Intercultural differences : what the French like the best! (#7)
Some typical French values   The French and the State
  • Abstraction : writes Salvador de Madariaga : " The collective life of the Frenchman is controlled by this fact : the Frenchman regulates his conduct and judges that of others by means of intellectual standards " (the Englishman focuses on action, the Spaniard on soul, the Frenchman on thought). Everyone knows jokes such as "It is not good : it is consistent with the facts but not with the theory : let's change the facts..." etc... This is why the French are notoriously good in mathematics, one of the few domains where they can challenge the USA. Two other examples illustrate it. The French have immediately adopted with enthousiasm Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Why ? They love the global consistency of the theory, the general nature of the concepts, the (apparent) logic of the systems. This is why no French politician of the Center Left (now in power and practically not that far from US Democrats) would dare say "I am not a Marxist" : he would lose all his votes. This is also why in France 90% of people suffering autism are still treated by psychoanalists with Freudian methods, with no result. Read more.

  • Anti-communautarism : France sees as morally unacceptable the maintenance of separate communities (Jewish, Arab, Polish, Greek). This policy, called " communautarism ", is very unpopular and largely rejected. In France, no group can declare religious freedom or respect of religious traditions as means for maintaining a lifestyle, schooling or social customs that would be visibly different than that of the majority. Therefore, many groups, such as the Amish, which are perfectly natural in the U.S., would be considered a separatist group in France. For Americans, who believe each group should maintain and even accentuate its differences, the French attitude represents a lack of democracy. The French believe, on the contrary, that forming a common nation and a common culture comes from a desire to be different from one's origins and to strive for the higher goal of "melting " into one nation with the same schools, the same language, and that all people are French (in France minorities do not describe themselves as African-French, Chinese-French, etc.). This is why the proportion of immigrants who get French nationality is among the highest in the world (read more about naturalization). This is also why it is forbidden by law to collect any data relative to race, religion, sexual orientation, etc... For example in a French cemetery, you rarely find a Jewish or Muslim quarter : we're all equal (especially when dead...). Along with the French vision of religious freedom, this is the reason for the law on the Islamic veil : no ostensible signs of religious differences in the public schools. See a few examples of unacceptable provocations, in the name of religious freedom. Another example : in June 2008 a court in Northern France voided a marriage on the grounds that the bride had hidden to her would-be husband that she was not a virgin. The (Muslim) husband pleaded that, the marriage being a contract, the law on contracts should be applied : if a contractor hides "a substantial part " about the nature of the contract, it is void and has never existed. It was not a divorce but an nullification. The entire country was horrified (73% "very shocked") and the Minister of Justice Rachida Dati appealed the decision. For a large majority of the French, a minority of obtuse religious fanatics must not set its own rules under the protection of the law, which must be the same for all. And, in the name of "laicité" (secularism), religious beliefs (or superstitions) must not found a court decision. This vision is very different from American and British visions ; see comparative figures : French Muslims feel more French (42%) than British Muslims feel British (7% only) and a comparative European study.

  • Authority : A Top-Down country : the French value authority and the whole French society is built on a Top-Down model : an omnipresent and regal state, the importance of political life as compared to social life, corporate life patterns often similar to army patterns, etc.. In any situation, the French think they need a King!

    • An example of the division of the French over Authority vs. Responsibility is the policy for Public Housing. In France, there is a law that requires cities to offer 20% of public housing to their citizens. If they don't, they must pay each year a penalty of Euros 153 per missing dwelling unit to the State, to fund public housing elsewhere. Rich cities prefer to pay the penalty rather than build public housing on their very expensive land (for instance the affluent suburb of Neuilly : 2,9 % vs a national average of around 25% of public housing). For the Right, this is an intelligent system : local authorities are free and know the cost of their decision. For the Left, this is a shame and a scandalous privilege (one more) for the wealthiest who can escape their duty of solidarity, just because they can afford it : it would be fairer to use legal means to force the cities to build a certain number of public housing units. The same situation occurs with companies who can either hire a quota of handicapped people or pay a penalty for each reserved job not occupied. The Right and the Left are in opposition over this for the same reasons. Those examples (and many others) illustrate that many people in France prefer to rely on the State than on the market.
    • In a top-down society, being the boss (or the king) is not always fun and you must be ready to be treated by your employees (or by your fellow-citizens) like parents are treated by their children if their education is too strict. In political life, citizens tend to answer the president " you are talking about the deficit of the budget : it's your problem, not ours ". In transport companies, strikers might say to the government (over the heads of their bosses) " Just satisfy our demands : it is YOUR fault if millions of people have to walk to their work when we're on strike ". Read how I got a bad grade at Columbia University with a typical French answer.
    • Citizens are children ! In 1986, after the disaster in Tchernobyl, a dangerous radioactive cloud passed above all of Europe. The French were afraid and asked the King. Read what happened.
    • Another example : when they talk about national policy or local life, the French always say "they..." and never say "we...."
  • More to come...
 

