The Politics of Gratitude and Resentment: Reflections on France IV

[For earlier parts of this essay, see France Notes, Spring 2006.]

On the trip to Normandy, at the entrance to Bayeux, there’s a Place Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a statue of Ike along the circumference and some potted plants. Nothing suggests that it serves as anything but the slightly ornate middle of a traffic circle. No visitors, no special cross walks, no cut flowers.

We visit Omaha Beach. It’s a cold day. No one is there. A couple of signs one in both English and French, one only in English, inform the visitor briefly of what happened. Very matter of fact. This is not a major site for visiting, and to the extent that it is, it seems to be an American place. I walk along the shore, imagining the invasion, the 2500 dead in the first hours… American, English, Canadian soldiers on this Longest Day. And my mind scurries back to how the French dealt with the Nazis in the 1930s, how they folded in days in 1940 and the vast majority either collaborated or stood by for most of the war, how in the aftermath of that war, after having their ass saved by the Anglophone world, they proceeded to insist on holding on to their colonial empire in Indochina and Algeria, having “force de frappe,” conducting a visibly and often abrasively independent foreign policy, all for the sake of la gloire française.

There’s a military cemetery nearby where over 7000 American soldiers are buried. It is a barren place. One other couple shares the area with us in a light morning rain. The memorial was established in July 1956 – 12 years after their deaths, by Americans. (A French association does exist, but one does not get a sense of vitality.) The inscription above the memorial reads:

THIS EMBATTLED SHORE, PORTAL OF FREEDOM, IS FOREVER HALLOWED BY THE IDEALS, THE VALOR AND THE SACRIFICES OF OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.


Written by Americans, for Americans. The French President, René Coty apparently could not attend the opening ceremony, but wrote a brief letter to those who did. “We do not forget, we shall never forget, the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have given all for our freedom.” As we leave, three busloads of school kids arrive. If I had the time, I’d have toured with them, just to hear what their guides told them.

I couldn’t, however, shake the sense of desolation, of a pervasive absence of French recognition and gratitude at this site. And while gratitude is not an easy emotion to cherish, the French, imnsho, desperately need to recognize a) how badly they behaved before and during WW II, b) how much their current prosperity depended on American sacrifice and generosity, and c) how they may just be making the same mistakes all over again. Instead, I was haunted by the remark of an French friend, “The French cannot forgive America for saving them twice.” It is in the world of lost honor and bitter shame, of envy and wounded pride that no good turn goes unpunished.

And if karma operates anywhere in the universe with relative rapidity and efficiency, it’s in the negative consequences of indulging this level of ressentiment. All envy exists at the cost of he who indulges it.

Not that the French are nice to each other, as opposed to “the other.” While we are in Paris, the issue of the CPE (Contrat de Première Embauche [First Employment Contract]), a law recommended by the Prime Minister Dominique Villepin to alleviate the unemployment scene. At first glance it seems alright: in order to encourage bosses to hire people and allow people who have never had a job to have an easier time of getting one, the government will wave the constraints on firing. So anyone getting their first job gets a guaranteed two years, but at the end of that time, can be pink-slipped without cause.

At first glance, it seems like a good idea. French law makes it so hard to fire people that many small business owners prefer not to hire anyone lest they get saddled with someone they can’t get rid of. Given how high unemployment among youth (20% for the Gaulois; 40% for the immigrant youth), the idea of encouraging bosses to hire them for their first job, giving them job experience, possibly earning their long-term higher with their performance, seems like a way to break an unfortunate deadlock. Much as De Villepin strikes me personally as an odious Chauvinist who’s done irreparable damage to us all (including France), this particular idea of his seemed pretty good to me.

But it has French youth in an uproar. I ask a taxi-driver what he thinks. “It’s a terrible law.”
“Why?”
“Because the bosses will just exploit you for two years and then throw you out like so much garbage. I had a job for a couple of years, worked incredibly hard, and then got thrown out. It took me a long time to recover any sense of self-worth.”
“But why would the bosses act this way. Isn’t it in their interest to keep people whom they’ve trained and who work well.”
“Because they can. And with an endless supply of CPEs, they can continue to use and discard people.”
“But that’s counter-productive.”
“They do it because they can.”

Later, talking with a family whose son was in the USA – more Jewish youth getting out – on an internship (what the French call a “stage”), they reinforced the comments of the taxi-driver. Their son gets a salary for his work. Not great, but he can live on it, and when he does well, he gets rewarded. Their daughter’s friend at the table, tells us that she’s doing a stage at an architectural firm – no money, no future. She’s supposed to be happy to get the experience.

It reminds me vaguely of the famous remark of the Athenians to the Melians reported by Thucydides: “Those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.” Classic zero-sum thinking from the patronat [bosses].

Like the internet minutes at cafés, the praise of Americans at museum exhibits, the willingness to denounce anti-Semitism… everything in tiny dollops. Generosity is for suckers. Adam Smith, master thinker of positive-sum rationality pointed out that slavery was a very inefficient system, but people preferred it even though it was against their self-interest because they liked the feeling of dominion. It helps explain why the French system would work so hard to protect the employees from arbitrary manhandling by their bosses.

