Monday, 19 March 2007

Presidentielle 2007 - Why is Libéralisme a Dirty Word in France?

libéralisme, nom masculin
Sense 1: Doctrine centrée autour des libertés individuelles. 
(Doctrine centred around individual liberties).
Sense 2: Doctrine économique qui défend la libre entreprise, la non intervention de l'Etat dans le secteur économique.
(Economic doctrine which defends free enterprise and the non-intervention of the state in the economic sector).

I have mentioned before that in French politics liberalism is a dirty word. I thought at first that this is because France is fundamentally left wing, and is very concerned about social cohesion and preventing the exclusion of its less favoured groups, but for the last twenty five years it has alternately elected right and left wing governments. I have therefore found it difficult to comprehend why France should be so strongly against liberal policies, but with the help of an article in Le Monde 13 March, based on an interview with Pascal Perrineau, the Director of Political Research at Science Po, I am beginning to understand why.
I have quoted heavily from his interview in the following extracts. I hope he will forgive any inaccuracies of translation.
Liberalism has become a scarecrow, almost an affront to public opinion. And lacking an enemy, which today’s French politics cruelly misses, liberalism has become the ideal enemy. Today, even when in reality liberalism flows through a candidate’s political culture, no candidate can take the risk of proposing and defending a liberal policy”. Elsewhere in Europe liberalism has a visible political existence. Across the channel it is an integral part of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party has adopted some of its aspects. In Germany the Liberal Party is the hinge between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. In Holland, Denmark and Italy liberals actively participate in government coalitions, generally of the right, and bring their political themes”.
“The only true attempt to offer a liberal alternative to French electors was in 1997 when Alain Madelin created a party called Democratie Libérale and stood for election in 2002. He got only 3.9% of the votes, which represents one million electors. These came mostly from the owners of small businesses, the artisans, the self employed and those working as senior managers. Amongst the middle and working classes his support was negligible. This failure has shown that no one can brandish the liberal flag without suffering the opprobrium which follows and this has condemned liberalism to being a stowaway in political programmes”.
“Why has liberalism never been able to occupy a durable and credible part of French politics? From Colbert (advisor to Louis IV, 1619 – 1683) via Napoleon to de Gaulle, there is an historical attachment, from both the right and the left of French politics, to the power of the state. For a variety of historical reasons, this does not exist in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain or Italy.
There is also a cultural question. The right in France has developed around catholic values, whilst the left has developed around Marxist concepts. Both are hostile to money and business.
There is finally a very French political and judicial approach under which public power embodies the general interest. Particular interests, which menace the general interest, are therefore illegitimate. For our neighbours, however, the general interest flows from the addition and co-ordination of freely developed particular interests”.

So, in 21st century France, liberalism is seen as a right wing political doctrine which leads to adverse social consequences, such as a loss of jobs and a greater divergence of income between rich and poor. But liberalism is an economic doctrine which defends free enterprise and the non-intervention of the state in the economic sector; therefore it is also seen as a potential challenge to what people have become used to as the role of the state.

French people rely on the state to protect and nurture them, and their belief in the concept of the Republic is partly founded on the ability of the state to deliver this protection. Therefore a political doctrine, which by definition implies the withdrawal of the state from some of its customary responsibilities, threatens this belief. This is profoundly unsettling for many French people and is one of the less obvious reasons which explain why liberalism is such a dirty word in France.


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