This is about: “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of Bureaucracy.” [link] Pierre Bourdieu has not known what he was talking about as long as I have been an adult. He is equal to himself; he still does not. His talent – that he shares with many French intellectuals – is to persuade others to pretend that they do understand. Don’t take my word for it. Read the opening sentence of the current piece and ask yourself honestly what it means. And no, don’t blame the translation. I have not read this piece in the original French but I have read many opening statements in French by Bourdieu and, they are worse. (I am competent to read French including “sociologie.” ) In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the translators had actually improved the first sentence in this particular piece. Another thing about contemporary French social scientists (but not historians) is that it’s seldom quite clear what the relationship is – if any – between their narrative and facts on the ground. Don’t get me started!
Here is another escapist story. If the autobiographical genre annoys you, I don’t blame you and don’t read this story.
First of all, don’t wince or grimace. I just said “scholar,” not “eminent scholar,” nor “famous scholar,” not even “respected scholar.” It’s just a descriptive term; the word describes much of what I did for a living. Period.
I grew up on the unglamorous east side of Paris where visitors never go, or didn’t then. My family’s apartment was in a government subsidized project. It was really a project but a good one, well built, well maintained, with central heating and full bathrooms, but no elevators. Graffiti had not been invented yet. I shared a room with two brothers. There was only enough space for one small desk, an important detail in my story.
My family was not poor but it definitely wasn’t rich. Everyone was unimaginably poor in the forties and fifties by the standard of 2022 anyway but, fortunately, we didn’t know what 2022 would be like. France was in a period of economic expansion for much of the time I was growing up. We could almost feel the tide that was going to raise our boats too. We did not have phone service but we never went hungry; we had good medical care. (I did realize though until the French Navy clothed me that I had been cold every winter of my childhood and youth. It was normal.)
And then, there were the schools. It seems to me, seventy years later, that the elementary schools did a more than adequate job. I am guessing that almost all of us came out reading, writing and doing a little more than basic math (including trigonometry). Elementary education was adequate and more for people who were going, in their vast majority, to rise but modestly in the social scale of the time. I seem to recall that half my fellow students quit school at fourteen to become apprentices. The rest -including my three sibling – went on to a variety of schools, many of them more or less vocational. Not me.
When I was twelve, a miracle happened in my family. I passed an exam that got me accepted in a respected, prestigious academic school in central Paris (Lycée Condorcet). It was a combined junior high and high school It’s hard to explain to Americans but it was a public school; there was no tuition. It was a feeder school for the best French universities. Many famous people were alumni. Few children from my part of Paris made it there. (In fact, I never met one in six years.)
As you might guess, there was a social class aspect to this respectability although it was a free public school. I would guess that as many as two thirds of the students there came from bourgeois families, as conventionally defined. Their parents were top managers in big corporations, attorneys for same, or they owned one, or they were doctors, and high-level engineers. (I know quite a bit about those bourgeois kids because around age 14, I began going to parties at their apartments where I discovered wall-to-wall carpeting.) There was even a sprinkling of foreign kids whose parents were diplomats. Some of the bourgeois kids came from private elementary schools; many more came from public schools that were just better then mine that, perhaps, maintained higher standards. Their home environment was probably more propitious to studying in ways that I still don’t understand well. After all my own home environment favored and rewarded studying hard and getting good grades and even “prizes” at the end of the year.* (But maybe, they each had their own desk where they could stack up their books.)
So, at twelve, I had pretty much the run of Paris by subway because the school was far from where I lived. It was good for my maturation. Classes began at 8:30 five days a week, they ended at 11:30 then, began again at 1 to finish at 4:30 four days a week . We had lunch at school. On Wednesday, or Thursday, there was no class at all. There was school on Saturday but only in the morning. On full school days, I chose to stay after class at study hall until 6 or 6:30. That added up to eight hours or more inside the walls of the school, a long time for a young boy.
The study hall was a large single room with ten rows of desks. It served without distinction students from age 12 to 18. You could do pretty much what you wanted in study hall except that you were not allowed to make noise because it might disturb others who were actually studying. So, no talking allowed. For three, or maybe four years, study hall was nearly always proctored by the same man. He was apparently qualified to teach English but he was not part of the faculty. In that elite school, it was not enough to be formally and practically qualified, you had to carry prestige or, at least, the seed of prestige in your attaché case. I think most or all of my instructors had achieved a scholarly degree pretty close to a PhD (“l’aggréegation”). My Spanish professor did not have one but he was a ranking Spanish Republican refugee. My first math instructor possessed that degree and he was also a well published author of fiction. My second geography professor was an expert on American science fiction. And so on.
The study hall proctor was the nicest of men whose function put him in a difficult position: Sometimes, he had to discipline students. As far as I now, he had only one punishment. He made you copy the three main forms of English irregular verbs: “go, went, gone.” How many verbs you had to copy depended on the depravity of your transgression: twenty verbs, fifty verbs, uncommonly, one hundred verbs. After so many hours at school and, perhaps, I was hungry, had low blood sugar, I did not maintain the silence discipline very well. In the course of several years, I must have copied five times three hundred irregular English verbs. Somehow, I did not mind. A part of my brain was smarter than I. (Happens all the time if you pay attention.)
After my second year in that good school, my general performance began to slip. I am not sure exactly how it started but I became gradually disengaged from several disciplines. I often cut the corresponding classes. As befits an elite institution, my school operated on the basis of a loose, ill-defined honor system. It was such that my parents were never made aware of my delinquency. And, no, puberty did not particularly trouble me except for the fact that it took me a while to figure out whether girls liked boys who looked a lot like them or rather, hairy rough types with broad shoulders and even some acne. In those years, there were events and developments in my nuclear family that bothered me and distracted me and these may have played a role in my long and slow fall from academic grace. It started with math which became too difficult for me and on which I just gave up. Then, physics and then, chemistry also dropped off my radar. No one said anything, in part because I was earning the equivalent of straight As in French, later in Spanish and, of course, in English. I was also doing quite well in History and in Geography. I was thus an excellent student to half the instructors; that was good enough for the other half.
