City Journal

Pascal Bruckner
Gloomy France
As the young and entrepreneurial flee, the country struggles to compete and pay for its massive welfare state.
Winter 2014
With 200,000-400,000 French expatriates, London has become France's sixth-largest city.
With 200,000–400,000 French expatriates, London has become France’s sixth-largest city.
Ricky Leaver/Loop Images/Corbis

Not long ago, I attended a colloquium of French scientists and philosophers in Corsica, France, called “How to Think About the Future.” With few exceptions, the astrophysicists, economists, physicians, and social theorists on hand offered dark visions of tomorrow. A new financial crisis, water and grain shortages, endless war, a general collapse of ecosystems—we were spared no catastrophic scenario.

A month earlier, as it happened, I had been invited by the environmentalist think tank Breakthrough to San Francisco, where I reflected with a group of thinkers on the Schumpeterian economic idea of “creative destruction” and its application to energy production. My experience there was quite different. Three days of vigorous and sometimes tense debates followed among advocates favoring, respectively, nuclear power, shale gas, and renewable energy sources. Defenders of threatened species had their say, too, but no one doubted in the slightest that we had a future, even if its contours remained unclear.

I recall an observation that Michael Schellenberger, Breakthrough’s president, made in the proceedings: “The United States’ greatest hope at present lies in shale gas and in the 11 million illegal immigrants who will soon become legal, 11 million brains that will stimulate and renew our country.” Such a comment, whatever one’s views on the specific policies that it implied, exhibited a hopefulness completely missing in Corsica—and hard to find in today’s France, which has outlawed not only the development but even the exploration of possible reserves of natural and shale gas, and which sees every stranger on its soil as a potential enemy. France has become a defeatist nation.

A striking indicator of this attitude is the massive emigration that the country has witnessed over the last decade, with nearly 2 million French citizens choosing to leave their country and take their chances in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the United States, and other locales. The last such collective exodus from France came during the French Revolution, when a large part of the aristocracy left to await (futilely) the king’s return. About a century earlier, almost 2 million Huguenots fled the country, frightened by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had put Protestants on an equal legal footing with Catholics. Today’s migration isn’t politically or religiously motivated, however; it’s economic.

This is borne out by the makeup of the departing population, which consists disproportionately of young people—70 percent of the migrants are under 40—and advanced-degree holders, who do their studies in France but offer their skills elsewhere. The migrants, discouraged by the economy’s comparatively low salaries and persistently high unemployment—currently at 10.9 percent, with the private sector losing more than 360,000 jobs in the second quarter of 2013—have only grown in number since Socialist François Hollande became president. In the teeth of an economic downturn, Hollande imposed onerous new taxes on the wealthy; the government’s tax haul has hit 46 percent of GDP, the highest in the eurozone, reports The Economist. The president has taken to roaming through France’s cities and towns, seeking “the first tremblings of the recovery,” but his diatribes against the well-off—“I hate the rich,” he said on television—provide no more encouragement to young entrepreneurs than do his tax policies. If economic success is all but criminal in France these days, why not depart for places that reward it instead?

The young and enterprising in France soon realize that elsewhere—in London, say—obstacles to success are fewer and opportunities greater. The British capital is now France’s sixth-largest city, with 200,000–400,000 émigrés, a number of whom have made fortunes. They’ve re-created a familiar way of life in their new home, frequenting French restaurants and patisseries and often barely speaking English.

The emigration of France’s aspirational young has also taken the form of a colonial inversion. Just as Spaniards now go to find work in Latin America or Morocco and Portuguese head for Angola and Mozambique, the French have started to seek opportunity in North Africa and in the sub-Sahara, where the energy and the taste for innovation appear greater than back home. Of course, emigration can go wrong: disillusionment can set in with, or homesickness can wear on, recent exiles, causing some to return, beaten. This helps explain why emigration counseling is a French growth industry. A good example is Lepetitjournal.com, a website that offers career and practical advice for expatriates.

