Monday, September 12, 2005

The French Model

For quite some time now the French and foreign press, as well as a number of French and foreign politicians, have been shrilly and repeatedly observing that the "French social model" is "behind", "failing", "obsolete", "invalid" and, quite frankly, "dead". Several main reasons are generally given for this alleged state of affairs.

The first is a "stagnant" economy coupled with high and persistent unemployment. The second is that with the enlargement of the European Union to twenty-five countries, French influence is severely diminished (a smaller fish in a bigger pond, en somme). The third is French demographics: with a population gradually growing older, the social model is increasingly unable to care properly for aging babyboomers, and should hence be modified, if not cast outright onto the trash heap of European history. Added to the foregoing are the facts that a) the French voters refused the ratification of the European Constitution and b) London was recently chosen over Paris for the 2012 Olympic Games. Disaster beckons, they would have us believe.

Furthermore, the catastrophists assert that the "French economic model" should be replaced by a "modern" economy - as though sweeping away a societal model that took many years to devise, to build and to fine-tune is easy (and desirable !) to do. Forever comparing French statistics with those in other countries (unemployment rate as well as healthcare, education and defense spending, for example), these ranting prophets and screeching snake-oil salesmen seem to have all missed the point in two important respects. What is truly galling, moreover, is that some French movers and shakers, who should know better, have donned their doomsaying jerseys and joined these preachers of cataclysm and ruination.

Stating that the "Anglo-Saxon model" is the "way to go" is the first major error, for applying selected "Anglo-Saxon" standards and measurements (notably "American" ones) to French society is like grading a soccer player on how well he or she can play rugby. There might be some points in common between the two sports, but there are differences which immediately make such comparisons invidious and frequently irrelevant. It's the same for these so-called "measurements".

The second - and more grievous - error is strikingly obvious. French society is not organized as, say, American society is.

What are the goals of American society ? Why, they're in the Declaration of Independence:

"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (la Vie, la Liberté et la recherche du Bonheur)

In France ? How are things organized ? Just look on the front of any mairie (city hall):

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity)

Quite a difference, eh ?

How can one apply identical measuring tools to societies with such different goals and render the measurements obtained meaningful so as to take subsequent action ? With great, great difficulty. Does one change the entire car when the motor misses on one cylinder ? Of course not.

It should be pointed out - over and over and over, as many times as necessary, to those who offer "analyses" and "solutions" to the French - that the great quality of life in France most assuredly didn't come about by adopting "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" but by being faithful to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. It's as simple - and as complex - as that.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Hit to the Myth

What happened ? Can last week's events in New Orleans be said to symbolize the End of a Myth ?

Not only is this question being asked by many Americans overseas - and, far more appositely and stridently, many Americans in America - it is being asked by French men and women, at work and at home, in public and in private. By those who love America, and by those who detest it. For La Nouvelle Orleans has a special place in the French heart. What happens in that city - and more generally in La Louisiane, which once belonged to France, remember - is echoed throughout France, far more than news from, say, Spokane, Springfield, or Sedona.

This past week, seeing the increasingly shocking images on French and satellite TV, reminiscent of the Third World and not the First, French citizens could not help but compare them to those of the Southeast Asian tsunami of recent memory. French people – not least the media - exclaimed in astonishment when shown the heart-wrenching pictures and videos of civil breakdown, rampant looting (même les flics !), the refugees in the Superdome and Convention Center, and the flooded and razed landscapes. French people could not help but express puzzlement when it was reported prominently that a US disaster official stated that some help wasn't sent simply because it "wasn't requested". Finally, the French people stared in perplexity as the apparent disorganization of emergency services prolonged the suffering of those inhabitants of New Orleans that remained after a haphazard, bungled evacuation: the poor and the infirm … overwhelmingly black.

What a contrast ! The French collective memory recalls D-Day and its aftermath: a tough, efficient, smiling, friendly military force first liberating France and subsequently distributing the cornucopia of American bounty (the Marshall Plan) to war-ravaged France and other countries in Europe. French society, while generally quick to scorn America for what it perceives as its skewed priorities, its dog-eat-dog culture, and its cultural arrogance, is equally quick to credit the United States for traits relating to its organization, inventiveness, and sheer economic and industrial power.

However, since the advent of the George W. Bush administration, the Myth of America has taken hit after hit in the French mind. The example of America as a democracy was severely - but not irremediably - damaged when the 2000 Presidential election was decided by a court, not by the voters. The image of America as a worldwide force for good and harmonious progress was severely - but not irremediably - damaged by its refusal to cooperate with other countries through treaties: non ratification of the Kyoto protocol, for example, and opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States did garner a certain sympathy among the French after 9/11 – and then promptly squandered it by the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty two months later. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was understood here as a logical riposte to the 9/11 attack. Nevertheless, the image of America as a responsible, restrained superpower was severely – and perhaps irremediably, in this lifetime – damaged by the subsequent war on Iraq, preceded by what were perceived as saber-rattling, lies, exaggerations, and obfuscations. With no weapons of mass destruction found, many French people have simply decided that the conflict is imperialist: une guerre pour le pétrole.

As France, the United States says that it "leads by example". As France, the United States asserts that – in summary - its system is "the best" and that other countries should "model" themselves in the same way.

The images from La Nouvelle Orleans and the actions of the US government to save its own citizens both before and after Katrina's arrival raise serious questions about the US societal "model", specifically about solidarity (la solidarité) and not leaving people by the wayside (ne pas laisser les personnes au bord de la route). No matter how much the media and the politicians spin and hype and attempt to paint the situation in a different light, the Myth of America has taken yet another hit in France. It remains to be seen how deep and lasting the damage is.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque