France is an interesting case. It was long the most populous state in Europe and the main rival of England, then Britain for the title of world hegemon. Unlike Britain, however, it did not face the open sea but large and powerful kingdoms, whose alliance finally thwarted its ambitions, first at Blenheim in 1704, then at Waterloo in 1815; It then began to slowly decline, the way failed empires do. Unable to prevent German unification, it steadily lost ground and became an admittedly unruly American ally after World War II. If peak energy wasn’t looming, it would become just another minor country dreaming of its glorious past while history is written elsewhere.
That would not necessarily have been a bad thing. This is what happened to Athens after the Roman conquest. Deprived of what remained of its political independence, the city had become a prosperous cultural center, leading a quiet and protected life, far from the Empire’s battlefields.
Such won’t be our fate, however.
In premodern times, France was the prototypic agrarian empire. Born from a warlord state located between the Loire river and the Channel, it came to control some of the best lands in western Europe, which enabled it to feed a large peasant population – a whole quarter of the European population during the Middle-Ages – and field large, well armed and well trained armies.
In fact, we probably came very close to a French global empire during the 16th century, when Louis XIV’s armies marched on Vienna, only to be crushed by the combined forces of England, Prussia, the Netherlands and Denmark at Blenheim.
It was, however, less well endowed in fossil fuels, which explains its relative decline during the 19th century. France’s few coal resources are located along the north-eastern border, which proved quite inconvenient during World War I. It has virtually no oil and very little gas, mostly in Aquitaine.
As in other European countries, those resources are mostly depleted. The last coal mines have closed down during the nineties, around the same time, ironically, as the last uranium mines. Only 2% of our gas is extracted in France – mostly around Lacq in Aquitaine – and our oil production is negligible. There may be shale gas around Paris and in Provence, two densely populated regions, but it remains to be seen whether it will ever be exploited. Local populations are quite hostile, economics are dubious at best and the French Parliament has recently banned hydraulic fracturing.
To make things worse, the share of renewable energy, even though it is growing, is negligible, the result of decades of underinvestment and of the choice of the country to invest heavily in nuclear power during the seventies.
This, of course, is bound to cause problems as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to a end.
France has, like other developed countries, accumulated an embarrassing surplus of material and immaterial infrastructures : roads, administration, a health system far more efficient than the American one (granted, it’s not very difficult), a reasonably efficient education system… After the first oil shock, those infrastructures were increasingly funded by debt. In a growing economy, that was not necessarily a bad idea. After all, if the future is going to be more prosperous than the present, it may as well pay for it.
The problem, as we know, is that the future won’t be more prosperous than the present, and at some point we are bound to find ourselves in the rather awkward situation of having to pay for the past without getting any subsidies from the future.
France is a close, if sometimes troublesome, ally of the USA, and even though it gets some benefits from the imperial system, its growth has been consistently inferior to America’s and the state budget has been running at a deficit since 1974. Chronic unemployment has been a fact of life for more than forty years now, partly because of weak growth, partly because the French political system favors a protected middle class of civil servants an retirees over the working class.
This is only made worse by the structure of the French state itself. France formed by amalgamating small feudal principalities during the middle-ages and by conquering border lands afterward. As a result, all its infrastructures are centered on the capital region, which works as a wealth and manpower pump, extracting resource from the provinces to fund the lifestyle of the Parisian aristocracy and the infrastructures it needs. The railroad network, for instance, is organized around the six big Parisian stations and most big corporations have their seat in Paris, as close as possible to the political power.
Theoretically, most regions receive more from the state than they contribute, but it is an illusion. A great part of the money that flows out from Paris is made of pensions, wages and touristic spending, what we call the residential economy. They increase, not alleviate dependency.
Public spending, notably in education, is aimed at providing the core with the skilled manpower it needs, triggering a permanent brain drain from the periphery toward the Parisian region, and of course, the economy of the periphery is organized according to the need and the interests of the core. Under the guise of “national solidarity”, wealth movements are organized and controlled by the state, which makes the poorest regions yet more dependent on the core and prevents independent accumulation of capital, either human or material.
