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Message to France: “Reform or Drop Dead”

France’s Prime Minister Valls urges his fellow citizens to reform.

July 7, 2014

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the "Fete de la fraternite." Credit: Frederic Legrand -

In 1914, General Ferdinand Foch, the best of all the French fighting generals, told Paris as he prepared for the Battle of the Marne: “My center is giving way. My right is retreating. The situation is excellent. I am attacking.”

And indeed, in one of the greatest maneuvers ever seen on the European battlefield, Foch’s hastily reorganized armies stopped the overwhelming German advance on Paris. He turned to dust Berlin’s hopes for a swift, crushing capitulation of France such as obtained in 1870 or later in 1940.

One hundred years later, another gritty, stubborn French leader has decided that his country needs the shock of telling some harsh truths. In his view, France once again has to rise to the challenge of staunching the defeatism about inevitable decline that pervades most of the public debate in France.

In a remarkable speech, using language never before heard from a Socialist in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivered a simple message to his fellow citizens and to the governing elites of Paris: “Reform or die.”

Defeating defeatism

To be sure, these are only words. But in France, “la parole” counts. Moreover, Valls’ speech is significant because he has now burnt all his bridges back to the safety blanket of traditional French statism.

French Socialists like to think their ideology of government is some sort of mushy Marxism. It isn’t. It is statism, pure and simple. After all, it is a bipartisan endeavor. General Charles de Gaulle, a conservative, nationalized more banks and industries in 1945 than the Labor government did in Britain.

De Gaulle did not do so to implement leftist theory. It was l’état, l’état and always more state that lay at the heart of his profoundly conservative ideology. The first Socialist president of France, Francois Mitterrand, donned the statist mantle of General de Gaulle — and pretended it was French socialism.

Now, a new-generation French leader has dared to say that the statist Gaullist-Mitterrand tradition won’t work in the 21st century. Worse, unless French citizens accept the need to change, no amount of statism will save France.

The left can die

Choosing an obscure, southwest French assembly of Socialists, Prime Minister Valls told them on July 6th that permanent reformism is now the only way forward for France.

Previously, he had said “The left can die” when he urged his deputies in the National Assembly to accept painful reforms.

Suggesting a more Nordic or German approach, he denounced a France “trapped in partisan politics.” That puts it in harsh contrast to the historic compromises that have allowed the social democrats of northern Europe to mix economic growth with social justice measures.

He told the leftist critics in his own party that reforms “can throw people off balance, upset old habits, and get rid of what has been taken for granted.”

The left, he said, has to “throw away the recipe book from the past and re-invent itself. Our political culture likes the idea of the all-or-nothing ‘revolution.’ But we need reforms, real reforms based on dialogue.”

He urged his party to back business because “supporting entrepreneurs [yes, there is a French word for them], supporting production is part of what being left means.”

The prime minister, like Matteo Renzi in Italy, is cutting taxes on the low paid and holding down public spending to allow private businesses to grow, especially in the digital economy where France is an EU leader.

Breaking with the past

Thus, Valls stands in stark contrast to the last president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Although he claimed to be an ambassador of transatlantic neo-liberal ideas during his five years in office, public spending increased by 15% and government debt went from 64% to 85% of GDP.

Sarkozy nixed sensible reforms proposed by Jacques Attali and other French modernizers. Instead, he instituted 20 new taxes and increased the level of public employees.

As Gaspard Koenig of the Paris think-tank Génération Libre noted recently in the Financial Times, “By the end Sarkozy was calling for the reintroduction of French protectionism and national border controls.”

Sarkozy thus was a failed statist in the tradition of de Gaulle and Mitterrand, but without their flair or vision on global issues or European construction.

There is no guarantee that Valls can win. He faces Marine Le Pen and, arguably, the most stupid left in Europe since the old French Communist Party — a party which was so reactionary it used to embarrass the Kremlin — faded away.

And like General Foch, Valls can only offer a long slogging war. After all, reformism never delivers instant results.

There are many French would-be reformists who are not frightened to call themselves social democrats or even liberals. But they have never had one of their own at the top of French power. Now they do. Manuel Valls has nailed his colors to the idea of reformism. If he goes down, so does France.


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