Only a year ago it might have provoked angry demonstrations and even a humiliating government retreat, but when Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative interior minister and presidential hopeful, unveiled radical measures last week to curb immigration there was scarcely a murmur of dissent.
Under the new rules, highly skilled immigrants will be favoured over those coming to France to join family. The government will also have greater powers to expel illegal immigrants. “We no longer want immigration that is inflicted on us,” said Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, whose “zero tolerance” policing and American campaigning techniques have shaken up French politics.
Muslim groups were infuriated, interpreting it as a blow to north Africans in favour of Asian job seekers.
The relatively mild response from the left, however, suggested a change of mood in France, as did the surprisingly muted protests against a government scheme that would make it easier to sack young workers in their first two years in a job: unions had promised a turnout of at least 1m people. It was only a fraction of that.
“French opinion really is changing,” said Nicolas Baverez, an economist and author. “People understand that we must make radical changes if we are to continue to have an influence in the world.”
The extraordinary popularity of Sarkozy—“Sarko”—who is competing with Dominique de Villepin, the aristocratic prime minister, to succeed Jacques Chirac as president next year, is one measure of a revolution already under way in a country often described as allergic to change.
Another factor promoting the shift is France’s recent run of turbulent events, from the rejection of the European Union constitution to the loss of the 2012 Olympics and the rioting that broke out in many French cities late last year.
The French may be renowned for whingeing about their woes but these calamities have bolstered the doctrine of doom-mongering to such a degree that worried politicians have given it a name: “declinology”.
The “high priest” of this movement is Baverez and his disciples are multiplying, along with gloom-laden tomes decrying a brain drain and loss of faith in politicians and judges.
Their central tenet is that France, with its centralised state and high unemployment, has been overtaken by neighbours such as Britain—and even Spain—while arrogantly proclaiming the superiority of its outmoded social model.
The French policy of racial integration has been exposed as a failure, they argue, by comparison with the “Anglo-Saxon melting pot” and immigration policies need to be changed. Sarkozy has obliged.
Having seen his approval rating soar after referring to troublemakers in the immigrant suburbs as “scum”, Sarkozy wants to make it harder for illegal immigrants to gain residency by marrying a French citizen. His proposed law emphasises the need for immigrants to adapt to the French way of life or risk deportation.
For de Villepin, the rise of “declinology” spells trouble. He is backing a less radical approach than the “Blairist” Sarkozy and, although endorsing the immigration proposals, has vociferously defended the French social model. He dismisses Bavarez and his followers as “prophets of doom”.
Chirac, who has loathed Sarkozy ever since his former protégé sided with a rival in the election of 1995, has also made clear his belief in the superiority of the French model—he said last year that France had “nothing to learn” from Britain—and voiced irritation over the French penchant for “permanent self-flagellation”.
He was referring to a host of books with titles such as France in Crisis and France’s Misfortune, and an orgy of debate on television and radio about what has gone wrong. There are reasons enough to be worried.
The sorry state of affairs was summed up last week in the testimony of a bungling magistrate whose suspicions of child abuse resulted in several people being jailed for years and separated from their families. The miscarriage of justice has called the entire legal system into question and shaken the public’s belief in a fair trial.
On one level France seems healthy enough—it has the highest birth rate in Europe—but this does not stop the French being miserable, particularly as they come to accept that their beloved lifestyle may have to change under a more competitive “Anglo-Saxon” economic model. Their suicide rate is three times higher than Britain’s and they are the biggest consumers of anti-depressants in the world.
Polls show pessimism to be more deeply ingrained than ever. A celebrated recent art exhibition reflected the mood. It was entitled Melancholy.
“The French melancholy is profound,” said Pierre Lellouche, a conservative MP and author of Gallic Illusions. “France glorifies its model, but the feeling of a future that is escaping us and that will be less gratifying than the past is creeping in everywhere.”
Some “declinologists” argue that reforms could be held up because of this fear. They claim that the French way of life is so comfortable—and the prospect of losing it so terrifying—that people will fight tooth and nail to preserve their cradle—to-grave security, abundant holidays and free education.
In this new world, traditional political distinctions are fading, said Eric Maurin, author of The French Ghetto, and the division these days is between “those who think they can win in a new (liberal economic) system and those who are certain of losing, not only their jobs but their identity and honour”.
Baverez says that far from being a merchant of gloom he is optimistic, even if Sarkozy—who led de Villepin in one recent poll by 14 percentage points—would lose, according to another poll, by a narrow margin to Ségolène Royal, a possible Socialist party contender.
This potential first female French president has, however, attracted much criticism from her numerous male rivals. The party is by no means certain to adopt this mother of four with more star power and charisma than the other Socialist hopefuls combined.
The disarray of the French left is reflected in its inability to frighten the government with the size of its protests.
Union leaders have been deeply frustrated by their lack of traction, even in the face of a legislative assault on the 35—hour working week, seen as the crowning achievement of the former Socialist government. Striking transport workers in Marseilles last year were frustrated by the lack of public sympathy for their disruption of the city and surprised at the dearth of protests against the privatisation of the state electricity and gas companies.
It seems to bode well for Sarkozy, who would one day like to deregulate the labour market and streamline the welfare system. The less protest the better—whatever the gloom.