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Which French Third Way?

Administrative and Social Empowerment

Lessons from the Second Left in Power


Bernard PERRET

Laboratoire de sociologie du changement des institutions (LSCI-CNRS), Paris (


Conference “Liberalism's Return: French Social Thought since 1968”

New-York, Columbia University April 16-17 2004


  France is fully integrated into the global capitalist economy but it still does not like Capitalism. The idea that the freedom of the Market must be constrained is widespread throughout the whole political spectrum, right-wing parties included. The French consensus is summarized by a formula once used by former socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin: “Yes to Market Economy, no to Market Society”. On the one hand, the Market – free private economic initiative, competition and the right to personal enrichment – is recognized as the basic mechanism of wealth creation. On the other hand, there is a deep-rooted refusal of Market as a potentially hegemonic way of living and acting together. If this mood is to be taken seriously, the challenge is not only to remedy the inequalities generated by the Market, but also to protect social cohesion and, more broadly, our way of “making society”[1] from its undermining effects. To tell the truth, the Economy against Society’[2] issue is rather poorly addressed in the public debate and by political leaders. The idea of Market containment is most often split into, first, an economical regulation agenda (juridical framing of concurrence, control on financial activity, fair trade); secondly, an equity agenda (fight against poverty, exclusion and inequalities); and, thirdly, an ecological (or sustainable development) agenda. These are, of course, important issues, but, in my view, the issue of Market containment must be addressed in a more radical and systemic way.

First of all, and this will be my main point, Market containment calls for social and political empowerment. In other words, the point is not to limit or thwart Market dynamics but to foster other logics of collective action. Obviously, there are only two counterweights to Market logic: government (politico-administrative action at different levels of government) and associations (Civil Society self-organization). So we are not in a dualistic antagonism, but in a more complex game implying Market, State and Society. Saying this, I assume that Market and Civil Society are not one and the same thing, and that Civil Society depends on non utilitarian models of collective action (such ideas could easily be formulated in the terms of Robert Putnam’s social capital theory[3]). Confronted to the crisis of the Fordist socio-economic coherence –which incorporated collective empowerment mechanisms (see below)-, Left-wing parties are compelled to invent new social and political empowerment strategies. Let’s notice in passing that the word empowerment has no French equivalent, which is highly significant. The French always tend to consider power as a hierarchical relationship, while empowerment refers to power as an action capability. If power is thought of as domination, there is no place for a win-win power game. This dead angle in the French way of thinking has obvious links with the illiberal stance of the French political culture.

Second point, only briefly mentioned here, the idea of Market containment embodies a broader notion of wealth, social development and common good (that could be concretized through new synthetic social indicators challenging the preeminence of GDP). Market being the most efficient way to create economic wealth, its containment implies that all social achievements aren’t subordinated to economic achievements.


I will now develop three main arguments:

1) It is necessary to better understand the real nature and causes of the crisis of Social-democracy, in relation with the crisis of the Fordist socio-economic coherence.

2) This crisis puts on the agenda the question of new collective action models, formulated here in term of empowerment. I will show that the difference between British New Labour and French Socialists programs can be related to different notions of collective empowerment.

3) Examining it through this grid, I will then suggest that theSecond Left’ governmental action between 1988 and 1991 has brought some valuable elements of response to the crisis of the French State centered social model and some milestones on the road toward a French Third way. Ideas underlying Rocard’s social and administrative reform policies remain inspiring and relevant in the present context. 


1) The Fordist system crisis and its political consequences


The question of Market containment should be replaced into the framework of the bicentennial efforts to reconcile market economy, social solidarity and ‘social citizenship’. North European social-democracies show the most coherent and long-term successful attempts to achieve this. The double irony for the French socialists is that France has reached similar achievements through a State-centred social model implemented under successive governments quite regardless of their political colour, and that they have converted themselves to Social Democracy at the very moment when economic change undermined its premises. In many ways, Social-Democracy is a success story: it led European countries to a high level of economic wealth and social consensus. But, even as it maintains strong positions, no one would deny that it is on the defensive (as the German case clearly shows). The rise and decline of Social-Democracy as well as of the French State-centered model are tightly correlated with the rise and decline of what we sometimes call in France the “salary society”[4].

