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« "Home Movies" at TNR | Main | YA Fiction »

September 14, 2004

Bonjour les paradoxes

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Back in May, Michael posted about Debra Ollivier's Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. Michael suggested that this frothy book offers better insights into the French character than does Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon.

In 1955 Preston Sturges made a film called The French They Are a Funny Race. Right now, many Americans have a love-hate relationship with the French. And not just Americans. Anthony Daniels, an Englishman and a prison doctor, is a compulsively readable writer on many subjects, though he is perhaps best known for his dead-pan scathing column in the Spectator, written under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple. He's also very familiar to readers of the New Criterion, City Journal, and other publications. In the Autumn 2002 City Journal, Daniels wrote a terrifying piece called "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris." Here's how it begins:

Everyone knows la douce France: the France of wonderful food and wine, beautiful landscapes, splendid châteaux and cathedrals. More tourists (60 million a year) visit France than any country in the world by far. Indeed, the Germans have a saying, not altogether reassuring for the French: "to live as God in France." Half a million Britons have bought second homes there; many of them bore their friends back home with how they order these things better in France.

But there is another growing, and much less reassuring, side to France. I go to Paris about four times a year and thus have a sense of the evolving preoccupations of the French middle classes. A few years ago it was schools: the much vaunted French educational system was falling apart; illiteracy was rising; children were leaving school as ignorant as they entered, and much worse-behaved. For the last couple of years, though, it has been crime: l’insécurité, les violences urbaines, les incivilités. Everyone has a tale to tell, and no dinner party is complete without a horrifying story. Every crime, one senses, means a vote for Le Pen or whoever replaces him.

He goes on to detail, as only he can, the horrendous living conditions and pervasive hopelessness among the immigrant population of the housing projects ringing Paris, and the tidal wave of crime and social disorder that has emanated from these projects in recent years. One's immediate reaction to the piece was, OK, I won't be going back there any time soon.

Ah, but the French are made for paradoxes.

On January 3 of this year, Daniels wrote a Spectator cover story, entitled "Escape from Barbarity." The "barbarity" in question is hooliganish England. The destination of escape is...France. Daniels, in this piece, announced that he was moving to France.

Is France in better shape than Britain? Its countryside is emptier, which for someone like me, who has had enough of crowds in general and people in particular to last him a lifetime, is good enough. I know it is a high-tax economy — bureaucratic and sclerotic in many respects — but at least the people seem to get something in return for their taxes. France’s infrastructure, public transport and healthcare are far better than Britain’s. It would be nice if we in Britain got something — anything — tolerably decent in return for our taxes, but with the increasing moral and intellectual corruption of our public services that I have seen over the years, and the unimpeded advance of wilful administrative incompetence into every nook and cranny of public life, I do not think that there is any prospect of that.

Later, Anthony Daniels reviewed Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow in the Telegraph, here. It's also a popular book at Amazon.

Daniels says of the authors:

They take issue with American ideologists who assume that, because France has a highly dirigiste society and economy, it must also be impoverished and unproductive. This is like assuming that, because the French eat rich food that is high in animal fats, they must die early of heart attacks and be very fat.

In fact, this is not so. Fewer French than Britons work at all, and those who work do so for far fewer hours, yet the country as a whole is as productive as Britain, indeed more so as regards tangible goods. Moreover, unlike Britain, it pays its way in the world.

French dirigisme is saved from the utter disaster that Americans often predict for it by the relentless intellectual elitism of its educational system, which the authors rightly emphasise. The famous grandes écoles are designed to produce a competent, if arrogant, elite, who are destined from their early adulthood to control everything from politics to telecommunications.

The plain fact is that they are genuinely worthy to be an elite. Entry to these institutions is strictly by intellectual attainment alone: no nonsense about social justice - which is to say lower standards for people coming from disadvantaged groups - enters into the selection process. If ever it does, it will be a disaster for France. Britain has much to learn here.