This (famous) painting represents Emperor Napoleon on his throne (1806), painted by Ingres.

It gives a pretty good idea of the image the French have of their State and what they are proud of...

 

  • Contrary to the Americans, the French love the State. The history of France is the history of the building of the state. Being a civil servant is an esteemed position. The State is like the medieval lord : both feared and protective. When something goes wrong, the first move is to ask the State to react and all strikers demand the state to "do something". Until 2004, there was still a Commissariat Général du Plan (National Planning Agency), when its functions had been reduced to nothing. The French expect protection and equality from the state. According to a poll (CEVIPOF, 2005), to the question : "What do you expect from the State?" the answers are : "equal opportunity : France 57% (USA 83%", "equal distribution of wealth : France 40% (USA 15%). More about equality.

  • The State must be involved. In the USA, general interest is the sum of individual interests ; in France, there is a general interest above all individual interests and it is the responsibility of the state to identify and defend it. A few years ago, Socialist Prime Minister Jospin was asked what he would to to prevent a big company from laying-off several hundred workers ; his answer " The State cannot do everything" caused a huge scandal and is considered one the major reasons for his unexpected defeat in the 2002 presidential election. The State is expected to implement an "industrial policy" : read a fascinating fable : "What if ... Bill Gates had been French" and read my editorial about the 2007 US sub-prime disaster.

  • Almost 30% of the French work for the "public sector" (state and local authorities, hospitals, schools, state-owned companies and utilities etc.). One French family out of five lives in public housing. Employees of state-owned utilities enjoy enormous advantages over employees of public firms, for instance for retirement. More about the "fonctionnaires" (civil servants).

  • The French consider that it is the government's responsibility to ensure good social and economic conditions and the State is almost always involved in labor disputes and strikes. Unlike Americans, most French people consider the State a protection against the hazards of life and not a burden. It is its duty to protect the "weak" (for example : the tenant) against the "strong" (the owner) : read about renting. Its field of responsibility is therefore enormous and obviously, it generates a lot of taxes and a heavy bureaucracy.

  • The French consider that many sectors should not be open to free competition and should remain in the hands of (or regulated by) the State :

  • In France, the three most prestigious "grandes écoles" offer curriculums leading to careers as civil servants : Ecole Normale Supérieure (for the highest level of University professors), Ecole Polytechnique (for top levels of of technical responsibilities and management of state-owned firms) and Ecole Nationale d'Administration (for highest levels in the state administration and judiciary bodies). The best and brightest students try to enter one of these schools (which are small : less than 400 students a year in the largest).

  • The French are not shocked by the regal aspects of their republic :

