First, the economics:
- 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.