Daniels may approve of the grandes écoles running French business. A very different writer, Corinne Maier, does not. She's a Frenchwoman, an economist at the French state electrical company, holder of a doctorate in psychoanalysis, and author of several books on Jacques Lacan. She has recently written a book, Bonjour paresse, that is the bestselling book in France. (It has not yet been translated, though there are hopes that it will be. The French edition is available here.) This piece from the Financial Times calls Maier "the closest thing France has to Scott Adams." She starts with a marvelous factoid: a poll showing that 17% of French middle managers "are already so 'actively disengaged' with their work that they are practically committing industrial sabotage." She then says this is a good thing. Her book is a how-to manual for slacking off in the workplace--getting by doing as little work as is humanly possible while not increasing your already high chances of being fired. Your company, Maier says, doesn't care about your well-being. Why should you care about its? She is France's new revolutionary provocateur: Overthrow the system by...doing nothing. But in a way so seemingly characteristic of the French, she posits that there is an art to workplace slacking.

Part of the problem, she says, is "how middle managers who have no strings to pull fail to win promotion because all the senior positions in big French companies are monopolized by well-connected alumni of the elite grandes écoles, notably the énarques from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration."

It's gotten to where, in a free association game, if someone were to say "paradox," I'd probably respond "French."

I don't think I'm a Francophile (my love of paradoxes notwithstanding), but from my New York City vantage point, in 2004, I look around me and conclude that without our French inheritances, American culture might be pretty dismal. From the influence of Montesquieu on Alexander Hamilton, to the architecture of Horace Trumbauer, to Julia Child--I think we've definitely benefited from the French.

My favorite American novelist, Edith Wharton, was a Francophile. She had lived in Paris for some years when World War I broke out, and she took a leading role in drumming up U.S. support for the French cause. In 1919, she wrote a book, largely forgotten today (though miraculously in-print), called French Ways and Their Meaning. Its principal intended audience was American soldiers stationed in France after the war. The book was meant to help them understand the French. Though the book has a bit of a propagandistic air, it nonetheless conveys how Wharton truly felt about the people of her adopted country. For Wharton, the most important characteristics of the French spirit were reverence, taste, intellectual honesty, and continuity. (There's also a chapter called "The New Frenchwoman," which is interesting in concert with Debra Ollivier's book.) As to "continuity," Wharton writes: "French culture is the most homogeneous and uninterrupted culture the world has known." Wharton also says: "Look about you, and you will see that the whole world is filled with her spilt glory."

Best,

Francis

posted by Francis at September 14, 2004




Comments

Well, to say the obvious, the French are nothing if not complex.

This is completely unscientific on my part but my observation in French cities and large towns was that they work well largely because the 19th and early 20th century ideal of small shop ownership hangs on in France more tenaciously than it does here. Shopkeeper's pride is strong. This extends to the street in front of each shop. It's still not unusual to see the individual shop owner, or the assistant if there is one, sweeping up his little portion of pavement each morning.

It's reassuring, too.

Posted by: ricpic on September 14, 2004 02:35 PM



Three things.

As all ex-Soviet school alumni, I was exposed for 7 years to famous Russian Francophile classic and modern literature (they all were - Pushkin, Tolstoi, Turgenev, even Babel'. The ones who weren't were considered eccentrics - or worse.)
Oddly, my foreign language requirements were possible to fulfill only by 2 languages - English or German. French instruction was far less widely available - much like, let's say, Finnish in Alabama's schools.
So on one hand, we were left versed in second-hand admiration of French culture, on the other lacking in tools to check it for ourselves.

Keep this in mind while I proceed to my next two points.

* " Your company, Maier says, doesn't care about your well-being. Why should you care about its?"
Compare this to widely known Soviet-time maxim: "You (the government=high management/nomenclature) pretend we're getting paid, we (the workers/middle management/pawns at the bottom of the pyramid) pretend we're working".
Striking similarity brings me to the question: is high productivity and overall competitive state of French economy really true?
if yes, it is indeed unexplainable paradox. But I suspect the answer is no, or "depends how you calculate it". I'd like to see some backing up, on either side of the argument.

* "...French spirit were reverence, taste, intellectual honesty, and continuity..."
ROFL - hysterically.
Continuity, may be, but only in IRreverence. As to intellectual honesty, "L'Humanite", anyone? And whole 9 yards.

