Explaining France, a reader request

France. Explain

By which I mean this: relying solely on prejudice and snippets of information, it would seem to me that France should be an economic backwater. The rate of taxation, cost of labor, early pension age, large public sector, high welfare payments, etc., none of this suggests a highly dynamic and performative economy fit for the 21st century. Certainly, it would seem, nobody would use France as a model for restructuring their economy, but the country does seem to emerge from each crisis more or less unscathed, and remains highly prosperous, with an admirable quality of life. Why is this? What are they doing right? Are they just lucky? Or (more likely) am I just poorly informed?

In all fairness, previous talk of a "Franco-German economic alliance" has dwindled and Germany is now seen as the key to EU financial decision-making.  And France has gone from the world's number one cultural power to a minor player.  Still, the French economy has held up relatively well.  A few points:

1. The French elite work very hard and are educated very well.

2. Contrary to stereotype, France has arguably the strongest work ethic in the world.  Given the rates of taxation, and the difficulty of being fired, most people still do a fair amount of work and they do it fairly well.  If that's not a work ethic, what is?

3. Esteem and approbation are especially important in France, as incentives.  This is one reason, not always voiced as such, why immigration in such an issue there.  It breaks down prevailing forms of status competition.

4. France has been well-positioned to benefit from the growth and economic integration of Europe.  The more open the economy, the less domestic economic policy matters.

5. The French are very smart and able, and have been so for a long time.  You'll note that a wide variety of French companies, whether Dannon or Carrefour, do well around the world.  The French are preeminent globalizers.

6. The foreigners' view of France, and its charm, would be very different if all of the country's buildings dated from after World War II.

7. The French are the very best, and wisest, consumers in the entire world, whether it be for clothing, music, food, or for that matter Hollywood movies and American blues and jazz.  The French government tries to influence this activity, or put up some nominal protectionist measures, but for the most part this French specialty and strength remains unregulated.  It helps account for the very high living standard there.

8. If you see a "World Music" recording from a French record label, buy it.

Personally, what I find most distressing about France is the limited number of dimensions for status competition.  Very often there is one right way to do things, to dress, and so on.  But that's also part of what makes the place work.


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