France at the intersection of anthropology and economics

Img_0924 First, the economics:

In France,

  • economic growth has fallen well below other industrialized nations
  • the economy tumbled from 8th to 19th in national rankings of gross domestic product per head (over the last 25 years)
  • youth unemployment stands at 22%
  • France is the only eurozone country that has not reduced the financial weight of the state over the post 10 years. 
  • Government spending (54% of GDP) is among the highest in the world.
  • The public sector employees 1/4 of the labor force
  • State borrowing accounts  for 66% of GDP. (The service charge for this debt is 40 billion euros.)
  • France’s share of world exports fell 5% in the period 1999-2005.
  • Morgan Stanley calls France the "New Sick Man of Europe"

Now the anthropology:

Last week, doing ethnographic interviews in Paris, I was told several times that the French are "equal." 

To an outsider like me, this is improbable.  Certainly, equality is there in the model of social democracy France has embraced.  Yes, the French are equal before the law and their God.  And yes, equality is there in the commitment to "egalite" that survives the revolution of the 18th century.

But evidence of inequality is everywhere.  Indeed, the French insist on differences of class, status, wealth, power, and several kinds of capital.

Respondents would not to be dissuaded, and I got to thinking how it is the French might be said to be "equal."  Here’s my guess, and it’s only a guess.

European hierarchies in the medieval and early modern periods used a relatively simple system of status marking: the notion of relative fineness.  Those who ranked high exhibited fineness in their clothing, their food, the manners, their speech and their very bodies.  Those who ranked low exhibited a relative coarseness in clothing, food, manners, speech and bodies. I will spare you the details except to say that fineness was finally a matter of intellectual, aesthetic, almost spiritual disposition.  High standing people could make fine distinctions.  Low standing people could not. 

At some point, France constructed an idea of itself, its culture, its collectivity that broke with this longstanding historical convention.  In France, according to this convention, everyone was capable of discerning and exhibiting fineness.  Especially, in the domain of eating, food, cooking, cuisine, here the French were one.  The table was the place were fineness was identified, discussed, shared, prized and that was just for starters.  The main course had yet to come.  (The democratization of fineness extends beyond food, of course.  It is there in the language itself, which is why the lowliest clerk at the Tabac is entitled [obliged!] to sneer at our high school French.)

There was some period in which culture and economy worked hand in glove.  Discernment and taste were national exports.  Industries based on discernment and taste flourished.  Wine, food stuffs, perfume, handbags, scarves, watches, and clothing brought in a fortune.  The language itself exported well. 

The grandeur that was the culture that was France…this was accessible to the rest of us, miserable cretins living in the far provinces. Everywhere in North America, there were little shrines everywhere, "French restaurants," we called them, places where middle class families could go to glimpse for a moment, to taste for a moment, what France had created with its national accomplishment.  French restaurants were draped in seriousness and heavy red curtains.  They were staffed by men with deep knowledge and great courtesy.  The food was heavy and ornate.  Tables groaned Silver, plate, and crystal.  The whole thing was well off the Paris standard, of course, but obeisance was called for and obeisance was paid.

And some few years ago, we North Americans decided we couldn’t care less.  Several culture trends made this restaurant and many of the exports of France look suddenly too…too.  We decided that formality counted for less than informality.  We shifted from ceremony to spontaneity as our preferred cultural mode.  We gave up solemnity for something more winning and cheerful.  We abandoned heavy foods for something lighter and more "fun."  Most important, food became a place to experiment, and now the French looked, even after nouvelle cuisine, positively hide bound. 

Bad for France.  But not, one would have thought, intolerable.  If France were committed to the creative destruction that most Western economies and cultures take for granted, this should have been a simple matter.  Accept your losses, make your accommodations, and move on. 

But in France this was not simple.  It would have meant compromising the  beautiful idea, the magnificent theater of French life.  (And this is very beautiful indeed.  Even the smallest details of the built world exhibits the French faculty for fineness.  And you find yourself thinking, "ok, this is what it looks like, when everyone in a culture, over a very long period, cares about design and execution.") 

This may be the only Western culture in which the phrase "creative destruction" is fully paradoxical.  All of us balk for a moment at the phrase, but the French, I think, must just shake their heads and say, "no, it’s creative or it’s destructive."  This is a culture that approaches perfection, and for a world like this all of the things that make other Western economies go, innovation, responsiveness, competition and innovations, these, in France, are wrong.  These contradict the the French style of life.   

The English could invent punk because there wasn’t very much to keep them from the aesthetic violence it required.  The Germans could rebuild the nation state because all it demanded of them was that they tear down a place stinking of cabbage and soft coal.  Americans could push us all down the bobsled of post modernity because all it meant was surviving the the bouleversement of Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. 

