Nostalgic and Narcissistic: France's Obsession with the Past Hinders Reform

By Mathieu von Rohr

France is a deeply nostalgic and narcissistic country which is also, precisely for those reasons, very charming. The country would like to be part of Europe's north, but its heart belongs in the south. It will take more than navel-gazing to get the nation through the euro crisis unscathed.

Photo Gallery: The Nostalgic Nation Photos

A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande spoke in the garden of the French Embassy in Rome. He had met that afternoon with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and, once again, had opposed German demands for reforms. And then, in the evening, he gave a speech in which he bemoaned, at length, the demise of French as an international language. It sounded oddly nostalgic, as if he somehow hoped to stop the global triumph of English.

Both appearances in Rome had more in common than it would seem at first glance. One of the reasons France is currently such a difficult partner in Europe is that the country Hollande represents is old-fashioned -- and hopelessly in love with the idea of being old-fashioned. It lives in the past, and even when it knows that it's in trouble, it refuses to change.

France is the world's fifth-largest economy, and at the moment investors are even paying to lend the country money. Nevertheless, France also counts as one of Europe's economically ailing countries. It has become steadily less competitive since the 1990s, unemployment has topped 10 percent, and government debt amounts to 89 percent of gross domestic product.

Although France is a long way from becoming another Spain or Italy, if it doesn't do something soon it could very well end up in dire straits like its southern neighbors. That's why France plays a key role in the rescue of the euro.

But France's problem is that it can't decide whether it wants to be part of the north or the south.

On the one hand, when it comes to economic power and political clout, the country compares itself almost obsessively with neighboring Germany. Its politicians leave little doubt as to their conviction that they represent the most important country in Europe. But at the same time, what France cherishes about itself is its southern side. It sees itself as a Mediterranean country and is proud of its way of life, an area in which it feels superior to the Germans -- and the rest of the world.

The Two Sides of the French Psyche

Both sides of the French psyche are in full evidence in Paris, where long lunches seem to be an essential part of doing business. Some French employees are entitled to more than 40 vacation days a year. Conversely, many work longer days than their German counterparts. And there is also an elite consciousness among those at the top of society, which they have worked hard to earn in management schools and top universities.

But in rural France, for example in villages in the Corrèze department, the former constituency of President Hollande, there is a world in which time seems to have stood still for decades. France's old-fashionedness is both fascinating and grounds for despair. This country sees no reason to conform to the rest of the world, and it becomes stubborn when the rest of the world wants it to do precisely that.

France wants to play a role in the world, but only if it can set the tone and dictate the conditions, as it did in the past when it was a true world power. France can wage war in Libya, but no French government seems capable of bringing down ancillary wage costs.

It is telling that Hollande never uses the word "reform" when he talks about making the French economy successful once again. Instead, he keeps talking about redressement, which can be translated as "recovery." This doesn't invoke the image of effort, but rather of a sick person who just needs the right injection to get better.

Since he has been in power, Hollande has repealed a portion of the few real structural reforms of recent years. The retirement age has been reduced for some workers, and those who wish to work longer than the legally mandated 35-hour workweek will have to pay additional taxes in the future. The new president does not necessarily want to reduce the public spending ratio of 56 percent or the non-wage labor costs of 50 percent. Apparently he does not view the problem as excessively high government spending, but rather insufficient government revenue.

During the election campaign, Hollande promised to be a "normal president." It now looks as if by that he meant going back to the way things have always been.

Charmingly Conservative

France is essentially a deeply conservative country. This is part of its charm. It has also allowed things to survive in France that no longer exist anywhere else in Europe.

For instance, French politics is characterized by an old-fashioned antagonism between the left and the right, something that the rest of the continent hasn't seen since 1989. Citizens, politicians and the media all know where they stand. The two camps celebrate their ideological differences in France, whereas the divide is no longer nearly as clear in other countries.

At the same time, the two camps share a belief in the regulatory hand of government, and that it can, and must, steer the economy. When the PSA Peugeot Citroën group recently announced plans to eliminate 8,000 jobs in France, the president immediately demanded a "renegotiation," even though the government doesn't own a single share in the company. The so-called "minister of productive recovery," Arnaud Montebourg, an opponent of globalization, met with family heir Thierry Peugeot and gave him a public reprimand.

The desire for protectionism is also deeply ingrained, from left to right. And some 60 percent of the French are afraid of globalization. It is a national phenomenon.

If it could have its way, all of France would be one small Gaulish village like in the Asterix comic books, holding out against the rest of the world. But unlike the village in the famous French comic book series, France has no magic potion. At the same time, polls show that the French are the most pessimistic people in the world, which leads to the unusual situation that although they are convinced -- like village leader Vitalstatistix -- that the sky is falling down, they are unwilling to do anything about it.

Instead, France, in the crisis, insists more than ever on being France. It's been 220 years since the country beheaded its king, and yet it still treats its president as a monarch. With that mentality, how can it be expected to simply change? The French still believe that the world adapts to imagination. There is something appealing about this. It is an attempt to maintain order in a world in which chaos prevails.

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1. North and south.
yiannaki 08/14/2012
Thanks for this excellent article. It did confince me of two things: We better do have two euros. And France better does have the south one.
2. Germano-centric article
pmoseley 08/14/2012
The title of this article appeared to be all about how France is obsessed with itself, but ends up as an article that tries to portray France as a country obsessed with Germany. Why does Der Spiegel always publish articles that seem to be just pro-German propaganda. Whatever the topic, it seems that the German angle is always at the forefront of the writer's mind, however twisted. I realise that Der Spiegel is a German publication aimed primarily at German readers, but this approach really does boil down to bias, which is unfortunate for readers, particularly those who are not in the least bit Germano-centric. The recent article on the London Olympics, for example, even had a small section on how they were run 'with German efficiency' That was just clap trap. Come on, France is a mature democracy, with its own culture, attitudes and history. And like most other European countries, they don't necessarily like or compare themselves incessantly with the Germans and may not even want to either speak, behave or manage their economies like them. Der Spiegel - please grow up!
Dodin 08/14/2012
4. Justified Resistance
ZeLuiz 08/15/2012
France resists reform as defined by others. This is the rational thing to do if you believe, as France has every reason to believe, that "reform" is going in the wrong direction. This is what most reputed economists all over the world have been saying for the last four years, with the exception of the Goldman Sachs-trained hacks currently in charge in the EU. It is also what an increasing amount of empirical evidence is confirming. We should therefore ask ourselves if the real problem is France's resistance to "reform" or Germany's resistance to basic economic rationality.
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