The historical conditions explaining the mutual reinforcement of economic growth, salary society and welfare systems are now well understood. I briefly mention here a classical sketch elaborated twenty years ago by the ‘Regulation school’ French economists. They described the socio-economic system of post-war western countries, as the "Fordist system" referring to Henry Ford. The Fordist system can be understood as the mutual enforcement of a set of economic and social mechanisms. It can be characterized by the four following elements:

1) A specific consumption pattern, characterized by the increasing consumption of standardized manufactured objects, liable to be produced in large series (cars, household electrical equipment...).

2) The attraction of Taylorism as the core model of industrial work organization, in keeping with this consumption pattern[5].

3) Third and key element: the so-called Fordist social compromise (implemented at the firm level through the “Fordist salary relationship"[6]).

4) A Keynesian-interventionist State, whose policy, both in the economic field (Keynesian macro economic policies), and in the social field (minimum wage...) guaranteed the coherence of the system through a high and steady growth rate.


  These four subsystems were synergetic, each one reinforcing and stabilizing the others[7].


  During the last thirty years, the system progressively lost its coherence. Several factors of disturbance have been at work, weakening all four elements mentioned and their coherence:

  1) The evolution of the consumption pattern[8]. Among other factors, it can be demonstrated that growing new social needs (health care, looking after young children or dependant old people, teaching, security, culture and so on) are less easily incorporated in a steady growth cycle [9].

  2) Evolutions in work and management, post-fordist management being less favorable to mass social integration through work[10].    

  3) "Globalization", which disables national macroeconomic policy instruments[11] (In my view, the debate concerning Euro and the European monetary policy is a second order debate, the important fact being that, in the new global economy, only limited room is left to growth oriented macroeconomic policies).


The weakening of Fordist coherence suitably explains the double crisis of the Welfare State and Social Democracy. But one could also mention the growing importance of non-economic issues, such as ecology, feminism, and more generally « societal questions » which  can’t be easily addressed within a Socio-political framework built to cope with traditional social question such as wages, labor-market regulations and social benefits. In the Fordist system, not only major social issues but also core mechanisms of social empowerment were rooted in the productive sphere. The antagonism between work and capital, with its macro-social, political and cultural extensions, was part of the social dynamics, transferring its energy to a dense pattern of social networks and organizations.  In post-fordist societies, the increase of job mobility, work flexibility and the individualisation of job arrangements have compromised these mechanisms of collective empowerment and solidarity. From this results the fact that “individuals who don’t manage to voice their problems in social terms, but only in personal terms”[12]. The work sphere being abandoned to processes of individualisation, new ways of collective empowerment have to be found.


2) Empowerment and Welfare reform strategy: “Third Wayand “Second Left”


Confronted to the Fordist system crisis, Left-wing parties must find the terms of a new compromise between capitalism and their ideal of equity and solidarity. In recent years, the Blairist “Third way” has been the most noticeable doctrinal innovation in this perspective. The number three has long since been associated to the project of finding a way between Left and Right-wing politics, or between Capitalism and Socialism. In his book The Third Way,[13] Antony Giddens mentions that the expression “Third Waywas popular among British right-wing groups in the 1920. In France, the expression “Third force” emerged in the 1930’s among non conformist Left-wing circles, critical of “bourgeois democracy” as well as Communism. The concept of Third force re-emerged in a different context from 1947 to 1951, to designate the alliance of centrist, socialist and Christian-democrat parties who refused both communism and Gaullism. These various ideological movements have a common distaste of Economic Liberalism, Nationalism and State-Socialism. Interestingly, all of them have praised the autonomy of Civil Society. In one way or another, Civil Society self-organization through intermediary bodies and institutions has often been thought of as a necessary third term in the dualistic scheme opposing State and Market. This orientation is even clearer in the concept of “third sector”, that currently designates in France Social Economy, or “Solidarist” Economy organizations, that is cooperatives, associations, mutual insurance companies and various types of non conventional firms submitted to market rules but embodying non utilitarian values (solidarity towards disadvantaged groups, local development, etc.). In fact, non-profit private organizations have been playing for many years an important role in most European countries, in partnership with public administrations, in the implementation of Welfare policies. In this sense, the expression « Welfare State » is partly inadequate. We already live in « welfare societies » in which the State is not alone as a counterpoise to market forces and in which social solidarity heavily depends on civic, associative and community initiatives.

