Maureen Dowd gives a taste of sour grapes (part II)

multum non multa: Maureen Dowd gives a taste of sour grapes; Her readers know betterComparatives inventories of American perspectives on few things French

Maureen doesn't quit, even after the flood of readers' comments pointing to her distorted view of things French. As if to put such cries to rest, she veers into a bit of tabloidism, not without the nonchalance that grows in you when you get to expense your trip to France under the guise of journalism. A few quotes, miles away from their context, from a politician and voilà!, we have some aura of objectivity. Or do we? Here we have her 2nd installment:

dowd 3
Agent Saboteur?

PARIS — I am sitting across from Arnaud Montebourg, a free-market villain and romantic hero, the pol selected by Frenchwomen in a new French Elle magazine poll as a top candidate for having “a vacation love affair.”

The tall, elegant Montebourg, dressed in a black suit and black tie and flanked by black leather couches and two BlackBerrys, sits in a chic office above the Seine, charged with the quixotic task of reviving French industry.

He famously sent sales of Breton sailor tops surging when he posed in one to promote his “Made in France” campaign. The 50-year-old bachelor’s love life has been avidly chronicled, including the night he and his former girlfriend, the attractive black TV journalist Audrey Pulvar, were attacked by racist thugs.

Montebourg became the Socialist kingmaker after a surprisingly strong result in the 2011 presidential primary on an anti-globalization platform against Ségolène Royal, a former boss, and her former partner, François Hollande.

“I failed the first time, but it doesn’t mean I’ll fail the second,” he said about the presidency, speaking in a mix of French and British-accented English.

The Economist called him “the Enfant Terrible” for fencing with foreign capitalists with such ferocity that he almost got sacked. His apache dances with moguls are at odds with the government’s “Say Oui to France” campaign designed to lure foreign investment and stop France from dissolving into Greece.

Montebourg’s defenders say he represents the French tradition of dirigisme, wanting a king, desiring direction from the top, even though the government now, as part of the European Union, has fewer tools. His matador boldness, contrasted with Hollande’s blandness, plus his anti-corruption crusades and suspicion of the market economy — he even suggested temporary nationalization — have made him a champion to those who want a Charles de Gaulle de gauche.

Some of his irritated colleagues at the Finance Ministry at Bercy refer to the Minister for Industrial Renewal as “the madman on the third floor.” It’s hard to fathom how he can be for deglobalization and foreign investment at the same time. But as he looks for unrealistic solutions to problems that may be insoluble, many “Les Misérables” here admire him for keeping his dukes up, which keeps their hopes up. A bit of an outsider himself — he did not get into the top political school, his grandfather was a wealthy Algerian and he calls the Algerian war and colonization unresolved — he relishes sticking it to the bourgeoisie.

As a young lawyer, he helped defend Christian Didier, the killer of René Bousquet, the Vichy chief of police who went above and beyond Nazi instructions to send Jews, including thousands of children, to death camps. In 1995, he nearly forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé out of office over the legality of his apartment. In 2001, he petitioned to impeach President Jacques Chirac, under investigation for financial malfeasance. In 2011, he demanded that the louche Dominique Strauss-Kahn apologize to Socialists.

He got into a sizzling row with the American tire titan Morry “The Grizz” Taylor after Taylor said he would not rescue a French factory because French workers are “lazy, overpaid and talk too much.” Montebourg dismisses that as “nonsense,” and told me that “in Germany, one works less than in France, this needs to be known,” providing booklets to back it up. But, given conflicting French statistics, he may be living up to the sobriquet he awards himself: “professor of optimism.”

The French have to learn that if employers can’t fire someone for not working, they’ll never hire anyone. It’s hard to believe that the country that gave us a musical based on Victor Hugo’s revolutionaries really needs the government to guard against the latest Disney remake of a bikini beach movie. But Montebourg defends the French threat to blow up the European-U.S. economic talks because they want to keep barriers to U.S. movies and television. Then he concludes, charmingly, “We love American movies.”

I ask him about another contentious move: blocking Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer from buying a controlling stake in DailyMotion, the French version of YouTube, which was denounced in a Times editorial as protectionism “grounded in meaningless nationalism.”

“I didn’t say no to Yahoo,” he insists. “I said let’s make it 50/50. Let’s go together and not let the big eat the small.” He told Yahoo it was not in such great shape and had “made several companies disappear.”
Arnaud Montebourg
And to think Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister, asked businessmen how the government could help. “Laissez-nous faire,” one replied, giving birth to the term.

“I agree with Romain Gary, who said that nationalism is to hate others, patriotism is to be proud of ourselves,” Montebourg says. Asked about the French malaise, he says: “The problem comes from us. We doubt ourselves too much.”

