Socio-Economics in the French Public Sphere: A Discussion with Professor Dominique Méda

Dominique Méda is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Social Science Research Institute (IRISSO) at Paris-Dauphine University (France). She is a graduate of both the École nationale d’administration (ENA) and the École nationale supérieure (ENS), the two institutions that traditionally train two distinct fractions of the French elite: political and administrative in the former case, and scientific in the latter.

Méda has authored numerous books on the changing role of labor and work in society, as well as on the role of the French welfare state model as it compares to other European welfare states. More recently, the role of climate change and the question of ecological transition have become more central in her scholarship, particularly as the effects of these phenomena ask us to re-think our understandings of growth, prosperity, and labor.

She is a politically-engaged intellectual, taking part in the recent presidential elections in France as a campaign advisor to Benoît Hamon (Parti socialiste) and formerly to Ségolène Royal of the same party. In a book published in 2018, Une autre voie est possible (in my translation, “Another Path is Possible”), co-authored with Eric Heyer and Pascal Lokiec, she argues that, contrary to what the current presidency and government pretends, the French welfare state cannot be seen as the cause of the high levels of unemployment, slow growth, and high debt that France is facing. The reasons for this situation, they argue, have rather to be found in decades of liberalizing economic policies and more recent austerity measures, which in spite of their having proven incapable of adequately responding to the failures of financial capitalism, continue nevertheless to be relentlessly pursued by the current French government. In addition, her most recent book, co-edited with Florence Jany-Catrice and dedicated to the work of French economist Jean Gadrey, asks the question of how the economy (and economists) could better serve society today.

Méda participated in the recent “Grand débat” (Grand Debate) called for by French president Emmanuel Macron in response to the Gilets Jaune (Yellow Vests) movement that has been raging in cities around France since the fall of 2018. Macron invited a group of upwards of 40 academics, politicians, and policy experts to engage him in a televised conversation about pressing social and economic issues. Méda subsequently published an article in the left-leaning newspaper Libération, in which she strongly criticized the set-up and content of this so-called debate. For the SASE newsletter, she has accepted to answer our questions on her experience of the “Grand débat” and on the political relevance of socio-economic scholarship in France more broadly.

Interview conducted by SASE Newsletter Editor Valerie Arnhold.

In your recent newspaper article in response to the Grand débat, you insist on the severity of the social and ecological crisis that France is currently experiencing and which is partly reflected in the demands and grievances raised by participants in the “Yellow Vests” movement. Could you maybe summarize, for an international audience, what the key challenges of this current French crisis are from your point of view?

France faces the same ecological threats as other countries: they are global and absolute. Interestingly, this situation highlights that we find ourselves in a situation of total interdependence. The actions of any human being in the world have an influence on the common goods of the climate, biodiversity, and the habitable living conditions of our planet. As all other countries—even though our government likes to say that France is exemplary in terms of environmental protection (as we would produce low CO2 emissions thanks to nuclear power)—we have to take radical measures to completely rebuild our economy. However, if we are not cautious, ecological measures can prove to be anti-social. This situation explains the revolt of the Yellow Vests, which started because car-dependent populations were fed up with the increase of fuel taxes. Then, there was a revolt against fiscal and social injustice. This is a perfect illustration of the absolute need to address both the ecological and social issues at the same time: to make sure that solutions to one problem also work to address the other.

Your work on ecological concerns suggests that these may also be seen as an opportunity to rethink economic growth and labor, for example by inventing new economic indicators taking into account our “carbon footprint” or through a reduction and reorganization of working time. The Yellow Vest movement has raised a debate regarding the relationship between the “end of the month” and the “end of the world”. This may lead us to wonder what the conditions of enforcement of a new socio-economic model could be. For instance, in the short term, how could we change the rules governing production and consumption without harming the lower middle class?

This is the central question. In 2015 already, the International Trade Union Confederation proposed to address it through the notion of the “just transition.” The lowest income groups are the most affected by an ecological transition that is oblivious to social inequalities. The risk is that we engage in an ecological reconversion that is blind to the fact that the lowest income groups are the most affected by carbon taxation. Public policy measures must therefore be able to reconcile both imperatives, ecological and social: they must be “tailor-made.” This is expressed in the message we convey regarding the GDP: it is a very poor indicator, in particular unable to speak to the evolution our most precious critical assets—our natural heritage and social cohesion. Therefore it should be, if not abandoned, at least framed by two other indicators—the carbon footprint and the index of social health—which would then act as ethical norms to reduce our carbon footprint in a just way.

