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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
France's problem with capitalism

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

A new French law aimed at helping young people find work sparked riots across the country. Many French citizens see it as a sign that the centre-right government is trying to impose a British or American-style capitalist system on a thoroughly disgruntled nation. Caroline Wyatt has the feeling that the gulf between Britain and France has never been greater.

Demonstration in Marseille
More than a million people are estimated to have demonstrated against the new laws

When I first arrived in Paris after three years in Moscow, a Russian friend joked that France was the only truly successful communist country in the world.

At the time, I put that down to Russian humour.

How could a nation that gave the world joys such as champagne, or more than 200 different types of cheese, possibly be communist?

These days, though, I'm not so sure my Russian friend was joking.

Perhaps he had had a sneak preview of a recent survey, in which various countries were asked how they rated capitalism.

Three quarters of the Chinese said it was the best economic system for the future. But in France only a third of people agreed.

That came back to me earlier this week as I walked alongside the French strikers.

Impotent rage

Beneath the cherry trees just coming into bloom, they marched through Paris, the red of the trade unions' balloons silhouetted against a cloudless spring sky.

French companies buy up foreign firms with gusto but woe betide the foreigner who tries a takeover in France

The focus of their anger was the government's latest attempt to create the more flexible labour market French employers say they need to create new jobs.

Official figures suggest a quarter of the under 26s are without work.

Yet in reality, the anger was more diffuse - the jobs law being a focus for a kind of impotent rage against a globalised world and fears over France's place in it.

Once the French bestrode the planet like a Colossus, exporting everything from their language to their culture.

France may have lost an empire, but in the 60s, 70s and 80s - those glorious decades here - she was once again the envy of the world.

This was a nation of grand government projects: from its engineering prowess to the languid delights of French cinema, from the thrill of the high-speed TGV to the charms of the equally racy Brigitte Bardot.

France had sophistication and fabulous food and wine, while all Britain could offer in the 70s was tinned Spam and mushy peas.

1970s Britain

Yet as I walked alongside the strikers, I felt a weird sense of deja vu - as if in one nostalgic bound I was transported back to the Britain of the 1970s.

British workers on strike in 1979
Margaret Thatcher's promise to take on the unions helped her win power
My mother cooking by candlelight on a Calor gas stove.

Britain on a three-day week.

No electricity because the energy workers were on strike again. The shelves in the local shop yawned white and bare. No sugar and no bread - thanks to panic buying.

Not long afterwards, a prime minister called Margaret Thatcher took on the trade unions and changed Britain and its attitudes forever.

Here in France, a centre-right government has talked of reform but it has backed down again every time.

Perhaps France has not reached rock bottom as Britain had. The cafes here still brim with fresh baguettes and bottles of Bordeaux.

Few want a French Margaret Thatcher.

Seeking a French alternative

Instead, there's a desperate hope that France can find a different way, a better way than the bumpy Anglo-Saxon path.

Time and time again, the French insist that capitalism as practised abroad simply does not work for France.

Yet big French companies might disagree.

From firms such as L'Oreal - which recently bought the Body Shop - to its international banks, French companies are all successfully playing the Anglo-Saxon game.

Yet a journalist from Le Monde newspaper tells me France should follow the Scandinavian model, not that of the US, with its stark differences between the ghetto and the billionaire.

Nor the British model, where NHS dentists are a folk memory, like leprechauns - you hear talk of them but few believe they exist.

Social exclusion

But even under the French model of today, I already see so many inequalities.

Just look at the suburbs, the banlieues.

Fire in Lyon in November 2005
The French government imposed a state of emergency in November

Is it an equitable system that excludes up to 40% of people there from the world of work, offering them handouts for life instead?

The ghettoes already exist in France, even if their inhabitants have access to free health care and a decent dentist.

The riots here last November were a howl of despair from those excluded from the mainstream by virtue of being born poor or different, with a black face or a Muslim name.

This year it is France's middle class young who are in revolt, the marches their own scream of angst, as their hopes of the comfortable life their parents enjoyed slowly fade.

For all its talk of equality, fraternity and liberty, France in this troubled springtime feels like a society at war with itself, suffering a deep and growing divide between its citizens.

A divide between the public and the private sector, between politicians and the people, between those in work and those without.

And the greatest gulf of all: between those who look into the future and see only fear and those who believe and hope that France can change.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 April, 2006 at 1030 GMT / 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: France
02 Apr 06 |  Country profiles


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