Is it a Marxist-inspired perception of society (reinforced, no doubt, by Catholic-sourced notions of the iniquity of monetary pursuit) which has firmly anchored in the French mind the belief that all human effort tending towards pecuniary gain must necessarily be soiled by the stains of exploitation and immorality? Whatever the explanation may be, the view is rooted deeply enough in the national identity to make many of those whose professional activities are oriented towards financial return and management of others feel guilty enough to withdraw into postures of self-defense.
Take, for example, my bourgeois company-owning neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Now Monsieur Martin informs me that when he’s on holiday and is asked by a stranger what line of business he’s in, he’ll mutter something vague about ‘being in industry.’ And when pushed for more details he’ll reluctantly admit to working ‘in an Accounts Office.’
‘I prefer this,’ he smiles. ‘It doesn’t cause any embarrassing tensions and gives people the impression I’m just an ordinary employee … like everybody else. Then we can go ahead and have a nice, friendly, relaxed relationship between equals!’
And only the other day Monsieur Martin took delivery of an expensive new sports car. Now an Englishman or American would have taken the first opportunity to show it to others with undisguised pride. They might even have revealed, without the slightest complex, how much it had cost. Not so with Monsieur Martin. Monsieur Martin adopted an almost apologetic attitude, and it was only after informing me that’ ‘Ils m’ont fait une offre que je ne pouvais pas refuser,’ that they’d made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, he began to relax and the semblance of a smile illuminated his face.
It has to be admitted, however, that the ordinary Frenchman’s attitudes to money are highly complex, not to say contradictory. For, strangely enough, the antipathy which he feels towards ‘les riches’ does not stop him – along with millions of his peers – from spending considerable sums on the lottery each week – presumably in the hope of winning the jackpot and joining their ranks. And royalty – provided it resides beyond the Hexagon – has a fairy-like attraction for these guillotiners of sovereigns. Moreover, the Frenchman shows little hostility to conspicuous wealth emanating from the world of sport and entertainment (perhaps because these constitute an intrinsic part of his own leisure life), and the extravagant trappings of grossly-overpaid sportsmen and show business personalities which, had they been displayed by a wealthy businessman, would have aroused popular wrath, are greeted, at worst, with a Gallic shrug.
And it is not unknown for these stars of popular entertainment to undertake the consolidation of their public image by going to considerable pains to convince us that, in spite of their huge fortunes, their heart is, and always will be firmly oriented towards the left. On the eve of a presidential election some time ago, an ex-French-tennis-star-turned-pop-singer, now contending to become the champion of inter-racial fraternity, sought to reassure his fans by publicly declaring that ‘si Sarko passe, moi je me casse!’ – that ‘if Monsieur Sarkozy gets in, I get out!’ If by ‘get out’ he wished to indicate that, in the event of this right-wing presidential candidate being elected, he would have no hesitation in seeking refuge under more brotherly climes, he seems to have had second thoughts: for though Monsieur Sarkozy did get in, our ex-tennis-playing pop singer didn’t get out. Would I be cynical in thinking that this was due, in part at least, to the fact that most of his considerable royalties are generated in France? It would appear, however, that he had again hit a winner as a survey later revealed he’d been voted France’s favourite personality – for the seventh year running!
More recently, in a similar attempt to reinforce his popular image, a retired football-star-now-turned-actor staged a media show, the goal of which was to turn to his advantage the antagonism of a good proportion of the French public towards what it perceives as being at the heart of an unjust, exploiting, capitalist system. During an internet interview he went so far as to suggest that the collapse of immoral banking structures might be brought about if 20 million people all decided to draw out their cash at the same time. In all fairness, however, our multi-millionaire ex-football star actor, though busy making a film on the fateful day, did, apparently, practice what he preached by trotting along to his bank to make a symbolic withdrawal.
This firmly-embedded conception of a Manichean society, split into opposing factions of rich and poor, places considerable pressure on French governments to remedy the supposed imbalance through re-distribution of what are popularly viewed as ill-gotten gains. As a result, it is, above all, the middle-class citoyen who bears the brunt of a complex and, for some, confiscatory system of social and fiscal contributions, obliging him to part with substantial amounts in the name of solidarité with his fellow man. For France is one of the highest-taxed countries in the world. One of the most controversial of these taxes is the Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune, or ISF which is levied on all households whose total earthy possessions (including the wife’s golden ear-rings) exceed an amount which would make an American laugh his sides sore. And even though at the time of writing the entry level has been raised, the resulting revenue lost by the French State will certainly be amply compensated for by a substantial increase in taxes on the interest, profits and dividends deriving from the citizen’s estate.