France Deserves to Be Celebrated, Whatever Its


France marks Bastille Day this coming weekend, but amid rounds of rioting and widespread malaise, the mood is hardly celebratory. But the French should take a bow nonetheless: the country is far more successful than Americans—and many French as well—may think.

The latest angst relates to rioting by members of the Muslim minority that accounts for about a tenth of the population and largely hails from the former North African colony of Algeria, sparked by the June 27 police killing of a teenager.

But the underlying reason is a vicious cycle featuring both bigotry toward the community and antipathy from within it to values France holds dear. A recent survey found that 29 percent of French Muslim respondents considered Sharia more important than the laws of France. Western progressives minimize this kind of thing at their peril, for everywhere it moves voters to the right. In France that means Marine le Pen, who garnered about 40 percent of the vote in her runoff against President Emanuel Macron last year, might actually win today.

Amenable and articulate, yet also awkward and aloof, Macron has been buffeted from all sides. The Yellow Vest protests—which began in 2018 and still flare up on occasion—began as opposition to fuel tax hikes but later fed off the discontent of every conceivable malcontent. And widespread protests this May were against a mild raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64—still lower than in the United States, where the life expectancy, at 77, is five years lower.

Preparing for Bastille Day
This aerial photograph taken on July 11 aboard a French army helicopter, shows the Eiffel Tower, three days ahead of the Bastille Day parade, in Paris.

That to many reflected a consistently immature refusal to adapt to 21st century realities (such as keeping up with rising life expectancy to maintain the viability of national pension schemes).

Similarly, labor practices make things rough on employers. When I was the Associated Press’ Europe and Africa editor, based in London, I would dread summons to Paris to meet with the restive staff of the French Service for a “reunion syndicale”—a meeting with a union determined to stick like glue to old ways. A reporter once refused to cover President Nicolas Sarkozy’s divorce, informing me curtly that he was contractually obligated to write only about “politique, not ‘people.'”

So we can agree that France is far from perfect. Not every policeman is as bumbling as Inspector Clouseau, and not every waiter is as snooty as the ones I have happened to meet in almost every café—but some of the criticism and even ridicule of France seems, well, apropos.

Yet the world is more complex, mes amis. As the 20th century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze put it, “we are not unity, but multiplicity.” There is another side.

First, of course, there is the sheer beauty of the place. No, France is not the cartoonish fantasy world of Emily in Paris, where everything is buffed and everyone is stylishly haughty. But yes, downtown Paris—like hundreds of towns throughout the land—has a shimmering glory that no skyscraper or Main Street can match.

One finds more than breathtaking cathedrals, delectable food and wine, and long lifespans, but also striking business successes and some solid societal instincts about a better way to be.

France is, after all, the home country of economist Thomas Piketty, who reenergized a global discourse on the economy with his 2013 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” So it should be no huge surprise that it boasts an astounding number of companies on the global Fortune 500, clocking in at number 5 in the world with 31, about the same as Germany and higher per capita than that somewhat larger country. These include global brands like Total, Dior, BNP Paribas and Peugeot.

Unemployment stands at just over 7 percent (higher than in the United States but lower than Italy and Spain, and far better than not so long ago). And France’s worker protections may look better eventually as in the U.S. steady jobs may soon be extinct due to the gig economy, and now white collar workers being displaced by artificial intelligence implementations.

The protections of social democracy—such as healthcare guarantees for all—offer a kind of reassurance Americans can only dream about. The death penalty was banned over 40 years ago—as in almost every developed nation on Earth barring the U.S.—and no one seems to want it back.

Indeed, there are points of consensus, which has become a state that eludes most Americans these days. The culture wars are far milder with the progressives less progressive and the conservatives less aggressive. Liquid lunches are still just fine, the “experienced” suffer less ageism and there are people who still call themselves “intellectuals” without irony. It’s charming.

Violent crime in France in a fraction of what it is in America. Perhaps that attaches to the lesser anger—but it also might have something to do with the great difficulty of getting a gun. Gun deaths are 15 times lower than in the U.S., which features the developed world’s highest rate of gun deaths at 14.6 per 100,000 people. You have to wonder at Americans who think this is a mental health problem; are Americans 15 times crazier than the French?

My theory is that the greater seeming sanity relates to the lesser provable inequality.

A study from several years ago showed that France is one of only five countries out of 36 in the OECD (a Paris-based organization of the world’s developed nations) where income inequality and poverty have fallen since the turn of the century. A recent OECD report finds that in the U.S. the top 10 percent of households own three-quarters of the wealth—while in France it is under half. The trajectory is even more striking when one looks at income: this recent report, by Bertrand Garbinti, Jonathan Goupille-Lebret and Piketty, shows the income share of the richest 10 percent in France to be at around 32 percent, about the same as in 1990 and 5 percent lower than in 1960. In the U.S., despite a recent stabilization income inequality the past four decades grew dramatically (see the numbers here).

Growing inequality, we are told, is a consequence of globalization, technological disruption, and economic liberalization. But much of it is also the result of policies and tax regimes that are matters of choice. The wealthy super-citizens can impact all that with lobbyists and advertising and media and political donations. So in some places it has become axiomatic that humanity’s goal is shareholder value, and that great wealth will trickle down, as opposed to, say, being hoarded and used to speculate on property in London. But the French seem unimpressed (as is their general prevailing mode).

There is a philosophical foundation to the French distaste for unbridled capitalism: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, argues the emergence of private property, social hierarchies, and artificial desires have led to a departure from the “natural state” of freedom and simplicity.

Should we adopt any of that? I have at least two suggestions.

First, there is no reason that capital should trump labor. Capital gains—the profits realized on trade of assets, commodities, real estate—should be treated no differently from the fruits of labor (with losses factored in). Is it logical for a billionaire to pay little off financial dealings while salaries of no more than $100,000 per year are taxed to the hilt? That’s unfair and devastating to the economy, since the middle class is the engine of spending, wishing to buy more than it presently can afford. Indeed, while we should leave the middle classes alone, higher taxes are fair for people earning, say, more than a million dollars per year.

Second, ease up on the cultural wars. Everyone should chill, even if it means having a glass of Merlot much earlier in the day. Your identity and your gender, your religious beliefs and specific definition of patriotism—not everyone needs to hear about them every day. Not everyone needs to agree or be cancelled.

The third thought is addressed to Americans, especially in the dog days of summer, between the Fourth of July and 14 Juillet: Drop the attitude about exceptionalism, and learn to learn from others every now and again.

Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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