Things went from bad to worse. It did not help that when I was seventeen, I had a hot hot girlfriend. She had many assets. One of those was that both her parents weren’t home one day of the week. That was a day when physics and chemistry were scheduled. Of course, I cut school on that day! What would you have me do? In those times, there was a high school graduation exam that also served as an admission ticket to most universities. The exam was then difficult and deliberately selective. I went to take the exam like a sheep to the slaughter. I failed, of course but with excellent grades in History, in French, in Spanish and… in English. I repeated a senior class in high school with the same predictable outcome. In the France of then, it was like social death. I had not been apprenticed to a pork butcher, or attended a graphics high school like my older brother and my younger brother. I had nothing. I was no one.
By some concourse of circumstances right out of a reverse morality tale, about the same time, I received a scholarship to spend one year in high school in California. It was a merit scholarship. I hightailed it to the US. There, I did quite well. I spoke English badly but I understood everything. If I had not been blinded by the humility surprisingly common among young men, I would have noticed that I wrote English better than many of my American classmates. In California, I noticed with interest the wonderful American institution of the community college where just about anyone can go in and the good ones come out to transfer to a real university. So, yes, in case you are counting, I spent three years total as a senior in high school. Nothing to brag about, really!
Fast forward: I am twenty-one and about to be released from the French Navy into which I had been drafted. I have no skills, no particular revealed talent, no diploma, no nothing. I apply for a visa to go and study in a California junior college near where I had spent a year. Long story short: At the community college, I discover I am a late bloomer. I do well, better than well, in fact. I win a full tuition scholarship to Stanford where I transfer as a junior. I do well there too. After graduating in four years flat, I go back to France for a year to work in a very good job, in urban planning. There, I decide I want to study some more. I apply to graduate school, also at Stanford. I get accepted with full tuition fellowship and a stipend.
I performed well in graduate school also, in large part because I could write well. I earned a PhD. A fairly normal and quite respectable academic career followed. (Go ahead, Google me.) The fact that I wrote well and easily had everything to do with the good course of my academic research. My writing made me attractive to others with research skills far superior to mine. They recruited me eagerly throughout. I became a member of star research teams without striving, or even trying. I was very productive with the other guys. I might not have been otherwise. Hard to tell: I only have one single authored scholarly article. It has had a very long shelf life but still, that’s only one.
What does this have to do with my French high school study hall proctor, you might ask at this point? Well, it does; bear with me. Remember that nearly all of my scholarly career took place in a language other than my native tongue. As an immigrant in polyglot and multicultural California, I became well aware of the struggles of diverse categories of immigrants to operate in a foreign language: English. A teacher for thirty years, I also witnessed at close range the struggle of hundreds of US-born college students to learn languages other than English, mostly Spanish and French. I also saw several of my fellow professors try and fail. As a matter of fact, other than teachers of modern languages, I only ever met one (1) Anglo reared in the US who had mastered a foreign language. (The language instructors I encountered were all competent.)
I had many occasions to ask myself: What do the students who fail to learn a language (beyond knowing how to ask for more beer), the monolingual Mexican immigrants who earn half of what they otherwise would, and my few colleagues who tried in vain, have in common? The answer came to me a little at a time and then, it became blindingly clear: They failed to clamber over the wall of irregular verbs conjugations. It’s simple: Those who do go on to learn everything else; who who don’t just give up, mostly forever.
But now, a digression. I am completely convinced that, contrary to an idea that is very widespread in the USA, living in the country of the language one studies is not a necessary precondition to learning it nor is it a miracle cure for monolingualism. If it were, immigrants would learn quickly the
language of the country where they live. In fact, few if any learn it without formal schooling. And, I hate to tell you, college parents, but your children’s expensive “study abroad” stays almost never bear that particular kind of fruit. (they may be useful in other respects.) Your children never come back “fluent in _____,” whatever “fluent” means. How do I know? I interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds of them (over thirty years) in the weeks and months following their return. None of them could ever say, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gone.” None! (“Si j’avais su que cela allait être comme ça, je n’y serais pas allé.” “Si hubiera sabido que hubiera sido asi, no hubiera ido.”) None!
The main, all-important reason people fail to learn a foreign language is that they give up when the time comes to master more than handful of irregular verbs, or even earlier. Here are two natural and fully representative examples; you may notice that they are about verbs everyone uses in everyday life:
Spanish: Verb to go: Ir
Present: Yo voy
El va (You formal address: Usted va)
Vosotros vais (You, plural)
Ellos van (Ustedes van)
Simple past: Yo fuí
El fue (Usted fue) Watch the spelling!
Ellos fueron (Usted fueron)
French: Verb to be: Être
Present Je suis
Well, you get the idea!
In summary: There is no articulate sentence without a verb. Verbs have to be conjugated, person by person (I, you, he). In European languages, there are tenses to indicate timing (I am, I was, I will be). If you don’t control both person and tense you can often still communicate but it will be at the level of a five-year-old: “I go yesterday.” That is neither encouraging nor rewarding for adults. It’s also quite limiting.
Now, in my dotage, I think back at my early life. If my study hall proctor in Paris had been a less mild man, he would have imposed a less fruitful punishment; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been more disciplined, he wouldn’t have had occasion to punish me the way he did; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been worse, he would have had me expelled from study hall; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If the boys room in our small apartment in Paris had been larger, I might have had my own desk; I would then probably not have attended study hall; I wouldn’t then be an American scholar. Go figure!
Sometimes though, I can’t help but feel some regret. I am pretty sure I would have made a really good pork butcher. I think I would have been an inspired designer of esoteric pâtés, for example. That’s if my parents had not blindly pushed me toward a classical education. That’s if that study hall proctor had not meddled in my destiny!
