New York, 31 May 2011.
As a European, the impeachment procedure against President Clinton was always difficult to understand.
Impeaching him for lying about an extramarital affair seemed a bit silly.
Was he really expected to brag about his foibles?
As an American, on the other hand, I shake my head at French and Italian politicians’ behavior.
Not that politicians’ sexcapades are particularly shocking.
After all, if Mrs. Strauss Kahn tells us that she is proud of her husbands’ seductive talents, why should we care?
And, really, who takes the Italians seriously?
No, sex is not the issue.
Power is the issue.
Andre Malraux stated it very well:
Those who think power is fun are confusing power with abuse of power.
France often confuses these two things.
Actually, the French system based on an all-powerful elite is geared toward abuse of power.
Dominique Strauss Kahn (aka DSK) may have been the poster boy of this confusion, but he was only a symptom of flawed system.
Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
French politicians – French presidents especially – are notorious for taking full advantage of it.
And why not?
French people do not mind.
They are complicit and amused.
It is as if they live vicariously through the powerful, the elite.
When a member of the elite class gets in trouble, the French press and French opinion feel for him (and the occasional her).
John Edwards or Schwarzenegger get vilified in the US for their conduct.
DSK gets the public’s sympathy.
How terrible to be so close to becoming president and stumbling on such a minor issue!
The popular magazine Paris Match can write a headline along the lines of “She Has the Power to Send Him to Jail for Decades” without anybody raising an eyebrow.
“She”, after all, is only a chambermaid.
“He” is the brilliant powerful man.
And her power is called justice in most countries.
Not that the French are not shocked by DSK’s violent behavior.
I believe they perceive there is something wrong with their tolerance of politicians’ sexual predatory behavior.
I also notice, however, that the fundamental submission to an elite class is not being reexamined.
So far, the debate in France is limited to sexual behavior.
How can they avoid it now?
But, the elite’s best friends – the journalists – will not dig deeper.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Here is another diagnosis.
The French love their elite.
They are the best and the brightest.
Like the Chinese mandarins of past, they have reached the top echelon of a very hierarchical society through hard work, superior education and a grueling selection process.
In France, this process requires graduating from the “hautes ecoles”.
Once this has been achieved, the happy few get tenure.
They automatically get the best jobs in a country where one of every three employees works for the government.
To them goes guaranteed income, power and prestige.
Like a university professor, they now can enjoy life unhindered by mere mortals’ prejudices and limitations.
They are being cherished because great things are expected from them.
The country is put in their hands.
Such a pyramidal system that revolves around a Sun King – or his contemporary ersatz – has profound economic consequences.
Mandarins can be good managers of existing businesses.
However, they are not entrepreneurs.
They have learned to fit in a mold in order to please their mentors.
“Because when they rise through their hierarchy, it serves no purpose to indicate differences or even alternative directions”, Kissinger remarked on Chinese leaders. He could have used the same words to describe the French elite.
Hence the French problem with “la pensee unique”.
Instead of starting the new Microsoft, the elite’s ambition is focused on getting closer to the sun.
And, bien sur, mandarins would hate to have to work for a start-up in a lonely garage where the sun does not shine.
The result is quite revealing.
Over the last 20 years the French system has generated only one great entrepreneurial story.
There are many small entrepreneurs in France, of course.
But only Business Object qualifies as a business success comparable to Google, Facebook or Twitter.
Albeit not on the same scale.
Interestingly, this French company chose an English name.
It had two headquarters, one in Paris and one in California.
And the founders eventually sold to a German behemoth – SAP.
Today, the founders are still not on the board of any major French company.
It takes different talent to become a member of the sclerotic and monolithic French elite.
The small group of elite people also like to monopolize as much power as possible.
That is why the president of Electricte de France sits on the board of 8 major French companies, for example.
Unlike in the US where this is illegal, the French elite does not see a conflict of interest.
That is also why today’s CEO of DANONE is the son of the previous CEO.
So what, you may think.
Henry Ford was also succeeded by his son.
But here is the French exception.
Antoine Riboud owned only one percent of the shares in DANONE when he passed on the top job to his son.
Only a friendly board can validate such nepotism.
This concentration of power at the top of France’s social pyramid makes it very difficult to inject fresh blood.
After the financial meltdown, and with the exception of a few very incompetent managers, the same CEOs are still in place.
They have tenure.
One would hope DSK’s tribulations would start a fundamental debate.
I am afraid it will not.
Beyond a short feminist reaction, not much will change.
The French have a different diagnosis, hence different solutions.
Ironically, the influential “intellectual” magazine Le Nouvel Obs had a special on the French rich and powerful the week before DSK got in trouble with the NYPD.
Their solution to all of today’s troubles?
Better educate the elites.
“It is not a question of doubting the necessity of an elite”, they wrote.
Instead, France needs to better teach the “values of the Republic” to their brightest pupils, the future elite.
And, above all, fewer members of the elite should come from business schools.
In the good old days, only 2% of students at the ENA came from the dreaded business schools.
Nowadays it is more than 20%.
These people only think about making money.
Compare that to the traditional Enarques, who only needed privileges.
The modern scourge is that the elite wants it all: money and privileges.
Consensual or not.