The crisis of distributive welfare policies gives a new impetus to these ideas, it being understood that they can be interpreted from both Right and Left-wing points of view. In fact, they can go along with a liberal shift or with new forms of public interventions. In a classical liberal view, an active Civil Society is the natural complement of a free market economy. Liberal thinkers have always considered Market and Civil Society as natural allies and, on the contrary, Welfare State as an enemy of family, moral values and civil commitments. Welfare State, in their view, is destructive of family because individuals have no need to rely upon their spouse, parents or children, when they are ill or unemployed. On the contrary, from a Left-Wing point of view, it can be argued that monetary relationships tend to weaken other forms of social life.

New Labour’s promotion of an « Active Civil Society » has more in common with Neo-liberals’ views than with Social-Democracy and French socialists ideology. It can be noticed that the main ideas promoted under the banner of the Third Way appeared in America in the 1980’s – in the context of the decline of Left-wing ideas - among the “New Democrats”, whose motto was “opportunity, responsibility, community”. Like the Neo-Conservatives as well as the New Democrats, the Blairists insist on individual responsibility in Social problems. The replacement of Social Equality by “Equal opportunity for all” as normative backing of social policies is typical of this approach. Third Way social philosophy rejects liberal-conservative indifference to poverty and social exclusion, but it assumes that the only way for a government to seek social justice is to empower citizens to act for themselves. It praises “competitive enterprise and education rather than top- down redistribution”. Consequent with this philosophy, the British program “welfare to work” is based on the same idea as “workfare” programs in the US: their aim is to incite the individuals to accept any job offered. For this sake, fiscal measures and social benefits are profiled to support activity and to incite unemployed to take low-paid jobs. These policy measures take place within a wider policy agenda promoted notably by mainstream economists and international cooperation agencies, the core of which is a socio-fiscal policy mix including labour flexibility, life-long training, conditionality of social benefits coupled with fiscal incentives and a residual welfare protection targeted on poor people. The typical instance of this strategy is the negative income tax.

But equity and individual empowerment are not the only key elements of Third way social philosophy. Another one is community empowerment. In this sense, in keeping with new American political trends, it is not plainly individualistic. Community solidarities (religious, ethnic, or local communities) and morals are counterweights to market individualism. As in America, the decline of moral values and family crisis (divorce, etc.) are denounced as the main causes of poverty, unemployment, crime etc.

In New Labour’s as well as in the liberal conservative’s view, there is no contradiction between Society empowerment, and the expansion of the Market. Quoting a popular Third way slogan, the underlying rationale can be formulated as “using market means to achieve public ends and encouraging civic and community institutions to play a larger role in public life”. In fact, Blairists plainly accept market rules, even for Labor market, not even seeking to mitigate them.

The French socialist philosophy remains very different. Of course, the “equal opportunities” discourse is not absent in France, but in a different perspective, more pragmatic and less ethically valuated. Nobody thinks that “equal opportunities” could replace plain social equality (for example equal access to medical care) as an ideal. Generally speaking, the French are more aware of, and sensitive to the contradiction between market forces and social cohesion. And they remain more confident in government action to promote solidarity and the general interest. This could explain why the influence of New Labor on the French socialists has remained limited after an initial movement of interest and sympathy. Among Socialists leaders and experts, there are “social liberals” sympathetic to New Labour’s ideas, but, in my opinion, they don’t constitute a real political force, mostly because their ideas are not consonant with widespread social values. In contrast to New Labour’s political dynamics, they represent no more than a technocratic elite mood. There is a huge and persistent gap between the socialist governmental elite culture and the ‘militant culture’, from which results the impossibility to formulate an offensive alternative strategy to economic liberalism. After the conversion of socialist elites to economic realism in 1983, French resistance to economic liberalism has been manifesting itself mostly through defensive measures, in which it is hard to see the draft of a credible French “Third way”. All French governments have tried to defend basic features of the French social model from the undermining influence of globalisation. The examples of the so-called ‘cultural exception’ and Farm subsidies could illustrate this. Under the Mitterrand Presidency, and except for Rocard’s innovative policies I will discuss later, the unspoken rationale of social policies has been to save the corporatist arrangements which frame the French social system. The result is that long-term unemployed, young, unskilled and precarious workers have paid the highest price for the adaptation of France to the global economy.

