Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us--and Why the Feeling Is Mutual by Richard Chesnoff


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Journalist Richard Chesnoff has spent enough time reporting from France for various periodicals to make his new book, The Arrogance of the French, an inside story. Through a variety of examples, Chesnoff points to clashes between the United States and France that have come to define our stormy relationship. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter Six, “Frere Jacques, Dormez-Vous?” pp. 130-135:


In fact, for all its arrogant posturing, says French writer Nico­las Baverez, today’s France is wallowing in “economic, political and social stagnation.”

Baverez is the author of a 2003 best-seller called France Is Falling Down and one of a new breed of French doomsday prophets, most of them historians, who have recently published similar “cassan­dratic” tomes about the current state of France and the dismal fu­ture it faces unless it seriously mends its ways. In addition to Baverez’s book, there is Adieu to a Departing France by Jean-Marie Rouart, French Disarray by Alain Duhamel, and French Arrogance by Romain Gubert and Emmanuel Saint-Martin.

When these new French reality books first began to appear last year, they quickly became hot topics of conversation from Nor­mandy to the Riviera.

Charles de Gaulle once complained that it was impossible to govern a country with 246 varieties of fromage. In fact, there are closer to 500 varieties. And as Baverez and his colleagues see it, there may be more problems in France than there are varieties of cheese. They range from economic to social to cultural. More­over, France’s membership in the European Community may be adding to the woes rather than helping to solve them.

The European Union’s internal open-border system is certainly adding to the influx of immigrants to France from poorer coun­tries, a phenomenon with which, in the past, France has been able to successfully cope by integrating newcomers into the life of the Republic. Today, that is becoming more and more difficult to do.

Differences between rich and poor are growing not diminish­ing, the cost of living is rising, and a generation of idle youth are resentful of having been excluded from the economic life of France—all have provoked an institutional crisis that challenges the foundation of French society~ Overt racism and anti-Semitism are back. There is an ever-increasing influence of radical Islamism in the urban and suburban ghettos, a surge of violence in the streets, the recrudescence of hate literature spread through the Web, the fear of unemployment in an economy that has remained stagnant for many years, and a political leadership that undertakes reforms in homeopathic dribbles rather than with heavy doses of economic antibiotics. “All of these problems,” says one political observer, “throw the Republican ideal into question.”

Consider the following: Just last year, this nation of sixty million people had more bankruptcies than the entire United States with its more than two hundred million people. France’s current national unemployment rate still hovers at double digits. The numbers on welfare are growing not diminishing. Meanwhile, a recent study by the World Economic Forum ranks France only twenty-sixth in the league of growth markets—behind Portugal. According to Baverez, the French failure to truly liberalize its econ­omy by loosening its bureaucratic straitjacket, has caused new­ business creation to drop in France by 2 percent a year since the late 1980s.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, French economic life contin­ues to be regularly paralyzed by surges in strike action by people who think social benefits grow on the grapevines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. France, says Baverez, is becoming “an industrial and entrepreneurial desert.”

There are those who argue that all is not disaster—and all is certainly not. “France is still the fifth-richest country in the world,” points out TV journalist Christine Ockrent. “And for all the moaning and groaning, it’s still a marvelous place to live.”

Indeed, while its self-perception may be as overinflated as a super soufflé, France is not without modern accomplishments. Among the world’s few real nuclear powers, it still boasts one of the world’s largest economies.

It has also been in the avant-garde of some of our high-tech age’s most ingenious achievements. France was among the first nations to incorporate microchips into credit and bank cards. And a full decade before Americans became as computerized and plugged into the Internet as we are, France Telecom, the French equivalent of our old Ma Bell, had developed the Minitel system, handing out free mini-screen computers that enabled French phone users to tap in through their home or office phone line and check bank accounts, book airline tickets, or even find love matches for an afternoon rendez-vous.

Even now, France’s aircraft industry produces ever bigger and better versions of its already internationally successful Airbus—a joint project of France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain. And for popular luxury and speed there’s little that can match France’s i8o-mile-per-hour superspeed trains, the slick TGV (Trains de Grand Vitesse), which can whip you in great com­fort from Marseille to Paris (411 miles) in less than three hours.

Problem is, many of these modern wonders have run their course—or are simply proving too costly. Though largely passé, Minitel is still widely in use. Yet by counterpoint, French house­holds boast far fewer home computers per capita than America does. More to the point, France Telecom has a mountain of na­tional debt that now exceeds a staggering $15 billion (not all be­cause of Minitel), and the French government has been forced to sell a growing percentage of its shares in the company.

Other national sources of pride manage to survive only with fat subsidies the French government can ill afford. Everyone adores the ever-expanding TGV system, but SNCF, France’s national train company, has a nightmarish multibillion-euro debt—and so far, the prospect for TGV becoming economically sound are as good as the defunct Concorde’s was.

One result of all the problems: Economic growth has ground to a near halt. Even new socioeconomic ideas are proving a disas­ter. A revolutionary French move to a thirty-five-hour workweek was supposed to generate new jobs and give workers more free time. Instead, it has screwed up production and made those with jobs poorer—and ended up with workers complaining about un­realistic quotas. Now the government is finding it tough to con­vince workers to return to the old system of a full week’s work even though it would still give most French workers an average of five full weeks a year of paid vacation.

“It’s completely crazy,” says French parliamentarian Pierre Lel­louche. “It’s an escapism—to be in a country where they seriously discuss a thirty-five-hour workweek and have a government that can’t tell people realities.”

Critics of the government blame Jacques Chirac’s Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) for the lack of reality. “The point is that the leading right-wing party can’t say it,” says Lel­louche. “Partly because the leadership of the party is weak and cowardly and incompetent. But it’s also because they know they can’t win an election by becoming [productive like the] Chinese— Europeans don’t want to work that hard! . . . We are an exhausted society, exhausted with history and war, we have no ambition.”

They also don’t seem to have much willingness to do a day’s work. Despite the flagging economy, fewer and fewer people in France appear prepared to work at all. Indeed, while those who do work have a notably high level of productivity, there’s a grow­ing problem in France of laziness. A rising percentage of the pop­ulation relies on full or partial national welfare programs. And attempts at cutting back on welfare benefits for the unemployed meet with stiff and raucous opposition. Who else but the French would have a labor union of the unemployed?

Of those who do work, few fully understand or care about the concept of service. Of course, service was never a big item in France, except for that part of the bill that forms a tip. For exam­ple, try ordering a simple lunch at a café before twelve noon or after two P.M. Or attempt to ask for a variation of an item on the menu.

The first answer is inevitably Non, “or a denial of responsibil­ity. The second is to fall back on Cartesian logic. One friend of mine recently purchased a brand-new Renault only to soon run into problems with the car’s starter—sometimes it worked, some­times it didn’t. The authorized garage she consulted refused to even look at it. Under the warranty, explained the chief me­chanic, the starter was covered only for “full breakdown,” not oc­casional breakdown. He did give her a twenty-four-hour phone number to call if it did fully break down, which it did. The twenty-four-hour number didn’t answer.


In light of the recent rioting in France, there are insights from The Arrogance of the French that describe the conditions that have led to the current situation. Chesnoff would have written a better book if he had toned down his own rhetoric, since there’s more than enough in the specific examples he provides. That better book might have sold fewer copies, but would have been easier for most readers to enjoy.


Steve Hopkins, November 21, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2005 issue of Executive Times


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