Mike Kueber's Blog

July 28, 2010

Is France getting a bum rap in America?

In recent years, France has been treated as a laughingstock in America.  Its reluctance to assist America in Iraq has been attributed to it being a nation of weak, effeminate people.  Its welfare state, with universal health insurance and month-long summer vacations, is considered to be an example of a socialistic economy.  I have probably been guiltier of this anti-France bias than most, but recently I experienced an epiphany. 

Last week, an article in the New York Times reported that the French were interested in increasing the opportunity for disadvantaged students getting into their finest universities.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/world/europe/01ecoles.html?pagewanted=1.  Although admission to these universities is based solely on testing merit, social critics complained about the absence of diversity and “a self-perpetuating elite of wealthy and white, who provide their own children the social skills, financial support and cultural knowledge to pass the entrance exams.” 

The French approach to diversity, however, is more sophisticated and nuanced than America’s.  Their fundamental ideal is a meritocracy that is blind to race, religion, and ethnicity.  In fact, the French constitution prohibits government from collecting data regarding ethnicity or race.  The French consider affirmative action to be antithetical to their meritocratic ideal, so as an alternative they have developed “a trial program aimed at helping smart children of the poor overcome the huge cultural disadvantages that have often spelled failure in the crucial school entrance exams.”  The program has nothing to do with race, religion, or ethnicity.  Instead the objective of the program is to increase the number of scholarship (poor) students from 10% to 30%.  They are assuming that “poorer citizens will be more diverse, containing a much larger percentage of Muslims, blacks, and second-generation immigrants.”  I remember when various American institutions considered this type of program, but consistently rejected it because it would help too many poor white Americans and not enough African-Americans or Mexican-Americans.  I have never understood why it was more important for Americans to help affluent minorities than poor whites.

With my new appreciation of French political philosophy, I revisited my stereotype of France as a weak, socialistic country.  On the military front, I was surprised to learn that France has the world’s third-largest nuclear-weapon stockpile and that it spends 2.5% of its GDP on national defense, more than any other country in Western Europe.  On the economic front, I was impressed to learn that this country of 60 million people (20th largest in the world) had the world’s 6th largest economy.  It is undeniable that France has a significant welfare state (extended vacations, universal health care, protections against layoffs), but their economy competes in the free market against us and other nations with different economic systems, and it does reasonably well.

America may not want to imitate France, but I don’t think we should automatically reject something just because they do it that way in France.  France and America helped invent liberty, and neither has a monopoly on good ideas.

1 Comment »

  1. Dear Friend!
    If you like a military history, you can see my blog “Contemporary Military Historian” with URL adress: http://kotenikkote.wordpress.com/
    Best wishes

    Comment by kotev100 — July 28, 2010 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

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