The Historical Perspective on France as Compared to Other European Countries
Philippe d’Iribarne is one of the most-respected French writers on different national cultures in Europe and North America. In an interview with the French Le Monde newspaper on April 21, 2006 he gave a brief apercu of the differences between France and other, major European countries, which he addresses in his new book. The interview will be resumed in the next few paragraphs. This interview was given at the same time as D’Iribarne's new book was published. (“L’Etrangeté française”, Le Seuil publishing house, Paris. The title of this book can be translated as « The French Strangeness ».) D'Iribarne basically says that the overwhelming majority of the members of the French political class are still living with ideas which were relevant for the 1950s and 1960s, when the economy was industrialising and recovering from the Second World War. In those years, economic progress was nourished by opening the country up to competition and that was what constituted the engine that modernized French society.
However 1950s and 1960s solutions are no longer good for the beginning of the 21st century. The 1980s and the 1990s have seen economic modernization accompanied by growing precariousness in employment and this, in its turn, has brought about a feeling of insecurity among many French people. In spite of these changes, the political parties which have swapped responsibility for government back and forth over the past twenty-five years continue to act as if the promises they make, which could have been kept in the 1950s, can still be kept in the 2100s. The failure to respect those promises has led to growing disillusionment with the political establishment and this has been evidenced in the recent riots: in November 2005 when poor children of mainly immigrant parents rioted in the suburbs of the major French cities, and in April 2006 when more privileged children closed down their universities and demonstrated against what they saw not as the introduction of a more flexible labor contract, but as a lack of disrespect towards young people in a country which suffers from 9-10% structural unemployment, year in and year out. France has one specific difficulty in adapting to the modern world, the tension between the respect it accords to the idea of “liberté” (individual freedom) and the respect it also attaches to the privilege of “rank”. Everybody in France needs to be equal with everybody else, yet a majority of people of all walks of life have the desire to see themselves recognized by some form of “rank” or official status, whether as a graduate of a “Grande Ecole” (one of the specialized engineering schools set up shortly after the French Revolution that began in 1789), or that of being a postman with a job for life or working for the French national railway system, again with a job for life.
This tension between freedom and rank is now exacerbated by the onslaught of globalisation, of free trade and the free market, concepts which are anathema to most of the French political elite (but not to most French managers in the private sector of the economy). In a free market economy, value is not attached to a person’s rank and, in France, when rank disappears and people are evaluated based on their level of competence or contribution this is perceived as a way of putting a monetary value on people, akin to slavery.
At this point of the interview, d’Iribarne presented a variety of potent ideas about what it means to be a citizen in three major European countries and that showed how France is very different.
D'Iribarne's notions of what it means to be a citizen are, by and large, consciously unknown to Europeans themselves, but the prepared eye can see them being acted out unconsciously every time political representatives of the major nations in the European Community come together to make decisions, or not to make them. They are rooted deeply in national histories. The different, ingrained understandings of what it means to be a “free man” or a “free woman” in Europe have a very strong influence on the types of relationships that exist in the workplace. The idea of what it means to be a “free wo/man” also conditions what types of constraints, duties or obligations are freely accepted by the workers of each country and which types are deemed as impinging to a greater or smaller extent on personal freedom.
In the British Isles and most of the countries that underwent large changes as a result of the Protestant Reformation, a citizen is a free person who can negotiate the extent to which he or she will participate in the common endeavour or in tasks that will benefit the whole country, in other words to opt-in or to opt-out. This is also true for Ireland (a mainly Catholic country, but which was heavily influenced by Norman-English colonisation between approximately 1200 CE and today). This idea of citizenship can be seen in the 17th century work of John Locke. The sort of relationship between employer and employee, in this type of citizenship which has become known in France and Germany, in a somewhat disparaging way, as “Anglo-Saxon”, is that of a commercial contract similar to what exists between a supplier (the employee) and the buyer (the client company).
In Germany, the commonly accepted view of a responsible citizen is of a person who participates sincerely in the work of a community as it decides collectively on the future of everybody affected by the community’s decisions. This idea of citizenship can be seen in the work of Immanuel Kant, the German 18th Century CE philosopher.
In France , a free citizen is one who is given all the respect due to his rank in society. This notion of rank, especially as it pertains to what is “noble” and what is “vile” is described in the works of Montesquieu, the French 18th Century CE philosopher, who had a great influence on the writing of the American Constitution. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, the French revolutionary is quoted by d’Iribarne as giving a good idea of what is meant by this present-day idea of the ideal form of citizenship. In France , the idea of a commercial contract between supplier (employee) and buyer (the company) is strongly resisted and provokes such outbursts as “I am not here to be bought and sold. I have rights”. So the company has to provide the employee with a large number of rights commensurate with his or her rank, some of which are written down but many of which are implicit and contained in the “psychological contract” (also known in France as the “Invisible Contract”). Every corporation in France, whether it be an alumni association or a trades union has its own ideas of what is "noble" and what is "vile". Good French managers know how to manage a whole variety of invisible contracts, not just those underpinned by explicit, written contracts or by appeals to national pride.
