Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The French Malaise

Many American progressives want to make our country more like France. The Gallic nation may not be a Worker’s Paradise, but France has a strong, centralized government that meddles in every part of the labor market and that taxes anything that moves. The French government provides an exemplary level of social services, from medical care to day care to child care to generous unemployment benefits to free education.

What’s not to like.

And then there’s the food. France is renowned the world over for its gastronomical delights. Few experiences in life are as enjoyable as a well-prepared, well-served French meal.

Until recently, that is.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that much of  the delectable French cuisine you find in neighborhood restaurants was not been prepared sur place by a master chef cuisinier. It was thrown together in a large, industrialized suburban kitchen, fast frozen and delivered to the restaurant where the chef cuisinier shouldered the inglorious task of heating it up in a microwave.

Edward Cody exposed the scandal:

It is the warmest memory of many a vacation in France: the little Paris restaurant where a white-aproned waiter served a dish glorified on the menu as something homey like blanquette de veau grand-mere, topped off with a still-tepid creme brulee that was just the right mix of crackly and creamy.

The trouble with this picture, it turns out, is that in 21st-century France, chances are high that both the stew and the dessert were assembled and cooked on a production line in a distant suburban factory, that they were quick-frozen and trucked to the restaurant, that they were then microwaved for unsuspecting diners who thought they were sampling traditional French cuisine.

For those who prefer statistics, around 33% of French restaurants are serving up microwaved delicacies.

Be that as it may, the French experiment in socialism has succeeded in killing off employment opportunities for young people. So much so that France is suffering a “brain drain.”

Approximately, 33% of France’s best educated young people are leaving their native land in search of fame, fortune, and most especially, unemployment elsewhere.

It’s a problem caused in some by too much regulation. Maureen Dowd notes a point so obvious that it seems to have escaped French politicians and bureaucrats:

The French have to learn that if employers can’t fire someone for not working, they’ll never hire anyone. 

In the past France has never been a notable source of emigrants. People used to go to France; they did not leave it.

Felix Marquardt described the scandal in The New York Times:

THE French aren’t used to the idea that their country, like so many others in Europe, might be one of emigration — that people might actually want to leave. To many French people, it’s a completely foreign notion that, around the world and throughout history, voting with one’s feet has been the most widely available means to vote at all.

Leave that kind of voting to others, they think, to the Portuguese, the Italians, the Spaniards and the Africans — to all those waves of immigrants who came to France over the course of the last century. France has always been a land to which people dream of coming. Not leaving.

What has caused France’s best and brightest young people to flee their mother country? It happens that a sclerotic French economy has nothing to offer France’s y0ung:

… a country that has tolerated a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent for nearly 30 years isn’t a place where the rising generations can expect to rise to much of anything.

When asked about the problem recently, French President Francois Holland offered what Marquardt called a “flaccid” response about national pride or some such thing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, announced to her citizens that one of the great advantages of European Union was that young people could seek opportunity where it was available. No chauvinism for Merkel.

Marquardt explained:

Ms. Merkel seems to realize that presidential indignation at the idea of young citizens’ leaving behind a country that can’t offer them the opportunities they deserve won’t address the real problem of disenchanted youth.

The dramatic cultural and economic changes currently shaking the globe are still often met in France with parochial, irrelevant conversations, a symptom of the insular intellectual bubble in which the country has been trapped for far too long.

The situation is so bad that France seems to be drowning in malaise. Maureen Dowd does not paint a very encouraging picture:

Joie de vivre has given way to gaze de navel. The French are so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement — a state of mind Camus described as “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” — that they don’t even have the energy to be rude. And now that they’re smoking electronic cigarettes, their ennui doesn’t look as cool. It’s not that they’ve lost faith in their own superiority. They’ve lost faith that the rest of the world sees it. The whole country has, as Catherine Deneuve says of her crazy blue moods, une araignée au plafond — a spider on the ceiling.

To me, Dowd is describing a nation that has overdosed on psychoanalysis. Perhaps it’s just me, but when you speak of an “insular intellectual bubble” in France, psychoanalysis comes immediately to mind.

Note Dowd’s description of the French state of mind:

The French have higher rates of taking antidepressants and committing suicide than most other Europeans. And while arguing about how to move forward, they feel trapped in the past, weighed down by high unemployment and low hopes, the onerous taxes that drove Gérard Depardieu to flee, conflicts with immigrants, political scandals, Hollande fatigue, Germany envy, economic stagnation, a hyperelitist education system, and cold, rainy weather that ruined the famous Paris spring. Instead of confronting the questions at hand — how to adjust to globalization and compete with the Chinese — the French are grieving their lost stature and glorious past, stretching back to the colonial empire, the Lumières, the revolution, Napoleon, even the Jazz Age writers and artists. They’re stuck in a sentimental time warp as vivid as the one depicted in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”

Wasn’t psychoanalysis designed to get people caught in a “sentimental time warp?”

