Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

There's a faint whiff of the position paper wafting through this book, which was funded by a foundation called the Institute for Current World Affairs (which sounds like a front organization for either somebody's secret service or SPECTRE) and researched during the authors' two years of living in France from 1999 to 2001.

(And, I have to say, "go live in the capital of a major European country for two and half years, do stuff, and write a book about it" is a great job. How does someone go about getting jobs like that, anyway?)

Nadeau and Barlow are a Canadian couple who have worked and written for NGOs before, but Sixty Million is generally a pleasant read, even if it does have facts and figures stuffed into the margins every now and then. Its thesis is basically that, according to North American standards, France's society and government shouldn't work at all -- and yet they do, with France being the world's fourth-biggest economic power (despite legally mandated thirty-five hour work weeks and an average of seven weeks of paid holidays a year) and the French being remarkably more healthy than Americans (despite smoking, drinking, and eating "worse" than even Americans). There are more ruffles and details to the book than that, but that's the big central question: why and how are the French so wealthy, happy, and healthy when, according to how we think the world works, they shouldn't be?

Nadeau and Barlow have divided the book into two large sections -- Spirit and Structure -- each of which has eight or ten chapters about various aspects of French life, society, and government, and then a shorter section at the end about the ways in which France is "now" (circa 2003, when the book was published). Spirit is about how "[t]he traditions of the French, their peculiar understanding of privacy, their love for grandeur and rhetoric, and their peculiar brand of political intolerance are the founding pillars of their society," and Structure is mostly about that gigantic, invasive, often-infuriating French bureaucracy of a government, and why the French want and keep it that way.

Sixty Million was published just before "French" became a slander word for the American right for no good reason, and partially because of that, it's primarily focused on France in itself rather than France as others see her. And that's all to the good; a similar book done a year or two later would feel much more dated now.

This book is a pleasant read and filled with interesting facts about a great country -- one which confuses and even infuriates its friends on a regular basis. Nadeau and Barlow mostly set out to examine particular obvious aspects of French society, so the axe-grinding quotient is fairly low. They do both clearly enjoy and appreciate France, which will annoy the crowd that would never be interested in a book titled Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong in the first place. But, for anyone who's ever wondered why France works -- or if or how it does -- this is a fine, useful book that provides a lot to think about.

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