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Just Say No
Susan George   Dominique Méda   Alain Lefebvre   Nous, peuples d'Europe - & Faut-il brûler le modèle social français ?

Susan George, Nous, peuples d'Europe, Paris, Fayard, 2005, 251 p., 17 €, 14,0cm x 22,0cm, ISBN : 2-213-62546-8.

Dominique Méda, Alain Lefebvre, Faut-il brûler le modèle social français ?, Paris, Le Seuil, 2006, 153 p., 9 €, 13,0cm x 18,5cm, ISBN : 2-02-085970-X.

The reviewer, Timothy Carlson, with a degree in public policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, is a frequent writer on science policy and other public issues. He is also co-director of Internships in Francophone Europe, a Paris-based program of foreign study.


The intellectual fad known as declinology is raging in France (with echos abroad) as declinists advance the thesis that France and other remnants of old Europe have reached a terminal stage of refused-modernization while certain opponents argue that Europe is the harbinger of a safer, fairer world for human beings. The French referendum on May 29, 2005 for or against the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe and especially the resounding "non" that resulted have been seized by declinists as further proof that France is a downward-sloping curve. Just in time for the debate come two books whose goal is to help Europeans think about when to say no and to what to say yes.

Susan George is an American living intellectual light-years away in France, writing in French on topics of alternative globalization as a "scholar-activist" at the Transnational Institute and as a leading member of ATTAC, a large French-originated movement for international financial justice. Her latest book is at once a political tract for European social democracy and a clarification – no less useful for its partisan stance – of the issues involved in the constitutional referendum and debate.

Particularly for observers from abroad who may well have been confused by the curious admixture of a popular but astonishingly thorough-going debate of the issues with a slanging veneer of name-calling, caricature, and intentional obfuscation, George's book – likely slated for translation – is an essential guide. The funny thing that happened on the way to the polls was the emergence of a new voter : the pro-European against this European treaty. Ironically for a referendum, the European debate (for once) did not take on a simple yes-no tenor but rather included a good deal of discussion of what indeed one's vote was saying yes or no to.

Susan George's analysis of the treaty emphasizes what she sees as its mission to make Europe safe for shareholder value. The text is a product of a moment in European social history when most nations are tempted by intra- and extra-European fiscal competition, pressured by eastern EU members with little else as policy weapons, and social programs seem unaffordable as fiscal receipts drop. The share of labor in value added has been dropping in Europe over the last decade or so in favor of the share of capital. Public investment in the services, education and infrastructure that foreign direct investment cites as attractive in France and its neighbors is given short shrift in the bloated 230-page text. The European Round Table, a club of Europe's largest captains of industry, purred with contentment over the treaty's version of a Europe that would "reduce the power of the State and the public sector in general while transferring a great number of powers from Nation-states to a modern, internationally-oriented structure... which is extremely open to business, so much so that when we have a problem that cannot be resolved politically we can turn to the excellent Commissioners." A lot of politics is a fight over the pie (and the rest is a fight over ends - see below), and when a constitution diminishes the role of politics, a sense of foreboding by those concerned with distributive issues is understandable.

George also sets out to shed light on the hypocrisy of left-leaning yes advocates of this text and its corporate underbelly. The Socialist Party leadership submitted a stimulating set of proposals to the constitutional convention but when the final product resembled much more the eurocrat's dream of market efficiency by edict than a human-capital-driven social democracy – and with little transfer of power from Commission to Parliament despite widespread clamor for EU democratization, the same leadership defended it as a step in the right direction. UNICE, "the voice of business in Europe", an observer at the constitutional convention, joined efforts with far right Italian and Spanish politicians to lobby for a strong council and weak Parliament. "The article on the Commission conforms to UNICE's wishes and we are pleased that no proposition introduces the idea of a European tax, that unanimity in decision-making is maintained, and that price stability is still the main objective of the European Central Bank". The oui left was finally reduced to a shibboleth ; if you're pro-Europe you must vote yes.

