Of all the countries in the industrialized West, France has the reputation of being the least capitalistic. Hand-in-hand with this observation is the anti-American (really anti-Anglo) and anti-globalization mindset of the French elite that is shared by much of the population. In France only 36% agree and 50% disagree that "the free enterprise system and the free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world." This is a considerably more negative view than the rest of the world based on a 20-nation poll conducted by World Public Opinion.org.
As I write the French presidential election is in the homestretch of the second round. The center-right candidate Sarkozy waffles back and forth toward free market principles, but in general French politicians are cold to the market. The London Times reporter in Paris, Charles Bremner, noted on his blog that,
"All the main candidates are promising to reconcile France with the modern globalised economy and the business world, yet all of them are promising to defend the country against the forces of the market place. Laurence Parisot, head of Medef, the national employers’ organisation, noted today that u2018not one of the candidates has understood le libéralisme.’ France remains u2018divorced from money and the business world, especially in media commentary,’ she told Les Echos, the business daily."
In the French context read le libéralisme, or liberalism in English, as classical liberalism.
I am an American libertarian who has recently moved to France. The most common word of derision I hear is bourgeois. Yet when I respond to the speakers that they are bourgeois themselves, they readily agree. Certainly I feel philosophically distant from my French friends. But that is also true regarding the great majority of my American friends who have never heard of von Mises except from me.
What moves me to write this article are signs that I am a libertarian not totally in the wilderness. For example, the special edition (January-February 2007) of the French weekly Le Point titled "Smith, Tocqueville, Hayek … The Fundamental Texts of Liberalism." Prominent on the cover are images of the three luminaries. The volume is broken into three sections based on the 17th and 18th, the 19th, and the 20th centuries. In each section are essays on several writers (given below) and examples of their fundamental texts.
17th and 18th centuries
Ludwig von Mises
Friedrich von Hayek
Alexis de Tocqueville
John Stuart Mill
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot
I cannot imagine a more serious and honest view of the fundamental ideas of classical liberalism written for a general audience this side of the Mises Institute. For example, the essay on von Mises contains the following three quotes (my translations):
"his economic knowledge was immense which allowed for particularly original contributions."
"He showed that public ownership of the means of production did not permit rational economic calculation."
"Mises explained that the different forms of interventionism (price controls, taxation, monetary inflation, etc.) result in the opposite of their intended effects."
The forward to the Le Point volume written by Catherine Golliau begins "In France generally u2018liberal’ is an insult when u2018communist’ is only old fashioned. Why?" One part of the explanation is a consequence of the collapse of the Maginot Line during WWII, the ensuing NAZI occupation, and the collaborationist Vichy government. All are considered conservative, bourgeois (capitalist) failures. In contrast, the resistance was dominated by communists. Thus after the war virtually all of society became à le gauche (to the left).
The English writer and former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple has recently moved to France and presents a more nuanced view of French society. He writes, "I picked up — Liberation — had one of the most arresting headlines I have ever seen anywhere: Vive l’impot, Long live tax." The first thought that entered my mind might also be yours: typically French. But he continues,
"The peculiar thing is that the belief that tax is a kind of institutionalised kindness goes along with an attitude that makes a hero of anyone who succeeds in pulling the wool over the taxman’s eyes, and commiserates with anyone who gets caught cheating on his taxes. I doubt that the journalists at Liberation are any different from their compatriots in this respect. We in Anglo-saxonia are hypocrites about sex, but in France they are hypocrites about money."
In a similar vein, I have found the typical Frenchmen has great esteem for the state, but are more likely to ignore or skirt a silly bureaucratic command than a typical American. I find this attitude refreshing. I am not confident, but I am hopeful, that the French will follow their classical liberal instincts.
Ira Katz [send him mail] lives in Paris and works as a research engineer for a French company. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.