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Angela Merkel: The End of L'Exception Française?

Will Germany’s elections change the French way of life?

September 15, 2005

Will Germany's elections change the French way of life?

Not just according to folklore, France is the land of wine and cheese, luxury perfumes and designer clothing. It is known for its art de vivre, its rich cultural heritage and a certain finesse.

Beloved by tourists and its citizens alike, France has long seen itself protected from the crude realities of globalization and the market economy by virtue of a strong state and its privileged place in Europe. To preserve its way of life, France’s relationship with Germany is key.

But as Germans prepare to vote in legislative elections on September 18, 2005, are the days of “l’exception française” nearly over?

The French have long been proud of the “exception française,” that has made their country culturally, politically and economically “unique.” Among other things, France is known for its exceptional quality of life, its exceptional public health care system, the 35-hour work week — and exceptionally long paid vacations.

How have the French been able to preserve this “uniqueness,” while living in an age of globalization and cultural homogenization? On the one hand, the French state has played an important role by protecting French industry, technology and services from competition and by ensuring that French culture is “safe” from outside influences.

On the other hand, France’s privileged relationship with Germany has been pivotal. For half a century now, the two countries have shared the vision that Europe should be built on social democratic principles, providing a “social” alternative to Anglo-Saxon liberalism.

By cultivating a strong relationship with Germany, France gained a powerful ally — one who could help protect French interests against globalization and liberalism within Europe.

But this arrangement also meant that France has existed in blissful ignorance to what is going on in the rest of the world, nestled in the protective arms of the state and nursed by a comfort-oriented European Union. But the ability of the French state to protect France from reality is eroding — and with it, “l’exception française”.

The September 18 elections in Germany may just be the final nail in the coffin of “l’exception française”. If Angela Merkel becomes the next chancellor of Germany — which is far from certain given Chancellor Schröder recent resurgence in the polls — big changes might in store. And this would apply not just to Germany, but to France as well.

Angela Merkel, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, has based her electoral campaign on change. She is openly poised to reform many aspects of the German economy and welfare state — a move that potentially threatens the basis of the historic friendship between France and Germany.

On the international front, Angela Merkel has promised to strengthen Germany’s relationship with Great Britain, moving away from the traditional alliance with France. After all, her social and economic policies are more in line with those of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labor than with those of French President Jacques Chirac.

She also wants to strengthen ties with the Central and Eastern European countries that recently joined the EU. If Angela Merkel becomes German chancellor, there will almost certainly be a new alliance at the heart of Europe.

It may be an Anglo-German alliance, or an Anglo-German-Central Europe alliance. All of this would mean that France will be pushed out of center stage when it comes to European affairs.

That is not surprising if you consider France’s no-vote in a referendum on the EU constitution earlier this year.

But a shift away from the Franco-German alliance in Europe would seriously cripple France’s ability to protect itself from change.

For the reality is that if France is known for exceptional life style and job security, it is also known for high unemployment rates (especially among the oldest and youngest workers), paralyzing strikes — and exceptionally high public expenditures that absorb 54% of the country’s wealth.

This dark side of “l’exception francaise” means that vast reforms are necessary if France wants to maintain its position on the world stage.

The same is true in Germany. Angela Merkel initially gained popularity with German voters by promising to tackle high unemployment rates and zero economic growth, even though her support has slipped of late. She plans to boost employment by introducing a heavy dose of tax reforms, simplified labor legislation and other “neo-liberal” measures.

Most French politicians are afraid to suggest such changes. Why? French voters are particularly averse to change. This is not surprising when you consider how much they have to lose. But it is unfortunate that “change” has become a taboo subject at a time when change is inevitable.

To his credit, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin did introduce some measures this summer designed to respond to the changing political and economic environment. Among them, a new type of job contract to address France’s inflexible labor market, by making it easier and less expensive for small businesses to hire new employees.

Furthermore, de Villepin’s government shows signs of wanting to reform an unemployment system that currently makes it easier and more profitable to stay at home and live off hand-outs from the state — rather than to hold a part-time minimum wage job.

This is a good start. Over the next few years, France’s “unique” social model may slowly begin to disappear. French exceptions, such as the 35-hour work-week and five-week paid vacations are too expensive for both government and businesses. While they still are part of the French collective consciousness, they clearly do not work in an era of global competition.

One can hope that the best parts of what has made the “exception française” — art de vivre, cultural heritage and a certain finesse — will be preserved. But there is certainly room for change in France. The question is: As the winds of change blow over Europe, how much longer will France be able to resist them?