© Jacques Delacroix 2022
* In the 1940s, at the end of each school year, the best students in each class of 30-40, were ranked. Those best students, perhaps 1st to 6, st –received a prize in a formal ceremony everyone else hated. The prizes were well chosen books. Books were still expensive then. Once, I received the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels. (Just bragging.)
Comme c’est souvent le cas le soir, je lézarde devant TV5, la chaîne francophone internationale. C’est l’heure du journal télévisé. L’annonceur, francais selon sa diction, annonce gravement que ce jour est l’anniversaire de la mort des époux Rosenberg, exécutés en 1953 “parce qu’ils étaient Communistes”. Comme, à cette époque, il y avait au moins 100 000 Communistes aux Eats-Unis, ces deux-là n’auraient vraiment pas eu de chance!
Un autre jour, je regarde un documentaire français: “Gharjuwa, épouse de la vallée.” C’est sur une ethnie népalaise qui pratique la polyandrie: une femme, plusieurs maris. Le sujet est intrinsèquement intéressant, Et puis, le fait que la femme polygame ait le gros sourire aux lèvres tout le long de l’interview confirme pas mal de mes à-priori sur ce qui rend les femmes heureuses, en fin de compte! (Ce n’est pas sorcier.) Et puis, le tout se passe dans un environnement montagneux magnifique. Comme c’est le cas pour la plupart des documentaires français que je connais, la photo est excellente.
L’une des tâches de la femme polygame est de préparer la bière. Une voix masculine dit le commentaire en Français. Soyons francs: je ne sais pas si c’est le commentateur qui a rédigé le texte. En tous cas, il nous avise de ce qu’au Népal, la bière ménagère se prépare en faisant “cuire ensemble” une céréale (ou plusieurs; maïs ou blé noir, ou les deux, je ne suis pas sûr) et de la levure. Je fais un retour en arrière mental. C’est bien ce qu’il a dit. Mais, la levure, c’est ce qui transforme les sucres des céréales en alcool et en CO2. Mais la levure se compose d’organisme vivants qui trépassent vite à la chaleur. Pas question de la faire cuire avant qu’elle ait fait son travail. Ou alors, on a de la bouillie plutôt que de la bière. La description qu’on nous donne est donc aussi fausse qu’absurde.
A priori, selon son accent et sa diction, le commentateur est français ou belge. Il vient donc d’un pays célébré dans le monde entier pour ses vins et aussi pour ses bières, ou alors, massivement, seulement pour ses bières. Des pays respectés aussi pour la supériorite de leur boulangerie et de leurs pâtisseries levées. Vins, bières, pains, pâtisseries exigent la maîtrise des levures. Comment peut-on être aussi ignorant d’une partie aussi importante de sa culture materiélle pourtant séculaire? Et puis, je sais bien qu’en principe, l’ignorance et la connerie sont des choses différentes. Pourtant, il y a des cas où on a du mal a distinguer l’une de l’autre. Je me demande comment on peut avoir été élevé dans la culture française ou la culture belge et être si profondément mal informé, à moins d’être également stupide.
Mais j’éprouve aussi de l’indignation comme ainsi dire au second degré: Comment les public francais et autres francophones peuvent-ils laisser passer de telles manifestations d’ignardise grossière sans se plaindre, sans réagir? Le fait est courant, répandu selon mon usage de l’éventail, il est vrai limité, de media francophones à ma disposition. J’ai d’ailleurs inventé la formule suivante, (en Anglais) : “Si vous voulez apprendre rapidement quelquechose de faux, suivez simplement les cinq premières minutes d’un documentaire en Français!”
J’ai du mal à souscrire à l’idee que la langue francaiss, la langue de Diderot, serait intrinsèquement porteuse d’insouciance vis-à-vis de la vérité toute simple bien que cela ne soit pas complètement impossible.
Je m’interroge donc sur les possible causes sociologique de ce qui me paraît plus qu’un accident. Je veux parler de l’apparente indifférence aux faits associée à l’usage de la langue française contemporaine. Je ne sais pas s’il s’agit vraiment d’ un phénomène culturel en profondeur: Les faussetés ne dérangent simplement pas beaucoup les Francais. (Il me semble, subjectivement, que les autres francophones, Canadiens, et Belges, par exemple, sont moins coupables.) Je me demande si les causes des ces frequentes débâcles factuelles sont plus tortueuses et donc, moins directement culturelles:
“France 2 fait un documentaires sur les Népalaise à plusieurs maris. C’est chouette. Je vais téléphoner à Robert pour lui demander s’il peut prendre mon neveu Charlot pour le narrer. Justement, en ce moment, il ne fait pas grandchose.”
De vraies questions. Toutes les réponse m’intéressent, celles provenant de France autant que celle émanant d’autres pays francophones. Ecrire à email@example.com.
Le beau et ignare documentaire en question sort de chez Atmosphère Production avec le concours du Centre national du cinéma. (“Evidemment”, j’ai envie de d’ajouter.)
Don’t worry, this is not another tawdry tale of life among the hillbillies. I was raised in France in the fifties. We had a respectably long list of usual turpitudes including sexual practices that still don’t have a name in English but incest was low on that list. Instead, I am referring to my mother’s life-long but indirect influence on my sex life.
My mother – who had six children total – was always extremely optimistic about human sexual potential. When the first blue-jeans appeared in France, she swore none of her sons would ever be allowed to wear this new garment. She stated with finality that blue-jeans were expressly designed to mold a man’s intimate tool-kit in order to inflame otherwise chaste, sedate, and retiring young women. Raised in an all-female household herself, she took a keen interest in the magical transformation from sweet, lovable little boy to big, loud, brash, uncouth, sex-crazed semi-adult male. She wanted to be sure she would not screw up insofar as she had a part to play. She took the pragmatic path, almost the scientific path, you might say. From age 12 until we left home, the three boys were served red meat every evening at dinner. We ate lunch at school, or maybe skipped lunch altogether, so my mother worried we might be short of the raw material for testosterone, pure protein. There were five living children. The family lived on a single small public servant’s salary. Meat was expensive, except one kind of meat. That’s how the boys ended up with a mess of bloody, barely singed horse meat on their plate every night.