The exile rolls also include hundreds of thousands of French retirees, presumably well-off, who are spending at least part of their golden years in other countries: tired of France’s high cost of living, they seek out more welcoming environments. Our beloved country, in other words, has been losing not only its dynamic and intelligent young people but also older people with some money. I’m not sure that this social model can work over the long term.

The protests that swept France in autumn 2010 reflected the country’s defeatist attitude, too, though in a different way. The government of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, hoping to put tottering public finances on somewhat firmer ground, sought to increase the average retirement age in France from 60 to 62. This was an inadequate measure to deal with the magnitude of France’s massive deficit, especially compared with Germany’s fixing of retirement at 67, but, as was typical of the Sarkozy era, it unleashed a gigantic wave of unrest. The French confronted the surprising spectacle of high school students demanding pensions. Even before starting their working lives, the adolescent demonstrators were already thinking about ending them. Their response to French stagnation contrasted with that of the young economic exiles. For the protesters, existence—even if it were mediocre—had to come with a government guarantee, from beginning to end. (Some time ago, the far-Left political leader Olivier Besancenot proposed the creation of a Great Strikers’ Party. What a wonderful notion: our youth, by joining, could go on strike without ever having worked!)

Consider, in this light, an astounding 2005 survey of French youth, which showed that about three-quarters wanted to become government bureaucrats. So intently did they shun taking chances that they could imagine no happier future than working as (presumptively secure) state functionaries. Gravely affected by the weak economy, these young people make up the avant-garde of what may as well be France’s largest contemporary party: the Party of Fear. For the French have become afraid of everything: the world, poverty, globalization, Islam, capitalism, global warming, natural catastrophes—and even, to borrow an American phrase, fear itself.

No longer a world leader, contemporary France has apparently concluded that it must be nothing, and has increasingly abandoned itself to self-denigration. A nation that not long ago brandished its language as the natural idiom of the human race now seems to know only how to groan, rehearse the past, lick its wounds, and endlessly enumerate its failings, though with a suspicious self-satisfaction. Every year, dozens of books are published in France affecting the charm of despair. The French don’t like themselves any longer—they’re one of the world’s most depressed populations, a huge consumer of psychotropic drugs and tranquilizers—and don’t expect others to like them, either. A country so unsure of itself, needless to say, is incapable of inspiring enthusiasm among the young, whether immigrants or native-born.

To put it bluntly, France isn’t where things happen these days. Other players dominate the global arena: the Anglo-American world, Germany, the Gulf States, the rising powers of Asia, the emerging nations of Africa. History has passed us by; we have grown old without finding sources of renewal. Once France felt cramped within its modest territory; now it is detaching itself from Europe, and from the world, in the manner of an old man who feels the approach of death.

Yet the more provincial France becomes, the more it lapses into a pathetic vehemence. Wild lyricism and empty formulas replace concrete action. Economists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, at odds with the merchants of gloom, have sought to defend the French social model, portraying the rest of humanity as mistaken, even profoundly ill. We heard, for example, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, president of the Left Party, who implausibly claimed that Germany was the country in dire straits, not France, despite our neighbor’s obvious comparative economic health. President Hollande conveys a similar message when he assures citizens that the French economy is back, or soon will be, and that we can again rest easy. The pro-Hollande press is masterful in its repeated delivery of this lesson. This brand of journalism reminds me of a song that became famous before World War II: “Everything is fine, Madame la Marquise, everything is fine / the stables are burning, the castle is in flames, but everything is fine, Madame la Marquise.”

Contemporary France, then, combines arrogance with self-hatred—a matchless vanity, rooted in the ages of Louis XIV and the French Revolution, with a lack of confidence typical of nations in decline. France lacks both the self-assured pride—without which nothing great can be accomplished—that has long characterized the United States and, more recently, China and India, and a curiosity regarding other cultures, the passion to learn from what is foreign, which is a sign of intelligence and reason. Our attitude makes us bound to lose on both fronts: pretension prevents us from benefiting from others’ experiences; doubt paralyzes us.

