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About this book

Few countries can claim a political heritage as rich, varied and influential as France – the birthplace of modern politics. Ideas about France are often based on popular stereotypes, yet the reality of French national identity is both diverse and changeable.

In this authoritative yet accessible new text, Helen Drake provides a compelling introduction to the politics, society, economy and culture of France. She examines how well equipped the country is to meet the challenges which face it at the start of the twenty-first century.

A central theme of the book is whether France has come to terms with its tumultuous past – its wars, civil strife, and rapid modernization following the devastation of World War II. Contemporary France examines key aspects of French political culture and looks at how the core republican principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are being interpreted and implemented today. France's relationship with the EU and its place in the wider world are also explored.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Contemporary France projects iconic images onto the world on an industrial scale. Anyone can conjure up a mind’s eye cliché of France, everyone has their favourite stereotype of French national character, Francophobia and Francophilia are flourishing. All these pictures and all these emotions have played a vital part in the construction of French national identity. They foster feelings of familiarity with France, as well the sense that the French consider themselves to be uniquely different from any other nation on earth, and quite possibly superior. They promote a unified and proud French nation with a shared and lasting sense of history and its traditions. In reality, France is as disparate, disjointed and changeable as any other Western democratic country.
Helen Drake

1. History and Legacies

Abstract
History looms large in contemporary France. The teaching of history is central to French school curricula, and the writing of history by French scholars is renowned worldwide. Local councils and the central state invest in elaborate displays of the past to attract tourist revenues, and the passion for heritage (le patrimoine) is widespread in France. History and remembrance are physically everywhere in France, from the poignant war memorials in the tiniest French village and the vast Allied cemeteries of northern France, to the huge, enigmatic brown signs beckoning motorists to exit France’s motorways and explore local history and tradition. In imagining the past, we conjure up regimes toppling in chaotic crisis; larger-than-life monarchs, emperors, dictators and presidents; centuries-long, bloody wars, preferably waged against the ‘English’, or between religions; and we are invited to shudder at the sights and smells of the 1789 French Revolution and ‘the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine’ (Dickens, 2000: 283).
Helen Drake

2. France and the French

Abstract
Contemporary France is locked into an ongoing debate about French national identity in which the very notions of ‘France’ and ‘the French’ are under scrutiny. Today, fewer than 20% of the French population live in the country, only a tiny minority of them are farmers, and traditional-style small-scale farmers are literally dying out. Yet, the rurality that typified French life well into the twentieth century has put French agriculture and its produce on a political and cultural pedestal. ‘French national identity’, declared President Sarkozy in October 2009, ‘is based on the special relationship between the French and “the land”.’ Similarly, the French Constitution declares the French territory to be ‘indivisible’, and the six-sided outline of mainland France — ‘the Hexagon’ — is synonymous with France itself. The country has not always been this shape, however, having traumatically lost its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany between 1870 and 1919 (and, again, for the duration of World War II), and until the twentieth century, when transportation and education became widespread, the geometric shape of the country was not even familiar to many of its own citizens.
Helen Drake

3. Politics and Political Culture

Abstract
Politics in contemporary France draws on a strong sense of history and culture, and French political identity is anchored in the past. In a society where the status quo is deemed to represent over two hundred years of democratic achievement and social progress, promoting change is a politically risky business. Following his election as French President in May 2007, however, Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that the French people were impatient for change, and promised for his part to make a clean break — a rupture — with what he saw as outdated political ideologies and practices of the past. This was a bold strategy, but it was also in the spirit of the Fifth French Republic itself, which was designed to tame French political life through the shock of new and revitalized institutions, and to marry France’s colourful past to the demands of the present.
Helen Drake

4. Government, Policy-Making and the Republican State

Abstract
Like other liberal democracies, contemporary France is governed by formal political offices and their incumbents, and by bureaucratic policy-making processes and the staff that service them. Governing France is also a question of accommodating specific norms, customs, practices and perceptions in a country reputed to be conflict-ridden and, on past occasions, ungovernable. French government is characterized by a pervasive tradition that only a strong state can guarantee the republican ideals enshrined in the 1958 Constitution; this is the pact between the state and its citizens. Hence France, by tradition, is a secular state, designed to unite diverse faiths into one republican nation; it is a centralized state, concentrating power tightly around the core executive in Paris by means of an extensive administrative apparatus; France sustains a costly social welfare state, the policy expression of solidarity between citizens of the nation (old and young; employed and unemployed; rural, urban and suburban); and Paris takes its place in the international arena as a nation-state whose citizens are bound by their nationality — their Frenchness — and whose state is sovereign over its own decisions.
Helen Drake

