|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.
- 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
: 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,
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 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
- 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
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.
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"
- 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
Its field of responsibility is therefore enormous and obviously,
it generates a lot of taxes and a
- 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
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
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.
|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
- 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).
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
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"
- in terms of available income,
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
- 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.
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
- 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.
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
: 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
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
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
- 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
- Read my personal opinion
- 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
- 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...
- 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
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
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.
- 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.
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
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....
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
the image of the USA(#4), irksome France (#5), more
intercultural (#6) and favorite US
artists(#8), more values (#9), American
writers in Paris, 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
More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming
events, testimonials, etc..)
or separately, Harriet and Philippe speak
about Intercultural Differences
here for information.
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