January 8, 2006


France's 'pursuit of harmony'
: In his New Year message to his people, French President Jacques Chirac talked of intensifying the fight for jobs and financing social welfare reform, but do these plans rest easy with the government's devotion to national cohesion? ( Allan Little, 1/08/06, BBC)

The last demonstration I attended as the BBC's Paris correspondent was a march through Paris by the nation's family doctors: the general practitioners.

I fell into conversation with a young GP from Bordeaux.

She had decided to join the strike and come to Paris to march to defend this most valued of all the accrued benefits: the best health service in the world (though also one of the most expensive).

French GPs are not paid well.

She must feel very strongly to give up a day's pay, I asked.

"We don't lose a day's pay," she said, "it's our right to strike - it would be an outrage if the government stopped our pay for exercising our right."

Then what about the cost of the journey to Paris and her overnight stay?

"The union pays that," she said.

And where does the union get its funding?

"From the government," she adds.

I came to see that what I was reporting on was a government-funded demonstration... against the government. [...]

[S]o far it has been the fate of reforming governments to be thwarted by the solidity of public opinion and the festive spirit with which public sector workers take to the streets.

One frustrated right-wing member of the national assembly told me:

"We French don't do reform, we do revolution. Nothing changes until everything changes. We are on to our fifth republic and the Americans are still on their first."

There is, though, sound reason for this and it seems to me to lie in France's history.

French governments have a horror of confrontation, of dividing the French against themselves.

The first thing to note is that the French are Realists about their domestic situation in the same way the Zbig Brzezinski's (see below) are Realists about foreign policy--they don't much care what living conditions are like so long as they're stable. In fact, the Reagan Revolution was nothing more than running against this dual Realism that had come to dominate the later years of the liberal epoch even here in America.

What Reagan did was return us to the ideals of our own Revolution, which emphasize equality of origins and the liberty in which to pursue opportunity. This gives the American Republic the quality of a constant revolution, as every generation and every individual has sufficient freedom to change it's/his social, economic, and political status and puts us, rather often, in the position of helping other peoples to enact similar revolutions in their own societies.

The French, with their emphasis on equality of outcomes, are sentenced to actual revolutions, because there is no government run system by which you can distribute wealth equally, so a republic based on that promise is always a failure and destined to be overthrown. The French system is rotten to its core and until, or unless, they face that they'll never reform in any serious way.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2006 9:34 AM

" ... they don't much care what living conditions are like so long as they're stable."

I'm not so sure about that. They envy us our apparent prosperity and high standard of living and those who can, emulate it.

My son who lives in Montpellier in the south of France, reports that new houses are being built in the American style complete with built-in pools, large sunny open floor plans and modern kitchens opening up into family rooms with countertop eating and cooking areas.

Very different from traditional French houses of small dark wood panelled rooms and kitchens separated from the living area.

Posted by: erp at January 8, 2006 10:16 AM

But surely that is just trend and fashion, erp. The last thing the left in the West wants is any upsetting of political and social entitlements or the class structure and rhetoric that supports them. They have all become the hopeless "conservative" toadies of modern times, petrified that the old order will changeth.

We've got that phenomenon going on front and center up here right now.

Posted by: Peter B at January 8, 2006 10:28 AM

Realists treat the decisions of others as unchangeable and not able to be contested by reason, and are therefore in a position to accomodate, compromise their point and just get along BY DEFINITION. If they treated others as human beings, also able to think, feel, see consequences, and want the best for themselves and their children, they might act differently.

Of course, some of that depends on the experience of having children, and that seems out of fashion, too.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at January 8, 2006 10:35 AM

Peter B, Of course it's a trend and the fashion, but if the U.S. is so hated, why copy our trends and fashions. We live in an open and free society and our housing and life style depicts that. They live in a closed and constricted society, so why would they want to live in houses that are the polar opposite of that?

What of Canadian housing styles? Is it similar to that of the U.S. and is Canada in the throes of a housing bubble as we are?

Posted by: erp at January 8, 2006 11:24 AM

Imagine this response by the government to the doctor:

"Well, we could pay you 30% more if we didn't have to fund your right to strike at any time at government expense."

Do you think any of them have even thought that this tradeoff were possible? Would any of them be bold enough to take it? Would the union leaders ever let them hear such a proposition?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 8, 2006 11:29 AM

France loves its avantages acquis, but they become expensive and France is living beyond its means. It has spent more than it has raised in revenue for 29 consecutive years.

But debt doesn't matter, so they're ok, right?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 8, 2006 11:37 AM

Apparently. Are they suffering from run-away interest rates? A quick Google indicates that the French 10 year bond is running at 3.5% and their budget deficit is running at under 5% of GDP. Not as good as us, but not catastrophic in the short term.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 8, 2006 12:24 PM

their unemployment rate is > 10% and would be much higher if make believe public sector "jobs" were thrown in.

Posted by: toe at January 8, 2006 1:47 PM


Yes and yes. In terms of how we live, work and play, we're pretty much just the big blue state down the road.

But Orrin can tell you about some quaint little sartorial differences.

Posted by: Peter B at January 8, 2006 2:49 PM

some of the urban architecture is u.s.ish but a lot of the government buildings, and suburban areas (that I have seen) bear a strong resemblance to the same in the u.k. van couver at least has the same housing bubble going on as here.

Posted by: toe at January 8, 2006 3:43 PM

toe: But that's as much a feature as a bug. If you're going to have a cradle to grave welfare system, socialized medicine, strict rules against firing people, a 36 hour work week, all expenses paid strikes, etc., etc., etc., then you're going to have high unemployment. Unemployment is not so much a result of deficit (remember that deficit spending is usually thought to overheat the economy) as what they are spending themselves into debt to buy.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 8, 2006 5:26 PM

Because of its peculiar geography, I wouldn't take Vancouver's housing market as representative of Canada. Between the ocean, mountains to the north and, most importatn, the border to the south, it really has no place to grow but east up the Fraser valley, or vertically (taller buildings), or increasing density. Probably another reason so many Hong Kong expatriates find the place like their old home.

Now if BC were to make noises of really joining the US, you'd see one bizarre speculative market taking place between Blaine and Bellingham in anticipation. (Yes, there's a small cross-border commute, but nothing like what would result from removing an international border, especially now when the two countries don't see eye-to-eye on their other border controls.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 8, 2006 5:29 PM

"I came to see that what I was reporting on was a government-funded demonstration... against the government."--Leave it to a "government-funded" Beebster to get it wrong: those are taxpayers' funds.

Posted by: Noel at January 8, 2006 9:09 PM

France: Stuck on Stupid since 1789.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 8, 2006 11:51 PM

The first thing to note ... They will never reform in any serious way.

It has been a long time since I have read a summary as incisive and concise.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 9, 2006 7:56 AM