Return to the Table of Contents.
D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 5
by Hans Koning
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.
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post &
From the archives:
"France ... oscillates between vanity and a sense of humiliation, being as ready to accuse foreigners of barbarism as to admit Germany's irresistible superiority in everything but the art de vivre."
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).
As for the telephone service itself, it is every bit as good as service in the United States, and when I visited a France Telecom office to become a subscriber, I was given a number, a phone, and an answering machine within minutes. I was immediately listed on the national Minitel, and no money was asked of me up front. Telephone booths are now abundant, most of them for use with phone cards, and most, bless them, with real doors. I might be able to conjure up some nostalgia for the old telephone office in Cannes where I often sat in the middle of the night (because of the time difference), waiting for the lady at the desk to call out, "L'Amérique, cabine trois!" The office never closed, and one was trusted to pay afterward. I definitely do not miss the bars in which one had to buy a phone token -- and preferably also a coffee -- before descending to the pay phones beside the toilets.
Last year advertising on the Minitel generated $2 billion in sales -- not a vast amount on a nationwide scale. But its importance lay elsewhere: it made a large number of people in France computer-minded. (I'm not so sure this is an unmixed blessing, and there is something aggressive in that little box and its dehumanized services.)
The flip side of France's love affair with modern technology is perhaps a weakness in its ecological movement. Three quarters of the country's electricity comes from nuclear reactors, and there has been no serious discussion of this since 1973 (when several people were killed in a melee during a protest demonstration at a reactor near Grenoble). Given the warlike situation in the Middle East, France, which has very little oil or natural gas, must not be without an independent energy source: this was one reason often given to me, in combination with the reminder that France has been invaded three times by its neighbor Germany. "As long as there is a Germany, pacifism and its offspring ecology won't have much of a footing here," I was told by a former minister (who did not want to be quoted by name). I doubt the logic of that "offspring" idea, but I can see what he meant. These are feelings that the European Union has not erased. Also, the statistics on French nuclear power show no accident that ever caused even one death. The nuclear establishment runs a secretive ship, though, and I'd guess that not even François Mitterrand, in his fourteen years as President, would necessarily have been told of any such accident. President Chirac's recent insistence on nuclear testing in the face of universal protest carried this attitude to an extreme, but in various polls two thirds of the French declared themselves against the tests. Chirac may have inadvertently created a new awareness in his country of nuclear dangers.
France's energy policies do have green aspects. Electricité de France, for instance, has a scheme whereby on certain days during the winter months a little red light goes on at about 7:00 A.M., in whatever room the customer has chosen for it, signaling that a peak day in electricity use is expected. To deal with the big problem of peak demand without having to build new generators, the French utility offers its customers a plan under which they pay about half the regular price for each kilowatt-hour used -- except on twenty-two days a year, chosen by the company, when those same customers must pay five times the regular price. That red light in the morning warns that such a day is upon them, and then it becomes economical -- or, if you will, good sport, or an act of solidarity -- to reduce power use on that day by not ironing, not using the dryer, and so forth.
If one is willing to play this game, the savings over the year are considerable. Enough people have indeed been willing for this bit of social engineering to work, and so far it has saved the country a lot of expense and new pollution. (As of now France Telecom and Electricité de France are still government-owned.)
The most direct, daily way in which state-initiated technology affects life in France is through mass transport. The social system, which has taken the financial anguish out of being ill (totally) and out of being old (to a degree), has profoundly changed the way people look at and live their lives. Yet, in a simple how-do-you-start-your-day manner, the Métro, the Réseau Express Régional (RER), and the French national railroad (SNCF) have a more direct impact. When I consider the grind most people in the United States have to go through getting to and from work -- the waste, the weariness, the antagonisms experienced -- I am jealous indeed of what the French are offered. The Métro, the Paris subway, runs in a bright environment and there is virtually no waiting; those trains just keep coming. In the same time that it took my home town, New Haven, to patch up its shabby railroad station, the RER of the Ile de France (more than 4,600 square miles in the heartland, including Paris and its suburbs) built an entire express rail system, the bulk of it underground, below the Métro network, which moves a million and a half passengers daily from as far away as Etampes (thirty miles from Paris) and St. Cyr (eighteen miles). As for the mainline trains run by the SNCF, journeys on them are a pleasurehard as this must be for New York and New England "Metro North" victims to believe, not to mention passengers on the unspeakable Amtrak.