    • King Louis 14 ("the Sun King" asserted "The State is me"
    • Most French Presidents like to leave their mark with a monument: the late President Mitterrand was responsible for most of the "Grands Projets": Le Grand Louvre, the Opéra Bastille, la Grande Bibliothèque; under President Giscard d'Estaing, the former Orsay train station was transformed into the Musée d'Orsay ; the late President Georges Pompidou, who was a lover of modern art, had Beaubourg (the Centre Pompidou) constructed, and Jacques Chirac had the Musée du Quai Branly (opened 2006). More in Historical Paris.
    • The Presidential Hunting Parties ("chasses présidentielles") are one of the French regal traditions. In the wonderful setting of the most spectacular French castles (Chambord or Rambouillet), hunting parties (credit)
      are organized for selected guests. Hundreds of pheasants and boars are slaughtered. For French businessmen and foreign leaders, these parties are great opportunities to network and it is extremely prestigious to be invited. It is very discrete : no name, no picture is the rule. It is such a sensitive field that "Head of Presidential Hunting Parties" is an official title, only for someone very close to the head of State (one of them, François de Grossouvre, killed himself in the Elysée Palace in 1994!). In the midst of huge political controversies about the privileges of the ruling class, Sarkozy announced in June 2010 that he would put an end to these parties. Nobody was impressed : his predecessor Chirac had already promised it ten years ago, and had not.
  • Criticism is the core of French education and children are seldom praised (in school, teachers read grades and negative comments to the whole class) and the French are used to being criticized and reacting to criticism. Criticizing is associated with intelligence as opposed to credulity and naivety. For Americans, less so and this is why they react so differently to criticism (read more about it).
  • Fraternity is understood more as a social and collective responsibility than an individual duty. This is consistent with the power of the State, the social agreement that the State is in charge of ensuring a minimum level of fraternity among the citizens and the fact that donations in France are at least seven times smaller than in the USA (but taxes are higher...). More about charities in France.
  • Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité is the motto of France: Article 1 of the French Constitution stipulates " La France est une république indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale " which means " France is a republic (but sometimes, the president thinks he is a king) indivisible (this is why it is so difficult to make any regional reforms : see Corsica), secular (read about the Islamic veil), democratic (no question) and social (that is why a humorist once said that France is the only country which succeeded in building a communist society) ".
  • The French value "égalité" above everything. As Chateaubriand wrote "The French have a passion for equality, not for liberty" :
    • a classical image is the story of an American and a Frenchman watching someone driving a Rolls-Royce : the first one wishing he could drive such a car when the latter wants this too-lucky fellow to be forced to drive a smaller car. Read a wonderful anecdote about it.
    • Someone said that the French concept of equality is to chop off any head that stands out in a crowd! As an image (very exagerated!), one could say that Americans value equality on the departure line when the French value it on the arrival line !
    • Among many, the examples of "collège unique" or "carte scolaire" show that in schools, the French value (formal) equality more than anything else : you cannot put in different classes children who speak French and children who don't, you cannot send your kid to a better high school far from where you live, etc...
    • For the same reason, collecting or using ethnic statistics is forbidden by French law
    • Most French people are against the idea of paying a variable part on salary and any form of bonus is generally considered an offense to equality. Many people think that, whatever the performance, everyone in the same position should get the same salary.
    • In the name of "égalité", there is no selection to go to college : The President of the university recently mentioned in an article the drop-out rate at the Sorbonne : 73% the first year, 47% the second year, 42% the third year. This is the price of the myth of "No selection"
    • All studies confirm the fact that in France income inequality is smaller than, anywhere else and has progressed less in the past years. For instance, according to OECD, the 1% richest received in 2012 8.5% of total income before tax (USA : 20%) from 8.3% in 1981 (USA : 8%). in terms of available income (after taxes and social transfers), some countries are "more unequal" (USA) than others (Sweden) and inequality has progressed everywhere over the past 25 years except in France : see detailed figures . As an example of the French interest for the concept of inequality, respected economists, like Thomas Piketty, consider inequality in individual income as the most important exconomic problem of our societies.
    • back to France after the Revolution, French writer Chateaubriand noted "the French have a passion for equality, not for liberty" : for the French, ensuring equality is the role of the State.
  DID YOU KNOW THAT....This love of the French for the State has a deep historical background : the word "colbertisme" means industrial policy driven by the state and comes from the name of the prime minister of Louis XIV the Sun King, Jean Baptiste Colbert. A classical joke is to say that France is the only successful communist country.
 
  • The French are proud of many state-run or state-driven technical achievements and the state is efficient for such major projects : the fast train program (TGV), the nuclear electricity program, minitel project, Ariane, Airbus,... They are also very attached to their Social Security system, which is NOT socialized medicine but where it is considered the responsibility of the state to keep it going. Read my column "Socialized medicine : give me a break".

