Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's Still Summer, and the Times Is Still Writing About France

Today's Times once again has two pieces about France, indeed two op-eds (although one is actually a blog, not in the print edition). Maureen Dowd continues to string clichés together mindlessly as she writes, altogether characteristically, about cattiness in high places, a subject about which she knows absolutely everything. But Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist whose op-ed pieces I often skip, today has a not unintelligent essay about the potential perverse incentives of pro-family social policies. He relies on the clever device of quoting two articles by the same expat writer, Claire Lundberg, a woman who upon first arriving in France marvels about the family-friendly French but begins to question the way in which pronatal policies (may) cause employers to view women as riskier hires than men:

I don’t want being a mother to change the way employers see me, but of course, it does. I’m in my 30s. It’s true that I’ll likely get pregnant again. It’s true I will sometimes want to have dinner with my family. And it’s true that any company that hires me is making a long-term investment—it’s much more difficult to fire people in France than in the United States. This causes employers to think about the future when hiring, including how a woman’s eventual or actual children might affect her job performance. It’s also not illegal in France to ask about a person’s age and marital status in an interview. It is illegal to discriminate based on the answers, but this kind of discrimination can be very hard to prove.

Of course this is familiar neoconservative territory. But Douthat, to his credit, goes on to note the strains on family life imposed by the less family-friendly neoliberal orientation of the American state and actually quotes a French conservative, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who recognizes the virtues of the "nanny state":

I often like to say that I’d rather have a welfare state that does a few things well than one that does many things poorly. And it seems obvious to me that in a world of declining birthrates, endemic family instability and increasing returns to human capital, supporting families should be one of those few things to do well. The French don’t often get the how right, but they have the what right, and they’ve had it right for well over a century. Americans on the Left would do well to pay attention to the problems with the how, but those on the Right should really pay attention to the what.
Of course, if you read Gobry's article, you find that it's actually quite critical of French practices, but the criticism is factual, not ideological, and therefore legitimate. So we have here a genuine tension between good intentions and perverse incentives, honorable government initiatives and practical and financial obstacles to realizing laudable goals. Hence an honest political debate, and one worth having. This is rare enough in American journalistic considerations of France that it warrants notice.

But then, of course, there's also this: advice from Carla Bruni about skin creams and the importance of staying hyrdrated.