Sunday, November 18, 2012

French Paradoxes

At so many levels, France and the United States seem to hold contrasting if not opposed values: the Americans are more prone to self-reliance, action (including war) and black-and-white rhetoric when the French believe in the nanny state, co-operation, diplomacy and ambiguity. To paraphrase Robert Kagan's famous words, one might easily conclude that the Americans are from Mars, and the French from VenusThis fits American clichés: it emphasizes the view of a dominant America (Mars after all is the God of War) and a submissive Europe. (cf. John Gray's "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus")

But of course, if you ask the French, they will not think that their values are particularly feminine, but rather 'civilized' and they might just see America's masculine assertion as mere bullying. So it is little surprise that the French tend see America's love story for guns as uncivilized and the Americans may see the French reliance on negotiation  and discussion as a paralyzing weakness. Yet, as we have amply discussed before on this blog, reality is far more complex. It has always been our belief that not only our values, but our entire worldview and mindset are the product of our history and social environment, and it is extremely hard to change that or harder still, to understand another's. 

This is why this week's Economist's lengthy report on France is an excellent read. It will help Americans understand where the French come from, and the French see another 'Anglo-Saxon' view of their own perspective. Always a good lesson. 

Beyond their provocative cover, The Economist has a great analysis of the complexity of French culture and economy. This is rare in a magazine, and even if one might disagree with some of their conclusions and/or solutions and remedies, their analyses are fair, balanced and well founded.  


Just as it is impossible to understand what seems like America's love for guns without taking into account her historical background , including the Frontier myth, it is impossible to understand the French idea that the government must steer the economy without looking at its historical roots, going back at least to the 17th century when Louis XIV supposedly asserted 'L'Etat, c'est moi' and when 
"the state-financed Canal du Midi. His finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, founded the Saint Gobain mirror factory and took over the Gobelins tapestry firm. In the 18th century the state established the royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in the Doubs."
One could ad that the French identity was shaped by the centralized state: it unified a diverse country by imposing (coercively) a common language that defined the culture and the nation. This is partly why the French are so defensive of their language and so reluctant to learn others. It is the core of their national identity. 
Talking about language, it might be interesting to note that the word 'government' is 'l'Etat' (the state), and the government is the political administration or cabinet, while the administration is the administrative organ of the state. It emphasizes the permanence of the state, while cabinets come and go. Despite more political power given to the regions, the local authorities are never referred to as a local government. 
In France, thus, l'Etat is not seen as an obstruction to individual freedom but as a source of neutral empowerment of citizens. As such it is supposed to guarantee liberty, equality and fraternity (through education and justice for instance). This is a legacy of the Revolution, the mythical birth of modern France. 


The problem is that the French are literally obsessed with equality even though, as the Economist reminds us France is now a rarity in that inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is actually lower today than it was in the mid-1980s. 
This may be why the French are "instinctively hostile to capitalism" and has a "deeply anti-business culture." 
....  economics textbooks in schools and universities generally take a more hostile view of free markets and a more favourable one of state intervention than those in other countries. Opinion polls show that the French are less keen on Anglo-American free markets than people in other countries. Asked if capitalism is functioning reasonably well and should be preserved, only 15% of respondents in France say yes, compared with 45% in Britain, 55% in America and 65% in supposedly communist China What is missing in France is a discussion about the contradiction between professed ideals and concrete realities - something akin to hypocrisy that the French may not be aware of. This is partly hypocrisy: despite its apparent distaste for American imports, France has more McDonald’s restaurants than any other big country in Europe, and American-style coffee shops have made inroads into the market of traditional French cafés.
This may also have to do with a traditional suspicion of money at the heart of the political rhetoric:  

not only Mitterrand (who denounced “all the power of money”) but also de Gaulle, who declared that “my only enemy, and that of France, has never ceased to be money,” and Edouard Balladur, a former Gaullist prime minister who once defined civilisation as the struggle against the market. 