Perhaps, my mother’s physiological theory was approximately correct. Or, possibly, it was the power of suggestion: If you eat a lot of horses knowingly, you end up acquiring in your mind some of the attributes of horses. In any event, there was never any motor failure in her sons nor any lack of fuel in their motors.
As far back as I remember, there were whispers and even loud comments bordering on exclamations about the questionable behavior of some married women in our village-like area of Paris. There were even more in the small resort town where we went on vacation. That was a place where youngish married women were dropped by their husbands for months on end in close proximity to randy students in their early twenties. (Idleness is the mother of all vices, including that one!)
My mother spoke about those women from both sides of her mouth. On the one side, she condemned conjugal betrayal in the strongest terms. On the other side, she would declare,“The poor woman is a prisoner of her senses. What can she do?” In this, she differed markedly from her lower middle-class married girlfriends among whom the consensus was that you could forgive infidelity only if it was the result of “le grand amour,” the one great love that happens only once in a lifetime. My mother was not merely Lifetime Channel-like soft on gooey love; she was openly open-minded about erotics, specifically.
Her attitude was a big asset for her sons, I realized later. It gave us a goal in lieu of the vague unfocused, rutting search of adolescent males in general. From an early age, we had a clear goal: Among desirable girls (that would be 95% of them), identify those with a potential for becoming prisoners of their senses, cut them from the herd, and perform the needed to enslave them. The search was long but not really painful or boring. When I finally found one, I felt I had arrived at one of life’s major destinations.
About 40 US deaths so far. The French have double that with 1/5 the population. My skeptical fiber is on full. Still I am washing my hands. When I run out of rubbing alcohol, I will use cheap brandy – of which I have plenty, of course. Oh, I almost forgot: I have decided to stop French kissing completely if the occasion arises! Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures! Count on me. I am wondering what the libertarian response should be to this public crises (plural).
My best to all.
There aren’t many signs that the French will soon free themselves from the trap they have sprung on themselves. The Macron administration had been elected to do something precisely about the strangling effect of taxation on French economic life and, on individual freedom. (The latter message may have been garbled during his campaign.) Are there any solutions in sight for the French crisis of psychic poverty, framed by both good social services and high taxes?
I see two kinds of obstacles to reform. The first is comprised of collective cognitive and of attitudinal deficiencies. The second, paradoxically, is a feature of French society that American progressives would envy if they knew about it.
Cognition and attitudes
After four months of weekly demonstrations, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protesters had not found the language to articulate clearly their frustration. I mean, at least those who were left protesting. They seem to be falling back increasingly on crude views of “social justice” (“les inégalités”) as if, again, the issue was never to produce more, or to retain more of what they produce, but only to confiscate even more from the (fleeing) rich. Over the many years of democratic socialism, French culture has lost the conceptual vocabulary that would be necessary to plan an exit out of the impasse. Here is an example of this loss: In the past twenty years of reading and watching television in French almost every day, I have almost never come across the single word “libéral.” (That would be in the old English meaning of “market oriented.”) The common, nearly universal term is “ultra-libéral.” It’s as if favoring an analysis inclined toward market forces could not possibly exist without being “ultra,” which denotes extremism.
What started as a fairly subtle insult against those who discreetly appreciate capitalism has become fixed usage: You want more free market? You are a sort of fanatic. This usage was started by professional intellectuals, of course (of which France has not shortage). Then, it became a tool tacitly to shut off certain ideas from the masses, all the while retaining the words derogatory muscle. So, in France today, one can easily think of oneself as a moderate socialist – on the center left – but there is no balancing position on the center right. (3) It makes it difficult to think clearly, and especially to begin to think clearly about politics. After all, what young person wants to be an extremist, except those who are really extremists?
I saw recently online a French petition asking that French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s work be studied in French schools. Bastiat is one of the clearest exponents of fundamental economics. His contribution is not as large or as broad as Adam Smith’s but it’s more insightful, in my judgment. (He is the inventor of the “broken window” metaphor, for instance.) He also wrote unusually limpid French. Bastiat has not been part of secondary studies in France in my lifetime. His name is barely known at the university level. Marx and second, and third-rate Marxists, on the other hand, are omnipresent. (Some cynics would claim that whatever their conversation, the educated French do not read Bastiat, or A. Smith, but neither do they really read Marx!)
Few, in France, are able to diagnose the malaise that grips the country because it has ceased to have a name. The handful who understand capitalism are usually allergic to it because it does not guarantee equal outcomes. A minority, mostly business people, grasp well enough how it works and how it has pulled most of humanity out of poverty but they are socially shamed from expressing this perception. There is little curiosity among the French about such questions as why the American GDP/capita is 35% higher than the French. They treat this information as a sort of deed of Nature. Or, for the more ideological, among them, it’s the sad result of America’s unfairness to itself. A debate that ought to take place is born dead. How did this happen? Socialists of my generation, most good democrats, born during and right after WWII largely, early on took over the media and the universities. They have shaped and constrained public opinion since at least the sixties. They have managed to stop discussions of alternative economic paths without really conspiring to do so, possibly without even meaning to.
A really deep state
In 1945, after the long night of the 1940 defeat and of the Nazi occupation, many French people where in a mood to engender a new society. They created a number of novel government organizations designed to implement their vision of clean government but also, of justice. (They took prosperity for granted, it seems.) One of the new organizations was a post-graduate school especially designed to ensure that access to the highest levels of the government bureaucracy would be democratic and meritocratic. It’s called, “École Nationale d’Administration” (ENA). It accepts only graduates of prestigious schools. The ENA students’ per capita training costs are about seven times the average cost for all other higher education students. ENA students are considered public servants and they receive a salary. France thus possesses a predictably renewed cadre of trained administrators to run its government. And, repeating myself here, its members are chosen according to a strictly meritocratic process (unlike the most prestigious American universities, for example), a process that is also extremely selective.
