The riots of autumn 2005 produced a remarkable show of unity in the French political establishment. Government spokesmen conjured visions of ‘bands of hooligans’, ‘mafias’ and ‘fundamentalists’—reissuing the nineteenth-century trope of the classes dangereuses in newly ethnicized packaging—while Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced a state of emergency, dusting off colonial laws from 1955. The response of the Parti Socialiste, which in February 2005 had backed the passage of a law specifying that school history curricula should ‘recognize the positive role of the French presence overseas . . . especially in North Africa’, was predictably invertebrate. The pcf was pulled in contrary directions by its rank and file and its elected officials, some of whom called for the army to be brought onto the streets. A radical minority affirmed solidarity with the révoltés, but few went so far as to seek the roots of the malaise in the French social model itself.

Against this backdrop of generalized political autism, Timothy Smith’s France in Crisis—recently translated into French with the more strident title La France injuste—comes as a forthright and challenging intervention. Based at Queen’s University in Ontario, Smith is the author of a 2003 study on the origins of the French welfare state. Here he has departed from the erudition of that volume to take a more polemical stance, making bold claims in straightforward, brisk language designed both to appeal to the general reader and unsettle the specialist. In the present context, his claim that France’s current ills are ‘made in France, the product of good intentions, bad policies, and vested interests’, is certain to provoke debate. He makes a forceful attack on unemployment as ‘a social rot upon which political extremism feeds’, and argues that the best remedy for the tensions it generates would be a more dynamic labour market: ‘what French immigrants need is a vibrant, full-employment society (and less racism, of course).’ He writes well on the fate of those excluded from employment and social provision, above all on the shameful treatment of the handicapped and communities of immigrant descent. And there is strong criticism of the elitist nature of the grandes écoles—Smith even going so far as to propose the abolition of the École Nationale d’Administration. These are major contributions towards any left critique of the French welfare state, and should be widely read and discussed. There are, however, serious problems with many of his policy prescriptions.

Smith positions himself at the outset as an admirer of ‘Scandinavian-style social policies’ on the one hand, and ‘Dutch and North-American-style dynamic labour markets’ on the other. His twin emphases on redistributive social spending and liberal economic and employment policy provide the two central planks of France in Crisis. The first argues that the French welfare state, itself resting on a regressive fiscal system, is unjustly weighted towards the ‘insiders’—the already employed, especially in the public sector, the retired and the rent-seekers—at the expense of the ‘outsiders’: the young, immigrants, women and the handicapped. The problem with the état providence is, then, that it is not sufficiently redistributive: spending is skewed in favour of those who are already comfortable, and away from those who need it most.

The second plank rests on the claim that excessive public spending, over-restrictive labour-market regulations, obstructive unions and forms of collective bargaining, and disproportionately high wage increases—especially of the minimum wage—all combine to fetter the dynamism of the market, locking the French economy into a restrictive corset. Opportunities for job creation are suffocated by politicians and union leaders alike, especially at the low-paid, low-skilled end which could, were it allowed to develop, help many young people out of the unemployment ghetto in which they find themselves. Smith presents a picture of the French economy as a perverse mechanism segmenting society into a two-thirds majority whose jobs it protects, and a large minority whose employment chances it blocks altogether.

In North America, by contrast, the job market ‘creates millions of positions in the economy for the unskilled.’ While Smith is under no illusions as to the income inequalities to which the us model gives rise, he argues that ‘the vibrant American economy distributes jobs in a much more equitable fashion than the French’. Moreover, he continues, the comparative lack of corporatist privileges in the us and looser labour laws mean that ‘risk and uncertainty are spread more equitably around the table’—whereas in France, adversity is concentrated among immigrants and the young.