France remains blessed by its extraordinary beauty, which draws 70 million tourists a year, and it can still claim successful multinational corporations, a well-educated youth, a capable military, geological wealth, and a maritime surface that reaches from the Mediterranean to the Pacific and includes the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, thanks to the remaining confetti of our former empire. So where does our strange weakness, at once economic and spiritual, come from?

It has two deeper explanations, I believe. First is a hatred of money, a dual legacy of Catholicism and republicanism. I remember as a child in Lyon seeing the richest families arrive at Mass in the cheapest of automobiles, plainly dressed as they awaited the sacrament. Only when behind the gates of their properties did they abandon themselves to their prosperity, exchanging visits only with one another, and only then bringing out the best silver and scolding the servants. Quite unlike the unabashed pleasure that Americans take in wealth, the French way is to hide one’s goods, so as not to provoke envy.

To understand the French stance toward money, one should return to the well-known Balzac phrase: “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime”—as if the thirst for material success sprang from a desire to deprive others or prostitute their dreams. French leaders left and right have denounced filthy lucre. In 1919, for example, Leon Blum decried “this scum, this putrid fermentation that we see spreading over the surface of our economic life.” “My only adversary, that of France itself, has never ceased to be money,” said Charles de Gaulle in a 1969 interview with André Malraux. A few years later, François Mitterrand denounced “that king, money, that ruins and spoils everything, even the human conscience.” And Hollande, not to be outdone, declared during the 2012 election campaign not only that he hated the rich but also that he had only “one adversary, international finance.”

Such virtuous proclamations cannot replace actual policy in a modern nation. Even as France castigates the reign of money, our country fails to compete globally and suffers from economic stagnation and enforced austerity. King money reigns over a desert. Indeed, money is what is lacking in France—in public finances and among citizens (what the French fear most, by a large majority, is falling into a lower social class).

The second explanation is a widespread conformism, which paradoxically stems in part from our revolutionary history. Because the French made a great revolution more than two centuries ago, they seem to believe that they’re excused from the need to renovate and adapt. And what is distinctive about this conservatism is that it tends to be expressed in subversive language—since the far Left has, for the last half-century or longer, played the role of the French Republic’s superego. All legislation, all action, must be measured against its standard: no social or economic argument is acceptable that doesn’t start with a denunciation of the market and financial powers.

The far Left’s anticapitalism draws reinforcement from older French cultural currents: the idea of equality that lay at the heart of the French Revolution, which would inspire Russian Communism; and Jacobinism, according to which the state is the main agent of change in the nation and which helped do away with the intermediary bodies between individual and government. Given these premises, it’s not surprising that economic liberalism gets such bad press in France. The idea that the nation’s prosperity is not a pure governmental decision and that private actors can overturn the rules of the economic game unsettles some of our deepest convictions.

One discordant note to France’s current defeatism is the nation’s fertility rate, among the highest in the Old World, across all social classes. France is jarringly schizophrenic: we fight against our sense of gloom about the future, it seems, by repopulating our cradles. Here, though, we see the possibility of a fresh beginning, the chance that every generation has to look at the world anew. A nation alive in this way is one that can stumble, even fall, and still come back, better than before. If it is not to be buried in its own mausoleum, a country must prove able to break with old habits and find renewal, and a growing population makes this easier to imagine.

If France is not to become Europe’s new sick man, alongside Greece and Spain, it must rise to the challenge of competing with its neighbors and the world’s emerging economic powers. Indeed, it must accept existence itself as a challenge and undertake the necessary changes, in keeping, of course, with its national character. In an age of variable and fleeting patriotism, France must hold its children close but not expect them to show a limitless attachment. Perhaps the recent diaspora of the young and ambitious will one day be seen as the beginning of France’s salvation.

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