If I were a French politician, I’d steer clear of Manhattan hotels; they’re bad news. First DSK is accused of raping a maid, and now Richard Descoings, France’s most influential political scientist, finds himself in trouble of a more permanent kind: he was found dead in his hotel room on Wednesday morning. The circumstances were suspicious; the autopsy, inconclusive.
I don’t know enough about Descoings – other than that he was the Director of the Institute of Political Studies and the Chief Administrator of the National Foundation of Political Science. Collectively known as Sciences Po, the two organisations are the smithy of France’s political thought. It’s this subject that I find intriguing.
Allow me to declare an interest: France is my home for several months every year, and I admire many things about her: her wine and cheese; her profusion of the world’s greatest Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque churches; the moving, dignified decrepitude of her villages; her roads, paid or otherwise, that are so much better designed and maintained than ours; her public transport, infinitely more convenient and reliable than ours; her country folk, our friends who welcomed us so cordially when we first got our house 12 years ago; her capital, the most beautiful in the world; her landscapes, with more diversity per square mile than anywhere else; her people who work 20 percent fewer man-hours per year than we do and are subject to more restrictive labour laws, and yet produce a similar GDP; her bookshops, with hardly any junk anywhere in sight; her untattooed youngsters who greet older strangers with ‘Bonjour, monsieur’, rather than ‘Whatcha lookin’ at, mate?’.
The list is long, and I could easily make it longer. But, however long it gets, French politics won’t make it. For, truth be told, what I feel about French politics is rather the opposite of admiration.
A telling detail: in his tribute to Descoings, President Sarkozy praised his ‘exceptional career in the service of the state’. There’s something grating to my ear in that statement, though factually it’s unobjectionable.
Sciences Po is a government institution, and it counts among its alumni countless politicians of the highest rank, such as Mitterrand and Chirac, though one could argue that neither has done his alma mater proud. And, as head of Sciences Po and a long-time member of the Conseil d’Etat, Descoings did have an advisory role to play in formulating government policy, not least in the on-going reform of public education. It’s just that to my ear – and I’m talking about a purely aural reaction here – there’s something discordant about the tribute.
Any rationalisation is in fact the post-rationalisation of something already felt intuitively. Post-rationalising my first reaction, I have to come to the conclusion that to me a political – or any other – scientist should serve the truth, not the state. He may be called upon to serve his government from time to time, but that has to be secondary to his main pursuit.
Perhaps this belief comes from a sensibility that the French call Anglo-Saxon (a free tip: whenever a continental uses the term, it’s always pejorative). Indeed, someone like John Maynard Keynes may have done much work for HMG, but he himself would have hated to be remembered as a servant to it. His claim to fame was his economic theory, which to him, if not to everyone else, was the truth.
What’s jarring to my ear has no such effect on the French. And therein lies the principal difference between our political sensibility and theirs. The French are intuitively statist, and we are not. Not yet anyway.
It’s not as if the statist strain were underrepresented in British politics, far from it – it’s just that the British don’t easily accept it as the main strain. Statism may be forced down British throats, and this is exactly what’s happening. But it does have to be forced. The French, on the other hand, lap it up with gusto, and they always have, both before and after their hideous revolution.
This general point is amply supported by empirical observations. For example, some Frenchmen may reject the idea of a supranational state governing their lives, but few would do so out of an intuitive opposition to big government, as Englishmen might. And I can’t quite imagine, hopefully, a British politician leading in the national polls, as François Hollande is in France at the moment, on the platform of wealthy people being hit with a marginal tax rate of greater than 100 percent.
He is actually proposing an income tax rate of 75 percent on revenues in excess of £800,000, but when you add to that the 15.5 percent of the French equivalent of National Insurance and their version of the mansion tax, the overall rate goes over 100 percent. Thus, say, successful entrepreneurs would have their income above £700-odd thousand confiscated, making one wonder if Hollande is Vince Cable in disguise. The salient difference is that Vince will never become top dog, fingers crossed, but François well may.
His opponent Sarkozy has won just plaudits for the speed with which he threw out two Muslim hatemongers. Well may we envy such decisiveness, but the point that shouldn’t escape us is that Sarko acted in such a fashion because he had the power to do so. As we applaud the good things that can come out of such empowerment, we shouldn’t forget the bad things that can come out of it as well. Mussolini made the trains run on time, but he also had gallons of castor oil poured down the throats of his opponents.
The word ‘statism’ sticks in the craw of the British, especially those of a conservative disposition, the way the word étatisme doesn’t in France. That’s why, much as we may be close culturally, politically we’re still miles apart. Or kilometres, if you’d rather. Richard Descoings, RIP.