February 7, 2014 12:26 pm

How to save France

‘As a Briton married to an American, I know about national decline. The key is to embrace it’
Proposals for France illustration©Luis Grañena

France has lots going for it. I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s a beautiful, fairly well-off country with good food and a life expectancy of 82. Yet as the therapists would say, it’s “not in a good place right now”. Only 30 per cent of French people polled by Ifop in January felt “optimistic” about the future. This is the worst level in 19 years and represents decline from a low base. The French were already less optimistic than Iraqis and Afghans.

At this point it’s conventional for us “Anglo-Saxon” pundits to tell the French to slash the state, face up to globalisation, etc. But obviously that’s not going to happen. Here instead is a realistic set of proposals.

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Simon Kuper

1. Accept that you are a small country. As a Briton married to an American, I know about national decline. The key is to embrace it. French speakers at international meetings should say things like, “You may not have heard of my country. It’s near Belgium and has almost three-quarters the population of Ethiopia. Our language is very like Spanish.” Once the French absorb the fact that France is just an ordinary country, hardly better than Britain, then its role in the world will suddenly make sense and feelings of lost grandeur will go away.

2. Move the capital south. The French ruling class lives in small gardenless flats in a cold, snobbish, overpriced city. Cramming the political, business and intellectual elites into the same few neighbourhoods has encouraged harmful groupthink. Paris damages France through its effects both on French policy and happiness.

Meanwhile the country’s sunny southern expanses are mostly left to the peasantry. This is madness. If the government moved to Provence, the political elite could live the delightful rustic existence it now gets only in August. Paris could be sold off to African dictators, Chinese party members and London commuters – a trend that’s happening anyway. The city could become a tourist site like nearby Disneyland Paris.

This suggestion goes with the French grain. In both world wars the government briefly moved to Bordeaux, enabling the elite to discover the excellent Chapon Fin restaurant.

3. Meanwhile crack down on rudeness in Paris. Parisian rudeness has reached epidemic proportions, due to growing French “morosité” and overcrowding in Paris as ever more residents and tourists pack in. Anne Hidalgo, Socialist party candidate for mayor, really shouldn’t boast about high visitor numbers.

Even new resident Scarlett Johansson complains about “terribly rude” Parisians. If she is snubbed, what chance do humans have? The government should proclaim Paris a crisis zone for rudeness, and use emergency powers to intervene. France’s security services already intercept French emails and phone calls. Anyone overheard greeting a customer with a reprimand (the characteristic Parisian interaction) could be punished with ritual humiliation. This might mean being sent out to dinner in a sweatsuit that reads, “Property of Ohio State Athletics Department”. Once in Provence the Parisians will cheer up anyway.

4. Formal modes of address – “monsieur”, “madame”, “vous” etc – should be banned. Their main function isn’t politeness but the creation of human distance. “Vous” could fade like “Usted” in Spanish. Again, there’s a good French precedent: the French Revolution banned “monsieur” and “madame” too.

5. Pay school teachers to compliment pupils. “You sound less stupid today, Fabrice,” could qualify for a €1 bonus, for instance. Currently, French people are taught the critical view – of themselves and of everyone else – from their first school day when the teacher greets them with a reprimand. Praise from teachers would have long-term transformational effects on national character. That would help lift the gloom. The French tend to think they are morose because the situation is terrible. In fact the situation seems terrible because they are morose.

6. All schooling should be in English. The French can speak French or they can shape the global debate but they can’t do both. French can survive as a “kitchen language”. It probably won’t be altogether forgotten, as it’s increasingly taught as an accomplishment in high-end New York schools, like Latin.

7. Donate the French army to the United Nations, to serve as the UN’s permanent peacekeeping force. The French “defence” budget last year was €31.4bn, more than five times the UN’s peacekeeping budget. That’s because France (like certain other well-known countries) still likes to meddle in foreign conflicts in the name of grandeur. Meddling while wearing blue UN helmets would scratch that national itch, but would raise the chances of doing something useful.

8. Replace the “First Lady” with a rotating team of First Ladies. There should always be a stock of seven or so for the president to choose from for different functions. An actress might be perfect for one event, a journalist for another, and a gay male (I’m presuming French presidents will for ever be men) could accompany the chief to places like Sochi. Alternatively, France could restore the monarchy again and let people obsess over royal sex scandals instead.

French readers are invited to submit suggestions for Britain.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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