Anglophone Fantasies and French Realities

Doug Saunders, writing the April 7 issue of the Globe and Mail, does a good job of representing the unutterable silliness of Anglophone writing about France. Here’s a sample:

On Thursday in London, I had breakfast with Anthony Giddens, the London School of Economics professor whose 1990s books Beyond Right and Left and The Third Way set the agenda for this political and economic revival in many European countries, led by Britain. Today, he speaks with Ms. Royal’s people and supports her, but in tones of deep despair.

“France is different,” he said. A strong majority of French consider the word globalization a negative, the reverse of the figure in nearly every other European country.

The key candidates, Prof. Giddens said, straddle impossible ideological divides — not synthesizing the best policies, but sending messages to the fringe supporters of dreadful, unsustainable ideas.

“I think we all know roughly what sorts of policies make economic growth compatible with social welfare, and they’re not the policies of the traditional left and they’re not the policies of the petty-bourgeois right,” he said. This cheerful Australian émigré sounded, for once, as if he had fallen into a state of Gallic despair, of the sort I’ve been seeing over here a lot.

“So the question is, can you get a candidate to represent the cluster of views which will actually pull France out of its malaise? And I’m afraid that’s not clear, because in both Sarkozy and Royal you have a sort of unholy mixture, I think, of different views that are not at all compatible. It’s very unfortunate.”

There are whole books like this, for example Timothy Smith’s France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality and Globalization since 1980, brought to us through the kind offices of the Cambridge University Press. It is very difficult indeed to find an English commentator who doesn’t tell us how France’s sky is falling.

That gets confusing if you go there. Oddly enough, people seem to go about their lives without obvious catastrophe. There is food. There are medical services. Some people apparently haven’t been raped or murdered, despite the heralded collapse of French civil society.

So is the truth as Smith or Giddens, Blair’s intellectual guru, tells it? This can be answered in very short order, by looking at a few figures. They’re not the whole story nor are they conclusive, but then again, what is? Comparing societies is notoriously tricky business. I wouldn’t pretend to say whether England is doing significantly better than France. But I do find reason to distrust the long faces (which, I think, conceal delight) of those who make such pronouncements. Let’s compare enlightened, globalized, free Britain with benighted, hell-bound France.

Presumably the bottom line for any society is how well its people are doing. Crime? France has a per capita murder rate of: 0.0173272 per 1,000 people, the UK of 0.0140633 per 1,000 people. Nothing too striking there. The Gini index, a measure of distributive inequality applied to family income, yields 36.8 for both the UK and France. Hmm, nothing too striking there either. The literacy rate of the two countries is also identical, 99%. The Human Development index for France is 0.938 and for England, 0.939 – France is behind there, but somehow that doesn’t seem too alarming. How about infant morality, a pretty basic indicator? It’s 4.21 deaths/1,000 live births in France, 5.08 deaths/1,000 live births in the UK, so it’s not surprising that France also leads in life expectancy at birth: 79.73 years compared to 78.54 years for the UK. What’s going on? Well, there is one really striking difference between the two countries in the area of ‘human development’: while France has 6% of its population below the poverty line, the UK has almost triple that, 17%. Perhaps Saunders, Smith and Giddens view this negatively, as a sign that France has, as they claim, failed to face up to new economic challenges.

The economics of the two countries could be debated forever, but that’s the point. France has a lower per capita GDP, $33,015.40 versus the UK’s 35,421.19, but this seems a difference, not a disaster. The same is true for GDP real growth rates: France’s is 1.4%, the UK’s is 1.8%. Again, there is at least one pretty spectacular contrast, external debt. The head-screwed-on-right British come in at $8.28 trillion, while the insane, foolhardy Frenchies owe $3.461 trillion. I don’t claim to know what this means, just what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that Saunders’ gurus have the right to claim The British Way outshines The French way.

At this point the word ‘childish’ comes to mind. Can purportedly intelligent and well-informed people really make such sweeping pronouncements without spending five minutes checking their facts? Apparently so – perhaps you can be intelligent and well-informed, but not adult. In Saunders’ case, this impression is reinforced by his political thinking. The guy has the nerve to worry about French authoritarianism before running off to the freedom-loving sanctuary of an English breakfast with Giddens. So a country which puts surveillance cameras all over its landscape, which throws out ancient strictures against self-incrimination, which, in a fit of anti-terror hysteria, allows its special cops to kill a totally innocent man, which cooks evidence to mislead its population into a criminal war, which enacts vague, punitive, class-ridden and evidence-free legal procedures to pillory socially undesirable ‘yobs’ – this is where you go to get away from the shadow of French authoritarianism? Childish.

Sources: Most of the statistics cited here come from the nationmaster web site or the CIA World Fact Book. Cross-country comparisons on matters like well-being are always very rough. The figures are all recent but not necessarily from the same year, and other measures of poverty in particular would yield somewhat different results. None of this makes the commentators’ judgements any more reliable.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at