Vaiju Naravane

The huge sales of Frenchman Francois de Closets'Plus Encore!, a sequel to his 1981 bestseller, might serve as a call to revolt to the have-nots.

TWENTY FIVE years ago, when French writer and journalist Francois de Closets was still relatively unknown, he wrote a book called Toujours Plus! (Always More!). It was a sociological snapshot of France, an enquiry into the lives of its privileged elites and its toiling underclass that exposed the subterranean fault lines of the Republic and the hypocrisy surrounding its slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity.

The book made publishing history in France, selling 800,000 copies in hardback and 1.5 million overall including paperback and book club sales. Never had a non-fiction title sold so well, so briskly or for so long.

Now, aged 72, Mr. de Closets, who has since become a celebrated television broadcaster and writer, is all set to repeat that feat. The sequel is entitled Plus Encore! (Even More!) and, to the delight of his publishers, is selling almost 8,000 copies a day.

It is a severe critique of the generation of baby boomers, which inherited a healthy post-war economy that it proceeded to plunder at will. "What France will we leave our children?" is Mr. de Closets' cri de coeur.

An echo

As France struggles to come to grips with rising crime, enduring unemployment, sluggish growth, religious extremism, Third World competition, astronomical health care costs, inadequate pensions, racism, immigrant ghettos, and urban poverty, Mr. de Closets' message appears to have found an echo in many hearts and minds.

Mr. de Closets told The Hindu that he was still at a loss to explain the astounding success of his first book 25 years ago. "My book was about new forms of inequality in French society and with such a subject, one is happy to sell 15,000 copies. Well, we ended up selling a hundred times that number. What did that prove? That the French public was waiting for that particular message. It knew that the image of French society given to them and to the outside world was a false one.

"Not only was France divided into the rich, the less rich, and the poor, but it was also composed of strong interest groups which had, over time, obtained all kinds of privileges and bonuses that were never referred to, never accounted for in the country's statistics.

"And I showed firstly that such privileges were obtained through the power of nuisance, the ability to dislocate and secondly, that these privileged groups actually worked against the greater good to save their vested interests."

In the new book Plus Encore!, Mr. de Closets says those elites have further strengthened their stranglehold over French society. With globalisation now a fact of life, the French have scuttled back into their shells like frightened hermit crabs, rejecting the European Constitution and several other attempts to reform a system that has become rigid, bureaucratic, and resistant to change.

Vested interests are getting even more entrenched in an attempt retain their privileges.

"All of us get the feeling that France is doing badly, that we are on the brink of a severe crisis and the French want to know how this has come to pass. How is it that they have gone from being a prosperous nation to the brink of bankruptcy? That is the essential question I wished to answer," Mr. de Closets said.

His thesis is that personal and private interests have triumphed over the notion of solidarity and the public good and that France is now divided into those who are protected and those who are fed to the lions. Even more distressingly, he says, these protected elites justify their egoism by couching their discourse in terms such as justice and equality.

"The egalitarian and fraternal France born of the Resistance to German occupation during WWII has become fragmented and unequal, because of its immutability and refusal to change. The more we cling on to the letter of our social `model,' the further we move from its spirit. The majority of our population is facing financial ruin and we must overhaul the entire system in order to return to our founding principles."

Industry heads criticised

Mr. de Closets has extremely harsh words for heads of companies both in the public and private sector (there is an entire chapter on the French Central Bank) who pile high their plates with massive salaries, golden handshakes, stock options, and a plethora of other "scandalous" fringe benefits (cars, servants, houses, paid holidays) while the country's youth becomes the "under-proletariat" of the ruling generation. Increasingly, he says, the burden is being carried by the very old and the very young.

Mr. de Closets also points an accusing finger at the country's cosy elites, most of them from exclusive temples of excellence collectively know as the Grandes Ecoles, who run France through a tight interlocking network of relationships that give them effective control over the largest companies, the top administrative posts, and the political leadership. He also deplores the fact that uncontrolled immigration is turning France into "a Republic of communities, ghettos and conflicts."

The young and the very old are the worst off, Mr. de Closets says. "It is France that has invented the category `working poor.' In 1970, only 4 per cent of the under 30s were poor. In the 90s that figure rose to 11 per cent. It now stands at 13 per cent of everyone under 30. And it is the young who will carry the burden of those nearing retirement age today since they will pay into the pension schemes put into place by those now in the 70s. They never asked themselves how their children were going to pay for the benefits they so blissfully gave themselves."

France talks of equality but that is only an illusion, Mr. de Closets says. What makes the French case worse than that of any other country tolerating inequities by pursuing a single-minded laissez faire policy such as America is that France continues to pretend its citizens live in the best of worlds.

French leaders, trade unionists, teachers' associations are all out there vigorously defending "the French social model," which has already crumbled to dust under their feet.

His book exposes a society so flawed, so marked by selfishness and smugness, so resistant to change, that the outlook appears bleak indeed. The huge sales of the book might serve as a call to revolt to the have-nots.

It is unlikely, however, that Mr. de Closets will be able to persuade the country's privileged to make France a better place for the generations to come.