So the culture is in a deadlock. Increasing unemployment, even good solutions unworkable because so much bad faith pervades the system… and now, riots that revive those of ’68 (without the utopian vision) and replicate those of Ramadan 2005. Increasing unemployment, even good solutions unworkable because so much bad faith pervades the system… and now, riots that revive those of ’68 (without the utopian vision) and mimic those of Ramadan 2005. “Down with the state, the cops, the bosses.” As some of the rioters expressed themselves:

C’est débile de brûler les voitures… de casser un magasin, mais finalement inconsciemment quand tout brûle, et bien maintenant les gens vont vraiment s’enerver maintenant… c’est un truc, c’est un symbole c’est même pas…
Il faut s’exprimer, si personne ne fait rien, y’aura rien du tout… nous on s’exprime…
C’est ça qui est paradoxale, il faut faire des actions totalement débiles, detruire des trucs…
La democratie elle est morte, quoi, c’est fini… voilà.

[It’s idiotic to burn cars and smash a store, but in the end, unconsciously, when everuthing is burning then people will really get aroused…
It’s a gimmick, a symbol, not even…
Got to express yourself, if no one does anything, there won’t be anything… we are expressing ourselves…
That’s what’s paradoxical: you have to do totally idiotic things, destroy stuff…
Democracy is dead, finished, that’s it…]

The pensée débile expressed by these youth, the notion that acting out represents serious political action, especially when attacking a well-intentioned law, the readiness to announce the death of democracy like it was an old shoe that didn’t fit anymore… apparently the quality of French education has fallen off in more than just the “lost territories.” To protest Ilan Halimi’s torture, one can barely get the students to show up; to break stuff and reject a law intended to help them, hundreds of thousands, day after day. Maybe it’s not dead, but democracy and civil society, with all the discipline and restraint it demands, may well be dying here.

7 Responses to The Politics of Gratitude and Resentment: Reflections on France IV

  1. John says:

    I’d like to make a quick comment on the French efforts at labor market reform through the CBE. My background is in administering foreign aid programs. One of my first exposures to the unintended negative consequences of rigid labor laws aimed at “improving the conditions of labor” was during a Peace Corps stint in Ecuador during the early 1970′s. A group of us conducted a survey of small business around the town we served in.

    What we discovered was that the many laws regulating employment often led to unwelcome outcomes for workers. For example, a law existed that workers employed for longer than 3 months would be eligible for severance pay of 1 month per year employed. The consequence was to increase the turnover rate of payrolls to avoid severance pay obligations, which of course, resulted in decreased level of worker skills and thus lower productivity.

    As a consequence of this experience, I sympathize with your French taxi driver to some extent. The CBE, in my estimation, may not make the French labor market any more flexible. In fact, it may rebound negatively on the Government’s goal to reduce unemployment by increasing payrolls. French employers may react much the way Ecuadoran ones did to a similar effort. They may very well arrive at an optimum firm level solution which involves turning over younger, less skilled, personnel every two years or less. If this is the result, no long term solution to structural labor imbalances will result.

    Therefore, I’m a little less sanguine than you about the tepid CBE, by itself, being the solution to anything. A major overhaul of labor market regulations will eventually be required. In fact, the results of the CBE may work against achieving the more fundamental reform requireed to lower unemployment and provide more flexible employment options.

  2. ROBERT CHOWNN says:

    GREETINGS RICHARD;

    VERY WELL PRESENTED!

    WE WERE IN JUNO AND OMAHA LANDING SITES MANY YEARS AGO.

    AS TIME GOES BY WE HAVE LOST SO MANY, AND IN FRANCE MANY OF THOSE WHO LIVED THROUGH THE WAR ARE NO LONGER AROUND. THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS MOVE ON, AS ALWAYS I SUPPOSE.

    IT WAS AWESOME TO BE THERE.

    BOB CHOWN, VANCOUVER.

  3. RL says:

    John, thank you for your thoughtful comments. i hadn’t thought of that aspect of the problem, and you may be right. altho i suspect that the parallel to your ecuadorian example is the legislation that the CPE is trying to resolve.

    i think you’re right about the long-run need to rehaul. this is a band-aid at best. which makes the situation all the more poignant. a weak stab and resolving a problematic french workers entitlement provokes massive rallies and riots in protest.

  4. RL says:

    Comment from Nidra Poller:

    No, it’s not a guaranteed two years. It is a two-year period within which the person can be fired “without justification ” at any time. And you have to understand that the “without justification” doesn’t mean that employers will just shout “get out of here!” They may well explain why they are firing the person. “Without justification” means without the employer having to hire a lawyer for a year to fight a case that he will lose before the Prud’hommes, and without having to pay baksheesh to get the employee to finally drop the case. Whatever the contract, employees on the other hand can quit from one day to the next without explanation!

  5. RL says:

    Comment from Nidra Poller:

    yes, of course the lack of mutual trust is a factor. There are associated factors that I would consider, having to do with the attitude toward work, the lack of skills in practical everyday organization of work, the penchant for ideology over action, the nostalgia for past greatness and refusal to rethink their rôle in the greater economic community. But this CPE crisis is not just about French cultural problems, it’s multicultural in the worst way.

  6. [...] only way to understand it is in terms of a profound resentment of the US in Europe, and an unwillingness to own their own follies [...]

  7. [...] In the zero-sum world of honor, being indebted to another is a humiliation. This is so widespread a phenomenon, that we have a saying: “No good turn goes unpunished.” A French friend of mine was once asked to explain French anti-Americanism on a TV interview. “The French will never forgive America for saving her twice,” she replied. Nail on head. [...]

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