The Monkey Cage reports that “57% of the French public and 70% of French Socialists believe that Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was the victim of a set-up”:The post goes on to make the excellent point that “it seems a bit rich for Socialists to overwhelmingly take the side of the wealthy powerful politician with a history of sexual abuse allegations against what appear to be quite credible allegations of a poor Guinean refugee.”

But I’m bringing this up because I think it lends some useful perspective to recent conspiracy theories in the United States. As crazy as the myth about Obama not being born in the US was, contrary to what a lot of pundits claimed, I don’t think it indicated a level of paranoia or craziness in the conservative movement that was much greater than the level of paranoia or craziness among people in general. We have various biases that cloud our understanding of the here and now and make it easy to forget that, unfortunately, this sort of insanity is actually pretty normal.

Many things stood out to me on my first visit to France. Notably, French restaurants/cafes in Paris avoid the EU smoking bans in an almost comical way. Attached to the restaurants’ exterior is an almost pseudo-greenhouse structure that technically counts as “outside” so people are allowed to smoke. The pseudo-greenhouses have thin glass walls and a door to keep cold air out. It is effectively a separate smoking area, much like when restaurants used to have smoking and non-smoking sections that people voluntarily sat in. Additionally, the thin glass walls make it almost certainly more expensive to heat the added smoking shelters.

A few things I gather from this:

  • Restaurants will find interesting ways to evade laws that are ridiculous.
  • This smoking ban has the unintended consequence of raising energy usage and costs.
  • People in Paris give a generally less terrible stigma to cigarette smoking than people in many parts of Scandinavian countries.

Loyal Upset Patterns reader My Dad e-mailed me a link to this entry (also posted here) at the progressive Vermont blog Green Mountain Daily.  I think that it and some of the comments that follow express a widespread sentiment among left-leaning Americans that France has this great, mobilized political left that holds the government’s feet to the fire and defends progressive values whereas in the US, by contrast, the citizens are too lazy and complacent to effect any real change.  Not to be pretentious, but  this made me think of the famous Aristotle quote about anger:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Widespread protests and strikes like what they have here in France are incredibly disruptive.  Of course, this is the point, and sometimes being disruptive is good.  If your government is carrying out an immoral or unjust policy, then a huge protest, perhaps even a violent one, might be justified, if that’s what it takes.  But protests and strikes have significant costs: they’re disruptive and wasteful.  So if you have a political culture like the one in France, where the public is constantly eager to unleash large strikes and protests that reflect unfocused populist anger in response to even mild reforms, it can be really pernicious.

I’m all for civic engagement, but it really is important for anger to be directed at the right person to the right degree for the right purpose and in the right way.  Granted, this is a lofty ideal, but until the current Gallic rabblerousers (whom I had to walk through to get to the cafe whose wifi I’m using right now) get closer to it, I think that a few more American-style politically apathetic couch potatoes among the citizenry might not be the worst thing in the world for France.

The Philadelphia correspondent for the Economist’s Democracy in America blog discusses comparisons of the Tea Parties to recent protests in France over retirement reform:

[W]hat’s most remarkable about the French protests is not only that they are partially motivated by hostility to the rich but also that there is a pretty straightforward line of causality from provocation to action: the government proposes to raise the retirement age and workers take to the streets to oppose it because they want the retirement age to remain where it is. First A, then B…. The character of the American tea-party movement is very different, and more complicated….

This means, I think, that the size of government and the details of public budgeting are secondary concerns for the tea-party movement. What it primarily cares about is cultural identity. Taxes and government spending come in because the tea-partiers feel like “their” America is under cultural assault….

So yes, the French and American protesters both want to be heard. But they are saying very different things. Where the French are pushing back against a public policy with which they disagree, the Americans are out to defend one comprehensive cultural vision of the nation against another, largely incompatible vision….

I largely agree with this analysis of the Tea Parties, but I think that, because of some misconceptions about the current protests in France, the Economist blogger might be overstating the differences between the French and American protest movements.

A lot of this is based on anecdotal evidence from my own firsthand observations of the protests and from conversations with French people about the protests, so this isn’t exactly scientific.  But what the heck, this is the internet, so I won’t let that stop me from weighing in.

One thing that was mysterious to me initially about the recent French protests is why people were so incredibly angry and mobilized.  I’d have an easier time understanding a mass movement in response to a war or an obviously unjust policy like racial segregation or something like that.  But retirement reform?  People really see having to work for two more years as an such a grave transgression of justice that they feel compelled to respond like this?

Part of the reason for this is that the French are just different: striking and protesting are huge parts of their political culture.  But part of the reason is also that it’s not really as much about retirement reform as it might seem.

Many people with whom I’ve spoken about the protests have argue that the protests are much more about general opposition to Nicholas Sarkozy and that the retirement reform is really just an occasion to express this feeling of malcontent.  Sarkozy embarrasses the French in the way that George W. Bush embarrassed many Americans.

At the French protests that I’ve witnessed, there are a fair amount of slogans and signs that are in some way related to retirement reform.  But the majority of what I see and here seems to be general denunciations of Sarkozy.  The sign/sticker that I’ve seen the most around town is one that has the insult that Sarkozy’s infamously delivered a couple of years ago to a man who refused to shake is hand: “casse toi, pauvre con”.  I’ve also seen tons of references to an episode where Sarkozy was getting heckled by some young hooligans during a speech and tried to put on a macho display by challenging them to come up to the podium and fight him.

All of this is to say that the French view Sarkozy as a disgrace to the presidency.  He doesn’t carry himself in the dignified way that a President should.  Some protesters are surely well-informed and principled opponents of the reform, but like the Tea Parties, I think that most of the French retirement reform strikers/protesters aren’t driven by a direct causation between reform that they disagree with and taking to the streets, but rather by the vague perception of certain threats to France as they know it: that the government is becoming too pro-American, that the man who represents France to the rest of the world behaves in ways that don’t befit a French president, and that old style French socialism is being left behind for a more modern, liberalization friendly British Labour Party-style left wing party.

The French retirement reform movement isn’t necessarily any more coherent or detail oriented than the Tea Party movement, nor is there obviously a clearer link between concrete policy change and populist uprising.