In three previous articles, I started to discuss the phenomenon of French-bashing and its implications (if you have not read those articles yet, check them out here, here and here. The first article present the most important articles or “attacks” that are considered as French-bashing in France. The second discusses the relationship of De Gaulle and the Anglo-Saxons, while the third analyzes the way France sees globalization).
French-bashing: but what do the numbers say?
Obviously, the French believe that the attacks in question, and French-bashing as a whole are absolutely unfair. Some commentators, like the Economic Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had been agreeing with the French (he had noted, for instance, that the French economic indicators were not so bad, while, one day later he was outraged by the recent “social-liberal” conversion of President Hollande).
Those who defend themselves in economic debates (or who defend the French, in the case of Krugman), usually come out with numbers. Let us look at a few numbers then, just to make sure that we understand how unfair “French-bashing” might be!
Take the Titan-Goodyear debate that took place in early 2013. Just to bring up to speed those who do not remember, Maurice M. Taylor Jr., the head of Titan suggested in a letter that French workers are lazy (“work 3 hours, take lunch for 1 hour and chat for 3 hours”), and he added that this was one of the reasons why he did not want to buy a Goodyear tire factory in Amiens. Now, in reality, according to OECD data, French workers put in more hours a year than their German counterparts and they are also more productive then German workers!
These numbers are public numbers, and one would suppose that a big company’s CEO, who supposedly weighs the possibility of buying a factory in France, would be aware of this. Yet, in his letter, he refers to discussions with trade union representatives, not to statistical data! Do you want to know why? Stick with me, we’ll get to that soon (an no, it’s not necessarily ignorance).
The French workforce is no worse than the German. French infrastructure is stellar. Data prove it. The French know it. They try to advertise it. Yet, the leading opinion we hear is that taxes are high and that the business environment is unfriendly. That the weight of the public sector kills private companies.
Foreign direct investments practically flee from France since Mr. Hollande took office.
Everybody knows that public services are relatively good in France. For instance, the health care system is among the bests in the world, and while France has many problems with education, there are a few very good universities and grandes écoles that are internationally competitive. Yet, and again, the leading opinion that competitiveness is very low in France.
Yes, as the London Embassy put it in that famous statement, collecting relatively high taxes and offering first class public services is a political choice on behalf of the French state, and the society as a whole.
By the way, would it be possible that it has something to do with the productivity of French people? Or would it be possible that the fact that the French still consider Sundays as sacred, is also in relationship with their performance during the week? Is it possible that French workers have more time to refill than workers who have no sacred weekend day?
I don’t know. These are just questions that pop into my mind, and I would be happy to see studies that go after these questions. If there would be studies that prove that this is how things go in France, it would be easier to defend the French model: in this case, investors would receive something in return for accepting this different model. Now they feel that they are losing something because of it. And this dilemma is in the heart of the phenomenon that we call French-bashing.
To sum it up:
Thou shall remember: numbers DO NOT matter.
As Fleur Pellerin, former junior minister in charge of innovation and SMEs, and current secretary of state in charge of the same policy put it in the foreword of this information brochure written for potential investors, “what you don’t know may surprise you”.
And it is true. Many people, economists and journalists included, do not know that French workers are performing that well. Or they do not know all about that infrastructure (payed for by the taxpayers, of course).
French-bashing: a problem of framing, not numbers
And that’s just it. Consumers (and in our case, journalists and economists are consumers of the France country brand) not always look for all informations. They do not need to know everything about a product in order to have an opinion about it. When you are a producer or an industrial, do you expect every consumer to do a research every time they buy your product? You don’t.
The thing is this: the French government wrote a letter to CEO Taylor. Krugman ran the numbers. There is a government agency called Invest in France Agency, it is not hard to figure out what it does. The Embassy wrote that article. And yet, in spite of all efforts, ‘French-bashing’ continues and lives on. And the French feel quite offended, because their numbers are not that bad.
And the debate is totally misplaced.
Because argumentative letters do not matter.
Numbers do not matter.
Economic indicators do not matter.
Because all its life, France have had a certain idea of France. And for sure, others also have had a certain idea of France.
And these too images don’t necessarily coincide.
We can conclude that the story has two completely different sides (isn’t it always the case?). It all comes up to how the arguments are framed. When selling the France brand, image and perception matters. Numbers don’t.
Is there any possiblity for France to change the perception? How to re-frame the France debate to end French-bashing? I’ll be discussing all this in an upcoming article to be published here on www.sooseszter.com.