Policy Papers

Nicolas Sarkozy and France, May 2007: a historical perspective

Robert Tombs |

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Executive Summary

  • Nicolas Sarkozy has often been described, especially in the Anglophone press, as a 'French Thatcher'. But France in 2007 is in most respects very unlike Britain in 1979.
  • The biggest difference is the central and long-established role of the state in French social and economic life. Now expressed as a 'Republican' concept, it transcends party divisions in its attachment to a strong democratic central authority to embody and protect common interests and rights. This distinguishes France from the very different history of the Anglophone world.
  • Sarkozy is a man of the right: but the right in France is very different from that in Britain, with a unique political and intellectual history. Liberalism, especially economic liberalism, is much weaker in the right-wing tradition and in France's political culture generally. Only for one brief period in its history did France espouse economic liberalism.
  • Moreover, Sarkozy himself belongs to a 'charismatic' populist and nationalist right dating back to de Gaulle, and even to the Bonapartes, which is associated with the ideal of a masterful and dynamic national state. This is the dominant style of the right in France today.
  • Whoever is at its head, the French state is run by a uniquely homogenous and cohesive mandarin class, educated specially for the task in elite schools and colleges, and imbued with the values of public service. Sarkozy comes from outside this system, but he will be surrounded by people produced within it. One sign of how radical he is will be whether he is ready to reform French higher education.
  • The French economy, moulded into a characteristic shape since the 18th century, has far less to gain from liberalization than the British economy has had since the 1980s. It has no 'City' to profit from globalization, and its major markets are inside the European Union, the liberalization of which is seen as a threat, not an opportunity. France's business culture is marked by caution and hierarchy, and many of its firms are uncompetitive in world markets.
  • Sarkozy's victory should not obscure the importance of the 2005 vote against the EU constitution, which was a vote against liberalization. It is implausible to see the result of the presidential election as evidence of a revolution in attitudes over the last two years. Sarkozy's mission is not to demolish the present system, but to make it more efficient, principally by freeing up the labour market to create private sector jobs. This is already a very tough prospect. But it is far from constituting a 'Thatcherite' whirlwind.


Nicolas Sarkozy's sizeable majority in a very high turnout gives him a mandate to carry out some kind of change in France: both the cheers of supporters and car-burning by opponents testify to this. Expectations - both positive and negative - are intense. In Britain, he has repeatedly been described as a 'French Thatcher', and in the United States his Atlanticist affinities have been hailed. Are such expectations reasonable? Much, of course, depends on his personality and determination. But despite his portrayal of himself as an outsider, no politician operates in a vacuum. A historical perspective can suggest some of the constraints under which he will be acting. These include tangible forces, such as economic interests, lobbies and trade unions, and less tangible forces, including beliefs, ideas, expectations and assumptions. France in 2007 is not like Britain in 1979: if they share the feeling that 'something has to be done', the idea of what that 'something' consists of is very different.

The state in France

The role of the state in the life of society is what most distinguishes France from the Anglophone countries. Today, the language most commonly used is that of 'Republicanism', which has seen a revival in recent decades, and commands a large degree of consensus. French Republicanism derives its emotional appeal from a rather idealized memory of the Revolution of 1789, seen as defining modern French identity. Its basics are the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen', the slogan 'liberty, equality and fraternity', and a sense of France's uniqueness. All these things are bound up with the idea of a strong democratic state, which embodies the common interest of the nation, guarantees citizens' rights, protects them from threat, and regulates society and the economy. This is often regarded as a product of the Revolution, and is frequently described as 'Jacobin' (after the centralizing Republican dictatorship of 1793-4). But it could as well be linked with the traditions of the Old Regime monarchy, with the modernizing dictatorships of the Bonapartes, with progressive Catholicism, with nationalism, with the Socialist and Communist parties, and with the Gaullist Fifth Republic. In short, statism is consensual. In practice, few of the activities of 'civil society' in France fall entirely outside the purview of the state (for example through the subsidy of many non-governmental organizations, and the direct or indirect control of activities that in many other countries would be largely or entirely independent). This is accepted, and indeed expected, by most citizens.

