There's a great piece in today's Times (I would say "London Times," but it really is just "The Times") by Matthew Parris on prospects for economic reform in France if Nicolas Sarkozy is elected in a week. That France is in dire need of economic liberalization there is no doubt, argues Parris and as I would agree. However, he says that the French just aren't ready to accept that liberalization. This is in contrast to how the British were ready to accept the economic reforms of Margaret Thatcher:
The Britain I remember in 1979 had that impatience. It would be wrong to say the Tories had persuaded the country of Thatcherism – we hardly knew what that was – but of one thing we were sufficiently persuaded: that the old way wasn’t working, wouldn’t work, and had to be abandoned. In the air was a hatred and fear of the trade unions, a detestation of suffocating state bureaucracy, and a furious contempt for the incompetence of nationalised industries and utilities. Britain, it seemed to many of us, was sick, and might even be dying.
I don’t think France is anywhere near that state of mind. I don’t think France is ready. I don’t sniff in the wind in la France profonde (though I begin to in urban Paris) that palpable sense of having reached the end of a road. The changes France needs to embrace will be convulsive. The pain will be intense, the dislocation bewildering and cruel. We British found that when Thatcherism arrived. But even at the low point of Thatcher’s first term, even when she personally had become a figure of loathing across much of Britain, you almost never heard anyone suggest a return to what had gone before. There was a sense, in 1979, that we had burnt a bridge behind us, and had wanted to.
Margaret Thatcher's election really did change British society, in a way that Reagan's election of 1980 pales in comparison. Sure, Reagan lead to some economic reform, particularly tax cuts, and accompanied a general change in attitude, but it didn't turn the economy on its head as the Tories of 1980s Britain did. Other non-excommunist countries have met similar changes in recent decades; New Zealand particularly comes to mind. Perhaps Thatcher's reforms were not the only solution for Britain, perhaps a less jarring experience could have mended Britain's sick (and it really was) welfare state, but reform was so needed that the British were willing to look past their socialist leanings and give the Iron Lady's policies a try.
I think Matthew Parris might be on to something with his observations on the French of today. There is no "winter of discontent," as there was in Britain in 1978-79. Many French are unemployed, but they, bizarrely, are far more likely to protest threats to job security than the fact that they don't have a job to begin with. I've wondered for some time what level a society needs to be at before it will take the plunge and give liberalism a try. I don't know if there is firm answer. The thing is, if a country is in dire straights why wouldn't it reach out for a populist savior, a la Il Duce, instead of a reformer? Of course, maybe that's what the British thought they were going for with Thatcher, just that her baggage meant privatizing and union-busting, not making the trains run on time.
The question I take away from this is what does a country need before it's willing to reject its popular ideology? Is it a certain level of unemployment? Crime? A narrative of these things, whether or not they are true? I'm curious as to people's speculation.