What France Thinks about Globalization
What France Thinks about Globalization

With a new socialist president, France is under the spotlight as the world eagerly anticipates its leadership in addressing the European debt crisis. Hollande has vowed to pursue economic policies tied to growth, not just austerity. He also plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, change the relationship with NATO, and institute a “Tobin tax” on financial transaction.1

During the elections, Hollande said, “Can we really believe that liberalism, privatisations and deregulation, which led us to the financial crisis we are in, will help us get out of the crisis?”2   Statements like these point to a shift in French economic policy. Instead of austerity, Hollande has indicated he wants to promote growth through investment in energy technology, infrastructure and small businesses. He proposes creating a new public investment bank and a public savings fund to provide capital to small businesses.3

To lower labor costs, Hollande plans on shifting the burden of the social charge placed on employers to a value added tax. He plans to return the retirement age from 62 to 60 and plans to renegotiate a “financially sustainable” pension package for trade unions. Hollande does not plan to nationalize any private sector firms. For some, these regulations do not go far enough in addressing restrictive labor and product market regulations.4

Some believe that many of these stances will need to be moderated by the market. Commentators point out that  Mitterand’s 1981 reforms which included increased minimum wages, 39-hour work week, five weeks of mandated annual vacation and taxes on the wealthy, lead to currency devaluation, trade and account deficits as well as capital flight. Mitterand then changed course, promoting government efficiency, cost-saving measures and industry consolidation.5   Many feel that Hollande will follow in Mitterand’s footsteps and will moderate his stance as well.


The French have been known for their stance against globalization. Historically, France has opposed globalization and espoused trade protectionism; today many of the country’s companies are industry leaders. For example, the state-owned French electric company, EDF Energy, provides 25 percent of Europe’s electricity. French companies employ 4.5 million people outside of France and account for 20 percent of all investments in Europe. Despite France’s industrial leadership, many argue that anti-globalization sentiments are still strong. In the 2012 campaign, even Sarkozy pledged to reintroduce trade protectionism and passport checks, and reduce immigration.6

Others believe a shift has taken place. Sophie Meunier, a French American political scientist and Co-Director European Union Program at Princeton at Princeton University explains the evolution of the French perspective on globalization.

For many years France was holding a singular position in Europe, and among all the advanced industrialized countries, on the issue of globalization – a position made of obsession, fear, defiance, rejection, and schizophrenia. Less than a decade ago, the French were completely obsessed with globalization (Gordon and Meunier, 2001)..

At the time, the equation was simple: globalization equals Americanization. American companies, from fast food chains to Hollywood studios, were subjecting the world to their products, destroying national cultures in the process, with no consideration for social justice, only the maximization of profit as the ultimate objective. Globalization was perceived as bad because it was perceived as American.

Over the past twenty years, France has been transformed considerably as a result of technological and demographic challenges, in addition to the twin pressures of Europeanization and globalization…these massive transformations of the French economy, society and polity were for the most part not communicated and enacted through traditional open political debate, but instead took place in the shadows (Meunier, 2003). While the French political economy has deeply but incrementally changed over the past two decades, this change has taken place quietly, as if the only version of globalization that the French could tolerate was ‘globalization by stealth’.

By the end of the 1990s, globalization was a political buzzword with very negative connotations – and a French obsession…There it had become taboo to speak positively about globalization, even though France’s globalized companies were reaping the benefits of globalization.

…Since the French still look back fondly on the role of state planning and intervention in creating an attractive country with generous social protections, they remain wary of the sorts of neo-liberal doctrines that have been embraced not only in the US but also, it seems, everywhere else in Europe..


…I argue that it is not Sarkozy who was able to change French perceptions of globalization and Americanization, but rather this change in perceptions that enabled him to get elected.

