- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

PARIS — It’s an age-old lament: French grandeur is fading.

These days, it isn’t Americans bad-mouthing France over Iraq, but France’s own Cassandras who are churning out best sellers suggesting the country is in economic and political decline.

They point to a host of warning signs: high deficits, intractable unemployment, stunted economic growth, diplomatic setbacks.

They worry about France’s increasingly alienated Muslim minority and the resurgence of attacks on its Jewish minority. Even the killer heat wave over the summer has fed the feeling of malaise.

Navel-gazing is never out of vogue in France, and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has dismissed the latest bout as intellectual rabble-rousing. President Jacques Chirac, asked about it on television, took the opportunity to deliver a short pep talk to the nation.

“I’m surprised to see how in moments of a little difficulty, this movement comes back in such a powerful way,” Mr. Chirac said. “We can overcome all difficulties.”

Measuring “decline” is far from an exact science. For every negative statistic pointing to doom-and-gloom, others show France is not so badly off.

Its universal health care system is widely praised, even if the death of thousands of elderly last summer was attributed to hospitals with no air conditioning and a paucity of health care workers, who vacation en masse each August.

Today’s France is more than baguettes, berets, chateaux and wine: It’s a nuclear power and one of the world’s five largest economies.

It makes Airbus planes and 180-mph passenger trains. Despite periodic flare-ups of indignation over the encroachments of English, the language of France is still spoken by 129 million people globally.

Yet to glance in bookstores these days and see titles referring variously to French arrogance, decline or disarray, one might think no one has a good word to say about la belle France.

The biggest best seller is “La France Qui Tombe” (“France is Falling”), a withering critique by lawyer and economist Nicolas Baverez.

In his book, subtitled “A Clinical Report of French Decline,” Mr. Baverez argues the French work ethic has weakened, the best scientific and entrepreneurial minds are fleeing the country, the French own too few home computers and they are too apt to go on strike at the first whiff of belt-tightening.

Gripped by bureaucratic rigidity, France has failed to liberalize its economy and is becoming “an industrial and entrepreneurial desert,” Mr. Baverez writes. He cites figures showing that new business creation has fallen 2 percent a year since the late ‘80s, and that last year the country of 60 million people had more bankruptcies than the United States.

The discontent expressed by Mr. Baverez is indeed in large part about the economy. The troubles are social, too.

The crisis of confidence heightened in August when, according to the government, nearly 15,000 people died in a heat wave. Many blamed government ineptitude for the failure of health services to cope.

The growth of a largely alienated Muslim minority, and the stunning gains of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme nationalist, anti-immigrant party in last year’s presidential election further dampened the mood.

France, 90 percent Roman Catholic, has Western Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish minorities and has problems with both. It is accused of failing to come to terms with its World War II government’s collaboration with the Nazis, and of denying the Muslim population of 5 million its rightful place in French society.

Several best sellers track the rise of Islamic militancy in France, while Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French Jewish scholar, explores the fears of France’s 600,000 Jews who feel besieged by an upsurge in anti-Semitic violence and intellectual hostility.

In a book subtitled “Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism,” he writes: “Jews have a heavy heart and, for the first time since the war, they are afraid.”

France has certainly not been behaving like a declining power. It went toe-to-toe with the United States over Iraq; injected its army into the civil war in Ivory Coast, pride of its former African empire; and claims a leading role in the prosperous European Union.

But the Americans went ahead with their war in Iraq, and France’s troubled economy weakens its claim to pre-eminence in Europe.

While many in France feel gratitude for the sacrifices of American military on French battlefields in the two world wars, anti-American sentiment — part jealousy, part visceral distaste for U.S. policies and culture — remains an undercurrent.

“The obsession about status, the hatred of decline, the worry about grandeur: These are the guiding principles of French foreign policy. … But when there aren’t the means to back [them] up, it’s just ridiculous,” wrote Romain Gubert and Emmanuel Saint-Martin in “French Arrogance,” another of the best sellers.


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