"L'Affaire Bettencourt" : a (typically) French story
Some notions, familiar to Anglo-Saxons are very foreign to the French. Read this story. Mr.Woerth. is a minister of the French Government in charge of the Budget and the Tax Administration. In this responsibility, he oversees all tax enquiries. He is also the treasurer of UMP, the biggest French political (majority) party. In this responsibility, he collects money from his very rich friends for his party. His wife, Mrs.Woerth. is a banker. Her (only) client is Mrs.Bettencourt. the third richest French taxpayer (who owns L'Oréal) ; Mrs.Woerth manages her investments. It turns out that, in the past few years, Mrs.Bettencourt, who is 88, made gifts to a photographer friend for a total amount of more than one billion dollars! Her daughter took the case to court on the ground that the photographer took advantage of her age to take her money. It is revealed that the butler of Mrs.Bettencourt had taped her conversations for a couple of years : it shows that there is no doubt that there was a case of tax fraud for 100 million Euros or more ; the boss of Mrs.Woerth knows that. Questions (from reporters or members of the parliament) to Mr.Woerth : "do you think there was a conflict of interest between your function as a Minister of Budget and your function as a treasurer of UMP ?" Answer: "I do not see what you are talking about". Question to Mrs.Woerth. "do you think that there was a conflict of interest between being the wife of the Minister of Budget and the financial advisor of a tax cheater ?". Answer : "now that you tell me that, I think there could have been something like that, but it did not cross my mind before". Conclusion : the concept of "conflict of interest" is un-French! Now let's move to another Anglo-Saxon notion. The same week, a magazine revealed that another member of the Government, M.Blanc, had smoked, over a period of a year or so, a 12,000 Euros worth of cigars, paid by the taxpayer. Another one had obtained a building permit for a surface twice bigger than allowed by urban regulation, another one had rented a private plane for more than 116 000 Euros for a trip from the Caribbean Islands when he could have traveled on a regular flight, another one had loaned to her family her official apartment that she did not use. A former minister of the same government who had lost her job last year had to reveal that she was paid (in addition to a substantial retirement pension) almost 10,000 Euros per month "to write a report" (which still has to be written…). This did not take place in a banana republic, but in Paris, France. In France, it is considered normal to enjoys little perks when you are in power or close to it. All these people are sincerely shocked if you tell them they are dishonest : for them, they did not accept any bribe, they just enjoyed the normal benefits of power. It is said that, since he was elected to public offices in the early 1960s, former President Chirac never paid a cent for his and his family's personal expenses (housing, food, travel). Conclusion : the concept of "Chinese Wall" between what you do for yourself and what you do for others as an elected official is un-french too! One can see how far this country is from a real democracy ; needless to say the Left behaved exactly the same way, as illustrated under the reign of Mitterrand. (Sources : the whole press, last week of June 2010)
Back to politics, to money
The quintessential Frenchman. If you want to understand the French and their values and explain their often bizarre behavior (by American standards), you can go and spend forty years in France (that's what my wife did). But if you hesitate and consider that marrying a Frenchman can be too complicated a method, you can also just look at their president and listen to what he says and everything will become clear. One year only after he was elected president, France fell out with Germany (our best friend a year ago), with Britain (nothing new since 1066), with Spain, Portugal and Italy (interestingly, he wanted to build, and of course, to lead an alliance of Southern European countries against Germany) not to mention the other 22 European countries (too small to be considered), etc. First lesson : the French do not mind being alone against everyone else : it reinforces them in the feeling that they must be right. Before being elected, he said he would "réenchanter le rêve" ("re-enchant the dream") and : renegotiate the European Treaty (already signed by all the other countries), force the other countries to "introduce economic growth in their policy" (?), balance the State accounts, and make other European countries come closer to "the French social model", etc… After 10 months, he was was asked, in a press conference "You said you would balance the accounts and nothing can be seen in that direction" and he answered "I said I would balance the account and as soon as I was elected, I decided they would. Any other questions?". Second lesson : for the French a general idea is always better that a a particular fact : reality is boring. In his life, he has never set foot in a company (except for cocktail parties) and he has been a public servant since age 18 : he lectures entrepreneurs about what they should do and should not do. He traveled very little and in China, where he never went before, he offered the Chinese government the help of the French government to overcome any problem they might encounter. Third lesson : for a Frenchman, nothing is out of reach, intellectually speaking. Finally (this column is too small to accommodate more than four lessons), he has five children from three different women, was never married to any of them and he spent the first year of his mandate painfully making accepted a new legislation about gay marriage and adoption. Fourth lesson : for a Frenchman, there is nothing common between his public opinions and his private life. In addition to that (but it might be in some of my next lessons : remember, the French love to give lessons), I might consider other aspects of this strange human phenomenon (François Hollande and maybe his compatriots) : he is very bright, quite funny (he is famous for his jokes) and, as the the leader of the Socialist party, proved very skillful in handling its contradictions and making it win. Strange man (strange people?). (May 2013). More about French politics.
