France is a land of contradictions. It is nation where people have seven weeks of paid vacation a year, generally take an hour and a half for lunch, have one of the longest life expectancies on the planet, work in the fourth largest economy in the world, and have one of the finest health care systems in the world. It is also a nation that has one of the lowest rates of charitable donations in the developed world, where people expect the State to do everything because they pay so much in taxes, where the civil service makes up about a quarter of the working population, and where local initiative or self-rule is virtually non-existent. What explains these many paradoxes?
Authors Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow sought to discover the source of these contrasts and to learn why the French were so different. Living for three years in France, they worked almost as ethnologists, delving into all aspects of French political, cultural, and economic life, uncovering many things from an outsider's perspective. Writing about the French civil service, economy, media, education, charities, unions, social welfare system, courts, politics, foreign policy, history, and language, they provide a thorough and very readable primer on all things French.
One thing they point out is that the French as a people love power. They have a great disdain for compromise - both in politics and even in personal conversations - instead preferring winners and losers, embracing particularly in politics what the authors termed "jusqu'au-boustisme" (until-the-bitter-end-ism), of the tendency in politics to pursue winning even to destructive ends. An ultimate expression of this might be found in the fact that State is absolute in French politics and society; it tolerates no rivals, whether it was the Catholic clergy's onetime dominance over the nation's education system or the existence of any meaningful regional government tied to a local culture, though the latter has changed some in recent years. The French love for their politicians to exhibit grandeur (and the politicians love to exhibit it), practicing something called cumul des mandates (or simply the cumul); it is possible for one to hold more than one elected office at the same time (for instance for a time President Jacques Chirac was also mayor of Paris, the prime minister, deputy from his home region of Correze, and a deputy in the European Parliament). Indeed the French President is one of the most powerful heads of state in the democratic world, in many ways more powerful that the American President.
Some of this lover of grandeur is exhibited in the fact that the French state is very much a unitary one, not a federal one; the central government in Paris reigns supreme, even in matters in the U.S. that would be regarded as strictly local affairs, such as the choosing of school textbooks or in most cases the management of local police. For instance the mayor of Paris does not control local police or transport, but they are instead controlled by the central government. Only towns of less than ten thousand citizens are allowed to control their own police.
This tendency to have a highly centralized, almost absolutist democracy though is not entirely due to a French love of grandeur. Much of dates back to the centuries long attempts to create the nation of France and keep it together, to impose French culture and language on more distant regions. At the time of the Revolution, the doctrine of the Republique was that "nothing should come between the citizen and the State." The French State actually created what we today call France, assimilating very diverse populations, giving them a single nationality, eradicating any local power or local language, acting for decades with extreme suspicion of anything (including churches) that fostered any sense of local community beyond the instruments of the state. Though France has levels of local administration - the Commune, the Department, and the Region - these do not exactly correspond to Canadian provinces or American states in that they have no sovereign rights themselves or exhibit any significant sense of French separation of powers, but instead are for the most part representatives of the central government. In the case of the 99 Departments, they were created as a result of the Revolution, often designed to deliberately break up regional identities, dividing lands with local identities into more than one Department, often given non-historical, sometimes deliberately meaningless names. The advent of the Region in 1982 reversed this to an extent, as Regions reflect natural cultural divisions in France, such as the areas inhabited by the Bretons, Occitan, or Corsicans, though some in France fear that this may lead to federalism one day (while at the same time France has given increasing powers to the supranational European Union).
This is not to say that the French State is anti-democratic; it was founded with three principles, assimilation (or eradication des particularismes; eradication of local differences), interet general (or common good), and equality (not only equality of opportunity but also equal or identical law throughout France). The principle of assimilation had been a driving force in creating the Departments (though ironically has made integration of the growing Muslim community in France difficult as it has until recently been regarded as illegal to even recognize special status or differences among French citizens).
There are checks on the Republique. In addition to civil and criminal law, the French have administrative law, an entirely parallel legal system for dealing with matters relating how the State relates to the citizens, administrative tribunals that can rule against government and the state. The growing independence of judges is another check. Protests are a way of life in France, a legitimate method for citizens to curb the system, the authors detailing this uniquely French form of political expression at some length.
I have barely scratched the surface in my review of this fascinating book. It is an absolute must read for anyone wanting to do business or live in France.