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National liberalisms in a neoliberal age: ideas and economic adjustment in contemporary France and Germany


In contrast to prevailing claims of neoliberal hegemony, this article argues that French and German trajectories of adjustment have diverged from standard neoliberal recipes in important ways. France has accompanied liberalization with macroeconomically oriented measures designed to bolster aggregate demand, while Germany has imposed the burden of reform on outsiders while shielding insiders from the costs of adjustment. This article argues that differences in French and German policy trajectories are informed by distinctive national liberalisms—‘statist liberalism’ in the French case and ‘corporate liberalism’ in Germany—that entail divergent models of state intervention, social organization, and political accountability, while rejecting standard neoliberal prescriptions. It develops these claims through an analysis of French and German labour-market reforms in the 1990s and 2000s and policy responses to the post-2007 crisis. It argues that a focus on the political power of ideas is crucial for understanding broad national adjustment strategies across institutional, policy, and partisan contexts.

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  1. Cerny (2016: 83–84) argues that the historical reliance of capitalist markets on state intervention shows that ‘the conditions for market efficiency do not arise spontaneously from human (or social) interaction’.

  2. In this respect, Gamble builds upon Polanyi’s (1957) conception of the ‘double movement’, whereby the deployment of the state as an instrument of market creation generates societal pressures for the state to buffer society from market vagaries.

  3. I derive this term from the Latin corpus, or ‘body’. Contemporary references to ‘Ordoliberal’ Germany fail to capture the evolution of German economic thinking since the 1950s or the emphasis on groups that predated its emergence.

  4. My use of ‘mesoeconomics’ echoes earlier work on the concept, notably Holland (1987).

  5. Here and throughout, I use the term ‘Keynesian’ to describe measures designed to sustain demand and foster economic growth, whether in the form of discretionary spending or automatic stabilizers. I do not intend to suggest that elites were willing to fund such efforts through heavily counter-cyclical deficit spending.

  6. In the case of labour, this distrust was codified in the Le Chapelier Law of 1791, which banned guilds. It also echoed and was reinforced by Revolutionaries’ anti-clericalism, which stemmed from the Catholic Church’s connection to the ancien régime.

  7. This tension between unions as organizations and workers as beneficiaries would find echoes in the German case, though according to a very different logic, as I describe below.

  8. Such income-support programs had been consistently expanded during the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in an increase in aggregate social spending from 25.2% of GDP in 1985 (after President Mitterrand’s abandonment of dirigisme) to 28.7% in 2005 (OECD 2017).

  9. This hesitation stemmed from conflict between the Labour Ministry, which favoured a robust response, and the Finance Ministry, which wanted to rely on existing automatic stabilizers (interview, official, Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Soziales, Berlin, 20 July 2015).


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The author wishes to thank Robert Adcock, Mark Blyth, Robert Fannion, Wade Jacoby, Naomi Levy, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, and the participants at the “Future of Work” Conference at Rutgers University in March 2016 for helpful comments on portions of this article; the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford for institutional support during a sabbatical during which portions of this material were conceptualized; and two anonymous reviewers at Comparative European Politics for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Vail, M.I. National liberalisms in a neoliberal age: ideas and economic adjustment in contemporary France and Germany. Comp Eur Polit 18, 109–127 (2020).

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  • Fiscal policy
  • Labour-market policy
  • France
  • Germany
  • Liberalism
  • Liberalization