the pity of france,

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    Aug. 28, 2003
    The pity of France, By Bret Stephens

    I'll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don't wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day. - Albert Camus in The Fall

    Toward France, as toward a spiteful uncle felled by stroke and partially paralyzed, one can be of two minds: contemptuous, or pitying. What France is getting in its summer of discontent, it had coming. What France is learning about itself, the rest of us have long known. After 9-11, there were those in Europe who said, "There were good reasons for that." It's time to say the same about France.

    This is an angry column, and perhaps in a year or two I will regret some its language. But I will also make an effort to recall that in the month it was written, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad vied for the credit of murdering 21 Orthodox Jews, and France refused to cut off the sources of funding to either group. I will recall, too, that at the French Cultural Center in east Jerusalem, which is affiliated with the French Consulate, student poems celebrate the "pure blood of the martyrs," and these are posted for everyone to see.

    So my sympathy for France is not great, which is why I review some recent headlines with satisfaction. August 26: "French trade edge slips: central bank cites shorter workweek." August 21: "France joins 3 neighbors in an economic decline: Quarterly results worse than expected." July 11: "Events halted amid strikes in France." July 8: "France sinks deeper into state deficit."

    OTHER HEADLINES arouse different feelings. August 25: "Heat leaves Paris with many dead unclaimed." August 21: "Taking grim stock of heat's toll." August 19: "French health official quits, blaming politics."

    Obviously there is no pleasure to be taken in the fact that between five and 10 thousand French men and women, most of them elderly, poor and living alone, succumbed this summer to the terrible heat. But here too one must also point a finger. Where were these people's children as they were suffocating in oven-like apartments? They were on holiday. And what happened when they got the awful news? "Informed of the death of relatives, some [vacationers] postponed funerals to avoid interrupting the Aug. 15 holiday weekend, and left the bodies in the refrigerated hall," went a report by John Tagliabue in The International Herald Tribune.

    Such are the customs of France. We are talking about a country that insists on its "exception," which is only true in the sense that it actually conforms to every caricature about it: vain, cowardly, conniving, intellectually superficial, self-deceiving, politically and socially corrupt, with low moral standards (except when it comes to standing in judgment over the rest of the world), fundamentally anti-American and pervasively anti-Semitic.

    But I understate.

    This is country where last year one in five voters - that is, 5.8 million people - gave their ballot to a Holocaust denier. This is a country where the Council of State recently ruled that Maurice Papon, the Vichy official who deported Jews to Auschwitz by the thousands before going on to bigger and better things in the Fifth Republic, just had his pension reinstated after serving a two-year jail sentence. This is a country that earlier this year united as one to oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and cheers at every American setback. This is a country that seeks the leadership of a European Union whose rules it routinely flouts. This is a country that aspires to an alliance with Russia, China and other semi- or full-fledged dictatorships so that it can stick it in the eye of Washington and its "simplistic" president. This is a country in which the president, the prime minister, the minister of health, and the director general of health all were on vacation when a public-health catastrophe occurred.

    And, as I said earlier, this is a country that's getting what it asked for. Other places on earth are subject to the odd canicule, or heat wave. This summer, the mean temperature in Paris was about what it was in Chicago and Detroit. Nobody was dying from heat in those cities. What made for the French "exception" in this case wasn't mother nature. It was government policy and the national culture that supports it.

    How do I mean? Let's see. For years, France and the rest of the EU, in self-righteous hysteria over global warming, imposed draconian energy taxes to limit consumption. It worked. Among other things, low-income households could not afford the luxury of climatisation - air conditioning - and made do with fans and open windows. So in order to avoid the theoretical possibility of a warmer world 100 years hence, people are dying in their bedrooms from the warmer climate now. "The summer health crisis has underlined a new schism in society - between those with air conditioning and those without," says Chantal de Singly, director of the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris.

    Then there's the 35-hour work week. This Socialist Party inspiration to distribute jobs more evenly has only increased labor costs. As a result, hospitals are chronically shortstaffed. A story in theWashington Post tells of conditions at the Retirement Home of La Muette in Paris, where five caretakers tended to 88 residents. "Even on normal days we're already running on a daily miracle," says La Muette's assistant director.

    Let's also not forget the paid summer holiday, that most sacrosanct of French entitlements. Apparently it occurs to no one that people working in certain professions - hospital managers, for instance - have an ethical obligation to ensure their institutions are adequately staffed throughout the year. Instead, doctors and nurses, like everyone else, take off for the month, and whole wings of hospitals are shut down.

    So we have stories like that of 70-year-old Monique Taupin. Feeling ill, she took herself to the hospital on a recent Saturday, which according to the IHT report was both understaffed and overcrowded. She went home that evening to her air-conditionless apartment, and was found dead by the police the next day. Only on Monday was her body removed for refrigeration, the delay owing to shortstaffing of city crews.

    Keeping wholly within character, the French response to the crisis has been one part self-flagellation, and 10 parts whining. "It's not for Father State to take care of our elderly. It's up to us," wrote Renaud Girard in Le Figaro. But more typical was the view of Paul Campvert, president of the nursing homes association. "The government presents the problem as if the solution were private," he said. But the answer needs to be "collective, by means of taxes and contributions."

    Pity, that. In their addiction to state subsidies - from unemployment insurance to pension plans to government make-work to corporate bailouts - the French are peerless. But the well's gone dry. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is bravely attempting to pare spending. He will not succeed. Future national crises will ultimately push this government into doing what French governments always do: capitulate.

    At some point, of course, successive capitulations will lead to a general collapse. France may be eternal, but it's not for nothing that the current constitutional arrangement is known as the Fifth Republic. Its problem is not political. Nor is it social or economic. Its problem is Frenchness itself. Other countries confronted by militant trade unions, for instance, have broken them. That's what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain. Other countries confronted by a broken welfare system have fixed it. That's what Bill Clinton did in the US. Other countries whose governments were heavily invested in their own economies have sold off state assets. That's what Ernesto Zedillo did in Mexico.

    But not France. Trade unionism, indulgences for the indolent, a collusive relationship between industry and government - that is France. So is the endless summer vacance, the short working hours, the general attitude of entitlement. In France, as in places like Japan, what's lacking isn't economic or educational or technological resources. These they have in spades. What they lack is an ability to change. Yes, France is eternal: the nation of Napoleon III is the same as the nation of Henri Petain is the same as the nation of Jacques Chirac. Progress has not intervened. The mindset that brought France to its crises of the 1930s operates today.

    FORTUNATELY FOR the rest of us, upon France's fate the world's no longer hinges. It has become a country that can be ignored, which no doubt is why it screams the loudest. No longer dangerous, it has become merely obnoxious. The pity of France is, it deserves our pity.
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