Nonetheless, a parallel can be made between the “Third way” and the “Second Left”, a distinct political trend within the French Left, more critical of State bureaucracy and relying more on Civil Society empowerment than the socialist mainstream. Headed for years by former Prime minister Michel Rocard[14], the Second left was a socially rooted political reality, connected with active social networks among which the CFDT (Confédération Française du TravailCFDT, one of the major French unions). It was a mix of reformism and radicalism, one foot in the post-1968 social utopia and another in new management trends and technocratic modernism. Now quite extinguished as a political current, even if it remains influent mainly through individuals, it has not been replaced on the French political scene.


3) Looking back to Rocard’s New Social and State reform policies (1988-1991)


Some of the reform policies carried out between 1988 and 1991 by the Second Left government led by Michel Rocard can give an idea of what a ‘French Third Waycould be. In fact, what they illustrate is less Society empowerment than ‘administrative empowerment’. That may seem little, but, as I shall argue, it could be at least one important component of a French Third way. The first example is the so-called “new social policies”: the minimum income benefit (Revenu minimum d’insertion), urban social development programmes and social programs for young unemployed. The general aim of these programmes was to “activate” social benefits. That is, break with distributive and ‘passive’ welfare, and create economic activity and social commitment through public subsidies and interventions. These policies stand for an alternative to liberal and “Third way” workfare policies based on individual economic incentives. Rocard’s new social policies intended to implement another strategy to activate social expenses, using the technique of contract: “insertion contract” in counterpart to minimum income benefit; “Town contracts” as a legal framework for enhancing partnership between the State, local authorities and Civil Society in urban development programmes. In both cases, the objective was to produce joint commitments, activity and social links. For the first time, the aim of social policies was not only to distribute benefits, issue assistance, social control or educative action, but to create social links. But the significance of this innovation was reduced by their State-centred character. The core rationale of the “New social policies” was to invite Society to participate in public action. On the other hand, and that’s a good point in my view, these policies intended to federate energies of public services, state and local authorities confronted to disadvantaged populations and territories. They can be seen as “constitutive” policies or, in other terms, public actors’ empowerment policies, like the administrative reform policy depicted below.

According to Jacques Donzelot, the comparison between American and French urban policies can be summarized by the “people versus place” dilemma. The logic of American programs is individual and community empowerment, while the French logic is to help the territories through an empowerment of public services. In the French case, the people’s participation is requested by the State as a counterpart to public aid. As Donzelot puts it “The associative life is stimulated, but in the strict framework of public work facilitation, in the perspective of a better territorial administration”[15]. In the case of the minimum income scheme, the aim of the ‘insertion contract’ is to create mutual obligations between public services and beneficiaries. This has resulted in creating dependency towards social work and discouraging informal economic activities and self-production.  

In any case, the new social policies didn’t bring any answer to the ‘salary society’ crisis. Socialist governments proved unable to combat job precariousness and long-time unemployment. The critical policy challenge - inventing a French way to reform the welfare state and labour market regulations, reconciling concurrence and flexibility with security and collective mediations - remains unanswered. However, imagining relevant post-fordist social regulations is not a goal out of reach. For several years, this problem has been addressed anew, notably by jurists, through notions such as “activity contract” and “transitional labour markets”[16]. The basic idea is to create new types of job contract including the possibility of multiple employers (possibly public and private) and successive periods of full-time and part-time activity, training or temporary inactivity. The aim is to reconcile continuity of income and social protection with the growing discontinuity of working situations ; in other terms, to rebuild some kind of “social citizenship” guaranteed by collective regulations[17].

