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Vive La France... mais juste les meilleures pièces

French-flag.jpgWhat makes living in France so confusing and frustrating is that there is so much to despise and criticize and yet also so much to love, inspire, and emulate. These contradictions would create a kind of serious cognitive dissonance if living here weren't made so easy, if the quality of life wasn't so darn good, which is exactly what the postwar Gaullist bargain had intended to achieve: social stability and lassitude in return for the fruits of the leisure society.

So while on the surface it's tempting to dismiss the country as irrelevant and in decline, and while aspects of this Gaullist bargain may be unravelling, dig deeper down and it becomes clear that France has got much right -- both in theory and practice. Life expectancy, in France, for instance, has now topped 80 years, the second highest in the world after Japan. Something is working. Focusing on the parts that aren't working -- which is what outsiders with a grudge love to do -- only makes this hard to see, thus all of these so-called "French paradoxes." Nationalistic mud-slinging clearly gets in the way of understanding; and admittedly, it's only natural to not openly admire someone who is also arrogant. Add to this language and cultural barriers: as I've learned the hard way, an Anglo Saxon mindset won't get you very far in seeing le systême for all its strengths and weaknesses.

This mix of the best-and-the-worst also pervades the sustainability and environmental scene in France. With the triumphs come the travesties. Yet rising above these contradictions an amazing path-breaking development just happened in France: an environmental charter, championed by Jacques Chirac, was enshrined in France's constitution last month. As The Economist reports,, "This puts the right to live in a healthy environment on the same legal footing in France as human rights, setting the country up as a pioneer in environmental protection -- and Mr Chirac as potential saviour of the planet." (Said, of course, oh-so-British-tongue-in-cheek.) Like any good French person, one needs to reflexively distrust any top down action by politicians. So we'll see if this is just a paper tiger. But the French, like the Americans, view their constitution as sacred, so I doubt this is just a symbolic gesture.

Contrasting Chirac with Bush is interesting sport as well: while arguably both venal and double-dealing in their own ways, the French president is now an indisputable green president -- a proud écolo to compete with the likes of his eco-European peers -- whereas Bush seems to be going in the opposite direction with a record showing a systematic dismantlement of America's institutions and laws protecting the environment. (By the way, Bill Moyers lists some of these in a must read polemic, however dishearting, "Welcome to Doomsday", that explains the inverse correlation between evangelicals and environmentalism. Hot stuff.)

This development transcends the desires of the politicians as well. The French people do have a deep emotional and intellectual attachment to their land that goes well beyond the self-serving impulse for upholding agricultural subsidies and protectionism, which is how most outsiders interpret their actions in this area. Much more is going on. Connecting to the countryside, la campagne profonde, has an almost existential drive behind it. And when French people talk about le terroir [teh-RWAHR] -- the name for "soil" that creates the uniqueness of a wine or regional food speciality -- they get a misty, transcendent look in their eyes.

Indeed, in our history-free society we quickly forget just how much France has contributed to the world. I confess to this myopia, something that changed only after moving here. But I soon rediscovered that many of our prevailing ideas and driving assumptions come from France, for better or worse. Despite what Bush reputedly said, the word for "entrepreneur" actually originated in France when it was still a hotbed of innovation, sometime after the Middle Ages, as the feudal and guild systems collapsed. In more recent times France has gestated and unleashed countless sea-changing things, everything from germ theory, to Picasso’s cubist breakthough, to the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, to the Enlightenment Thinkers, to the concept of "restaurants", and the idea for the first shopping mall (Mr. Bon Marche), to the many denizens of art, fashion and design too many to list.


Similarly, while France may not be as green as Germany or its Scandinavian neighbours, we also shouldn't forget that this is the country of the late Jacques Cousteau (image left), the charismatic inventor and activist who did more than most to create the global environmental movement. So at this moment I say "Vive La France!" Let's hope as globalization drives further economic convergence and cultural homogenization, France continues to build on its past history and values, and pioneer different approaches to how we should to live, work and play on this planet. The best thing for the world is for France to continue being France, to maintain her distinctiveness, however tempestuous that makes for our interactions with her. Even if France is in decline -- impressively, the topic of much intellectual debate here (did the British do the same during their denouement I wonder?) -- this doesn't mean we can learn from her, appropriating the best of her social model, ideas, and contributions and then repurposing them in our own contexts. Changing our constitutions to acknowledge the rights of the environment, while daunting politically, is a good place to start. Indeed, if France can do it, many other countries can too.

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I just want to point out the typo in "terroir" (not "terrior"). The word comes from "Terre", which means "Earth".

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 30 Mar 05

(typo fixed)

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Mar 05

It's wonderful to see this piece, but interesting that you chose to open the essay by attaching the words "confusing" and "frustrating" to living in France.

I spent a year with my children in a modest (6,000 people) and, frankly, rather poor rural town in France, and would be hard put to find a place that works "better" or makes more sense, on every level from the family hearth to the regional administration.

