A few years after Margaret Thatcher came to power and launched what at the time seemed a futile war to compel the English people to embrace business values, I found myself dazed and confused in a London corner shop.
Down one aisle and up the other, I paced but found no trace of what I’d come for: the world’s finest pseudo-cookies. The shelf that once held those McVitie’s wafers coated with milk chocolate was now stocked with less desirable items.
At length, I went to the middle-aged shop owner and asked where she’d hidden my favourite treats — this gift from the gods to those of us who want to pretend our cookies are merely crackers. “We used to stock those,” she said, sweetly, “but we kept running out, so we’ve stopped.”
Right then I thought: Thatcherism is doomed. The English will never embrace efficiency, or money-making, or “the customer is always right” mindset, or any of those uneasy values that underpin modern capitalism.
I was wrong, obviously. The English have not merely embraced commercial values but have become so thoroughly imbued with them that London has displaced New York as the world’s money hub. A nation of people once embarrassed to complain that their soup was cold is now among the first to demand to speak to the manager.
But that was England, and those were the English. This is France, and these are the French.
In case you missed it, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has decided that the French need to become more productive. He eliminated the law forbidding work weeks longer than 35 hours, and he’s making noises about changing the rule that allows the unemployed to turn down job offers that they feel are beneath them.
No French person is likely to be required to work more than 35 hours a week — that appears to be too much to ask for just yet — but any French person who wishes to earn more money may, shockingly, work for it. “Work more to earn more” is Sarkozy’s dully hopeful slogan.
The thing is, the French don’t want to work more. Sarkozy’s poll numbers have plummeted. The very same middle-class who elected him have taken to the streets to protest his callous disregard of the role of leisure in French life.
Michel Guyot, an engineer with Total SA, told Helene Fouquet of Bloomberg that he may no longer have time to travel to the south of France “to smell the thyme and listen to the cicadas”. Apparently, he echoes the concern of a social class and, perhaps, a nation.
“It’s a spectre,” he said, “a cloud over my head.”
From this safe distance — 6,000 miles (9,660km) — it’s hard not to admire Sarkozy’s audacity. Here’s an elected leader, serving at the pleasure of the French, who has taken it upon himself to do the one thing certain to induce despair and hatred in their hearts: force them to become more productive.
Inflicting market values upon the British circa 1980 felt a bit cruel, but visiting it upon the French circa 2008 feels almost like an unnatural act, like forcing a cat to fetch.
Of course, it’s possible to change a society and to drag it into the global economic monoculture. Thatcher showed how: break up collectives and make people feel a little bit more alone. Cut a few holes in the social safety net. Raise the status of money-making, and lower the status of every other activity. Stop giving knighthoods to artists and start giving them to department-store moguls. Stop listening to intellectuals and start listening to entrepreneurs and financiers.
Hate becomes love
Don’t mind that artists and intellectuals hate you — or even that, for a time, the society seems to hate you. Stick to the plan long enough and the people who are good at making money acquire huge sums and power. In time, they become the culture’s dominant voice. And they love you for it.
But the French are different.
For one, they enjoy feeling alone in the world. Their problem isn’t an incapacity for selfishness, or for individual initiative. Anyone who has ever watched a middle-aged Parisian male muscle aside a pregnant lady with a baby and steal her taxi can see that the French have what it takes to succeed in the modern world. They just don’t want to.
They want to take all those selfish impulses that might be directed into improving productivity and efficiency and wealth-accumulation and channel it into being...French.
Smell the thyme
And if you want to be French — if you want to be able to describe the smell of thyme or the sound of cicadas or simply to lounge around some tropical island in a disturbingly small bathing suit — you need time. And not just a little time. You need so much time that when your president puts an end to a preposterous law limiting the work week to 35 hours, you think nothing of going out into the street and marching around for hours protesting.
There is also the question of competitive advantage. Most nations gain their advantage by making things more efficiently, and at lower cost, than their competitors.
To the extent that the French enjoy a natural advantage, it is in their inefficiency: they are the world’s most efficient producers of structured indolence. They are the kept women of the global economy; their status depends, in part, on their practical uselessness.
Reinvent the British and you get a global finance centre, edible food and better service. Reinvent the French and you may just get more Germans.
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