Jonathan Brun

France: A country for old men

Last year I spent eight months in France, primarily in Paris. In 2003, I lived in Marseille and Dunkerque and I have been to France over 26 times. I hold a french passport, a french name, and a french heritage. Perhaps, given all that, I can say a few words on the country of my fathers.

If you would like to skip the rest of the article, my points basically boil down to the following sentence. The country is currently run by old men, for old men – (or by young men who pretend to be old). The smart, young, ambitious frenchmen and women are fleeing the country – to Canada (4,026 in 2006), the US, and elsewhere. Why? In many ways, France is well placed for a young ambitious person; you have access to open european markets, a dynamic immigrant workforce and some of the best infrastructure in the world. Yet, the brain drain is remarkable.

In many ways, the country and its young people have the sense that all has been said. On a number of fronts, the country feels finished. Part of the problem is the centralization of the nation in Paris. Nearly all the top schools and international businesses are based in Paris, the government is highly centralized and if you are not in the capital, you are a nobody. This leads to a major problem: the top tier of French entrepreneurs, businessmen, lawyers and engineers all end up together, in Paris. Living, studying and working in the same place leads to groupthink. Innovation is fundamentally an ability to think differently. Canada has a fairly spread out intellectual basin between Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The United States has various poles of expertise in Boston, New York, Houston, San Francisco and Chicago. In France all of the most ambitious end up in Paris and they all end up alike.

Installing a Bixi platform in Montréal

Paris feels like a museum, the entire city has been developed to the maximum height of six stories, and companies located in Paris dare not leave for fear of losing the top talent or being perceived as inferior to their parisian coutnerparts. If Paris is disregarded, the remainder of the country seems equally developed – all the way down to the residential home and the bike racks. As an example, both Montreal and many French cities offer communal bike systems to their citizens. In Montreal, the bikes sit on mobile platforms that are solar panelled. The platforms can be picked up and moved to different locations with a simple forklift and flatbed truck. In France, the bike racks are cemented into the ground and hard wired to the grid – making it impossible to adjust the distribution according to usage. The French plan for permanence, but the world is moving in the opposite direction – more mobile and distributed. The centralized french model is dead.

A cemented, permanent, velib station

Another example are residential homes in France, they are usually surrounded by a high fence. In North America, most properties flow from one to the other, with no physical barriers in between. In France, everyone seems determined to mark their land and proudly proclaim, “This is mine! Don’t touch”.

To live by what is and was reduces your ability to see what can be, what might be. The French culture is obsessed with its glorious past, the focus must be shifted to the future. Throughout the country, you find monuments to past accomplishments – the renaissance, Napoleon, the Republic, but there are so few monuments to the future. By emphasizing past achievements, the country has developed an air of superiority that prevents the desperately needed change and adaptation to a new global reality. There is no denying the monumental achievements France made, they moved the world forward; but no one can live off the past for long. France’s cultural and economic inheritance is being spent fast.

Their passion with the past leads to reactions that smack more of fear than anything else. At the time of writing, the Assemblé Nationale just passed a law banning burqas in public. The government, all members save one, did this under the pretext of protecting the secular state, increasing social cohesion and ensuring woman are not oppressed by men. The law will affect 2 000 french women and some tourists. Despite the benevolent paternal intentions, it is fundamentally contrary to liberal enlightenment principals and will only further fragment French society. In Turkey, when Ataturk wished to secularize the country, he first passed an outright ban on hijabs – it failed. Instead, he decided to attack the problem indirectly, he obliged all the prostitutes in the country to wear a hijab. All of a sudden, woman removed their headscarfs.

France prides itself on equality and justice, yet it remains a deeply unequal country – only 14.8% of the Assemblée nationale is made up by women (compared with 30% in Quebec, 53% in Rwanda, and 46% in Sweden). The burqa ban is designed to protect women from oppression, yet their own Assemblée nationale, theoretically the bastion of gender equality, fails to represent the population of the country.

France’s love affair with their enlightenment past leads to other bizarre reactions. For the second time, Quick, the French fast food chain, is proposing to convert 20 of its outlets to Halal serving venues. This is to attract business from the very large muslim community. Again, the political establishment, both left and right are crying foul. They claim that it will segregate the society and play to religious extremism. How?

France is paralyzed. With the success of the far-right Front National party in the last regional elections (over 20%), one must start to worry. Studies have shown that minorities are tolerated by most countries, until they reach about 15% of the population. At that point, populist politicians, especially in tough times, start to point the finger at the “different” people, claiming they are stealing jobs and changing the spirit of the nation. France, like many countries, has not come to grips with diversity – they tolerate the immigrants. But, when you tolerate something – you are not accepting it for what it is. Do you tolerate your children? Fundamentally, you cannot both love and tolerate something, and if you do not love your fellow countrymen regardless of faith or skin colour, how can they fully be your countrymen?

Fundamental social reform is desperately needed in France, the french economy is based primarily on three things: the state, large corporations (which are supported by the state), and agriculture. There has been a failure to innovate – not due to a lack of resources, but rather due to a mindset that has infected the country. The current mentality is to secure a government job or get out of there. As an example, France employs half a million more bureaucrats than Germany, despite having a population 20% smaller. When I tell my French family that I am starting a business (two actually), they look at me dumbfounded – like I just told them I converted to Islam.

Just last week, the French took to the streets to protest an increase in the retirement age – from 60 to 62, still amongst the lowest in the world. If people are not prepared to work two more years for a very generous pension, one must wonder how bad their jobs are. The problem is not the amount of time they need to work, but rather the attitude they seem to have towards their work (WSJ Article).

It is sad. France of the 1980s and early 90s was a dynamic and moving place, they built state of the art technology – La Défense, High Speed Trains and led important social movements. In the late 90s, something changed. France went on the defensive; perhaps it was the fall of the soviet empire and the rise in power of the american liberalized economic model. Perhaps it was a change in leadership in France or the rising age of the population. Whatever it was, at some point around 1995 the country changed, or rather, it stopped changing. And that was the beginning of the end.

The fear of change, the paralysis in the face of challenge and a degeneration of political discourse on minorities is becoming tired. France must move beyond beyond 17th century enlightenment, they must embrace the global world and assert their role as democratic and technological leaders. Today, the country holds great potential – a young and energetic immigrant population, a strong infrastructure and world class schools. To unleash that potential, bold steps must be taken. The old guard must be shoved aside, the republic must be rebuilt and the country must undergo a quiet revolution. De Gaulle, came to our nation some years ago and proclaimed, “Vive le Québec libre!”, it is time someone returns the favour and shouts from the Eiffel tower, “Vive la France libre!”

Published on September 20, 2010