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When Le Mal Francais was first published in France in 1976, it became an instant best-seller: after all, here was the Minister of Justice (in Giscard d'Estaing's government) lambasting his countrymen for being defeatist, decadent (chiefly because of the declining birth rate), overly centralized, and a host of other ills. Now that the political universe has changed dramatically in France, the book is, at least momentarily, something of a relic--most interesting as a gauge against which to measure the efforts of a socialist government committed, in particular, to decentralization (and already putting it into effect). But even at the time of its appearance, Peyrefitte's indictment was more noteworthy for its authorship than its content. The malady of overcentralization he attributes to Napoleonic administrative reforms--forgetting that France was already the most centralized state in Europe, ignoring the lost opportunity to move in the opposite direction (as other states did) in the 19th century. With absolute power in the hands of the government, he maintains, a culture of all or nothing grew up. Peyrefitte castigates the unions, for example, for being unwilling to share power through management participation, as in Germany (disregarding the possibility of legitimate conflicts of interest--the reason unions in other countries have held back too). On firmer ground, he notes that the bureaucracy came to dominate the administrators, leaving the populace with a ""you can't fight city hall"" attitude. Otherwise, Peyrefitte gets in some shots at French intellectuals, complaining that France has produced too few Nobel scientists (and too many Nobel writers); he contrasts French schools unfavorably with Eton, where he found discipline and camaraderie (and where the creation of ""old boys"" out of the elite's young--on the famed playing fields--doesn't strike him as in the least ridiculous). Writing from the vantage point of his many ministerial positions (including education) and his experience as a town mayor, Peyrefitte has cause for complaint: his own efforts at reform were invariably stifled. But this is the same Peyrefitte whose heavy-handed use of power as justice minister helped bring about the results of the last election. What will be worth seeing is whether his successors, once in office, also succumb.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf