“The simple thing is to consider the French as an erratic and brilliant people,” said James Cameron, a 20th-century British journalist (who is not to be confused with the movie director of our own time). “They have all the gifts except that of running their country.”
This inability has been put on vivid display this month, as French Muslims have gone on a car-burning rampage. In many parts of the nation, every night has seemed like devil’s night. The political class has been helpless to stop the destruction, which at last seems to be subsiding. Perhaps the arsonists can’t find any more un-torched Peugeots.
Call it what you will: an Islamic intifada, a youthful uprising, or plain-old civil unrest. The sources of these riots are many, from the disenfranchisement of French-born Muslims to a lack of jobs to the hubris of Parisian elites. These disturbances should concern us all, if only because they may have a tragic effect on international trade and the world economy.
I suspect that many Americans, watching the riots on their televisions, have experienced a certain amount of Schadenfreude–that’s a German word for taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. After all, the French have been snubbing their Gallic noses at us for ages.
Following the recent disaster of Hurricane Katrina, many of the French elite seemed to enjoy criticizing the United States for its troubles–and suggesting that a barbaric heartlessness was to blame for what was initially a lackluster government response to the suffering in New Orleans.
French leaders are well practiced at this kind of ill-meant patronization. During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, French president Francois Mitterrand said that he was not surprised by the mayhem because the United States is a “conservative and economically capitalist country” that had not passed enough “social legislation and protection.” What’s more, he said, France would never experience such rioting, “for France is the country where the level of social protection is the highest in the world.”
I would like to suggest that France’s “level of social protection” is in fact a major cause of its current troubles. Today, it is a country hobbled by a sclerotic economy. One of its many fabled social protections, after all, is the 35-hour work week. Combine this with some of the most generous pension guarantees to be found anywhere, and what you have is a country that’s paying its people not to be productive members of a modern economy.
This is nowhere more true than in its agricultural sector. Many French farmers are notoriously inefficient, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in government payouts just to stay afloat. They rely far more on subsidies than the farmers in any other European country or the United States. Roughly 10 percent of the European Union’s budget, in fact, is devoted to French farmers. (Overall, about 40 percent of the EU’s budget goes to agriculture.)
Unfortunately, this is beginning to have a negative impact on farm economies everywhere: French farmers are forcing French politicians to stop the EU from offering serious agricultural-reform proposals leading up to World Trade Organization talks scheduled for next month in Hong Kong.
The current round of WTO negotiations is supposed to focus on farm trade and the developing world, and indeed there is much to be done. The United States has offered a daring proposal to cut its own farm subsidies and open its markets even more. The Europeans, constrained by French intransigence, have responded timidly.
Through a mix of price supports, quotas and tariffs, trade in agriculture is far more distorted than it is for any other commodity. Failing to address these factors through the WTO amounts to an enormous lost opportunity–not just for the rest of the world, but for France specifically.
The French need to understand what their storied “social protection” has wrought: a powerful sense of entitlement that causes people from all walks of life to march on Paris whenever someone suggests a minor policy adjustment that would orient the country more toward the global market. It’s a depressing state of affairs.
“Social protection” certainly hasn’t bought much social protection: One out of every ten Frenchmen is currently unemployed, and this distressing rate is actually far higher among the young men who comprise the rioters’ young-male demographic.
France’s central planners may have thought they could run their economy. Now they find they can barely run their country.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.