Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Crisis Is Just What France Needed – Or Is It?

Emile Chabal

The French like nothing more than to be in crisis. More than almost any other nation, the French enthusiastically declare themselves – and their country – to be in crisis. According to a whole raft of surveys over the past decade, the French are the most ‘depressed’ people in Europe. Their gloomy attitude towards politics is expressed as ‘a crisis of representation’. Their unease about immigration and identity politics has led to a ‘crisis of integration’. And their concerns about the global decline of French culture are the result of a deep-seated ‘crisis of values’.

Yet, when a real crisis comes along, the cynicism is gone. After the recent terrorist attacks, millions of people lined the streets to defend French values and celebrate Charlie Hebdo’s uniquely provocative brand of free speech. Even the beleaguered François Hollande, who had the worst approval ratings of any French president of the Fifth Republic, has seen his star rise inexorably since 7 January. The most recent poll results suggest that his approval ratings have risen by more than 20% – the highest leap in French polling history.

This is not altogether surprising. Crisis – and the fear of crisis – has long played a vital role in French political culture. Ever since the early nineteenth century, the French political elite have feared societal breakdown. A succession of revolutions, military defeats and civil wars has confirmed these anxieties. On numerous occasions, social conflict has brought down entire regimes: the Fifth Republic itself was born out of the catastrophe of the Algerian War, which saw France carved in two amidst tragic violence.

Crisis, then, is not simply an idle pastime. Still today, French people remember the German occupation of France during the Second World War or the social convulsions of 1968. But will they remember the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the same way? And, if so, what will be the political consequences?

At first glance, the signs are positive. A renewed belief in the Hollande presidency could signal a more positive attitude towards France’s notoriously corrupt political class. Likewise, the great ‘republican march’ that took place on 11 January indicates that many French people agree on the basic rules that should govern their society. Foreign commentators may be highly critical of the French republican model and its secular principles of laïcité, but there is little doubt that it provides the bedrock of French politics.

Unfortunately, the politics of crisis in France also has a tendency to focus undue attention on immediate issues to the neglect of long-term problems. It is all very well for French MPs to sing the Marseillaise together in parliament, but far too many questions remain unanswered.

Who is going to offer a solution to the problem of a colour-blind republican model hanging over a complex and stratified society riven with ethnic, class and gender differences? Which government is going to address head-on the question of long-term structural employment – the biggest blight on the French economy since the early 1980s? When are we going to see long-overdue reform of the French education system and its curriculum to bring it up to date with contemporary issues such as France’s colonial past?

These issues will persist long after the dust has settled on the terrorist attacks. It is certainly true that, after the outpouring of emotion in recent weeks, the French have found new reason to be proud of being French. But crises are, by their very nature, ephemeral. Unless France can find a way of solving its deeper ills, today’s celebrations will rapidly turn sour – and there are many, like Marine Le Pen, who are patiently waiting to profit from the next crisis.

About The Author

Emile Chabal

Emile Chabal is the author of A Divided Republic....

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