One day in the Gare d'Austerlitz, in Paris, I asked at a window when the next train to Orléans was coming, and the woman on duty looked a bit puzzled. "Tout le temps," was her answer. There are forty trains a day: no need to check on the next one; another would have arrived by the time I got to the platform. Orléans is as far from Paris as New Haven is from New York, seventy-odd miles, but an Orléanist can commute: his train takes fifty-five minutes, the New Haven train nearly two hours.
Then there is the TGV, train à grande vitesse, which has given traveling by rail a new lease on life, far into the next century. The TGV network of special track in France is 4,400 miles. In the year 2005 it will have become a European network of 9,700 miles, with the new Channel tunnel as one of its focal points. The commercial speed of those trains is 186 mph, and will be boosted to 220 mph. (The speed record, established in 1990 by the TGV Atlantique, is 320 mph.) The trains run so smoothly that you can write a letter in your seat and drink coffee or soup (both of which are served) without spilling.
Since we now seem to accept that Americans are unwilling to contribute to something that profits only others, I hasten to add that the TGV is more than self-supporting. New York to Washington with two stops would take an hour and twenty minutes, Boston to New York just over an hour. And that's center to center, which in the United States would mean new life for the depressed areas around most train terminals. The rate at which the French system has been built is particularly impressive to an American: Amtrak has been "experimenting" with a ten-mile high-speed stretch somewhere up north for a decade now. New York's Bruckner Boulevard has been "under construction" since I was in college. Have the days when European visitors goggled at our zap gone forever?
From the sixties on, railroads have been anathema in Washington. The standing joke in Ronald Reagan's Department of Transportation was, If someone insists on traveling by train, we'll just give him a free plane ticket -- it'll be cheaper that way. Thus the United States is hopelessly missing out on this new mode of transport. Ironically, American financial institutions right now own at least twelve complete TGV trains, because in an international tax maneuver the SNCF sold them to America and then immediately leased them back.
THE France I am writing about is no demi-paradise. My purpose is to see how the French are coping, coping with less than paradisiacal circumstances. The great despoiler in France, as almost everywhere else, is unemployment. Contrary to what some politicians pretend to think, very few people prefer state support to working. My proof: in France (just as here) any halfway decent job opening attracts dozens of applicants -- thirty-five for each advertised sales job, twenty for each post as a bank clerk, fifty for each job as a hospital worker. The French jobless rate last summer was just under 12 percent, higher even than the Western European median of 10 percent. In the United States unemployment is only about six percent, but the cause of it is the same as in Europe: not enough new service jobs to make up for the losses in industry and agriculture, for the growing population, and for the number of women now trying to find work. France has so many job-training schemes, state-assisted jobs, and other programs that people are motivated to stay in the system longer and to keep on trying. Just the mesures jeunes, for those under twenty-five, include twelve different national programs. This makes the statistics look even worse.
The term for the jobless in France is no longer les chômeurs ("the unemployed") or les nouveaux pauvres ("the recent poor") but les exclus ("those who are out of it"). Lack of money, lack of decent housing, are only the symptoms. The disease is the lack of a role in society. The afflicted are de-integrated, locked out, if not outcasts. Exclusion is now the number-one general fear of the French (along with AIDS). What are they doing about it?
The length of time an exclu gets unemployment benefits (which come from les Caisses, a fund paid into by everyone who works) depends on the recipient's age and the number of months he or she has worked so far. The benefits are a percentage of the last salary earned, and they are reduced in stages until they stop altogether, after a maximum period of sixty months. At that point payments that are independent of previous earnings, just like welfare in the United States, kick in. They come directly from the state. A single person in France gets about $460 a month in welfare, a couple $690. On top of that come child allowances and, for some, rent support. But in order to qualify if one has never held a job at all (a situation now quite frequent), one must be over twenty-five or have the care of a child.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric from politicians both for and against the "welfare state," the systems of France and, say, New York or Massachusetts are at this writing not all that different. But there is one essential difference, it seems to me: being on welfare in France is seen not as a failure of the individual but as a failure of society. I realize that this is a generalization I cannot prove with data. But state aid to French people who need it is never questioned -- not even by the most extreme right-wingers, who focus on immigration and foreigners on welfare.
Of course, the whole miserable business of joblessness and being on welfare plays in a different social climate in France, where education is free all the way through the university, health care is largely free, low-rent housing is not just in ghettos but all over the place, far-reaching "social discounts" are given on mass transit and train tickets, and more. Why is this possible, and why do conservatives talk about economizing but never about abolishing it all? I will get back to that. In the meantime, it must be said that the malaise of unemployment is in the air in France as much as or more than in Americaeven if the beggars, not seen in such numbers in a century, are as a rule North Africans or genuine or pretend Gypsies from Eastern Europe.
