Le Comeback : How France & the French Model Might Be More Relevant Than Expected in the 21st Century

As an American, I've regularly had to deal with -- often condescending, if not disparaging -- comments from foreigners, especially Europeans, about my country's presidential contest: the obnoxious/vacuous nature of the debate preceding it, the shocking lack of worldliness of the candidates, the binary nature of their morals and worldview, etc. My turn -- for once, I'll take the liberty of doing the same with my country of adoption and give (whoever might be interested) my take on France and where it's heading, just as the French presidential contest gets into full gear.

"When Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold," the 19th-century diplomat Klemens von Metternich once said. As a kid in the '80s, traveling to and from the French capital, I remember the irrepressible, unmistakable sense of pride I felt about living in one of the world's great cities. Paris was important. The often envious looks I saw on our foreign hosts' faces as they bade us farewell on our way back to "Pa-ree!" at the end of holidays made it obvious my family and I were lucky to call it home. It was just as clear that something had changed when I returned in 1998 after my studies in the US.

There was suddenly something quite peripheral, indeed almost provincial about the city. By 2001, the gap between the urgent, planetary debate spawned by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the parochial and terribly introverted dialectics they led to in France was none less than demoralizing. Paris just wasn't "where the world was at" anymore. Worse, in the years that followed, I was appalled to see that the growing unpopularity of the US was almost, though never quite, matched by the impatience I saw in many of my foreign interlocutors' eyes when I referred to my home country, or anything French for that matter. Once again, it's good to say, "I'm from France."

What exactly is at the root of this change in perception?

It may have to do with the generational change taking place under President Sarkozy and the belated end of a languid era of gerontocracy -- which, to be fair, would have also undoubtedly begun had a candidate from the opposition
won. Still, the fact is noteworthy that a number of senior-ranking cabinet members and advisors (who, it is worth noting, now often speak English, something very few of their predecessors did) are in their 30s and 40s. Many of the country's top CEOs from that same generation have studied outside of France, lived several years abroad, and some even are non-French (Ben Verwayen, Chris Viebacher...), which would have been considered an anomaly, if
not a heresy, just years ago.

Undoubtedly, this rejuvenation of France's leadership influences the eye France casts upon the outside world, and what the country learns from it.

This is great news in a nation that managed to live in quasi-autarky, politically and intellectually, for 26 years, first under François Mitterrand, a high-official decorated by Petain who managed to persuade the
French he was a socialist, then under Jacques Chirac, a pseudo-serious conservative demagogue whose rhetoric on globalization and the market was quasi-impossible to distinguish from that of José Bové, the genetically-modified crop vandal turned anti-globalization movement muse/hero. Just remember that in 2004, Chirac actually uttered the following sentence not just in public but as part of an actual speech: "The ills caused by liberalism could be equal to those of communism" in the 20th century.

France may also have risen in global esteem because the world has come to realize what the French love to call, even though the term is meaningless, "the anglo-saxon" model. The decision made by many global companies to establish their European headquarters in Ireland or Britain has come back to haunt them as Ireland was brought to its knees by the financial crisis and Britain watched any remaining industry vanish. As anyone who has lived on both sides of it knows, the English Channel is, in many ways, as wide as the Atlantic. One feels closer in London to New York, Dubai and Hong Kong than to Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt or Paris. While London is truly a global city, indeed one of the best places from which to speak to the world, it is simply not the right place to talk to continental -- i.e., the rest of -- Europe.

This new popularity might also relate to good old hard power. The US, caught off-guard by the Russian intervention in Georgia in the summer of 2008, while having let President Saakashvili believe they would back him up in case of a Russian show of force, found itself more than happy to let the French President, representing Europe, handle it when the dung hit the fan.

Similarly, while President Obama now scrambles to benefit from his belated support to the rebels in Benghazi, let us not forget it was the French above and before all others who had to literally drag the US into supporting the Libyan opposition forces. Put this in contrast with what happened the last time a war broke out in or near Europe: just as in the 20th century as a whole, a foreign power, namely the U.S. (most recently, in the former-Yugoslavia, thank you Richard Holbrooke, RIP) had to intervene to broker the peace Europeans had proved incapable of reaching on their own, being too caught up as they were (think Douglas Hurd or Francois Mitterrand) in the nauseating moral relativism and old memories of the (Croatian) Oustachi alliance with Hitler that then led to tolerate Serbian aggressive tendencies well after they had morphed into pure and simple ethnic cleansing.

In the wake of Fukushima, a pragmatic nuclear policy has also allowed France, thanks to a national security policy inherited from de Gaulle in the 1960s, to give the country more weight when speaking with the Russians about pretty much anything, than, say, Germany, and its dramatic dependence on Russian gas and oil, particularly after the government's recent decision on nuclear and Russia's pressure on German companies.

Of course, some are getting carried away. Now that most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries are pumping taxpayer billions into their respective economies, it has become exaggeratedly fashionable to look at how the Maîtres du Genre do it. Never mind that. In a still recent study, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba from the University of Salamanca, and Timothy J. Kehoe from the University of Minnesota, analyze countries that experienced great depressions during the 20th century. Their main conclusion? That massive government intervention in the economy to maintain employment and investment during a financial crisis can, if it distorts incentives enough, lead to... a great depression.

And yet, France gets a lot right. While public discourse, as relayed in the press and, less surprisingly, in the country's answers to the Huffington Post (read Mediapart for particularly ridiculous allegations galore, whether about Lagarde and Sarkozy or even credible, mainstream left-wing figures like Hollande), is littered with proto-Marxist verbiage, French capitalism is among the most efficient and indeed robust there is. No country of its size can boast of global leaders in such a wide array of industries, from L'Oréal to Dassault, Carrefour to LVMH, Alstom to EADS. Those global leaders are focused on strengthening their leadership in BRIC/CIVETS countries and winning new contracts in the upcoming rising stars. It is worth noting that Felix Rohatyn, in charge of the Infrastructure department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC mentioned France when asked by The New York Times Magazine, at the heart of the financial crisis, which country had the best infrastructure. Bouygues' and Vinci's know-how and expertise are world renowned, to name only those two.

To be sure, a country with a history of mediocre growth, high unemployment,
and aversion to risk (most young French people dream of becoming civil servants) which suffers only slightly less than others when disaster strikes can hardly be seen as exemplar. Whatever the reasons for the renewed popularity of the French model, if there is such a thing, bridging the gap between perceptions and reality will prove a daunting task. The need for reform and meritocracy in countless areas remains dire. Yet, if it manages, thanks to its recently-accumulated reserves of soft-power, to take advantage of the global financial crisis to overcome its persistent demons, while using its new legitimacy to become Europe's, and therefore the Atlantic's, forum of choice for the crucial debates of our time, Paris could end up surprising even its most vocal critics.