Recent pressures for change in France have impacted upon a country which, from 1945 to 1975, had featured both unprecedented economic growth and the building of a powerful state. Drawing upon a plethora of social science research and data, this book sets out what has been made in France since that period and, as importantly, what this ‘made’ the French. By examining the institutions and asymmetric power relations that have structured French society, together with the ‘political work’ that has changed or reproduced them, in seven chapters the book takes the reader ‘from the cradle to the grave’ to assess whether and where significant change has occurred over the last four decades, then explain the outcomes identified. Overall, the book provides a comprehensive account of French society and politics, while proposing an original generic analytical framework that is applicable to other nations and their comparative analysis.
This introduction first highlights why it is important to study countries in depth and why France has been chosen in this instance. I argue that it is vital that more detailed knowledge about each society and its politics is, once again, given precedence. The French case provides an appropriate vehicle for this argument because its society–politics linkage has been under considerable strain since the early 1980s. In summary, the claims I make are that if neo-liberalism and globalization have undoubtedly been highly present in French socio-economic and political life over the past four decades, their direct effects should not be overestimated. Instead, where they have had influence, as political discourses, neo-liberalism and globalization have been mediated by much deeper shifts in society that reflect both the impacts of previous French history and a reordering of social structure and mobility. As the introduction also sets out and explains, this societal structuring can only be grasped by examining the power relations which both link and separate social strata but also organizations and other forms of collective action. The aim is to show how and why different sets of actors have, with varying degrees of success, worked politically to change the institutions that participate so strongly in societal structuring. In so doing, my concept of ‘political work’ is defined as a combination of three processes: problem definition, policy instrument setting and legitimation. This concept is thus used to strengthen analysis of the agency-led causes of institutional and power-relation change or stasis.
This chapter begins with ‘the cradle’ period of life in France, then moves on to cover nursery and primary schooling. In short, it presents data upon the institutions and power relations which directly affect children from the ages of 0–11, as well as their parents, other carers and initial teachers. Empirically, the subjects dealt with are the health-policy structured medical environment into which infants are born, the types of housing and geographical locations within which they begin to grow up, childcare facilities and ‘family’ policies, and primary schooling. In so doing, commonly experienced institutions and organizations are presented and explained. Moreover, an effort is made to underline that, of course, some children experience this period of life in ideal conditions, whereas others already suffer from being socially disadvantaged. More fundamentally, the chapter is underpinned by an approach to socialization that lays emphasis upon the causal impact of social structures, without however assuming that this impact is the same for all children in all families. Although certain elements of all the above have certainly changed since the 1980s, the overall argument made in this chapter is that the most significant institutions and power relations that structure this tranche of life in France have remained remarkably stable. As such, the period covered in this chapter is very much one during which seeds are sown for the type of society, and its relationship to politics, into which children in this country pass as of the age of 11.
If primary schooling in France is a relatively depoliticized issue area, secondary and higher education most certainly is not. Throughout the period covered, these levels of education have frequently been framed as not only a public problem, but one which demands new policy instruments and even a new ethos. If this seemingly egalitarian principle of ‘merit’ is rarely contested, actually instrumenting it within the national system education has proved to be extremely difficult. Indeed, as the chapter shows whilst taking the reader through the evolving structures of intermediate and high schools, then vocational, university and grande école-based education, social inequalities in France are still relatively rarely corrected by the education system itself. The chapter argues that this reflects a lack of institutional change to the French educational system which must be traced to the way education more generally is framed and politically worked upon in France. Despite the findings of educational science, the transmission of knowledge continues to be top-down and highly conservative. Once again, teachers and academics have largely contributed to this outcome. But they have been allowed to do so in particular because parents, and educational science as a source of expertise, have deliberately been kept at a distance from the system itself. Moreover, as vocational education, but also that now administered in the grandes écoles, clearly shows, having largely abandoned the idea that education is a public interest issue, the state no longer provides a firm rudder for governing the system as a whole.
This chapter begins by highlighting that incomes from work, of course, differ widely in France, particularly for those who experience periods of unemployment. This provides an initial occasion to underscore the existence of poverty in France, together with the social protection measures which seek to alleviate it. A link is then made to research into the sociology of work and its meanings, and this in particular to tackle an enigma arising from comparative research which shows that many French workers are highly engaged in their work, but also that many are deeply dissatisfied with its conditions and practices. This point is developed using data on the relationship between managers and workers, which shows that hierarchical practices continue to predominate in France’s companies and administrations. The argument developed here is that the reproduction of this top-down form of social relations is perpetuated in part by the route to being a manager continuing to be dominated by educational success rather than through achievements at the workplace. Such forms of hierarchy are also reproduced because of the way trade unions and peak-business organizations are structured in this country. Consequently, trade unions are rarely set up to be systematic forces for change in workplace conditions. Meanwhile, business associations are structured in such a way that any move to attenuate hierarchical relations within companies will seldom stem from this source. The overall result is stalemate – which also explains why, periodically, French workplaces tend to ‘explode’ into arenas of angry and often violent protest.