The result has been a pattern of regional specialization, with the superior functions, and most of the national wealth, concentrated in Paris.
When such a system is faced with a shortage of vital resources, it tends to sacrifice the periphery to preserve the core. This tendency is still stronger in France, for, unlike in America, Germany, China and to a lesser extend Britain, the core coincides with a specific region.
Faced with a growing dearth of resources, the state has organized the progressive dismantlement of public services in the periphery – mostly in the rural areas, but also in what we call the “suburbs”, urban ghettos where the poorest populations, often of foreign descent, live. This dismantlement take many forms. State run enterprises may be sold off so that their new corporate or quasi-corporate management can restrict their activities and progressively terminate the protective status of their employees. Offices located in small – or even less small towns – can be closed down. Most importantly, charges may be “delegated” to local authorities, while fundings to those very same local authorities are withdrawn and their ability to levy taxes curtailed.
Those policies are met with resistance, of course, but not with effective resistance. There has been no general strike in France since 1995 and the state has become better and better at defeating mass protests. The last one, in 2010, opposing a very unpopular reform pushed by a highly unpopular government, mobilized several millions people, yet was a total failure. In fact, the staff of the main opposition party, hoped it to be a failure, so that they be spared the trouble of enacting the same kind of reform once back into power.
The effect of the retreat of the state toward the geographical core are less direct. The resistance is therefore more local, and can be defeated piecemeal. The few victorious struggles, because they only have a local importance, don’t break the pattern, and their often hard-won success is bound to be temporary.
The Republican ideology, which stills permeates French politics considers indeed the state as the guardian of common good., which means that any locally based resistance to its action is always suspect of parochialism and has to prove, if it wants to be listened to, that it does not only defend the interest of a particular group, but some great principle, which only strengthens the role of the state as the ultimate allocator of resources.
Like the kings of yore cannot willingly do wrong. It can only be ill advised.
Even the political movements which have glimpsed the nature of the Parisian wealth pump, namely the various autonomist, regionalist and separatist movements, which have sprung up in the French periphery, subscribe to this worldview. Those movements have their weakness, structural and ideological, which will probably prevent them from playing a major role, even in local politics, for the foreseeable future outside Corsica, but they could have formed an ideological core around which a real relocalization might have been possible. Nearly all of them, however, insist, that they want a real solidarity between poor and rich provinces. They only want it fairer, which, of course, amounts to acknowledge the legitimacy of the state as the ultimate allocator of resources.
The king cannot do wrong, it can only be ill advised.
The problem is of course deeper, and that is why France is likely to disastrously fail as its resource base shrink. As long as economic growth was present, the core could pump the resources of the periphery and organize it according to its need while allowing it to reap some benefit from the system. No matter how exploited, a peripheral region of a central state was still better off than a central region of a peripheral state.
This is still true, but as the balance of power at the world level shifts toward China, France will more and more lose its privileged access to resources. It will, therefore, be forced to organize the impoverishment of its own periphery. In most big countries, such a plolicy would be sure to trigger separatist movements, but as I have said, in France, the supremacy of the state is accepted by nearly everyone, including those who might engage in identity politics. Mainstream, and even not so mainstream parties might diverge about the policies the state should enact but its role as the embodiment of the nation is questioned only by the fringe of the fringe.
The most likely result will be a growing gap between a privileged but shrinking minority, close enough to the core, whether it be geographical or social, to benefit from the advantages it provides, and a majority which will lose all the riches it had accumulated during the growth years and vent its anger by supporting a populist strongman or another. This is what has happened to the French working class, and it is obvious that the middle class, especially the unprotected middle class is next on the list.
Such an evolution would be deadly for democracy, as sooner or later the disenfranchised crow would vote some populist into power, or come so close to doing it that force would have to be used “to preserve democracy”.
In both case, it would be a disaster. In both case, it would speed the decline and make it deeper and messier as the inevitable failure of such a regime would leave only ruins in its wake.
The only alternative would be for the state to relinquish its claim to supremacy and share evenly the cost of the descent among all citizens by encouraging a progressive return to domestic economy and organic forms of solidarity.
I don’t know why, but I don’t hold my breath.