Gaspard Koenig is a French liberal author and politician. The first meeting of his French think tank 'Génération Libre', which launches in the New Year, took place at the Centre for Policy Studies earlier this month. You can follow him on Twitter @gaspard2012.
French people are famous for endless debates and arguments. Any foreigner turning on the radio on one of the equally famous French motorways has to jump from one political show to another before eventually finding a good song to listen to. Theodore Zeldin, the most Francophile of Anglo-Saxon historians, pointed out in his History of French Passions that the Gallic craving for ideas is both reflected and nurtured by France’s long-standing and unique tradition to impose philosophy lessons on all teenagers.
And yet, it is remarkable to realise how limited the range of ideas actually discussed in French society is. A philosophy student and teacher myself, I only learnt over the years a hotchpotch of leftist theories. As an intellectual, your only options are to become a Marxist, an Anarchist, or a Social-democrat for the fainthearted. During the Presidential election last year, the main training school for journalists, the Centre de Formation des Journalistes, held a public vote that backed Mr Hollande 100%.
I had to spend a year at a US University to discover that something like a Liberal school of thought existed, and even represented a rather French tradition. Condillac, Turgot, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville, Frédéric Bastiat, Raymond Aron, Jean-François Revel and today Guy Sorman form a long intellectual chain that favours the individual over the community and the market over the State. But almost nobody in France – least of all the politicians – does take those principles seriously. The result is a continuous swelling of the Leviathan-State, nannying the citizens and spending more than half the national wealth each year. The result is a blatant incapacity to acknowledge the limits of the Welfare State which pampered the ‘68 generation while leaving their children and grand-children indebted for life.
Take among myriads of possible examples the most recent announcement by François Hollande, on November 27th, that the Government stood ready to nationalize ArcelorMittal’s Florange plant, which the company wants to shut down for lack of competitiveness. This threat worthy of the worst banana republics has been unanimously supported by France’s media and political class – from the left to the right. Not a single voice questioned the legitimacy of the Government in expelling investors and taking over a private business. That tells enough the gaping lack of any ideological alternative, including on the right side of the political spectrum.
There are a few liberal economists and intellectuals though, publishing in rather confidential reviews or websites. They feel like John the Baptist clamans in deserto. As Tocqueville already noted nearly two centuries ago, the French political system is tragically disconnected from the world of academia and research, which leads the former to rely almost exclusively on an ultra-Colbertist administration, while the latter remains very often prisoner of its natural inclination to blue-sky thinking.
I believe though that times have never been so propitious to the emergence of a Liberal movement in France. As the mainstream political parties have been plunged into discredit (a recent poll found that 47% of the French had a “bad opinion” of the Socialist Party, that figure rising to 62% for the UMP, its right-wing rival), and as the economy is collapsing after 30 years of interventionist policies (France recently lost its triple-A rating and unemployment rose over the 3-million bar), alternative models can only gain credibility – as long as they are seriously prepared and promoted.
That is the reason why, together with a number of my compatriots living in London, but also in Paris and elsewhere in France and the world, we have decided to create a think-tank devoted to promoting a liberal agenda in France. Just as the CPS did in the 70’s in the UK, we will strive to “introduce liberalism” in French politics and to “think the unthinkable” – from the abolition of the civil service special status to the decentralisation of the education system. We haven’t found our Margaret Thatcher yet – but we are confident that France possesses the most extraordinary talents which are only waiting to thrive under better – and leaner – public policies.