The world needs French lessons

In summer 2008 we found an apartment in Paris. But getting a mortgage was tricky. French banks wanted proof that we’d be able to keep paying no matter what. We showed them some shares. Shares can fall, they scoffed. Then a bank sent me to a cardiologist. He turned me inside out, and was already ushering me wordlessly out of the door when I asked him what he’d found. “It’s OK,” he mumbled. He wasn’t working for me. He was working for the bank, which wanted to know whether I might live long enough to pay off a 25-year mortgage.

All this struck me then as risibly cautious, an example of France’s fear of modern finance. But about a month after we got our mortgage, the global financial crisis struck. Shares plummeted. So did housing markets, but not in France. The French didn’t give subprime mortgages, and so now they don’t have foreclosures.

With hindsight, my checkup was an example of how right the French often are about the big issues of today. Sadly, hardly anyone outside France knows that. The death of French as a major language, and the collapse of foreign interest in France as anything but a resort-cum-food hall, has deprived the world of a great corrective to bad ideas.

It used to be said that every civilised person had two fatherlands: his own, and France. Of course, that never meant that the world spoke French; only a small international elite did – indeed, speaking French was a marker of being in the elite – but that elite ran the world. Years ago in New York I visited one of the last great foreign Francophones, the late political theorist Tony Judt, who told me that until about the Kennedy administration, leading American policymakers knew French and France. They could hear what clever French people were saying.

The current global elite cannot. Judt’s own career sums up the fading of France: he went from historian of France to all-purpose political theorist. French is ceasing to be an international language. Last year, for the first time, fewer than 10 per cent of documents translated by the European Commission were written in French.

Contrary to foreign belief, most French people have admitted defeat in the struggle with English. The French establishment is determined not to let France become an open-air museum, unlike a certain neighbouring country they could mention, and so millions of French people (including toddlers) are now learning English at TGV-speed.

That’s because the French know that everything they say in their own language gets lost. If the French thought up the Enlightenment now, nobody abroad would notice. This is a shame, as I realise whenever I pick up a French newspaper or go to a debate in Paris. There are some very smart people here. The canard that they communicate exclusively in Stalinist or postmodernist jargon is decades out of date. They do still tend to think differently to most foreigners, though: in general, the French rely less on data, and more on reasoning from first principles. I went to one conference on globalisation where a French historian praised a compatriot: “I heard in your Kant a little Rousseau.” At the coffee break, a Dutch economist grumbled: “I just think, ‘Who cares what Rousseau said? I want facts.’” But as other French thinkers have explained, facts are only constructs anyway.

When French thoughts do get heard, as if on a crackling radio, they tend to get distorted. In 2003 the French government said that invading Iraq might not be a brilliant idea. That prompted a popular foreign notion that the French were supporting Saddam Hussein because they hated Jews. I asked Judt how such a bizarre theory could have taken hold. He explained that the only bits of French history most Americans knew were the Dreyfus affair, the wartime Vichy regime and the Holocaust.

In fact, France opposed the Iraq war largely because the French establishment informed itself from different historical experiences to foreign elites. In particular, the French remembered Algeria, where they had spent years trying to subjugate an Arab population and had ended up as torturers. Jacques Chirac, French president in 2003, had served in Algeria. However, France’s analysis didn’t register abroad. Foreigners just sneered at “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

This autumn, French workers protested against the raising of the retirement age. Foreign commentators sneered that they were protesting against modernity. In fact, the French have devised the best work-life balance on earth. They have something to lose. But foreigners cannot hear their arguments.

France isn’t always right, but surprisingly often it is. Nonetheless, coverage of France in the foreign media tends to take a teleological slant. The driving idea is that the French must inevitably become like us: they will end up working harder, copying our economic thinking, and backing the US and UK in future international conflicts.

That would be a shame.

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