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18 June 2001

Un-American activities rule in France

You have big government. You also have good food, a 35-hour week and trains that run on time. So why

By David Lawday

We tend to groan at European partners, such as the French, who openly take issue with America; they are seen as “anti-American”. Now that President George W Bush has come to Europe, and we have seen him and his “American way” close up, the question on everyone’s lips is: have the French been right all along?

Some years ago, I boarded a plane leaving America with Hubert Vedrine, now France’s foreign minister, but at the time a diplomatic adviser to the then president, Francois Mitterrand. “I hate Americans,” he seethed. He seemed to be speaking not so much with genuine loathing as in frustration at having been unable to get the French view across to American officialdom. Part of France’s attitude towards America is indeed built on frustration. But there is more to it. It is about what sort of society each chooses.

The universe that President Bush’s policy-makers inhabit looks a social light-year away from the one in which Europeans live. But then, much the same might have been said of Bill Clinton’s America – before confrontation with Russia and China was masterfully resumed, before destroying the world climate was deemed a fair business risk, before Star Wars was relaunched, and before human execution (such as that of Timothy McVeigh) was given the glow of public entertainment. Differences between France and America go back much further.

The French truly believe that they created the United States – that is, an America independent of the British crown. More recently, their feelings have been shaped by disasters in colonial Indochina. The French think that America threw them out of Vietnam in the Fifties, which resulted in the foreseeable tragedy of the Vietnam war. Then, in the Sixties, General Charles de Gaulle threw Nato forces – whose backbone was the Americans – out of France. De Gaulle felt that, because the US was ultimately out to defend itself, France needed its own nuclear strike force. He flirted with the Soviet Union and just about everyone else to annoy the US, siding with America only when the chips were down. He was angered by what he saw as America’s use of Britain as its Trojan horse in Europe.

While one should not overpaint this picture, it comes from the French and American convictions that each nation has a civilising mission. Each believes that it represents a universal culture. Each aims to export its values and culture. The French have learnt the hard, humiliating way that you cannot, and probably should not, hold back American entertainment exports or vie with the English language; that you cannot get involved in the Middle East in place of America – although France believes the Americans have failed there and lost their peace-making credentials. Now the French pick their fights a little more carefully.

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However, listen for a collision as globalisation spreads. The French are not blind. They see little difference between globalisation and Americanisation. Vedrine, this time speaking as foreign minister in his recently published book Les Cartes de la France (“France’s Trump Cards”), defines globalisation thus: “Ultra-liberal market economy, rejection of the state, non-republican individualism, a mechanical underpinning of America’s universal and ‘indispensable’ [his quotation-marks] role . . . English-language driven, Protestant rather than Catholic in concept.” Not exactly an American plot, he allows, but certainly an American project.

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It is Vedrine who coined the term “hyperpower” for the US. This irritates Washington. “The situation is without precedent,” he says in the book. “What previous empire has subjugated the entire world, including its enemies?”

This is devious talk for a major western diplomat. On the popular level, things are still livelier. It is only appropriate that a Frenchman, Jose Bove, the chirpy handlebar-moustache sort heard holding forth in any French bar, should have emerged as the Luddite figurehead of international public concern over capitalism gone global. Bove, the intrepid trasher of the Big Mac, has reduced popular confusion over Americanisation to the starkly simple French concept of the battle against mal bouffe (bad grub).

If through Vedrine, Bove and others, it is accepted that the French have a point, it is also accepted that America has gone wrong somewhere, and that big government, with judicious control of markets, strong social welfare, cultural independence and a brake on privatisation, is the way to go.

A glance at such abiding French values throws up a riddle to which even the most politically astute Americans find no satisfactory answer. How is it that the French do everything “wrong” and yet live so well – and not just well, but seemingly better than anyone else?

I put the matter to Jacques Toubon, a conservative who has fought for the French way as minister for culture, a post that far outweighs its counterparts (where they exist) in other European governments. He, too, remains nonplussed. “By standards now in vogue, France is one of the countries with the greatest apparent handicaps – restrictions, high taxes, heavy social charges – and yet it has the best economic growth in Europe, breeds huge transnational companies by the dozen, lives best and is best educated.”

There is a theory, says Toubon, that France’s secret lies in the confidence it has in energy supply. Home-made nuclear energy meets almost all national power needs (here again, France differs from many other western countries, which are increasingly nuclear-wary). Then again, the answer may lie in that intangible quality for which the French invented the term savoir faire.

Toubon thinks that anti-Americanism is, in any event, misdirected, because globalisation is a chance for everyone. Also, in his view, the Bush presidency has an upside: “It is a parody of American social values. It can only lead to changing them.”

If the past is anything to go by, Toubon and his fellow conservatives would run France little differently from the way Lionel Jospin and his left-wing party do. French wariness about letting capitalism have things all its own way runs deeper than party-political posturing. Jospin calls his Socialist-led government the “most left-wing of all” in major western countries. Neither Tony Blair nor Gerhard Schroder, both social democrats like Jospin, would dream of trying to compete with him over this boast. What Jospin means is that he aims to stay close to the generous French tradition of social welfare and public services, and not to let business run amok through privatisation.

Jospin has a policy on globalisation, and that is to regulate it. He is upset that the French press failed to give front-page attention to his recent speech on the matter in Rio. “Everywhere that the law of the strongest holds, that private interests endanger the general interest, or the quest for short-term profit obstructs social justice and ruins the environment, governments need to set rules. Together, they need to build an international architecture of regulation.”

This is the antithesis of the prevailing American view. And not only does America pay no attention to France, it pays no attention to anybody. Those few in the Bush administration who are willing to discuss social policy are known, it seems, as “squishers”. In this light, the French emerge as the worst of all squishers.

France arguably has too much regulation. The 35-hour week is a curious imposition. And the country has a huge bureaucracy, with twice as many civil servants as in Britain, which makes it heavy and unwieldy – and it needs high taxes to support it. However, these same high taxes also support high-quality public services. And here is the nub of the difference between the American way and the French way. President Bush’s only clear policy, if you except the resolutely obscure Star Wars, is cutting taxes. This leaves the US government with less to spend on improving life for Americans who need it.

France’s way is to tax at a level that will provide the popularly required health, transport and other public services which America opts to do without. You won’t catch the French throwing schools, jails, trains and the Paris metro into private business hands. That would insult their idea of the responsibility of the state. They look at Thatcherised Britain to convince themselves that there is something wrong in turning everything over to private enterprise in the belief that it will work better.

France retains its knack of getting under the American skin. In the New York Review of Books, the American academic Tony Judt – a specialist on France and no friend, so far as I know, of George W Bush – writes that Vedrine’s Les Cartes de la France paints a curious picture of American public life. Vedrine, says Judt, views America as “a nightmarish world of Hobbesian antagonists, colliding in pitiless struggles for advancement and mastery at home while engaged in a ruthless drive to embrace the globe in the grip of Protestant values, common law and the English language”.

Calm down, Judt. In the face of globalisation, Vedrine is saying, France would hope that its principal partners in Europe, Germany and Britain, recognise what is at stake; that globalisation should also carry a European stamp, through the rules imposed on it; that capitalism can foul up; that free markets have limits; that public ownership is not all bad; that government, in short, need not be as “small” as the US insists.

Come to think of it, the answer to the riddle of why France does so well may lie just here. What makes France successful against all the odds? Big government.