Why Do the French Hate the Rich…So Much?
Janet Hulstrand, writer, editor and teacher, who has spoken at Après Midi on several occasions (on different topics, because she is so versatile) just launched her newest book, “Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, And Make Them Love You” (available only in the Kindle edition for the time being).
The book is designed to help you readers “crack the code,” avoid common mistakes, and get off on the right foot with the French. The idea is to learn how to survive in a French world, by understanding the “cultural reasons for the French being ‘the way they are.'” In a recent article Janet wrote for Bonjour Paris, she asks, “Do the French Really Not Understand Us? (Or are they just being mean?)
“Oy vey. “Mean?,” she asks. We’re trying to understand them, and they’re trying to understand us, and no matter how hard we try, we just keep missing the cultural boat. So many books about our cultural differences have been written that they fill a library. Still, we keep questioning, searching, seeking out answers for why it is they seem to look like us, but don’t behave or think like us…at all.
Because of the recent protests by the “Gilets Jaunes,” the latest puzzling question on my brain is why the French hate the rich so much, when we Americans admire them and aspire to be rich. This grassroots citizens’ protest movement is predominantly against the tax system that they see as unfair and unjust. It pisses them off that while fuel taxes went up (designed to curb the use of diesel fuel), taxes on companies and the wealthy went down to promote business and hopefully encourage the rich to come back home (or come from other places) to France to spend their money and tax euros here instead of elsewhere. They are so upset that they want their new politically centrist president to resign. They uncomplimentary call him “the President of the Rich.”
We have just the opposite situation Stateside. We elected a man who is among the richest of the rich and was proud to boast of how he used the tax laws to claim almost a billion dollars in operating losses to avoid future income taxation. Imagine what good uses could have been made with that billion dollars except for making him richer? In his own words: “I was able to use the tax laws in this country and my business acumen to dig out of the real estate mess,” Donald Trump said during a campaign appearance in Colorado. “Few others were able to do what I did.” And the voters ate it up! They thought, “Wow! He’s going to teach us how to be just like him — get rich and screw the U.S. government by cleverly finding the tax loopholes!”
Why is this? How could we be so different? Why do the French hate the rich so much? Do they see Donald Trump as the perfect example of evil? And why don’t they want to be rich? Is it so bad to be rich? And if so, why? Don’t they want the pleasures that money buys them, too? The questions keep flying around my head. I don’t have the answers, but I have some ideas. Just Google the question, “Why do the French hate the Rich” and whole myriad of articles come up. Clearly, I’m not the only one asking this dumb question, and none of the articles I ready really answer the question. So, what’s the true answer?
First and foremost, let’s take a good look at the basic ideals of capitalism vs socialism. The U.S. has primarily a capitalist economy and France has primarily a socialist economy. This is where the fundamental differences begin.
“The major differences between capitalism and socialism revolve around the role of the government and equality of economics. Capitalism affords economic freedom, consumer choice, and economic growth. Socialism, which is an economy controlled by the state and planned by a central planning authority, provides for a greater social welfare and decreases business fluctuations.” (Source: study.com/academy/lesson/)
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Americans coming from a capitalistic economy, now living in this socialist economy in France, can tell you first-hand what those advantages and disadvantages are. Ask any American trying to run a business in France what it’s like. Then, ask any American with a salaried job in France what that’s like. The first is a kind of hell and the other a total pleasure, decorated with all the benefits of a socialist system: good and affordable health care, high quality education, a formidable infrastructure, etc., etc., etc. Those of us who have chosen to live in the “hell” of doing business, enjoy the other benefits of the socialist system and aren’t ready to trade it for…what? More money.
I had dinner with Craig Carlson, owner of two American-style diners in Paris, Breakfast in America, and author of a memoir, “Pancakes in Paris” along with his partner, Julien. Craig is American; Julien is French. Craig told a hellish story in his memoir about what it has been like as an entrepreneur in France. They were the perfect twosome with whom I could ask these questions and out of it came a very enlightening conversation.
