France and European Identity

French translation

By Caroline Delavière of Lycée Marie Curie, Strasbourg, FRANCE, 1997

(English translation of the French original by Fiona Bartley of CBS James's Street, Dublin, IRELAND )

Contribution to the EDUVINET "European Identity" subject

- Building French identity and European identity

Features particular to France are gradually declining in the face of a new economic liberalism, globalization, and an opening-up within Europe.

1. The centralizing and interventionist tradition is receding under decentralization :

The French tradition of centralization strengthened with absolute monarchy, especially under Louis XIV, and further increased with the French Revolution and during the Jacobite era. In order to build a new society at that time, the aim was to destroy the preexisting order, by eliminating all intermediary bodies between citizens and State. To achieve this goal, Le Chapelier-law forbade every coalition and guild in 1791. From that point, individualism of entreprise and economic liberalism could expand.

Recently, laws of decentralisation, in 1982 and 1986, have planned the transfer of power from a central State towards local administrative units. Such an idea also interested former President De Gaulle, but with little consequence. The local administrative units ared comprise of regions, created in 1986, and the departments and the communes, which date from the French Revolution. The representatives of these local administrative units are elected by direct suffrage, underlining their legitimacy and their proximity towards people. The decentralizing process reveals the gradual withdrawal of the central State in France, even if the increase in the number of decision-makers doesn't always leads to a greater effectiveness.

2. The ideological war between the right and left wings, each seeking hegemony and sole legitimacy, is giving way to political alternation :

The ideological war between the right and left wing was very pronounced for a long time in France. This divide is particularly evident during the course of the XX century, from the Popular Front in 1936 through to the election as President of François Mitterrand, leader of the leftist coalition in 1981. Up to 1986, two periods of cohabitation following parliamentary elections, with a leftist President and a rightist Prime Minister, and the political alternation, with the election of a rightist President, (Jacques Chirac in 1995), have weakened this ideological gap. Furthermore, the economic policy and especially the fiscal policy of a strong French franc, are widely shared by all political leaders, fudging the distinction between leftist and rightist political parties.

This reconciled democracy benefits the far-right party, theFront National or National Front, which takes advantage of the increasing gap between the political elites on the one hand and the people on the other, a gap worsened by the recent rise in unemployment and a crisis of identity within the lower and middle classes. In fact, the grassroots of the National Front are mainly amongst tradesmen and business managers, seduced by the ultraliberal party line, but also amongst blue-collar workers and the unemployed facing a new crisis of identity. Furthermore, the racist theses of the National Front are taken up by his voters, all the more now that the top of the social pyramid has become increasingly unattainable whilst the integration of recent immigrants progresses apace.

3. The coexistence of small businesses and the Colbertist tradition is under threat due to the constraints of the global market and the relative withdrawal of the State :

The network of small firms developed after the French Revolution with private initiative, depending on an economic liberalism based on private property, is in decline. In decline too the Colbertist tradition, founded by Colbert, Louis XIVth's Prime Minister, and marked by theories of mercantilism. Colbert strongly supported state intervention in economic affairs, particularly with regard to the renovation of the French road network. During the second half of the XXth century, the policy of large public programmes, such as the nuclear programme, the high speed train (T.G.V.) service and Minitel, are evidence of this planned state intervention. Earlier, the relative withdrawal of the State in national economic affairs, and in society, generally speaking, is to be seen notably through the waves of privatization of public corporations.

4. The weakness of French unions has created a sense of the importance of collective bargaining for efficiency :

The union system of northern social-democracy has long used collective bargaining with success, British corporatism consists of unions based on various occupations, and the union system of mediterranean pluralism consists of a plurality of federations. France, which belongs to the latter system, traditionnally has suffered from weak collective bargaining powers. Furthermore the trade-unions and the employers' associations both have weak bargaining powers and some trade-unions are more concerned to stress their opposition than to be involved in management. Strikes were legalized in 1964 in France, and unions in 1984, but unions tend to depend on larger firms and on public utilities. Consequently, the rate of unionization is nowadays the lowest of all European countries, about 10%. Despite this fact, both employers and the employees seem to favour a contractual policy, an idea which could benefit from the recent creation of an additional level of social regulation, the European level.
Since the treaties of Paris and Rome which marked the creation of the European Community in the 1950's,both society and State in France have begun to move in a new direction, away from characteristics particularly French. This change of direction reinforces French involvment in the current European Union.

Sources :

DUVAL Guillaume [1996] : « Négociation sociale : l'exception française », dans Alternatives Economiques, hors-série n· 28, deuxième trimestre 1996, pp. 28-31.

MOREAU DEFARGES Philippe [1996] : « Que peut l'Union européenne ? » dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 11, décembre 1995-janvier 1996, pp. 16-19.

SCHNAPPER Dominique [1996] : « La nation , hasard ou nécessité », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 15, décembre 1995-janvier 1996, pp. 38-41.

SICOT Dominique [1992] : « Les syndicats dans la tourmente », dans Alternatives Economiques, mai 1992, pp. 27-33.

