Denis Boyles | June 15, 2005

How to make an Oklahoman French

Denis Boyles

Two cautionary tales for Paris-bound Oklahomans:

In college, I had a friend — he's still a friend, and I'd like to keep it that way, so we'll call him "Eddie" — who went to France as part of a year-abroad program. He lived near Paris for a few months, then returned to the rest of us transplanted Midwesterners in Southern California, where he dunked his bread in big bowls of milky-sweet coffee, talked about ennui and laughed at what he called "you Americans." He also came back with a Speedo, and that's when we had a word with Eddie. He's been fine since.

In the early '70s, when I was living in London and scamming my way through an extended late adolescence as a "poet," another school friend came to visit. Taking advantage of a cheap ferry ticket he got from a hippie in Piccadilly Circus, he went to Paris for the weekend. He came back with an STD and has never been the same since.

I am giving these small lessons from my besmirched youth to the citizens of Oklahoma because I read in the papers that your Democratic governor, a man named Brad Henry, went to France late last year and came home with something ugly and French. Either the voters of Oklahoma need to have a little word with the governor or the state will never be the same.

Why? Because of all the cool French things Gov. Henry might have found to bring home to Oklahoma — an Eiffel Tower-sized oil rig for Tulsa, maybe, or a topless beach to amuse the fisherfolk of Grand Lake — what the governor found most appealing is the way the government of the Fifth Republic sees to the "education" of French toddlers.

In France, where the public schools are used to inculcate a certain way of seeing the benefits of the parasitic relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, children are sent off to schoolrooms before the sun has risen on their sentiency — generally at the age of two or three. What kind of classes do you give a two-year-old? Potty training 101? Plus, it's not at all unusual for schoolchildren to be put in the care of the state for nearly 12 hours a day. When I had a house on the square of a small French town, I would watch les petites grenouilles hop through pre-dawn gloom to board a bus before 7. At 6:30, mothers would start to gather in the evening darkness to escort their kids home again.

Free Daycare

No doubt, many parents would welcome such a thing. That certainly seems to be the assumption Gov. Henry is making. Institutionalizing infants and toddlers isn't education, of course. It's free day care, and, as the governor must assume, a sure-fire vote-getter. After all, you pay taxes. Why shouldn't the government toss in babysitting with its overpriced coast-guarding and meat inspecting?

But government, as the only acceptable modern monopoly, does its work badly, and it does no work worse than when it offers to meet the most basic, personal responsibilities of citizens. Maybe the French and Gov. Henry should both sit down and read a little Tocqueville, who rightly saw in a government devoted to charity a shortcut to social disaster.

To understand how this can be so, it's useful to look at the French model a little more closely than Gov. Henry did for a few hours on his visits to three French schools, before he told a reporter from The Oklahoman that French education was the kind of thing Oklahomans need because, he said, "It's recognized as one of the best in the world."

Too bad the French don't recognize it that way. In the words of Patrick Gerard, the Ministry of Education's director of schooling, French education is "a failure." He's not kidding: Every year, 15 percent of the country's students drop out of high school, according to a recent report in the International Herald Tribune, and of those who stay the course to graduate, three-quarters of them lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic.

"We spend 5 billion euros ($7.1 billion) a year on primary and secondary education," G?rard told a reporter. "Yet, compared to the rest of Europe, we have a high dropout rate and the performance of French students is only average."

One solution to the education problem now favored by the French: eliminating Wednesday as a school day. This is perhaps seen as a way of teaching children how to be good French workers, for whom the protection of days off is a full-time job. For example, in nominally Catholic France, where the percentage of regular church attendance is routinely in the low single-digits, workers took to the streets this month to protect Pentecost as one of their very many paid days off.

The failure of French schools is a matter of grave concern for the French not just because of the problems it reveals in the nation's educational system, but also because of the way in which the French view the role of government — as a provider of goods and services. The American tradition, and one Gov. Henry seems bent on helping Oklahomans eliminate, is to understand the role of government as an essentially regulatory one: We hope the government will establish laws and enforce them so we don't kill each other while trying to make a buck. Our assumption is that personal responsibility is the preferred means of insuring our own welfare. The French, however, depend on the government to give them good TV shows, excellent, fat pensions, and efficient planes and trains. For this, the French pay their government as much as 70 percent of all that they earn.