The change in perceptions was slight but still noticeable. One novelty is that, at least until the financial crisis hit in the autumn of 2008, it was no longer taboo to consider how France could best benefit from globalization or to recognize that there is a need for the country to adapt. The change happened sometime during the 2007 presidential campaign…

The media have become much more critical of blanket anti-globalization statements. Le Monde, and even Liberation, have changed on this. They now report facts such as trade is one of the sectors creating the most jobs in France, so it is paradoxical that politicians always attack globalization, which was unheard of several years ago…

At the time of the 2007 presidential campaign, anti-globalization rhetoric had lost its intellectual cachet..

Many analysts have openly argued that the socialist party had failed in the elections and lost ground precisely because its leaders had been unable to articulate a modern, practical discourse towards globalization…

In addition, maybe a generational change was also taking place, before the financial crisis hit: according to IPSOS, more than a quarter of the youth polled said that globalization represented hope for them…


…In rhetoric, Sarkozy has displayed a more open stance towards globalization than his predecessor. But in deeds, as Le Monde puts it, ‘when Mr. Sarkozy asks Mr. Mandelson not to sacrifice European agriculture ‘‘on the altar of liberalism,’’ his critics in Europe think they hear Jacques Chirac’ (Ricard, 2008).


…Globalization is still viewed with fear and suspicion, but it is no longer only the Americans’ fault or only to their benefit, in spite of their obvious responsibility in the crisis… .

…Moreover, the French no longer think that the main beneficiary of globalization is the US…

If anything, France and the US today are in the same boat with respect to globalization – they are on the same side of the fence, partners as well as competitors, with China looming large on the other side…

Even if the challenges and problems are global, the policy solutions proposed vary. For the Sarkozy administration, the main ally and the main tool in France’s quest to harness globalization to its benefit is the EU. Yet the French view of Europe with respect to globalization is ambiguous..

Sarkozy … wants to reassert France’s role within Europe precisely because Europe can help to protect France from the negative side effects of globalization… .


Two massive upheavals have the potential of altering the equation between globalization and the US in French rhetoric and policy – the financial crisis and the election of Obama. I argue that even though ‘Sarko l’Ame´ricain’ has reverted to the tried-and-true French tactic of blaming and scapegoating the US in order to score political points at home, this time it is not working, in part because traditional anti-Americanism is mitigated by the current French admiration for Obama.


…Sarkozy has tried to capitalize on this for his own political benefit by tapping both in the anti-globalization and anti-American reservoir of French political discourse. ..


Except this time Sarkozy’s strategy of blaming the US in order to deflect blame from himself does not seem to be working. A myriad of polls show that a majority of French people do not support his actions to counter the crisis (neither do they trust the Socialist Party). At this point, the French population seems more interested in seeing an improvement of the economic conditions than in laying blame…

To date, the French press has not turned against Obama. Therefore, the French public is not ready to blame Obama for a crisis for which he was not initially responsible. Instead, French voters would rather blame their own government and its failure to keep its promises.


The French no longer make headlines worldwide for their anti-globalization actions and rhetoric, as they did a decade ago. It is not because they have stopped criticizing globalization as part of Sarkozy’s strategy of rapprochement with the US. Neither is it because the French have finally embraced globalization. Rather, the rest of the Western world is catching up with French fears and doubts about globalization, so France no longer stands out in this respect.

Meunier, Sophie. “Globalization, Americanization and Sarkozy’s France.” European Political Science. June 2010, Vol. 9 Issue 2, p213-222, 10p

Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations, confirms Meunier’s argument still applies in the post-Sarkozy era:

But for now, what prevails in France is a strange combination of serenity and apprehension. It is based on the conviction that whoever is president may not matter all that much. The scope for real and profound change is so slim that the best that can be hoped for is a series of compromises, between austerity and growth, and between growth according to Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, (liberalizing the labour market) and growth according to Mr. Hollande (recreating aspects of the Keynesian New Deal).

Moïsi, Dominique. “France worries about Europe, not Hollande.” The Globe and Mail. May 10, 2012.


