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The French Exception

Rhys Felton (University of Warwick)

While popular stereotypes of the French, which centrecentering on a snooty, aloof character who naturally believes that, as a citizen of ‘La République’, he is inherently superior to everyone else, are accepted as playful satire, like all stereotypes there is a grain of truth in this portrayal. This stems from the idea of French exceptionalism, a belief that France is unique and unparalleled based founded on a combination of cultural, social and political factors. As such an important player figure on the European stage, this idiosyncratic exceptionalism will undoubtedly influence the course of Brexit and the future of the EU. To truly understand this, we must first explore the roots of this phenomenon that have has so profoundly shaped France’s national identity; roots that are interestingly often founded in myths.  

The first traces of what we would consider French exceptionalism can be observed during the French Revolution as when the Parisian crowd stormed the Bastille on the 14th July 1789. The collective memory of a working-classpeasant mob toppling the very structures of the Ancien Régime became the symbol of the famous French values ‘Liberté, Egailité, Fraternité’; an ideology that France boasts as emphatically French. Still viewed today as representing the foundations for a unique society in which everyone is theoretically equal, the 14th July is the official national holiday of France. Yet in In fact, the this national holiday refers to another 14th July, that of 1790, where the French celebrated and showed submissive obedience happily accepted to the King’s new constitution, followed by a great celebration. The 14th of July 1789 also contributed to the development of the later Reign of Terror, a period of ruthless violence and persecution that, which   unequivocally divided the nation. on. In this wayHence, the idea of French ‘Liberté’, which  that feeds the notion of French exceptionalism, is founded inon a glorified and romanticised myth, whereby as genuine political power is simply transferred from one elite group to another. Nevertheless, these revolutionary values,  chiselled into the facades of mairies across France, have contributed enormously to France’s self-depiction as a  socially exceptional country.

France’s social model and work laws constitute the two main pillars of that support this conviction that France is, on a social level, an  a socially exceptional country can be found in its social model and its work laws. When establishingEstablishing the French social model in 1945, Pierre Lavaque Laroque explicitly referenced that this new conception of ‘la sécurité social’ is founded on republican values and ideals. Among its many honourable intentions, the social model seeks to ensure a decent standard of living for all its citizens with a SMIC (minimum wage) of €1 480. Often proclaimed as one of the most generous social models in the world, if made redundant you will may receive 75% of what you earnt whilst employed your previous salary. In addition, cCompensation lasts 24 months for under 50s and 36 months for over 50s. For those with no income, the RSA (Revenu de soldiarité active) provides a base of €535 per month, with the possibility to continue receiving this payment when in employment to avoid a dependency trap. What’s more, it provides protection to those who fall ill with the CMU (couverture maladie universelle), ensuring ensures that all medical care is free at the point of delivery for those the unemployed, protecting thhtose who fall ill. This costly social model is therefore used to demonstrates France’s exceptionalism ands it is described by Pedder as being ‘au coeur de l’identité francaise’ (at the heart of French identity) and isbeing widely viewed as a symbol of social justice. [1] Any attempt to make cuts is met with staunch opposition,  being viewed as aThis direct attack on one of France’s distinguishingmost distinguished features explains the staunch opposition towards any attempt to make cuts. It is for this reason that any attempts to find cuts in the social model are staunchly opposed, as it is a direct attack on one of France’s distinguishing features. Milner highlights that this exceptionalism is ‘based on the conviction that the French model does not fit the Bismarkian/conservative ideal type, but rather represents a unique version of universalism based on solidarity’. [2] Similarly, the ‘Loi Aubry’, more commonly known as the 35 Hour law (2000), harks back to republican values ofin defending workers’ rights. This is s seen in France understoodperceived  as another example of France’s exceptionalism inb; y loweringreducing the number of working hours without any reduction in salary reduction. The reduction shorter in the working week reflects the importance leisure in French society. therefore means French society places more emphasis on leisure. Renowned political agitator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, most famous for his leadership during the student revolt of May 1968, notes how the legislation captures progress in gender equality this also helps meet demands of society in terms of equality and feminism with a marked improvement in the sharing of domestic work in France. [3] What really gives the French conviction in their belief of this exceptionalism is that the reduction in work time in fact led to an increase in productivity, meaning a French manual worker will produce 8% more per hour than their German counterpart. [4] Once again, the idea of being exceptional overshadows the reality. The law was  of the law as it was implemented too quickly, without  first establishing a clear distinction between the legal length of work and the effective length. Consequently. This means that. Consequently, the French work an average 1554 hours per year when including overtime is taken into consideration, higher than in both Germany and the Netherlands. It is equally also possible to work less fewer than 24 hours a week in part-time work where those desperate for work are exploited, proving that the social model is far from comprehensive, nor is it exceptional.. These two social cornerstones of French society therefore serve to highlight that the outward projection of exceptionalism, which continues to dominate French identity, is itself more important than the socioeconomic realities. reality and continues to dominate French identity.