5. A Social French Republic

Abstract
The Constitution of 1958 states that ‘France shall be a social Republic’, and maintaining the ‘social cohesion’ of the French nation is a goal of French politicians across the political spectrum. In question is the state’s ability to implement the principle of solidarity (in French, fraternité) that, along with liberté (liberty) and égalité (equality), constitutes the famous motto of the French Republic. The first vehicle here is the welfare state, especially what is known in France as la sécu (la sécurité sociale) — the social security system that delivers health care and most social benefits. This took shape over the decade between 1944 and 1954, to foster national solidarity after the traumas and destruction of World War II, and is a key pillar of contemporary French society. The second instrument here is the state education system, and particularly its schools. Shaped by centuries of political upheaval, the school system is designed to socialize young minds into the ways of the French republic, win their loyalty to the nation, and overcome inequalities of class and social background through the implementation of meritocratic and democratic ideals. A key aspect of this vision forms a third pillar of French society; namely, its secular identity, known as la laïcité.
Helen Drake

6. Culture and Identity

Abstract
Contemporary France is renowned for its culture, and culture is a patently obvious aspect of French national identity. French art, literature, cinema, fashion, film, cuisine, wine, photography and theatre have all enjoyed periods of epic and global status. French ideas are the backbone of much contemporary philosophy, and the French language is treated by French governments as a vehicle for challenging the ‘Anglo-American’ (Hayward, 2007) orthodoxies of the world. Cultural diplomacy — the promotion of French culture and language across the world — is an important dimension of French foreign policy, and France periodically engages in cultural ‘wars’ with US administrations in defence of home-grown French assets such as Roquefort cheese, champagne and art-house cinema. France champions these cultural ‘products’ against alternatives — often Anglo-American in origin — deemed inferior, homogenized, or both. Typically, these battles end in triumphs for quantity and quotas, and are matters of trade and competition as much as tradition.
Helen Drake

7. Economy and Business

Abstract
France has a diverse, open and internationalized economy which, in 2007, was ranked as the eighth largest in the world. With a GDP of US$2.8 trillion, and a GDP per capita of US$46,000, the French economy sits comfortably above the EU27 and OECD averages (OECD, 2009). Since 1 January 2002, France uses the Euro single currency, and is second in size only to Germany in the 16-country Euro zone. France is home to multinational companies and prestigious products of worldwide renown, is the fourth world destination for foreign direct investment (FDI), and invests heavily abroad, in turn. It boasts an agricultural sector that makes France the second largest exporter of food stuffs and food products in the world after the USA, and is equally renowned for its industrial heritage. In particular, the French economy generates much high-tech activity and scientific know-how in the fields of transport (infrastructure and equipment), defence, aeronautics, aerospace, automotives, pharmaceuticals and nuclear energy. France’s industrial history is a matter of national pride, and the ongoing de-industrialization of the French economy is a political headache of the first order.
Helen Drake

8. France in the World

Abstract
For centuries, France has maintained an international presence of global dimensions, and the twenty-first century is no exception: France is still a major world player culturally, commercially, militarily and politically. As recently as the 1960s, Paris directly ruled countries as large as Algeria, and as distant as New Caledonia. Today, France possesses only fragments of its former Empire, but France as a physical entity still extends far beyond the métropole (mainland France) to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, where two million French citizens live in France’s remaining overseas departments and territories (as seen in Chapter 2). France has an independent nuclear deterrent, (known as its force de frappe) and, on this basis alone, qualifies as one of the world’s most influential powers.
Helen Drake

Conclusions

Abstract
It is impossible to take a neutral stance on France, such is the strength of the images it projects outwards to the world. In this volume, we set out to identify, enjoy, and then move beyond the stereotypes associated with such pictures (Brouard et al.: 2009). But scholars have their own battles with the study of France, and especially with the concept of the ‘French exception’. Brouard et al. see ‘French exceptionalism’ as a perspective that can blind us to the fact that ‘France […] lies no further outside the spectrum of advanced industrial economies than any other’ (2009: xiv). Chafer and Godin are less categorical, but still conclude that ‘the French exception’ is probably more parody than politics (2010: 239). Accordingly, we asked not, ‘is France exceptional?’ but, rather, ‘is France still France?’ (Kuisel, 1995: 31), especially given the extent of change undergone since the very beginning of World War II. This is the theme that has run through these pages, and a matter that has already preoccupied French governments at the start of the twenty-first century, leading in 2009–10 to an awkward, unpopular and inconclusive public ‘debate’ on the matter.
Helen Drake
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