Bert hamminga   The French!            version date 991203
Different Capitalist Cultures   Cultural diversity table      Questions

Dealing with different capitalist cultures, the French deserve a separate WebPage for themselves. They might even protest vehemently if they would not get one. I wish to keep my windows intact, so here we go.

Histoire, grandeur, monuments

Monuments are found everywhere, but Paris is stuffed with them to a density allowing this city to be called a three dimensional stone and metal multimedia presentation of French history. And this is no accident. Paris is designed for that purpose. The most spectacular axis of the city is the perfectly straight line between the Louvre in the centre and the Grande Arche more than 10 km to the West in the brilliant modern office and shopping quarter la D�fense. Looking westwards from the Louvre, exactly over that straight line you see first the Arc de Triomphe du Caroussel, then the Obelisque, then the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile and finally, when the weather is good, the Grande Arche. It looks as if King Louis XIV had, in the 17th century already ordered for the drawings of the town as it is now and had planned the history of France in the four centuries of the rest of his millennium. And the best way to learn the meaning of the French "grandeur", is to go to Paris and see how this city was set up.


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The businessman as a servant of political power

One thing becomes clear seeing Paris: this was not a place where business people were in charge of affairs. This city is built under the aegis of a power structure cherishing nobility, artists, and intellectuals. That does not mean production and trade have low priority to the French. The French traditionally were used to regard armies and wars as the best way to acquire wealth, until a commercial mentality change occurred during the reign of Louis XIV known as mercantilism. Its most famous exponent is Colbert, Louis' minister of finance, who explained the matter thus to the warrior nobility: "Trade companies are the weapons of the King and the industries are his reservists". Business grew everywhere in Europe at the time of mercantilism, but nowhere business was so straightforwardly defended as something at the disposal of a King. French culture does not, to say the least, set business and industry as the purpose of life.

Theory and intellectualism

History does not only permeate buildings and streets of Paris. Whatever subject French speeches and lectures have, it seems they all ought to begin with the grandeur of French history and end with the grandeur of the French future. And what has to be said in the middle, be it complicated or simple, should definitely be coughed in philosophical terms. 

The French are often characterised as being possessed with an elegant, elitist but often at the same time emotional and anarchistic type of intellectualism. This  is best explained by examples:

On a French radio channel  there is a discussion about new problems with homeless people: recently more and more mothers with young children become homeless in France. It took me some time to understand what they were talking about because they consistently where talking about the "evolution in the social psychology of the street".

Sunday. I am in a French park where many people sit on the grass for lunch (it is not unusual to take from home five dishes or more for the purpose). White wine flows abundantly. Two young men go for a stroll and their girlfriends stay around the lovely dishes lively discussing family problems. When it comes to her mother, one of the girls consistently expresses the subject as "la psychologie de ma mère".

The sometimes somewhat artificial love of theory and theoretical terms does not escape satire among the French themselves. Hampden Turner and Trompenaars mention a neat joke among two men discussing some possible change in their organisation, and the problems they expect in defending their proposal in higher echelons: "Yes, this will surely work in practise, but will it work in theory?".

In France, it is quite fashionable to be sceptical about capitalism. Just to assume the profile of anti-capitalists, many intellectuals in France flirted longer and more intensely with communism than has been fashionable among intellectuals of other capitalist countries. If anything, capitalism is tolerated in France as a servant, but it should not take over. Labourers and the elite agree on that! Free market is good, unless it becomes a threat to France, French language, French culture. And French food! A farmer damaging a McDonalds restaurant in a French town recently became a national hero. Do not come with the argument that the restaurant has a lot of French (!) customers and is much more profitable than the average French restaurant! Such economic arguments are thought to be irrelevant or even just betray your devilish capitalist ideology. French cuisine is at stake! So swallow back into your stomach this dirty saliva of your economic arguments, or else you might get hurt.

The French are equally precise with how they want their history as with how they want their food, and bad service meets similar rage. Hence, sometimes it is better not to tell them the truth about history. For instance, about croissants (copied after a Turkish invention), café (Turkish), café au lait (Viennese), and above all "Francofonie". The original Franks spoke something close to Flemish. The Franks moved in from the north-east and originally established the Belgium language border, but they were at the north, now Flemish side. At the south side was still a mixture of Celts and Romans who spoke Latin stuffed with Celtic errors. That dialect later was adopted by the Franks invading Gaul. This Celtic version of Latin led to the modern French. Do not tell them! Another illustration: a Swedish scholar took the initiative to do research on hairs of Napoleon. From hairs, arsenic poisoning can not only be proven. It can even be inferred exactly on which days the victim was fed with arsenic, and on which days he was not, as a result of which it can, in combination which other sources be inferred with astonishing probability which French nobleman was in charge of Napoleon's poisoning at St. Helena. But French historians uncovered the Swede's mission and no more of Napoleon's hair was put at the disposal of the Swedish - English team. Thus far no further research on this subject has been taken up. The French are in charge of their own history! The French perception of history is intimately connected with power and the unity of France. The European Union decree on the emancipation of regional dialects, nowhere in Europe a serious thing, is a real problem in France.