Automation, a shift from coal and steel to electrons and tape, and the internationalization of enterprises are what caused this misery in the first place, and I agree with economists who tell us that there are only a couple of real remedies: social jobs and a shortening of the workweek. (Indeed, all the French job-training schemes and mesures jeunes have not made much of a dent.) The social jobs they are talking about are not fringe jobs; on the contrary, they are crucially needed. They just don't turn anyone a direct profit, and they don't come about by themselves, in the classic Adam Smith manner. There are jobs caring for the ever larger number of old people, and jobs in schools, in health care, in sports, in parks, in the environment. The state, or the community, pays. Some of the job descriptions, I admit, are not much more than euphemisms for street sweeping (200,000 such in France). All the same, I was repeatedly told, they are essential, and therefore not undignified. They are needed if France is to "preserve our humanity" -- to stay "convivial," or "chaleureux." A former minister and an editor of Le Monde, France's paper of record, both used the latter word in speaking to me.
"We did without that in the thirties," the editor said, "for all sorts of good reasons. The result was fascism. Never again." (In November of 1994 a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly pleaded for such an initiative by the United States -- and indeed some cities are trying it -- but he wanted it turned over to the Church, and to hospitals: that seemed a rather Dickensian idea to me.)
Shortening the workweek as a way of creating more jobs has been accepted by Volkswagen in Germany. In 1981 Mitterrand shortened the French workweek from forty to thirty-nine hours, without reducing wages, but stopped there. During the recent presidential campaign only the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, had it on his program -- a cut to thirty-seven hours, with further reductions to come. To the astonishment of the pollsters, who had been wrong without exception, Jospin came out first in the April 24 election results; but in the May 7 runoff he lost (47.36 percent to 52.64 percent) to Jacques Chirac, a populist Conservative. The French Parliament is 80 percent Conservative, and Jospin would have been a very frustrated President. (His share of the final vote was all the more surprising for that. He was ahead of Chirac among the voters younger than twenty-six, and at par with him for voters under thirty-six.) It is safe to predict many strikes and social tensions during the seven-year Chirac presidency, as is already being borne out.
In the nineteenth century, when factory workers in Britain campaigned for a reduction of their working day to twelve or even ten hours, employers demonstrated with statistics that this change would precisely wipe out all profits. It was not true. The same game is being played once more, but a slew of recent studies, including the scholarly Financement de la Protection Sociale, by Jean-Marc Dupuis (1994), appears to show that a shorter workweek does not make an enterprise significantly less profitable -- and that doing away with the minimum wage, which France has too, doesn't create more jobs.
I am aware of the tendency in the United States to go in the opposite direction, for employers hold to the idea that it is more profitable (if one blissfully ignores the social costs) to fire as many people as possible and have the rest do overtime.
SO much for the economics and the feel of a welfare state; what about the stones-asphalt-trees ambiance?
I heard a lot of complaining in France about the deterioration of the towns. French people do not know how well off they still are. Here is the basic difference between them and us: France has not suffered the flight of the relatively well-to-do from city centers to the suburbs, and the ensuing horror of abandoned, dangerous inner cities paired with bedroom communities that sail under the flag of boredom and weary commutes. I will not forget an experience of arriving by bus in Cincinnati at 11:00 P.M. and facing an empty, dark, vanished city. Only one distant building showed light, and it turned out to be a high-rise parking garage, closed.
Our inner cities will not be saved by the mechanics of free-market forces, which doomed them in the first place. Possibly a city center with its personnel living in distant suburbs makes eminent sense to a right-thinking computer. To us and to our children it spells a mean quality of life.
A web of rules, regulations, and laws, and the money to make up for any negative economic impact they had, were needed to keep French towns and central Paris alive. (The same was true for the inner-ring city of Amsterdam.) Government had to subsidize housing repairs that tenants or owners could not afford. Zoning had to ban an overdose of sex shops, gas stations, parking lots, fast-food outlets, and dubious hotels. Certain businesses and shops and services had to be kept out, others lured back. It was a subtle process, and many mistakes were made, but it got results.
I will be told, and rightly so, that all this infringes on the individual's freedom of choice. But in the end that freedom is but the freedom to go to the devil, and the freedom of a few superspeculators to send whole neighborhoods to the devil.
