My last blog, France surrenders to Neo-classicism, was written in a tone which mocked the stuffy resistance many French citizens have against an increasingly modern style which is encroaching upon art and architecture in French cities. A pervasive notion, the average Frenchman is a staunch supporter of defending a distinctly French cultural identity that conveys only the most classic elements. To this end, the French are willing to constantly revolt, often taking to the streets en masse to protest unpatriotic top-down political decisions and business decisions, as well as any undesirable international influence. In this blog I aim to connect some major (and very French) concepts – l’exception culturelle, the emphasis on France’s social model, their views on what public services should be, and their sense of entitlement to irrevocable benefits – which underlie the average Frenchman’s motivation to demonstrate against change in the way they do. In the process, I hope to demystify some things that Americans find odd about French politics and culture.
Background: Participants in the 1789 French Revolution violently discarded the long-standing and often-abusive French monarchy, and made liberty something to proclaim from the rooftops.
This set the precedent which encourages the French today to be coup d’etat-crazy, capturing the state when necessary to defend human rights. The social and political commentator Montesquieu precipitated the Frech Revolution in the mid-1700s after he articulated “separation of powers” and insisted on a careful balance that would not threaten the freedom of the people. James Madison and the United States Constitution’s founding fathers adopted this principle, so Americans relate to it as it is an inherent part of effective democracy.
L’exception culturelle francaise, the French cultural exception, was developed through democratic France’s formative years to describe “resistance to the perceived effacement of French culture and criticism of supposedly foreign intrusions within that culture” (definition from a 2006 UCLA conference that was held about the topic). Some examples of outrage over public defiance of this cultural principle in modern art and architecture are detailed in my earlier blog post, entitled “France surrenders to Neo-classicism.” L’exception culturelle francaise of has pervaded French cultural output since the 1789 Revolution, as witnessed in numerous episodes of loud public outcry and subsequent government policymaking that effectively “kept it in the family” whenever concerns arose pertaining to dilution of the French arts by foreign influence. But how strongly the concept influences French business output is apparent in the high degree of sensitivity to nationalism displayed by French businesses in making trans-national decisions in today’s increasingly globalized market, so that the Frenchness of production is not diminished.
The concept of l’exception culturelle francaise is thus deeply patriotic, and is relatable to Americans’ outrage over things like corporate outsourcing of labor, and to the government bailout of financially irresponsible institutions. In France, players who don’t keep it French risk domestic backlash and revolutionary peril, the threat of which is apparently greater than that leveraged in America, as with the recent and failed Occupy Wall Street movement. It should be noted here that one source of anti-American sentiment originates from the general French disapproval of American hegemony (where Federal Law trumps State Law). That being said, Americans should appreciate the regularity of French riots and strikes as they preserve ideals of nationalism and democracy, like in the history of America, and they prevent the phasing out and replacement of quality domestic market goods and services with cheaper foreign ones.
Lastly, it is important to recognize the idyllic motivation with which the protesting Frenchman goes about exercising their voice. To illustrate the motivations on an individual level, I present three related concepts which are not as prevalent in America as in France – 1) the French social model, 2) the French view on public services, and 3) their idea of irrevocable benefits.
1) The “modèle social français” is such that basically everybody on the political Left as well as many on the political Right are accustomed to free or moderately-priced public services like healthcare, education, a higher compensation for unemployed people, a minimum income for all, and some prices depending on income, as with utilities, school, public transport, swimming pools, and others. The French generally think it is more important to protect the weakest than to encourage the strongest, which sets them apart from the often isolating American concept of self-sufficiency, individualism, and the American Dream.
“Although very questionable now, this issue was decisive in the 2005 referendum on Europe: millions [in France] voted NO to protect the French society against what they considered a threat to the ‘modèle social’ by ‘the heartless Anglo-Saxon market economy’” (understandfrance.org). It is notable that the French pay significantly higher taxes than Americans so that public services are maintained.
2) French who defend public services believe that state-owned or state-run services should not try to maximize profits but should maximize the quantity or quality of service provided.
This is unlike the American corporation which, defined as a person, displays characteristics of a psychopath. French service standards are largely upheld according to the satisfaction of end-users, not just by beneficiaries of monetary investment.
3) The concept of avantages acquis, irrevocable benefits, maintains that once any kind of advantage has been granted, it is considered unthinkable to suppress it, whatever the circumstances and the situation. “Reducing salaries or increasing labor time may happen but is extremely rare in France and it raises huge controversies; there is almost no example of workers accepting cuts in wages and unions refuse to sign any agreement of this kind: they prefer unemployment and the protection of the State” (understandfrance.org).
The powerful leverage of a workers strike is thus more immediately acknowledged and workers are not expected to make concessions. Ergo, labor unions are not as strategically necessary to resolving labor issues in France as they are in the United States.
The effect of these prevailing concepts is this: the French conduct labor strikes out of conservative principles and the voice of the people is usually acknowledged by the government or the respective French business. Resolution or revolution is the French way, as opposed to common coercion and placation practiced by American businesses. French people commonly support their fellow citizens in protest, and they are not led to immediate opposition from polarizing political parties, like in America. The most common illustration of French support and fellowship is seen during frequent transportation strikes in France, when average people have to walk to their workplaces yet still genuinely support the labor strikes.
Resolution of issues has to maintain a distinct Frenchness in style, not subjugate citizens or dilute the culture, and at a minimum maintain the status quo…or else there will be a riot. When national pride causes French workers to forego formal negotiation processes, the democratic voice of the people is best exercised by force. Understanding these ideas at the core of French culture can help to demystify many French cultural and political viewpoints which may differ from America.
The joke is found in the French paradox in business: “How do they manage to be the fourth or fifth economy in the world given the way they work and strike?” When French people are on the job, they’re really on it.
“It’s Houdini, not Thatcher,” wrote The Economist magazine in May, 1989, in reference to early attempts at a joint-European market. “France is spectacularly good at saying NON…. but behind the scene, more quietly and with no discernible romance, France can and does say OUI. In Germany and Scandinavia, change happens after considerable debate and lengthy analysis. In France by contrast, it tends to be convulsive and born of conflict: one violent leap backward followed by two surreptitious steps forward.”