Wednesday, July 10, 2013

La France Exceptionelle

The French media have spilt a lot of ink venting outrage at the perceived insult to La République Française by the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. The poor man had the temerity to use the word "reactionary·" with regard to the tactic of trying to shelter the world of culture from the chill winds of competition blowing across the Atlantic.

The phrase that French politicians, academics, artistes and journalists alike love to bandy about is "l'exception culturelle". By this they mean that industries such as film-making, media and publishing are somehow "different" from such uncultured business as aircraft manufacture or cosmetics. Therefore, the French reasoning goes, the EU should ensure that companies in this sector will never be exposed to the full rigors of competition and consumer-driven decision making; national governments in the EU should continue to be allowed to "protect" their industries and ensure that their citizens get a healthy dose of their national culture in order to render them more resistant to the onslaught of the mighty and vulgar "American culture".

The carefully-chosen language of the argument is deliberately misleading. This type of protectionism is not in fact "une exception culturelle"; rather it is a cleverly-dressed-up "exception française".

Another classic example of this phenomenon is what the French like to call the "European Social Model". What they mean by this noble-sounding slogan is a bundle of labour-market restrictions, such as a 36-hour week, that makes the economy uncompetitive in the global market. The French solution offered to this problem is to resist globalisation which is always perceived as a threat, never as an opportunity for change and growth. This ultra-restrictive approach is in reality the "French Social Model", for there is no single social model across the EU. Each Member State evolved differently in function of its own specific set of socio-economic circumstances. To seek to impose the French model on all 28 of them is to force other economies to reduce their own competitiveness by preventing them from offering fewer social benefits and engaging in less intervention in business and labour affairs.

Even in the area of church-state relations, France has the chutzpah to suggest that its model of "laïcité", which dates from 1905 and effectively installs fundamentalist secularism as a sort of state religion, is in fact a fundamental European value. Once again, history has shaped a very diverse set of arrangements across the EU. There are countries such as England within the UK, Denmark, and Finland which have their own established national church. There are others where the legal system provides for close collaboration and shared-competence in various fields such as education. At the far end of the spectrum there is France with a very unique separationist model. The French have nevertheless, including in shaping the European Constitutional Treaty, promoted the idea that this is the "European model" and should therefore be applied by the EU institutions too.

From the outset of the EU, the French have been tremendously successful, and absolutely shameless, in projecting their own vision onto the European level and convincing everybody that this is in fact the European view and in the European interest. By contrast, the real economic power-house of the Union, Germany, has traditionally been very nervous, for obvious historical reasons, about the notion of an EU singing a German tune.

France lost no opportunity to sweep into this power vacuum but, despite all the bluster, cannot do so for much longer. EU enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe brought in countries that have their own bad experience of pretending that the official doctrine of a large bullying neighbour is their doctrine too. French exceptionalism suffusing EU decision-making needs to be consigned to history. Vive la liberté!

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