Sophie Meunier: Managing globalization the French way

Sophie Meunier, Princeton research associate and co-author of the recent book "The French Challenge: Adapting to Globalization" (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), spoke with writer and Woodrow Wilson School graduate student Amanda Ableidinger about the French outlook on globalization and the recent French presidential primary elections. Jean Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate, defeated the favored Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the elections, putting him in an unheard-of second place for the May 5 run-off against the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac.

Here are excerpts from the interview. For a full report, click here .

How do you explain the results of the recent elections?
The very surprising results of the French elections raises two fundamental, but distinct questions. One is, why did Le Pen get so many votes? The second question, which is somewhat unrelated, is why did Jospin lose?

On the first question, there has been this feeling, partly justified by facts, that crime is rising in France. People who live in poorer neighborhoods especially voted for Le Pen because this theme of rising crime was the highlight of his campaign, and they thought he was the only one who could really deliver -- or at least send a message to mainstream politicians to tackle the issue. Le Pen's highly simplistic message says: Immigrants commit crimes. If you get rid of the immigrants, it will get rid of the crime.

On the second question, Jospin lost because the left was so split. Le Pen beat Jospin by about only 200,000 votes. What characterizes this election above all is the number of votes that didn't go to the mainstream socialists, but went to the far left or other leftists instead. Most of the votes that Jospin didn't get, also didn't go to Le Pen: 11 percent of the votes went to three different Trotskyite candidates, 5 percent went to the Greens, 5 percent went to a former minister of Jospin's, Chevhnement and 3.5 percent went to the Communist party. If you add up all of them, the left actually received more votes than it did during the last presidential election. The difference was that the votes were not split like this before, but were concentrated for the Socialist party.

Why was the left so divided?

There are several factors in why the left was so split, and my take is that it does have to do with the debate on globalization. The French have had the impression for years that there is no longer any ideological difference between the right and the left. Everyone has been talking about la pensie unique -- the "one thought," or the "thought that everybody shares." It seems that the moderate left and the moderate right are thinking and acting the same way, because they have largely the same economic policy on globalization.

The French feel that because of globalization, most of the economic policy of France is dictated by external constraints, and the politicians no longer have control over the levers of the economy. As a result, many French citizens did not vote, which explains the record abstention level during the first round of the presidential election. Or they cast a "protest" vote in favor of the most extremist candidates, such as the Trostkyites. Both the abstention and the protest votes weakened Jospin.

How did the issue of globalization play out in the election?
Jospin and the Socialists, to some extent, really mismanaged the debate on globalization. Their strategy was "globalization by stealth." They undertook all these absolutely necessary reforms for adapting the French economy to globalization, then covered them up with some big, highly visible social measures like the 35-hour work week. This strategy of double discourse didn't go well with the public. People knew something was wrong, and instead of just acknowledging that they were reforming socialism, Jospin's party undertook that reform while, at the same time, continuing to criticize globalization.

Globalization helps us understand the results of the election because it further reinforces something that has been going on for years: There seems to be a new cleavage emerging from the blurred lines of French politics that we could call the globalization cleavage. Instead of separating the right from the left, it is separating the extremes on both sides from the center. Some people are for a more open, modern France, and others -- both on the far left and on the far right -- are more nostalgic and worried about all sorts of external threats from immigrants, from Europe and from global capitalism. This new split has been confirmed by the recent elections: Almost 50 percent of the entire electorate voted for overtly anti-globalization candidates, whether on the far right or the far left.

In your book, you argue that entering globalization was particularly difficult for France. Why is it more difficult for France than for other countries?
First is the tradition of economic dirigisme -- the central role of the state in administering the economy -- which goes back to Charles De Gaulle in the 20th century. Globalization goes against that tradition: Dirigisme is the idea that the state knows best, whereas globalization is about individual freedom and private actors. Those two clash. France has this tradition much more strongly than most countries in the world, and certainly more than its European partners.

The second reason has to do with culture. There is this idea that globalization -- seen in this sense as Americanization -- is putting French culture under threat. The invasion by the U.S. is harder for France than for other countries because the U.S. and France share a universalist vocation -- a culture that thinks it should project itself everywhere -- which is something that most other countries don't have. Obviously, France has lost the battle to the U.S., and it's very hard for the French to deal with that. Also, more than in other countries, French culture and language are central to the definition of national identity.

The third reason that makes this so much more difficult for France is that the French, unlike others in Europe, still have international ambitions to play a role in the world. During the Cold War, it was still possible to play the "third-man" role, which De Gaulle tried to do by withdrawing from NATO and not accepting all of the dictates of the U.S. With the end of the Cold War, though, this role became impossible as the U.S. became, as the French call it, a "hyper-power." Globalization makes it even harder for France to play this role because it reinforces even more the power of the U.S.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601