France’s Future

Prediction is always a chancy thing. We may ask, “What will France become in the future, how may she change?”We can give few firm answers, though.What we can do is to try to project a short distance into the future some of the trends of recent times, and to at least raise some possibilities with respect to certain matters.

Politically, the Fifth Republic appears to be stable and enduring. Despite early fears of too much presidential power, and despite continuing tensions between the professional, entrepreneurial, and working classes, the republic has managed to proceed relatively successfully through four-and-a-half decades, under both conservative and liberal presidents and legislatures. Still, we may well see efforts to limit presidential prerogatives and to create more checks and balances.

France will remain solidly a member of the traditional Western political bloc, although always wishing to assert its individuality even if that involves being perceived as balky.France seems now fully committed to some form of a united Europe, as long as that Europe functions well pragmatically and at the same time encourages the maintenance of individual national identities—the last long a preoccupation of the French. In fact, in some ways the European Union is seen as a means of protection of that identity against the force of the American economy and culture. In this context, the large numbers of foreign born and their offspring residing in the country will continue to be a source of friction and controversy, testing France's theoretical commitment to liberte, egalite, and fraternite.

Although France's natural resources are varied, its scarcity of petroleum and natural gas will remain a concern. The need for energy resources will certainly play a strong role affecting its international relations, both with the Arab world and with its traditional Western allies in Europe and North America. Nuclear power will continue to supply a great portion of the country's electrical-energy demand, irrespective of environmental and safety objections on the part of Greens, Ecologists, and some Socialists. A trend from heavy industry toward more high-tech industry, such as telecommunications, high-definition televisions, software, and data-processing, seems likely to continue. Further development and use of cutting-edge transport, such as high-speed TGV trains and successors to the Concorde supersonic aircraft, seem likely.

France's economic difficulties, particularly with respect to unemployment and the agricultural sector, pose major problems that are difficult to solve. France will continue to look for ways to become more competitive globally, but its relatively high labor costs,modest-sized factories, and low agricultural efficiency are impediments. The heavy economic burden of the country's social-services programs poses a major difficulty. Yet few French seem prepared to dilute the state-provided safety net in health care, family services, unemployment benefits, retirement pensions, and so forth. No ready answer presents itself, and unemployment leads to discouragement and unrest. Still, the economy should remain vigorous in many ways, although the country faces some serious environmental challenges. The notion of protecting, as opposed to managing and using, nature has not really caught on in France, although European Union regulations will force some improvements. Globalization will be another challenge, and France has begun to acquire a less provincial and more international outlook, as the country itself becomes increasingly multicultural. Adjustment to economic internationalism will not occur without protests and strikes.

The Paris Basin and, to some extent, industrial Lorraine and international Alsace seem destined to draw ever more ahead of economically less favored central and southern France, despite decentralization efforts and considerable “sun-belt” growth in younger job seekers,North African immigrants, and retirees. Labor migration will continue to be largely from south to north, and Paris's expansion will advance. Still, cities like Lyon, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpelier, and Nice, will increase their already growing importance in industry, commerce, and population.

Low birthrates will no doubt continue to characterize the country, which will result in an ever-aging population and greater strains on the social security system. Yet, low or no demographic growth is favorable to environmental protection and lessens some burdensome costs, such as those associated with education.More women are likely to be seen in the work force, and continuing expansion of women's rights and roles seems certain. Yet, the leisure ethic will continue to make inroads on the work ethic.

It is safe to assume that French men and women will long be global leaders in aesthetic areas of endeavor. Strengths include fashion and the decorative arts. The French fascination with the subtleties of human relationships will not soon cease, and certainly the preoccupation with fine cuisine and wines, along with many other attractive aspects of their culture, will persist. As philosopher Paul Valery put it, “We walk backwards into the future.” In short, the French will remain French, although in modified, modernized form.