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What do We Want France to be Like in Ten Years’ Time? Issues for the Coming Decade

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Readers may remember that, at the request of the President of the Republic, a French government seminar was held on 19 August 2013 on the subject of ‘France in 2015’. According to the then Prime Minister, that seminar was to mark the beginning of a process that would ‘set a direction’ for government policy. Contrary to those who immediately dismissed the initiative as spin and delaying tactics, I defended it on the grounds that the exploration of possible futures was integral to the exercise of power and that governments ought to have  long-term projects that gave meaning and coherence to the action they proposed.

The task of carrying out this process was entrusted to the Commissariat for Strategy and Foresight, which has since been renamed France Stratégie. And in Quelle France dans dix ans? they present the fruits of their thinking. That thinking has involved a very large number of experts, elected politicians, economic and social actors, and representatives of civil society, within a context of thematic debates, regional meetings, seminars, a website, and a public opinion survey—in short, a range of resources available only to a government authority attached to the Prime Minister’s office.

The report, which we were eagerly awaiting, has four parts to it. The first of these sketches out how the international context is likely to develop in broad terms and outlines the aspirations France might reasonably have over the next ten years. The second presents an assessment of the current state of France, of the reforms that have been introduced and the key questions facing the country. The third lays down the policy guidelines that ought to be followed in eight crucial fields, while the fourth looks to define a strategy.

In Part One, the chapter entitled ‘The World in 2025’, the analysis is confined to summarizing a few familiar trends, stressing the rise of the emerging nations, the increased level of global interdependence without corresponding advances in governance, and the rise of a multipolar world in which Europe is tactfully described as ‘convalescent’. In the second chapter, ‘France in 2025’ (which curiously comes before ‘The Current Situation’), the stated ambition is for a currently declining France ‘to exercise a leadership role once again’ both in the wider world and also among French people, whose state of mind is currently one of unease. Such a ‘leadership role’ implies being among the top ten countries for quality of life, restoring full employment, striving to be a model with regard to democracy and human rights, and restoring ‘the thirst for invention’. The list is, no doubt, incomplete, but such ambitions are scarcely controversial.

Part Two, entitled ‘What is holding us back’, features, first, a hard-hitting assessment of the current situation, confirming that the country has ‘stalled economically’ and is registering a gradual downturn in its social performance indicators, followed by a short but welcome chapter criticizing an accumulation of ‘small-scale reforms’ that are inadequate and apparently lacking in coherence. This part ends on a fifth chapter that opens with the idea that France ‘is both uncertain about its collective choices and doubtful about the institutions embodying them.’ The authors go on to say that the country ‘is obsessed, distressed and often paralysed by a series of dilemmas’ and they list the five themes for consideration raised by the Prime Minister at the beginning of the exercise: ‘What is to hold our society together? Can we still afford our social model? Must we give up on growth or re-think it? A sheltered economy or an exposed one? With or without Europe?’

The stated ambitions in these five areas are mostly rather uncontroversial: we need a meaningful democracy and accountable institutions and to breathe new vigour into our community life; our social model is expensive and inefficient; we have to rebuild a consensus on economic growth, while at the same time making it more sustainable; we have to increase the international competitiveness of the economy and, lastly, strengthen the European Union (which will ‘necessarily’ involve ‘a revision of its founding treaty’.)

The heart of the report does, however, lie in its third part, entitled ‘Our Aims ten years hence’, which sets eight priorities: a democracy built on trust, effective Republican equality, an enterprising and thrifty state, responsible development, an open and outward-looking society, a dynamic economy, a comprehensible and inclusive social model and a Europe that represents a driving force. Put like this, these priorities may seem very general, but in each case the main policy levers are identified and so, even more precisely, are the specific measures to be taken. However, as admirable as these may be, they often leave much to be desired, as for example when we are simply told that we have to make our elected bodies more representative of the general population, fight discrimination, rethink the provision of public services using IT etc.

There are many interesting ideas here, but, taken together, they form rather a jumble of a list. One tends to lose one’s way among a string of measures whose coherence and feasibility are not clear from the outset. At the same time, a number of major issues seem to me to have been overlooked. For example, in the chapter, ‘A comprehensible and inclusive social model’, three major objectives are mentioned (creating full employment and new forms of job security, simplifying and personalizing social policies, and recalibrating housing policy), but nothing is said about the ageing population and health policy. Though the authors assert the opposite, what we have here is a shopping-list of measures, not clear direction-setting or the description of a vision of a desirable future for France in the years to 2050.

It will be necessary to choose between the various objectives and to set priorities as a function, no doubt, of what those in power see as a desirable, achievable future for France over the next ten years (if, indeed, they have such a vision). This means defining their political project and the ways and means of bringing it to fruition. The France Stratégie team led by Jean Pisani-Ferry confine themselves to a number of very general recommendations on method, even if, in the performance indicators section, they provide useful keys to a decision-making process which, at the end of the day, is not actually within their purview.

Lastly, this can hardly be said to be a foresight exercise, whether we are talking of exploratory foresight (‘what might happen?’) or the strategic variety (‘what do we want to do and what can we do?’). This is more of a toolbox, a basket of ideas for decision-makers of all kinds to make the best possible use of. It should be read because it is intelligent and well-written, but it doesn’t either set a direction or describe a clear course of action to achieve it.

Sources : France Stratégie, Quelle France dans dix ans ? Les chantiers de la décennie, Paris, France Stratégie, 2014, 228 p. URL : http://www.strategie.gouv.fr/publications/france-10-ans