Mon dieu, dude!

Ennui, torpor, and an astonishing lack of joie de vivre. What France needs is a good dose of Left Coast wisdom.

Published February 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

woe is France. Lord knows it's an obliging target, with its vast national self-regard, its deaf ear for popular culture, its bloviating intellectuals. Any country that has foisted both Jacques Derrida and Plastic Bertrand on an unsuspecting world clearly has a lot to answer for.

But really. Recent events have been hard on the poor Gauls. Their economy is stalling, unemployment rates are rising, Brigitte Bardot has become a right-wing animal nut. And, last week, the crowning indignity: news stories in two of America's leading newspapers advising the French to start acting more like ... Californians.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Flanigan noted with a certain pride that Europeans in general, and the French in particular, are coming to regard California as a role model for future economic expansion. "Where once there was scorn for the U.S. economy, now there is widespread admiration for its job-creating ability," Flanigan wrote. "And there is special regard for California." Indeed, Jean-Francois Theodore, chairman of the Paris stock exchange, is already looking to adapt the Golden State's high-tech investment structure to France's struggling venture-capital market, telling Flanigan of his admiration for the "entrepreneurs and high-tech companies" that shape California's business sensibility.

But this was nothing compared with what was to come. In a remarkable Page 1 story last Wednesday, the New York Times turned correspondent Roger Cohen loose on the "risk-averse" European power. Cohen's massive piece, nestled under a dispiriting headline ("For France, Sagging Self-Image and Esprit"), attempted to demonstrate the myriad ways that the French have greeted the new global information age with "torpor ... doubt and introspection."

One could plausibly counter that these qualities are France's leading exports, and therefore precisely the country's prime contribution to the New World Order. But that's neither here nor there: The implicit lesson of Cohen's piece is that the sagging French, if they are to survive with even the least bit of esprit left, need to follow the lead of Parisian software entrepreneur Bernard Liautaud, "dump(ing) French habits" to "do things the California way."

Unfortunately, Cohen notes glumly, "France tends to see its economy and very identity threatened by innovation," and its national funk "provides a perfect feeding ground for peddlers of xenophobia like (Jean-Marie Le Pen's) National Front Party."

Similarly damning is the country's suspicion of the Internet in particular and high technology in general. President Jacques Chirac has denounced the Internet as "an Anglo-Saxon network," Cohen reports with a shudder. France's own computer network, Minitel, is increasingly out of step with the world, and only 1 percent of French homes are connected to the real Net. Admittedly, there have been signs of a techno-thaw. Chirac recently had his first, much-publicized encounter with a computer mouse -- which seemed to go well, despite its obvious, painful associations with EuroDisney.

But there's an even bigger problem. The French are still saddled with a distinctly Second Wave welfare state. What's more, Cohen reports, they like it: France "increasingly seems to equate its welfare state with its very identity." This quaint fancy stands in the way of France accepting the bracing California creed: "Promote a share-holding culture. Think global. Think marketing. Reduce taxes."

This drill-sergeant approach to market reform seems just a bit much -- especially if you compare the recent political history of California to Cohen's account of the French malaise. California isn't only a high-tech heaven -- it's also a cutting-edge leader of the New Intolerance Age. Consider Propositions 187 and 209, which eviscerate public services for immigrants and outlaw affirmative action. And Los Angeles isn't exactly brimming with ethnic and racial good will. Indeed, one suspects that Le Pen could broaden his political base rather effectively in the Golden State if he were to find the right political consultant.

California is hardly a vast, undifferentiated info-cornucopia. Rather, it's a two-tier study in economic polarization. The state's working poor are disproportionately black and Hispanic, sinking steadily out of reach of the gleaming prosperity that reporters seem to think simply pours out of any Californian VDT screen at the push of a button.

And it's not as if the French are strangers to globalization and market reforms. Cohen notes the French's snotty cultural repugnance for a unified European currency, but never mentions the more immediate reasons that the French might be hostile to the consolidation of the European bloc of the new global economy. In 1995 Prime Minister Alain Juppi tried to force-feed a host of social-service rollbacks to French citizens and labor-contract cuts to transportation workers, justifying them as measures required by the Maastricht Treaty of unification, which stipulates that signatory nations must have balanced budgets by 1999. Somehow, the affected parties managed to shake off their torpor long enough to stage a series of strikes that paralyzed the country.

Nor does Cohen mention that France's dismal 13 percent unemployment rate ("more than double the rate of the United States," he intones grimly) is nearly identical to Germany's -- despite Chancellor Helmut Kohl's market-happy embrace of the European Union and the Germans' inveterate passion for all things technological. Then there's England, where the Conservative Major government is desperately keen on Maastricht and all it implies -- and is all but certain to fall to the country's first Labour majority in 18 years. Spain, meanwhile, is on track to meet its Maastricht deadline, but despite this concession to the global economy, its unemployment rate is a hardly inspiring 22 percent.

Perhaps France's defenders of the welfare state are not quite as "Out of Touch and Out of Ideas" as the Times would like us to think. The French are far from the only Europeans to question whether the shiny bounty of high-tech globalization will usher in a millennial era of commerce, information and social peace. Nor is it exactly the case, as Cohen argues, that "rapid technological innovation, radical strategic shifts, the Internet and the global market have contributed to an optimistic mood in the United States." Someone should tell the Times about not-altogether-immigrant-friendly politicians Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. And come to think of it, didn't some big newspaper run a two-week series on corporate downsizing not that long ago?

The logic of the global market creates at least as much fragmentation and instability as it does opportunity. Economic borders and national "identity," no matter how parochial their defenders, have become powerful forces of social consolation amid the chronic upheavals and shifting migratory patterns of global industries and financial markets. As beguiling as it may be to blame such impulses on the benighted cultural quirks of the French, doing so makes about as much sense as Le Pen's own hate-filled campaign to demonize Algerian immigrants.

Not that I'm totally down on this California thing. (Having lived some years in the Golden State before fleeing to the East, I'm a sort of Californian export myself.) But couldn't we work out a cultural exchange instead? It would do the world all sorts of good to quarantine Jean Baudrillard in, say, Bakersfield. And I'd dearly love to see Michael Eisner sent to the home of EuroDisney, where he'd undoubtedly come in for the kind of culture-wide scorn -- and high tax bracket -- he so richly deserves. There's only one non-negotiable demand: Plastic Bertrand stays right where he is.

By Chris Lehmann

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