Citizens, Or... Welfare Recipients?


Le Monde Diplomatique of January 1996, taking stock of the recent wave of massive strikes in France, yet again provides some astonishing insights into the current developments on the social and intellectual fronts in Europe. Le Monde Diplomatique focuses precisely upon the most amazing "manufacture of consent" around the "one-idea system" of total triumph of the market, and how intellectuals seem to have deserted en masse their role (and duty) as providers of critical thought, to become communication managers for Capital, whether paid or not. (A typical editorial in a December issue of a mass-circulation weekly spoke in these terms of strikers: "with its mic-mac of diverse archaisms, the million people that take to the streets shows its flinching attitude towards modernism, its angst against the liberal thought that is breaking through the world over. This thought has not yet penetrated in France, which remains deprived of a culture of free and adult individuals, with its adjustment-prone structures, and its flexible and supple mechanism of contract.")

The core issue, both at stake in the strikes and the columns of Le Monde Diplomatique, is that of the public provision of essential services by state-owned utilities, such as energy, railways, mail and telecommunications, health, etc. Both these enterprises and the concepts they embody are going through a rough time at the hands of the champions of deregulation and "free" enterprise, or to put it starkly: "public service is outside the market. The market is the law. Hence public service is an outlaw!". The French parliamentary report on public services (Raport Borotra) indeed points out that "the very notion of public service is totally incomprehensible to the majority of our (European) partners". Instead of "public service", its alleged equivalent (but in fact its beggarly step-sister), the notion of "universal access" is being advanced (cf , a.o., Wired), and the European Commission seems prepared to leave everything to the "market forces", provided "universal access" is somehow salvaged. Paul Marie Couteaux points out that this laissez-faire is based on a triple misunderstanding:

  1. that public monopoly is the antithesis of private diversity, whereas public monopoly (which is accountable) is usually the response to a private monopoly - usually a multinational enterprise (which is not).
  2. that public service is somehow a socialist concept, whereas it is the outcome of a historical European (and especially) French political choice, whereas the state participates in (and not negates) the market.
  3. that public production and/or provision of services would be inimical to innovation. Quite to the contrary: the Minitel, the high-speed train TGV, and atomic energy on a large scale (which is not a controversial issue in France) are all the outcome of state intervention. (A point also made by the opponents of the "Californian Ideology").

Citizens, Or... Welfare Recipients?

The members of the European commission, facing the accusation of wanting to run down the public services, routinely retort that deregulation and competitiveness are not at all inconsistent with the provision of a minimal "universal access", which would somehow be the European equivalent of the much vaunted French-style service publique... This seemingly innocuous variation in language hides in fact very fundamental differences in approach.

The public (provision) of service(s), as it is understood in France, lies at the heart of a notion of economics that leaves, in addition to the market(-forces), a large place to the State. It embodies a different approach, which is anchored in the republican ideology, enriched by the Keynesian tradition, and also by the charitative tradition of social Christianity ("Law and State as bulwarks of the poor"), by the solidarity tradition of the social democracy ("The State as protector of the weak and as reducer of inequalities"), and finally, by the technocratic-scientific tradition of administrators and engineers, themselves issued from prestigious state schools ("The State as organizer of economic and scientific progress").

This concept is inseparably linked with the republican order, which strives to integrate individuals into society on the basis of their identity as citizens - and thus, on basis of equality of status. This necessitates in turn the provision of basic goods and services outside of the customary trade mechanisms. The Christian and social-democratic traditions add to this concept the necessity to alleviate the inequalities in the distribution of wealth and incomes caused by the market.

As for the Keynesian element, it highlights the limitations of the regulatory potential of the market: state intervention, especially when channeled through public production and financing, can correct the conjuncture's instability, and increase the rate of growth by giving a clearer picture of the future, thus providing more rational ground to private anticipations. The technocratic-scientific tradition, whose roots go back to the absolutist monarchy and Colbert's1 interventionism, allows for the creation of a strong state sector giving impulse to an innovative dynamism that is autonomous from classical economic motivations.

All these elements are entirely foreign to the current European economic buildup, which develops within the ambit of the globalization of markets, and makes the latter the dominant instrument of socialization. Brussels, in fact, organizes the routing around politics - that is, around the core of the republican idea. Thus, instead of the "public service", the Commission offers a concept that is borrowed from the Reaganite and Thatcherite lexicon: "universal access". This is being defined as: "access, provided to all users independently of their location, of a given minimal package of defined services, and this, in the light of specifically prevailing national circumstances, for an affordable fee".2 This is, with regard to public service, the same as the dole is to wage-labor: a welfare, nay, a survival scheme, intended for those who fail to make the grade into the market.

One therefore should not be surprised that the perimeter of this provision of welfare-like services has been severely circumscribed: postal services, but not the telephone; electricity, but not gas. It comes as no surprise either that provision of universal service has been separated from that of commercial services. Complete segregation of needs from users will be the unavoidable consequence of this division, since whereas the current conception of universal service makes it something accessible to every European citizen, its natural evolution will be to end up being earmarked for welfare recipients only.


1. Colbert was the Sun King's (Louis XIV) long standing prime minister. "Colbertism", the French version of mercantilism, pleads for a strong economy, buffered up by a strong state. "Economic might is more important that territorial might" was Colbert's constant advice to his royal master. (PJHR)

2. European Commission. "Green Book on the Liberalization of Telecommunication Infrastructure and Cable Networks". Brussels: January 1995.

Christian Barrere is professor of economics at Rheims University. This article first appeared (in French) in Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1996.

Translation and preface by Patrice Riemens. Patrice Riemens is a cultural activist and associate research fellow with inDRA (Institute for Development Research) at the University of Amsterdam.