  • Bonapartisme (from Napoleon Bonaparte) is the name of a largely shared opinion according to which whenever things go wrong, only the State can fix it... The so-called "Gaullist" party is the modern form of it.

  • National unity AGAINST the state : the only case in which the French feel strongly about fraternity (for instance, blinking their headlights to warn you that there are cops ahead and you should slow down).

  • The state has a word to say in many decisions in which it would not be involved in other countries : for instance, the period where bargain prices are legal ("les soldes") are decided by the "préfet" (i.e. the State). The reason is the belief that unregulated competition would lead some competitors to ruin and that the role of the state is to protect the citizen including against himself. It is absurd but it is a strong common value in France ! Most of the French myths are linked to the role of the State. Read why the States decides about the vacations of your baker and more examples.

  •  The French love the state more than any other country but they are not alone. In Europe, the image of the State and the idea that it must be active to counterbalance the power of the market is a shared value : see a fascinating chart about it and read about the French "exception culturelle".

  • Executive Life : an example of a VERY French disaster...The story : in 1993, a French state-owned bank, Crédit Lyonnais, had the (very good) idea of buying a bankrupt California insurance company whose junk-bonds portfolio looked promising. .
  • At this time, according to California regulations, banks were not allowed to buy an insurance company (it would be perfectly legal now) so Credit Lyonnais designed a structure by which another non-banking company would buy it on its behalf. This is a very frequent, if not legal, way to do ("portage" i.e. fronting). Everything went all right and the junk-bond porfolio turned out to be a goldmine. The purchasers, who included French billionnaire François Pinault, were delighted and nobody lost any money on it. A good (borderline) business story.

  • What happened next ?
    1. In 1999 a French businessman, jealous of Pinault, revealed the story and provided a Californian prosecutor with evidence of the illegal "portage".
    2. Credit Lyonnais did not take it seriously and thought that a phone call from the President of France to Bill Clinton would stop the whole thing.
    3. The judge offered a fine and a settlement for a few tens of millions of dollars but the French parties involved (the State, the Bank, Pinault, etc) did not want to hear that and did not negotiate
    4. Years later (September 2003), it became very serious and the French Ministry of Finance signed a settlement for $ 585 million but since it did not include Pinault, they denied it shortly afterward
    5. The whole story has become an excellent opportunity for the Californian prosecutor (who wants a political careeer), it is the deal of the century for US lawyers, a serious threat to the US banking license of Crédit Lyonnais ; the whole story will cost a fortune (more than one billions $) to the French taxpayer

  • Conclusions on these various points :
    1. The French manage to hate each other much more than they hate the rest of the world
    2. The French believe in the power of kings on everything
    3. The French are unable to agree among themselves (see 1) and do not at all understand the US judicial system (read about the French judicial system)
    4. If you are a friend of the king of France, he will stand for you whatever the cost : Pinault is a friend of Chirac
    5. In business, the French are as good (or better) than anyone else but their management is lousy and in France, the taxpayer doesn't count

  • Read my personal opinion about it.

  • Liberty : d'Iribarne gives a very interesting compared definition of liberty ; roughly, it goes like that :

    • for anglo-saxons (USA and UK, with Locke), liberty is linked to property and is associated to being protected by the law against any intrusion into the man's rights
    • for the Germans (Kant), the free man is the one who, inside a community, is involved in collective decisions and accepts to be submitted to them
    • for the French, a free man is the one who detains the rights which, previously, were the privilege of nobility : liberty is to become noble...
  • Lying is no big deal in France, and does not raise the same moral reprobation as in the US. In political life, if you are not too openly caught, it is considered an unfortunate aspect of the job. Even in court, you can make it funny, as a former member of a Socialist government in the 1990s, Bernard Tapie, who had said in court that he was somewhere one day when it was established that he was somewhere else : "I lied but it was in good faith". Read the funny story of Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, lying naively in front of TV cameras.