He says he trusts President Obama to “clean up the mess” on N.S.A. snooping. “I blame Facebook, Google and all the Internet giants who agreed to spy on us,” he said, “so Europe is going to be tougher on these companies.”

French business leaders are howling about Hollande’s wishy-washy economic policies. And Nicolas Sarkozy, once excoriated by Montebourg as “a spoiled brat who uses France as a toy that does not belong to him,” is dropping a handkerchief.

Can Sarko make a comeback?

“Maybe,” Montebourg replies roguishly. “Maybe in handcuffs.”

Joseph Huben upstate NY
This column has evoked a reflexive derision of the French. A reflex patently congruent with the propaganda of the far right in this country. By these standards, what American would want to pay 10% more in taxes for universal university education, health care, and an affordable wage? What American does not want the unemployed to suffer so they do not stop looking for a job or take a substandard job that pays less? Have we become a nation of somnambulants who resent the higher standard of living afforded our French allies because we envy our rich masters? and hate those with lesser means? and march in step to detest food stamp recipients: children, the elderly, and the disabled, the primary recipients of this "European" socialist program? Perhaps, because the French or Germans or the British do not recoil in horror at the mention of socialism we consider them depraved. Americans believe, without evidence or thought, that socialism is a bankrupt disincentive to innovation, growth and prosperity.
As time passes, we all come to recognize that the cause of the financial collapse, and the stupid crippling austerity programs are thinly veiled corporate subversions that punished nations and then hobbled people with debt and a lower standard of living in the name of their entitled right to profit by any means. Governments can be corrupted but as the number of people exploited grow governments fall.
The French are not done as long as the French people take to the streets.

John McBrideSeattle, WA
My father's mother was a Caron; her ancestors were sent to "the new world," aka, Canada, from Breton in the early 18th century. I've always had a predeliction for France, especially after cementing the affection with a 3 month stay there in 1990, and several returns since.

Still, Maureen, your column exhibits a certain, ... a certain.... je ne sais quoi.

Monsieur Montebourg is, probably, charming to you in "a vacation love affair” sense; but there is nothing you reveal about him that leads me to conclude he's France's next Napoleon.

if the French select him, fine, but based on what I've learned, my pragmatism leads me to be wary and to suspect that DeGaulle, for his many faults, would likely suit France better, raised up from his grave.

art seaman Kittanning, PA
There is always this idea the Ms. Dowd knows something we do not. She is so in tune with the a vante-garde that we do not know. It is tiresome. I give up. What is she talking about?
Who are these people, and who cares?

Mike Roddy Yucca Valley, California

I like this man, especially when he talks about nationalization. That's what we need to do with our own out of control oil companies.

Montebourg is also correct about establishing limits on American cultural intrusions. The French realize that our television programs, especially the ones on cable (Real Housewives of New Jersey, anyone?) will make you dumber, and cause some of us to crack up.

We need someone like him over here, since our top pols are all preselected by the corporations, and self censor even in their dreams. The French will be fine.

Liam Jumper South Carolina

Marcel Pagnol, the late but critically important French film producer and author, placed emphasis on content of an image. He didn't use it only as a tool to tell a story.

This is an apt metaphor for France versus the corporatist West. France tries to be a national culture that values the human experience. The corporatist West does not. They see humans as mere tools. This is the problem in our democracy. Our democracy was supposed to be a government where people could find a balance between profit-focused economics and the human experience. At the moment, we're be corralled into being tools - tools where a third of our children live in poverty, tools where amassing obscene fortunes is celebrated while a third of the population cannot afford healthcare, tools who are intentionally priced out of quality education.

Montebourg's 50/50 split is to preserve the French identity while being part of the mainstream. This isn't new. The French have long worked to protect French language from morphing into English with a French accent.

Of course Montebourg wants ability to reject American film and TV trash.

A few years ago a fellow at my favorite Wisconsin coffee shop was extolling French fries being re-named Freedom Fries. I told him I agreed and we should immediately march up to the high school and demand they rename the French class Freedom class.

Freedom is a mix of economics that serves the people with a strong dose of valuing the quality of human experience ahead of tools.

charles san francisco
“I blame Facebook, Google and all the Internet giants who agreed to spy on us..."

Whatever the merits of the other points made here, this one is on the mark. We get outraged over government spying, but it was enabled, indeed made inevitable, when we allowed those companies to pursue business models based entirely on spying on their customers. We can only pray the Europeans do indeed stick to their guns on privacy--someone has to!

Kenneth Bergman Ashland, OR
Monsieur Montebourg's spirit is admirable, and so is his willingness to tell international corporations that France doesn't want to be taken over by them. He seems to recognize that international corporate largess always comes with strings attached, and that the corporate mindset these days is exploitive, not constructive. Unless they are controlled in some way, these corporations move into a country, privatize their profits while socializing the costs, then move on at their whim after having saddled the country with burdensome debt. (Here, I'm including financial institutions as well as outfits that actually make or mine something.) That's already happened in South America and in some of the smaller European nations like Portugal, Spain, and Ireland (Greece is a special case). Now, these corporate exploiters are moving on to richer countries where they hope to get a bigger bang for the buck.

