Sunday 9 August 2015

Reflections on the lack of revolution in France

Few parts of the planet contain as many natural treasures as that large chunk of Europe called France. As I said before, when discussing falling French national IQ:

There are few territories more blessed with natural treasures, agreeable climates and regional cuisines than the Grand Hexagonal, that gorgeous chunk of Europe called France. By every environmental theory this part of the planet should breed a race of super-folk: Asterix the Gaul on natural geographical steriods, a fraternal band of clever Gallic communards.

The Cote d’Azur is a country in itself, and Provence would stand proud if it ever chose self-government. All these advantages, on any environmental theory, should bode well for the French as a people. However, they often tend to be morose and self-critical, and resentful that they too had to follow the British into losing an Empire without finding a role. Worse, French as a language is in retreat, not least among the upcoming French, who have adopted English as the global language, because it connotes modernity, progress, high incomes and lots of air miles. French, the former language of diplomats and high culture, is now passe. So, the French are morose, somewhat disorientated, and resentful at their global relegation from Parisians to peasants in France profonde, that empty hinterland where crops grow high and pointless windmills turn, but no-one of ambition stops longer than required to urinate.

Are the French right to bemoan their lot? And estimated 300,00 well qualified young French graduates have decided to dump France and live in London, where they flourish in the free wheeling Anglo Saxon marketplace of capitalism raw in tooth and claw. Presidential candidates now make a one day campaign stop in London, France’s fifth largest city, to sing the praises of the mother country, though not yet to drop marginal tax rates for the smart fraction and simplify the bureaucratic hurdles which prevent them from starting new businesses in France.

Horror stories abound. Friends who run a hotel tell of staff who work to the clock regardless of the demands of the business, and bring malicious lawsuits as a matter of course. Being English, these friends  defended themselves in court, rather than just agree a settlement, and have surprised everyone by winning two of the three cases, and have even been awarded small symbolic payments, which have yet to be honoured. Their legal bills are very much higher than if they had just settled.

Everything takes an age. The banks are slow and obstructive, the inspectors quick to find fault and lethargic otherwise, the tax authorities relentless, and the cultural norm is to do nothing, other than to fiddle the books so that there are false accounts for the inspectors and cash between confederates. Workmen show up by negotiation, make a few holes, and then leave for more interesting jobs. If you want something done, it must be achieved by Poles working illegally. Even patriotic French are employing Polish workmen, whom they had formerly denounced to the authorities. A well known French transport company stopped employing local drivers, and made Poles a large part of their workforce. The French are even agreeing that it makes sense to buy German cars. However, France is well short of a revolution. Labour is highly unionised and strike action a national pastime. Market shares are protected, and new entrants generally discouraged. Medieval agriculture is retained and given patent protection. Functionaries are preferred to entrepreneurs. Indeed, their current President was elected because this embodiment of a bland functionary was seen as preferable to a flashy iconoclast who had mildly upset the status quo: a dull flan less troublesome than a brittle creme brulee. The French revolution merely replaced the ancient aristocracy with the aristocracy of the pen-pusher, and the grand Chateaux are often closed because the guides require a lunch break, in almost greater disdain of the general public than exhibited by the nobility.

Against all this, French productivity is judged good, when measured against hours worked. Although creaky, the economy functions. Living standards are high. Trains run fast. For most people the living is easy. France may not shine in science but there is still a core of engineering skill, and some flourishing global businesses. Perhaps France is a shining example of the power of the environment: given that they hold some of the best real estate on the planet, they are proving Adam Smith’s adage: “there is a lot of ruin in a nation”.


  1. A young French chum got a lectureship at Cambridge and told me that a lectureship at an elite French institution would have been effectively barred from him because his first degree was not from an elite institution.

    I've also has young Italian and German friends comment on how much more open British society is than their own. There were bright young fellows, with excellent English, who had each had a couple years of observing and reflecting on British life. I challenge anyone to get this picture of relative openness from reading the Guardian.

  2. I must say France profonde seems a pretty good place to me. We have friends who've lived there for thirty years now and don't look like returning any time soon, although maybe the high rental return on their London flats has something to do with that.

    "there is still a core of engineering skill"

    Rather more than in the UK, if Areva and Dassault are any guide.

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  4. I'm sure you've heard the saying that the French are like Italians in a bad mood.

    I think it captures a lot of truth about both countries.

    1. Interesting observation. The French mood is often......restrained.