France is in uproar, the “fragile” French are up in arms, we are told, (but is it? are they? or do they actually give a toss?) over a Newsweek article (January 3rd) entitled “The Fall of France” by Janine di Giovanni, a reporter who apparently used to send dispatches from the wartorn Middle East before she settled down opposite the Luxembourg Gardens to write shit.
Ms di Giovanni’s point can be summed up briefly thus: in the seventeenth century Protestants had to flee persecution in France; now high earners are leaving. The country has no entrepreneurs, though granted it can still (sort of) make things. The cost of living is horrendous. Everything is shockingly expensive – milk nearly four dollars a half-litre for God’s sake (no wonder they’re always on the wine). They’ve no interest in the rest of the world, only their bloody navels. And worst of all, it’s pretty much impossible to fire poor people who are annoying you.
This summary, while it gets across most of the essential points, fails to quite do justice to the piece’s pure idiocy (we won’t talk about its multiple inaccuracies; inaccuracies are what one expects). To get the full flavour a few quotations are required:
There is a grayness that the heavy hand of socialism casts. It is increasingly difficult to start a small business when you cannot fire useless employees and hire fresh new talent.
When I began to look around, I saw people taking wild advantage of the system. I had friends who belonged to trade unions, which allowed them to take entire summers off and collect 55 percent unemployment pay.
Another banker friend spent her three-month paid maternity leave sailing around Guadeloupe – as it is part of France, she continued to receive all the benefits.
… a female hospital worker or a train driver can retire earlier than those in the private sector because of their “harsh working conditions,” even though they can never be fired.
François Hollande made his first trip to China only when he became head of state in 2012 – and he’s 58 years old.
Ms di Giovanni’s piece is being taken more seriously than it deserves – or perhaps it is the annoyance that it provoked that is being taken seriously. The editor of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrède, in a sensible, if overlong and rather rambling editorial yesterday (January 7th) asks her readers not to dismiss all criticism as simply le French bashing. For the country does have rather intractable structural problems, typified by an imbalance which sees older citoyens on the whole rather well cared for but the young unable to find employment and, in Ms Nougayrède’s words, “structural unemployment which proceeds from nothing other than the overprotection of employment in the public sector to the detriment of employment in the commercial sector”.
This is probably true. However, let us also note the effects of this high public spending (I don’t have to tell anyone who is half-way familiar with France): cities (not just Paris but the wonderful provincial cities) that work, clean streets, efficient public transport systems, a heritage that is cared for, subsidies for lively cultural industries, both experimental and traditional ones, schools (this one really seems to get up Ms di Giovanni’s nose) that provide children with a three-course lunch followed by a cheese course. Incidentally, France comes fourth in worldwide life expectancy ratings; the very entrepreneurial United Kingdom twenty-seventh and the United States thirty-third (let’s not ask about the health of the American poor). GDP per head rates on either side of the Channel are virtually identical.
There are two things that could be said about this Newsweek article. Do editorial staffs no longer conduct any fact checks or do they deliberately wave through articles they know to be full of errors because they are “provocative” and will cause a stir? Second, why is it that the kind of journalist who is always banging on about “the suffocating nanny state” is precisely the kind who spends hours dreaming of suffocating her nanny?