Deciphering French society

Louis Maurin recently published a valuable book on contemporary French society, Déchiffrer la société française, which is intended to shed light on the social realities of France in a way that is genuinely accessible to the public.  There are chapters on population, the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, consumption, and social values, among other important topics (link).  The book is intended to capture and encapsulate some of the data that is available through French sources that will make the basic outlines of France more transparent to the public.  (There is a companion website for the book as well.)  Denis Clerc provides the preface for the book — another voice in French society calling for greater transparency about inequalities.

Maurin believes that there is a wide gap between the rhetoric that French elites and journalists use to characterize contemporary French society, and the social realities.  In order for France to successfully address the social problems it faces, it is important for the public to have a better understanding of the background and the current realities.  So the goal of this project is straightforward:

À l’encontre de ce mouvement, ce livre vise à dresser un état de lieux et à expliquer certains mécanismes du fonctionnement de la société française. Il s’agit bien d’abord de «déchiffrer», car l’objectif est, autant que faire se peut, de mesurer et d’analyser des évolutions. Sans fétichisme du chiffre, il devient indispensable de mettre sur la table des données pour sortir de la rhétorique française où chacun se paie de bons mots. Ce qui permet à tout le monde d’avoir raison en même temps, faute de pouvoir être départagé par les faits. Dans la mesure du possible, nous essaierons de présenter des séries sur longue période, pour élargir les perspectives. L’objectif est aussi de « déchiffrer » des phénomènes qui ne sont pas tous immédiatement perceptibles. De dégager des tendances pour mieux comprendre l’évolution de la société dans un monde où l’avenir semble, pour beaucoup, très incertain. Sur la plupart des phénomènes présentés, vécus au quotidien, chacun a sa petite idée, qu’il s’agisse de famille, d’école, d’immigration, de chômage… Toute la difficulté de la démarche et son intérêt consistent à échapper aux expériences personnelles pour analyser le comportement d’un ensemble. (Avant-propos)

[To counter this trend, this book aims to develop a baseline description and to explain some mechanisms of how French society functions.  It is indeed a first effort, because the goal is, as far as possible, to measure and analyze trends.  Without making a fetish of data, it is necessary to provide tables of facts in order to escape the rhetoric to which everyone pays lip service.  Without facts, everyone can claim to be right at the same time.  Wherever possible, we attempt to present a series of data over a long period, to broaden the perspective.  The goal is also to “decipher” phenomena that are not immediately obvious.  We seek to identify trends in order to better understand society in a world where the future for many is very uncertain.  For most of the phenomena presented, each individual has his/her own perspective, whether it concerns the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, …  The challenge is to separate out one’s personal experiences in order to analyze the behavior of the larger group.]

Each topic is a fundamental one — population, nuptiality, family, schooling, immigration, employment, consumption.  And the data that Maurin summarizes are often striking and unexpected.

Here is a striking graph of the absolute number of marriages and divorces since 1960, and a graph of family size changes between 1900 and 1970.  The marriage rate increased sharply in the 1960s into the early 70s; it then went into a steep decline.

Here are several graphs representing economic and social changes in the past thirty years. The first tracks the percentage of adults in different socio-economic groups: workers, managers, professionals, executives, farmers, and permanently unemployed. The second tracks the fairly steep decline in the number of hours worked annually by a worker, from under 2000 to under 1500.  The third tracks the shifting composition of the workforce, documenting a dramatic decline in industrial labor from 35% to 15%.  And the fourth graph tracks union membership, from a high of 30% in 1949 to a low of 8% in 2005.  This is surprising for Americans who think of the French workforce as being highly unionized.

Here is an indication of how French consumption has evolved over the past sixty years.  Television and washing machines started early; home computers and mobile phones came in the decade of 1990-2000.  (It appears that several labels may be switched on this graph; it’s hard to believe that microwave ovens became common well before refrigerators.  And in fact the 2007 snapshot from INSEE suggests that these two labels have been switched.)

Here is a snapshot from INSEE for household items for 2007:

And what about education?  Maurin draws attention to the progress of the bac over the past 60 years.  The creation of the bac technologique and the bac professionnel in 1968 and 1988 respectively conjoined with growth in the bac general to produce rapid increase from the mid 1980s through 1990s; and the total has remained flat since the 1990s.

Maurin expresses a certain amount of disappointment with the discipline of academic sociology in France for its failure to provide a “public” sociology — an empirical and theoretical research program aimed at shedding light on the most pervasive patterns in French society today. (“Malgré des progrès récents, le monde scientifique — la sociologie, en particulier — ne semble plus vraiment chercher à dresser ce portrait social de la France;” avant-propos.) And here again in the conclusion:

La statistique n’est pas seule en cause : la recherche laisse de côté de très nombreux domaines, pourtant indispensables à la compréhension du monde contemporain, quand bien même les données existent. Les sociologues qui travaillent sur des sujets aussi essentiels que les revenus, la mobilité sociale ou la consommation ne sont qu’une poignée. Dans certains domaines, comme l’exclusion ou l’immigration, ils se comptent par dizaines… Personne ne conteste la nécessité de ces travaux. Il n’en demeure pas moins que, pour partie, la sociologie française s’attache aux «dominés », oubliant que, pour analyser les processus de domination, il faut aussi regarder vers le haut. (Conclusion)

[The data are not the only cause.  Researchers leave to the side many domains that are indispensable to comprehending the contemporary world, even when the data exist. Sociologists who work on such essential subjects as income, social mobility, or consumption are only a handful.  In some domains, such as exclusion or immigration, they are fewer than dozens.  No one can disagree about the necessity of this work.  Instead, the French sociologists prefer to focus on the “dominated”, forgetting that it is necessary to look at the top in order to understand the processes of domination. (Conclusion)]

In short — French society is as complicated as any other, with its own history and current social forces.  And many of the social realities the French currently face are obscure in their causes and their distribution across regions and classes.  So it is particularly important for authors like Maurin to help pull back the curtain from some of these basic social facts.

(Each chapter offers a short list of key internet sources that allow the reader to pursue the data questions of the chapter directly.  A few key resources on population, labor, poverty, family, immigration, and education include —

  • Eurostat (Service statistique de l’Union européenne link)
  • INED (Institut national d’études démographiques link)
  • INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques link)
  • CNAF (Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales link)
  • Ministère de la Justice link
  • Secrétariat d’état à la Famille link
  • Cité nationale de l’immigration link
  • Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés link)
  • Ministère de l’éducation nationale link
  • CEE (Centre d’étude de l’emploi link)
  • Céreq (Centre d’études et de recherches sur les qualifications link)
  • IRES (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales link)
  • Ministère de l’emploi link
  • Observatoire des inégalités link
  • Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l’exclusion sociale link
  • Crédoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie link)
  • Iresco (Institut de recherche sur les sociétés contemporaines link)
  • Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po link)

There is a volume of valuable data available from these sources.)

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