Why the French Really Are Different

By Jack, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), August 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

Why the French Really Are Different


Jack, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Andrew Jack on the nation that always insists on being an exception

With its big-budget advertising campaigns, aggressive lawsuits and vicious exchanges of words, it had all the trademarks of the ugliest of 1980s-style US corporate takeover battles. But the hostile bidding war designed to create a single giant banking group that drew to a close this month had one important difference. It was taking place in contemporary France.

Such an unseemly public squabble for control among three Paris-based businesses would have been unimaginable even in the very recent past. Indeed, only a little more than a decade ago it would have been quite simply impossible, since all three banks involved - Societe Generale, Paribas and Banque Nationale de Paris - were still owned by the state.

In a throwback to more typical practices only now on the wane, Jean-Claude Trichet, governor of the Banque de France, tried to intervene earlier this year to find a solution behind closed doors. He was an inspecteur des finances, drawn from the same elite civil service corps as the chairmen of two of the three banks concerned. But the issues were too important, the pressures too great and the egos too large to reach a cosy, amicable agreement. Time had moved on.

The takeover was the latest example of the important evolutions that are taking place in French society. Francois Mitterrand may have launched a populist wave of nationalisations in the early 1980s, just as Margaret Thatcher was doing the reverse across the Channel. Yet the latest socialist government, led by Lionel Jospin, the former president's protege, has overseen a transformation far more compatible with Schroder's Germany or Blair's Britain than it might care to admit - without the benefit of someone else who has already done the dirty work and taken the political flak.

In the two months after Jospin was elected prime minister in 1997 on a slate of blocking privatisations, he set in motion the sale of more state-owned companies than his Gaullist predecessor Alain Juppe had managed throughout his entire two years in office. In many other areas, too, the distinctive Third Way trumpeted by the French left has proved far stronger on rhetoric than reality.

But there are still original aspects to the French approach, and ones too visible, too powerful and too distinctive to be ignored. Too visible, because France is one of the world's most widely visited destinations, attracting 142 million Europeans alone in 199296. Too powerful, because it not only has a huge international social and cultural influence but is also an industrial powerhouse with the world's fourth-largest economy - ahead of both the UK and Italy. And too distinctive, because it dares to stand apart from the conformism of its partners in the G7 and similar organisations.

France has frequently managed to provoke animosity among its allies as much as its enemies, as was proved by the all-too-easy bout of "froggy-bashing" unleashed in the wake of President Jacques Chirac's decision to relaunch nuclear testing in the South Pacific shortly after his election in 1995. Britons are willing to make disparaging remarks towards their nearest neighbour that they would never imagine uttering about other countries. Perhaps that is because France is the foreign land to which they are most exposed - and of which they may even be a little jealous, and perhaps because in many ways France and Britain are, to misquote George Bernard Shaw, a common nation divided by two languages. Both are former colonial powers trying to adjust to a less influential role in the world while still believing they have a model worth emulating. Yet their tactics are fundamentally different.

While the British have got on relatively pragmatically with the evolution of their society, the French have characteristically adopted a more tortured intellectual approach to reform - or to the lack of it. Their policy-makers and thinkers have developed a mantra of defensive "exceptions", often defined largely in opposition to the practices of their supposedly "ultra-liberal" and "Anglo-Saxon" counterparts. …

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