But the French, for them change must feel lapsarian, a fall from an exquisitely accomplished grace.  The rest of us blunder from a uncertain present into the maw of a chaotic future, but then as one of my French respondents said, "it’s not like you’ve got very much to lose."  The French, you see, pay dearly for change, and sometimes they just can’t bring themselves to budge. 


Thornhill, John. 2007.  Not working: why France may find its social model exacts too high a price.  Financial Times.  April 16, 2007, p. 9.

12 thoughts on “France at the intersection of anthropology and economics

  1. Hayden

    This is an interesting line of thinking.

    equality…. only really applies, does it not, if you carefully exclude their “guest workers,” including those who’ve been there for a couple of generations. there is an exclusion/exclusiveness that blocks out everyone but those who have enough generations and ethnic markers to be ‘truely’ French. Somehow I think that this is a hidden part of the picture you show. (And perhaps the sneers of the Tabac guy are a part of that exclusivity of us and them?)

    I spent Christmas 2001 with friends in Paris: he teaches at the Sorbonne, she is a publisher: they simply did not believe that the US hadn’t kicked off a massive, anti-Arab pogrom after 9/11. They believed that somehow we’d kept it out of the newspapers, but they were certain they understood ‘what was really going on.’ Eventually they admitted that they and their friends had talked about it, and if it happened there, “the streets will run with blood. we will not tolerate it.” That is a pretty strong statement of ‘us and them’ and non-equality from folks I’d always thought of as left-liberal.

    Is it easier to maintain that mask of unity/faux equality when there is a clear “them” hidden in plain sight amongst you?

    Just thinking…

  2. jens

    french equality is a conversational concept that clears the stage for the refined play of distinction.
    nowhere more than in france people scan each other for the very little signs of origin, attitude and education.

  3. guy

    Your hypothesis appears to be suggesting a form of path dependency in culture that is commonly used to explain developmental failure in Africa and Asia – change would be too wrenching and must be consensual. Or is it more a national acceptance of a sunk cost fallacy – we have invested so much in the past that we dare not start anew?

    If it is the latter argument, it seems to me to be similar to that used to explain the UK’s sclerosis post WWII, a hypothesis that was subsequently disproven by the rise of radical forces in the late 1970s, including punk and Thatcherism. And there is evidence that France does make economic and social progress, if only in a revolutionary manner (1789, 1870, 1958). Some (e.g. the Economist) appear to believe that Nicolas Sarkozy has the potential to replicate Maggie in France, but on the basis of evidence to date, there does not appear to be a groundswell of opinion in favour of radical change. Yet.

    On a tangential note, what intrigues me, as a foreign-resident Brit with a non-professional interest in North American affairs, is the anthropology of US/Canadian attitudes towards France. Its use as counterpoint in so many settings often veers to the ridiculous. While the British parody some of France’s attitudes and preferences (e.g. culinary preferences for frogs’ legs and snails), and are infuriated by others (e.g. cosseting rural farmers), there is still an acceptance that they are equal partners within the European and global order. This seems absent in North America. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this difference.

  4. Tom Guarriello

    Great insights, Grant. These thoughts point at the “preciousness” of the French that Americans find so alien. We see/hear/feel their judgmental tsk-tsking and wonder what the fuss is all about. Until we go to Paris, that is. Then we get a glimpse of what can happen when a culture maintains a closely-guarded continuity. Beautiful and, indeed, precious. But, it ain’t New York.

    We are both trapped in our dynamics. It’s a little like a conversation I’ve overheard several times between my wife and her older brother. He still lives in the small Ohio town in which they were born. He shakes his head and asks her, “How could you have left this place?” and she replies, “How could you have stayed?”

  5. steve

    My only experience of France to date is changing planes in de Gaulle airport. I expected some kind of Cartesian geometry or at least the painstaking attention to design that Grant celebrates. Instead, it was overheated chaos. They had unusual ideas about how to set up lines (or queues, for the more Anglo). Various heavy loads on carts and trolleys were trundled right through close-packed and winding lines of waiting travelers. Entrances and exits from counter areas were not marked, and no effort was made to direct passengers, so that what is normally an orderly flow to and from the counters was instead a kind of vague milling around, where no one was sure if he stood in the right place to get service.

    Until we hit the American Airlines counter. They had colonized their space with a US-style retractable-ribbon line-guide setup and had a person standing by to direct travelers to the correct apetures. It looked like a little piece of DFW transported to France.

    I guess an airport isn’t a reliable indicator of overall culture. But in a country where the government spends 54% of GDP and public sector jobs are among the most sought-after, I was somewhat surprised by conditions.

