We have mentioned the book France in the New Century, by John Ardagh. This is a very thorough and up-to-date examination of the country, its government, politics, economics, sociology, psychology and development over the last forty years by a British journalist and Francophile. We recommend it most highly, with the sole caveat that he doesn't appear to know much about the U.S. and so engages in some inaccurate America bashing; however none of that affects the wealth of information to be gained about France.
These are some of the points Ardagh makes which seem most important to us and which seem to dovetail with our observations.
First of all, and this is surprising given that the French revolution was inspired by the U.S. revolution, the French have been extremely statist while the Americans are much more independent. The French have benefited from outstanding government, which attracts their very best talent, and in turn the French citizenry tends to rely on the government for solutions to problems. By contrast, Americans are notorious do-it-yourselfers, and are accustomed to solving problems without or despite the aid of the government.
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that France's government has been centrist for two hundred years: everything revolves around Paris, nothing happens unless Paris decrees it.
Ardagh explains that 1968 was a watershed year for France. That was the year the students took to the streets, barricades were thrown up, and the government was stopped for a while. Also, it marked a major change in the responsiveness of the government to the people. From 1968 on, France has been changing. More power has been given to local government, especially cities (up until then, cities' budget was allocated by the national government.)
Second, the French have less social mobility than the U.S. Ardagh doesn't actually name social classes, but he discusses them: the (hereditary) aristocracy, the top businessmen, scientists, professors and government officials, the middle management and storeowners or bourgeoisie, the lower managers and teachers, the working class, and, at the bottom, the "exclus," those who are locked in poverty and unemployment. It is extremely difficult to rise more than one class in a person's lifetime.
Surprisingly, the French still have a hereditary aristocracy. We doubt that there's much legal standing, but they keep the noble titles (most of them are counts and countesses), they have the income derived from large amounts of property ownerhship, they pass on their titles to their children, and they only marry among themselves. The point is, the rest of the French keep the system going by honoring the titles (and the wealth.)
Aside from the aristocrats, the top elements of French society are distinguished by high position which in turn depends to a great extent on getting a good start in the right schools (see the discussion of education which follows). But intermarriage between classes is still quite uncommon. Those who fail to complete a high school education generally end up in the working or lower class.
The exclus include a lot of the immigrants, no matter what their level of education (and sometimes it is quite high.)
The French educational system is similar to the Japanese: there is a great deal of competition for grades and competitive examinations needed for admission to the next elite level of schooling. The best and brightest go from primary school to lycee to university to "grande ecole." There are about 275 grande ecoles in France, with an average of 400 students each. They are somewhat analogous to graduate schools in the U.S., but they do not practice as broad selectivity; that is, children of graduates of grandes ecoles are much more likely to be admitted to grandes ecoles. The social immobility has been enforced by the system. The nickname for the graduates of these best schools is "enarques" after ENA, the Ecole Normale Administratif, which is one of the top grandes ecoles and has produced many Presidents and Prime Ministers as well as other top leaders.
Another major difference between France and the U.S. is the corporations. Until 1968, virtually all large French companies were state-owned! Only within the last decade is France getting around to privatizing its corporations, and the government still holds significant blocks of stock. Unlike the U.S., there is little public ownership of corporate stock; France does not have the large private mutual funds for stock ownership. What this means in turn is that French citizens rely almost exclusively for their retirement on state pensions, which are usually between 50 and 100% of full salary.
It is odd, seeing that the word entrepeneur is French, that there are so few of them in France. Venture capital is short, the difficulties of starting up a business are enormous. There are exceptions, many of which are retail businesses that have successfully expanded, such as the supermarket chains. Of course these don't generally lead to publicly held corporations, either, but rather to private business empires. As a result, the French don't have a good opinion of capitalists; they don't see a lot of small-time successful capitalists.
One cannot stress enough the difficulties (and advantages) conferred by the modern outgrowth of the Napoleonic Code. This rigid system of rights and responsibilities has helped to create this statist yet secure country. For example, the employment laws make it very difficult to fire an employee, which has led many businesses to use temporary or part-time staff, and has also put the worst unemployment at the wrong age level: close to 25% of young people cannot find a job. The French bemoan this situation, but are evidently unwilling to put more senior workers at risk; the result is that a large portion of the young, imaginative, and energetic young people are denied an opportunity to contribute to French society.
Yet the French are truly a wonderful people. They love children and animals, fine cooking and fine clothing, and -- outside Paris -- are extremely outgoing and friendly to visitors. Things are changing here, too, as courses in English are now offered in every primary school in France. Can the U.S. say that about courses in French? or Spanish? We found people very happy to practice their English, although the typical French person has less English than the typical German (and much less than a Dane or Dutchman.)
According to a recent Survey, the nations most admired by French people were Germany - 37%, the U.S. - 22%, and Britain - 16%. So the U.S. is in fact quite popular in France, and we find many French who have relatives in the States, have traveled there, or want to.