The reason may be that for a long time, money was perceived as often inherited and thus not legitimate. 
Ad to that the fact that the French political elite is structurally disconnected from economic realities: 

Few have any business or international experience or speak any foreign languages. Most are graduates of one of the grandes écoles (Mr Sarkozy was an exception, but with Mr Hollande the country has resumed its habit of choosing énarques as presidents). Most ministers, even on the lower pay set by Mr Hollande, work in grand town houses dotted around central Paris and are ferried about in cars (you seldom see a minister on the metro). All this breeds a detachment from reality that strengthens an innate belief in statism, a mistrust of free markets and a hostility to the world of finance and commerce, all deeply entrenched in the French body politic
The current crisis may force the French leaders to take a new reality check. It also shows an increasing dichotomy between who do not govern (and can strike a chord by professing some ideals that may appeal to a lot of French people, even though it is totally disconnected from reality), and those who govern and have to take the reality of the world into account. Once in power, the socialist party has for instance been much more moderate and pragmatic than their rhetoric might have let you believe. 

Words, Not Deeds

This is another characteristics of France: the discrepancy between words and actual deeds. The French love words, (look at their obsession with literature and how self-professed intellectuals are the gurus of the media), but sometimes, the words in France are just words. 
In a similar vein, you may want to take French pessimism with a grain of salt: 

The mood of ordinary French people is, indeed, startlingly bleak. But then the French are born pessimists. In one poll in 2011 four-fifths of the German respondents were positive about the future whereas four-fifths of the French ones were negative. Another poll found that no other Europeans were as pessimistic as the French.
The French do not believe in the future, yet they have more babies that about any other Western country, including the United States. French pessimism must be taken with a grain of salt. Expressing optimism in France is akin to naiveté - a major fault in a country that reveres the intellect. (One might also suspect this is reflexion of French education that induces anxieties - look a how the French take all kinds of anti-anxity pills - One way to alleviate anxieties is to express fears and thus believe we can be ready and survive if the worst should happen.). 

French Paradoxes

Two other contradictions that The Economist was quick to point and deserve national discussions in France: 

How the French love Europe only when they can influence it: 

Many French politicians believe that the EU has changed from a project that was designed partly in France’s interests—for example, getting German taxpayers to pay a large chunk of subsidies to French farmers—into one that frequently acts against them. They are painfully aware that France has less influence in an EU of 27 countries than it did in one of six, nine or 15, whereas a unified Germany has a lot more. Even the French language, once dominant in the corridors of Brussels, has lost out to English. To some in Paris this is symptomatic of the triumph of Anglo-Saxon liberalism inside the European institutions. France led the opposition to the notorious (in Paris) “Bolkestein” directive that tried unsuccessfully to free up EU trade in services (and enrich the continent).

How the Republic is shaped like a monarchy, with a more or less irrelevant parliament, and therefore a lack of actual debates:

French political leaders are so reluctant to cede more power to Brussels is that, under the constitution of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, they have such a lot of it. In most European countries coalition governments are the norm, so elected parliaments are robustly independent. In France, save for the occasional periods of cohabitation, the president is all-powerful, able to pick and choose prime ministers and members of the government at will and largely unchallenged by any parliamentary opposition. Presidential authority also benefits from France’s relatively weak and often fawning media.This has several undesirable consequences. One is that opposition in France, rather than making itself heard in parliamentary or public debates, often takes the form of street demonstrations. 
French politics in the Fifth Republic is also unusually personalised. Political parties have a tendency to become vehicles for their leaders.
Here's a most interesting consequence: opposition in France, rather than making itself heard in parliamentary or public debates, often takes the form of street demonstrations. 
This structure can also be found, I'm afraid, in French firms and private enterprises. 


The Economist also had plenty of positive things to say about France, and I have just pointed some of the most useful points, in my view, that can hep understand the French better. There is plenty more to read, however, especially when it comes to the economy. 
One of the most important thing to remember about France is that it is neither a southern nor a northern European country, but a balance between the two: a mix of "northern puritanism" and "southern laxity", as this report smartly puts it. 

Let's at least hope that the cliché of America being form Mars and Europe from Venus, however false it may be, will at least help our two continents get along. After all, Mars was one of Venus's lovers. 

1 comment:

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