So I'm glad to know that Montegourg is offering some resistance to corporate greed. There's not many nations that are willing to do that in these times.

Pat Choate Washington, Va.
Montebourg is making national industrial policy -- the approach to economics that has worked so well for Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and most of all China.

Would he consider becoming an American and participating in our paralyzed political system?

Rob DL Connecticut
The French Revolution changed the world. What France needs now is some of that pride and spirit to break away from the fundamentally flawed and ill-conceived European Union.

It is ironic that the country most instrumental in making the European Union a reality, also seems to be the country suffering most from it's existence.

French culture is in a stranglehold, and the biggest single culprit is the common currency -- a currency that has become symbolic of their plight. France, and the rest of Europe, thought that ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would enable them, once again, to act with one voice on the world stage, but instead it's drowned that voice out and turned it into a political sideshow where you can be guaranteed a bureaucratic debacle (or a summit!) every other month.

The European Union was, among other things, an attempt by France and Europe to augment and consolidate their power, but instead it has diminished them to resemble a pathetic soap opera with Paris garnering one of the leading roles.

The French people got it right when they rejected the EU constitution in 2005, shocking the rest of Europe in the process. They'd be wise to try find more of that spirit of rebellion today; their future and culture literally depends on it!

Paul Nevada
"It's tough to be French", hey it's tough to be a US Citizen. I even have health care and a root canal/crown is going to be close to $2000. Ten years ago the combo might have been $800 or so with insurance. The little guy continues to get squeezed. Bourgeoisie businesses like doctors keep entrance out with a combination of licensing and the colleges do the rest with gouging tuition. I say let the flood gates open and issue a visa to anyone from any county with a medical license. Since we bluster so much about "free markets" let the medical profession squeal a little when the wages drop due to competition from foreign labor. Now what was this article about? Oh year, it's tough to be American, I mean French. It is all about perspective: plutocrats see it one way, we see it the other.

Doug Broome Vancouver
Quel audace! The nerve, the chutzpah!
The U.S. has completely surrendered to parasitic plutocrats who create nothing but financial destruction with their funny money games. American workers have entirely relinquished the proceeds of their doubling of productivity to the one per cent.
And Montebourg rejects the robber baron model.
He thinks workers should share in productivity increases! He says "Non!" to vulture capitalists.

He doesn't understand that globalization means inevitable misery for workers and endless trillions for fiancial parasites. It reminds one of de Gaulle telling Monaco he would cut off their electricity and water if they did not immediately reveal the specifics of tax evasion by rich French based in Monaco. He completely failed to appreciate how tax evasion by billionaires helps the cheated country.

Maureen, I don't know how to give you the news of dirigisme. You see, the elite of the French elite goes to a sort of super-college called the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. The French completely fail to understand how robber barons represent the national interest. Au contraire, they think that people trained in public policy have a better conception of the national good than, say, a CEO of Goldman Sachs whose interest is narrow and greed-focussed.
And they will intervene in the market when the market harms the country! They expect the rich to pay! They say non to suspect deals.
Guess what? French workers have done much better than American workers!

Doug Terry Maryland, DC Metro area
What has long been amazing to me is that anything gets done in Europe. In Paris, in particular, long lunches with lots of flowing wine are almost required. When an American company went over to France to help produce a French version of a crime drama, they were shocked to find that the whole crew, actors, camera people, everyone, expected to break down and stop for a two hour lunch. They were accustomed to working straight through and hoping they'd be done before midnight

Europeans generally get a lot of vacation time, about double what American's take. As vacation rolls around, whatever work the person had been doing is dropped. Too bad. It can wait.

A few years ago, I turned on French television in my hotel room. There were urgent bulletins being broadcast about who might leave at what time. For a few minutes I thought Paris was being evacuated because of a terrorist threat. Only after watching for awhile did I put 2+2 together: It was August and the bulletins were for the vacation evacuation. Parisians with different numbered license plates were being told when they could join the mad rush to the beach and mountains. Soon, the town would be empty. For the whole month.

Yet, work does happen. Sometimes. Look at the stunningly beautiful Millau bridge in southern France if you don't believe the French are still capable of great accomplishments. It is just that work isn't allowed to interfere with one's personal life so much as it does here.

gma Telluride, Colorado
Meanwhile Airbus is selling tons and tons of airliners. It is nearly August Maureen. Follow the crowds and leave Paris. Lots of stuff going on elsewhere, esp. in Toulouse.

Jacques Tati in Cannes

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