The question you see often posed with some bewilderment in Canada and the U.S. is – what is the matter with the French? Why can’t they get it right? Why can’t they get rid of their unions? Why can’t they lower their agricultural tariffs and reduce their rich public services? Don’t they know they can’t afford their school, heath, rail systems? What’s the matter with them?
The temptation when responding is to promenade from factoid to factoid. I notice this whenever I write about some recent sustainability innovation in France, the Mia electric car, the Bordeaux city electric trams and now of course, the recently introduced electric-sharing car, the ‘blue car’ in Paris. Where billionaire investor Vincent Bolloré has teamed up with Mayor Bertrand Delanoe to give Parisiens the car equivalent of their ‘velolib’ service.
The ‘blue car’ is a subcompact that has a range of 250 kilometers on one charge with a top speed 130 km. The Bolloré group has spent 1.5 billion euros to develop their new lithium, metal-polymer battery to power the cars. One of the returns they hope from ‘autolib’ is that it will promote and popularize their new battery.
But nations are more than a collection of differing factoids. How is that the folks who live in Bordeaux can choose expensive trams powered by underground wiring and the folks in Ottawa can’t even get a tram? How is that Charles DeGaulle one of the most Conservative of Conservative French Presidents ever when asked by the private sector to build super highways across the country, similar to Ontario’s 401 and 400 series responded: “If you want fast highways for your big trucks, you build them and toll them. We already have a national road system – the N series.”
This is a true Conservative decision which is ‘pay as you go’ not ‘borrow as you go’ and it has had a massive economic and social impact on France. It has meant that the tax payer has not been burdened with the enormous costs of operating these six lane roadways. It’s also meant that there are less of them because they have to pay for themselves. Most importantly, the massive dislocations that have ripped through the hearts of Canadian cities like Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto’s with six/eight lane highways built right across the centres of our cities very rarely happens in France because they’re just too expensive to build.
It is very tempting to move from one interesting ‘factoid’ to another when comparing France to Canada or the U.S., but nations are ‘emergent’ phenomenon, not static accomplishments i.e. you can’t box them up into a neat little series of ‘initiatives’ and label one France and the other Canada. Nations emerge from a long series of interconnected phenomena which no collection of factoids will ever explain.
France’s political philosophy, ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ is a very different political philosophy from ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ south of the border or ‘peace, order and good government’ to the north. Neither North American philosophies mention ‘equality or fraternity’. This has consequences. It would not be acceptable to French society that 1 percent of the population controlled 90 per cent of the wealth. It would not be acceptable to French society that their tax dollars subsidized agri-business while the small farmer was hung out to dry as is happening right now in Canada with the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board.
This is a current political factoid, but is a good illustration of a decades old Canadian policy supported by all parties which has put the small Canadian farmer behind the corporate world. What’s wrong with France? Well, nothing, it’s just different. France has subsidized and supported its smaller farmers because that’s where the ideas of ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ push national policies. American and Canadian political philosophies push us towards supporting large extractive industries of which agri-business and the Tar Sands are two examples.
One of the things that I have learned in my travels is that our present economic and sustainability problems will not be solved with better factoids. National and local rail systems, small farmers, auto share, ‘pay as you go’, public education, a fairer share of national wealth and so on don’t happen by magic. They arise from national and personal philosophies which make them attractive and important to the people who pay for and live with them.
photo by Gasdub