Statist France Collapsing, It Simply No Longer 'Works'

When the so-called student revolution erupted in Paris in May 1968, President Charles de Gaulle was on a state visit in Romania, and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou on a parallel visit in Afghanistan. Both men were asserting France’s “grandeur” abroad and its “world role” as a champion of "national independence” against both “American and Soviet imperialism.”

Within days, they had to shorten their tours and return to Paris unceremoniously to face a chaotic situation at home.

Radical students had turned the Sorbonne University into a “liberated territory” ; there were barricades all over the Latin Quarter, in the very heart of the French capital; strikes were choking the economy to death; red and black flags were being waved on public buildings. So much for “grandeur.”

One cannot help but recall the 1968 precedent now, as France just convened an international conference in Paris to “restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” Twenty-nine countries and international organizations attended the conference’s grand opening on June 3. However, very few of them did so at a significant level. Secretary of State John Kerry obliged. So did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. That was it.

One reason why the conference’s opening failed to attract as much attention as the French sought is simply that France is -- again -- in a mess.

President Hollande’s popularity is down to 11%. Prime Minister Manuel Valls fares almost as miserably at 14%.

Although a state of emergency has been declared since the jihadist massacres in Paris last November, street riots are still rampant and demonstrations ubiquitous.

The socialist cabinet was unable to pass new labor legislation in a socialist-dominated parliament, and had to resort to Article 49-3: a constitutional provision similar to what is known in America as an executive order.

This move enraged the unions, which started strikes in the public transportation sector from planes to trains to petrol distribution to garbage collection.

What saved Hollande and Valls, for a while, was a natural catastrophe: heavy rains and subsequent floods devastated much of the country, even Paris, for about two weeks. Even die-hard unionists had to relent under such circumstances.

Hollande and Valls expected a further respite from Euro 2016, the UEFA European soccer contest taking place in Paris and other major French cities until July 10. They were wrong: strikes were renewed with a vengeance on June 10, the very day Euro 16 was started.

There is something puzzling about the recurrence of domestic crises in France over the past fifty years and the French insistence, throughout the same period, to be a major player in world politics -- unless one takes it as the two faces of a single coin. The French are convinced they are a great power, and thus entitled to a world role, because they have a strong statist government -- arguably the strongest and most statist in Europe.

They don’t quite realize, however, that statism tends to be counterproductive beyond some limits and to generate cumulative mismanagement. Even in the much hallowed sphere of foreign affairs.