Speaking about intellectualism: there is also a remarkable difference between the typical English and the typical French discussion: the English discussion is a debate where adversaries in a sportsmanlike atmosphere contest what is true and what is false. They use objective arguments that are in line with "rules" of argument both parties agree to, usually reinforced by a referee. English debating is sports.
In a French discussion participants compete by providing beautiful metaphors, subtle references to history and philosophy, and literary esthetical phrases. They are more like beautiful cocks displaying their feathers. Often there is a moderator, who typically does not act as a referee and discussion leader, but uses his position to show off as the most colourful cock of them all. French discussion is art

French business, politics and power

The French businessman, as a servant of state power, is competing with other servants, such as scientists, specialists and high state bureaucracy officials. And in the eyes of the average French the businessman tends not to be estimated as high as these other types of Servants of France. The most despicable thing about a businessmen is that their performance, measured, as it is in business, in money, can be so high as to be in complete disharmony with their nondescript rank in the power and status structure, sometimes obliging genuinely important French officials to dine with such an "arriviste" (someone who would gladly be ignored if only he were not very rich). Very annoying people! Clearly this prompts businessmen to pay attention to acquiring the correct behaviour and status in pushing themselves into the French power structure, and act like a member of the established political elite. In France, business management has to be something "political". You need political power to be a successful business man. The political power structure consists a set of time honoured pressure groups, to which you belong and normally stick during your career. Hence you know beforehand whether or not you will agree with someone: if he is in your pressure group you will always agree, if he is in a rival pressure group you will never agree. French, it is said, never convince. Trying to convince is useless. What you do is negotiate. And there are some other options you have (nicely listed in HTT): "débrouiller", also denoted by "démerdre", is finding a way to do exactly what you want while still being able to argue you follow the rules and agreements. Also highly valued is "pistonner", (manipulating) and "combiner", organising secret concerted efforts of a small group within an organisation. Clearly, we are very far here from the German idea of a manager who primarily is associated with production on the working floor, and the English idea of a manager purely engaged in cleanly monitoring rates of return accounts. A French manager is a power politician, a courtier. The genetics of his behaviour model ultimately takes us back to how France was ruled from the beds and dark corners of Versailles more than 200 years ago. In the HTT questions, the French obviously stress relations and social capabilities (with the Italians and Japanese). 

HTT   provide an illustrative English/Dutch-French intercultural anecdote: Shell had decided to use the American "Hay"-system to decide on promotions. A universal, objective system with points, calculations and other neat and clean things like that, determining whether or not your data allow for your promotion. The French personnel department made its decisions first. After that, those who were chosen for promotion where told to complete these Hay forms "for the management".....

The family model and the uprising against the father

In all capitalist cultures your job is part of your social status, but France (and Italy) are extreme in this. If you are  "Le Chef", "monsieur le directeur", you are so also at the tennis court and in the restaurant. You feel responsible for your employees, not only during working time, but generally. You feel it is you duty to "protect" them. Paternalism, a dirty word in for instance The Netherlands, is a virtue in France. "Paternalism" refers to the role of the father, or elder in a family, who protects his children and safeguards the family for the dangers of egoistic individuals that might harm the group.

This family model for the firm is elegantly (how could it be otherwise!) formulated by a French authority on business management, Fayol Henri, in his Administration Industrielle et Générale (p.20): "The principle is that the interest of one employee or group of employees should never be allowed to outweigh the interests of the company. The same holds for members of a family and the family as a whole. The interest of the state prevails over the interests of a civilian or group of civilians. For individual interests are marked by ignorance, ambition,egoism, laziness, weakness and passion. This makes it easy to loose sight on general interests."

Henri advises the manager as Machiavelli advises the prince: he sees the manager as a ruler, a courtier, a civil servant of France.

It is this kind of capitalist mentality that makes Laurent put power in the centre of French business thinking: more important than the particular aims of a firm at a certain moment. He believes in American firms it is the other way around.

But the French stretch the family model even wider: national politicians are seen as the peaks of the national power structure in which the industry and commerce are among the servants. In their turn, they are expected to protect the firm, just as the firms protect the workers. That contrasts most sharply with the Anglo-Saxon view of macro-economics. Anglo-Saxons tend to see the state as an economic referee mainly to blow the whistle for "fouls" like monopolies and other agreements obstructing the economic game of free competition.

No wonder that in the recent social unrest over diesel oil prices the French were the first to lower prices by governmental ruling, thus causing great difficulties and unprecedented unrest in other European countries where the capitalist culture deems such government measures inappropriate.

But, just as there is this tendency in the French soul for paternalism, there also is a notorious tendency to counter this family approach. The French have a lust for anarchy, revolution, emotional uprising against power. Many French intellectual heroes consistently preach anarchism, uprising. Their pictures of the new France to rise after the revolution they preach are usually fine works for an art museum, but no blueprint for practical politicians. The French and their intellectuals identify very naturally with protesters ("contestaires"): "YES, they are right, it is a big mess, let us show them we are sick of it!!". You assemble on the streets, giving air to your bursting emotions by shouting and singing, demonstration and riots, and a good fight with the police. And, in earlier days, hang some people.

1999. On the radio another big Paris demonstration strike is announced. Hundreds of thousands of people have decided to go, busses are hired, shops protect their windows, police is prepared for the worst. But what shall it be about? Radio France  INFO asks . "Contre le patronnage!" (Against the employers!) is the answer of one organiser. No! states another leader on the same radio channel one hour later: "this will be a demonstration against the flight forward of capitalism!".