France after France


The protest continues today in France.  The New York Times reports 450,000 people marching outside Paris and hundreds of thousands marching inside the city.  A French union puts the figure at 3 million nation wide.

The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs for young people.  This is why the state wants to change the law.  This is why the protesters wish to keep the law unchanged.

Hmmm.   Everyone wants more jobs for young people, but contestation turns on simple contradiction.  More choice for companies!  No, less choice for companies!

It’s a cultural problem.  Anthropologists are supposed to search out the deepest assumptions on which beliefs and ideas are founded.  (Every anthropology major knows the story of Milton Singer in the field.  He was told that the universe rests on a turtle.  When he asked was "under the turtle," there was a brief pause, and he was then informed that it was "turtles all the way down.") 

The French appear to cling to the notion that the marketplace must do the bidding of the social good, that it may be constrained and coerced until, for instance, the job security of young people is assured.  If we were to ask what’s under this "turtle," they would almost certainly tell us (or variously imply) that the world is a manageable, tractable place that responds to the administrative efforts of politicians, civil servants and other elites.  There are lots of things that betray this French confidence in "order from on high."  This little assumption (the "tractable world" assumption, let’s call it) funds a good deal of life in France.

Hah!  Americans think otherwise.  The tractable world idea has fled the land, even Iowa.

Dick Gephardt…ran in Iowa as an anti-dynamism candidate: Protect jobs, protect unions, put up tariffs and barriers, anti-immigration, anti-free-trade. He got his clock cleaned. I was born in Iowa, and if he can’t make that argument work in Iowa, it won’t work anywhere. (Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape)

Under many ideological notions in America, there is a single idea.  This is that if we leave the marketplace to its own devices, wealth will be forthcoming and the social good will be served. 

But in recent years, there is a still deeper turtle, one that has to do the sheer profusive creativity of the marketplace.  I refer once more to the gospel according to Andreessen.

To get philosophical for a minute, I believe (as Milton Friedman says) that human wants and needs are infinite. There are no limits to the things and services that people want or need, so there are no limits to the number of new technologies, companies, and industries we can create. The questions are: how many people worldwide are able to contribute, how much capital is available to them, and how free are they to pursue new ideas?

This argument says that the marketplace should be left relatively unconstrained not just because it is the fount of wealth, but because it is a fount of human invention, creativity and culture. 

Now, I do not doubt that there are many French men and women who are now migrating from "order from on high" to "plenitude from below."  But, as I think Mark Twain once said, it’s awfully hard to change turtles in the middle of the stream.  The special problem for the French is that so much Frenchess assumes the "order from on high" notion.  French culture now looks like the Vista programming at Microsoft.  We can change some of the fundamental notions, but then we’d have to rewrite most of the code that produces social life.  It wouldn’t be easy.  It wouldn’t be pretty.  Gasp, it wouldn’t be elegant!

Of course, the French can do it.  They have produced some of the great minds in the social sciences.  They are effortlessly good at conceptualizing.  The intellectual world is a spectator sport, so mass engagement is not a problem.  Naturally, they will undertake this surrender to individualism in their best collectivist spirit.  They will think their way forward to new ideas, they will work their way from new ideas to all the tiny implications they hold for daily life.  They will manage to rewrite the 47 million lines of code that make up La France.

And there will come a moment of drama that will simultaneously thrill and appall them.  Eventually, it will be necessary to stop conceptualizing…and launch.  And this will have to be the moment when, by agreement, the collectivist approach stops, when the elites desist, and all agreement ends.  (All the big stuff, anyhow.)  All at once, order will give way to disorder, elegance will give way to profusion, and La France will become lots of experiments in Frenchness, unFrenchness, anti-Frenchness, post-Frenchness, and hybrid-Frenchness. 



Anon.  2004.  Outsourcing Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game.  BusinessWeek.  March 1, 2004. (source for first Andreessen quote). here.

Bortin, Meg and Katrin Bennhold.  2006.  Hundreds of Thousands Protest French Labor Law.  New York Times.  March 28, 2006. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Precarity.  The Blog Sits At …  (a couple of days ago)

Webb, Cynthia.  An interview with Marc Andreessen.  Washington Post.  June 10, 2004.  (source for second Andreessen quote). here.


The photo shows messenger pidgeons taking flight from their carrier in World War I France.  I’ve always wanted an excuse to use it. 

The better image would have been Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void


From Yves Klein, Prometheus and Empedocles, by Wolf-Gunter Thiel as it

appeared in Flash Art, March 1995

1998 © all rights belong to the artist estate and Harry Schunk who took the photograph

(and thanks to Dave Dyment of Mercer Union
who reminded me  of artist and title. )


5 thoughts on “France after France

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Count me a skeptic on your scenario. I’m afraid France has tightly identified the dynamism of the global marketplace with America. The analysts (whom the French continue to produce and whom Newsweek still covers) would say that they’ve cathexed the energy of all things modern (read: evil) with the US. This make the assimilation of the introjected object (that is, an unconstrained marketplace) very difficult. This is a dynamic that can lead to a nasty case of sadomasochism, and I think France is well situated to play the scenario out in that fashion.

  2. Grant

    Tom, a fine analysis, hoisting them from their own petard. But I think the French might be prepared to change every thing about France to save the idea of France. Because this is one of the great and transcendant brands, an end whatever the means. The Chinese worked this slight of hand to bring the country to capitalism. Thanks, Grant

  3. Jean-Jacques L'Hénaff

    Thanks for your optimism about the French – I still want to believe they will wake up, act and find a new way again like they did in the past… whatever the motivation is.

    Unfortunately, fifty years of comfort and self-sufficiency have had their toll and it is indeed very difficult to change turtles in the middle of the stream. Thinking and complaining is free but acting requires engagement and responsibilities – a tough leap forward when you have been so comfortable for so long. And today France lacks the leader(s) to do just that and pull it forward.

    We should follow what will unfold with attention though. There are attempts to find a another way between capitalism and communism: China is certainly one. The free marketplace idea has many merits but also some limitations. Now that the population is aging, that more people are uninsured or under the level of poverty and that global competition is increasing, the marketplace cannot serve the social good as well as it once did and the model will ultimately evolve here as well.

    All fears and inertia pushed aside, French do believe in Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. And the model that they are asked to embrace does not include all three. We will have to find our own way. Which of course will serve our ego very nicely…

  4. Grant

    Jean-Jacques, I defer to your deeper knowledge and finer judgment. And yes, we should watch this experiment. Thanks, Grant

  5. Graham Hill


    The US and Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain are perhaps the most famous of the relatively few countries where pundits believe in the power of unfettered markets to deliver miracles. Markets are universal and are one of our oldest social institutions. However most economists who write about free markets and the experiences of all those who live in them, show clearly that markets do require a strong degree of regulation if they are to remain free, open and effective.

    It is in this regulatory turtle that the French, and the Germans, and the Belgians, and… with their emphasis on social as well as commercial fairness differ so much from the US & 1980s Britain. And Asian models of free markets in Singapore, Hong Kong or China are different yet still.

    It is not obvious at this point that any one model of market-based capitalism is universally better than any other, least of all the US & 1980s British one where social unfairness is an obvious problem.

    Perhaps Victor Hugo said it best when he said “A day will come when markets, open to trade, and minds, open to ideas, will become the sole battlefield.”.

    The $64,000 question is, which model of market best suits which land.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Management Consultant

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