An obsession with comparing Britain unfavourably to France has long been one of the most counter-productive pathologies of our bien pensant establishment. Such people believe in a naive, one-dimensional caricature of the country – a place that only exists in their imaginations, or on their summer holidays.
They consider France to be the apex of European civilisation, cultured and “progressive”, while the UK is all too often condemned as racist, ignorant and consumeristic. They lament the inability of British politicians to mimic their continental counterparts in using the state’s power to advance the country’s interests. High-speed rail, nuclear energy and a supposedly better quality of life are held up as conclusive proof of the glories of the French system.
The appalling violence and disorder that has erupted in several French cities in recent days should be the end of the delusion. What started as anger over the killing by police of a young Muslim man has turned into something approaching anarchy, with rioting, looting, arson and the destruction of buildings spreading across the country. Hundreds have been arrested. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has called for parents to keep their children at home and has cancelled a scheduled visit to Germany. Opposition leaders have warned that the country now stands on the “edge of the precipice”.
The great danger for France is that this is not a one-off explosion of fury at an isolated incident, but a consequence of the abject failure of the French model. For decades, while tourists have wondered at the architectural and culinary marvels of the country’s cities, many high-rise suburbs have been abandoned to poverty, criminality and gang warfare. France’s integration and immigration systems are broken. Crime and violence are horrendously high, even in normal times. Islamist terrorist attacks have been shockingly common. The education system, once world class, has deteriorated dramatically and fails vast numbers of young people. Discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism are far more rife than they are in Britain. The country’s anti-capitalist, dirigiste model, its high taxes and its social “protections”, have locked huge numbers out of meaningful employment and delivered even less growth than in the UK.
France has sought to coast on past successes, pretending to itself that this situation was somehow sustainable. Mr Macron has, to be fair, taken steps towards freeing up the economy. But his arrogance and high-handedness have also alienated swathes of the country. His pension reforms, while sensible, provoked mass unrest, and the gilets jaunes protests resulted from imposing oppressive measures on motorists.
Some have suggested that the days of the Fifth Republic – created for General de Gaulle in the 1950s as a form of “republican monarchy” – may be numbered. It gives great power to the French president, but leaves the political system dangerously unresponsive to public sentiment. The evidence suggests that this sentiment is shifting to the extremes. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the next presidential vote will see a run-off between Marine Le Pen and a far-Left candidate. Establishment parties have been hollowed out.
Where does France go from here? Its multiple crises are so intractable and so extreme that it would be ridiculous to be optimistic. Order might be restored in the next few days, but there appears to be little political will to do anything about the festering resentments, the lack of opportunity, the low economic growth, or the severe problems in its immigration-integration system that lie behind much of the current unrest. Indeed, in the long term, the situation is only likely to get worse. The country’s admirers in Britain might like to pretend otherwise, but the French model is broken.