Perhaps the most widely recognised facet of France’s exceptionalism is its cultural element. Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how this idea of a unique cultural identity came into being, the Enlightenment RenaissanceEnlightenment undoubtedly played an major eminent role. During the ‘siècle des lumières’ prominent French thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau found themselves at the centre of the intellectual scene.  A The legacy of these profound French philosophers and writers has been evident and this cultural excellence had a profound effect upon France’s approach to colonialism. Reasoning for expanding the French Empire focussed on ‘la mission civilisatrice’ (the civilising mission) which sought claimed to bring liberty to these countries fromin place of  outdated regimes and poverty. Yet reflecting upon these former colonies in the present, this cultural mission was can be observed as a smokescreen for the atrocious violence used to suppress the indigenous populations and profit from the various goods on offer in each case.their resoruces.

 Regardlesss of this, the French genuinely believed in their cultural superiority, a trait that would persist through hout the generations,  and influencinge contemporary France business economic policy in the form of protectionism and a certain wariness of globalisation. The most evident example of this is viewed in the luxury sector where the counterfeiting of labels such Louis Vuitton is an insult to the craft. Over much of the last century, gGlobalisation has led to an ‘Americanisation’ of the entertainment industry, a process particularly pertinent in a country that was humiliated by their dependency on the American Marshall Plan post WWII, dependency which obliged France to accept the entrance of American products into the economy. This attacks the French’s pride in their cultural productions, as seen in the film industry which in 2007, saw around half of its box office entries coming from the States.[5] Similarly, cultural industry of la haute cuisine in France has been gradually damaged thanks to globalisation, not only with ‘la malbouffe’ (low quality junk food) entering the country through establishments such as McDonald’s (with profits in France rising by 11% in 2008 [6]), but also the rise of restaurants in other countries that have Michelin stars (previously an honour found only in some a select few Parisian restaurants). As a result, the French struggle to feel comfortable with globalisation because it threatens their cultural vision of ‘the French exception’’.

On a politicalPolitically level, France has for many years been suffering from ‘le déclin français’, recognising its lack ofa decline in power and influence in over world politics compared to its heights of its role in the 1950s and 60s, leaving concerns of further downslide. Framuch France’s political exceptionalism comes from its role as one of the a founding fathers of modern Europe, viewing itself as an innovative world leader that dictates the international scene. On the 9th May 1950, Robert Schumann established the ECSC (Economic Coal and Steel Community), a progressive move that would eventually lay the foundations for the 1957 Treaty of Rome. France therefore lays claim to providing the necessary conditions for the establishment of the Common Market and subsequently the EU, perceived as evidence of France’s politically class competence and tenacity. The growing presence of French Euroscepticism that appears to contradict this claim to exceptionalism (evident in the FN’s unprecedented 21.3% first round vote share in this year’s Presidential elections), itself paradoxically supports the French exception. The interrelationship between France and the EU is seen by some as encroaching ofon French politics and compromising the exceptional nature of its politics – a position strongly held by far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélénchon. Ironically, it is the fervent Euroscepticism that most comprehensively shows France’s belief in its exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, as in seemingly every discussion of French politics , General de Gaulle has exerted a considerable influence (as of course de Gaulle always does) upon the concept of French exceptionalism. Through his emphasis on grandeur, de Gaulle proved a formidable defender of French interests in international politics. When, inIn 1965, France failed to get its own way on the CAPnew political proposals that would combine the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Parliament, and the Commission, giving the latter much more influence. This represented a move towards supranationalism, which de Gaulle despised, leading him to seek new voting and veto rights. When these were denied, the French President, de Gaulle instigated the ‘empty chair crisis’ where France simply refused to cooperate until the Luxembourg Compromise was presented, tailored to France’s original demands. . In his quest for grandeur, de Gaulle distinguished himself from any other major politician in forming a unique and imagined relationship with the French people. This presidential identity that claims to intimately understand the people and defend their wishes has resonated with every President since, the interaction between President and people in each case capturing the political exceptionalism that exists in France. With recent Presidents such as Sarkozy and Hollande this has been apparent as a failure to connect with the people and engage meaningfully in this imagined relationship led to rapid declines in popularity - a clear indicator that the exceptionalism instilled by de Gaulle remains ever-present today.

So, French exceptionalism, whether based on myths and imagined relationships or not, is represents still a feature of France’s self-identification and how it wishes to be externally perceived. Macron’s arrival at the Elysée appears to have rekindled this idea, as he has made clear characterised by his intention for France to take a leading role in redirecting and reforming the EU. This political redirection, borne of  In terms of Brexit, the essential need to protect and maintain its exceptionalism, together with de Gaulle’s legacy of stubbornness, meanssuggests France will be resolute in Brexit negotiations, and will not compromise their sense of exceptionalism in any shape or form.


[1] Pedder, Sophie, Le déni français : les derniers enfants gâtés de l'Europe, (Paris : JC Lattès, 2012)

[2] Milner, Susan, ‘Social Policy and France’s Exceptional Social Model’, in ‘The end of the French exception?’, Chafer, Tony pp.57-60

[3] Cohn-Bendit, Daniel, Que faire?, (Hachette, 2009)

[4] Parti Socialiste Français, Document publié pour clarifier la position de F Hollande et du parti sur les 35 heures (December 2011)

[5] Drake, Helen, Contemporary France, p.168

[6] Ibid p.169