You were invited to the “Grand débat” launched by President Macron and accepted the invitation. What were the prospects you saw for the outcome of this “debate”? What were your motivations to take part in it? What messages did you want to convey?

I strongly disagree with Emmanuel Macron’s policies, but I had been assured that the pluralism of the invited guests would be respected and that we could establish a kind of dialogue. I found it interesting to be able to remind him of the ideas I had defended with my colleagues in Une autre voie est possible and in several newspaper articles. I was keen to see what arguments he would use. I did not expect a real debate (i.e., an organized exchange in the framework of a real ethics of discussion) because I had watched most of the “debates” between the President and mayors beforehand. But I was curious to see whether he would proceed the same way and how he would pretend to listen and to answer the questions once he had transformed the session into a promotion of his own politics. I was lucky to be the second speaker, right at the very beginning of the nine-hour(!) session. I had the opportunity to ask him, first, if he had not remained too attached to the whole set of dogmas, formulas, and beliefs that we had been taught as fellow graduates of ENA (especially in the economic policy field). Second, I asked if he was ready to change course and agree to a massive investment of 20 billion euros per year for at least ten years for the ecological and social transition, even if this implied increasing the deficit and raising taxes for the wealthiest.

We would be very interested in your “insider” impressions regarding the debate itself. How did you experience its “backstage” organization, choice of participants, or rules of interaction? How did these affect the content of exchanges and positions that could be expressed?

We didn’t know until the last moment who had been invited and who would be present (personally, I discovered it when I arrived). I knew that Frédéric Lordon, a sociologist at EHESS and well-known social movement supporter, had refused, but I knew nothing else. I still don’t know who was invited and who refused. It is obvious that academics close to Macron were over-represented, as were economists. There were few historians, lawyers, and sociologists, but many representatives from think tanks. Clearly, the people who were present had accepted the basic idea of an exchange with the President, which indeed limited the possibilities of critical exchange. I was very embarrassed by the lack of interaction, the lack of opportunity for participants to respond. The format, as we knew, was two minutes each. Most of the people present developed an idea and then asked a question. The President then gave his “answer” and that was it. For someone who is committed to dialogue, the development of ideas and rational discussion, this is excessively frustrating. For example, he answered to the second part of my question that this had already been tried out by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, that it had been a failure, that France had not become happier, and that unemployment had not decreased. And more importantly, he would in no way agree to increase the debt and taxes. And it was over. Of course, I was boiling inside. But it was over and so it was always he who had the last word, which for us was terribly embarrassing. Clearly, this was not a debate in any true sense of the term.

President Macron is sometimes presented as being representative of the return of a “strong” State or even an “authoritarian” style of government. Do you see any changes in the ways in which political debates take place in France under the current presidency compared to the former presidents?

This is a very complex issue. I would like to say that he probably unravels the power of the State in a very firm and authoritative way. Some examples: the labor law ordinances, at the beginning of his mandate, reversed parts of the Code du travail (French labor law) and deprived the State of powerful means of intervention. A law called the PACTE has just organized the privatization of the Aéroport de Paris group, which is a strategic sector. On the other hand, the State is recovering control over policies such as unemployment insurance, which may make it possible to reduce the resources devoted to compensating the unemployed, previously in the hands of the social partners. Yes, I think that the current President is organizing a form of dismantling of the instruments that were still in the hands of the State, but that he is doing so with an iron fist, even more so than all his predecessors. Ditto on the abolition of the ENA. There was no public debate, he made this decision alone. My fear is that this new school will leave the State without civil servants and that it will be entrepreneurs who take over the power, as the Minister of Economy suggested: “we are entering a new world: that of entrepreneurs, creativity, and innovation. Where the high administration has to take back its rightful place,” he declared. The ENA is far from being the only institution of higher education where the children of high-income families are over-represented. The same applies to business schools, and in the end to most of the selective institutions. Therefore, the problem is much more general and I fear that this was only a pretext to attack the servants of the ENA.

How do you understand Macron’s attempt to get in touch with French “intellectuals”. If the “Grand débat” only very imperfectly enabled the organization of such exchanges, by which other means could such a discussion between politicians and intellectuals be created?

