"Letter from Paris: Government becomes a menage a trois
31.12.2003, New Zealand Herald Tribune
France-based correspondent CATHERINE FIELD writes from Paris in the third letter to Herald readers from our foreign correspondents
The two-week period between Christmas and New Year is traditionally the dead zone in France, so I'm off to Chatel, a large ski resort in the French alps near the Swiss border.
The highlight will be "le reveillon" - New Year's Eve - which is the finest time for French cuisine with foie gras, oysters, roast goose and lashings of champagne.
It comes at a high price - New Year is one of the two most expensive weeks in the ski calendar, the other being the February mid-term break.
But it's worth it. The alternative is to stay at home in the dark of winter, going out only after wrapping up against the bitter icy wind that blows down from the Somme.
Or to stay home and try to lift your damp spirits with the usual sour offerings from French public television. The role of television is just one manifestation of the state, which remains an enormous presence in France even though it is receding or under scrutiny almost everywhere else in the Western world.
But can the French love affair with the state last?
Almost every day throws up evidence of the French state scrabbling to maintain its assertiveness, even while its sovereignty ebbs away at home or is transferred in chunks to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and European Union.
Today, eurozone bureaucrats are crawling over the Government's accounts. French diplomats are on the back foot in Europe, having failed to rally support for their vision of a multipolar world and for a European military force.
And the country is fighting a desperate rearguard action in the WTO to protect its farmers and other interest groups.
Marry this picture with that of the news at home - a summer of strikes, a sagging economy and eroding confidence in the political class - and it would seem that the ship of state, traditionally strong, serene and assertive, is heading for an iceberg.
But the drama is not over yet. The fact is that the French state, despite its many and growing problems, enjoys genuine and popular support. There may be cries of alarm and calls for an overhaul, but there is no pressure from any party, right or left, for the state to retreat.
To the outsider, this may seem daft. Many visitors in France are struck by the apparent anachronism of the state's central role.
On the most visible level, it is a big economic player. The state is the country's biggest employer, with one in four workers on its payroll. It is also the keeper of the cultural flame, annually donating â‚¬13 billion ($25 billion) to the arts. It funds 225 cultural establishments abroad that promote French literature and cinema as well as more than 260 Alliance Francaise language and cultural centres from Africa to Quebec to Polynesia.
On another front, it plays the role of gastronomic sentinel, insisting, for example that Camembert de Normandie is made of unpasteurised cow's milk that comes only from within that region, contains a minimum of 45 per cent fat and matures for at least 21 days. It decrees that every poulet de Bresse, the five-star chicken that hails from the region of that name, is allocated living space of no less than 10 sq m and is at least 120 days old when killed.
L'Etat is also a fussy nanny, so eager to boost the birth rate that each year the President awards Medaille de la Famille Francaise to women who have large families, something that would not be out of place in North Korea. Women who have at least four children get a bronze; there's a silver for those with six or seven offspring; and those with eight kids or more hit the jackpot with a gold medal.
For these and other reasons, the French not only tolerate the state's role, they actively support it, seeing it as a benign and rather well-run expression of their country.
There are no noisy demonstrations outside Parliament demanding an end to the regulations that set down dates as to when stores are authorised to hold sales.
Why is this so? To delve into France's revolutionary roots is instructive.
French republicanism was forged in the crucible of Jacobinism - a doctrine that says France is founded not on shared ethnicity but on a shared belief in three principles: liberte, egalite, fraternite.
The vehicle for meeting the people's aspirations is an intertwining of the state and the nation. The concept: an entity of powerful, indivisible national sovereignty, whose citizens have equal rights and are governed by a strong centralised Administration, which is not passive but an enabler, even a transformer, of lives.
This model has generally served France well for 200 years, providing the country with a strong political structure and a focus for public aspirations despite wars and slumps.
Today, though, different threats are emerging. And even if the French state remains popular at home for the time being, its future remains in doubt if external stresses and contradictions remain unresolved.
Perhaps the biggest peril is EU integration. French leaders persist in declaring the EU to be an association of nation-states that does not infringe national sovereignty.
At the same time, these leaders sign up to treaties that turn the union more and more into a strong, centrally governed federation whose rules insist on openness and competition.
Were it not so shameless, this hypocrisy would be laughable.
France has done all it legally can, and more, to protect the state electricity monopoly from EU competition. It shields its millionaire grain barons, who masquerade as doughty yeoman farmers, from demands to reduce the country's scandalous farming subsidies. And with palpable arrogance, France flouts the eurozone's budget-deficit rules, daring its partners to punish it. Maybe one day they will.
These are problems that cannot be ignored, and not just because they are caused by the state itself.
They have a corrupting effect on the economy and mask France's painful adjustment in a fast-shifting world order - a time when French shouting, selfishness and shoulder-barging look increasingly silly.
The public splits within the EU over a future constitution, voting rights and subsidies are a cruel reminder that the Franco-German alliance cannot simply steamroller smaller members; the enlargement of the EU will reduce Paris's key role as a founder member.
Then there is the thorny issue of reform at the United Nations Security Council that could mean France will lose its veto or share it with other European nations.
France's most pressing task today is to rethink the state, to make it resilient and responsive in the face of change, and not just popular. "