For now, France has succeeded in preserving its towns, but at the price of exporting some of the towns' problems to the banlieue, poor suburbs, where poor immigrants and the unemployed are gathering. However, France didn't give the banlieue the freedom to go to the devil either. In 1990 a Ministry of Towns was created. The government then signed state-town contracts to help no fewer than 1,500 "threatened areas." I have described the building or subsidizing of schools, libraries, cinemas, and cafés-musique that goes on there. But many of the immigrants are illegal, which means they have no steady support at all, and it is an uphill struggle. I don't think any of the people I was in contact with in Paris consider it a success story. When I mentioned U.S. slums, they almost proudly mentioned La Courneuve, near Paris, which was "surely worse."
One morning I went there. La Courneuve is the last station on a Métro line, and from it a streetcar leads to the "Cité de 4,000," which, the Monde editor had assured me, is the worst part. "I was ashamed when I saw it," he told me. "Ashamed for this country."
The Cité is a cluster of vast apartment buildings, containing (obviously) 4,000 apartments, which look down on a grass field and a children's playground. Alongside the field runs the tramline to the Courneuve Métro. Most of the apartments have little balconies. There was no trash on the ground, the halls didn't stink of urine, and the two elevators I saw worked. Nothing was boarded up or broken. It wasn't great, but it did not have the despair of the worst of New York or New Haven. How far we have sunk, I thought, that so many in our country -- which had and has such an overabundance of resources both natural and humanwould happily settle in a development the Monde editor had been ashamed of! I was ashamed of the editor's shame.
How much does it cost the French to do so much for their people? That same editor receives a monthly paycheck of about $4,600, out of which he pays $900 in income tax. Social payments (health insurance, pension fund) are withheld, and he doesn't even know how much they are. The tax tables I took home show that a family with two children and a gross income of $50,000 a year pays the social payments plus $12,800 in income tax. If their income is $20,000, the tax is $3,600. This is less than in (Conservative) Germany and about the same as in (Conservative) England. Other taxes (value-added sales tax, gas tax, tobacco tax) are high, though.
The French used to be famous for tax dodging. I don't know if that fame was ever justified, but it is not now; estimates of fraud there are in the same ball park as in the law-abiding United States. Why do better-off French people not protest against paying with their taxes for other people's food, education, and housing?
Presumably they realize, first of all, that the modern alternative would be not a lower class "keeping its place" but a jungle in which they would have as much to lose as anyone else, if not more. An economist pointed out to me that the higher people's income is, the more they gain from the state services financed by their taxes: they use the hospitals, sporting fields, museums, more than average, and their children use the educational system longer, right through university. They live longer than the less-well-off and profit more from pension plans. All in all, they may actually get as much out of the system as they put in. That conclusion seems rather illogical to me, but there is something to the argument, which obviously is not valid in the United States, where there is next to nothing the rich and the poor share.
In another vein, Jean Gandois, the head of the Patronat Français, the French Employers' Center, recently asked his colleagues to think twice about firing people. He didn't give any moral reasons; he simply reminded them that the tax bill would eventually end up with them.
But I see no reason to argue this out only in terms that take no account of morality. The word "solidarity" may be bandied about a bit much by the French state, and it may strike people as overly pious, but I take it seriously. There is such a thing as a solidarity in France between the healthy and the sick, the rich and the less rich and the poor: it's called sens civique. (A pupil from one of France's great schools, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, told me that having been accepted by the school, one was already a civil servant, a fonctionnaire, and received a living wage, $1,600 a month, right from the start. In exchange one undertook to work ten years as a teacher after graduation. "And if you don't?" I asked. She was taken aback. "That wouldn't be very civique," she said.)
Perhaps it took the suffering of two world wars and an enemy occupation to crystallize this feeling. The directeur de cabinet in the Social Affairs Ministry formulated it thus: In the First World War, out of 20 million men, 1.5 million were killed and two million mutilated or wounded. This created "a lasting moral debt of the state." "Our solidarity has now become passive," he said. "When we're okay, we feel we pay too much, but when we ourselves are in trouble, we are proud of this security. We can never renege on this. Egalité is still a basic of the republic."
IN the light of all this I return to my starting point, state support: that is, support, from all the people, for the culture and the arts of the country, for the nonindustrial, nonbusiness, nonmaterialistic, non- food-producing part of national life -- for its civilization. The French Ministry of Culture spends $3 billion a year, one percent of the state budget, for this. The communities of the country together contribute $6 billion, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs $600 million. Other cultural ministerial projects cost $200 million (but there is a separate Ministry of Education with a separate budget).