In 2019, ENA is flourishing. The school has contributed four presidents and eight Prime Ministers to-date. Its graduates are numerous among professional politicians, as you might expect. In addition, they are teeming in the highest ranks of the civil service, and also of business. That’s because they go back and forth between the two worlds, with some benefit to their careers and to their wallets. This iteration does not imply corruption. Mostly, ENA graduates do not have a reputation for dishonesty at all. They help one another but it’s mostly above board. (4) This being said, it’s difficult to become really poor if you are an ENA graduate.
Graduates of ENA are often disparagingly described as a “caste,” which is sociologically inaccurate because caste is inherited. The word is meant to render a certain collective attitude of being smugly sealed from others. The intended meaning is really that of “upper caste,” of Brahman caste, to signify: those who think they possess all the wisdom.
All ENA graduates have made it to the top by taking the same sort of exam. The style of exams and the way they are corrected become known over time. Naturally, ENA candidates study to the exam. The ENA formula for success is not a mystery although it’s not just a formula; ENA also requires a sharp intelligence and character. ENA graduates have important traits in common, including a willingness to spend their adolescence cramming for increasingly difficult competitive exams. There are few charming dilettantes in their ranks. They all emerge from a process that does not reward imagination.
ENA graduates – dubbed “énarques” – seem overwhelmingly to share a certain view of the desirable interface between government and the economy. It’s not hard to guess at, based on thousands of their speeches reproduced in the media, and with the help of a little familiarity with French classical education. Its origin is neither in capitalism nor in socialism. (Sorry for the only slightly misleading title of this essay.) It predates both by 100-150 years. It’s rooted in the well known story of the Minister Colbert’s 17th century economic reforms. (It’s well known in the sense that every French school kid knows his name and a thing or two about the reforms themselves.) Colbert (1619-1683) raised tariffs, regulated production in minute detail and, above all, he created with public funds whole industries where none existed, in glass, in porcelain, but also in textiles, and others. I believe his main aim was only to increase government (royal) revenue but others think differently. At any rate, there is a widespread belief that general French prosperity rose under his administration.
To make matters worse, Colbert is a historical figure easy to like: hard working, honest, an effective patron of the arts. With such a luminary to look up to, it’s fairly effortless to ignore both the actual disorderly origins of capitalism, and also the initially compassionate roots of its socialist counter-reaction. (On capitalism’s origins, and originality, you might consult my entry: “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006. Make sure of that particular edition – 2006 – my predecessors and successors were mostly opaque Marxist academic lowlifes.)
For seventy years, French economic policy has thus been made largely by deeply persuaded statists, people who think rule from above natural (especially as it takes place within a broadly democratic framework), who judge government intervention in economic matters to be necessary, fruitful, and virtuous, people who believe that government investment is investment, people who have given little thought to private enterprise, (although they occasionally pay lip service to it, largely as if it were a kind of charity). Almost none of them, these de facto rulers, is a bad person. Their pure hearts make them all the more dangerous, I believe. The result is there in France for all to see: a sclerotic economy that has failed to provide enough jobs for fifty years, a modest standard of living by the criteria of societies that industrialized in the nineteenth century, a worsening unease about the future, a shortage of the freedom of small pleasures for the many.
I do not use the conventional words of “tyranny” or “despotism” here because both are normally more less deliberately imposed on the populace. Nothing of the sort happened in France. On the contrary, lack of individual freedom in France is the accumulated consequence of measures and programs democratically adopted within the framework described above. Together, these well-meaning social programs are squeezing the liveliness out of all but the upper layers of French society.
There exists in the country a growing resentment of the énarques’ basically anti-capitalist rule. One recent president, Sarkozy, even declared he partly owed his election to bragging about not being a graduate from ENA. Yet, the thousands of énarques permanently at the levers of command for seventy years are not about to relinquish them, irrespective of the political party or parties in power. Few groups controlling as much as they ever does so voluntarily. The deep sentiment of their collective virtuousness will make them even more intransigent. Most French critics believe that the énarquesare incapable of changing as a cadre, precisely because they are really an intellectual elite of sorts, precisely because they are not corrupt. And, as I remarked above, ENA’s statist (“socialist”) reign has lasted so long that the French people in general have lost track of the very conceptual vocabulary an anti-bureaucrat rebellion would require. (We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?)
(3) It’s true also that historical accidents have deprived France of a normal Tory party. Its place is currently occupied by reactionary nationalists (currently the “Rassemblement national,” direct descendant of the “Front National,” of Marine Le Pen) who don’t favor market forces much more than does the left.
(4) I take the ENA graduates’ reputation for probity seriously because, right now, as I write, there are clamors for abolishing the school but its generating corruption in any way is not one of the reasons advanced.
I saw a televised investigation by the pretty good French TV show, “Envoyé spécial” about current French poverty. It brought the viewer into the lives of six people. They included a retired married couple. The four others were of various ages. They lived in different parts of mainland France. All sounded French born to me. (I have a good ear for accents; trust me.) All were well spoken. The participants had been chosen to illustrate a sort of middle-class poverty, maybe. Or, perhaps to illustrate the commonness of poverty in one of the first countries to industrialize.
All the interviewees looked good. They seemed healthy. None was emaciated; none was grossly obese, as the ill-fed everywhere often are. All were well dressed, by my admittedly low standards. (I live in the People’s Democratic Republic of Santa Cruz, CA where looking dapper is counter-revolutionary.) None of those featured was in rags or wearing clothes inappropriate for the season.
