France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980

What happens when a historian steeped in the institutional and legislative “pre-history” 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]