When she turns to a demonstration of what non was saying yes to, the ensuing social democracy idyll seems a bit facile and shopworn, but her arguments for why Europe is the best placed of world actors to show the way towards much needed global alternatives is convincing. The famous five-planet ecological footprint of a world population consuming at American levels forcibly imposes the need for an alternative. For George, Europe is by default the world's environmental leader, given America's miserable record and wasteful habits and India and China's reticence to hinder growth. The increasing geo-political impact of ecological and resource concerns will only make patent what is not yet visible to all, namely, that the US and Europe are on different paths, or, in the words of US neo-conservative Robert Kagan (cited by George), "Europeans should stop pretending to believe that Europe and the US have a common vision of the world or even that they inhabit the same world".

One man's decline is another's progress, and George's no says yes to Europe's commitment to social welfare, public services and other humans-first hallmarks of continental social philosophy. This time around the social message is also ecological and... European; social models should be built by Europeans together. This is exactly the message of another recent upward-sloping book, Faut-il Brûler le Modèle Social Français? ("should the French social model be abandoned?"), whose authors Dominique Méda (labor sociologist) and Alain Lefebvre (Nordic social model expert) attempt to extricate the French commitment to safety nets from the morass of dead-end policy fragments and sterile debates in which this model is mired. In a clear and impeccably researched text, the authors show how the French employment-financed social welfare system lacks both efficiency and equity, at the same that that they show how simply cutting benefits and coverage fails both tests too. They then proceed to dissect Northern Europe's new and much-bruited social models to show what can be applied to France and others, and how to do so.

In short, the current French model represents the "corporatist conservative model" with its drawn lines between labor and ownership, while the State struggles to protect those who fall between the cracks by taxing work (high social charges) thus hobbling employment. The various Nordic models take a global and active approach to work, spending heavily to educate, train, retrain and accompany members of the workforce throughout their work life, yielding both economic flexibility and career (as opposed to job) security. The authors spend a chapter demolishing oft-heard objections to the transposition of this model to France or elsewhere, demonstrating that Nordic countries have more in common with France as part of European civilization than they differ by their nordic-ness, while showing that country size need not be a factor, and finally deflating the myth that northern Europeans are helpless, suicide-bent cogs in a vast, will-sapping social machine.
Learning from recent Nordic innovation would in reality constitute, the authors point out, a return to the founding principles of the French social model, never fully realized.

The new Nordic flexibility is a two-way street, with citizens enjoying lifelong social rights that include flexible relations to work to accommodate family-rearing, age, the illness of dependents and other constraints on workforce participation. Northern economic performance provides early proof that a better safety nets make better economies. On a European level, France's active contribution to a new model of society-wide coherence that sees the common good as the result of cooperation among all social partners around shared goals, instead of piece-meal social conflicts, is a much safer bet than the incremental slide into a British, individualist "third way" model likely to result if things are left up to benchmarking eurocrats.

While the authors are quick to reassure that cooperation requires stronger not weaker forms of labor organization, a little ideology (à la Susan George) can also be a good thing for making wise-as-serpents judgements about ends, to go with all the skillful means. A flexible economy, for example, would be a wonderful way to retool the productive mechanism to meet ecological and sustainable objectives before nature brutally imposes them. Or to work toward de-growth and an economy not based on materialist notions. Dominique Méda is the author of a book on "What is Wealth", in which she takes economic wisdom philosophically to task for its slanted accounting that assigns a zero value to many key aspects of our material life together. Despite shortchanging politics, the current work conveys real hope in an updated form of good old European humanism. The reigning economic paradigm seeks to operate society in a way that won't hinder wealth accumulation. Méda and Lefebvre's version would draw the best from human beings to build healthy societies where wealth is created, and counted, in broader terms.

Timothy Carlson
( Mis en ligne le 28/08/2006 )

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