We don't need your foreign models

Jacques Attali says France must modernise but not copy others

Let's begin with some bad news for our friends: France is alive and well.

France, and the French left in particular, is not going to surrender to any model. France will never become a carbon copy of any other country. And the French left will continue in its own way, albeit modernising all the time with the help of new technologies.

Yes, France is an exception, but no more than any other country is an exception by its history, geography and culture. There is no reason, therefore, why the French left and right would seek to imitate any other doctrine or set of rules coming from outside. The French left is a mirror of French society, pursuing social justice and social mobility. It is no different in other countries. Britain's Labour Party, for example, would lose if it sought to imitate the Danes or Italians, let alone the French Socialists.

France has been built around a strong central state, a unified language and grand projects. This has made France what it is today: a strong nation, with a high standard of living, with life expectancy increasing by three months each year, excellent transport infrastructure, and with more foreign direct investment, more tourists and more foreign residents than any other European country, including the UK.

If France is an exception, it is happy to be one. It cannot, and should not, destroy its main attributes just to please its competitors. There is no such thing as a universal, ideal model for the left that France and others should imitate. There are only national situations. In policy terms, the future of the left lies not in surrendering to a market economy, but inventing new ways of balancing the market with democracy. This balance, and the means of achieving it, are specific to each country.

That is why, in this presidential campaign, there is an agreement among all the parties of the centre left to keep a balance between the power of the state (crucial for welfare as well as for protection of the language, industrial policy, policing, defence, foreign policy, social security, higher integration, social integration, energy, health and pensions) and the power of the regions (in charge of culture, innovation, the environment, roads and schools).

The defence of the French language as the cement of the nation is one of the state's key roles for the future at a time when globalisation suggests that other nations are failing in that fight. Neither left nor right in France wants the country to become a patchwork of indigenous communities.

France has many problems - high unemployment, lack of mobility, weakness of higher education, housing, social integration of minorities, public debt and threat of industrial decline, to name a few. But there is no model outside France to solve these problems.

The British left may have had success with some of Britain's own difficulties, but it has had huge failure with others. Deeply rooted in British history, it cannot, by definition, be a model for anyone else.

The French left is happy to consider the British exception and to admire some dimensions of it, such as its employment policies. But it should be warned against imitating the whole recipe. For instance, it believes passionately in assimilation, and should be wary of imitating the dangerous shift in British society towards atomised lives or separate communities. It is also not convinced that a nation can survive without a strong industrial backbone. The United Kingdom cannot consist solely of the City of London.

France, therefore, will build on its assets: a strong state, an efficient health system and a strong industrial basis, and try to reduce its main weaknesses by improving mobility, research and competition.

The next challenge will be to introduce new ideas to the doctrine of the left, in France as elsewhere. Globalisation has so far taken place only in the economy. We need a globalisation of democracy, too. For that, we need to imagine the use of new technologies in politics, the wider provision of information and a new concept of participatory democracy. We need to consider the acquisition of skills as an activity worthy of a decent salary rather than exploitation. We need to reorganise and revive the institutions of global world governance.

These are some of the things that all leftist parties of the world should work for, together, instead of trying to export their own very specific recipes to environments that are totally unsuitable for them.

This article appears in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?