France to world: Enough with your French bashing

French halls of power are resonating with calls to quash the latest wave of Paris-targeted criticism. What's behind the uproar? 

Michael Koore / Reuters
France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during a visit to The Hague on January 20, 2014.

The French, long impervious to criticism that they are rude, out-of-touch, morally suspect, and worse (think “surrender monkey”), finally seem to have gone on the collective offensive.

The latest comes in the form of an opinion piece by France's finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, in the Financial Times. Aptly titled, “You can be both French and fiscally responsible,” the piece pushes back against doomsday predictions of the collapse of eurozone's second-largest economy, following President François Hollande's announcement last week that new business-friendly policies will ease tax burdens and kickstart stagnant growth.

The new direction was hailed by critics of France's top-heavy, prolific public spending. But reform plans were met with at best cautious optimism regarding their eventual implementation – a skepticism measured in lackluster industry confidence statistics released today. And yet, Mr. Moscovici starts out: “The doom-mongers are wrong: France is modernizing and reforming.” And he ends: “France deserves better than being subject to preconceived ideas and French-bashing – it deserves the world’s trust.”  

His piece is nothing compared to the outcry that followed the publication of an article in Newsweek entitled “The Fall of France” earlier this month. It touched such a raw nerve that the top echelons of French government responded to it. The government spokesperson, via Twitter, invited the magazine's readers to France to see how it “really is.”

Perhaps the most telling reaction came in the blogosphere. A Le Monde blog hit back with a headline “The Fall of Newsweek – The 1001 errors of an article on French bashing.” By Thursday morning, the post had garnered 518 responses. 

Nearly three weeks after Newsweek's piece, after the announcement of a major economic overhaul, and even after new revelations of a presidential affair with a film star, it is still the topic du jour. Le Monde Editor-in-chief Arnaud Leparmentier revived the subject in an op-ed this Tuesday. He noted that apart from some of the piece's objective factual errors – such as overstating the price of milk and implying that free diapers abound on the streets of Paris – what's most telling is not Newsweek's article but the French reaction to it. “The French do not support French bashing anymore, above all when it comes from elsewhere,” he wrote.

It is not that the French necessarily disagree with the many criticisms being lodged at them from abroad. A new poll by Ipsos that ran on Le Monde's front page yesterday showed that the vast majority of those surveyed – 85 percent – believe that the country is indeed in decline.

But defensive lines are forming. A searing article on France's “failed socialist experiment” by a British publication last month received a ten-point counter-punch by the French embassy in London.

The mood has trickled down to the municipal level too. When London's official tourist agency released a report last week hailing 16 million overseas visitors, it sparked a moment of one-upmanship between London and Paris, with Paris vying for the title of the world's most touristed city.

Anne Hidalgo, the deputy mayor of Paris and candidate for the top post, waded into the controversy, albeit with collegiality, calling London a "suburb" of Paris during a meeting with international journalists from the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris. (She also defended Parisians against accusations of rudeness leveled at them recently by Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, but admitted that residents of the city were certainly in need of a few more smiles.)

Why push back now? Allegations that President Hollande has been having an affair with a film actress has kept a continuous spotlight on France, giving rise to musings and comparisons. On the economic front, European nations are genuinely worried about France's ability to recover.

But the main reason for French leadership's response now are looming elections: municipal polls in France in March and European polls in May. It is precisely a sense of pessimism about France's purported decline that fuels the popularity of the National Front, the far-right group that speaks out against immigration, against Europe, and increasingly against mainstream political parties. "Enough is enough" makes strategic political sense.

There's at least one sign that the pushback is working. London & Partners, the tourism agency that caused such a stir in France with its London-tourism figures, released a joint press release with its Parisian counterpart yesterday celebrating record numbers of international tourists to both cities, taking pains to point out that it's not out to fight Paris: “In a press release last week, London & Partners released only UK specific data and did not draw any comparison with any other capital city or destination.”

Well done, Ms. Hidalgo.

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