Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moïsi on France

Here. On Facebook I see the comment from a French journalist that "he [Dominique Moïsi] is telling the Americans what they want to hear" about France. I don't think so. His story is one of fearful, demoralized masses and cynical elites. This is not the view of France held by most Americans of either the Right or the Left.

The second “unfortunate encounter” is between the fear of the people and the cynicism of the elites. When one sees young high school student representatives on French television explaining why they take to the streets (in order to defend their own future pensions), one is seized by a deep sense of fatalism.


Anonymous said...

French journalist yes from abroad...
Appart from FT, NYT and Die Weilt did he publish in local newspaper?

Unknown said...

Anonymous, I can't make sense of your comment. The "French journalist" I referred to made his critical comment about Moïsi on Facebook. That is why I don't identify him, because what a "Facebook friend" says on Facebook is to be treated as private, I think. As for Moïsi's article itself, it appeared in the International Herald Tribune, which French elites read, so his criticism of the "cynical" French elite will not have gone unnoticed. But I don't see what you're driving at.

Mr Punch said...

My observation is that Americans don't get the French situation at all, partly because of the street action/general strike thing but largely because the pension systems and practices are so different.

The only actual number reported in the US media has been 62 - which is as it happens the age for retirement with partial Social Security benefits, but is NOT what any American thinks of as the Social Security retirement age.

Anonymous said...

Also, a response by writer Danielle Sallenave:

Anonymous said...

An explanation for this might be how young people are treated in France. Seriously, I can't get over the fact that young people (with degrees and professional qualification) get their first job on average at age 27. That architects with the Diplome d'Etat can expect to make E 1,500-1,700/month. That 50% young men in the "banlieue" are unemployed. Or that internships are so common that now kids have to PAY to have an unpaid internship where they'll occupy a real position (not an internship like we all knew in college).
The APEC, the specialized agency for out of work executives and entry-level upper-level jobs is now 1/3 internships - that's pretty much all that's offered at the entry level. I mean, 400E/month for a top-flight financial analyst, wouldn't you just move your company to France?
More info about

Anonymous said...

In addition to my reply above, I found this article which explains why "peripheral" towns and regions see so many protesting kids: right now, there's very little chance a kid from a provincial town could *ever* enter a "Grande Ecole."

Yesterday the dean of HEC was cruelly, arrogantly speaking on TV about kids who study abroad (and don't attend HEC). The only reason, in his opinion,students would not attend HEC, is because they are not worthy of it. It was chilling. Essentially, these are beneath contempt.

When you know the social make-up of the school (socially and economically) you realize that middle class kids from provincial towns don't stand a chance - and that all these protesting kids know it. There's no active social or geographical discrimination, no committee that meets and states "we won't admit more than 3 muslims and 5 kids from the SouthWest" (the way the Ivy League used to do before Affirmative Action) but the entrance exam is rigged against kids who don't live in the right town with a well-off family who has the proper background and the right connections. If college admissions were done like this in the US, it'd have the same results. People fought 40 years to level the playing field but France still has to fight this battle.

As the article states, if by 2020 knowing Chinese is a necessity for an executive, restricting Chinese classes to upper-middle class, urban schools (as is the case now) ensures that executives will all come from the same social class. Remember that the government decides which schools get to teach Chinese or where to place "magnet" programs.

Therefore, the journalists argue, young people aren't protesting for their right to retire: they're protesting for their right to find a job, and for that job not to be determined by their parents' social status but by their own hard work and talents.

It doesn't help when Jean Sarkozy, after failing 3 times, finally managed to pass his sophomore year courses and will start his junior year - hardly a brilliant student and not even a college graduate - now which garantees him an executive position, when kids with top-flight degrees who just happen to be from a small town or with a "foreign-sounding" name have absolutely nothing, zero prospects. Add to this the fact the reform will cut at least 30,000 entry-level jobs and the weird sight of teenagers protesting for retirement starts making sense.

