Sep 24, 2014

    What the French taught me about globalisation

    A FEW weeks ago, I was in France, where I've owned a village house for almost 20 years and which I am now planning to sell.

    A real-estate agent had taken a look at the property and we had made an appointment to discuss how to proceed.

    She swept into the kitchen, a bundle of energy and conviction, with an impassioned appeal: "Monsieur Cohen, whatever you do, you must on no account sell this house!"

    I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

    "You cannot sell it. This is a family home. You know it the moment you step in. You sense it in the walls. You breathe it in every room. You feel it in your bones," she said.

    "This is a house you must keep for your children. I will help you sell it if you insist, but my advice is not to sell. You would be making a mistake."

    This was, shall we say, a cultural moment, one of those times when a door opens and you gaze, if not into the soul of a country, at least into territory that is distinct and deep, and almost certainly has greater meaning than the headlines and statistics that are supposed to capture the state of a nation, in this case, one called France, whose malaise has become an object of fascination.

    I tried to imagine an American or British real-estate agent, presented with a potentially lucrative opportunity, deciding to begin the pitch with a heartfelt call not to sell the property because it was the repository of something important or irreplaceable.

    I came up blank.

    There were no circumstances in which self-interest, or at least professional obligation, would not prevail. Price would be pre-eminent, along with market conditions and terms.

    Yet, in this French village, across a wooden kitchen table set on a stone floor, the setting of economic interest below emotional intuition seemed a natural outcrop of soil and place.

    I thought of this exchange the other day as Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a modernising socialist, faced a confidence vote in the National Assembly over yet another plan to cut public spending, make the job market more flexible and break the French logjam of high unemployment, a bloated state sector and handouts.

    "What matters today is effectiveness and not ideology," Mr Valls said.

    The French socialists have had trouble jettisoning ideological baggage ill-adapted to 21st-century global competition. More than any other Western country, France has resisted modernity, at least in the way it thinks of itself.

    So my feelings listening to Mr Valls talk about "effectiveness" could be summed up in two words: Good luck!

    The Prime Minister is up against a culture that views the prizing of efficiency as almost vulgar.

    Effectiveness had no place in my chat with the real-estate agent. Effectiveness is not the rule in French shopping habits. It's far removed from the long conversations between shopkeepers and clients.

    Whether this is good hardly matters. It is often bad for the French economy. It is also a fact of life.

    These distinctive cultural components of nations are probably underestimated as globalisation and homogenisation create the impression that the same standards or systems can be pursued everywhere.

    Globalisation equals adaptation to insurmountable differences as much as it equals change. Some things do not change, being the work of centuries.

    A couple of days after my meeting, I was having a beer with my sons in a French cafe.

    The bill was 14 euros (S$23). The waitress was going to take my credit card, then saw I had a 10-euro note.

    "Just give me that," she said. "Don't worry about the rest."