On French Democracy -- Part II

[As I mentioned previously, I had drafted an entry on French democracy but did not post it because I thought it too long. I have decided ultimately to post it, but broken up into three parts. In the first part, I suggested that France could be seen as enjoying a particularly robust democracy, even in comparison with the US. In this second part, I want to posit two suggestions as to why such a state of affairs might have evolved in the way it did.]

Why might French democracy be so vital in comparison with others? Here, I want to suggest two possible explanations: one more standard, the second more ‘eccentric’.

The more standard explanation was suggested to me by Antoine Garapon, a former French judge and now a ‘public intellectual’ in France writing on issues of comparative judging. His explanation lies in the relatively low political impact of French courts, as compared to that of the United States. Basically, since French court rulings do not have precedential effect, the courts themselves are not particularly effective vehicles for affecting policy vis social impact litigation. This causes French political mobilization to focus on elections (at all levels, not just national), whereas in the US it focuses more on courts. (A similar explanation for the emergence of a similar, comparatively more vigorous, democracy in Germany has been suggested by Thomas Henne in his wonderful review essay in The American Journal of Comparative Law. Vol. 51 (2003): 207-228), reviewing Susan Rose-Ackerman’s Controlling Environmental Policy: The Limits of Public Law in Germany and the United States.)

But my own hypothesis is a bit more eccentric (and completely unsupported . . . thus perfect for a blog). One of the defining features of French culture is the shopkeep. If Paris is any indication, much of what in the US is provided by large industrial organizations is in France provided by small, independent shopkeepers. Of course, France has its Shoprites, but from my perspective they are a much less visible part of economic life than they are in the US.

But beyond this, the French shopkeep is also notorious for her – this might not be the right word, but let’s call it ‘haughtiness’. In France, when you walk into a shopkeeper’s shop, you do so as a ‘guest’ rather than as a ‘patron’. And as many Anglos have bemusedly observed, you are expected to exhibit a guest’s respect for your host, such as by saying ‘good day’ when you enter, as opposed to, say, my preferred practice of simply going straight to the stock in the hopes of avoiding contact with the sales personnel. (This peculiar French dynamic is wonderfully described in the first chapter of a charming and actually quite sophisticated ethnographic study of French culture by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow entitled Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2003).)

But beyond this, I also have noticed one other feature of the French shop that is somewhat distinctive. As a general matter, French shopkeeps also seem to take a lot of pride in their wares. While equivalents to the Parisian boulanger or fromagerie in the US can be found, they are relatively rare -- certainly not five or six to a city block, as is the case in my middle-class neighborhood in Paris. And not only are these shops ubiquitous, but each is somewhat unique in its wares. Moreover, it is clear that they take great pride in this. The small Parisian shopkeep appears to regard herself as much artisan as businessperson. Walking through a Parisian bakery or ‘fishmonger’ is an aesthetic experience similar to that of walking through a small and intimate museum, rather than walking through a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Of course, this is understandable. This is their shop, after all. ‘They’ are on display as much as is their cheese or their pastry. But one wonders if this may also have a spillover effect insofar as democracy is concerned? As many have noted, the political and the economic are very closely intertwined. If one takes such personal pride in one’s economic persona, would that encourage one to take a similar pride in one's political persona? And in a social environment in which everyday economic interactions are more dominated by artesanal pride (a similar kind of industrial organization has traditionally been found also in France’s agricultural sector, and even today, the average French farm is roughly around 1/3rd the size of the average American farm), would not this pride more likely become a standard for the polity as a whole?

I don’t know. But it is interesting to compare France to the one other economic polity of which I am familiar that is similarly dominated by small shopkeepers – that of Japan. As in France, the small shopkeeper is a defining feature of Japanese culture. And while the petty bourgeoisie of Japan do not appear to exhibit the social arrogance of their French counterparts, if their representation in Japanese popular culture is any indication (see, e.g., the Japanese film, Tampopo), they also take a distinctive, personal pride in their shops and their wares.

And like France, Japan has been particularly resistant to neo-liberalism. Japan is also a particularly egalitarian nation insofar as distribution of wealth and public resources is concerned, as one would expect would be the case if the polity as a whole had a particular stake in such distribution. And finally, as recently argued by the noted Japan legal scholar John O. Haley, there is significant evidence that like France, Japan has been particularly willing to sacrifice economic growth in order to preserve particular quality-of-life issues of the general population.

One interesting observation that stems from looking at French democracy in this light is that it seems to offer a solution to one of the conceptual conundra that plague our efforts to understand French political society. As noted above, the French proclivity for mass mobilization in support of particular political causes is well recognized. But at the same time, political theorists often claim that France lacks a ‘civil society’. Our discussion above suggests that the conundrum in this sense lies not so much with the observed as the observer. Since the later part of the 20th century, Western political thought has tended to equate civil society primarily with organizations formed and populated primarily by the professional, academic and managerial classes. Our story above suggests that the reason that French civil society is invisible to traditional analysis is that that civil society is more inclined to be manifest, not in the activities of professionals and managers, but an even more petit bourgeoisie — that symbolized by persons like the independent shopkeep. (Interestingly, this was also the theory in the US and Britain before the development of the professional and managerial classes.)

Posted by Mike D(owdle).