Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Les Malentendus

The previous post on the French state strikes at one of the fundamental differences between French and American society, one that lies at the heart of many of the misunderstandings between the two countries: American individualism vs. French solidarity. Understanding this difference is key to representing each other without resorting to caricatures.

This difference of which we write was already encoded in the nineteenth century and being taught in schools in little school books on moral and civic instruction. The American version went by the name of The McGuffey Readers and promoted virtues associated with the "self-made man" especially as it pertained to individual rights. G. Bruno's Tour de la France par deux enfants, on the other hand, taught several generations of French school children the virtues of solidarity in society, in particular one's responsibility to other members of society. Bruno narrativized the republican moral code. Other texts were more explicit about it. The image above comes from the table of contents to Louis Liard's nineteenth-century Morale et enseignement civique. Notice the emphasis on responsibility and duty (devoirs). There is only one section in the entire book on 'rights.' That section starts out by noting that "In exchange for the duties imposed on the citenzry, the citizens must receive from the State a guarantee of their individual rights." Thus does the State exist, to protect these rights. These civil rights are enumerated as freedoms:
1. Individual Freedom: the right to do as I please (in accordance with the laws of the State and the rights of others to do likewise).
2. Domestic Freedom: the right to live where and how I please (in accordance...).
3. Freedom of thought: the right to think/believe as I please (in accordance...)
4. Religious Freedom: the right to believe or not in whatever I choose and to practice these beliefs (in accordance...)
5. Worker's rights: the right to work in whatever profession I choose.
6. Freedom of Association: the right to join my intelligence, work and money with likeminded individuals for a common goal (in accordance...)
7. Political Freedom: the right to elect officials and be elected.
The French emphasis on responsibilities and duties stands in stark contrast to the American emphasis on rights. While the American Bill of Rights was enacted as a guarantor against injurious action by the State toward the individual (thus the emphasis on "freedom from"), the French moral code was predicated on the State's role as guarantor of those rights ("Cette garantie est la raison d'être de l'Etat). The State exists to provide these rights to its citizens. So while Americans tend to view the State with suspicion, the French tend to view it as a protector.
Such a difference helps to explain the vastly different views on many issues including, for example, taxation. Americans view it as the State taking what is rightfully theirs, while the French view it as their responsibility toward a State that provides for all. Entrepreneurship is another area of difference. The American desire "to get the government out of the markets" speaks of a desire for innovation and individual initiative but leaves the individual bearing the risk of failure and corruption. The French approach mitigates risk for the individual (health care, unemployment, social security, etc.) but his potential wealth as well. Hence, the dampening of individual initiative.
This means that in the US the wealthy are wealthier and the poor poorer. The French are generally shocked at what they see as horrible disparities of wealth in the US while Americans often mock the regulation that kills initiative and potential wealth in France. These are the caricatures that pundits resort to because they refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other form of society.


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