This is very different from the political history and traditions of the Anglophone world, where the state, and especially the central organs of the state, have usually been regarded with suspicion as at worst a source of oppression and corruption, and more prosaically as interfering, expensive and inefficient. There are, of course, ambivalences. France has an epic tradition of opposition to the state - or more precisely, to those who run the state. Britain has a love-hate relationship with its huge social institutions dating back to the age of the Blitz and Beveridge. Yet there is nevertheless a broad fundamental difference, which is even embedded in the two languages: think of the different resonances of 'l'État' and 'the state'; 'un grand commis de l'État' and 'a man from Whitehall'; 'le service public' and 'public services'- one set of words trails clouds of glory, Colbert, Louis XIV and Charles de Gaulle; the other set evokes concrete tower blocks, 'bog-standard comprehensives' and Sir Stafford Cripps.

The right in France

Nicolas Sarkozy, of course, is a man of the right. In Anglophone countries in the early 21st century, this would be understood, among other things, as indicating belief in the virtues of a limited state and free markets. What does the right mean in France? The most famous analysis is that of the distinguished historian and political scientist René Rémond, who identified three distinct right-wing traditions. First, a Catholic traditionalist right. Second, a parliamentary liberal right. Third, a populist nationalist right. These can be traced back over two centuries, and although they have espoused a variety of institutional forms and labels, they have never completely disappeared. The second tradition, the liberal, is the weakest, and is today a very marginal presence: 'libéral', indeed, is something of a dirty word. It had its brief heyday in the middle decades of the nineteenth century - contemporary with the liberalism of the Manchester School, of Peelite conservatism, and of Gladstonian liberalism in Britain. But even then it never shared with British liberalism a quasi-religious devotion to free trade as the source of progress, peace and universal prosperity. France never had the equivalent of the Anti-Corn Law League. The idea of laissez-faire from the state aroused deep suspicion there, and it still does. As René Rémond remarks, 'there are hardly any real liberals in France.' Economic liberalism is seen as the abandonment of the rights of citizens and the duties of the state to the greed of private interests and to what a recent (right-wing) prime minister called 'the law of the jungle'. Another (right-wing) prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has recently stated that 'we do not want a liberal Europe.' Adam Smith has never convinced the French that the pursuit of individual self-interest serves the common good. The intellectual historian Claude Nicolet has remarked that Smith's ideas and those of the Scottish Enlightenment generally, `the birth-certificate of modernity', have never taken deep root in French political culture.

Sarkozy does not in any case come from the 'liberal' tradition within the French right - of which the approximate avatar is the centrist François Bayrou - but from its third variant, the populist and nationalist right. This tradition originated with Napoleon. Its political hallmark is the assumption of what Max Weber defined as 'charismatic' authority by an individual who claims to have been chosen by the people to embody the unity - even the destiny - of the nation above the squabbles of the parties and the conflicts of personal or sectional interests, and uses the power of the state to shape and direct the future of the nation. The greatest exponent of this style of politics in modern times was Charles de Gaulle, and every French leader since then - including outright opponents such as François Mitterrand - have to some extent adopted the 'Gaullian' persona. Moreover, de Gaulle's Fifth Republic institutionalized this by downgrading parliament and the political parties. De Gaulle was in no way an economic liberal: he pursued and accentuated the policy long followed by both left-wing and right-wing predecessors of making the state the arbiter and planner of the economy. If the heroic days of Jean Monnet's post-war Commissariat Général du Plan have gone, and EU single-market regulations have forced modification of state activity, nevertheless the French state continues, by formal and informal means, by procrastination, and sometimes by open intransigence, to regulate and intervene in economic life. It maintains involvement in many privatized industries, it heavily regulates the labour market, it has institutionalized the control and subsidy of agriculture through the Common Agricultural Policy. It presses the EU to adopt an 'industrial policy' (i.e. protection and subsidies), blocks a single market in services, and undertakes huge infrastructure projects that are the envy of many of its neighbours. Exponents of this strategy would doubtless point to Airbus and the TGV high-speed rail service as proofs of success, and the huge majority of French voters would agree. Sarkozy, as finance minister, did not depart from this approach. Most famously, in 2004 he prevented the takeover of the bankrupt Alstom by 'foreigners' - in this case, Siemans, a company from France's closest ally, Germany. During his successful presidential campaign, he reiterated his intention to 'protect' the French economy from 'unfair competition'. His supporters among the middle classes and in business circles want precisely that.

