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La Culture de la Différence

The French are economically obsolete, no? But they have a point.



In the spirit of full disclosure, I love France. I love the French. Perhaps it’s the way they stuff geese and ducks to bursting just so they can harvest those poor birds’ livers for fois gras. It’s so cruel, yet the results are so delicious. Perhaps it’s the fact that, except for Air and Daft Punk, they’ve produced few listenable pop or rock bands yet remain the most hip, fashionable people on earth. I scratch my head over films by Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer but know for a fact that director Robert Bresson was God.

Given their colonial enterprise in Algeria, they knew about the realities of occupying and torturing a Muslim nation long before we embarked on our current folly. No wonder they told us to take a hike over Iraq.

The French are honest. Take our founding political figures, for example. While technically Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had little problem advocating for the rights of children while, at the same time, admitting he’d abandoned the illegitimate ones he’d sired. Still, his idea of the General Will helped father the French Revolution in 1789 and, subsequently, the world’s first declaration of human rights'one full year before our Bill of Rights was established. We, on the other hand, can barely admit that Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slave while spouting the virtue of equality.

Don’t buy that nonsense about some mythic relationship between our two countries. The Statue of Liberty was a generous gift. Even more so was our part in the Allied invasion of Normandy. But Louis XVI did not save our upstart troops at Yorktown in 1781 because he loved our Yankee forefathers. He did it to spite the British for destroying France’s Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. We returned the favor in 1803 when we bought the Louisiana Purchase for a song.

It’s a pity that I’ve never been to France. But as everyone knows, most French won’t walk across the street to piss on a foreigner, much less a stupid American. They bristle when you don’t speak French. They bristle when you speak French but mangle the grammar. You can’t win. We deserve the French, if only because they should remind us of ourselves. The French are arrogant, elitist and xenophobic. Americans are pious, pushy, violent and borderline racist. We watched Muslim youth riot in Paris with a condescending air but ignored the fact that, while thousands of cars were torched, few people were killed. Fifty-five perished in Los Angeles’ 1992 riots.

The other reason I’ve never been to France is that this is a nation forever on strike. Tourists risk getting stuck in the middle of transportation workers’ demands. That puts a wrench in your precious vacation schedule, and we get little of that compared to the French birthright of an average 30 days off. New Yorkers went mental last December when subway and bus workers walked off the job for three days, their first strike in years. French transportation workers think nothing of striking 25 times per year. Even France’s part-time show-business workers, who collect a whole year’s worth of unemployment benefits for three months of work annually, strike when they’re not even working. A very smart trick, that.

This brings us, belatedly, to the current student riots over a new law designed to create more jobs for French students entering the workforce for the first time. An anemic measure, it would allow employers to fire employees under the age of 26 without cause during the first two years on the job. It’s difficult to hire at all if you can’t get rid of dead weight, so a brave contingent of French economic reformers have every reason to believe this will create more jobs in the long run.

Problem is, French students are too full of self-defeating absurdities. It’s May 1968 all over again: “Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible!” In other words, where’s my job for life, pal?!

American economists love putting France down. Unemployment there hasn’t fallen below 10 percent in ages. Taxes are so high, many talented French left their country for brighter pastures. A whopping 25 percent of the population works for the government. Pensions are so generous that 60-year-old retirees do better than working 35-year-olds. Instead of creating jobs, the French treat work as something to be rationed. So everyone works 35 hours per week. That, though, is where the French have us beat.

It’s a painful cliché that time is money. Actually it’s far more precious than that because, once spent, all the money in the world cannot bring back time spent. This is where the French become perhaps the richest people in the world. We value material possessions and money. The French, it seems, value time above all else. We mock their pitiful workweek, their generous vacation time. It can’t possibly be sustained, we say. But contrary to our predictions, which date back years, the French have found ways to sustain it.

Sure, we’ve got a GDP that’s the envy of the world. We also have little in the way of time off, a child poverty rate that’s an embarrassment, and an unemployment rate that fails to count the nearly one in 20 Americans currently incarcerated, not to mention the 4.7 million of us who stopped looking for work a long time ago. We have more jobs, but many pay so little that we subsidize them through the Earned Income Tax Credit, not to mention Medicaid when employers can’t, or won’t, offer health insurance. Our workers, like those in California, resort to lawsuits when employers like Wal-Mart refuse them so much as a 30-minute unpaid lunch break after six hours of work.

The French may well be unrealistic and work-phobic. But they stand up for themselves. They demand the impossible, and they get it.