Migration is still quite a contentious issue in France, despite the fact that studies show that French Muslims have high rates of integration, adopting the French language, family-size, and liberal social views. The challenge is that no one gives them jobs and the country has problems creating jobs in general. 7Roland Hsu discusses his perspective on trade and migration in the French newspaper, le Monde Diplomatique:

The French have voted for François Hollande as their next president. Behind their choice was the important question of trust…For French voters of all political affiliations, Nicolas Sarkozy had for the last five years pursued a vigorous platform of distrust — distrust of organized labor, welfare security, immigrants, rivals among the far right, and of compromise and traditional democratic process…

But the real story, and the one that will continue to play out into the new Hollande administration, is that, by design or by default, voters gave the party that most clearly vocalizes a politics of resentment (the FN) a loud voice — and a plan to amass a block of seats in the National Assembly at the next legislative election this June..

The new generation of FN leadership under Marine Le Pen successfully undermined Sarkozy’s campaign..
…The new French administration may have to do deals with a block of legislators loyal to the FN in order to pass and enact major policy on economic reform, immigration and foreign affairs…

It remains to be seen whether France finds a balance between austerity and stimulus. But the evidence suggests that the new administration will not be able to push through either austerity or stimulus in any meaningful way unless it repairs the mistrust that has been created between government, industry and that underclass of the unemployed.

In France, fixing employment means bridging deep chasms between employers and recent immigrants whom we know face discrimination in hiring. Since coming to office, the Sarkozy government focused on lowering the “cost” of employment (relaxing termination rules, reducing pensions), but this did little to address the problem of double-digit unemployment rates for recent immigrants. To lower unemployment, one first must address social conflict; and to address conflict, France needs a dialogue between political and disenfranchised community leaders. To date, the record of such dialogue has not been good.

Political leaders have not prioritized making first- and second-generation immigrant youth employable. Those who live in the suburban banlieues of disenfranchised youth and the unemployed have not forgotten that Sarkozy, when he was interior minister, responded to the riots of 2005 by labeling the participants (many of North African descent) as racaille or scum.

That memory should serve as a lesson to the new Hollande government. It will need to devote real and political capital to programs of social inclusion and job training. And it will need to do so while trading legislative favors with Le Pen and her new post-UMP colleagues on the far right. This is not an enviable prospect, but it is the likely, and perhaps only, scenario for creating sustainable employment.

For Hollande’s government to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, it must lighten the weight of pensions. But to do so is impossible without winning at least minimal cooperation from organized labor. France is well known for its tradition of labor militancy, but in the recent past this has been played out in relatively impotent rituals of periodic demos: the last nation-wide, effective general strike was back in 1995 (protesting pension cuts under President Chirac).

Again, Hollande would do well to learn the lesson from his predecessor. In 2007 Sarkozy began his term with his budget minister describing French labor relations as being in the stone age, and unilaterally rolling out an aggressive labor reform package that had the effect of invigorating the anemic unions. That led to demonstrations whose size and vigor surprised even labor leaders. The reform package was mostly withdrawn, and government, labor and industry leaders have since then mistrusted each other.

So the critical question for the Hollande government is how to restore trust and win effective cooperation from organized labor, industry, the international investment community, immigrant community leaders, and also the far right…

Hsu, Roland. “The Challenge for Hollande.” le Monde Diplomatique. May 7, 2012.


Annie Vinokur an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Paris-Ouest, writes about the challenges facing France’s higher education system.

…in 1961, the OECD praised France and the USSR for their public, centrally planned and state financed education systems (OECD 1962), and urged the developing countries to take them as models. Now, after a long resistance to the – opposite – neo-liberal doctrine in education spread by the same OECD since the 1980s, France (along with the Russian Federation) is one of the last countries to join its trans-national fan club. It is therefore a spin-round case of transition…

However, at this stage, we can risk the following thesis:

(a) Unlike most English speaking and South Asian countries in the recent past, France seems much less interested in increasing its share of the international market of HE teaching services than in developing a competitive R-D university– industry sector. This implies the de-construction of the inherited system, and a reallocation of resources toward a new top-tier of public establishments strongly linked with private economic interests.

