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Squaring Circles

eye on the news

Squaring Circles

The French can still reason their way to falsehood. April 29, 2005

Globalization notwithstanding, differences remain between countries, even those as geographically close as Britain and France. Each time I go to France and buy Le Monde and Liberation—the newspapers the French intelligentsia read—I find myself pondering the different intellectual atmospheres of the two countries.

The French justly take pride that their countryman, René Descartes, inaugurated modern western philosophy. For them, Cartesian is a term of the highest praise. But Cartesianism gives an abstract cast to their thinking, especially about practical political matters. Everything becomes a matter of syllogisms, starting from indubitable propositions. This mindset suggests that those who come to different conclusions are irrational, un-Cartesian.

The day I arrived in France, the two newspapers were up in arms over the likelihood that French voters would reject the European Constitution in the forthcoming referendum. A long report in Liberation bore the headline VOYAGE AU CENTRE DU NON (“Journey to the Center of the No”), as if it were a Jules Verne novel describing a hitherto unknown, and highly peculiar, race of beings on a distant planet, rather than 55 percent of Frenchmen.

A Le Monde article described the No in quasi-biblical terms as a “temptation,” presumably offered by a wily xenophobic serpent to millions of Gallic Adams and Eves. Those who intended to vote No were accused of focusing pedantically or unreasonably on such and such an article of the constitution with which they disagreed, rather than on the whole document. For the author, the devil was not so much in the detail as in the attention to detail.

The author also cited France’s high unemployment rate as a factor in the populace’s rejection of the constitution. More than a fifth of France’s youth is unemployed after completing its education—a quasi-permanent feature of French society. Oddly enough, the author neglected to connect the “social benefits” that employees enjoy, and which the constitution seeks to enshrine, with this unemployment.

The small entrepreneurs with whom I deal have no such difficulty. Although they are not Cartesian, they tell me quite clearly that they are reluctant to employ new workers because it is so difficult and costly to fire them if they are no good. A bad employee is a millstone round a small employer’s neck.

The elites of France believe in the square circle—a most un-Cartesian abstraction. One of them, Valéry Giscard d’Éstaing, practically wrote the constitution, whose article III 210 says: “The union of member states, aware of social rights, . . . has as its objective the promotion of employment, the raising of living standards and conditions of work, that leads to their progressive equalization, adequate social protection, social dialogue, the development of human resources to allow a high and stable level of employment, and the struggle against social exclusion.”

You might as well decree that everyone is to live above the average standard of living: not since Stalin’s Constitution of 1936 has the world seen such a farrago of nonsense. The French people, especially the uneducated among them, don’t believe a word of it.

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