Personally, I would suggest any young person currently living in France to get their bac and study elsewhere, where universities don't fall apart, internships are for college students learning hands-on, and where college graduates find jobs (perhaps not well-paid but at least better than 400E/month). Where, generally, there's a sense of hope for youth - something totally lacking in France.


Anonymous said...

ps: the reply above may seem pessimistic, but it comes from the realization that if my kids didn't have opportunities most of their classmates don't have, they'd be screwed. I don't know whether there are people out here who live in provincial towns and kids in French schools, it'd be interesting to see whether they're more optimistic.
"Fearful, demoralized" is a pretty good assessment but not one I'd usually apply to kids - even college kids in the US, with dwindling job prospects, seem hopeful that if they work hard, try their best, keep their uniqueness while joining the rat race, they'll find a job. And not as part-time cashiers (even if nowadays many think they'll have to do that for a little while after college, most believe it'll be temporary.)
Reading Moisi, I get the sense he observes but doesn't quite understand (I do not know where Moisi lives and whether he has kids, but I'm willing to bet he doesn't have a teenager enrolled in a school in a little town far from Paris.)
Also, could "protesting" have become a way to fight "fatalism"?

Lau said...

I find 'Anonymous' post absolutely excessive, it is honestly hard not to read resentment due to bad personal experience in it.
I happened to be a "provincial town" kid (WTH do you really think all the students attending grandes écoles in Paris actually grew up in Paris ? That all the students in the parisian prep schools are actually parisian ?), that have climbed the educational ladder from a 900 ppl village to a Grande Ecole and then MIT without having the "proper background" or the "right connections", just through hard work and motivation. I am not saying my example is a proof that the system is working well (far from it), I just think that I know what I am talking about.

Students in Grandes Ecoles are not those who have the best "connections" or the best background. in fact, they mostly come from middle class family (I have never seen many sons of rich families, these ones go to private business schools, not to the public grandes écoles. Jean Sarkozy could have gone to Harvard if he had been an american, he could never have attended Polytechnique), and from all over the country. Maybe you think one has to be from an ethnic minority to be 'middle class'? Don't forget there is a world (called the 'middle class') between the well-connected elite and the poorest of the nations.

Now I naturally recognize that there are many problems in the French educational system, notably its elitist structure and culture that makes self-confidence an absolutely essential asset (to go through the hardship of the high-school and prep-school years).
One problem is a French kid (and I was like that) seems not able to be confident in his/her potential if no one (e.g. an uncle that went to Polytechnique) is there to motivate him/her. Is that entirely to be blamed on the 'system' ?
Another problem is that the French educational system is very centrifugal: the winners (not necessarily the sons of the elite) take it all, and the others are condemned to struggle at selling their résumé.

Unknown said...

I happen to have taught at HEC for several years. It was several years ago, but I don't think things have changed so much. I taught first year students. For each of my classes, I got a "fiche d'identité" for each student. The fiche indicated where each student was from and what his or her parents did, among other things. The overwhelming majority of my students were from Paris and, among those students, from certain arrondissements. The "fiche" actually provided this information. It will surprise no one who knows France and Paris well to learn that most of the Paris students were from a small number of fairly affluent arrondissements.* Lots of kids from the 7th, the 16th and the 5th (etc.), not so many from the 19th or 20th. In fact, not one from either of those arrondissements. I had one student in 4 years of teaching from the 13th. She was Asian, which was in and of itself a miraculous thing to see at the time.
Now for the professions of the parents: naturally, the fathers had jobs associated with the elites (except for the Asian student). Doctors, lawyers, capitaines d'industrie, high-ranking civil servants, etc. Mothers were often listed as "femme au foyer," but those who did work were most often employed by France's Education Nationale as teachers. Another HEC professor explained that this should come as no surprise: thanks to their experience with the educational system, they were able to ensure "les meilleurs tuyaux" and good orientation for their kids.

* It may be the case that some of these were students from La France Profonde who had come to Paris to do their prépa, living in chambres de bonnes in good quartiers.

Anonymous said...

