fifth Republic. Immigration is a minority phenomenon, virtually by definition, as war between the classes was not. In consequence, xenophobic responses to it, however ugly, have little power of political multiplication.
Aron, who had witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany and knew what he was talking about, understood this from the start, criticising panicky overestimations of the Front. In effect, from the mids onwards its electoral scores oscillated within a fixed range, never dropping much below a national average of 10 per cent and never rising above 15 per cent.