  • Pleasure is not at all associated with guilt. If you're having fun, good for you, don't feel bad about it. And nor is it associated with labor and a learning effort. If you want to improve your sex life don't sign up for a course and take notes : change your boyfriend/girlfriend. This is why food is so important : no guilt about enjoying it and no boring recipes and courses ; for the French it is simply a pleasure. Forget recipes, boring "foodies", etc... That's why the French do not understand the question when an American waiter asks "Are you still working on it?" instead of "Are you enjoying it?" or (better) leaving you alone... More about French attitudes, food and French "Art de Vivre" and reading about Harriet's book "Joie de Vivre"...

  • Privacy : the French do not like to mix professional and personal life and what may appear normal in American corporate life may be felt as an untolerable intrusion in privacy; Michael Johnson gives an excellent example of an American boss goofing about it ! The legislation on protection of privacy is very strict ; examples :

    • each person has the right to forbid the diffusion of his/her image, even taken in a public place, in a newspaper or on TV, any file concerning any personal data must be declared to a specific regulatory body (Commission Nationale Informatique et Liberté - CNIL), etc...
    • your boss can be prosecuted if he reads your emails if you filed them in a file called "confidential" or if the object is labeled "confidential"
    • unless ordered by a judge, a taped conversation or a film cannot be admitted as a legally acceptable proof in court
    • etc....

    The French do not like questions about private matters and will not let you visit their house (unless you've known them for ten years). CNIL's regulation is stricter than most Western regulations (for instance, in 2005, CNIL opposed the application in France of some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley law (whistle-blowing) on the ground that it would generate data files which would not be accessible to the persons involved. A very strict regulation ("droit à l'image") protects the right for everybody to keep total control of his/her image. In the recent past, several issues (among others) have been rather controversial :

    • itemized phone bills (" why should my spouse know who I call ? ")
    • when French IMF chief was arrested under charge of sexual assault and photographed hand-cuffed, the French were very shocked (see my column)
    • external electricity meters (" why should my neighbor know how much electricity I use ? ")
    • genetic paternity tests are illegal, unless requested by a court
    • what is more private that your name ? Do not be surprised if the French do not give their name as spontaneously as Americans : for them, it is not being rude, it is keeping one's privacy.
    • Do you konw that any computer file containing "personal data" must be declared to an administrative body ? Read more about it.
  • See a comparative poll and some examples of curious (for Americans) French behavior and see a poll illustrating that free enterprise and market economy are NOT among French values !

To more on typical French values ....

  Taxes in France...
  • France has one of the highest level of taxes in Europe (with Sweden : see numbers) particularly on high salaries, approximately 50% higher than in the States.

  • Key reason : tthe reason is that the State and other public authorities provide for free services that are charged for or covered by private insurance in other countries (education, unemployment). It also provides other services which are totally private or charitable (like cultural or social policies) in other countries. This is why the French give very little to charity, compared to the USA. Contrary to what most Americans think, except for the richest, you can get through taxes in France what you cannot afford in the USA : see an example.

  • The main tax is the TVA "taxe à la valeur ajoutée" (value added tax) which is 19,6% on most expenses (with a reduced rate for food, books and essential goods at 5,5%) ; all prices in France are indicated tax included. It weighs on every product sold in France but, contrary to a sales tax, at each step of the economic circuit the economic agent collects it on its sales but gets reimbursed of it on what it purchased. It is therefore neutral, however, long or short, the manufacturing and delivering circuit). It is the most productive tax (45% of total taxes) and it is less painful than any other tax. It was invented by a Frenchman, Maurice Lauré, in 1954. It is now established in all the countries of the European Union and in many countries worldwide (but not in the USA). In 2008 it represented 129,9 b Euros.

  • The CSG (Contribution Sociale Généralisée) is levied on all forms of income (salary, pension, dividends, etc...) to contribute to the financing of the different forms of social transfers (health, invalidity,etc...). A part of it (but only a part) is deductible from the income tax. In 2008, it represented 83,2 b Euros.

  • The income tax comes next ; it is paid only by people above a certain income and, given large tax deductions for children, only 55% of the population pays income tax ; currently, the maximum marginal rate for it is 40 %. France is the only country in Europe where income tax is not automatically withheld from the paycheck : you pay in 2008 on your income of 2007. In 2008, it represented 50,6 b Euros.

