The Revolting Habit

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It is not unusual for an elder statesman to claim a place in history by writing his memoirs. Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, 74, is a serial claimant, with two hefty volumes of recollections and a third to come. But his latest book, Les Français, abandons that often pompous and self-indulgent genre in favor of a lucid analysis of what the author calls France's political decline. Why, he asks, has France lost its once-lofty rank among the world's leading powers? Why has its political class, locked in sterile left-vs.-right debates, become so discredited in the eyes of the public? And why is it so difficult, if not impossible, for France to embrace reform and modernization? The signs of decline are everywhere. Demographically, France has gone from being by far Western Europe's most populous country to No. 2 (behind Germany), with only about 1% of the world's population. Economically, it lags far behind the U.S., Japan and Germany. Diplomatically, its former role as a pivotal international player has given way to largely ineffectual posturing based on the so-called French example that almost no one else takes seriously. French officials no longer occupy the upper echelons of international institutions. The French language is everywhere in retreat.

The intellectual point of departure for this investigation was British statesman Edmund Burke's 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, a work Giscard first encountered three years ago at a seminar on the bicentennial of Burke's death. Giscard was astounded to discover that Burke had put his finger on the essential reason for France's current decline: the tabula rasa reflex — a national compulsion to destroy the old order and replace it with an entirely new system rather than embrace a process of rational, gradual reform. That deep-rooted trait, says Giscard, explains France's four revolutions and five republics since 1789, as well as the current allergy to incremental change.

Resistance to change is part of the very fiber of the French nation, says Giscard. The Colbertist and Jacobin traditions of centralized state control still deter France from accepting the globalized free-market economy that — like it or not — is the wave of the future. Giscard recounts how, as President from 1974 to 1981, he attempted to reconcile France with the market through a policy he grandly styled "advanced liberalism" — an initiative that was wiped out by the 1981 election of Socialist François Mitterrand and the sweeping nationalizations that followed. Similarly, France's seeming inability to carry out pragmatic reform has prevented it from simplifying its plethoric administrative structures, streamlining its impenetrable tax code, reducing its confiscatory levies and slimming the largest and costliest civil service corps of any major European country. Not that every change is good in Giscard's view. Witness the 35-hour workweek recently enacted under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Not only does shortening the week with no reduction in pay make little economic sense, writes Giscard, it equates "idleness" with happiness in an increasingly competitive international environment.

Though Giscard claims to have no further political ambitions, Les Français is a minor masterpiece of self-justification and political scoresettling. The frontispiece quotes Aristotle's adage, "Judge the work, not the artist." But the artist is everywhere — from the repeated references to his own considerable accomplishments as President (which include legalized abortion, divorce by mutual consent, the end of price controls, co-paternity of the European Monetary System and the single currency) to numerous jibes at his adversaries. Mitterrand is pilloried as a cynical purveyor of archaic social and economic ideas. Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, Giscard's former Prime Minister-turned-rival, is mocked for his "strange decision" to call early parliamentary elections in 1997 and for failing to resign after he lost them.

As Giscard makes clear throughout the book, much of the blame for France's decline lies with the French themselves. Their mentality, he writes, is "centered on the individual, on the defense of his personal interests, and the conviction of always being right on every subject." Giscard pins any hope of curing what he calls the "clinical state" of French society on changing the national character. "The greatest novelty that France could discover," he writes, "would be to recognize ... that the French are one people, with a common history, and to stop viewing confrontation as the preferred road to progress ... The French must stop clinging to the past and discover modernity." That's a tall order. But Giscard's book may help the process along by forcing his fellow citizens to face some unpleasant realities.