French President François Hollande's friendly visit with Barack Obama this week is an indication of how much relations have improved between France and the United States since the post-9/11 days when some Americans characterized the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." But American anger at France for failing to support the American escapade in Iraq has long ago morphed into mutual concern about al Qaeda's advances in sub-Saharan Africa.
Obama's effort to nurture France's willingness to intervene military in far-flung places like Mali and the Central Africa Republic means Hollande will get some respite from pressures to reform France's economy -- and maybe a break from France's persistent critics. (Don't hold your breath that the pundits will admit France was right about Iraq -- it's easy to go in, not so easy to get out).
France-bashing has hit a new high recently, with news outlets as far-flung as Newsweek, the Guardian and CNN complaining about France and the French, and predicting the continued decline of continental Europe's second largest economy unless President Hollande changes course. France does have serious economic issues: Unemployment remains stuck at nearly 11 percent and fresh college graduates can't get jobs. The cost of worker fringe benefits is too high and it's difficult to lay off people -- all of which frightens small entrepreneurs away from hiring extra help. Nearly every week, large companies announce layoffs and shutdowns, the result of globalization and the continued slow recovery of the world economy.
All of these issues need to be addressed -- and in his New Year press conference Hollande did take the first tentative steps by offering a "responsibility pact" to lower taxes and costs in exchange for more hiring by the private sector. The deal is rooted in the strong belief in the social safety net in France. The country's universal health care system is highly rated, unions still have bargaining power, and even the business community is not seeking the unfettered capitalism that dominates American economic discussions.
Finding fault with France is not new. A decade ago, two French-Canadian authors wrote 60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but not the French. Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow pointed out that France-bashing has a long tradition, and continues, despite the evidence that French workers are among Europe's most productive and that dozens of French companies, from AXA and EADS (Airbus) to LVMH and Total, are major international players. France still has an enviably low homicide rate (one-fifth the U.S., according to OECD figures) and a higher life expectancy.
Economist Paul Krugman has argued that France's fundamental economic health is good, but that the bashing is an establishment reaction to its failure to fall in line with economic orthodoxy. "Its sin is that of balancing its budget by raising taxes instead of slashing benefits," wrote Krugman in his Times column last fall.
My worry about the pressure for reform is that it will imperil the French way of life that I abandoned New York for two years ago. When I go to the cheese shop in my neighborhood (Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- with a two-hour break for lunch -- and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, closed Mondays), I know that the clerk will take his time, (after the requisite "good morning" and questions about family and holidays) give advice, describe various products, offer tastes and smells, and carefully pick a hunk for me that is exactly ripe and ready for consumption. Whole Foods can't match this expertise or come close to the quality I routinely take home.
In fact, the whole French way, including the human interaction and the outstanding food, is rooted in a deep commitment to a particular lifestyle and artisanal knowledge that spans several generations. There's a presenter on French TV, Jean-Luc Petitrenaud, who devotes his weekly show to celebrating this commitment. He roams the cities, villages and countryside, meeting chefs, cattle growers, cheese-makers, vineyard owners, farmers and bakers and his guests invariably talk about being the third, fourth, fifth or -nth generation of their families to create the excellent products and cuisine that we have come to take for granted.
Not everyone in France can afford to regularly purchase these great products. There are increasing numbers of bland industrial food products at both the giant suburban hypermarchés and the neighborhood grocery stores -- as well as a myriad of McDonalds, KFCs and Subways offering fast-food alternatives to steak frites -- but the high-quality products that made French cuisine a global standard are still widely available and almost all Frenchmen and women buy them on special occasions.
The French way also heavily subsidies the arts, making free and inexpensive concerts, art and photo exhibits, music and dance lessons and theater accessible to all. The French still love to engage highly intellectual debates televised in prime time, in sharp contrast to the Fox News-influenced shouting matches that are routine on U.S. channels. Winners of literary prizes are treated like rock stars and invited to seriously discuss their work before mass audiences.
The French don't want to lose their right to sit in a café with a cup of coffee for as long as they want and watch the passing crowds. They don't want to give up the tasty blanquette de veau made from meat grown by a farmer who has deliberately chosen a less lucrative lifestyle because he's committed to quality and tradition. They enjoy the personal security that most Western Europeans have -- and that President Obama has fought so hard to give Americans through Obamacare -- knowing that their next major illness will not plunge them into financial distress. They want to keep their six weeks of vacation, in which an amazing number of families still take time together to reconnect and renew family ties.
Can they continue to afford it? Probably -- if they make some changes that will lift employment without dramatically altering their way of life. In addition to the reforms promised by Hollande, they should end the custom of Monday closings -- and open the department stores on Sundays, when thousands of tourists would wish nothing better than spend money. Two chains of do-it-yourself stores have battled in court to open Sundays, when customers have time to work on the extra room, the shelves or the garden. College students have pleaded for the opportunity to work weekends, but the unions, who hold the Sunday roast dinner with the family as a sacrament, respond that workers are being intimidated by employers. The government bureaucracy is bloated and could endure considerable pruning without strongly affecting the quality of life.
The truth is that an old country like France does not tolerate change easily -- most of the many protests and strikes are against change rather than for something new. The French are having as much trouble embracing transformations as profound as the influx of immigrants from their former colonies and as trivial as a shift in school calendars. The education system is failing the poor and underprivileged just as it is in the U.S. There is growing awareness that a tiny circle of élites monopolize opportunity as the income gap continues to widen.
But those problems are not unique to France. They are probably discussed more honestly and more frequently here than in many other developed countries. The real challenge is getting a turgid political system to turn those brilliant analyses into policy changes that make France more competitive while preserving the essence that has thrilled citizens and admirers for hundreds of years. The French will express their admiration for New York, Miami and Los Angeles to Americans without prompting. But both the French -- and transplanted Americans --- want France to remain France.