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France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980.

France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980. By Timothy B. Smith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi plus 296 pp. $23.99).

What happens when a historian steeped in the institutional and legislative "prehistory" of the welfare state turns to the contemporary scene of debates on French social policy? Timothy Smith, whose study of the municipal context for national welfare legislation in France appeared but two years ago, brings a depth of historical perspective to current discussions of the trials and tribulations of the French welfare state. What is new and what is old? The role of the central state in the provision of welfare is relatively new, he reminds us. Claims for the sacred immutability of the French "social model" rest on relatively recent historical contingencies. Globalization, on the other hand (the great bugbear of French social critics) is hardly new. In fact, Smith argues, the French economy was deeply intertwined with global trade in the nineteenth century, in some ways more so than in the present.

The heart of the book, however, is a critique of the collective hypocrisy that, according to Smith, has corrupted the French welfare state at its ideological core--that is, in its claim to honor an ideal of "solidarity." Socialist governments have not been alone in this betrayal, but their hypocrisy is perhaps the most blatant, in Smith's account. Through willful choices, not ineluctable circumstances, "a government elected with an official commitment to redistributing the nation's wealth from the rich to the poor ended up exacerbating inequalities of wealth between classes and generations." (p. 161).

Smith has systematically documented each step of his argument, synthesizing debates in France and among international scholars. He is at his most persuasive in demonstrating that successive governments have made deliberate choices to devote resources to the enhancement of the well-being of the well-to-do cadres, civil servants, and various "protected" segments of the male workforce, such as the railroad employees, at the expense of the jobless, the young, women, and immigrants. Smith shows that the most rapid increase in the proportion of resources committed to locking in fiscal privilege occurred at the very time when the rate of unemployment was rising and the economy was stagnating. Meanwhile, France's reputed attention to the care of children and their mothers has dwindled, a commitment that at its origin had less to do with social solidarity than with a nationalistic concern for demographic increase.

Smith's philippic against the would-be apostles of French solidarity will be music to the ears of all those who hold it as an article of faith that the French invoke principle only in order to advance their national--or personal--self-interest, that social provision in France is little more than a recipe for economic decline, and that long vacations afford proof positive of national debility. Smith disavows any intention of advocating the U.S. as a preferred social model; quite often, however, he invokes the superiority of Sweden or Canada in adjusting social solidarity to the demands of a free market.

Unfortunately, Smith's effort to drive home every count of his indictment against French social and economic policy makes his argument less persuasive than it deserves to be. For this reviewer, Smith's least satisfying chapter is the one in which he argues that the obsession of many French intellectuals with the effects of globalization is nothing more than an ideologically-driven canard. While analysts may agree that the negative effects of globalization are often exaggerated, they will also agree, in the words of a recent commentary, that "The revenue side is threatened both by the mobility of capital and potential increase in the distortions caused by taxation. At the same time, the economy is exposed to new risks which may generate a demand for additional insurance." (1)

A reader who hopes that Europe will find alternatives to rampant "turbo-capitalism" may also wish for a somewhat more sympathetic understanding of why France has fallen short of its solidaristic ideals. Smith's evocation of Julien Benda's famous phrase, "le trahison des clercs" occasionally comes across as caricature. To be sure, many French intellectuals respond with overheated rhetoric to an unrelenting barrage of advice that France can only compete economically by doing everything the American way. But Smith himself turns for many of his arguments to the work of thoughtful French intellectuals: Jean-Paul Fitoussi, for example, who collaborated with Pierre Rosanvallon in writing a trenchant critique, Le nouvel age des inegalites, in 1996, or Colette Bec, whose work, L'assistance en democratie (1998) dissects the complex legislative process whereby the founding assumptions of the French welfare state came to grief. Smith cites both authors, but neither can apparently redeem the shame of the French intellectual class!

Smith himself acknowledges the enormous scale of the social transformation that France underwent during the Trente Glorieuses (the thirty years after World War II) but does not see any reason why the French are loath to undertake changes of equal magnitude today. Not only was there an enormous demographic shift from rural to urban following the Second World War, but the search for productivity led to the disappearance of customary coping strategies--Rosanvallon speaks, for example, of the "wringing out" of all kinds of less productive jobs that provided a modicum of security (how many can still remember the poinc, onneuse in the metro?). Smith might do well to take a more appreciative view of the quandaries that France shares with its neighbors. It does not seem to sort well with his case to follow John Gillingham in disparagement of the insight and accomplishment of Jacques Delors. Was it not Delors who urged his fellow Europeans to stop wringing their hands over the challenge of globalization and to meet it head on? Why deny him the credit for his leadership in forging a broad consensus on the benefits of the Maastricht Treaty, coupling measures designed to promote economic competitiveness with an expansive view of the human dignity of every individual citizen?

If Smith's critique veers into tirade, the valid lessons of his book need to be taken to heart by anyone who values the positive accomplishments of the French system of "social protection" (and Smith acknowledges relative success in such areas as health coverage). The critique of widening inequality and entrenched privilege is a lesson that needs to be heeded not only by France but by the rest of "Old Europe," especially Germany and Italy, where the class alliances underlying the political coalitions of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have led to a "two-thirds society," in the words of German critics such as Stephan Leibfried, and to a very uneven transformation of old hierarchies in Italy. Even if the critique is in some respects overdrawn, Smith has provided irrefutable documentation of critical failings in the implementation of the vaunted French ideal of solidarite. Theodore White wrote, in his 1953 survey of postwar Europe, Fire in the Ashes, "Where France breaks down is at one point only: at the point where France must make new decisions." Smith argues cogently that Marianne needs to make new decisions today--not to become more like us, but to be true to herself.

Thomas M. Adams

Washington, D.C.


1. Torben M. Andersen and Per Molander, "Policy Options for reforming the welfare state," in Torben and Molander, Alternatives for welfare policy; coping with internationalism and demographic change (Cambridge, UK, 2003), pp. 350-375.
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Author:Adams, Thomas M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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