France, April 2008

APRIL 2008–After the rugged countryside along the German border, the terrain in France flattens out. As a result, the train starts to really move along, hitting speeds of at least 100 mph. On the few times that I see an expessway, the train races ahead of the cars traveling at or near the speed limit of 100 kph. For the most part, and incredibly so, the scenery is nothing but farm land turning green in spring. For hours, it is like this.

I had long known, in the policy sense, that the French subsidized their agriculture like crazy because they have this idea that agriculture is so important for La Culture Francaise. But this is nuts—I later learned on this trip that the average cow in France (yes, many of them are Holsteins) receive an average daily subsidy of $2. While I am thankful that the French think so highly of Holsteins, the fact is that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world for whom $2 a day would spare the indignity of going to bed hungry. A certain balance is lacking.

We eventually hit the suburbs of Paris and then pull into Gare de l’Est. I find the driver who is going to take me about 50 miles southeast of Paris to Fountainebleu. (I discover that it is pronounced Fountaine-BLOW, not Fountaine-BLEU.) This is a really neat little city where Louis XV, (or XIV–one loses track of all the Louis’s) and Henry IV (forget about keeping track of all the Henrys) and Napoleon I (there were only three Napoleons) all loved the chateau. A town of about 10,000 has sprung up around it, and this is where INSEAD is located. I spent a jolly first evening with a group of journalists from Germany, Holland, Finland, Portugal, and Ireland, who were concluding a journalistic conference of some sort. I didn’t care what kind of conference it was as long as the companionship was amiable, and it was.

I began to notice some differences between the Germans and French. The cars are suddenly all different. They are Citroens and Renaults, with the occasional Ford (I don’t think I saw any Fords in Germany.) Suddenly, there are almost no German cars. In three days in FountaineBLOW and Paris, I saw only a relative handful of German cars. The French simply don’t want them. The language barrier also seems intense—on the train, there was a German national woman who was making announcements on the German side of the border in three languages—German, French and English. It was obvious to me that she was slaughtering the French. The minute the train hit the border, the announcements were made by a French national woman. She slaughtered the German. Their command of English seemed better than their command of their respective languages.

And the Germans and French read entirely different newspapers and magazines, which completely filters their perceptions of the world. You don’t see any French publications in Germany, nor any German ones in France. It’s almost like there is a force field between the two cultures, a cordon sanitaire (to tilt in the French direction). And I notice when I check into my hotel in Fountainebleu that there is music playing in the lobby. Music! I hadn’t heard music, of any sort, in any public place in Germany.

So the two nationalities may co-exist in the European Union and share a common currency and more. But on another level, they are unlikely partners. In the American vernacular, they are not happy campers together.

The INSEAD conference is fascinating for me, with top class business and academic leaders taking part. We talk about the role of Western multinationals in the world—how politicial and social activists want them to be “socially responsible” and save the whales, end female genital mutilation in Africa, stop global climate change, etc. I’m slightly on the skeptical side about the corporate responsibility to achieve all this, but others argue that governments are failing. There are limits to political power—so who else is going to change the world?

I had an interesting conversation over lunch with Frank Brown, the dean of INSEAD and an old conversational partner of mine (and the man who paid for me to fly across the Atlantic.) He travels more than I and more to the Middle East and Singapore. I asked him about the American position in the world. He said that the process of the American election, with the obvious display of democracy, is commanding lots of attention in the world. People respect this process that we’re going through, and are excited by it. I was surprised to hear that.

From there, it is on to Paris, where I have reservations in a small hotel, Hotel Muguet. When I say small, I mean small. If I hung my bag in the closet by the door, I couldn’t open the door to the hallway. The whole room is basically a closet. And it cost about $160 a night. But I am not displeased. I am in central Paris, close to the Eiffel Tower.

To return to the theme of environment and energy: it appears that the Europeans, both German and French, place a premium on buying things of quality, even if they are expensive, because they will consume less energy and last longer. The cars are mostly tiny by American standards, the rooms tiny, etc. They ask that their guests in hotels reuse their towels from day to day. All this is the exact opposite of the American mentality of buying huge quantities of things or poor quality (with money we have to borrow) and then throwing them out. I even have this feeling with the coffees I order. When I ask for “café,” I get about two thimbles full of very rich expresso coffee. It does the job. In the United States, if I ordered coffee, I would expect unlimited quantities of so-so watered-down coffee. It is a totally different mentality. We Americans can never be exactly this way, but there are some things we can learn as we go through a difficult economic period. We need to consume less.

On Saturday night, I spent time with John Rossant, a former Business Week colleague who is now with Publicis, the huge advertising agency, and his wife Antonella. They live in shadow of the Eiffel Tower. She’s from Calabria, the poor rural “boot” of southern Italy. John speaks English, French and Arabic. She speaks her native Italian plus Arabic, French and English. They share an interest in the Middle East. She’s involved in NGOs attempting to help the Iraqis and has been there on multiple occasions. With an Italian passport, it’s much easier than with an American passport. The bottom line is that the Americans are strengthening local tribes and militias to create stability at the local level. But they haven’t been able to do much to strengthen the authority or power of the central government, as we saw with the disastrous attempt to challenge the Shiite militias in Basra.

But John and Antonella (who have three sons) have great joie de vivre. We went to a party hosted by the head of the American Chamber of Commerce, whose wife is a stunning Venezuelan. Turns out he was a jazz saxophonist and he jammed with some of his buddies. There were a smattering of American diplomats and other people who had traveled widely. Paris has such a wonderful cosmopolitan feeling. Berlin is wonderfully interesting, but Paris still feels more worldly.

I wandered all over the Left Bank, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame, through St. Germain. I was pleased to discover that I was able to communicate in cafes, hotels and taxis in French. I could master the language, given the opportunity.

Parting thoughts about Germany and France: it’s a shame more Americans are not interested in Western Europe. Almost none of the hundreds of college students who apply for my OPC Foundation scholarships write about Europe—they’re interested in China, Africa and the Middle East. ((I know, I know. Here’s Bill, who’s beaten the Asian drum for so many years and made fun of the slow-growth Europeans, changing his tune.)) But it’s such as important part of the world for Americans culturally and economically, and the Euros do have some very positive instincts about the environment and energy. It’s a mistake to just write off Western Europe. The world would be a better place if we paid just a bit more attention.

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