  6. DC1974

    I was reading Camille Paglia the other day — I hadn’t read one of her books of essays, and despite what others might think, I do like her and her writing. Anyway, the point of all this: she mentioned in passing that their are only two cultures in the world whose entire sense of identity is based on a refined sense of beauty — the French and the Japanese. While reading your essay on France, I thought of the Japanese. Who are equally arrogant in regards to their “true” culture. And their sense of aesthetics and refinement. There is a distaste and distrust of those outside of their culture as being unrefined. And uncouth. Japan it has often been said is a place with only a middle class, which of course isn’t true. There is certainly an underclass. Although recently (like France and the U.S.), politicians have made hay by blaming foreigners for their crime. (The mayor of Tokyo specifically has blamed Chinese immigrants.) The Japanese and the French have many connections in terms of pop culture. We, as Americans, tend to not think of French pop culture — the street culture, the music, the street fashion, the urban cinema. But French pop culture is a big export to Japan and their are many musicians and filmmakers that go back and forth. The issue here, though, is that Japan has gained currency in the U.S., and continues to have a brand that is meaningful. The French for whatever reason have not. Perhaps, the Japanese (who often refer to themselves as a little America) have sucked up their pride when needed and made a go of it in the U.S. market. The French don’t see themselves as lower than the U.S. and so haven’t tried to appease our tastes. Back to your thesis, though, perhaps what the French mean (like the Japanese mean, when discussing geopolitics in Asia) is that they are MORE equal. More important and a little bit better than their neighbors. The other issue is perhaps (and excuse the stream of consciousness) is that the French have established their identity as in opposition to rest of the West. So, yes they have a huge government and enormous entitlements: but that is the French way. And whether it works (by our measure) or not doesn’t matter. It’s French and so it works for THEM.

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  8. Peter

    Japan also has an aristocracy, starting with the Imperial family and the various noble houses, who tend to marry each other. Beneath that layer, there is a small, but rich and influential, upper class. Yoko Ono was from such an upper-class family.

    Fine class distinctions in a society can often be difficult for outsiders to see. The British Royal family, for instance, are not as grand as some other English noble families, since they (the Royals) only arrived in the country with the Hanoverians in the 18th century. The Spencers, the family of the late Princess Diana, for example, have a much longer pedigree and look with condescension at the johnny-come-lately Windsors.

  9. Albert

    One thing I find interesting, specially, in some of the comments, is the generalization of conclusions out of very limited experience. I am not French, but I come from a country (and culture) quite close, at least geographically, to France. I have always found some of the stereotypes about France in the US quite far from my personal experience.

    It is true, or at least I think it is true, that the concept of equality that is so central to the political culture of France does not translate in a real and complete social equality; but I do not think that out of this you can extract the consequence that “nowhere more than in france people scan each other for the very little signs of origin, attitude and education”, nor explanations based on the (more or less real) French cultural closeness.

    Societies and cultures are a very complex and cannot be explained with discourses based on a limited experience and a set of cliches.

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  11. Down East

    A Storm Always Knows What It’s Doing

    The following excerpt is from Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three,” the great Romanticist’s (“Les Miserables,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) last novel, published in 1874, nearly a century after the French Revolution, which served as the background for the book.
    It is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, one that attempts to take the reader back into a moment in history. Rather, Hugo uses that specific conflagration to develop characters and a plot in the interest of a universal theme, one that applies not only to the French Revolution but to subsequent cataclysms.
    The excerpt is a conversation between two leaders. Although Cimourdain, an ex-priest, and Gauvain, whom he had tutored, both fought to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic, their visions for that republic were vastly different. Their discussion represents two different aspects of the revolutionary spirit and echoes themes heard in modern political debate—now being played out with the background of the French election.

