PARIS — A number of problems continue to darken the world as it prepares for a new century and a new millennium: chronic warfare in Afghanistan, Africa and Columbia; widespread terrorism; a stalemate in Kosovo; fear over the plans of “rogue states” such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran; the refusal of the United States, Russia and China to give up the production of antipersonnel mines; the likelihood that the U.S. — whose senate has already rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — will open a new chapter in the arms race with its new antiballistic-missile program; growing tension between Moscow (increasingly backed by Beijing) and Washington, the abject failure of the WTO meeting in Seattle; the spread of AIDS, environmental destruction, hunger and poverty in the developing world and soaring unemployment and crime in many supposedly developed countries.
Given these problems, plus the usual assortment of natural disasters, it seems paradoxical that the French are more optimistic now than they have been for decades.
While the incredible gains in the Paris stock market can be largely attributed to action by Anglo-American pension funds, global confidence in the French economy is steadily increasing.
France leads the world in tourism and ranks second in food exports. Airbus sells as many planes as Boeing and Ariane leads the space-launch market. Economic growth will reach 2.8 percent in 1999, a figure that is considerably higher than the widespread forecast of 2.3 percent that was made some month ago. With Paris predicting 3.5 percent GDP growth next year, things look like they can only get better. Unemployment is steadily decreasing, and will soon fall to single-digit levels. In fact, some sectors of the economy are already reporting shortages of labor. In addition, thanks to a tremendous increase in tax returns, the Treasury is flush with funds, making it easier to face an upcoming social security and pensions crises. Spectacular mergers are also helping a number of French industrial and financial groups enter the top tier of many markets.
No wonder that political polls reflect the public’s growing confidence in the economy. With presidential and general elections due to take place in 2001, President Jacques Chirac, a conservative, has had some sharp words to say about his likely challenger, leftist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. However, the fact that both politicians are enjoying the highest popularity ratings of their careers means that most people don’t seem to pay too much attention to their spats.
Political observers are at pain to explain this phenomenon: Some of them think that citizens’ confidence in politicians is low due to a number of recent scandals. Therefore, the fact that power is shared by two politicians who are at ideological odds makes the people feel reassured — a kind of checks-and-balances system, so to speak.
However, another explanation exists: For a country that has appeared several times since World War II to be on the verge of civil war, the fact that the president and the prime minister have managed to work together, especially on foreign policy matters, is highly reassuring. It underscores the fact that a significant majority of politicians now generally agree on a number of issues that used to deeply divide the nation: institutions, nationalization, decolonization, Europe, nuclear deterrence, school problems and so forth.
Former President Francois Mitterrand deserves a good part of the credit for this development. Elected on a promise of changing everything, he finally came to the conclusion that there was not so much to change. In addition, no government has privatized as many state corporations as Jospin’s socialist administration. Protests against Jospin’s actions were limited because most people had already arrived at the conclusion that the nature of ownership — public or private — didn’t change conditions much.
The fact is that France has reached a period in its history where it feels more at peace with itself and its neighbors than it ever has before. Considering where France was at the turn of the beginning of the century, this change is no less than fantastic. At the start of the 20th century, France’s two main ambitions were to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which Germany had won control of in 1870, and to expand the boundaries of its already huge colonial empire — a goal that put it in heated competition with Britain.
The early 20th century was a time of imperialism, a practice resolutely fought by the workers’ Socialist — and later Communist — International, which was founded by Marx and Lenin. These conflicts led to World War I, World War II and the Cold War. Millions of French gave their lives and millions more still remember the time when they woke every morning fearing a nuclear attack.
Rightly or wrongly, the French people think such dangerous times are over: Not, of course, for the millions of people around the world whose tragic destiny they watch every night on TV, and whom they generously try to help, but they assume that, contrary to what they had learned at school, there is no longer any such thing in Europe as hereditary fiends.
Most French people are rather satisfied with the events in Seattle surrounding the WTO meeting. Even if their daily life is being increasingly invaded by the “American way,” they resist the idea of having to yield in every field to American requests that are all too often inspired by American interests.
Jospin has been working to hammer that point home. When he recently visited Japan for the first time, he expounded upon the idea that if globalization is an inevitable but unavoidable result of the technological revolution, it would be a pity if it led to a merging of all peoples into a single Americanized world. The view from France was that the prime minister’s speech was rather well received in Tokyo.
One must also say that our present prime minister, who may look occasionally a bit dull, has a great gift for resolving conflict, including that within his own political alliance and that among the various representatives of Corsica, whom he received in mid December.
Add to that quality another attribute: his ability to overlook problems when he needs to (which, by the way, was the main quality that Napoleon expected from his generals) and you probably have completed the list of reasons why the French look, in this uncomfortable world of ours, so quietly optimistic.
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