Accueil » 50-3 ( 1995) » Le mythe français de la modernisation

Le mythe français de la modernisation

Patrick Rozenblatt


En France, comme dans la plupart des pays européens depuis les années quatre-vingts, se développe l'idée que face à un taux de chômage à deux chiffres une issue à l'état d'anomie dans lequel s'installe la société peut venir d'une flexibilité massive de la force de travail. L'article étudie comment émergent, dans les actions engagées autour des licenciements et des reconversions d'emploi, les éléments essentiels constitutifs d'un mythe des temps modernes énonçant la capacité des élites à produire une modernisation régulée de nos sociétés industrielles. L'auteur approche cette question en l'insérant dans le cadre plus large d'une sociologie du temps social.


In France as in the majority of European countries, a double-digit unemployment rate and its persistent growth have been dominating the economic and social scene since the 1980s. Thus, these facts almost naturally characterize all the approaches aimed at creating the conditions that will lead society out of its current state of anomie. Although the ideologies on which they are based and the economic rationalities they propose are diverse, they nevertheless all claim that this situation, described as a new phase in the transformation of industrial societies, can be overcome successfully. Therefore, the introduction of massive flexibility of labour power combined with an intensive and permanent effort to increase the level of training of the labour force are set out as necessary conditions for the success of this process.

In this context, the successive government mechanisms and social accords are presented as contributing to the creation of the conditions for managing the employaient crisis. Thus emerge the elements of a belief in the ability of political, economic and social actors to arrive at a positive outeome to the drama of economic redundancies as long as workers agree to commit themselves to cooperating in the processes of redeployment offered. Rejecting the period of social struggles and bitter confrontations that characterized industrial restructuring during the last twenty years, the discourse on this new belief declare the beginning of a more constructive period of management of occupational redeployment, a period in which the individual will be entitled to full recognition within the collective. Thus, the essential and constituent elements of a new myth of modem times that expresses the ability of the elites to manage the modernization of our industrial societies are brought together. Although the myth is defined as a symbolic representation influencing social life, the author hypothesizes that in France, since 1973 and especially since 1981, the elements of a powerful belief have emerged through a series of laws and public and private strategies. It serves to drive a process that attempts to convince people of the possibility of negotiating restructuring and redeployment calmly without social struggles, and of planning economic and social change through an equitable exchange for all actors. In practice, although the policies and measures proposed during the last twenty years have produced results, it must be observed that on the whole they have done nothing to stop the almost continuous increase in unemployment. Today, despite these successive fallures, many institutional and social actors still believe in and boast about these approaches in the hope that economic recovery can demonstrate their pertinence and effectiveness.

Underlying the strength of such a myth are two components: one suggests a representation of society in which the very forms of social confrontation and collective action can be dissolved and reified in a series of rational mechanisms; the other suggests convincing everyone that social adherence to the measures offered would be enough to see the declared fight against continuing unemployment to a successful conclusion.

The myth set forth and its underlying beliefs thus assert that a new specifie era in the life of industrial society is emerging. Therefore, to proceed to a critical analysis of the myth, our approach here is to consider it as part of a process of putting a major social issue into perspective: the planned, or negotiated, control of the volume of work and employment. The issue is studied in reference to the more general context of the sociology of social time.

To define the study of this issue, three social periods are analyzed. The first involves interpreting the determining role of the state. The second carries out a contrasting interpretation in terms of the social confrontation of the historical period covered. The third provides a process-based interpretation of the emergence of the myth and its constituent elements. Finally, the initial hypothesis is validated. The myth of the management of modernization has in fact well and truly established itself. It has involved union actors in a process in which they appear partly responsible for choices made with regard to redeployment, even when they fight against these decisions. In France this myth has functioned until now as a complement to diversified practices opposed to the emergence of the union movement as an economic factor with possible alternatives.