The French Model

The French model seems fashionable again. Not the sophisticated model who graces the cover of Elle, but the development model of a heavily regulated economy in which a well-oiled state controls markets tightly and massive public and social spending cushions crises.

This French model has recently received improbable nods from a number of U.S. and British liberal media like Newsweek (“The Last Model Standing Is France”) or The Economist (“How France is surviving the economic crisis”), and even from free-market minded international organizations like the I.M.F. and the O.E.C.D. All this is very far from Bush-era France-bashing and symbolic emptying of French wines into the Mississippi River.

France is indeed displaying plenty of economic resilience: In 2009, its G.D.P. growth is so far higher than that of any other major developed economy.

But if the current global crisis is of any guidance, it is that we need to think about societal success beyond short-term economic performance, and focus on long-term conditions. France has many assets in this respect.

First, its demography is dynamic — much more so than that of any European country, including Ireland.

Second, the level of income inequalities is relatively low and, more importantly, France is the developed nation where income inequalities have declined the most since the mid-1980s, when inequalities started to rise almost everywhere in the rich world with damaging consequence for the social fabric.

Third, the health care system has been ranked by several studies as one of the best in the world.

Finally, France has the least carbon-intensive economic growth in the developed world and will implement a carbon tax next year to further curb its emissions.

This is the secret magic formula of France’s new beauty: fertility, fairness, health and ecology.

But France has also many liabilities. Most importantly, it lies about itself. Collective myths don’t follow reality — even more so than in the United States.

In the French case, greater societal success would mean an enhanced capacity to integrate a larger portion of those who reside on its territory. Four years have passed since the urban riots that shook the country for three weeks in reaction to the accidental death of two teenagers chased by the police in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.

Six months after those riots, we published an opinion article arguing that “the frustration and resentment expressed by French minorities is largely caused by the contradiction between a fantasized equality and real-life discrimination” (IHT, June 6, 2006).

This is even more true at the present juncture: the minister of Immigration and National Identity has just invited the population to participate in a grand unifying debate on what it means to be French. At the same time, a new governmental report shows that the rate of unemployment in state projects is still double the national average, and the percentage of unemployed men between 15 and 24 years old in those projects is at an all-time high — 42 percent, up from 37 percent in 2005.

Study after study after study show that discrimination against minorities is massive in the labor market, in the workplace, in dealing with the police, in gaining access to nightclubs, etc. French anti-segregation and anti-discrimination policies are simply not working, and no amount of grand rhetoric about “national identity” can change that.

The felicity of the French model, so often contrasted with the American one, has always been the inclusion of the downtrodden through active state intervention. It’s time for this grand nation to revisit its social contract.

Michèle Lamont, professor of European studies, sociology and African and African American studies at Harvard University and Eloi Laurent, an economist at OFCE/Sciences-po and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Center for European studies.