It adds up to about $10 billion (plus, of course, what is spent privately). This is $500 per family per year -- more than any other country spends. As far as I can tell from the available statistics, this is also true in absolute terms: $10 billion is more than any other country, regardless of its size, spends. To put it in a modern perspective, though (lest it sound too good to be true), that is also about what France spends on advertising.
Such support for the arts is an old tradition. It used to come from the King, the Church, and various Maecenases, going right back to the original Maecenas (Gaius Cilnius), who paid the rent for the poet Horace around the year 30 B.C. In France most serious Ministers of Culture of the recent past have worked in close personal relationships with the President -- André Malraux with De Gaulle, Jack Lang with Mitterrand -- which gave them a lot of extra elbow room.
I've mentioned the specifically social projects, the cinemas and cafés for suburbs in trouble. Of course every cultural project has an artistic and a social side, not easily separated. On the Rue Oberkampf, a rather shabby street in Paris's eleventh arrondissement, an open space was used for a new post office, so unusual and so beautiful that the papers called it "onirique" ("dreamlike"); it pulls the whole block up a mile or two. Among its simple but astonishing innovations:a green light shines up from the surface of the entrance road when the post office is open, a red light when it's closed. High in the air behind it is a pedestrian bridge and a row of neat apartments for the post-office workers. The project, designed by the young architect Frédéric Borel, is part of a scheme to build new post offices in Paris that are combined with a total of 1,500 low-rent apartments for postal workers coming from the provinces who cannot afford Paris rents. The post offices are all different, original, and a boost to their environments -- adventures in architecture. Well, the post office in New Haven isn't so bad either, but ... I don't care to finish that sentence.
I watched the last big television interview President Mitterrand gave before his term was up. He was questioned mostly about his "grands travaux": the Louvre pyramid, the great national library then still in the making, the Bastille Opera, the new Music City of Paris -- in all, more than thirty projects in Paris and the provinces. (See "Paris Is Finished," by David Lawday, August Atlantic.) "You could have built x-thousand new apartments with the money," his TV host remarked; Mitterrand answered that these projects had saved a number of crafts that were dying out, irreplaceable techniques. But above all they had given the state a new élan, which penetrated to every corner of national life.
People I talked with in the Ministry of Culture wanted to distinguish between culture and "les industries culturelles" (this with a glance at the television set), which generally are very efficacious but can also come into conflict with that "diversity which is so crucial to civilization." There was much stress on this diversity, and on the true absence of any cultural xenophobia that was part of it. These people reminded me that all those grands travaux had been executed by the winners of competitions and that many of them had been foreigners. (The extension to the Louvre was the only exception; its designer was not chosen in competition but appointed. Of course, the architect appointed by Mitterrand was the Chinese-American I. M. Pei.)
At the ministry we researched diversity in the latest issue of Pariscope, one of the Paris weekly programs magazines. Of all the films, concerts, and other events listed, 70 percent were of foreign origin. Contrary to a Washington myth, films are not subject to quotas, and 70 percent of the films shown that week were American. I was told that if too few copies of an American film arrive to provide the little out-of-the-way cinemas, some of them subsidized by the ministry, extra copies may be made at ministry expense. The quota fight that was so much in the news is not over cinema but over television-network programming.
At the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations the U.S. delegate insisted that TV programs are as much merchandise as cars or cheeses. France, alone among European countries, insisted on the unique character of certain cultural works which could not survive unprotected in a world where the bad drives out the good and the lowest common denominator ends up holding the field (Gresham's Law). Some U.S. politicians, and of course Jack Valenti, of the Motion Picture Association of America, jumped in and announced that in resisting TV quotas we were defending democracy and the sacred rights of the consumer. It was pointed out in the Paris Herald Tribune that McDonald's had not ruined French cuisine.
Actually, McDonald's has ruined a lot of the cheap and simple tables d'hôte France used to have, but in any case there is a lot of room in the restaurant field, and people's choice is determined by their money; no one suggests that all food is equally good. In the noncable television world there is limited room only, and to reserve 50 percent of it for European, including French, productions is precisely what cultural policy is about. (It won't last anyway: the quota is for ten years only.)