(b) For that purpose a radical reform of the HE sector was needed. To implement such a reform, strongly opposed by a large part of the academic community, the government needed to rely on the external resources of international norms and rules of governance. In this field, France appears both as a norm-maker and a norm-taker…

France on the market of student mobility

France is consistently the third host country (after the US and UK) for international students. Its share was 10% of a 1.5 million worldwide mobility in 1999, and 11% of 1.9 million in 2006, as the relative attraction of the US had fallen in a global market declining since 2004. The proportion of foreign students in France has steadily grown from 7.1% in 1999 to 11.7% in 2006…

Eighty per cent of the incoming international students go to university; literature and social sciences coming first, followed by sciences and economics and management. Thirty-six per cent of doctoral students in France are international students. France is, after Spain, the second host country of Erasmus students, and second behind the UK for the inflow of doctoral candidates of EU origin.

On the other side of the mobility scale, in 2006 France ranked sixth in the world for the number of expatriate students, and second in the OECD countries, with about 77,000 students abroad (less than a third of the inward flow). Among them 30% (23,000) are Erasmus. The UK, Belgium, the US and Germany together host 70% of the outgoing flow, but new destinations have recently grown: Scandinavia, Australia and Japan…

So France is well inserted and positioned in terms of overall share in the international movements of students, but in a somehow outdated manner, if considered qualitatively from an economic viewpoint. It has maintained its previous noncommercial policy, devoid of direct economic objectives (but not of economic costs5), attracting mainly international students from its traditional sphere of influence and in cultural fields of learning…So, since 2003, new qualitative orientations have been given to this policy, alongside the EU ambition to promote the Union as a ‘knowledge economy’: (i) to improve the quality of the services offered; (ii) to give precedence to foreign students of graduate level and researchers in science, technology, finance and management; and (iii) to attract brilliant students from scientifically developed countries, emerging regions and eastern Europe. The institution that has been in charge of this policy since 2006 is Campus France (ex EduFrance6), a centralised public agency where individual HE establishments have no influence…

The exportation of French courses and campuses

…With the reform, they now have the licence and the incentive to engage in autonomous ventures, as offshoring is one of their very few openings for extra budgetary resources…

The creation of a foreign backed institution is initiated usually by the government of the host country (sometimes by local corporations or foundations). It chooses the university (frequently on the international rankings), and the founder and the university directly negotiate the agreement…

The French government in the internationalisation of norms and policies

The French higher education system has never known those institutions which, combining teaching and research in all disciplinary fields, answer to the standard definition of a full-fledged university. ..It was instead divided into roughly three vertical compartments:

(1) The Grandes écoles or Ecoles supérieures is a rather ill-defined sector where the establishments are generally small, selective, non-research, and train the officers of the administrative and industrial armies…

(2) The full time research institutions include the CNRS, a large organization combining all fields of fundamental research, and diverse specialised institutes ..ad hoc government creations..

(3) The universities, originally designed mainly for the reproduction of the organized professions (medicine, law) and of the body of teachers in literature and science. After WWII, they were called upon to accommodate, at low cost, the masses of students heading for the rapidly expanding labour market. Open to all holders of a high school baccalauréat, they delivered national diplomas…For the past few decades, they have notably increased their research activities, mainly in partnership with the CNRS.

What they had in common (except for the private grandes écoles) was that they were state institutions, centrally governed in partnership between the ministries and the representatives of a tenured personnel of civil servants, and fully subsidised by public money..

This ‘tangled up Gulliver’, as described in the Attali report (Attali 1998), had long been thought to need some reform, in terms of both its architecture and its governance…

This required dismantling the whole fabric of the welfare state ‘à la française’, and the dynamiting of both the architecture and the governance of the HE system. Such a radical reform could not be politically thought of in France through the normal legislative procedure, and the subsidiarity principle excluded an appeal to the EU level. A roundabout strategy was therefore adopted, using the international normalisation of HE as an external resource for the internal reform…

France as a norm-maker

…So, as the grandes écoles were deemed to recruit the best minds and provide the best training, and as the government laboratories and the doctoral departments of the universities had the research resources, the idea was to merge them at the top into a few ‘centres of excellence’ with close ties to business. They would then fulfil the main objective of the Attali report: to add R-D to the grandes écoles. The remainder of the university would remain free and non-selective, keep on delivering national diplomas..

