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Le Big Comeback

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Still reeling from a preposterous debate on whether Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a popular comedian convicted several times of proffering anti-Semitic slurs in his shows, is indeed an anti-Semite, the French public's attention now seems monopolized by its president's love life. Given the state of the country's economy, one could be forgiven for thinking that the French have irremediably lost their way in the twenty-first century.

To the contrary, following President Francois Hollande's historic embrace of social democracy in a major policy speech last week, there is reason to believe that they have finally found it. Of course, the French president will have to walk his talk to prove he means business. Still, in a country where the written word is of paramount importance, it is hard to overestimate the importance of what might initially sound like an unimportant slip in semantics: last week, Mr. Hollande became the first ever socialist president or prime minister in office to call himself a social democrat, a term that up to now was almost taboo within the ranks of the French left.

An Austrian-American born and raised in Paris in the seventies and eighties, I felt proud to say "I'm from Paris" when traveling outside France as a child. This was before provincialism anesthetized the French capital, paving the way for the slow drift towards irrelevance the world has witnessed since...

This drift is directly related to an absurd political predicament the French have been faced with for over thirty years now: choosing between a right with an only slightly less ideological understanding of economic matters than the left and a tendency to regularly indulge in racist rhetoric (it was the very benign President Jacques Chirac, not Jean-Marie Le Pen, who spoke in the nineties of the "smells and noises" produced by "certain populations") or tolerate it within its ranks; or opt for a left that can reasonably claim the moral high ground on such issues (though counter-examples also exist) but regularly indulges in the most absurd populism when it comes to the economy.

As a result, while the French rightly pride themselves on the robust, pragmatic capitalism which allows theirs to be the only country of its size with as many global champions in such a wide range of industries, they are also continuously suspicious of "the economic realm," money and the rich. The resulting schizophrenia has been standing in the way of the country's recovery for over thirty years now.

An Oxfam report published ahead of this year's World Economic Forum annual meeting shows income disparities to be on the rise not just on a global scale but within most countries -- so much so that the world's 85 richest people now own wealth equivalent to half the world population's!

For all their failings and their conspicuous, quasi-structural absence at the bottom of the magic mountain, the French have a proven track record of keeping such disparities in check. Unfortunately, like other countries that are good at redistributing wealth, France has also become among the worst at producing it. As Davos draws to a close, France's vibrant endorsement of social democratic realism embodied here by its Minister of Finances Pierre Moscovici might well mark a welcome end to delusions on both sides of the globalization debate.

Henry Miller thought the ideal American was one living overseas. Perhaps precisely because France has accustomed itself to play the role of the ugly duckling of globalization is the ideal global citizen of tomorrow a French person who has wholeheartedly embraced globalization.

"When Paris freezes, Europe catches a cold", Prince Metternich once said. Not just for the French, but for the old continent's sake and the world's, let us celebrate the fact that the patient, while still ill, is at least finally lucid.