If we leave our culture to the battalions with the fattest wallets, we'll have no need of any policy. There will always be a good market for comic books, heavy-metal concerts, and motion pictures about murder, mayhem, and raw sex. One may object that, well, that is what "they" want -- but "they" also want cockfights, bearbaiting, and public executions. The quotas achieve a continuation of choice. If we don't bar Gresham's Law from some areas of creativity, in the end everything will be about buying and selling, and some of the beauty human beings may create will vanish forever, like the dodo. I know I am stepping out of my role as a reporter here, but I consider it my reward for defending Jack Valenti to the French when he came over to Paris and put his foot in his mouth, as is his habit.
The ministry does subsidize French films -- to an extent that makes American writers and directors throb with envy. The money is split between "first films" and the rest. French directors are drawn to ironic movies right now -- "films de derision," as the Cahiers du Cinema calls them. Do they deserve public support? Serge Toubiana, the editor of Cahiers, said to me, "They present at least a different world, which you can then accept or reject -- as contrasted with the world of TV-type boilerplate, be it French or American, which presents an endless number of identical propositions."
The Ministry of Culture also helps the press, with special postal rates, special phone rates, and special tax rules. By necessity, this kind of support goes to everything, from the jazzy illustrated magazine Paris-Match, which doesn't need it, to a knitting monthly. The Paris dailies, which have fewer ads and much higher costs than the provincial dailies (which flourish), have also been the recipients of special funding. I realize how controversial such a program would be in the United States. "Well," said Hubert Astier, the former directeur de cabinet in the Culture Ministry, "our culture must balance the weight, the burden, of our economy. It must be an antidote to economy" -- words that could not be spoken by an American politician or even, I think, by an American museum director.
I talked with Astier about the various programs that are sent abroad and asked if French culture wasn't actually used to promote French economic interests. "I believe that eighty to ninety percent of what we do is `art for art's sake,'" he answered. "Think me naive. For America we have a yearly budget of three million dollars. This is ridiculous, compared with the economic interests there. I'm sure one fashion designer spends more on American ads." The cultural programs of France are not aggressive but defensive, Astier said. Culture defended the towns, which in a Latin tradition were the sources of civilization.
I cannot help feeling that something was added to the conversations I had by their location. These people had offices in the marvelous buildings, some of them once genuine palaces, where ministries in Paris are housed. With Astier I sat in a Louis XV room with a sculptured ceiling and eight-foot-high windows; outside was the dark blue of a Paris spring-evening sky -- it was the same room where almost thirty years earlier I had talked with André Malraux. I am sorry to say that I could not play devil's advocate and like a good interviewer challenge Astier. I'm on his side. As a writer, I feel that serious writers, like serious artists in general, are not producing "merchandise" that must earn the fiat of the marketplace. The judging of art takes generations. I think we are all, to a very, very modest degree, Van Goghs. Vincent sold one painting in his lifetime, for a little more money than it would have cost him to see his own 1986 exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum.
Astier talked about Diderot's Encyclopédie, the first such work, which summed up for the eighteenth century the knowledge of the Enlightenment, and which, if I may quote myself from The New Yorker in 1981, "raised a storm that blew away the smells of powdered wigs, love potions, and alchemists' retorts; shook the salons of the court and the chambers of bishops and parliamentarians still meeting in the shadow of stake and rack...." "We have started planning a new Encyclopédie for the final years of this century," Astier told me. "It will be a coordination of film, publications, museum shows, of history, art, videos, everything. Good and bad of the past. We want to show to France `the others.' America, Africa, Islam. We want to fight the fear they inspire. Our purpose will be to fight the modern fear of `the others,' the present-day fear of the future." And indeed, there is a malaise in the air in this fin de siècle, in Paris as in New York; no one will later call these years a Belle Epoque.
France, which in 1945 was still rural and traditional, tried to adopt American modernity then with a vengeance, and almost without criticism (except maybe in Jacques Tati movies). Now the French feel uneasy. Ambition and greed are as rampant in France as anywhere else, but there are also thoughts of solidarity, of building a system in which money is not the absolute master dictating who eats and who goes hungry, who is healed and who dies. That concept was one of the good things to come out of this bloody century.
France does have a social structure into which to fit modernity. Its loneliness has some balance in the sens civique. It has (to keep it simple) a café life. There's nothing odd about the French custom whereby you pay more if you want to sit down with your coffee than if you drink it standing up at the counter. A café is among other things a club.
We have very little of all that. But maybe our republic, too, needs the shelter of such structures and such ideas, in the icy wind of our sacred marketplace: "Une societé pas de solitude mais de solidarité," to quote Jack Lang.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; A French Mirror; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 95-106.