  Initiated in 1989, Rocard’s State modernisation policy was clearly based on a strategy of administrative empowerment. Administration and public services efficiency has become a major French problem, the treatment of which is always delayed. The failure of the Finance ministry reform under the last socialist government - as well as the great strikes which paralyze France every two or three years – are emblematic of the current deadlock. Pursuing the same efficiency objectives as the liberal reform implemented at the same time in Great Britain (New Public Management), Rocard’s policy of “public services renewal” (Renouveau du service public) was based upon very dissimilar political values, resulting in a different strategy. Contrary to the liberal perspective, the aim was not to reduce the role of the State, but to reengineer and rehabilitate it. The French reform relied on civil servants empowerment and civic consciousness (‘public service spirit’) rather than on the introduction of market mechanisms (privatization, ‘agencization’, performance indicators, financial incentives, cost-benefits analysis, Value for money audits). The levers of the French reform were:  the sense of responsibility of the civil servants towards users and citizens, collective negotiation, collective incentives (at the service level) rather than individual ones, and “Democratic Evaluation”. The objective of Rocard’s policy Evaluation initiative was to involve Civil Society in evaluations and to enrich public debate through the publication of credible information and assessments on policies outcomes. Evaluation was part of an ambitious project of modernizing Democracy. These political goals have not been reached, but evaluation has had substantial effects at the administrative level. The comparison between the French and British practices of public Evaluation shows a striking contrast. In Great Britain, Evaluation is widely used to develop public services and administrations accountability (Parliament information on the results of public programs, in terms of “value for money”, with direct consequences on budgetary decision). In France, Evaluation is most often used by public administrations as an instrument for piloting policies more efficiently and creating consensus among policy actors about their objectives. In other words, Evaluation in used as a tool of organizational learning and administrative empowerment.

  Overall, Rocard’s reform policy yielded only limited results (partly due to a lack of time and presidential support). It has not overcome corporatist stonewalling, nor has it contributed to reduce the excessive amount of public expenses. Nonetheless, it may be argued that the underlying rationale was relevant in the French context, and that it could be an element of a credible reform strategy.


4) Lionel Jospin’s customary Left stance (1997-2002)


After the 1997 elections won by the socialists, the new Prime minister Lionel Jospin claimed to go back to a more radical policy line, especially in the social field (breaking with the compromises of the Mitterrand presidency). In my opinion, the Jospin Government (1997-2002) represented a dismaying retreat to traditional French Left-wing ideology. The outcome, however, is apparently not so bad. Looking at the main economic and social indicators, it seems unfair to say that nothing has been done to reduce unemployment and inequalities. From 1997 to 2001, unemployment has been reduced much more than predicted by experts (from 12,5% to 8,6%), partly due to the reduction of working week. Moreover, contrary to many industrialised countries, this result has been obtained without augmenting wage inequalities, thanks to a policy of targeted reduction of wage taxes[18]. One of the lest discussed of Jospin’s social achievement is the generalization of health insurance (CMU: Universal medical coverage), which provided a solution to the old problem of the loopholes in the social insurance framework.

On the negative side, the Jospin government (but most French governments deserve the same criticism) did not take advantage of the economic growth either to reduce the public deficit and debt, or to undertake administration and welfare reforms (pension scheme, health insurance). 

  In 2002, Jospin put to its own credit two major social reforms: the “emplois-jeunes” (jobs for young people in public services and associations) and the “35 hours” (“Aubry Law” on the reduction of working week to 35 hours) The first one has got rather positive evaluations, but it is nothing more than a new program of public low-paid jobs. The second one is highly controversial. Regardless of its uncertain and disputed economic effects, the inequitable impacts of this reform perfectly illustrate the socialist social failure. Authoritatively forced upon a deeply fractured salaried workforce, the reform has predictably increased inequalities among workers, to the advantage of the stable middle-class employees of the public sector and big firms. Moreover, the socialists did not profit from the reform to treat the social question of time in a wider context. I mean especially the links that should have been established between the reduction of working hours and 1) the pension reform, in the perspective of a flexible and progressive transition from work to inactivity[19] ; 2) the societal issues of time organization (sometimes themed as “the times of the town”), including public services opening hours and transports issues. Moreover, the reform is often criticized for aggravating the crisis in the health services.