Well, that's enough for starters, I guess.


Posted by: Tatyana on September 14, 2004 02:40 PM



Tatyana,

Thanks--I was purposely leaving it to others to comment on Edith's traits of the French. The search for national characteristics is a mug's game, of course. We know that such characteristics exist, but they're near impossible to define.

Still, there is a great, strong tradition of intellectual honesty in France--from Tocqueville to Raymond Aron to Marc Fumaroli.

As for French productivity, I keep hearing that and, like you, wonder. So let me see if I can dig up something substantive on that topic.

Taste? Well, for me, yeah. French literature, French architecture, French cooking, French women's clothing--if those fall under "Taste," then I don't find that laughable.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 14, 2004 02:56 PM



Ricpic,

That's a good observation. The old saw is that England is a "nation of shopkeepers." I've always felt that to be more true of the French.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 14, 2004 03:01 PM



Re. that Ye Olde Saw... "Nation of Shopkeepers" was Napoleon's compliment to Great Britain. I don't believe it was taken as such by the Brits...and Napoleon wasn't exactly know to be a tosser of bon mots in that general direction.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 14, 2004 03:24 PM



Pardon, I didn't say taste is laughable. It is a serious matter, THE most serious to the French. (Aside - leftie Village-type women are awfully inconsistent, I think. I mean - to admire French Anti-American de facto politics and then wear Birkenstocks and gypsy skirts? Fe)
I digress, sorry.

What you call (well, not you, but since the term sticks) intellectual honesty: I'd rather call it a love for clear logical constructions. This doesn’t necessarily applies honesty, only brilliance.
Which, in its turn, can very easy transform into pomposity and didactic sophistry.
(Are you still keeping in mind my premises? I know, it's a balancing act)

Pomposity brings us to self-importance, delusions of continuous grandeur, chauvinism and Anti-Semitism, among other pleasant things.

Now those of you who:
a) knows French tongue
b) has been in France (either/or/both)
tell me if I'm wrong.

Shopkeepers. This is what I heard from a municipal PR officer in Montreal: it is virtually impossible in France for young entrepreneurs to start their own business (red tape+bribes). Those with drive to succeed can only participate in their parents/uncles &c existing small family businesses. There is virtually no middle-size private enterprise. So Quebec (and Montreal in particular) has huge influx of native French young entrepreneurs.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 14, 2004 03:49 PM



Thorough research using questionable sources has come up with the following, http://www.weeklyworldnews.com/features/suspects/61277


which explains why 4 years of French and 6 years in Montreal barely helped me speak French. Turns out, I was using the wrong release point.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 14, 2004 04:08 PM



I read a fair amount of Daniels/Dalrymple (he writes so much it's hard not to bump into him at every turn--sooner rather than later he'll need a third name to avoid brand saturation).

A lot of his Dalrymple work--especially his Dickensian stuff on working with prisoners and the lower orders, has a bracing, "this-is-how-it-really-is" quality that can be quite compelling. And compelling in particular to folks like me, ex-idealists whose turn to realism masks a desire not to leave idealism too far behind.

Anyway, I found the doctor's French attraction kind of odd and interesting, as it conflicts in some respects with the conventional wisdom emerging on the Right--Kagan's Mars/Venus stuff, Victor Davis Hanson's disparagement of the continent as an ersatz Disney utopia-in-denial.

There's an article in the Spectator (on line at:

http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php?table=old§ion=current&issue=2004-09-11&id=4992

by John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Woolridge of the Economist. It contrasts British and American conservatism, arguing that the relative success of American (post-Reagan) conservatism lies in its sunny disposition, faith in the future and belief in change and progress. This in contrast with the Brits, whose conservatism has not been able to fully purge a sour, backward-looking, landed gentry Tory impulse.

So I wonder if Dalrymple has got some of the Tory in him still?

Posted by: fenster on September 14, 2004 04:58 PM



fwiw, here's a bracing defence of france :D cheers!

Posted by: glory on September 14, 2004 10:07 PM



ops! sorry :D

Posted by: glory on September 14, 2004 10:09 PM



As for slacking ...