The reporter took the viewer into these people’s homes. There was no indoor tour but you could see that the outside of the houses was in good repair. Most of the interviewing took place in kitchens. Every kitchen seemed equipped like mine, more than adequately. There was a range and a refrigerator in each. Every house had at least one television set.(I couldn’t determine of what quality.) No one said he or she was cold in the winter though two complained about their heating bills.
The show was geared to sob stories and it got them. Each participant expressed his or her frustration about lacking “money,” precisely, specifically. It seems to me that all but two talked about money for “extras.” I am guessing, that “extras” mean all that is not absolutely necessary to live in fairly dignified comfort. One single woman in her forties mentioned that she had not had a cup of coffee in a café for a year or more. (Keep her in mind.)
Another woman talked about the difficulty of keeping her tank filled. She remarked that a car was indispensable where she lived, to go to her occasional work and to doctors’ appointments. Her small car looked fine in the video. The woman drove it easily, seemingly without anxiety or effort.
A woman of about forty, divorced, took care of her two teenage daughters at home two weeks out of each month. She explained how she went without meat for all of the two weeks that her daughters were away. She did this so she could afford to serve them meat every day that they were with her. I could not repress the spontaneous and cynical reaction that most doctors would probably approve of her diet.
Yet, another woman, single and in her thirties, displayed her monthly budget on her kitchen table. She demonstrated easily that once she had paid all her bills, she had a pathetically small amount of money left. (I think it was about $120 for one month.) She had a boyfriend, a sort of good-looking live-in help whose earnings, if any, were not mentioned.
The retired couple sticks to my mind. The man was a retired blue-collar worker. They were both alert and in good shape. Their living room was comfy. They also talked about their bills – including for heating – absorbing all of their income. The wife remarked that they had not taken a vacation in several years. She meant that she and her husband had not been able to get away on vacation, somewhere else, away from their house and from their town. They lived close to a part of France where some rich Americans dream of retiring some day, and where many Brits actually live.
I ended up a little perplexed. On the one hand, I could empathize with those people’s obvious distress. On the other hand, I got yanked back to reality toward the end when the retired lady blamed the government for the tightness of her household budget. Then I realized that others had tacitly done the same. The consensus – which the reporter did not try expressly to produce – would have been something like this: The government should do something for me (no matter who is responsible for the dire straights I am in now).
Notably, not one of the people in the report had a health care complaint, not even the senior retired couple.
So, of course, I have to ask: Why are all those people who live far from abject poverty, by conventional standards, why do all those people convey unhappiness?
The first answer is obvious to me only because I was reared in France, where I retain substantial ties: Many small French towns are dreadfully boring, always have been. That’s true, at least, if you don’t fish and hunt, or have a passion for gardening, and if you don’t attend church. (But the French are not going to church anymore; nothing has taken the social place of church.)
And then, there is the issue of what the French collectively can really afford. This question in turn is related to productivity and, separately, to taxation. I consider each in turn.
According to the most conventional measure – value produced per hour worked – French productivity is very high, close to the German, and not far from American productivity: Something like 93% of American productivity for the French vs 95% for the Germans. (Switzerland’s is only 86%.) However, to discuss how much money is available for all French people together, we need another measure: the value of French production divided by the number of French people. Annual Gross Domestic Product per capita is close enough for my purpose. (The version I use is corrected to incorporate the fact that the buying power of a dollar is not the same in all countries: “GDP/capita, Purchasing Power Parity”).
For 2017, the French GDP/capita was $43,600, while the German was $50,200. (The American was $59,500.) Keep in mind the $6,600 difference between the French and the German GDP/capita (data).
If French workers are almost as productive as the Germans when they work, what can account for the low French GDP/capita? The answer is that the French don’t work much. Begin with the 35/hr legal work week. (1) (A study published recently in the daily Le Figaro asserts that 1/3 of the 1.1 million public servants work even less than 35 hours per week.) Consider also the universal maximum retirement age of 62 (vs 67 in Germany), a spring quarter pleasantly spiked with three-day weekends for all, a legal annual vacation of at least thirty days applied universally, a common additional (short) winter (snow) vacation. I have read (I can’t confirm the source) that the fully employed members of the French labor force work an average of 600 hours per year, one of the lowest counts in the world. Also log legal paid maternity leave. Finish with an official unemployment rate hovering around 9 to 10% for more than thirty years. All this, might account for the $6,600 per year that the Germans have and the French don’t.
There is more that is seldom mentioned. The fastest way for a country to raise the official, numerical productivity of its workers is to put out of work many of its low-productive workers. (That’s because the official figure is an arithmetic mean, an average.) This can be achieved entirely through regulations forbidding, for example, food trucks, informal seamstress services, and old-fashioned hair salons in private living rooms, and, in general, by making life less than easy for small businesses based on traditional techniques. This can be achieved entirely – and even inadvertently – from a well-meaning wish to regulate for the collective good. The more of this you do, the higher your productivity per capita appears to be and also, the higher your unemployment, and the less income is available to go around. I think the official high French productivity oddly distorts the image of real French income. I suspect it fools many French people, including public officials: They think they are wealthier than they are.
La vie est belle!
The French have nearly free health care – which works approximately as well as Medicare in the USA, well enough, anyway. (French life expectancy is higher than American expectancy.) Education is tuition-free at all levels. There are free school lunches for practically anyone who asks. University cafeterias are subsidized by the government (and pretty good by, say, English restaurant standards!) Many college students receive a stipend. Free drop-off daycare centers are common in big and in medium-size cities. Unemployment benefits can easily last for two years, three for older workers. They amount to something like 55% of the last wages earned, up to 75% for some.
That’s not all. The fact that France won the World Cup in soccer in 2018 suggests that the practice of that sport is widespread and well supported. It’s mostly government subsidized. Other sports are also well subsidized. French freeways are second to none. They are mostly turnpikes but the next network of roads down is excellent, and even the next below that. This is all kind of munificent, by American standards. The French are taken care of, almost no matter what. The central government handles nearly all of this distribution of services directly and some, indirectly through grants that local entities have to beg for.