Dowd offers an historical perspective that deserves serious attention. After World War II, France was counted among the Allies, but in fact most of the country was occupied by Nazis during the war. Many French citizens actively collaborated with the Nazi regime. 

The dissonance meant that the French were never quite sure whether they had won or lost. This produced a feeling of dislocation and disconnection, a sense of not knowing where the nation belonged. I would call it a pervasive anomie.

Dowd grasps the problem well:

“In 1945, France was on the losers’ side, but this reality has long been masked by the political speeches of General de Gaulle and François Mitterrand: they both maintained, in their own way, the idea that it remained a great power promised to an exceptional destiny,” the historian Christophe Prochasson told Le Monde. “After they left office, the French continued to live on that belief.” Today, he added, this illusion is disappearing gradually and “France is a country in mourning.” What is lacking now in France, he said, is the music of history, “the capacity to contemplate tomorrows that sing.”

Often, a nation or a community suffering from anomie will turn to psychoanalysis. Sherry Turkle described the phenomenon in Psychoanalytic Politics.

Psychoanalysis seemed to offer a way to understand France’s problems. And, to some extent it did. Unfortunately, it did not offer a solution. It could only offer another way to get in closer touch with one’s anomie.

It is ironic to see a French historian calling for a revival of French optimism. Keep in mind, French psychoanalysts done everything in their power to ensure that French citizens cannot have access to the American cognitive therapy that is designed precisely to treat such problems. They have so thoroughly stigmatized cognitive therapy that young psychiatrists and psychologists feel obliged to ignore it in favor of a more distinctly French project.

France is suffering from intellectual mercantilism.

Why? Because French analysts believe that cognitive therapy is an alien force that might corrupt the purity of the French soul.

(My thanks to my friend DH for suggesting the topic of this post.)


Anonymous said...

The French are effete in the worst way: they are insular snobs. Forget all the labels like xenophobia, suffice to say they want to stay indoors, holding their noses high, spiting a world thy don't know, and have never seen. This seems to be true in almost every sense. They are excessively proud of, and owned by, their past.

No need to stop and just snicker at te French. There are problems at home...

We live in the Metro Detroit area, My wife is from Maine. I grew up here, spent about 10 or so years away, and then came back, and I was fortunate she followed (we married a few years later). I appreciate her take on things around here, her cultural viewpoint on the myriad, almost insurmountable, problems the City of Detroit has. The most prescient thing she ever said was: "Detroit is hopelessly stuck in he 1950s... in almost every way imaginable." She's right.

A culture can celebrate and honor its past, but it also has to look toward the future. There has to be a commitment to values that give people hope. And that progress must be fully accessible to all for the social "glue" and optimism to generate unity. To strive, so their existence is not in vain. This is a basic human need. The alternative is to feed on the forms of wealth accumulated in te past. France may be mired in a morass of existentialism and psychoanalysis. Detroit is plagued by racial fear and distrust. Everyone has lots theories on how things got to be this way, but are short on ways to move forward.

French restaurants are living on the rich history of the nation's cuisine, and squandering this cachet in the microwave to cover-up structural problems in the labor market. Such lies don't have a lot of gas. Detroit has an Eergency Financial Manager right now and is looking bankruptcy in the eye. City Council members are fleeing and resigning as the ship is listing to port. Meanwhile, cultural treasure like the Detroit Institute of Arts is being viewed as a resource with which to pay off bond holders. What assets will the city have left? The DIA is owned by the city as a public trust, not an ATM.

France seems to be stuck in history, and on a national scale, but I'm not sure in what era. Perhaps all of them?


Sam L. said...

MoDo must bite her tongue! How does she see France and America so differently?

When the bear is in your face, it is unwise to ignore the bear. The French refuse to acknowledge the existence of the bear. (Bears don't like that...)

Anonymous said...

We should be more like France, so sophisticate, such good food, so mature about sex, ooooh I'm swooning I'm such a francophile.

so, can we get 85% of out power from nuclear, like France? Never mind.

Caedmon said...

France must be the last place on Earth where psychoanalysis is considered a hard science.
Paris the city which was once so beautiful that people preferred to be poor there, than rich anywhere else....
(Guy Debord)

For a decade now wealthy young Parisians have preferred to be poor in London than stay at home.

JorgXMcKie said...

Both France as a whole and Detroit appear to have become Cargo Cult civilizations.