Being Sick in France : a chauvinistic anecdote ...
My son lives in Canada. Last week as he and his family were touring in France, their 4-month old baby became ill in the morning, two days before New Year's Eve. They called a doctor who gave them an appointment at 3 pm the same day. He examined the baby for at least 20 minutes, diagnosed a bronchiolitis, prescribed drugs and a few physical therapy sessions. He charged 27 Euros and did not bother about the fact that the parents were not part of the French Health system. The same day at 7 pm the physical therapist came HOME for the first session and charged 20 Euros for it. Two days later, in the morning, the physical therapist observed that the baby was developing an earache. They made an appointment with the doctor at 5:30 pm and, as he thought it would be safer to have the baby examined in a hospital, the baby was admitted the same day at 6:30 and examined by a doctor a half hour later. After all the necessary tests had been performed, a prescription written, the hospital apologized : as the parents were not members of the French system, a bill had to be sent later. Its amount is not known yet but I would be very surprised it it was above 20 or 30 Euros.
No arrogant Medical Secretary between you and the doctor, like in the US : you talk to the doc. You do not have to bring the sick baby to a hospital and wait for hours before you see a doctor, like in Canada : if you say it is urgent, you call the doctor and get an appointment the same day.
No ridiculous amount charged, like in the US. No obscene question about your health coverage : you need a doctor, not a lawyer. Sometimes, our North-American friends look down at us : inefficient ? bureaucratic ? socialists ? Question : between the US, Canada and France, what is the best country in which to be sick ? It is already not fun to be ill : at least the French society makes it as bearable as possible... (January 2011). - More about healthcare.
The French football team : a good image of today's France ? The national team got its selection to the World Cup thanks to a goal scored with the hand of Thierry Henry : millions of people saw it on TV (but not the referee…). Once in South Africa they scored 0-0 with Uruguay and lost 0-2 to Mexico : in both games they played a college-level game. When their coach talked to them like coaches generally do, one player, Nicolas Anelka, answered with such a vulgar and horrible insult that he was expelled from the team and sent back to France. The next day, the team went on strike, refused the training session and forced the coach to the humiliation of reading to the press their protest against Anelka's sanction. The day after that, they played their last game against South Africa and, logically, lost by 1-2 after having played a high-school-level game. They left South Africa humiliated and ridiculed.
The facts : several of these players are among the best players in the world. They are very much in demand in European clubs (Anelka was recently transferred for Euro 30 million). Each of them makes a fortune in his club.
For me, they give a perfect image of the country :
- disunity : the team is an ethnic mix but everybody hates everyone else, absolutely no team spirit, no pride, no patriotism
- selfishness : players are focused on their own problems, the do not care about others (sponsors, viewers, …)
- only violence counts : strikes and demonstrations are so normal in everyday life that they do not consider absurd that a national team goes on strike two days before its (last) game
- need for a king : everybody expects the President of France to fix that.
My conclusion : when people say that France did not succeed in integrating its immigrants from Maghreb or Africa, they are wrong. The football team proves it : although a majority of them are immigrants or sons of immigrants, they are just as stupid as grass-roots French people (June 2010).
More on French attitudes and irksome France.
Chief of IMF in jail : what the French do not understand ...
The arrest in New-York (May 14, 2011) of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for alleged rape of a maid of the hotel where he was staying has put France in a state of shock. First because he was considered, one year before presidential elections, as the only leader of the Socialist Party who could beat President Sarkozy, then because he is accused of what would be, if proved true, an unforgivable crime but also because some aspects of US police and justice are so different between the two countries. First, the French do not believe people's word as much as Americans do and it is not big deal to lie (remember another politician, Bernard Tapie, who had said he was somewhere one day when it had been proved he was somewhere else, saying in court "I lied but it was in good faith") : therefore between what the maid said and what he said, both would be considered equally irrelevant, in terms of proof. Second, the French have a very respectful attitude regarding powerful people : you do not treat a big leader like a petty drug dealer (in La Santé, the Paris jailhouse, there is a wing called the "Quartier VIP" where the rich and the famous are jailed together, with much better living conditions). Third because Americans have the accusatory procedure in which, at the beginning, you see only the prosecutor and the charges against the defendant ; the concept of "presomption d'innocence" forbids to humiliate a suspect. For this reason, it would be against French law to take the picture of someone hand-cuffed at this stage of the case : it would be an unacceptable humiliation. Finally, the accepted level of sexual misbehavior is higher in France. In a previous incident of probably the same kind he had with a young French journalist, the victim's mother discouraged her from taking him to court, saying : "he did not actually rape you", because for the French (not for the French law but for Mainstreet France) there is no rape when there is no penetration and no sperm. In this incredible case, which is just beginning, the French are appalled, not supportive at all of the suspect, but they feel very uncomfortable with the way the case is treated by US police and US courts. It is a breach of the defendant's privacy! For the French, the perp walk is scandalous. (May 2011) - More about sex.