Fully understanding the world of work in France can only be achieved by integrating its analysis into that of French capitalism itself, or more precisely how business in France fits within contemporary capitalism. This chapter thus engages directly with a vast literature on the varieties of national capitalism, together with analysis of how the latter have been affected since the 1980s by transnational trends that include the rise of neo-liberalism and globalization. Here the French case is particularly interesting because, during the period 1945–80, its economy had been deeply structured by an interventionist approach which authorized the state to heavily involve itself in markets but also the very capitalization of business – an approach known as dirigisme. The chapter shows that conducting business in France has changed considerably since 1980. Much of it has been liberalized from governmental controls, in particular the finance sector and the very ownership of large companies. Nevertheless, the chapter takes issue strongly with the contention that the French state is no longer involved in the economy and that, consequently, dirigisme is dead. Using case studies from the defence, wine and housing sectors, I argue instead that the French way of doing business is still highly marked by the state’s approach to what I call neo-dirigisme. Rather than intervening through finance and capitalization, the state today continues to be central to a myriad of institutions which structure the production and marketing of goods and services.
This chapter investigates this dimension of French life by focusing upon ‘culture’ and sport, then comparing the two. Both these domains are of wider interest because not only do they encompass so many French men and women, but also because both have been structured by institutions that are the fruit of considerable political work. Moreover, both were largely institutionalized during the same period –1960–80 – one during which, once again, the French state proved central. This is most clearly the case in the cultural affairs domain. As of 1960, the state put in place a range of policies which prompted an expansion of cultural activities and of the professions they concern. Ranging from music to dance or to books, culture was promoted as a means of cultivating the population, but also that of promoting France internationally. Organized sport in France has been strongly affected by equivalent levels of public intervention and support. This said, both culture and sport have also been affected by a certain retraction of state support since the 1990s. Some of the shortfall in funding has been taken up by increasingly powerful municipal and regional public authorities. Indeed, this has tended to attenuate state domination in both sports. Nevertheless, neo-dirigiste state intervention persists. Moreover, as the chapter explains, the role of the state is one of the reasons why, in both the cultural and sports sectors, elitism tends strongly to prevail.
This chapter provides an opportunity to address formal definitions of politics more directly by focusing upon social movements and political parties. I group them together because, in the literature on France, analysis rightly often emphasizes how the French state is frequently active in the structuring of both. The empirical material presented here largely confirms this claim. In the case of environmentalist movements, I show how and why the latter have consistently looked to the state for financial and symbolic backing. More surprisingly, this has also been the case for the Parti Socialiste and the centre-right party which today calls itself Les Républicains. Indeed, these two parties have not only received considerable state subsidies, many of their leaders have themselves been senior state civil servants. In contrast, the gilets jaunes movement of 2018–19 arose largely as a protest against the state and its elites. However, before rushing to just pigeonhole it as simply ‘populist’, it is important to realize how much its demands have also been structured as regards what they expect from a state they see as impotent. This sentiment of impotency has also impacted upon the two political parties dealt with here: neither have successfully managed to structure and maintain a relationship with their respective militants. Indeed, through becoming largely empty shells, since the early 2000s both have participated in a chain reaction that has led to the emergence of competing parties and generalized dissatisfaction with the nation’s professional politicians.
The book closes with a chapter on the end of life in France. It shows first that, despite a certain number of tensions, the French public health system remains strong and able to provide a relatively high level of healthcare to the elderly in particular. Neo-liberally inspired reforms have sapped some of its care capacity, but overall there has been no deep change since the 1980s. Similarly, the French pension system has proved to be particularly resilient. A new attempt at reform is currently in process and has generated politicized protests. But it remains to be seen what these protests will result in. Moreover, as regards the end of life in France, inheritance laws are just as structuring as pensions, if not more. As Thomas Piketty has shown, these laws build in inequalities between those who hold property and those who do not. Here a part of this chapter extends this analysis into an examination of what is passed on, in what form and how this can affect family structures (thus feeding back to phenomena discussed in Chapter 1). In addition, the symbolic dimension of passing on is addressed around the funeral arrangements of the French, which have changed considerably since the 1980s. Overall, however, the central message of this chapter is that, for the moment at least, this tranche of life in France continues to be structured by rules, norms and policies that gained their initial strength during the years 1945–80.
This general conclusion is focused squarely upon what has changed or not in the past forty years, then upon why this is so. Using Peter Hall’s typology of levels of institutional change, it argues first that incremental, ‘first-order’ change has predominated. Indeed, radical ‘third-order’ change has essentially occurred only as regards finance and capitalization, capital–labour relations, private education and union or party activism. Meanwhile primary education, company and organizational hierarchies and state involvement in social movements and political parties have all barely changed at all. What is even more interesting, however, is to revisit the causal claims presented in the book’s introduction. Here I underline that neo-liberalism and evocations of globalization have indeed impacted upon French society and politics, but only indirectly. In all cases, their impact has been conditioned, mediated and, in most cases, limited by the political work carried out by varying actors to change or reproduce institutions. Finally, the chapter moves to a close by reflecting once again upon what the French state has now become. As seen throughout the book, the French state remains omnipresent in French society and politics. Nevertheless, I claim that it is increasingly becoming a ‘flailing state’ due to the way it recruits and trains its elites, then seeks to act upon society. Finally – and classically – the last words of the chapter set out some avenues for future research on France, as well as how the concepts used in this book could and should now be further refined and developed.