by Janine di GiovanniFeb 22, 2013 4:45 AM EST
It came from the mouth of an American businessman, but it struck a raw nerve here in France.
“The French work force gets paid high wages but only works three hours,” wailed the chief executive of Titan International, a U.S. tire company, in a letter to France’s industry minister.“They have one hour for their breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three.”
A recent Newsweek piece even hailed Hollande for putting France back on the map as a “manly superpower.” But back at home, it’s increasingly clear that stifling union rules, high unemployment (and higher taxes), and a baffling lack of entrepreneurial spirit signal a country in crisis. And the deepening sense of dread can be traced directly to the educational system.
“It’s a culture of nul,” says Peter Gumbel, whose bestseller On Achčve Bien les Écoliers (They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They?) criticized the French school system for creating a generation of bureaucrats who refuse to think out of the box. Nul, or “worthless,” is a familiar word to the French—it’s often tossed at schoolchildren who do not get their lessons right.
The aim of French schools isn’t to impart the wonder of learning, according to Gumbel, but to learn to endure an achingly competitive system. French children are taught to parrot, not to analyze—to memorize endless passages and vomit them out.
Hence, Gumbel argues, there is no French Mark Zuckerberg, or Richard Branson, or Steve Jobs. Sure, there are plenty of brilliant minds in France, such as the phenomenal former finance minister Christine Lagarde, a former competitive synchronized swimmer. But Lagarde’s career was largely honed in America, and her detractors called her L’Americaine. She also left France to take up Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s former post at the International Monetary Fund.
Wealthy, or striving toward wealth, is not a compliment in France.
“There is not the spirit of entrepreneurship here,” said one French management consultant who made it through the rigorous French graduate school system, worked in finance in London, and came back to Paris to raise his family.“The state system and its huge amount of administration and paperwork discourages venture capitalism.”
Fric, the slang for money, is seen as vulgar. The consultant cites as an example Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH—which includes the luxury brands Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior—who was publicly mocked as a sale con (dirty asshole) because he is a successful, rich businessman. Wealthy, or striving toward wealth, is not a compliment in France.
At the last World Economic Forum in Davos, where global leaders of government and big business mingle in the Swiss Alps, France was woefully under-represented. Despite the fact that David Cameron of the U.K., Angela Merkel of Germany, and many other world leaders were present, Hollande—a Socialist president who must appeal to the unions—skipped it entirely.
Representing France instead was Fleur Pellerin, 41, the brilliant minister of Internet, small businesses, and innovations. Pellerin is unusual: born in Korea and abandoned at birth, she was adopted by French parents. Now she is trying to carve an energetic niche for New France, one that can encourage and use its talent to compete with the Brazilians, Chinese, Indians.
“Education is so vital,” she says, in perfect English.
There is painful joke that Europeans often tell of their Gallic neighbors: God created France, the most beautiful country in the world with so much good in it, and ended up feeling guilty about it. He had to do something to make it fair. And so, he created the French people.
My French friends and French husband, even my 9-year-old French son, hate this joke. And yet, there is a terrible ring of truth to it. Often the French, with their extraordinary lifestyle and la belle vie, can be their own worst enemies.
Whether they like it or not, they must globalize or die.