SOUBIE Raymond [1992] : « Causes du déclin syndical », dans Droit Social, n· 1, janvier 1992, pp. 10-15.

SICOT Dominique [1992] : « Les syndicats dans la tourmente », dans Alternatives Economiques, mai 1992, pp. 27-33.

WEINBERG Achille [1994] : « Vers la fin de l'exception française », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 6, septembre-octobre 1994, pp. 6-10.

- French and European values :

Studies of French and European values during the last ten years have revealed major trends towards a European identity. Common elements and oppositions are pointed out whereas differences within a country are sometimes very strong. These basic studies are the EVS surveys, carried out by the European Foundation for the Study of Values.

1. The common judaeo-christian sense of belonging; a latin Catholic Europe in the South, a protestant Europe in the North :

Although this shared belonging is evident, noticeably through a common religious, cultural and political background in occidental Europe, a vast movement towards the secularization of society is visible. European States may even be defined by their relative separation of Church and State, even if, for many, the religious reference is still part of the Constitution. In France, this separation took place in 1906.

2. The reevaluation of the role of the family with a simultaneous rise of individualism :

Despite the post-1968 protest against the family in France, and the fragility of couples based on mutual love, the economic crisis reinforces the role of family and parenthood as a means of solidarity. In 1990, more than 80% of Europeans asked, thought that we should lay more importance on family life. Latin Europe emphasises respect for parents whereas protestant Europe emphasises, rather, respect for children. The rise of individualism is a long term trend of societies within which the individual stands as an autonomous human being, whose accomplishments must be the aim of society.

3. The degree of tolerance and permissiveness is on the increase, except in certain controversial areas, such as drugs and corruption :

The degree of permissiveness among Europeans, through a hierarchy of excusable acts, is growing. The more commonly accepted acts are divorce, abortion, self-defence, euthanasia and homosexuality; less accepted acts include corruption, political assassination, drugs and 'joy-riding'. France and the Netherlands are the more permissive countries, whereas Ireland is the more traditional and least permissive. Moreover, if the level of tolerance towards immigration is slightly up, the perception of immigration is almost completely unrelated to the proportion of immigrants coming from outside the European Union. The success of far-right party policies is due to its dramatized vision of society, focusing on the threat posed by foreigners and fear of theft. This success can be explained by a general crisis of identity, linked with the questioning of one's status, and concern for one's material belongings.

4. An aspiration to a consensual evolution of society despite continuing stark contrast between radical conservatives:

The Europeans asked declared themselves in favor of improvements in society by slow reform. To this end, freedom of speech needed to be guaranteed and citizens' involvment in governmental decisions needed to be stepped up. Despite this fact, opposing poles of radical conservatism, although in decline, are still with us. France and Belgium, particularly, have strong far-right parties.

5. A shift from a period of optimism regarding Europe to one of pessimism, as well as an increase in confidence regarding European Union :

Optimism towards Europe, beginning in 1985, has been replaced by pessimism by 1990. The explanation lies with the worsening of living conditions and the European recession. But confidence in European Union is growing. The French are ambiguous in their attitude towards Europe. On the one hand, the proportion of French which considers belonging to Europe a « good thing » is rising (from 50 % in 1980 to 70 % in 1991) ; on the other hand, distrust is visible through voting. The European elections which took place in 1984, 1989 and 1994, were marked by high levels of abstention and by protest votes. Even the ratification of the Maastricht treaty was approved only by a narrow majority.

In conclusion, despite many differences, an European identity is being created. This common identity originates with common political, cultural and religious references, as well as from rather close economic and social conditions.

Sources :

ALLEMAND Sylvain [1994] : « Les Français aiment l'Europe sauf en période électorale », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 6, septembre-octobre 1994, pp. 76-77.

ALLEMAND Sylvain [1996] : « Les Européens se sentent-ils ... européens ? », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 15, décembre 1996-janvier 1997, p. 41.

CHAUVEL Louis [1994] : « Les Français, les Européens et les valeurs », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 6 septembre-octobre 1994, pp. 16-21.

CHAUVEL Louis [1996] : « L'évolution des valeurs en Europe », dans Sciences Humaines, hors-série n· 14, septembre-octobre 1996, pp. 34-37.

Links :

- didactic links :

It is possible to conduct comparative studies of various European countries regarding the degree of centralization, political parties, small and larger-sized businesses, and regarding union systems.
A survey of values, conducted by students, would also be interesting. A written questionnaire, and analysis of the results (using specific softwares like Sphynx for example), would be required.

- chronological link :

1789 : French Revolution

1791 : Le Chapelier law forbids coalitions and guilds

1848 : male universal suffrage

1864 : acknowledgment of right to strike

1906 : separation of Church and State

1936 : Front Populaire

1944 : male and female universal suffrage (right to vote for women)

1945 : foundation of firm comittees and of social security system

1951 : CECA foundation

1957 : Treaty of Rome

1968 : Foundation of the trade-unions section within firms

1982 : law of decentralization

1993 : Single European Act

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