A French Mirror

American politicians have begun to bemoan its merely vestigial presence in America, but in France a sense of civic solidarity -- the 'sens civique' -- though weakened by market pressures, flourishes still. It is among the legacies that France is counting on as it prepares for the twenty-first century

FRANCE makes a good touchstone for America's future policies. The political system of the French republic is not incomparably different from ours. Recently France has been governed by politicians who, no matter what they have called themselves, have been basically careful and rather traditional. France has fought two disastrous postcolonial wars, in Vietnam and in Algeria, which gained it nothing but a vast number of new immigrants whom it is now trying to absorb in the teeth of increasing local hostility and racism. But France's view of what national politics will be about in the years ahead seems about as far removed from ours as is possible between two Western nations.
I spent much of last spring in France, talking to a variety of people whose jobs made them experts in one field or another. Many of them were professionally involved in the presidential campaign, a few of them to the point where the future of their jobs depended on its outcome. Yet they were to a surprising degree detached from the personalities and politics of the main candidates, Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin, Edouard Balladur, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Robert Hue.

Most of them were fonctionnaires at the highest level of civil service, men and women who actually make policy. This is a class of people of whom the United States has very few. Their views of the future had a considerable unity, which made it somewhat pointless after a meeting to wonder if the views aired had been leftist, centrist, or rightist. They were also blessedly free of political rhetoric. Hubert Astier, the former directeur de cabinet for the Minister of Culture, for instance, did not mention the person of his minister at all in a two-hour conversation, and when, toward the end, I finally brought the minister up as a subject, it became quite clear that that man was not highly relevant to the future of the policies we had been discussing.

More than other Western European countries, and more even than the United States, France has embraced modern technology in daily life with enthusiasm. Forget the clichés about a French scene consisting of berets, loaves of fresh bread, long lunches, intuition, improvisation, and bad telephones. Those images are as outdated as the concept of France as an agricultural nation. Only five percent of the French now grow food (in the United States it is about three percent). People who have jobs work very hard, under the threatening shadow of the more than three million unemployed. This is a modern nation, for better and for worse, and the technical accoutrements of life are state of the art.

The United States is still a pioneer in technological invention; France is ahead of us in application. This is because France does not wait for market forces to test the profitability of new ways and ideas but uses the state to try them out. Sometimes this works beautifully (public transport, the Minitel), sometimes it does not (the Concorde, a plan for a ubiquitous network of optic cable, the Gare Montparnasse -- the only railroad station I've ever known in which I had to ask the way to the ticket windows). Its most obvious daily aspect is a smoothness, described to me as the government's feeling for the amenities, "a sort of high-level pleasure principle" that makes life easier; that, and the neatness of city and country -- in a phrase, the quality of life. According to the figures of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a government body, France spends four times as much per person on its infrastructure as our federal and state governments combined.

Paradoxically (at least to those here in the United States who maintain that art and culture are elitist pursuits, outside the real world, and of no concern to the state), France combines its techno-enthusiasms with an enthusiasm for government support of the national culture. In this context "culture" is to be read in the widest possible sense, embracing the fine arts; book, magazine, and newspaper publishing; television; cinema; architecture; music; language and the traditional crafts; and even certain cafés. Support of the arts is increasingly seen as a social tool: in the shapeless and unfocused poor suburbs the government tries to give structure to life by putting up money for cinemas, for bookshops (and, of course, libraries), and for cafés-musique. In neighborhoods too disoriented to have even one normal (French) café, the state pays to start cafés that regularly present live music. In 1993 it established twelve, last year sixty more, and this year another sixty. We aren't talking here of the kinds of handouts that make our congressional leaders so angry; we are dealing with national initiatives.

Jack Lang told me last spring that when he was Minister of Culture, his answer to American journalists who suggested that such policies threatened the independence of artists used to be "They are independent not in spite of but because of government support." I have met no serious man or woman in my travels who questioned the vertu organisatrice, the organizing virtue, of the state. France is a world removed from the idea of the state as a necessary (or even an unnecessary) evil.

The technology-culture tandem has a surprising twist: in strongly traditional areas of the country the emphasis usually lies on technological innovation; in more-radical regions there is a new passion for the arts. Thus the once royalist, anti-revolutionary part of the Vendée is now a high-tech center, and the formerly pro-revolution Protestant zone is filled with devotees of Breton language and Breton literature.


IN 1983 France Telecom, the state phone company, began the free distribution of Minitels -- small "videotex" home terminals, measuring seven by four and a half inches. They give access to a master computer holding every telephone number in France, cross-indexed in several ways, and also to ever more services and ads. At the time, they were nothing more than "a stunt to increase telephone traffic," to quote a fonctionnaire from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. There are now seven million in use, two thirds of them in households, which means that one in five households has one. There is also a Minitel in every post office. The simplest model remains completely free; more-sophisticated ones appear on the phone bill at twenty francs a month and up (about $4.00; all dollar amounts in this article are based on a five-franc dollar).

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