The perpetual French growth industry is government. At 54 percent of GDP, the state is large even by European standards. A quarter of French workers are employed by the government, double the rate of 1970. Not surprisingly, a nation of bureaucrats has not proven itself supple nor innovative. According to the Financial Times, "about half of the French electorate is dependent on the state for wages, benefits or pensions" -- a powerful voting bloc in favor of the state and of stasis.
France is a lesson in the perils of reactionary conservatism and of ideology. Prior to World War I, the country had a robustly free-market economy. But the recovery from World War II mightily increased the prestige of government planning. Ever since, a robust state has been associated with economic health, although the conditions favorable to central planning disappeared decades ago. Meanwhile, an anti-free-market, anti-"Anglo-Saxon" ideology blinds the French political elite to the folly of their Gallic statism.
There are recent examples of countries mired in decline breaking out of their funk -- foremost among them Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Sarkozy's reformist rhetoric has had critics calling him an "American neocon with a French passport" (would it were so), but he toned down his rhetoric on the eve of winning the first round of presidential voting this week. Even if he beats the more-of-the-same candidate Royal in the runoff, he might be hard-pressed to deliver on promises of change.
In which case, France still will have something to recommend it: the museums.