  • Local taxes : land and property owners pay a "taxe foncière" (property tax) and tenants pay a "taxe d'habitation". In Paris, where local taxes are not particularly high, see example of the numbers. In 2008 Taxe Foncière represented 36,2 b Euros.

  • There is also an "impôt sur la fortune" ISF (literally tax on fortune) if your assets are over 1.3 million Euros (0,3 to 3% tax rate), which comes very fast if you own your apartment in Paris... (thousands of millionnaires have emigrated to escape it). In 2008, it represented less than 3 b Euros.

  • Taxes levied on companies are much higher in France than in any other country : they include not only corporate taxes (impot sur les sociétés) but a large number of dedicated social transfers actually paid by companies (to finance State policies in the fields of unemployment, public transport, physically disabled, public housing, etc..). This is why "travail au noir" (undeclared work) is relatively important (above 5%) : see the anatomy of a paycheck and comparative European figures on "travail au noir". In 2008, the Impot sur les Sociétés represented 49,3 b Euros.

  • European taxes do not exist (yet!) but each country contributes to the European budget, which is now very big (agricultural policy, regional policy,...)

  • There are more and more specific taxes to encourage energy efficiency (for instance on cars) and to finance the protection of environnement (for instance a few cents on each mobile phone). Read more about it.

  • Contrary to what most Americans think, foreign aid is much higher in France (and in Europe) than in the USA.

  • Some funny taxes ! France has hundreds of taxes which bring little money but make the life of companys more difficult. In 2014, a report by the Inspection Generale des Finances had listed 192 taxes bringing less than m. 150 Euros each. Only three or four will be suppressed in the 2015 budget : among them the 5 Euros/year tax on pinball machines (in bars), which costs more than it collects, the « tax on sidewalks » (bringing m. 0.6 Euros for the whole country) and the « solidarity tax on oleaginous seeds ».

For details on French taxes, visit the (excellent) site of the Ministry of Finance.

 DID YOU KNOW THAT ? According to official reports, in 2012, 8,010 French taxpayers paid in State taxes more than 100% of their income, mostly due to the impact of the ISF (see above). No wonder the same year, thousands of French taxpayers left the country for tax reasons....

IN A NUTSHELL... : taxes have reached a point where people are really upset about them and the French do not understand why the Americans complain about the taxes they pay, considering they have such a low level of taxation!

About US taxes....

  • Tax forms : It is fair to say that, although they pay much more taxes, the French are clearly superior to Americans when it comes to administrative forms in general and tax forms in particular ! No need for a lawyer or an accountant (very few people need help, whatever their situation and their income is) : anybody above IQ 90 can do it. When the French see Form 1040 and the booklet of instruction, they understand that it was designed only to give business to the handful of people who can understand it....

  • Talking about taxes .... Do you know the US is the only country in the world (with Russia) which officially double-taxes its citizens if they live outside the country ? All countries have tax treaties to avoid this but not the US. This is true for people as well as for companies : first they have to pay taxes in the country where they live and work, then they have to pay taxes in the US too. There is a partial exclusion and people (and companies) pay only taxes on what exceeds a certain level (today around $95,000 for people) but the IRS is presently very seriously considering voiding this exclusion and snooping on everybody abroad. Needless to say that American expatriates are going nuts… The reason for this American specificity ? Contrary to all other countries, the USA being very insular (try my quiz), do not support their expatriates. Instead of being considered ambassadors of US soft-power (read the "Unknown Ambassadors"), they are considered by many of their fellow-citizens as traitors who decided to leave their country for a foreign land, a sort of un-American behavior…. It was only in 1976, after serious battles with the Congress that expatriates could vote in US elections (thanks to AARO) and now they fear they'll have to pay their taxes twice… Significantly the number of Americans who renounce their citizenship, which was next to zero, is now significant. See my editorial about it.

To related pages : intercultural (#1), more intercultural (#2), intercultural management(#3) and the image of the USA(#4), irksome France (#5), more intercultural (#6) and favorite US artists(#8), more values (#9), American writers in Paris, America and the world (#10), etc...

 

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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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