Only once in its history has France ever followed a determinedly liberal economic policy: during the 1860s, when the authoritarian Napoleon III, in alliance with Britain, set up the first west-European common market and created an embryonic common currency. This lasted little more than a decade, and caused widespread opposition. After Napoleon's fall, his successors - who included right-wing, liberal and left-wing politicians - rapidly introduced a series of tariff protection measures, culminating in heavy agricultural tariffs in the early 1890s. Compare this with the diametrically opposite history of Britain, which since the 1840s has had only one (comparably short) period of thoroughgoing state interventionism: the 1960s and 70s. So when Margaret Thatcher introduced a programme of neo-liberalism, she was going back to the economic norm, and drawing on a free-trade tradition that had never really disappeared. If Sarkozy were to do something similar, he would, on the contrary, be going entirely against the grain of French history. Moreover, Thatcher came to power after a much more acute economic and social crisis than France has suffered in recent years, and hence greater public readiness to accept painful change - which even then caused lasting bitterness and almost destroyed her party. If all French politicians today are aware of British economic successes since the 1980s - Le Monde wrote recently that its higher GNP and lower unemployment were things that 'everyone knows' - they are no less aware of their social and political cost.

France's governing class

Sarkozy is highly unusual for a modern French politician in not having been formed by the educational and political institutions (the 'grandes écoles' and 'ENA') that create France's governing class, or perhaps one should say 'caste' - the only western country for which such terms can properly be used. But in governing, Sarkozy will have to use that class. From the 1790s, French politicians of left and right have consciously undertaken the creation of a professional ruling elite. They thought the Revolution had destroyed, or at least removed, France's 'natural' ruling class. The famous Grandes Écoles (Polytechnique, École Normale Supérieure, École des Mines etc) were established during the Revolution to train experts (scientists, engineers, intellectuals) for the service of the state: their students are already paid civil servants. A specialised administrative training school was briefly established in 1848. More importantly, the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (now the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques - 'Sciences Po' - in many ways the country's leading humanities institution) was established in Paris in the 1870s to 'faire une tête au peuple' - untranslatable, but roughly to 'educate a leadership'. Significantly, the school's founders (centre-right intellectuals) wanted to create an elite to act behind the political scenes as top civil servants, for there, they believed, was where real power lay. Soon, Sciences Po was indeed training a high proportion of officials in the key ministries. The apex of this educational pyramid - to which all political tendencies had contributed - was the famous or notorious ENA, the École Nationale d'Administration, founded by de Gaulle in 1945 to aid in the renewal and recovery of post-war France. Though entrance to all these institutions is meritocratic, they equally require a very specialised preparation (the 'classes préparatoires'), which in practice is confined to a small number of secondary schools, most of them in Paris. The students are overwhelmingly middle class and urban, many from civil-service families, and indeed many are the children of former alumni. The outcome is a coherent and homogenous group of high-flying administrators - who also migrate into business, the political parties and the trade unions, fostering a symbiotic relationship - expressly trained to serve the state and preserve its values as leader and protector of the nation. In short, what is summed up as 'le service public'. This could arguably be said of any respectable bureaucracy. But the French have it in spades. Sarkozy poses as an outsider: but he will be surrounded by insiders. A sign well worth watching of how radical he really means to be, or can be, will be his attitude to university reform: will the 'pyramid' described above be opened up, and its privileges pruned?

Characteristics of the French economy

No less important, and certainly more tangible, than political ideas, traditions and institutions are economic structures and interests, which also have deep historical roots. During the eighteenth century, Britain and France were Europe's biggest overseas trading nations, with France somewhat in the lead. Their colonial expansion in the Americas and Asia reflected this. But their epic eighteenth-century conflict between 1755 and 1815, caused a great divergence whose consequences are still with us. Both states were forced into a conscious struggle to control the connections between Europe and the outside world. Britain won, and grasped what an eighteenth-century French diplomat called `Neptune's trident, the sceptre of the world'. So Britain in the nineteenth century followed a commercial, imperial, globalizing path, its economy specializing in mass production, exporting goods and capital throughout the world, importing its food from distant producers, dependent on income from services and investments, and pressing endlessly to open up new markets. France lost its eighteenth-century colonial trade, and its coastal regions declined. It focused mainly on Europe and the Mediterranean. It could not compete with Britain as a maritime power or as an industrial mass producer. Instead, its livelihood came from perfecting traditional industries and methods, and selling luxury goods (hand-woven silk, perfume, furniture, wine) in Europe. France still dominates the world market in luxury products (their brand-names and quality energetically defended by the state). The American historian Jeff Horn has characterized France's post-Revolution strategy as 'the path not taken': France did not emulate Britain's laissez-faire industrial revolution. A major reason was the political danger of such a course in a revolutionary and post-revolutionary country. Instead, the French state set out to foster, guide and protect selected industries by tariffs, subsidies, official promotions and training; and to defend social and political calm by legal control and mediation.

