The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
July 04, 2005

France & Britain: we are both going to hell in a handbasket - just in different ways

Posted by Anthony Daniels

France and Britain are both in decline but in different ways, says Anthony Daniels. France has better preserved its cultural capital, but Britain is more economically vibrant. Anthony Daniels argues that both countries are unable to tackle their particular problems: no French politician has the guts to deal with the rigidity of its labour market; no British politician has the guts to deal with its low educational and cultural standards. The British should however realise that their predicament is at least as dire as that of France.

As with everything the Social Affairs Unit publishes the views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its advisors, Director or Trustees.

It is instructive to read the press of another country, especially what is written about one's own country. And ever since the No vote in the French referendum on the European constitution, Mr Blair bestrides the French newspapers like a colossus. It is he who is seen as, if not the victor, at least the beneficiary of that vote, and the arbiter of Europe: he who, according the French press, is that most fearful of political creatures, a savage neoliberal. Try telling that to a British small businessman.

On 27th June, in Liberation, the left-leaning daily, Thomas Piketty, a social scientist, wrote an article about escaping from the Blairist trap that threatened to ensnare France. In this article, he makes several good points. The French GNP per head is approximately the same as the British, yet not only do many more of the British than the French actually go to work, but when they get there, they work many more hours than the French. French labour is thus about 25 per cent more efficient than British labour, and if the British are as rich as the French it is only by virtue of the crude and impoverished expedient of working so much.

Of course, long hours do not necessarily mean that inefficiency and unproductiveness are spread evenly throughout those hours. If I remember rightly, when we had the three-day week during the unlamented premiership of Edward Heath, output declined not by 40 per cent but by 20 per cent, suggesting that at least one day of the normal five-day week was spent producing nothing. And from my experience of British bureaucracy and officialdom, I should say that the less they went to work, the more productive they would be. This is because their work has negative value.

M. Piketty points to the comparative excellence of French education, at least primary and secondary (he concedes that tertiary education might be better in Britain, in which case I can only say God help France) as a cause of French labour's superior productivity. And it is certainly my impression of France, where I am spending more time these days, that the general educational and cultural level is far higher than in Britain. There seem to be many fewer completely gormless people in employment in France than in Britain perhaps they are all at home receiving social security payments. If you go into a French shop, for example, you don't feel, as so often you do in Britain, that the person behind the counter has just eaten a vast pudding that has dulled his or her brain.

Where it seems to me that M. Piketty goes wrong is that he ascribes the advantages of France to its so-called "social" model: the model that produces fonctionnaires like the savannah produces termites, and that allows certain categories of workers to retire on a very high percentage of their salary almost as soon as they have begun to work. (Incidentally, our model is not so very different - but where the French have unemployment, we have sickness.)

The French population looks more alert and intelligent - and much less brutal than the British because, whatever its other shortcomings, the French government has not yet succeeded in destroying its educational system quite as comprehensively as successive British governments have destroyed the British system. And this really has nothing to do with the amount of money spent on education. The average Frenchman is better educated than the average Briton not because the French have a top rate of income tax of 65 per cent, and a wealth tax besides, and a "social model", but because their teachers are better.

All you need to be a good teacher is a blackboard, some chalk, a few textbooks and pens and paper. It may be nice to have other things, but they are just whistles and bells. If you teach people properly to read, write and reckon, they will not be entirely without resources with which to tackle the modern world. If, on the other hand, you do not, then no number of subsequent initiatives will redeem them. The lamentable fact is that a high percentage of British children leave school less literate than Tanzanian peasants.

I don't want to make France out to be what its inhabitants would like it to be, or sometimes pretend it to be: the homeland of all culture and intelligence. Not long ago there was a rash of books published in France lamenting the decline of French educational standards. One, by the education correspondent of Le Figaro, recounted how, when he published an article in which he claimed that the standard of teachers was declining, he received 600 letters in reply from teachers, 200 of which contained orthographical errors. Furthermore, if you talk to French university teachers of science, they will tell you that the plight of French science is grave. America is the only hope for French science and scientists.

If France is in some ways better-placed than Britain, it has nothing to do with its "social" model; it is because it has better preserved, or perhaps destroyed less, of its cultural capital, without having been completely wise or far-seeing. It is certainly not a country to imitate, except in its relative (but only relative) educational conservatism.

Britain and France are very similar in their inability to tackle the problems that confront them. The French cannot tackle the rigidity of their labour market, that makes the creation of new jobs or new enterprises so difficult, because no politician has the guts to do it; the British cannot tackle their abysmally low educational and cultural standards, which are obvious even on landing at a British airport, because no politician has the guts to do it. In the abstract, France's problems are the easier to solve, though in practice everyone in France is so ready to struggle, even violently, for the preservation of his own little privileges and protections (while pretending to do so for the good of humanity the French are just as hypocritical as the British, but their hypocrisy attaches to different things), that politicians prefer the tried and trusted policy of Apres moi le deluge.

Both countries are sleepwalking to insignificance and international oblivion. We are united by our decadence.

Anthony Daniels is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Well, Dr. Daniels, good to see by today's tragedy that the British handbasket isn't moving as quickly as one might surmise from your writings.

Posted by: Omri at July 8, 2005 01:30 AM

This article demonstrates a pomposity beyond belief other things in education other than chalk and talk are whistles and bells in education oh yeah good point and I dont think. I love the tone of this article oh our poor countries devoid of culture and education oh to be such a genius to dismiss everthing as worthless peasant stuff. Hope my lack of punctuation allows you to feel superior.

Posted by: R M at February 8, 2006 08:03 PM

It's amazing how often an obliging detractor will come along and exemplify precisely what Dr Daniels is talking about.

Posted by: Paul H. at July 15, 2007 11:06 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement