While we were away I caught up on reading my newspapers, which had been piling up last week. In the Thursday New York Times, Roger Cohen had an Op-Ed piece about the new French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, who is a proponent of moving France to a more "American" way of life.
Nicknamed "The American" by her countrymen, Ms. Lagarde is making an effort to get the French to, basically, work more: “We are trying to change the psyche of the French people in relation to work.”
Her attitude was nurtured by 20+ years in America:
"In an interview, Lagarde says that more than two decades at a U.S. corporation taught her: 'The more hours you worked, the more hours you billed, the more profit you could generate for yourself and your firm. That was the mantra.'" (Ms. Lagarde was the first chairwoman of the Chicago- based law firm Baker & McKenzie).
Ms. Lagarde feels the passing of the legislation for the 35-hour work week in France had "disastrous" effects in her home country. She said the result was that “People did not really talk about their work. They talked about their long weekends.”
(Quelle horreur! Heaven forbid that people should prefer to talk about their real lives instead of work! How dare they? This must stop!)
Ms. Lagarde wants to lower the unemployment rate from 8% to 5%, and raise the percentage of the population that is gainfully employed from 63% to 70%, by the year 2012. How does she plan to accomplish this?
"Tax cuts, the termination of unemployment benefits for those refusing two valid job offers, later retirement, incentives for those working more than 35 hours, a slashing of the bureaucracy associated with job-seeking and improved professional training are among measures enacted or envisaged. Legislation to reverse the 35-hour week is possible."
Hmmm, tax cuts. Terminating unemployment benefits. Longer working hours. Sounds familiar. Sounds very...American.
Cohen supports Lagarde's goals: "Without a dynamic France, Europe cannot be revitalized, and a Europe in a Gallic funk is bad for everyone. If an overbearing America has been a problem, an underperforming Europe has been its complement."
I disagree with the idea that every country and every culture has to center its efforts on "performance." Why is the American model always held up as the "right" way to live? Why do so many people believe in hard work as some kind of moral imperative? That the correct way to conduct one's life is to work long hours, make more money, provide more profit for the corporations, take as few vacations as possible and live in constant stress?
At one time, there were good reasons to work hard. The purpose of work was to provide food and shelter for one's family. Now it is to hoard money, more money than anyone needs to live. Work, and its goal, profit, have been elevated to a type of religion here in the United States.
And now this sickness is spreading to countries that used to be more sensible about work, who believed life was to be enjoyed and to be lived to the fullest.
The French are not giving up their more leisurely way of life without a fight. Unions protesting reforms in the pension plans paralyzed Paris starting on Thursday and the unrest may continue into November.
But I fear that as time goes by, gradually more and more countries will start to adopt our ways. And if they do, the cafe' life, the intellectual discussions over a glass of wine, the long vacations that other cultures enjoy, will become a thing of the past and eventually every country will be just like us. And that would be a sad day in the world.
Soon to be a thing of the past?
-A scene at La Palette, our favorite cafe' in Paris
(picture courtesy of http://hilton.org.uk/pppp.phtml).