French-bashing bashed

With the country spectacularly failing, the citizens are again taking to the streets - but they are demanding more state, less reform, and higher walls against the rest of the world.

J. Miller
26 April 2016

WWII French General Charles De Gaulle. Wikicommons/Office of war information. Some rights reserved,Jeremy Paxman’s tirade the other day in the Financial Times against the French language attracted attention, drew predictable hysterical denunciation from the French themselves, yet entirely missed the point. Paxman’s rant described the French language as ‘useless’ and the achievements of the French as ‘long past.’ His insight that English is more important than French is about as stale as a day-old baguette. Even the French know that. His suggestion that learning French is a waste of time is as pitiful as it is ignorant. Learning any language is intellectually enriching and French especially so, both for the access it gives to some of the world’s greatest literature and because to learn French is to better appreciate the richness of English itself.Put aside that Jeremy Paxman is himself useless at French, as demonstrated by his comical attempts to pronounce French words in his role as presenter of University Challenge. (No Jeremy, the city of Rheims, where your champagne comes from, is not pronounced ‘reams.’) If Paxman was attempting to offer a more general critique of France, he failed. The problem is not the French language, which is beautiful and even useful, but France itself, which is utterly superannuated. But Paxman is not alone in failing to come to grips with what is wrong here.After years absent from France, Michel Houellebecq, the novelist whose book Submission, positing an Islamic takeover of the country, was a bestseller here last year, recently came home and isn’t liking what he sees. He claims the French have betrayed by their leaders, but that they will nonetheless survive.  “Keep calm and carry on,” is his advice, in English, to the French people, apparently channeling something he may have seen on a coffee mug. I’m not so sure his confidence is warranted. His is not the only contribution to the cacophony of anguished wailings by French public intellectuals, despairing of the country’s descent. Eric Zemmour, a columnist for Figaro, wrote Le Suicide Française, also a bestseller last year, suggesting that the French were committing national suicide.Houellebecq’s argument that there is an abyss between the population and those supposed to represent it, and that it is obliquely to blame for everything, is as shallow as Paxman’s that French is useless. Zemmour’s elegant denunciation of modern France, with its Bonapartist subtext and yearning for the trente glorieuses, sadly offers nothing on the practical questions confronting the country.The real problem is not the French, who are mostly charming, or its language, which is beautiful, or its politicians, who are by and large ghastly, incompetent, sexually incontinent and insouciant (although not uniquely so), but the French state itself, its para-religious republicanism, and the immobilism of a nation which has been expropriated by a ruling class that is as incompetent as it is delusional. The worship of the king has been replaced by the worship of the state. Like Jabba the Hutt,  this enormous sluggish monster squashes every sign of vitality, inflates pomposity, protects privilege and infantilises the French people. The Fifth Republic has spawned a culture of clientelism that extends its tentacles into every part of the French economy and communal life. Nowhere is its failure more evident than in the hundred or so slum suburbs that even the French prime minister has called “ghettos”.  But all young people suffer with a youth unemployment rate of 25 per cent. It is bizarre that young people in France are currently demonstrating against changes to the employment code that actually make it harder for them to find jobs. The clustered failures of the state have produced an economy on its knees. If France is useless, it is not as a result of its language, but of statolâtrie. In a nation that professes a republicanism of liberty, equality and fraternity, none of the above are being delivered.This isn’t about François Hollande. Don’t be fooled by the pretence of political debate and parties. The so-called right-wing National Front has an economic policy indistinguishable from that of the extreme left, made more toxic with a racist nationalism.  Many of those now flocking to it are actually former supporters of the Communist party. France is, rather, crushed by a dysfunctional polity of clientelism, political corruption, fear of change and not least, psychosis.The parties offer various types of pantomime, with no real choice except for the personalities. Politicians of all parties enrich themselves with multiple mandates (being elected mayors and deputies at the same time, for example), collecting multiple salaries and multiple pensions. There are 5.6 million fonctionnaires (civil servants), many of whom report that they are stressed and depressed because they don’t have enough to do. Claims of French productivity are absurd in a nation where the state accounts for 58 per cent of GDP. Vast swathes of the economy are essentially parastatal, such as EDF, Renault and Air France. Commerce is rigidly regulated as the elaborate layers of government look after one another very well. Air traffic controllers have struck 34 times in 7 years. There are more police assigned to keeping Uber shut than the channel tunnel open. Even dental hygienists are outlawed, lest they unfairly compete with dentists. Even the media is rotten. Le Monde collects 19 centimes in state subsidies for every copy sold. Journalists who hold the prized press card get a special tax rebate.France gets much mileage out of its tenuous connection with the famous revolution. But since the Bastille was stormed there have been four failed republics and a fifth one on the verge of collapse. Not forgetting two empires, a restoration, and thousands of decapitations. Paxman, either through ignorance or simply a desire to attract attention to himself, may write off the ability to communicate with 275 million people across five continents as useless, and the French role in the world as irrelevant, but this is mere philistinism. (All kinds of interesting people speak French including The Queen, Mick Jagger, Julia Robert-Dreyfus and Miss Piggy.)It is tragic that there is not the slightest evidence that the French themselves have a clue what to do to extract themselves from their malaise. With the country spectacularly failing, the citizens are again taking to the streets - but they are demanding more state, less reform, and higher walls against the rest of the world. However misguided their demands, at least this is all being elegantly expressed, even if it is in a language that confounds Jeremy Paxman.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData