Fear of falling or peur du déclassement – the fear of downward social mobility – has been a topic in several French publications. First, the déclassement concept has been recently developed by sociologist Camille Peugny:
This topic has been also addressed in a couple of articles in Le Monde.
There is a certain irony to Sarkozy’s campaign promise to allow people to “work more to earn more” right before a recession that generates a lack of employment and declining income. Otherwise, it was par for the course of conservative / neo-liberal fetishization of work. In such thinking, the only “good” citizen is the middle-class, law-abiding, hard-working individual and, in Sarkozy’s perspective, equal redistribution through social benefits such as vacations and 35 hour workweek are an impediment to individual accumulation.
But as the article notes, two years after the campaign, the fear of falling is still here, not just because of the recession and the increased rate of unemployment but because the French society seems structurally stuck and that is a major source of social anxiety. This social anxiety is the topic of Eric Maurin‘s latest book. But for Maurin, one must distinguish between the subjective (yet socially-constructed and maintained) fear of falling from thre objective probability of such brutal downward mobility, which affects mostly the already-marginalized categories of the population.
As Maurin notes, the fear of falling is widespread across social classes. What is happening in France is that public policy has long been designed to protect those who already have a job rather than adequately support those who don’t. As a result, there is a widening social gap between status workers (those with indefinite contracts) and those affected by precarization and it is more and more difficult for the latter category to join the former.
These specific statuses are the products of social conflicts that are now strongly embedded in the social structure, just as statuses used to be family inheritance under the Ancien Régime (Sarkozy’s son notwithstanding). This makes the French society more rigid than other developed counterparts and it makes entering the labor market more difficult. In this context, college degree have become more and more crucial, and with it, the fear of failing is omnipresent because so much is at stake. Credentialism then becomes an important factor in the degree of precarization one experiences.
One strategy then adopted by young workers is to look more and more for employment in the public sector and the social protections this type of employment provides. This has resulted in a phenomenon of overqualification as people trade qualification and money for job security. Which, for Maurin, means that no government will be able to reform the public sector since its employees worked so hard to work there, as was already illustrated by the social movement of 1995 (Hey, I was there!). This shift of the middle-class more heavily into public employment is perfectly illustrated by the results of two referenda on the EU: the success of the vote on the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and the rejection of the EU Constitution in 2005. The transition from one type of vote to the other corresponds to the greater presence of educated middle-class in the public sector and the need to protect their statute.
As a result, the middle-class public employees also become the representatives of the privately-employed middle-class in their rejection of neo-liberal policies implemented by the elites. But, for Maurin, the economic recession will push the government to limit its expenses, which will conflict with public sector employees in the defense of their statute.
What are the solutions then? For Maurin, the conundrum is that the possible responses to the déclassement are contradictory to the responses of the fear of déclassement. In order to avoid déclassement, public policies should involve strengthening social protections that already privilege the already-employed (such as bringing back the administrative authorization for lay-offs). And to alleviate the fear of déclassement, public policy should strive to reduce the gap between statutory employees, who are relatively protected, and those who experience greater precarization.
I think Maurin thinks too much in binary “vases communiquants” terms: either take away the protections of the already-employed to provide more to the precarized, or continue the status quo that is detrimental to the non-statutory workers. Ultimately, he wishes for more universal protections but there is no real specifications of what he means: lower levels of protection for all as some sort of balancing act, “rob Peter to pay Paul” kind of thing? He does not say.