Sarko and the French Cultural Myth


I’d like to try to answer your question about Sarko. Sarko sees himself as a reformer and I think his instincts are almost all correct. I suspect he’ll actually be a pretty good ally in the War on Terror. And I do believe he’ll get France’s soaring crime rate (about twice ours) under control. Despite some economic policy steps much at odds with his proclaimed free-market ideals–he plans to keep France’s tax on savings–I even think his economic ideas are mostly the right ones.

But when he talks about restoring French greatness, he shows he has bought into national myth that will prove very difficult to overcome. Like Americans–but unlike Japanese, Canadians, or even Brits–French men and women grow up believing that their culture ought to be a universal one, that their country truly is the greatest in human history, and that anyone can become French with enough effort. In its fundamentals, there’s no problem with this attitude. I actually believe all of these things myself when it comes to the United States and there’s significant evidence that they are true. People really do want to be American and immigrants can become as American as people whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower.

France, however, has a very hard time turning this idea into reality. Relative to the United States–which has an anything-but-perfect way of assimilating immigrants–France does a downright terrible job making non-French into French. French culture, likewise, produces almost nothing of real note or global impact: even French cooking has stagnated. Outside of Quebec, some U.S. college campuses, and the upper crust of France’s former African colonies, nobody who isn’t French particularly wants to become French or even live like the French.

Paradoxically, I think France has to give up these ideas of “greatness,” as the U.K., did if it hopes to remain an important player on the world stage. It needs to borrow the best ideas from elsewhere in the world and reinvent itself. Just as the U.K. could not afford a far-flung empire, a currency valued five-to-the-dollar, and social ownership of just about everything, France can’t afford its sclerotic bureaucracy, lavish subsidies to private business, and non-existent work ethic.

Margret Thatcher was really the first Prime Minister to accept the idea that the U.K. would no longer be a first-rate power. Instead, she transformed it into the best second rate power possible. Since then, it’s seen its military strength increase and actually moved up in the European economic rankings.

Sarko needs to get the French people to discard this national myth. In so doing, he will have to ask them to give up a portion of the things that make their culture distinctive. For the French people this will be painful. I wonder if Sarko is the right person to do it.