Richard Reeves

The American Way: Pro and Con

PARIS -- The last year of the 20th century ended with a nice statistical uptick in France. The national economy grew at an annual rate of 2.8 percent, the best in three years. Unemployment dropped to 10.8 percent, the best number in more than seven years.

A total of 320,000 new jobs were created in the private sector of France during the past year; a growth of another 215,000 is being forecast for the first six months of the 21st century. Measured by the crowds of young people shopping for the holidays -- most of the job growth was for people 25 and younger -- there seems to be a quantum leap in consumer confidence. Perhaps, too, in consumption itself.

And as in most everywhere else in the developed world these days, the new employment is in high-tech and service jobs -- exactly the American pattern.

So, even with socialists in power, the French are exploiting or being exploited by what we call "globalization" and what they call, more accurately and with a certain resignation, "Americanization."

For a long time, the few, the proud, the French have resisted American control of the political and military affairs of the globe -- and the cultural affairs of their country. Many, probably most, Frenchmen and women have disdain for American social Darwinism, workaholism and trumpeting of "family values" without families -- or at least without families who sit down for dinner with each other.

But in the words of an American journalist living here for many years: "It doesn't matter what they think; globalization is coming their way -- and, in fact, they like most of what it brings."

The new American order brings "things." It is driven not by political or military power; it is driven by consumers who want the same things, from digital cameras to bigger cars and vacation homes, even if their family has not owned one for the past couple of centuries. To put it another way: The younger French (and other Europeans) want the choices and options deregulated Americans have in what, when and where they eat, in where they go to school and work, in what they do with their money.

Besides that, the evidence is in, at least in our times, that freer economies work better than state-controlled economies -- even if the streets are littered with losers, even in a country with as tight a safety net as the French have created for themselves.

The French numbers obviously do not match what is happening in the United States. But now they are beginning to mirror those numbers. Analyzing such things the other day, The Independent across the channel in London came to this interesting conclusion:

"Those countries where the new economy was allowed to run ahead accordingly did much better than expected, while those which inhibited its growth lagged behind. ... The fastest-growing countries were either English-speaking (like the fastest-growing of all, Ireland), or ones where the language is widely spoken, like Sweden and the Netherlands. ... So two related features -- the hi-tech economy and speaking English -- turned out to be more important factors in driving growth than the forecasters expected. They are related in the sense that the Internet is still largely an English-language phenomenon."

Another British paper carried a headline last week that screamed: "Triumph of the American Way of Life." The paper was The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who gave up Australian citizenship to become an American for business reasons. It is easier to make money as an American these days. The piece, mocking Europe and Japan, began:

"It is hard for an American to look back on this year -- and, indeed, on this century -- without breaking into a triumphalist paean. ... Japan is struggling to emerge from a long recession. Germany has double-digit unemployment, and France is trying to protect its inefficent economy from world competition at huge cost to its consumers."

The writer of that is an American, Irwin Seltzer. He sees commerce as world war, but he is mostly right. The French have always been passionate about being the French, about having a unique way of life. Those days seem to be ending. They are being encircled by the triumphalists of the American way of life. Soon they will be like us: consumers.

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