Someone has to pay for all this generosity. After sixty or seventy years, many, perhaps most French people, still believe that the rich, the very rich, have enough money that can be pried from their clutching hands to pay for the good things they have, plus the better things they wish for. (No hard numbers here, but I would bet that ¾ of French adults believe this.) In fact, multi-fingered, ubiquitous, invasive taxation of the many who are not very rich pays for all of it.
The French value added tax (VAT) is 20% on nearly all transactions. When a grower sells $100 of apples to a jelly producer, the bill comes to $120. When the jelly-maker in turn sells his product to a grocery wholesaler, his $200 bill goes up to $240, etc. Retail prices are correspondingly high. The French are not able to cheat all the time on the VAT although many try. (Penalties are costly on the one hand, but there exists a complicated, frustrating official scheme to get back part of the VAT you do pay, on the other hand.) I speculate that the VAT is so high because the French state does not have the political will nor the capacity to collect an effective, normal income tax, a progressive income tax. Overall, the French fiscal system is not progressive; it may be unintentionally regressive. To compensate, until the Macron administration, there was a significant tax on wealth. (That’s double taxation, of course.) It’s widely believed that rich French people are escaping to Belgium, Switzerland, and even to Russia (like the actor Gérard Dupardieu).
The excise taxes are especially high, including the tax on gasoline. In 2018, the mean price of gasoline in France was about 60% higher than the mean price in California, where gas is the most taxed in the Union. An increase to gasoline taxes, supposedly in the name of saving the environment, is what triggered the “yellow vests” rebellion in the fall of 2018. Gasoline taxes are particularly regressive in a country like France where many next-to-poor people need a car because they are relegated to small towns, far from both essential services and work. (2)
All in all, the French central government takes in about 55% of the GDP. This may be the highest percentage in the world; it’s very high by any standard. It dries up much money that would otherwise be available to free enterprise. Less obviously but perhaps more significantly, it curtails severely what people individually, especially, low income citizens, may spend freely, of their own initiative.
So, with their abundant and competent social services, with their free schooling, with their prodigal unemployment benefits, with their superb roads, with their government-supported prowess in soccer, what do the French people in the documentary really complain about? Two things, I think.
Remember the woman who couldn’t afford to take her coffee in a café? Well, the French have never been very good at clubs, associations, etc. They are also somewhat reserved about inviting others to their homes. The café is where you avail yourself of the small luxury of avoiding cooking chores with an inexpensive but tasty sandwich. It’s pretty much the only place where you can go on the spur of the moment. It’s where you may bump into friends and, into almost-friends who may eventually become friends. It’s the place where you may actually make new friends. It’s the best perch from which to glare at enemies. It’s where that woman may have a chance to overhear slightly ribald comments that will make her smile. (Not yet forbidden in France!) The café is also just about the only locale where different age groups bump into one another. The café is where you will absorb passively some of that human warmth that television has tried for fifty years but failed to dispense.
This is not a frivolous nor a trivial concern. In smaller French towns, a person who does not spend time in cafés is deprived of an implicit but yet significant part of her humanity. The cup of coffee the woman cannot afford in a café may well be the concrete, humble, quotidian expression of liberty for many in other developed countries as well. (After all, Starbucks did not succeed merely by selling overpriced beverages.) The woman in the video cannot go to cafés because the social services she enjoys and supports – on a mandatory basis – leave no financial room for free choice, even about tiny luxuries. She suffers from the consequences of a broad societal pick that no one forced on her. In general, not much was imposed on her from above that she might have readily resisted. It was all done by fairly small, cumulative democratic decisions. In the end, there is just not enough looseness in the socio-economic space she inhabits to induce happiness.
She is an existential victim of what can loosely be called “democratic socialism.” It’s “democratic” because France has all the attributes of a representative republic where the rule of law prevails. It’s “socialistic” in the vague sense in which the term is used in America today. Unfortunately, there is no French Bureau of Missing and Lost Little Joys to assess and remedy her discontent. Democratic socialism is taking care of the woman but it leaves her no elbow room, space for recreation, in the original meaning of the word: “re-creation.”
The second thing participants in the documentary complain about is a sense of abandonment by government. Few of them are old enough to remember the bad old days before the French welfare state was fully established. They have expected to be taken care of all their adult lives. If anything is not satisfactory in their lives, they wait for the government to deal with it, even it takes some street protests. Seldom are other solutions, solutions based on private initiative, even considered. But the fault for their helplessness lies with more than their own passive attitudes. An overwhelming sense of fairness and an exaggerated demand for safety combine with the government’s unceasing quest for revenue to make starting a small business, for example, difficult and expensive. France is a country where you first fill forms for permission to operate, and then pay business taxes before you have even earned any business income.
The French have democratically built for themselves a soft cradle that’s feeling more and more like a lead coffin. It’s not obvious enough of them understand this to reverse the trend, or that they could if they wished to. There is also some vague worry about their ability to maintain the cradle for their children and for their children’s children.
(1) I am aware of the fact that there exists a strong inverse correlation between length of week worked and GDP/capita: In general, the richer the country, the shorter the work week. Again, this is based on a kind of average. It allows for exceptions. It seems to me the French awarded themselves a short work week before they were rich enough to afford it.
(2) You may wonder why I don’t mention the French debt ratio (amount of public debt/GDP). All the amenities I describe must cost a lot of money and the temptation to finance them partly through debt must be great. In fact, the French debt ratio is lower than the American: 96% to 109% in 2018 according to the International Monetary Fund. This is a little surprising but all debtors are not equal. A country with near full employment and plenty of talent is better able to pay off its debts than one with high long term unemployment and a labor force decreasingly accustomed to laboring. The latter is, of course, a predictable result of inter-generational unemployment and underemployment. Nowadays, it’s common to cross paths in France with people over thirty who have never experienced paid work. International investors think like me about the inequality of debtors. Investors flock to the US but they are reserved about France.