Failure or success, all these policies were distributive ones, made possible only because growth was there. They are by no way a revival of the old ambition of breaking with capitalism (like the nationalisation programme in 1981), nor even to amend its core productive logic. They show no credible attempt to reengineer the social-democrat win-win strategy of social equality and economic performance. Moreover, the way they have been prepared, decided and implemented in an authoritative top-down manner, gave, in fact, little place to social initiative, despite participative democracy claims. Of course, the Aubry Law created a strong incentive for social negotiations at the firm level (for discussing the details of new time arrangements and their financial counterparts). But the stakes and framework of these negotiations were strictly shaped by legal constraints. The Aubry Law illustrates a customary French way of subordinating collective action to political strategies: social commitment is required to help the government reach its own political goals. The result of this State-centred conception of social change is to maintain social forces in a state of minority, of weakness and irresponsibility; precisely the opposite of an empowerment strategy.


  5) Which “French Third Way?


  My first conclusion is that the French Left has no credible social reform strategy. My second is that the empowerment of public actors is an original, though limited, Second Left contribution to a future French Third Way. This contribution is all the more relevant that State and public services will probably continue to play a central role in French economic and social life. This resilient specificity should not be opposed to Civil Society empowerment. The renewal of Social-Democracy could benefit from the hybridization of French Socialists and Blairist philosophies. Blairists have a point when they emphasize the role of communities and Civil Society in Social solidarity. French Socialists should admit that the old republican ideology must embody community as a positive value. On the other hand, market logic often works against social cohesion. We need imaginative public policies to limit the dominance of the Market on social life and foster decentralized social initiatives oriented towards wider social goals. Democracies are in need of a Market containment strategy based upon both the empowerment of the State and the empowerment of Society.


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[1] Cf. Jacques Donzelot, Faire société, Seuil 2003.

[2] Cf. Perret, Roustang L’économie contre la société, Seuil 1993.

[3] It is worth noticing that this theory (see RD Punam, Bowling alone) is nothing more than a theory of civil society empowerment.

[4] In a "salary society", social progress moves forward through the social promotion and security of average salaried workers, in terms of gains, juridical guarantees (minimum wage, conditions to hiring and lay off), work conditions, social advantages ( Social Security system, etc.). This concept applies to all western post-war societies, including Japan and the US, in spite of national specificities.  

[5] The two principles of the "scientific organization of work" formulated by F.W.Taylor were, first, a division between conception and execution tasks; second, the partition of execution tasks in elementary gestures requiring no qualification.

[6] In compensation for their frustrations in work (caused by work segmentation and hierarchical organization), workers are integrated into the consumption society and benefit from a continuous improvement of their social condition (gains, juridical guarantees, reducing of working hours, Social Security and so on).

[7] A steady economic growth facilitates long term job arrangements; taylorist organization reduces qualification requirements and facilitates low skilled workers social integration, etc. 

[8] The share of services has much grown up in the household budget, to the detriment of manufactured products. Besides consumption goods are less standardized. Industrial growth itself is based on differentiation, quality and incorporated services (the example of cars is illustrative)..

[9] This difficulty has to do with the slow productivity growth in most of household services activities. 

[10] A dualist scheme is setting up: more high skilled and well-paid jobs, but also more low-wage jobs.

[11] The State loses control over macro-economic levers. World economic competition (emergence of low wages countries as global competitors) puts national social systems under competitive pressure, urging them to deregulate.

[12] Bensaïd, Cohen, Maurin, Mongin, « Les nouvelles inégalités », Esprit Février 2004, p. 35.

[13] Polity Press, London 1998

[14] Prime Minister under François Mitterrand’s second presidential mandate (1988-1991).

[15] Faire société, Seuil 2003, p. 239.

[16] Cf. Bernard Gazier, Tous sublimes, Flammarion 2003.

[17] J. Gautié, « Marché du travail et protection sociale : quelle voie pour l’après-fordisme » Esprit, Nov 2003, p.78.

[18] This policy was in fact initiated in 1993 by the former right-wing government. It can also be noticed that a step toward a negative income tax has been made through the so-called “Prime pour l’emploi” (2001).

[19] See Xavier Gaullier, Les temps de la vie, Editions Esprit 1999.