Ask any former drug addict. You’ve got to hit rock bottom before you are ready for cold turkey. What France is facing now is the equivalent of waking up on a soiled mattress in a crack-house you cannot remember entering. It may be what France needs. It may be what Germany needs too.
Until the peoples of France and Germany are confronted by a palpable sense of national failure, they will never embrace the Anglo-Saxon model of market reform, and our continent’s economic logjam will never shift. For all its horror, and although no feeling person can welcome death and destruction, France’s convulsions this week could be for the French people and for the European ‘social market’ the beginning of a coming to terms with reality.
I do not, of course, mean the supposed reality of ‘terror’. It is simply facile — it flies in the face of observation over not years but decades — to try to link this month’s disorder with international terrorism. The awful drama now being played out across France has less to do with race than with despair, little to do with Islam or al-Qa’eda, and everything to do with national economic failure. Immigrant ghettos are always the places where national economic failure hits first and hardest, lingers longest, and exacts the cruellest toll. If the flames and the screams can now be seen and heard beyond these ghettos’ confines, then in this (and only this) respect, good may come of it. The French may be learning that their beautiful and precious country cannot go on as it has gone on before.
The Germans have yet to confront such truths. Angela Merkel’s election (if she finally does become Chancellor) comes too soon. But perhaps another weak German administration may lead to the real national collapse which Germany needs in order to break from her self-imposed business and economic straitjacket.
Tony Blair has the remarkable knack of going straight to the essential truth of a situation — and asserting the opposite. When referendums in France and Holland had rejected the proposed new European constitution earlier this year, Mr Blair, in a powerful speech about his hopes for Britain’s six-month presidency of the EU, declared that Continental governments must learn the habit of listening more to their peoples.
In fact the reverse was the case. Our Prime Minister wants the EU to embrace economic liberalism, to bring down barriers to free trade in services between member states, and to open up the EU to agricultural imports from abroad. He also wants his fellow leaders in countries like Germany, France and Holland to embrace the future entry to the EU of Turkey. These British goals are on every count praiseworthy.
But they are not popular. Voters in France and Germany do not want their national economies to follow the Anglo-Saxon model. Popular instincts in France are protectionist. In both France and Germany the elaborate social machinery which cossets and protects workers at the expense of competitiveness is what most citizens want. The accession of Turkey is deeply unpopular in many European countries.
It is because European leaders do listen to their peoples, rather than because they do not, that their countries are saddled with the policies we British want to see discarded. It is because the German people do like government by consensus rather than the more confrontational politics we enjoy here, that German governments find it so difficult to move. It is because the French people are not prepared to forfeit their short working hours, their top-heavy social security system, their protection for French business and industry and the featherbedding of their farmers that London has found Paris so obstructive whenever reforms are discussed.
Mr Blair’s problem with Europe is that its leaders are too responsive to domestic democratic pressures. Heaven knows what British voters think of Turkish accession to the EU: heaven forfend that we should ask them. Because the truth is that Thatcherism was never popular here. It was a bitter pill that we British were persuaded to swallow only when forced to acknowledge how sick our country was. The ‘winter of discontent’, and the long and agonising period of national decline which culminated in that dismal episode, proved the shock to the system necessary to drive us into the arms of a government of whose measures (taken individually) we never approved.
I ought to know. I worked for Margaret Thatcher in the years before she became prime minister, and I was one of her backbench MPs in the years which followed. I doubt there was a single policy among the many measures she brandished on coming to power (and the many more she thought up afterwards) for which a Yes could have been secured in a popular referendum.
Privatisation was never popular. It still isn’t. Cuts in government spending during the early 1980s were hugely unpopular. The fight with the trade unions was popular until it got dirty — during the miners’ strike — whereupon at least half the country started to sympathise with the National Union of Mineworkers. One of Thatcher’s most important (and least remarked) reforms, the heavily discounted sale of council houses, met opposition not only from many tenants and would-be tenants, but from middle-class voters who resented what they saw as the near giving-away of properties to those who lived in them.
It is simply not the case that Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street with a dispatch box full of policies for which she had obtained the full-hearted consent of the British people. Her policies were sketchy, her intentions obscure and her own personality little loved, and while she was doing what had to be done, her approval ratings were often very low.
But what we all agreed in 1979 was that Britain wasn’t working. We were quite literally fearful for our future. A sense of national despair hung in the air. Almost nobody — not even the tens of millions who voted Labour at that election — honestly thought the outgoing government had known the answer. We ourselves were unsure of the answer. We turned to a leader who was certain she did.
It is not as bad as that in Germany, or not yet. It was not as bad as that in France, until a week ago. It is fatuous to suppose that the electorate of either country has been ready to turn from a slow but (for many) comfortable decline to embrace the electrotherapy of market liberalisation.
Before they do, France, Germany and the core of the European project need to face their own winters of discontent, their own 1979. This week France must be coming to terms with the truth that her economy is failing whole swaths of her population. Robocop policing is not the answer: jobs are the answer. The arguments may at first be confused but there must in the end be something approaching a national consensus that the entire French political class has failed the nation. This could be the beginning of wisdom.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.