[Editor’s note: You can find the entire, longform essay here if you don’t want to wait for Parts II and III.]
As I keep saying, facts matter. Facts matter more than ideological consistency if you want to know. That’s why I keep comparing us with the other society I know well, France. I am up-to-date on it, a task facilitated by the fact that I read a major French newspaper online every day, by the fact that I watch the French-language Francophone television chain, TV5, nearly every day, and by occasional recourse to my brother who lives in France. My brother is especially useful as a source because he is well-informed by French standards, articulate, and an unreconstructed left-of-center statist. I suspect he has never in his life heard a clear exposition of how markets are supposed to work. He is a typical Frenchman in that respect.
I almost forgot: I must admit that I watch a French soap opera five days a week at lunchtime. And finally, I spy on my twenty-something French nieces and nephews through Facebook. I never say anything to them so they have forgotten I am their so-called “friend.” I almost forgot again: Until recently, I went to France often. Every time I was there, I made it my duty to read local newspapers and newsweeklies and to listen to the radio and to watch the news on television. I said “duty” because it was not always fun.
So, those are my credentials. I hope you find them as impressive as I do.
And, incidentally, for those who know me personally, mostly around Santa Cruz, the rumor that I am a guy from New Jersey who fakes a French accent to make himself interesting to the ladies, that rumor has no foundation. In fact, the accent is real. French is my first language; the accent never went away and it’s getting worse as my hearing deteriorate. I like to write in part because I don’t have much of an accent in writing. Got it?
I found out recently that the French national debt to GDP ratio is about 85. That is, French citizens, as citizens, owe 85 cents for every dollar they earn in a year. The debt is a cumulative total, of course, And “national debt” refers to what’s owed by the national government of a country. The private debt of the citizens of the same country is an unrelated matter. Another way to say the same thing is that, should you reduce the national debt of your country down to zero, it wouldn’t help you directly with your personal credit card balance. (It might help you indirectly to some extent because you wouldn’t be in a position anymore to compete with the federal government for credit. This competition raises interest rates.)
The national debt also does not include the debts of states and local governments. In this country, the aggregate of these non-federal government debts is also high because of our decentralized structure. Let me say it another way: The national debt, associated entirely with the federal government, is a relatively small fraction of the total debt US citizens owe by virtue of the cost of their overall system of government. It’s relatively small as compared to the same quantity for France, for example. The French national debt includes most sub-debts that would be counted as state debt and local debt in this country. Accordingly, the French national debt is overestimated as compared to ours. If French accounting were like ours the French national debt would be considerably less than 85% of GDP.
Well, you ask: What’s ours, our national debt as a percentage of GDP? Fair enough:
It’s about 100% of GDP, 15 points higher than the French percentage. We are closer to Greece than France is in that respect.
This pisses me off to no end. The divergence between the directions taken by French society and American society occurred during my adulthood. I witnessed that divergence in concrete terms through my French relatives and directly, through my visits to France, and the occasional longish sojourn there, and so forth. So, let me summarize what I saw in France during the past thirty years.
The French eat better than Americans. They always did but their food could have become worse under “socialism.” Even the children who stay at school over lunch eat good meals for a nominal sum. School lunches in the average French town taste better than the fare of a better-than-average American restaurant, in my book.
The French have longer vacations than Americans. That’s all of them, all Americans, including civil servants and bricklayers’ union members. Five weeks is the norm in France. You read that right: 5!
In many French municipalities – I am tempted to say “most” but I have not done the research – children go skiing at public expense one week each year or more. There are also many subsidized “initiation to the sea” summer camps.
It’s also true that Americans have bigger houses and bigger cars than do French people. Personally (and I am a kind of small expert on the topic) I think French universities are not nearly as good as their American counterparts. I mean that the best French universities don’t come close to the best American universities and that the worst American universities maintain standards absent in the worst French universities. Elementary and secondary French schools seem to me to be about equivalent to American schools. They also turn out large numbers of functional illiterates. But, there is more.
The French have universal health care that is mostly free. It hurts me a lot to say this but I saw it at work several times, including under trying circumstances, and the French national health care system performed fine every time. (There is an essay on this topic on this blog, I think.) I know this is only anecdotal evidence but the raw numbers don’t contradict my impression. In point of fact, French males live two years longer than American men. I realize this superior longevity could be due to any number of factors (except genetic factors, both populations are very mixed). However, it is not compatible with a truly horrendous “socialized medicine” system. And, yes, I too would like to credit Frenchmen’s longevity to regular drinking of red wine but it’s not reasonable. If it were, a health cult of red wine would have been launched by the wine industry in this country a long time ago.
The French collectively spend about half as much as we do on health care.
I can hear my virginal libertarian friends howling: The French can afford all those tax-based luxuries because they are less likely than Americans to become involved in military ventures. (And I would add, they cut out earlier, as they are now doing in Afghanistan.) But the numbers have to jibe: In the past thirty years, the US never spent more than 5% of GDP on the military. In most years, it was under 4% . Both figures include incompressibles such as veterans’ benefits that aren’t really spent to wage war, now or in the future. Those costs, about ¼ of the military budget in the average year, would be more or less made up elsewhere if they did not exist. So, it seems to me that higher military budgets cannot begin to account for the fifteen percentage points the French have over us in their national debt relative to GDP.
I am a small government conservative who would call himself a libertarian if I did not see the word as associated with pacifism. Yet, I cannot look away from these simple facts. I wish I had an answer to the quandary they pose but I don’t. Any ideas?
From Eugene Delacroix, as requested by Jacques Delacroix (no relation):
From the esteemed Jewish French-Belarusian artist (and one of my personal favorites), Marc Chagall: