Monday, March 19, 2012

Speaking of France

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, the state 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 shrinks. As long as economic growth was present, the core could pump the resources of the periphery and organize it according to its needs 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 crowd 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.


  1. Thank you Damien for an informative post and analysis of a country Americans have little understanding of.You carefully pointed out similarities and dissimilarities between and among many nations in true "compare and contrast"
    fashion but some pernicious aspects of French society exist in many if not most countries, chiefly the sucking sound at the centers of power as the center drains the periphery. From an energy or industrial standpoint, France does indeed look screwed but we all are, eventually. France will just get there sooner. You still have a great climate and great soil which will help. I see similarities between California and France BTW in that you share way too many civil employees with expensive pension and health plans and a bleak financial future. Both of you need to cut way back on those folks who are bankrupting their respective societies. I have missed you and hope you have been absent because you have been busy and not ill. Regards from WY.

    1. Yes, all countries are built around a core which sucks in the resources of its periphery, and since the structure of our society is fractal,that is also true at the local level.

      Where France is specific, however, is that is has only one geographical core, while other countries this size have several (Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Berlin Munich and Hamburg in Germany, New York and Los-Angeles in America...). It is a structure we find in small countries or third world countries and it makes less likely a fracture along regional lines (which preserves some order) and more likely a fracture along social lines (which leads to chaos).

      And yes, France is screwed on the medium term. Our soil is great, that's true, and at some point it is likely another major power will grow out of France again. By this times, however, France as a nation will probably be gone. Beside, the climate will have changed, so the demographic imbalance with Britain won't be so big.

      Another problem, of course, is that our future formed territory will be littered with radioactive corpses leaking poison into all large rivers.

      As for civil servants, they are unfirable and their pensions are paid by the state, which means that to reduce their number you have to wait for them to literally die out. This is not necessarily absurd (after all we want them to resist corruption and cronyism) but in periods of decline it becomes maladaptive. The civil servants are a major political force, however, so, even though their privileges will erode, it will take time.

  2. Great post Damien. Living in Australia, I'm trying to puzzle out the trajectory of our descent. As I think I've said before in comments on your blog, we are a federation of large states, each one of which can more or less function as an independent city-state. The single biggest fact about our environment is that we have poor soils in the most heavily populated regions. The fertile soils are on the inland side of the Great Dividing Range which means they are in arid country. This makes water a hot political issue.

    But on the whole the situation you have described for France is the one our city-states will face in Australia. We have three other factors which make our situation less complicated than for France. We have no bordering countries which are not separated by ocean, we have a relatively small population and we are remote from almost everywhere. So I expect we will see the elites which run our cities on a loose rein tighten their grip when the poor rise up in anger over the next few decades, but while the conflict will be seen by those caught up in it as a momentous affair, it will be small beer compared to what the rest of the world will face.

    1. Lloyd,
      I've gathered that Australia is not great for agriculture (or more to the point, that European style agriculture is not adapted to Australia), yet your population is quite low and you have a lot of resources left (coal, rare earth...), so normally you should fare better than Europe or America.

      The problem, of course is politics. Seas never stopped migrations - or I would be writing this in Welsh - and the Torres straight is far easier to cross than the North Sea. There are a lot of people in Indonesia and Australia is surely more hospitable than New-Guinea.

      My guess is that you'll end up with an Austronesian North, an Anglo-saxon South and an Interior populated by herding tribes of mixed origin, but I may be wrong.

      Social troubles are quite inevitable at this point, but your Federation may well stay intact, or explode in feuding state, or stay mostly intact while loosing a few peripheral territories. It is impossible to predict.

      Now, you are probably far better off than we are, if you can avoid being swamped out by the resumption of the great Austronesian expansion.

  3. I was wondering, out this and the last post, what you think the chances are that when reality can no longer be ignored that the more ruthless/realistic members of the French military and or bureaucracy openly or covertly start a coup de'tat against the Republic in order to hold things together? How would such an action be viewed by the majority of the population?

    If I may be permitted to post in response to a post coming from Australia, I don't like the chances of voluntary relocalisation with the local level of civil society/government having any power whatsoever. At this point in time (although we live in hope) more and more power will be taken (in the form of revenues and expenditure) by Canberra to keep the system as it is currently constructed intact (eg bank bailouts/welfare/corporate subsidies). The powers that be cannot envisage a world any different from this one. I do not exagerate to say that they do not believe peak oil exists or even that current economic difficulties are but a blip on the road to continual growth.

    1. Well, I think the odd of this happening are quite slim. There have been two coups in France during the XXth century (Petain's take over is a special case) and both have happened at the end of a guerrilla war, which has put the military on the forefront. I don'y see how a similar situation could evolve in the near future.

      What may happen is that the professionals of violence (most likely the police) gain more and more influence in a political landscape marked by the rise of right wing or more probably left wing. We may have a dictorship at some point of the future, but it will be civilian in nature, possibly a president using emergency power or a populist strongman (Melenchon or Le Pen, for instance)

      As for relocalizaion, remember that institutional centralization is not incompatible with it. The late Roman Empire was very bureaucratic and centralized, yet a significant part of its territory was controled by warlords. Between the law and the boots on the ground, the boots on the ground always win.

      Now I aggre that the core will always try to funnel the resources of the periphery to itself. This will result into more disorder in the periphery, not less.

  4. Damien
    I've fortunately been pointed to your blog by The Archdruid Report and am really impressed by your analysis. I find it all the more sobering as my English parents and brother have just moved to Basse Normandy and I will be joining them soon with my American wife to attempt to live a lot more sustainably, in one of those peripheries that you mention.

    I'm hopeful that the slow catabolic collapse, as described by the Archdruid, would be easier to tackle for my small family unit in France then in England. England is over-populated, cramped, xenophobic, jingoistic with next to zero natural resources. I fear for my birthplace, but will not miss her when i leave!

    Thanks Again


  5. Tim,

    Normandy is certainly a better place to live than, say Essex. Whether it is safer than North Wales or Cornwall, remains to be seen.

    I believe you when you say that England is overpopulated and xenophobic, yet if you look at the result of the last election, you'll see that we also have a xenophobic party, and our natural resources are long gone.

    France, even rural France is no paradise, but in the end, what matters is the skill you are able to acquire, and the connection you can make with your neighbors

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply Damien. Your final sentence rings true. This is not "the grass is greener" scenario, but what Normandie offers is some land to practice Permaculture, share what is learnt with friends and hopefully neighbours. Possibly enjoy a slightly slower pace!

      I will continue to read your output with interest :~)

      Kindest Regards