While visiting France recently I saw Alain Minc interviewed on television in relation to his new book “Le mal français n’est plus ce qu’il était“. I decided to read the book and found it a useful commentary on current problems and possibilities for France. There is also considerable relevance for the UK and other countries, which is my reason for writing this post.
By way of background, Alain Minc is described in Wikipedia as “a French businessman, political advisor and author”. He was born in France to parents who had immigrated from Poland. He is a former CEO of the Saint-Gobain group and was once an advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy. He is currently on the Boards of various companies including FNAC and YSL. Based on my reading of his book, Minc is not a traditional French “intellectual” – his writing is clear and free of jargon.
In essence Minc’s book outlines serious weaknesses in the current French body politic and, more importantly, identifies some possible solutions. His focus is very much on France, but the problems and solutions he identifies are also relevant to other developed Western countries.
Minc’s diagnosis of our current problems
Minc contrasts the France of 1914, which was able to mobilise four million soldiers to fight in WWI with incredible speed and efficiency, with present day France, which has a much larger and in many ways more powerful state apparatus, but which has lost the respect of the public. He focuses on French concerns with globalisation, growing support for populist parties (in particular Marine Le Pen’s Front National), the lack of respect for “elites” and the increasing focus on the individual (or “atomisation” as he describes it). Minc also notes that the relative wealth of the French makes it difficult for them to accept that change is necessary. We are of course facing similar issues in the UK, though our equivalent of “globalisation” is “Europe”.
Minc’s suggested solutions
So far so familiar – the problems Minc identifies are the stock in trade of every political and economic commentator. Where Minc’s book succeeds is in canvassing solutions to these problems. He focuses on two:
– the continuing promise of the EU (or the European project in general), and
– the possibilities for renewal of French self-confidence and respect for the state deriving from the people (or “la société du bas” as he describes it) via the expansion of the internet and a developing theory of “care” and focus on non-financial measures of progress.
Opportunities for leveraging the EU
Minc believes that the EU has been very effective in promoting peace, individual rights and economic progress in all of its member states. He notes that 30 years ago most people would have identified the United States as the most “democratic” country in the world, but they would now see the EU in that way. He refers in particular to advances across the EU in the application of habeas corpus, the rule of law, liberty of the individual, the separation of the public and private spheres, the importance of money in political life (much less in Europe than in the US), the right to abortion, the freedom to teach the theory of evolution and laws protecting minorities. Minc also regards the EU as a “dynamic” process which must continue to evolve in order to prevent member states indulging historical fantasies – such as Germany pursuing a third way or “special path” (“sonderweg”) between the east and the west, Spain and Italy pursuing a “Mediterranean” future and the UK turning in on itself in the hope of becoming a “Singapore of 65 million people”. Minc is also a Euro optimist who makes the useful point that despite the widespread view outside the Eurozone that the Euro is failing, investors around the world are very keen to hold it. He says that Germany in particular could not afford to see the Euro fail, because it would result in the destruction of the whole European project.
Minc also suggests that the EU is more successful in pure democratic terms than the US, because its institutions are capable of making rapid decisions when necessary, e.g., to sustain the Euro, whereas the US seems to be increasingly hidebound by its constitution. He fails however to deal with the lack of identification with the EU on the part of the public in most if not all EU member states. I regard this as a lack of “fellow feeling” of the type that exists in most federal states such as the US, Canada and Germany. This has resulted in most people viewing the EU as a technocratic monolith, which can easily be blamed for all ills in the economies and society of each country. In the Eurozone, it has resulted in each state focusing on its own interests whereas a common currency requires a much more comprehensive approach. Minc does not tackle this, but I do believe it will ultimately be necessary to reform the European Parliament, Council and Commission to make them much more transparent to voters and to encourage leaders to come forward with whom citizens of all EU member states can identify.
Developing a new social contract from “en bas”
As for his idea of reforming society from “en bas”, Minc believes that individual citizens will increasingly use the internet and information technology to develop links with myriad other individuals with whom they have issues in common. He also foresees an increasing focus on measures of individual happiness instead of pure economic growth, plus the emergence of what he describes as a “theory of care” (which he links to the Catholic doctrine of “personalism”). He believes these developments could lead to a new “social contract” that could revivify the state in its relationship with citizens.
Minc’s ideas for reform may all sound rather “airy fairy” and incoherent, and they clearly need far more development. However, he should be congratulated for at least making the effort to identify some ways out of our modern day economic and political malaise.