Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Frugal French

The New York Times this morning reports on an interesting new economic metric: paper consumption per capita per dollar of GDP per capita. Click the graphic accompanying the article and you'll discover that, by this measure, France uses significantly less paper than comparable countries such as Germany, Canada, Belgium, UK, and Netherlands--roughly 20 percent less. And consumption has decreased over the period 2000-2005, while it has increased in the UK and Netherlands.

The article relates decreased paper use to increased use of computers and networking. France, after lagging in this department for some time, has now caught up with its rivals. But I wonder if that is the whole explanation. France is clearly an outlier (along with Norway, even more extreme) in this regard.

I have a tentative (and partly, but only partly, facetious) explanation. Ils s'écoutent parler. The French love to talk so much that writing only slows them down. Why put anything on paper, when you can bend your colleague's ear over lunch? L'art de bien dire, as Marc Fumaroli might say, is alive and well in France. L'art de bien écrire is withering, as countless studies of the failings of the educational system have shown.


Anonymous said...

Nah, I don't think it has to do with talking rather than putting things on paper. The French are obsessed with making sure things are on paper.

I'd suggest that it's simply because the French buy so few newspapers compared to other countries. Newspapers are expensive, and circulation is incredibly low - I think Le Monde and Libé only sell a few hundred thousand copies each, compared, likely, to millions for national papers in the UK. (I'm guessing; I'm sure the figures are available...)


Anonymous said...

I would have to second Kirk's comment on that. For data on the distribution of French press:

For an element of comparison, the daily Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat prints about 420 000 copies of their daily edition, when Le Monde does about 350 000. And we are comparing a 6 millions inhabitants countries with France's 60 millions... The Times produces about 650 000 copies a day...
The regional press in France is of course important: people read the local newspaper rather than the national daily. Yet the French read less press than other European countries, and it might explain why they use less paper.
Another point is: should we complain? Much is printed in the world that is not worth reading (News of the World, anyone?), and printing less seems good if we plan on sparing overstretched natural resources. Just saying...

Anonymous said...

I don't think your explanation is the right one. We do like to talk, but to me, French is definitely a written language, and we have a written culture. We're taught everything on paper, we write essays but don't make presentations in school, and so on. Paperwork is needed for the simplest tasks...
I do think it has more to do with the Internet. I don't buy any newspapers, but I read several of them on the Internet. I don't send Christmas cards, but Christmas e-mails, and so on.

I wonder if we might be reading less books, though. I know most of the books I read are now in English and bought on the Internet from other countries. I know I'm not representative of the whole population, but I'm guessing if someone like me, who loves to read, isn't buying a lot of French books, maybe other people are not either.

I would have suggested that webcomics took a part in saving paper, if it wasn'tfor the fact that French webcomics are incredibly rare.

Either way, it would be nice if it were because French people cared more about the environment. Probably unlikely to happen, but nice.

Anonymous said...

A follow-up to my comment about newspapers. Unless things have changed a lot since the last time I was in the UK (which is a good comparison to France population-wise), their newspapers have far more pages than French papers. So the circulation itself needs to be multiplied by an additional factor to be able to truly judge.

In France, there are far more regional papers sold than national, but they also have fewer pages than the average UK paper.

Not very scientific, but there is a big difference.


Marc Pasturel said...

As a native Frenchman,
almost a wanabe now that I have lived some 40 years in America,
I do not relate to your "partly facetious" explanation.

I think about the boxes of recyclable paper I have accumulated,
to use on the reverse side of the page as scrap paper.

And my perception of French frugality goes beyond paper.
I remain in awe at what people in America throw away:

As a university student in the 1960s I scavenged one rich roomate's waste basket who,
at the end of the school year threw away personal belongings
rather than pack them up for the following year
(I held on for a long time to a shoe horn as souvenir, eventhough I never use shoe horns...)

I once jumped into a dumpster in front of an office building
to recover masses of office supplies.
On another occasion I retrieved dozens of 3-ring binders and boxes of barely used manila file folders
that a company was about to throw away in the course of a move.
I gave most of the binders away.

At the city dump my wife stops me from scavenging
(as recently as yesterday a bat-like flat board with handle
that would have made a fine tool to beat dust out of our carpets...).

Lately we've had to empty my parents home after my mother's death.
Our 45-year marriage has been rocked by a long-standing argument about disposing of scrap contruction wood that my French parents had scavenged from a building construction next door:
at least 10 minivan loads of it...
I argued to cut it and burn it in our fireplace.
I had to resolve that our marriage (or at least my wife's happiness) was more important.

I systematically resisted the convenience of dumping away still-usable items,
thankful that there are ready takers on the freecycle internet circuit:
To find your local Freecycle group visit:

I understand that my comments do not explain
why the French are more frugal than their European neighbors.

p.s. I resonate to the comment of another respondent, Kirk:
that French newspapers are much less voluminous.
The size of the Sunday newspapers looks "gross" to me.
Maybe a comparison of junk mail would also be appropriate.