School-as-daycare is just one of the things the French are required to buy from their government. They also get more than a month of paid vacation time every year, a vast and expensive health care system and a workweek limited to 35 hours, with no overtime allowed. This last perk is a target of the present government; bestowed on the French by the socialist regime of Lionel Jospin, the idea was to stimulate employment. The result of course was to drastically reduce productivity.

Trying to take back a government freebie is no mean feat: The French are furious at efforts by the Gaullist government to re-introduce a 40-hour week in order to help raise a little cash to pay for all those government benefits — which start with endless paternity and maternity leaves and free daycare, extend through fat pensions and holidays galore, and end with free care for the elderly, funeral included. The entire nation is a government boondoggle. No wonder liberals love France.

When Government Replaces Family

But what happens when people ignore Tocqueville and common sense and start to rely on the government to meet a family's most fundamental responsibilities — that is, the care of parents and children? That's what France has done — and with catastrophic results, as the events of August 2003 grimly demonstrated.

That summer was a hot one in France where the August evacuation, like public schools for two-year-olds, is a treasured national institution. July had provided a miserable preview, and when the head of the emergency room doctors' association, a man named Patrick Pelloux, looked at what August might bring, he saw an alarming long-range forecast calling for unusually high temperatures. Not only that, but he also saw that most healthcare workers would be gone for a month on holiday, and that the number of doctors and nurses left behind were restricted by law to working no more than 35 hours.

So Dr. Pelloux issued a warning that the number of available hospital beds would be reduced by "25 to 30 percent" because of a lack of trained medical personnel. The government, including Health Minister Jean-Fran?ois Mattei, shrugged off the warning and went to the beach. By the end of the third week on August, more than 15,000 elderly French people had died — many left unattended in hospital rooms where the temperatures reached 120 degrees because air conditioning was seen as too expensive, too contrary to the Kyoto agreements and too American. For three weeks, the government of France went on holiday while the services it taxed people to provide evaporated in the heat. On the 21st, a tanned and debonair Chirac finally spoke to the nation via television from his vacation home. He promised that the government would make a plan so something like the heatwave catastrophe wouldn't happen again. A year or so later the plan was unveiled: The government would buy at least one window air conditioner for every hospital — eventually. When temperatures exceeded a certain level, it would make public announcements that it was hot outside. And, the government promised, the next time there's a heatwave, the elderly will be told to avoid going to a local hospital. Instead, they will be told to go to a local cinema.

Comparing countries and cultures is not very useful, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that the deaths of 3,000 people in New York and Washington changed America. Even the death of one woman in Florida was enough to bring Congress back into session and summon the president from his Texas ranch.

But the deaths of 15,000 people — that's five 9/11s — in the space of three weeks because of a failure of government services that had promised to meet personal responsibilities not only didn't cause any significant change in France, it did nothing to change the French understanding of what a government ought to do. In fact, according to a poll taken at the time, only half the nation thought the government might have done better.

A postscript: Irony may be a French invention, but mercy comes from God, who knows when enough's enough: The summer of 2004 was one of the coolest in recent memory.

But Pelloux is warning again that disaster looms in the summer of 2005, and once again he is being ignored by President Chirac — just as Gov. Henry is ignoring the French education ministry as it proclaims the failure of French primary education and the failure of the preschool scam he brought home from Paris. Last week, a report carried by AP found that kids in toddler-ed programs in Oklahoma are "being expelled at a rate triple that of students in all other grades," with African-Americans and boys getting tossed far more often than other kids. Talk about a head-start program: By the age of five, Oklahoma kids will be failures in school because of a program that Gov. Henry will no doubt hail as "one of the best in the world." Maybe it'll all sound better in French!

Denis Boyles is a columnist for National Review Online and the author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese (Encounter Books, 2005). He is currently working on a book about Midwestern political values.

Denis Boyles

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