I find it very difficult today for academics to make their voices heard. Less so in regard to the general public, because many academics write books and newspaper articles, but especially in regard to politicians and administrations. They have their own specialists inside (in ministerial cabinets, central administration departments), who provide excellent figures and analyses and even have a kind of monopoly on the production of data and analyses. It is very difficult for a researcher to access all the necessary data in order to, for instance, fully evaluate a law or measure. This is true for the effects of the ISF (Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune, solidarity wealth tax) and for the tax system in general, but also for many other topics. Academics are deprived of access to a certain number of data sources and competing with structures such as the INSEE (French statistical institute), the Treasury, Bercy (Ministry of Economics and Finance), DREES (Research and statistics department of the Solidarity and Health Ministry), or DARES (Research and statistics department of the Ministry of Labor). Few academics have the means to compete. One way to structurally improve the dialogue would be to open up data much more widely to academics and to organize spaces for co-production and co-evaluation: for example, the National Assembly and the Senate should organize the evaluation, monitoring, and debate on past and future laws with external, independent academics. I think that this would prevent a lot of problems. It also seems essential to me that the training of state executives become much more open to PhD holders and involves academics from all disciplines.

As a graduate of both ENA and ENS, you have a rather atypical trajectory compared to other French scholars. How do you see your own position in the academic field? To what extent does it impact your willingness and ability to be part of the political debates regarding socio-economic policy in France?

This is an extraordinary position for me. And very rare. In general, my colleagues who have completed the ENA and are employed in the administration have a duty of confidentiality that prevents them from expressing themselves. They are aware of all the limits and shortcomings of policies but cannot criticize them except, euphemistically, in reports, such as inspection or control reports, most of which are unfortunately commissioned by the government. Academics, as I said earlier, often do not have access to strategic information. They can express themselves, but too often lack crucial information.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have been on the inside (I worked for four years in the inspection and control body of the social ministries, then for almost 15 years in the DARES, the Research and statistics department that the Socialist Minister of Labor, Martine Aubry, had created in 1993 to counterbalance the expertise of the Ministry of Economics and Finance. My job was precisely to build bridges between the world of research and the administration of the Ministry of Labor).

Academics should be much more involved in the debate, as I am trying to do or as someone like Thomas Piketty is trying to do. We must try to hold all positions at the same time: a hyper-rigorous scientific ethic, serving a vision of society to be defended. Unlike some, I think that engaging academics in public debate is essential and should go much further. I find that the establishment of common working spaces on issues, measures, laws, important themes—arenas where administrative executives, academics, and citizens can meet to discuss a subject, propose measures, exchange evaluations, and put them into discussion—could be very valuable.

Finally, regarding your view on the political relevance and prospects of socio-economic scholarship in France more generally, what role can and should socio-economics scholars play? Are there any specific stakes for economic sociologists compared to economists for instance? In what ways can they make their voices heard? What do you see as the limits of such public and political engagement?

I think there is a major problem with the economic discipline. Mainstream economists have come to occupy a prominent place, not only in the academy but also in public debate and among politicians. This is terribly dangerous because the discipline claims to be able to deal with all issues but never opens up its black boxes. We have seen how the so-called Nobel Prize awarded to Nordhaus was perfectly suited to the fact that his work led us to a warming of at least three degrees. Nordhaus is the one who ridiculed the authors of the Meadows report by saying that their model was worthless because they had forgotten the price. This is how we lost 50 years. Economists have gained too much importance in society. And the discipline is based on assumptions that are far too inappropriate. I am well aware that when you criticize the homo economicus you are told that behavioral economics has considerably refined its assumptions. But it is the whole set of assumptions on which Economics is based today that I believe must be challenged. Probably as much as those of philosophy and sociology by the way. Our disciplinary silos are outrageous at a time when we are wondering how to convince our governments and fellow citizens that a major change of course is urgent. I have the work of Tim Jackson in mind, who proposes in Prosperity without Growth to implement a materialistic macroeconomics, or of the Belgian philosopher Tom Dedeurwaerdere who shows how the different disciplines should be integrated—with renewed foundations—to work together. It is not only the founding hypotheses and methods of the disciplines that we must review, but all our categories, all our representations of the relationship between humans and nature, all our epistemes. This is a radical turn that we have to engage in

* This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2019 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page *