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.
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.
Preoccupation with Itself
The festivities to celebrate the French National Day, July 14, offer an indication of the extent of the country's preoccupation with itself. The full regalia of the past are assembled for the occasion. Tanks are paraded in formation through the boulevards of Paris. Members of the Republican Guard, wearing helmets adorned with red feathers, ride on horseback around the Arc de Triomphe, and cadets from the Saint-Cyr military academy march with their sabers drawn. In the hours-long live TV broadcasts, active-duty soldiers and decorated veterans of all wars are interviewed -- including this year a 90-year-old veteran who once fought against Rommel. A TV reporter provides live commentary on the parade from one of the Rafale fighter jets that France is trying to sell around the world. An imaginary world power could be observed on that day as it transformed its phantom pain into a demonstration of strength.
The figure of the president himself, who behaves with post-monarchic pomp, no matter who happens to be in office, is also noteworthy. When Hollande made his first official visit to the German capital, Berlin journalists were reminded of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's first visit. They noticed the slightly stilted manners the Socialist had acquired since becoming president, as if he were the leader of a country of 265 million and not 65 million people. But this was not the expression of a changed attitude, but rather of the role he is now expected to play.
During his campaign appearances around the country this spring, he could often be heard repeating one particular phrase: "France is a great country," for which he always received enthusiastic applause.
In Germany, France is also regularly, albeit derisively, referred to as "la grande nation." In France itself, no one ever needed to take the trouble to make this point. For the French, it was for a long time self-evident that France is one of the most important nations on earth. But Hollande's repeated remarks could be seen as a sign that the French no longer take this for granted.
The fact that his campaign often invoked the past showed how familiar Hollande is with the French mood. He praised the icons of history during his appearances, from the French Revolution to former President François Mitterand. His vision of France was reminiscent of an iPhone Hipstamatic photo with a distorting retro filter.
How can the French be expected to create new images of themselves if they are so attached to the old ones?
When Germany Became Cool
In retrospect, it seems almost like an unreal dream that some in France, for a few weeks near the end of last year, were saying that the country needed to become more like Germany and escape the "tropism of the south."
For a brief period, the expression "the German model" became a magic word. The concept came from President Sarkozy, and during this period, taxi drivers, small business owners and intellectuals throughout the country could be heard raving about how much more effective the Germans were at doing things. Germany, it seemed, had become cool.
For a few weeks, France imagined what it would be like to be different, only to discover that it had always wanted to be everything, except for Germany. The hysterical enthusiasm quickly subsided and turned back into rivalry. Since Hollande has been president, the newspapers seem mainly concerned about whether or not he will manage to get the German chancellor to "cave in."
Germany remains the fixed point against which France incessantly measures itself. One could say that the French are obsessed with Germany. They have never found it easy to understand their neighbors across the Rhine River, who they see as being so much more serious, direct and rigid than they are. But since the euro crisis linked the countries more closely together than ever before, the French are constantly obsessed with their large neighbor. German journalists are constantly called upon to explain their country on French television.
It is impossible to deny that France has an inferiority complex regarding Germany.
When France lost its AAA rating with Standard & Poor's in January, the worst thing about it, from the French perspective, seemed to be the fact that Germany kept its top rating. When Moody's recently cut the outlook on Germany's AAA rating from "stable" to "negative," the French evening news jubilantly opened with the story.
According to a survey published some time ago, Germans are simply unable to enjoy something unless they've worked for it. They even experience performance anxiety during sex. Most major French media outlets reported on the study. There was probably something reassuring about the notion that the Germans, even if their economy is in better shape, are at least unable to enjoy their lives to the full.
France sees Germany as its opposite. The Germans only look into the past to assure themselves of what they never want to become again. Germany clings to the present. Its chancellor runs the country from a building with an exposed concrete façade rather than a gilded palace. Seen from Paris, Germany looks like an excessively modern country where brutal economic liberalism prevails.
This, in turn, says a lot about France. It is a nostalgic and narcissistic country which is also -- precisely for those reasons -- loveable. It is a country that would like to be part of the north but whose heart belongs in the south.
France doesn't want to conform to anyone, and so it is waiting again for the day when Europe conforms to France. In other words, as it always has.