The French disease

I have just returned from yet another charmed holiday in the post-revolutionary Socialist Republic of France, to see old friends and family. Whatever economic indicators we Anglo-Saxons pour over with glee to prove the imminent demise of of this cocky exception francaise, France remains obstinately seductive, beautiful and elegant.

Before my trip, I had been reading the correspondence of early 19th century French economist and journalist Frederique Bastiat. Even in 1846 he was able to bitterly observe that there was not one French politician in either of their houses of Parliament that believed in, or advocated, free trade. He explained that the French suspicion of la perfide Albion was such that a rumour going around was that if two and two made four in England, it would probably only make three in France. Unsurprisingly, The Economist recently noted, “Nowhere is contempt for free enterprise, and its linked evils of wealth and profits, more intense than in France”.

According to a World Value Survey, to cite one example, only 22 percent of French people believe owners should run their businesses and appoint managers, while as much as 58 percent of Americans agree with this statement. An academic I spoke to from the modern and progressive international business school, ESSEC, just outside of Paris in Cergy, explained that this attitude has been part and parcel of the French social landscape for more than two centuries, going back to when Louis XVI dismissed his free-market finance minister. Indicative of a lack of public discussion on this issue, he gave me the impression that in today’s France there are few, if any, notable or politically influential free-market think tanks as we have in the English speaking world. One central problem is that modern economics as taught in French schools and universities has barely changed these viewpoints. The antagonism to free market ideas is illustrated by Theodore Dalrymple in his observation that France’s labour-market rigidities are a conscious opposition to the supposed savagery of the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal model. As he dryly points out, “if sexual hypocrisy is the vice of the Anglo-Saxons, economic hypocrisy is the vice of the French.”

My socialist friends in Paris tell me that President François Hollande should not be feared for his platform to end austerity and spend. They assure me he is cutting as fast as he can but without saying so. This, of course, is a big ask. France has consistently been running deficits for the last thirty years. Nevertheless, there is some economic self-awareness in Paris.

Whilst I was there, Christopher Barbier in L’Express was able to write, “The paradox of socialism is to pretend to redistribute the wealth to create the growth, so that wealth will appear, to then better seize it to redistribute it”. At least the elites are able to joke about it. At one dinner in Paris, I provoked those present with a slogan from a recent student demo: “We don’t want to have to work just to earn a living”. Immediately, the host got up and played a well know French song, “Je ne veux pas travailler”. This was followed by self mocking citations from the ’68 student revolt: “Under the cobblestones is the beach”. The favourite, given Europe’s immediate dire circumstances, “We are not in love with a growth rate of 6 percent.”

I caught up again with a dear friend at his magnificent chateau in the Rhone Valley, with its formal French gardens and unpretentious Beaujolais grown on the estate. With hard work and much risk taking, he has built up the property into a viable chamber d’hote. However, he is a reminder of the tension between the productive hard working private sector, and those on the public teat. Two of his children, as so many others, have fled France for work. Little known is that equal numbers of young French leave France for England to work as do English to France. The only difference is the English are old, and come to retire.

Whilst in the Beaujolais, I called in to see another friend, an antique dealer in his exquisite 16th century house in the centre of Cluny, stuffed to the rafters with equally old furnishings, paintings and objects d’art. He gives another meaning to shabby chic. Very shabby, very chic. Out to lunch with him, we were joined by a French/Australian wine maker, on holiday in France. He happens to work in central Victoria. On an otherwise enjoyable holiday in France, I find myself sparring over Gillard’s politics in far away Australia. Inevitably, I am vigorously defending my colleague Andrew Bolt. This “French bo-bo leftie” immigrant is going to report me to his friend Justice Mordy Bromberg on his return. Is this what globalisation has come to? To diffuse the jocular tension, he shares with me the fact that the dish I am eating, an excellent Tete de Veau Sauce Gribiche, was a favourite with President Chirac. It immediately tastes sweeter.

As on arriving, as on leaving, Charles de Gaulle airport, always manages to look like something out of a third world country. Chaotic, crowded and bordelique, the baggage-handler strikes, the crowds, the inconsistent and inadequate signage and ad hoc management of check-in counters and queues all seem a symbol of France’s economic mismanagement, or perhaps is it simply a gross example of the notorious French indifference to providing efficient and friendly service to members of the public.

Whatever. Between the ubiquitous, government price-pegged but very tasty baguette, and the warm engaging people, France is as delightful as ever. As for its financial crisis, it is not yet visible.

Andrew McIntyre is the editor of The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences [Connor Court] and blogs at www.andrewmcintyre.org

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