These eighteenth and nineteenth-century orientations not only persist into our own time, they have actually been reinforced. France's political and economic attention after the Second World War was more than ever focused on the continent as its empire crumbled. So it joined in supranational plans to regulate and protect western Europe. As in the nineteenth century, its economy and political system seemed fragile, and so modernization proceeded, as in the past, under the direction and protection of the state. This acquired unprecedented economic, fiscal, and social powers, and created a complex system of rights and privileges in which most people had a stake. These were defended by France's most powerful trade unions, those of public-sector workers, which were also involved in the administration of the social security system, and which could generally count on broad public support in defending what were seen as common rights. Britain's position was quite different. Its governments still worked consistently to reduce world trade barriers and maintain global contacts. The huge importance of extra-European trade, and of the City of London, provided a motive, and a tangible return, for globalization. France had no 'City' to provide a comparable impetus towards liberalization, and provide a trade-off for loss of manufacturing industry. France's only comparable service-sector earner was tourism: France did not have to go out into the world - the world came to France. Chirac's widely supported blocking of the Bolkestein directive (liberalizing EU internal trade in services) in March 2005 is eloquent: the French public and the political class sees such liberalization as a threat, not an opportunity.

These long accumulated differences between France and Britain have a profound effect. Studies have suggested that French behaviour in economic life is more hierarchical and cautious, and British behaviour more egalitarian and risk taking. These differences can partly be explained by the long-established importance of commerce and finance in British life, and of agriculture and small business in French. Today, one of the weaknesses of the French economy is a small-business sector that is relatively uncompetitive, and relatively absent from international markets.


If the election of May 2007 signals a desire for change in France, in interpreting it we should not forget the other recent epoch-making vote in May 2005: the 'No' vote for the European referendum (slightly higher than the vote for Sarkozy). Should these two results - both showing a clear and settled choice - be seen as contradictory or confirmatory? The 2005 vote was clearly a vote against economic liberalization within the EU (often described as a 'British vision of Europe'), and it was decided by a swing among the public-sector middle class fearing for their jobs and working conditions. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that Sarkozy's election is the sign of a huge and unprecedented reverse swing by the French electorate towards economic liberalism. Which political figure has expressed such a wish? Which great interest-group has called for it? Rather, Sarkozy has been elected to make France's existing system work more effectively, by removing what a broad right-wing electorate sees as inefficient, expensive and burdensome, and hence a cause of the chronic unemployment that is the most visible symptom of France's economic malaise. The most obvious targets for the new president, as he has stated, are the barriers to 'getting France back to work' - taxes, constraints such as the notorious 35-hour week, the entrenched privileges of a huge public sector, the range of employment protection practices that make hiring risky and firing expensive, and the prerogatives of the trade unions that defend this constellation of rights, some of them dating back to the 1930s or earlier. It is here that the division between left and right in France is clearest. The left (and often in practice much of the right) sees the solution to unemployment as the protection of workers' rights, ideally on a European level to limit foreign competition and 'social dumping'; the sharing out of work; and the creation of public-sector jobs. Sarkozy and his supporters see it in greater labour-market flexibility to encourage private-sector employment. This in itself will ignite a considerable political struggle, almost certainly in the streets as well as in parliament. That might be as much as Sarkozy can tackle. Is there a strong desire for a more general 'Anglo-Saxon' liberalism, involving the disengagement of the state from economic management and the eager embrace of globalization? In a word, no. Not even, probably, in Sarkozy's own mind.

Further Reading

Nicolas Baverez, La France qui tombe (Paris, Perrin, 2004)

Jean-Pierre Dormois, The French Economy in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Jeff Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution 1750-1830 (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2006)

René Rémond, Les Droites aujourd'hui (Paris, Audibert, 2005)

Timothy B. Smith, France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980 (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

For links to papers from the symposium 'Plus c'est la rupture, plus c'est la même chose?' Sarkozy's France after 6 months held in November 2007, click here

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