Richard William Johnson
The Long March of the French Left
Perhaps the most fundamental example lies in the field of housing. No other condition of life in modern societies bestows greater cumulative social disadvantage than poor housing. Inequalities in this field are, moreover, highly visible and thus relatively quick to trigger both political resentment and political action. If only for this reason the governments of the Fifth Republic were, from the start, committed to a major programme of construction and renewal to ameliorate the housing conditions of the poor which, it was agreed, constituted a major national scandal. It is difficult to argue that they achieved any great degree of success. In 1968 only 52 per cent of all houses had inside lavatories and less than half (48 per cent) had an inside bath or shower. Even on official definitions 44 per cent of all manual workers and 47 per cent of farmworkers were at that point still living in overcrowded conditions. The housing conditions of the rural poor remained notably bad—in 1970 only 8 per cent of all rural dwellings were equipped with all basic amenities.
Official rhetoric has tended to concentrate on the fact that there has been at least some improvement in absolute standards of housing, particularly through large-scale construction of low-cost apartments, the HLMs (habitations a loyer modere). Such claims are open to the most serious questioning, and it seems likely in practice that inequalities in housing have actually increased. Over the period 1958-72 HLM construction (completed units) increased by an impressive 85 per cent—but in the same period free-market (i.e. expensive) house construction increased by 500 per cent. Moreover, HLM construction showed no sign of catching up with the rate of private apartment building—over the 1958-72 period the latter increased at twice the rate of the former. In any case the simple assumption that the HLMs are the equivalent of, for example, British council housing—an attempt to solve working-class housing problems by low-rent public housing—does not hold. Such housing was a clearly desirable commodity and it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ways of the social condition which has ruled the Fifth Republic to date to find that the middle classes were allowed to appropriate a disproportionate share of it. Parodi's findings revealed thet 'the main beneficiaries of low-rent accommodation schemes are the liberal professions and middle executives, while low-income households are relegated to the slums, furnished lodgings, or the grey zones.' Five years later Parodi found that there were three times fewer low-income families living in HLMs than there were in the population as a whole. Perhaps the most significant statistic of all, however, is that, while between 1962 and 1968 the number of persons per household decreased for the population as a whole (as available housing space expanded), the number of persons per manual working-class household actually increased, so that the proportion of this group living in overcrowded conditions (even on official definitions) rose to 44 per cent.
The social (and political) effect of these protean inequalities of income, wealth and housing might be mitigated to some extent if it were the case that French society encouraged a high degree of social mobility through its educational system. In practice the opposite is true. A study undertaken in the early 1960s showed that while 58.5 per cent of the children of higher executives and liberal professionals went to university, the same was true for only 1 per cent of the children of industrial workers and only 0.7 per cent of those of farm workers. It seems possible that these inequalities have lessened slightly in the subsequent period, but they remain extreme, particularly as one mounts the educational hierarchy towards the Grandes Ecoles, whose graduates entirely dominate all the leading institutions of both the public and the private sector. The political elite is equally narrowly recruited, with only the Communists—permanently excluded from power in the Fifth Republic—consistently sending any workers at all to parliament.
The achievement of French society since the Liberation has, indeed, been to combine a series of prodigious social changes—rapid urbanisation, high economic growth and considerable occupational change—with a fundamental, and underlying social immobility. Thus a 1964 study found that 71 per cent of manual workers were themselves the sons of manual workers, with a follow-up study of 1970 putting the proportion at 64 percent—astonishingly high figures when one takes into account the large intake of former peasants into the urban working-class in those years. There was, moreover, even less mobility at the other end of the scale. A 1968 study of the French business elite found that no less than 85 per cent of all chief executives came from the 'upper social class' and less than 3 per cent from the 'lower' class. Comparing this finding with patterns of recruitment to the analogous business elites of Britain, Italy, Holland, Belgium and West Germany, the authors of the study concluded that 'France appears to have the most rigid society of all the countries in our study.'
It would be possible to extend this brief analysis of social and economic inequalities in French society both in depth and into fields beyond those of income, wealth, housing and education. It would be difficult, though, to modify very greatly the picture we have already assembled of a rigidly stratified society in which the
inequalities between social classes exceed, in almost all respects, those found in virtually any other industrial nation. It is, indeed, some measure of the French situation to say that France is more typical of semi-developed than the developed world.