Incentives Matter: Sad Anecdotes From a Sapped France (UPDATED)


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The French "lost generation" story has become a journalistic (and cinematic) genre onto itself, as the population of funny-accented expats swells in more dynamic places like New York, London, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. This big Newsweek take on the topic, by a Brit named Janine di Giovanni who moved to France with her Gallic husband a decade ago, provides a valuable snapshot of what it looks like on the inside of a country slowly but surely leaking its energy. 

Though it rests on anecdotes from unnamed locals, the piece (for me, anyway) contains the strong ring of familiarity, while also providing a cautionary tale of what might happen if certain American polities decide to go more French. Excerpt:

As a new mother, I was surprised at the many state benefits to be had if you filled out all the forms: Diapers were free; nannies were tax-deductible; free nurseries existed in every neighborhood. State social workers arrived at my door to help me "organize my nursery." My son's school lunch consists of three courses, plus a cheese plate. 

But some of it is pure waste. The French state also paid for all new mothers, including me, to see a physical therapist twice a week to get our stomachs toned again. […]

When I began to look around, I saw people taking wild advantage of the system. I had friends who belonged to trade unions, which allowed them to take entire summers off and collect 55 percent unemployment pay. From the time he was an able-bodied 30-year-old, a cameraman friend worked five months a year and spent the remaining seven months collecting state subsidies from the comfort of his house in the south of France.

Another banker friend spent her three-month paid maternity leave sailing around Guadeloupe – as it is part of France, she continued to receive all the benefits.

Yet another banker friend got fired, then took off nearly three years to find a new job, because the state was paying her so long as she had no job. "Why not? I deserve it," she said when I questioned her. "I paid my benefits into the system." Hers is an attitude widely shared.

It's a pretty comfy system for non-ambitious people who are able to find work. The problem is that the number of those people continues to shrink, while the potentially job-creating ambitious seek a meaningful life elsewhere.

Whole thing here.

UPDATE: A reader living in France mails in a corrective to di Giovanni's story:

Matt, I'm an American living in Paris, a fan of your blog, and no fan at all of Francois Hollande's economic policies … but you really messed up in praising that Newsweek "Fall of France" story. You said that the anecdotes have the "strong ring of familiarity"—well, it seems Janine di Giovanni was counting on her readers reacting that way, because a lot of her story was simply made up. Free diapers, free baby nurseries and state-subsidized gourmet lunches at her kids private school? All utterly false—and I should know, I raised a kid here. A junior cabinet minister sent to Davos last year because nobody else in government speaks English well enough? Actually the Finance Minister was at Davos and gave a talk in English, which he speaks fluently. Milk in Paris costing $4 per half-liter? The real price is about 50 cents—what is she living in some kind of parallel universe? The basic point of her  story, that France is over-taxed and stifles growth and entrepreneurship, is undoubtedly true. But plenty of others have written that story already, and backed it up with real evidence which would not have been hard to find if she had gotten off her duff and done some real reporting.