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How to count in French

Jacqueline Hénard , September 23, 2012

Lunch with an entrepreneur from Bavaria. H., who must be in his late sixties, has spent his lifetime building a company that is now run by his son, H. himself focussing on what he considers fun, like starting new projects in the Balkans. Not an easy task but certainly big enough a challenge to avoid getting bored during retirement. To me, he is a perfect representative of the Mittelstand that French and British politicians envy when looking at Germany: hard-working, ready to go for new opportunities, always an eye on what happens aboad and basically family-minded. His lifestyle is by no means aristocratic, although he would certainly have the financial means to indulge in all sorts of status symbols.​

​Inevitably, the conversation turns to the Euro crisis, to what it means for business and what the French will ultimately do. To its European neighbours, France is in a key position, though not necessarily in the way the French and its governments spin doctors like to see things. "Why in the world", H. wants to know, "did Hollande start out his presidency by building a Southern alliance?" The idea seems extravagant to him. Spontaneously, Germans will expect a French socialist president to act like a German social-democrat - which is to say, reasonably, by entrepreneurial standards, somehow like Gerhard Schroeder, the social-democrat who took the country, its employees and the trade unions down the road to structural reforms of the labour market that pay off in jobs for millions of Germans and immigrants.

H., who is not particularly interested in politics, wonders why the new French president did not start out with a clear reform programme, pushing through massive savings in the state sector and more flexibility in the labour market. "He should simply stand up and tell the truth. Put the figures on the table, and then people would understand..." Ach, German logics do no mix with the French way of looking at the facts!

It is not that France lacks information on where it stands, both in absolute figures and comparatively. Governments have mandated many commissions to analyse the facts and to come up with recommendations, which they do. The Cour des comptes regularly warns the government to be more rigorous in its houcehold policies. For years, French media have been pushing the facts down people's throats. But that's where they stay. Somehow, the understanding does not seems to follow.

Contrary to the Germans, the French do not cherish accountancy rigor. No way to build consensus on a savings programme by appealing to reason, and to basic budgetary rules! Money is a vey abstract notion, more so than in other societies. A sentence like "les caisses sont vides" (former prime minister François Fillon) does not sound right, but both uncomfortable and hypocritical. The state has always had money, and if it doesn't have money, this is either a lie (the French rely on their state, but they do not necessarily trust it) or an incomprehensible refusal to print more money. ​

​During the recent election campaign, the leader of the extreme left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had a big part of the public on his side when he refused the mere idea of financial discipline, and called for bizarre new accountancy standards, les normes du droit de vivre. The day I was having lunch with H., Jean-Luc Mélenchon once again spoke up, for the first time since the left came into power. He criticized the government for "hollow politics" and for doing "almost nothing"... Many foreign observers might be tempted to give him credit for being so outspoken. But this may be only because they do not know how to count in French.

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