Julien was the first to chime in with these words: “Que fait l’état?” In working with a non-profit association made up of citizens, some of the older members immediately asked, “What’s the government going to do (for us)?” While the association is “by the people, for the people,” that wasn’t good enough. They wanted more and they didn’t want to do it by themselves, for themselves. Not all, but some. Those expected the state to chip in.
Craig, as a business owner, takes a personal responsibility and wants to do the right thing vis a vis his employees, but his hand has been bitten on more than one occasion, as he related in his book. What shocked me the most was that he explained that while he has taken a salary out of his own company, and paid dearly into the social security system and retirement programs just like everyone else, if something were to happen to the company and he became unemployed, he wouldn’t have the right to the unemployment benefits like his other employees…simply because he’s the owner!
“WTF?,” I exclaimed! Once again, the business owner gets punished. There is a serious mistrust of business owners in France, stemming from a long history that follows the French around like a dog’s tail. President Emmanuel Macron is desperately trying to change that point of view, but he’s having a seriously hard time convincing the French that they need to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” so aptly put by our own John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech of 1961. He wants them to realize they have the power to do it for themselves and not be so dependent on the government.
Macron is still missing the boat, I interjected — that he needs to do more than reduce the wealth tax. He needs to provide incentives to both business owners and employees to work harder, earn more, get richer, enjoy the benefits of their own efforts. Past president Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007 with the campaign slogan “work more to earn more.” He had the same bright ideas, but failed in his attempt to abolish the 35-hour work week, much like Macron is failing now to show the French a new path to success. What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they want to prosper and grow?
I equate it to the human body. An employee benefit is much like a fat cell: when old ones die, they are replaced by new fat cells. Fat cells never go away, but can only shrink in size. Only Liposuction can reduce the number of fat cells in a person’s body and so it is with French government benefits. Macron is trying to cut away the “fat,” but there’s too much “yellow vested” resistance that don’t want to go on a “diet.”
Still, I questioned, how can it be that when the French revolted against the aristocracy, as did those who fled to the Americas, all about the same time (the French Revolution in 1789 vs the American Revolution in 1776), that the French eventually went left politically (socialist economy) to the extreme and the Americans went right (capitalist economy), also to the extreme?
Capitalism’s roots stem from northwestern Europe (Holland and Britain) in the 16th and 17th-centuries. That can explain how it landed on U.S. shores thanks to the first settlers, but at the height of the First French Empire, Napoleon wanted to introduce a “continental system” that would make Europe economically autonomous, thereby emasculating British trade and commerce. (Source: Wikipedia.org) Capitalism was not a foreign concept in France then, so what changed along the way?
As I started to research the subject to answer the question of why the French hate the rich so much, I discovered that a lifetime of research might not ever get to the crux of the answer. More questions continually pop up. For example, European brands account for about 70 percent of the global luxury goods market and guess who’s in the lead? France and Italy, with France producing about 17 billion euros a year. Funny, isn’t it? France produces luxury goods and it drives the French economy, but its residents can’t afford to own them and they hate the people who can and do. Go figure.
One thing for sure. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. France could use a whole lot less socialism and a lot more capitalism. And the U.S. could use a whole lot less capitalism and a lot more socialism. The French need to give up some of those fat cells and the U.S. needs to take on a few. As an American seeing both sides of the equation, I’d love to marry the two and come up with a balanced way of having our cake and eating it, too…on both sides of the Atlantic.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(By Linda Hervieux)
P.S. Saturday, January 19th, 2019 is the third anniversary of the Global Women’s March and it’s an official day when women and men will be marching around the world for…WOMEN. Democrats Abroad France is planning two connected events, on both Saturday the 19th and Sunday the 20th. We encourage you to attend both. See democratsabroad.org/ for more information and to RSVP.
P.P.S. The first episode of Adrian Leeds on House Hunters International 2019, Picture Perfect in Paris, airs TONIGHT! See the details on our HHI page. Set your DVRs now!