I live in Portland, OR, which prides itself and welcomes the world to its doorstep with the slogan "the city that works." Portland has a lot going for it, too. Even arrogance, some might say. But there is a great deal we could learn here in the "capital of livability" from French cities and towns.

I was struck in France by the number of good decisions, many of them made centuries ago, that continue to enhance life, conviviality, the health of the countryside, etc. For the most part, French people honor those decisions. Of course there are countertrends and dismaying instances of stupidity. France is a highly complex society. But I returned to the USA with the question of how many of our societal decisions were likely to endure as long, or show so much visible benefit so far into the future.

Not many, I'm afraid. So I have to agree: "Vive la France!"

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 30 Mar 05

Yes, I also love to visit France and enjoy its wonderful culture, beautiful countryside, and amazing food.

And, of course, plentiful power supplied by nuclear plants helps to keep the air clear and may someday produce lots of hydrogen for non-polluting fuel cell cars.

However, come on! This is a country that has allowed unemployment to remain in the 10% range not just for the couple of years of a recession but for decades.

What kind of society decides it's better that a substantial proportion of the populace go permanently without jobs rather than ask those with jobs to give up even a fraction of their government guaranteed goodies and security?

Sure, productivity is extremely high in France. That's because companies do anything they possibly can to avoid hiring anyone since once hired it is extremely difficult and expensive to lay anyone off during slowdowns. And, of course, the companies must pay for exorbitant benefits and taxes.

The US has had something like 40 million immigrants since 1970, mostly from poor countries. Even the most uneducated, unskilled persons can find entry level jobs and gradually improved their lot. Poor immigrants that manage to get into France end up jobless forever. Sure they get on the dole but what kind of life is that?

I have a friend who became a professor at a university near Paris. He couldn't understand at first why half of the students in his classes were either reading the newspaper or talking at full voice to one another. Turned out that most of the students were subsidized as long as they stayed in school. He discovered also that it was virtually impossible to fail any of them for poor performance or even for cheating.

And what in the world was that 35 hour work week about? At those hyper-elite schools for future government leaders, aren't students taught anything about the lump of labor fallacy? I see that now the French have finally given up on this failed policy.

I could go on about other serious problems such as the fact that France has deficits as high as in the US (as a proportion of their GDP) despite having much higher taxes. (Chirac and Schroeder recently shredded the EU rules on punishments for countries that remain above a 3% deficit.) But unlike the US, they don't get high growth rates in exchange for their deficits.

Despite all this, I fully believe that someone could still make a rational argument that the French lifestyle is well worth these shortcomings. But it should also be very clear that a rational argument can easily be made that applying similar economic policies to the US (or most anywhere else) would result in nothing but a catastrophe.

Posted by: Clark on 30 Mar 05

Interesting analysis. Who could have thought that Chirac would ever become so enlightened! The biggest macchiavelist hawk in French politics is becoming a symbol of resistance against the culturally nivellating effects of la mondialisation, against anglosaxon hegemony, against neoliberal economic irresponsability and against the new unilateral world order.

I think France has a lot to go for in today's world:

-its vast, subtle and influential network of diplomatic relations sets an example for much needed soft-diplomacy (in stark contrast to the blunt, confrontational, antagonistic and often simply flawed way of dealing with things which is so typical of the American administration today)
-its open plea for a multilateral, multipolar world order, endorsed by many
-its strong Jacobin tradition of state power: in a world where neoliberal free flows create transnational power networks which sidestep the power of the nation-state and threaten its social achievements, a reaffirmation of Jacobinism suddenly becomes a very refreshing alternative
-its interesting secular traditions (expressed in its cultural politics and its stance on multiculturalism; with a great recent example: no religious symbols in the public sphere, equality for all on this front) and its anti-nationalist notion of citoyenneté, which the entire world can learn from

Of course, then there's a long series of quasi-miraculous social achievements arrived at since WWII and perfected by France:

-the best health care system on the planet, most transparent, and accessible to all citizens
-a very strong, inclusivist system of social security
-a fantastic tradition (starting since May 68) of civil society forcing its way up to becoming the single most important player in the participatory democracy and its policies (some may describe this as "France always striking", but it's more than that)
-one of the world's most inclusivist and high standard educational systems (no elite schools at the lower levels; le bac pour tout le monde)

You mention the philosophes, I would just add their more contemporary counterparts:
-who of us hasn't read Sartre, Camus, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Baudrillard, Virillio or Badiou (the list is very very impressive, compared to say, the US, with Chomsky, at best!)
-their influence has been worldchanging; they're the heroes of the altermondialist movement, they've influenced all humanities departments on the planet like no group of people ever has; their collective body of ideas has radically changed our world, with influences in fields as diverse as architecture, design, information technology, development aid, cultural politics, and even defense technology.

Finally, all things considered, France is also the spine of the EU. It's always been its motor. And that in itself is a major achievement, the effects of which are still exerting their influence on contemporary political transformations.

As you can see, I'm a big fan of contemporary France. But then, I'm from Belgium and over here we say: "everything that is created in France, can and will be used chez nous".

Posted by: Lorenzo on 31 Mar 05



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