Being French

The French will go to the polls next Sunday to vote on Europe. Europe will probably lose. The EU has always been an elite project. Despite support from the leading opinion on left and right, it now looks like a majority of the French people won’t be buying into the proposed EU Constitution. Although the U.S. has long supported the idea of European integration and it would be good for the world (and our) economy, the referendum itself is not a direct concern of ours. The instrumental use of anti-Americanism is.

One of the big arguments of the pro-EU crowd is that an integrated Europe can better stand up to the U.S. on the world stage. Their opponents argue that a "no" vote helps ensure that what they quaintly call Anglo-American capitalism doesn't come to dominate the old continent. This allows a guy with an anti-American mindset to vote in either direction and still be anti-American. It goes to show how merely rhetorical the whole concept has become.

What are they afraid of? You could answer "George Bush" but you would be wrong. Nobody accuses President Bush of thinking up the EU (Anglo-American or otherwise) and anyway this discomfort with the U.S. goes back much farther, centuries in fact. The French liked Ben Franklin, but the intellectual classes have been disappointed with us since their own revolution failed to produce satisfactory results. More recently remember that the French foreign minister coined the term "hyperpower" during the Clinton administration. I think the fear has more to do with the dynamism of American society and is somewhat related to the way American were uneasy about the Japanese in the 1980s and/or are becoming uneasy with China's phenomenal rise.

Even a friendly neighbor who is active and productive is potentially a competitor and in order to compete with them you might need to change your behavior in ways you might not want.

America is the most productive country is the world. Some of this comes from our use of technologies and capital goods, but some is that we just work more. According to the "Economist" the typical American puts in 1,820 hours a year, while his French counterpart clocks up a mere 1,467 hours. They put in five or six fewer weeks per year, and three fewer hours per working week. Work (it seems) is viewed with somewhat less enthusiasm in France than in the U.S.

On top of that the U.S. unemployment rate is much lower, meaning Americans work more and more Americans work.

Maybe we should work less, but we don't. Even when given the option we don't, and well-paid Americans tend to log more hours than poorly paid ones. Why should the French care if we work ourselves to death? The same reason we worry if the Japanese work themselves to death. Work, despite what generations of layabouts losers think, is related to outcomes and wealth. Americans putting in more hours means they are getting a bigger share of the world pie.

The pie is growing. The French slice is not getting smaller, mind you, and France remains a green and pleasant place to live, but their relative share is declining. This galls them. In many ways, France is living off accumulated capital instead of creating the future. This has been the French experience since they helped us win our independence, a decision that some may now lament. In 1783, when the U.S. was a back woods outpost of just over three million, France was the most splendid country in Europe. Since then it has been sliding down a slippery slope.

From the end of World War II until the mid 1980s, they could console themselves in that they were at least catching up. But now even these fond hopes in ashes lay. GDP per capita in France nearly broke 80% of the U.S. level at its high water mark, but recent Gallic innovations like a shorter work week and excessive government regulation helped pound it back into the seventies.

So what happens now? The EU is France's chance to be a contender, if only as part of an EU Leviathan. The French are a great people, even when they annoy us. They should behave that way now (i.e great, not annoying). That they might reject this opportunity is surprising. Maybe we can let them join NAFTA or CAFTA in a couple of years if this doesn't work out.

Posted by Jack at May 23, 2005 4:31 PM | TrackBack (1)