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71 Working Paper

France, Globalization, and Global Protectionism

Dec 1, 2023 Sophie Meunier


In spite of its mercantilist past, France has reluctantly converted to market liberalism and trade liberalization, both as the unintended byproduct of European integration and as a conscious effort by policy-makers. As a result, we should expect France to break free from the traditionally protectionist demands of special interests and instead promote a more open international trade agenda. Nevertheless, the dominant political debate in France today centers precisely on the issue of how much control the nation should retain over its borders. This article analyzes why the theme of “globalization” has met with such a resonance in French public opinion and why France has taken the international lead in fighting the spread of globalization. I argue that the apparent paradox of the French discourse on trade highlights a general shift in the dominant paradigm of trade politics worldwide. The trade debate no longer rests on the traditional openness vs. protectionist dichotomy, but has been recast as Anglo-Saxon globalization vs. preservation of national and cultural identity. The novel features of this new protectionism are, first, that it transcends traditional political cleavages and, second, that it claims to be protecting the interests of the nation as a whole (if not humankind), instead of the special interest of small groups. I call this “global protectionism.” This article first traces the evolution of the anti-globalization discourse in French politics. It then focuses on international factors and on French domestic explanations to account for the extraordinary appeal of the anti-globalization agenda in France. Finally, this article analyzes the potential of the antiglobalization theme for reshaping the domestic political landscape, the course of European integration, and the world political economy.