Only the French Would Be Smug About the Recession

Right now, they're rubbing their hands with glee over the wretched state of the American and British economies.

12.11.08 6:06 AM ET

There is nothing more annoying than watching the French win. In 1998, when they took the coveted World Cup in soccer against Brazil, the worst part of the victory was watching them gloat.

As everyone accepts, the French excel in cheese, wine, foie gras—and schadenfreude. But how they envy our success in everything else. How they delighted in the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Not in a good way, but simply because it meant that America and Britain were proved wrong.

Right now they are rubbing their hands with glee over the wretched state of the American and British economies. Last month, to the delight of everyone, the French finance minister Christine La Garde announced “surprising” figures.

If one more person tells me at a dinner party that it’s our own “Anglo Saxon fault” for living on credit, I shall scream.

While Britain and Germany’s economy shrunk by 0.5 percent, and Italy and Spain were hitting the skids, the French economy had actually grown 0.1 percent in the 3rd quarter.

This news handed the French a license to be smug. They have always touted their outdated views that their quasi-socialist economy out performs free market capitalist countries like America and Britain. But the news of the global recession everywhere but France has really bolstered their egos.

If one more person tells me at a dinner party that it’s our own “Anglo Saxon fault” for living on credit, I shall scream.

No one lives on credit in France because banks don’t allow overdrafts and zero percent credit cards do not exist. It is a well known urban myth that the French don’t trust banks and store their money under their mattress. It’s not that they are tight with money—they just don’t trust anyone. Perhaps this time they were right.

Worse, the financial crisis plays into their “Armageddon is imminent” theories. They have been predicting “the fall of America” for years, in the way that Gibbon described the fall of Rome. After the ghastly poet/statesman Dominique de Villepin stood up at the United Nations and blew Colin Powell and his vial of fake anthrax out the window, that tendency got far worse.

The fact that the British press reports nearly two million unemployed by Christmas and that high street retailers in Britain are begging for customers to spend some money seems to delight rather than horrify the French. They seem to think hard times will never happen in Paris. (One Frankfurt based analyst, however, said it is only a matter of time till the recession reaches France).

Their smugness goes hand in hand with their civil servant mentality. Due to strict employment law, you can’t lose your job in France unless you burn down your workplace or assassinate the Prime Minister. This means that the lazy, insolent functionnaire mentality prevails rather than a hard-working energetic one.

In America, people know there are always 10 people better than them who are after their job. In France, they know that too—but no one is going to get their job till they go to their grave.

For now, the recession, which has plunged Britain and America into gloom, has yet to hit France. The fact that their economy has gone marginally up rather than down, in fact, has lulled them into a false sense of security. Le Garde was right about consumer spending—people are shopping like mad.

Paris is in the midst of its pre-Christmas sales, and as far as I can see, people are not holding back. Last week Lanvin, the French couture house favored by Hollywood celebrities, gave a private sale and I stood in the midst of hysterical women clamoring for fur coats. Fur coats? In the midst of the global meltdown?

So this week, I began casually observing French spending habits. While my American and London friends have given up cigarettes and vacations, and some of them are losing their homes and jobs, I watch the French in action. Standing in line to buy a Christmas tree on Boulevard Raspail, I was shocked to see people forking over 150 Euros ($200) for a bit of greenery.

In the food market of Le Bon Marche, possibly one of the most expensive food shops in the world next to Harrods in London, people load their chariots with hunks of foie gras, dark chocolate truffles and bottle after bottle of Tattinger champagne. So much for cutting back.

Even in Monoprix, the more humble food market, no one seemed to be comparing prices or holding back on buying anything. I watched one man loading a groaning cart with gilt edged paper goblets and plates, clearly preparing for a fête. In New York and London, all the Christmas parties I knew of have been cancelled.

I would not mind any of this if the French did not keep harping on with malicious glee about how tough things are across the Atlantic. “I’m just not feeling it,” said Virgine, a photographer’s agent. “In fact, no one I know is”. Yet.

My friend Jean Marc, a French journalist, reckons it’s an innate jealousy the French have towards the Americans and Brits because of the valiant way they behaved during World War Two, when the liberated France from Nazi tyranny.

“We could never have done that,” he says. “We caved in the moment the Germans arrived.” The British ability to maintain a stiff upper lip during the worse of times has long drive the overly passionate Gauls mad with jealousy.

But I am not harboring a secret desire that the recession arrives on my Parisian doorstep. For the moment, the strong Euro suits me fine. I plan on spending the pre-Christmas season freeloading off French friends, eating their foie gras, and drinking their champagne. Just so long as it is they who buy.

Janine di Giovanni reported conflict and war for nearly two decades for the Sunday Times and the Times of London. She won four journalistic awards including the National magazine Award for the war in Kosovo. In 2004, she moved to Paris where she is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. The author of four books, she is currently writing a book for Knopf/Bloomsbury about Parisian life.