In France , the clash between the old and the new has created an impasse. France still sees itself as the Guardian of a set of universal principles that would better manage the whole world than the shotgun practices of American Universalism. The American and British ways of handling the economy, although they have brought about low rates of unemployment are seen in France only from the negative aspect of having created lots of low-paying, vile, McDonald's or Wal-Mart type jobs that not only confer no "rank" but also carry none of the health, retirement and unemployment benefits to which every Frenchman is entitled by birth.
Yet France has to address its unemployment issue and, beginning in 2006 with Jean-Louis Borloo and now with the election of the new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, it is beginning to do so. Where to turn for models of countries that have already succeeded in bringing down unemployment? The Scandinavian countries? But even there there is a clash with the "French model". The Danish, Protestant way of bringing down unemployment and external debt, is seen to lack respect for "rights". The Danes have invested massively in protecting people who are temporarily unemployed, and the unemployment rate in Denmark is very low, but the Danish authorities require that people getting unemployment benefits should accept jobs that do not correspond to their initial or ongoing skill-set. This is deemed impracticable in a French context where an unemployed French person considers it ignoble to be asked to do a job beneath his rank in society.
D’Iribarne's explanations help us to understand how a French company such as Arcelor, which was the subject of a successful hostile take-over bid by Mittal Steel in 2006, had to manage change when it consolidated and closed factories in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century CE in France . It had to help its workers move into jobs perceived as being less “noble” than that of steelmaker. This had to be done by convincing the steelmakers, through very intense and diplomatic negotiations, that it was “dignified” to accept change.
One of the most prestigious engineerings schools in France is the Ecole des Mines, the “ Mines Engineering School ”. While France was opening up new coal mines, the elite Geologists were those who studied ore deposits many hundreds of metres underground. The members of this elite called those geologists who worked on or near the surface, for example those who would help a supermarket company to clean up polluted, dirty soil before a new carpark was built, the “superficials”. When the last coal mines closed in France at the end of the 1990s, the “nobility” among the geologists found it difficult to accept change and see their rank and status fall beneath those of the “superficial” jobs they had considered beneath them and they also had to be convinced that there was no loss of dignity in working so close to the surface.
Therefore, a manager who wishes to be successful in France must be aware of this strangeness and the need to balance freedom, equality and rank with the French person's opinion of his or her entitlements. This is made even more difficult by the fact that even the French have a lot of problems in accepting themselves as they are, torn between the love of their own version of universal, natural laws which frantically attempt to guarantee equality, freedom and state protection for all in a way that does not openly contradict their yearning for the "Strong leader", fixed roles in society and a pecking order based on old-school hierarchy. D’Iribarne says that his countrymen live in a society that continuously mouths words to satisfy the high-sounding principles, but in which actions opposing those principles are put in place every minute of every day to satisfy the need for practicality. He says that the only way to get out of this situation is for French people to stop denying it and to accept reality, but this will need them to take on a much more subtle understanding of their own society. As in every other country that is trying to reconcile a proud history with present-day challenges, there will always be a need for good managers in France.
John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher, whose association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Much of Locke's work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This opposition is both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. Source: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/
Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804), German philosopher, considered by many the most influential thinker of modern times. Life. Born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia ). Kant was an advocate of constitutional republicanism. He opposed democracy, believing that majority rule posed a threat to individual liberty. He says, "Democracy is necessarily despotism, as it establishes an executive power contrary to the general will; all being able to decide against one whose opinion may differ, the will of all is therefore not that of all: which is contradictory and opposite to liberty." (Perpetual Peace, II, 1795). Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant#Political_philosophy
 Quotes from Montesquieu “Distant as heaven is from the earth, so is the true spirit of equality from that of extreme equality...”
"In a true state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of laws." Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Bk. VIII, Ch. 3. Source : http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/montesquieu/montesquieu.html
 Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph, 1748–1836, French revolutionary and statesman. He was a clergyman before the Revolution and was known as Abbé Sieyès. His pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? [What is the third estate?] (1789), attacking noble and clerical privileges, was popular throughout France , and he was elected deputy from the third estate to the States-General of 1789. He advocated the formation of the national assembly, and participated in the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the constitution of 1791 (see French Revolution). He made his chief contributions in 1789–91 with the theory of national sovereignty and representation, and the distinction between active and passive citizens, which restricted the vote to men of property. Source : http://www.bartleby.com/65/si/Sieyes-E.html
©John Gaynard, 2006-2007