France, a Nation Mired in an Obsession with Inequality

Tragedy reveals the character of a nation. 9/11 showed the capacity of Americans to unite, however briefly. It also demonstrated that its martial spirit was still alive, however wisely or unwisely it was to inspire incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The terrible fire at Notre Dame reveals much about France, and some of it is not very pretty.

When many of the richest people in France stepped up to donate for the cathedral’s rebuilding the reaction was often anger rather than gratitude—anger that such people have so much money, that they might get a tax deduction for their gift, and that they would be recognized as benefactors. Egalité was a watchword of the French revolution and over the years, it has helped lead to an obsession with economic inequality.

The results have been very unfortunate. In its effort at redistribution, France has the highest rate of taxation and one of the most highly regulated and expensive states in Europe. As a consequence, it is considerably less economically prosperous than the United States (its citizens enjoy only about 70 percent of U.S. per capita GDP), and somewhat less wealthy than Germany (the French live on 90 percent of German per capita GDP). The comparison with its neighbor Germany is particularly stinging, because Germany has had to integrate the economically backward East Germany.

But costs of the obsession are not only economic, but social. As this article by the New York Times shows, despite having lower levels of inequality than other European nations, France experiences higher levels of social unrest. Groups are always taking to the streets, complaining that government policies are making their position worse vis-à-vis others. The Gilets Jaunes are only the latest such movement. As a result, successive French governments have been unable to make reforms that reflect the consensus of economists left and right—reforms that might actually help those excluded from the formal economy by France’s regulations. Thus, France offers a warning to the United States. Our intellectual class wants us to share France’s obsession. The results are likely to be similar, because once the obsession takes hold, almost everyone can feel aggrieved, as under some frame of reference they are less “equal” than another group.

The tragedy also reveals what a secular nation France has become. Notre Dame, Paris’s Cathedral and probably the most famous church other than St. Peter’s, is owned by the government! In the United States (and I think most other Western nations), the affected church would make these salient decisions. By contrast, President Macron has already declared a competition to decide what will replace the spire that has burned down.

The decline of Christianity in France has accentuated the national focus on inequality. Christianity has faced challenges all over Europe, but it has particularly lost influence in France, partly due the policy of laïcité that attempts to banish religion from public life. Christianity, of course, calls for a concern for the poor. But concern about inequality is very different, both because many people are less wealthy than others without being poor and because the results of policies aimed at inequality may harm the poor by making the economy less dynamic. But according to Christianity, envy is a sin. The decline of such teaching has helped envy become France’s national pastime.