This architecture would leave untouched the vertical split between the grandes écoles and the university for the undergraduate students, but add a horizontal – almost watertight – stratification between an HE for the elite, and an HE for the plebeians…

Such a device will throw bridges between universities and grandes écoles, and allow for the integration of research and innovation in the cursus of the engineers … Ultimately the cursus and diplomas of all establishments of higher education will become coherent. Each student will be able to switch from one establishment to another and it will be possible to compare them all.

Then, only, comes the international dimension of the project:

Ideally, France should become a natural part of the academic journey of the most brilliant students from all countries of the world … To start with, it is necessary to harmonise the cursus of our universities and grandes écoles with those of the other universities of the European Union … This can be, at the initiative of France, one of the great projects of the Union for the next decade…

The Attali report – which also contained most of the reforms of governance to come – was largely ignored in French academic circles. So the LMD and the ECTS were sold to the French universities as an EU initiative, and on the sole argument that it would facilitate the mobility of students all over Europe. Who could be against student mobility?

France as a norm-taker

French universities, as a whole, embraced enthusiastically the implementation of the LMD, all the more so as they were invited to take this opportunity to freely develop their imagination in the creation of new pluri-disciplinary and professional courses…

In France there is no tradition of foundations or charitable giving in HE, and orders from the firms (research, lifelong learning, and so on) are a marginal source of funds. So if the main concern had been budgetary and market-oriented, the reform would have allowed the universities to increase the students’ fees, a major source of funds in the countries in competition with France. The fact that the fees (in fact not fees but a registration tax) are (so far) maintained at a very low level in the universities (around 200 euro per year), giving them no elbow room, can, of course, be explained by the fear of a students’ uproar…

At this stage, the new model of French university differs from its foreign competitors in the international rankings by the following combination of features:

● Lower public expenditure per student.
● Prohibition of student fees.
● Prohibition of entrance selection.
● National diplomas and the lack of an internationally recognised accreditation system.
● A higher proportion of short term contractual public financing of research.
● A more concentrated governance of the establishments and a lower level of academic and scientific autonomy.

But as it is clear that these conditions ruled out any chance for a standard university to climb in the rankings, the government established in 2007 a number of special institutions exempted from those constraints. Among them are the following examples: the ‘Scientific Research Foundations’, public–private partnerships of private legal status, financed on public and tax-exempt private funds. This allowed, for instance, the new Paris School of Economics (PSE) to deliver master and PhD diplomas to highly selected graduate students, and to merge into a single institution a number of research units chosen from universities, research institutes and grandes écoles, with the result that, ‘according to the rankings used by international bibliometric classifications, the cumulated scores of PSE researchers put PSE in first place in Europe, and amongst the top five in the World’…

Concluding remarks

…It is too early to assess the success of the French reform in promoting the appointed champions… The universities and the research institutes did attract, despite modest salaries, brilliant domestic and foreign candidates as long as they were allowed permanent tenure and scientific autonomy. The prospects of casual employment, narrowly focused research projects and a managerial direction wresting academic control from the faculty have already resulted in a drop of doctorate students and a ‘thematic’ brain drain from academic carriers. This could seriously hamper the international ambitions of the reform.

Vinokur, Annie. “Current Internationalisation: the Case of France.” Globalisation, Societies and Education. Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2010, 205–217

1  Sauders, Doug.  “French voters oust Sarkozy to dent centre-right dominance in Europe.” The Globe and Mail. May 6, 2012.
2  Carnegy, Hugh. “Hollande at odds with key partners on structural reform.” Financial Times. May 8, 2012.
3  Ibid.
4  Ibid.
5  Richter, Stephan. “After the French Elections: The Potential Benefits of Hollande.” The Globalist. May 8, 2012.
6  Saunders, Doug.”The French are the globalizers – not the globalized.” The Globe and Mail. May 5, 2012.
7 Ibid.

Leave a Reply

× nine = 63