Was anyone else a fan of the San Francisco 'zine Processed World? "Are you processing? Or are you being processed?" -- they loved coining phrases like that one back in the '80s. Lots of articles about how absurd jobs can be, lots of tips on how to goof off and get away with it. Anarchistic grad-student stuff, basically, but done with rambunctious good humor, or so it seemed to me back then. "Snotty" is probably also a good word for them. But I remember being a happy subscriber for a few years.

Here's a page about Processed World. I'm looking forward to reading "La Paresse."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2004 10:57 PM




There is France the country, and there's France the member state of the European Union. They appear to be different beasts. The EU - originally a France idea - has long been dumb enough to compensate the weak points of the French. That so much EU-policy still is agricultural policy has been a heritage from the days that the inefficient French farmers had to be saved from real competition.

In fact, the institutions of the EU even mimic the way the French administration has been set up. And there's still that compulsory meeting of the European Parliament one week very month. Costing enormous amounts of money, because so many people have to move from Brussels temporarily.

Also, in the stability pact set up to guarantee the euro will keep its value, France was the first weak brother to break the rules.

The country doesn't deal very well with it's huge unemployment, there are going to be huge problems when the baby boomer generation retires, because there's no money for their pensions, and there are not enough children born.

Still, I do think the entrance of those ten new member states to the EU earlier this year may be the biggest drawback the French had in decades. As this will reduce their chances to influence European policy.

They were against it, of course.

Posted by: ijsbrand on September 15, 2004 08:18 AM



compulsory meeting in Strassbourg

Posted by: ijsbrand on September 15, 2004 08:20 AM



Frank -

The grandes ecoles elites and the "actively disengaged" middle managers are not a paradox. The top down elitism produces the dissatisfied middle. They are the ones who are not ready to move to Quebec (and who can blame them?) but who want more than the grandes ecoles poobahs will let them have.

All over the western world, we are less and willing to accept the old top-down model. Here in the US, where we're the most democratic, the old WASP establishment voluntarily opened the gates to all its bastions decades ago. But the French still publish on the front page of Le Monde the class lists of the elite high schools IN ORDER OF GRADUATION, and for the rest of their lives, those rankings follow them. "Mon dieu! We can not geeve zat job to heem, he was only 45ffss at Henri IV in 1921!"

My old boss Bob Stern once said to me, "Were you first in your class? I wasn't. The best students are never the most successful in life." And he was talking about graduate school, not high school.

The difference between France and America is that the state rigidly enforces the maxim that the best students get the best jobs.

BTW, England has a similar problem. For years, they treated their working class TERRIBLY. This all came up in the 60s, just as similar issues came up here. The British upper class has only themselves to blame for the rabid, ideological, BADLY EDUCATED Labor leaders of the 60s.

Today, Eton graduates drop their haitches if they want to get ahead in business.

John

Posted by: john massengale on September 15, 2004 02:20 PM



I am surprised to not see the name Adam Gopnik here, and his book, "Paris to the Moon", quoted or mentioned. Of course, Gopnik embraces the French livestyle quite unabashedly, and shares my own fascination with the City of Love. I have never been to France, except through the magical transportation of books or movies. As I have very long family tree branches sprouting from France, I find myself always drawn to further researching of the country and its people.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 16, 2004 10:21 AM



See Pattie's face turn red, Gopnik is in the first sentence. I got carried away reading the piece and comments. My apologies. Bad, Pattie. Should never attempt to appear intelligent while stealing time on an employer's computer *grin*. Of course, they don't really care about me, so it is all right!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 16, 2004 10:24 AM



****
Her book is a how-to manual for slacking off in the workplace--getting by doing as little work as is humanly possible while not increasing your already high chances of being fired.
****
This is a French thing? That's the work ethic where I'm working right now in sunny CA!

Posted by: Ted on September 16, 2004 11:58 AM



I'm only a casual observer, but the main French exports seem to be food, porn, and tyranny.

I guess two out of three ain't bad, but that third one's the doozy.

Posted by: Brian on September 18, 2004 06:17 AM






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