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Fear And (Self) Loathing In France

Gargoyle of Notre Dame de Paris
Gargoyle of Notre Dame de Paris
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS A 4G offer? Danger! Bitcoin? Warning! The World Cup draw? It’s a trap!

This is the story of a strange country blessed by the gods, with beautiful scenery and heir to a long and rich history. Though full of talented people and worldwide economic powerhouses, everything now seems to be full of peril and darkness. Bienvenue en France, mes amis.

Prophets of doom, decline and downturn spent the past year roaming French cities and countrysides, appearing on TV shows and in newspaper columns, haunting political parties and the corridors of government ministries.

Thirty years ago a journalist famously opened a news broadcast on the most influential channel in the country saying, “France is afraid.” To make it clearer, he added, “it’s a feeling that we’re already fighting.” This battle has been lost for all of eternity, though — France’s Gallic ancestors were always terrified that the sky might fall on their heads.

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Soccer fans thought they had something to look forward to. For the 2014 World Cup, fate seemed to afford them the upper hand, revealing that the national team would face Honduras, Ecuador and Switzerland. Too good to be true, said the French! Former World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu immediately set off alarm bells about the dangers of the soccer powerhouse...the Swiss.

Then, a telecommunications company, called Free, did something bold: it slashed prices on Internet access, landlines and 3G phones and still somehow generated hefty profits. Then it announced a 4G offer sooner than was expected.

Two government ministers coughed up a press release deeming it “a bold and risky bet.” Introduction of 4G was exactly what a country crippled by ancient rules and regulations needed, but it looks like France has lost its taste for innovation. The Socialist party ministers called a “questionable” offer that “degraded the service” and would “cause destruction of jobs.”

All the bold risk-takers said they would now carefully avoid this strange land.

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France, with all its monetary authority, is also worried about Bitcoin. So it published a memo about the “dangers associated with the development of virtual currencies.” To be honest, this concern wasn’t new. The European Central Bank began to worry about it before it even existed. To be even more honest, there is some legitimate reason to be circumspect about Bitcoin.

With no guarantee of safety or value and without any traceability, Bitcoin is the perfect vehicle for laundering and speculation. But the emergence of new currencies fits logically into a world of IT beyond the State influence. Other central banks have had to point out this risk before — the U.S., Japan and the UK all shamelessly manufactured unlimited money to buy government bonds, going backwards from history’s lessons.

Fear has gone beyond the boundaries of sport, business and money in France. In actual fact, the French are afraid of all kinds of change: genetically-modified organisms, waves, high-voltage wires, online courses, wind, etc. Competition is the most feared, as the Minister for Education serendipitously revealed when he made it clear that he separated values like “money, competition and selfishness” from “knowledge, dedication and solidarity.”

The Concorde, a plane that combined technical and aesthetic values at the expense of profitability and, unfortunately, strength, sparked a rare moment of national pride. Other innovations — those arising from the rivalry between entrepreneurs and researchers, or worse, between vendors — were dubious.

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In this country, there has often been a big difference between the individual and the collective, between relative serenity of one’s fate and the disarray of the community. Two-thirds of the population are pessimistic about the country, compared to the other third, who worry about their own situations.

In the book La Fabrique de la Défiance ("The Factory of Mistrust") the origins of this fear are clearly identified: With institutions based on hierarchy and status, France has lost its confidence. To rebuild it, the book asserts, more is needed than just education and social reforms. Yet the government, more than anyone else, is afraid of change.

Though freedom is the first word of the country’s motto, it seems clear that fear has become the winner, and the country’s citizens have lost their taste for freedom.

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“La Liberté guidant le peuple” by Eugène Delacroix — Louvre Museum

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