The Decline of France?

The French are notoriously sensitive--if not defensive--about France's stature in the world. The French state spends vast amounts of money to propagate the French language and French culture, yet the French are painfully aware that the global position of their country is not what it once was.

No surprise, then, that during the last presidential election, the publication of a European Commission report claiming France's economic rank among European countries had fallen from 3 rd to 10 th place in the span of ten years caused soul searching and controversy. Soon, President Jacques Chirac was accusing his rival, Lionel Jospin, of causing the "French decline."

The OECD and Eurostat, the European body in charge of such data, thought they put an end to this aspect of the debate by showing that France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain all enjoy roughly equal per capita living standards. But the broader controversy wouldn't go away. Worried talk about "French decline" reappeared with this year's street protests against pension reform, mounting disputes over fiscal policy with the European Commission, and bickering with America over the war in Iraq.

Today's best-selling non-fiction book in France is a polemic by Nicolas Baverez, La France qui tombe (Falling France). Baverez's book is filled with quotations from de Gaulle and Napoleon. According to the author, France's last great achievements were in the 1970's, when the fast train, the TGV, and Airbus were launched. He castigates both Mitterrand and Chirac for their "common talent to win elections and turn France into a loser." The book's success is itself a sign of a kind of "malaise." But of which kind?