Peggy : HEC,Business track. easier with money (expensive education fees), foreign languages and a veneer of upper class culture.
Lau: "polytechnique", ingénieur track. Mostly scholar scientific gifts needed, with a self-confidence component as LAU said for tackling it. No French will doubt the intellectual (scientific, logical) gifts of a Polytechnique alumni. But I like to believe you can get the self-confidence boost outside of the family, even if less likely.

Problem seems to be, Ingénieur seems to be less and less the voie royale for the elite of the country, Business and law students made more money, and are much more monopolized by the upper class.

Anonymous said...

To Lau: quite the contrary, I've pretty much only had good experiences with Grandes Ecoles graduates, although I find their Southern-Baptist-worthy belief that math is the alpha and omega of intelligence slightly... rigid, but I know that's how they've been raised to think.

In my experience, Grandes Ecoles graduates *are* smart, and polished, and articulate.
I wasn't saying the opposite; I was saying that unless you believe in intelligence being genetic, the way most Grandes Ecoles students are selected resembles that of the Ivy League 40 years ago. Kids from Andover 40 years ago also were polished, smart, articulate. Feeder schools provided an excellent secondary education and the prep school kids admitted to top colleges back then weren't undeserving dolts.
Harvard (etc) could have kept going like that and still have remarkably smart young people graduate.
Yet nowadays no one (in the US) would argue that a school where 80% students are legacies is selecting from a wide enough pool of talent (as has roughly been the case for 10 years at Polytechnique.)
For Normale Sup, fully 3/4 admitted students come from just TWO schools. The leftover % all come from upper-crust schools in major cities.
In HEC and similar business schools it's even worse in terms of social diversity. (I'm not targeting HEC, HEC alumni relax - HEC stands for "elite business school" here; -- its dean did go on TV to speak so arrogantly just 3 days ago, but it's a testament to how all such schools function that he didn't even realize what he was saying and that the journalist seemed to agree with him.)
Even those on scholarship are in the upper levels of middle class, whereby they don't actually get a scholarship but simply get registration fees waived (which is the case for 80% "scholarship" students in Grandes Ecoles currently! Meaning that only 20% of the 10-25% on scholarship are from the
second half (bottom 50%) of the economic scale. I think you can do the math: it means that even the most "open" Grandes Ecoles have fewer than 5% students coming from average households, middle-class, working class, or poor.
-- For reference, middle class in France means a family of four getting between 2,300 and 3,700 a month or an individual making between 1,400 and 1,900 a month. --

Thus my point: kids in small towns CAN be fearful about their future if they're being pretty realistic; odds are that they'll NEVER get a good job with a good salary and that guarantee they used to have - life will be tough but at the end, you get to rest somewhat - is taken away from them AND all the crap their parents are going through is going to last longer while they hunt for jobs even longer.
Essentially they're left with revolt, fatalism, or hopelessness.

Outside the miracle kid who becomes the "token" example of open-ness to non-feeder-school-candidates (kind of what used to exist in the Ivy League 40 years ago) the odds of their getting into a Grande Ecole are so low as to be nonexistent. And if my kids were to want to put themselves through the grind that is a "prépa" and try the concours, they could.* But their "normal" classmates couldn't.

Anonymous said...

Art can probably shed light on past v. current admission policies at Harvard.
For the broad, general point, I'm pretty confident about what's above (% of legacies, role of feeder schools, diversity). I can't think of one top school that wouldn't see the current Grandes Ecoles numbers as a problem to be solved. If I'm wrong, people from Brown, Yale, Wesleyan, Harvard, Wellesley, Vassar or Swarthmore (etc, etc), feel free to jump in. :-)

As for Jean Sarkozy getting into Harvard, here I defer to Art. My understanding is that, in order to get into Harvard, you need to be at least remarkable in some way. Jean Sarkozy being a very good student wouldn't have been enough; I can't imagine his father being father of Neuilly being that much of a factor either. However, I could be entirely wrong on that, I admit.

In the US, most kids (except perhaps the poorest) believe in themselves and their future, that it won't depend on their parents but their own talents and hard work.
I wish French kids could, too.

* How many American kids choose to go that route though? (Outside the American kids attending the feeder-schools?)