    During that supper, Gauvain ate and Cimourdain drank, a sign of calm in the former and of agitation in the latter.
    There was a kind of terrible serenity in the cell. The two men talked.
    “Great things are beginning to take shape,” said Gauvain. “What the Revolution is doing now is mysterious. Behind the visible work there’s the invisible work. The visible work is fierce, the invisible work is sublime. I can see everything very clearly now. It’s strange and beautiful. It has been necessary to use the materials of the past. Hence this extraordinary ’93. Beneath a scaffolding of barbarism, a temple of civilization is being built.”
    “Yes,” replied Cimourdain, “from this provisional situation will come the definitive one. By the definitive one I mean parallel rights and duties, proportional and progressive taxes, obligatory military service, a leveling process without deviations, and above everyone and everything, that straight line, the law. The republic of the absolute.”
    “I prefer the republic of the ideal,” said Gauvain. He paused, then continued: “O my master, in everything you’ve just said, where do you place devotion, self-sacrifice, abnegation, the magnanimous interlacing of benevolences, love? To put everything in balance is good, to put everything in harmony is better. Above the scales there’s the lyre. Your republic weighs, measures and regulates man; mine sweeps him up into the blue sky; it’s the difference between a theorem and an angel.”
    “You’ve become lost in the clouds.”
    “And you in calculations.”
    “There’s a certain amount of dreaming in harmony.”
    “And also in algebra.”
    “I wish man had been made by Euclid.”
    “And I’d like him better if he’d been made by Homer,” said Gauvain.
    Cimourdain’s stern smile came to rest on Gauvain, as though to hold his soul fast.
    “Poetry. Beware of poets.”
    “Yes, I know the saying. Beware of breezes, beware of sunbeams, beware of fragrances, beware of flowers, beware of the constellations.”
    “None of those things can feed anyone.”
    “How do you know? Ideas are food too. To think is to eat.”
    “No abstractions. The Republic is two and two make four. When I’ve given everyone what’s coming to him…”
    “You’ll still have to give everyone what’s not coming to him.”
    “What do you mean by that?”
    “I’m referring to the immense reciprocal concessions which each owes to all, which all owe to each, and which are the whole of social life.”
    “Outside of strict law, there’s nothing.”
    “There’s everything.”
    “I see only justice.”
    “I look higher.”
    “What is there above justice?”
    Now and then they stopped, as those gleams were passing by.
    Cimourdain resumed:
    “I challenge you to be specific.”
    “Very well. You want obligatory military service. Against whom? Against other men? I don’t want any military service. I want peace. You want to help the poor, I want to eliminate poverty. You want proportional taxes, I don’t want any taxes at all. I want common expenditures reduced to their simplest expression and paid by the social surplus.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “This: first eliminate parasitisms—the parasitism of the priest, of the judge, of the soldier. Then make use of your riches. You throw manure into the sewer; throw it into the fields instead. Three-quarters of the land is lying fallow. Cultivate the soil of France, do away with useless pastures, divide the communal lands. Let each man have a piece of land, and let each piece of land have a man. You’ll increase the social product a hundredfold. France now gives her peasants meat only four times a year; well cultivated, she could feed three hundred million people, all of Europe. Utilize nature, that immense neglected helper. Make every wind work for you, every waterfall, every magnetic emanation. The earth has an underground network of veins; in that network there’s a prodigious circulation of water, oil and fire; tap the veins of the earth and bring forth that water for your fountains, that oil for your lamps, that fire for your hearths. Consider the movement of the waves, the ebb and flow of the tides. What is an ocean? An enormous wasted force. How foolish the earth is, not to use the oceans!”
    “You’re in the midst of a dream!”
    “In other words, in the midst of reality …And woman? What will you do with her?”
    Cimourdain answered, “I’ll leave her what she is: man’s servant.”
    “Yes, on one condition.”
    “What is it?”
    “That man also be woman’s servant.”
    “Are you serious?” cried Cimourdain. “Man a servant? Never! Man is the master. I acknowledge only one kind of royalty: that of the home. A man is king in his own home.”
    “Yes, on one condition.”
    “What is it?”
    “That woman be queen there.”
    “In short, between men and women you want…”
    “Equality! You can’t mean it. Man and woman are two different creatures.”
    “I said equality. I didn’t say identity.”…
    Gauvain spoke with the composure of a prophet. Cimourdain listened. The roles were reversed; it now seemed that the pupil was now the master. …
    Cimourdain looked at the floor of the cell and said, “And in the meantime what do you want?”
    “What is.”
    “You absolve the present time?”
    “Because it’s a storm. A storm always knows what it’s doing. For every oak struck by lightning, how many forests are made healthy! Civilization was in the grip of a pestilence and this great wind is curing it. The wind may not be selective enough, but could it do otherwise? It has such hard work to do! Before the horror of the miasma, I understand the fury of the wind. Furthermore, what does the storm mean to me if I have a compass, and what do events matter to me if I have my conscience!…
    “If you add something to nature, you will necessarily be greater than nature; to add is to increase, and to increase is to grow. Society is nature made sublime. I want everything that’s lacking in beehives and anthills: mountains, art, poetry, heroes, geniuses. To bear eternal burdens is not the law of man. No, no, no more pariahs, no more slaves, no more convicts, no more damned! I want each attribute of man to be a symbol of civilization and a pattern of progress; I want liberty in front of the mind, equality in front of the heart, fraternity in front of the soul. No, no more yokes! Man is made not to drag chains, but to spread his wings. No more of man as a reptile! I want the transfiguration of the larva into the butterfly; I want the earthworm to change into a living flower and fly away; I want…”
    He stopped. His eyes flashed.
    His lips moved. He ceased talking. …
    Cimourdain, pale, listened. Gauvain did not hear.
    His reverie was becoming deeper and deeper. He was so attentive to what he saw beneath the visionary vault of his brain that he seemed to have stopped breathing. He occasionally started slightly. The gleam of dawn in his eyes grew brighter.

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