Sarkozy Forces the French to Join the 1980s

To the extent that the French enjoy a natural advantage, it is in their inefficiency: They are the world’s most efficient producers of structured indolence. They are the kept women of the global economy; their status depends, in part, on their practical uselessness.

Reinvent the British and you get a global finance center, edible food and better service. Reinvent the French and you may just get more Germans.

That’s Michael Lewis writing opinion for Bloomberg:

Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) — A few years after Margaret Thatcher came to power and launched what at the time seemed a futile war to compel the English people to embrace business values, I found myself dazed and confused in a London corner shop.

Down one aisle and up the other, I paced but found no trace of what I’d come for: the world’s finest pseudo-cookies. The shelf that once held those delicious McVitie’s wafers coated with milk chocolate was now stocked with less desirable items.

At length, I went to the middle-aged shop owner and asked where she’d hidden my favorite treats — this gift from the gods to those of us who want to pretend our cookies are merely crackers.

“We used to stock those,” she said, sweetly, “but we kept running out, so we’ve stopped.”

Right then I thought: Thatcherism is doomed. The English will never embrace efficiency, or money-making, or the-customer- is-always-right mindset, or any of those uneasy values that underpin modern capitalism.

I was wrong, obviously. The English have not merely embraced commercial values but have become so thoroughly imbued with them that London has displaced New York as the world’s money hub. A nation of people once embarrassed to complain that their soup was cold is now among the first to demand to speak to the manager.

But that was England, and those were the English. This is France, and these are the French.

…From this safe distance — 6,000 miles away — it’s hard not to admire Sarkozy’s audacity. Here’s an elected leader, serving at the pleasure of the French people, who has taken it upon himself to do the one thing certain to induce despair and hatred in the hearts of those people: force them to become more productive.

Inflicting market values upon the British circa 1980 felt a bit cruel, but visiting it upon the French circa 2008 feels almost like an unnatural act, like forcing a cat to fetch.

Of course, it’s possible to change a society and to drag it into the global economic monoculture. Mrs. Thatcher showed how: Break up collectives and make people feel a little bit more alone in the world. Cut a few holes in the social safety net. Raise the status of money-making, and lower the status of every other activity. Stop giving knighthoods to artists and start giving them to department-store moguls. Stop listening to intellectuals and start listening to entrepreneurs and financiers.