Brand Engagement

France: The Engagement Paradox


Anyone who has visited France lately and keeps up on the country’s politics cannot but be amazed at the country’s engagement paradox. On the one hand, France’s investment in infrastructure puts the U.S. to shame – the average state of the country’s highways and secondary roads far surpasses that of the U.S. All major cities are connected by either ultra-high-speed rail or, at worst, a train network more comprehensive and better run than ours.

A recent visit gave me reason to ponder the engagement paradox that is France.

The country’s cities generally are cleaner and better maintained than ours; the population benefits from a high quality healthcare system that is essentially free. There are five weeks of guaranteed vacation for almost all; higher education (for those who pass the necessary tests) is practically free; and there is no evidence that the French or Europeans are behind the U.S. in terms of general comfort or technology or in almost any other lifestyle domain, including fashion, design, or food.

Based on the way the French take care of their homes, businesses and farms, the quality of their products’ design and the relative freshness of their food, for that matter, there must be a high level of personal engagement and a high level of pride and attention to beauty and quality. Driving through even the most remote countryside, one is surprised by the high quality of the roads and the sense that each farmer takes so much care of his or her property that the ensemble presents an almost picture-perfect tableau. In places, it is almost as if each farmer must have cooperated so that the panoramas one experiences could have been painted by a master.

The French are clearly engaged in their passions, whether it’s the way they take care of their homes, raise their children, undertake their sports, the country is crisscrossed with extraordinarily well maintained and marked hiking trails almost all managed by volunteers. Their passion for food, art, literature and music is legendary.

Yet, beneath this apparently high quality of life there is a deep malaise. The official unemployment rate stands at 11%, but most French people one speaks with believe it to be much higher. Almost everyone knows of underemployed youth in their twenties, and it’s not uncommon for people of that age to live with their parents for lack of sufficient income to leave the nest. Worse yet, as a result of the open door created by the European Union, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of youth have left the country in recent years for Great Britain or other countries where it’s easier to start a business.

It’s well known that France’s over 2,000 pages of labor laws and long history of class conflict put a severe damper on entrepreneurs and innovators. Theoretically, the French are obliged by law to work no more than 35 hours per week, although many individuals would willingly work more for better pay, and countless regulations and obligatory holidays add significant burdens to almost anyone who owns a business. In many parts of the country, retailers cannot open on Sundays. Once a company reaches a certain size, even more onerous regulations kick in that add further costs to doing business. Although the labor movement in France, as in the U.S., is a shadow of its former self in terms of clout, there remains among many workers an extreme suspicion about the motives of their employees that definitely has an effect on customer service, particularly at large companies. While service levels at restaurants, hotels and other small businesses are generally high, and attention to detail at such businesses is notable in comparison with the U.S., there is a joke in France that “the customer is always wrong.” This applies mostly to service at large companies and within the country’s huge public sector, which employs as much as 20% of the population. The French frequently experience inconveniences due to labor actions that block highways and roads, stop public transportation, or create other nuisances, and many French people express sympathy when they believe the workers’ grievances have merit.

So what are my takeaways about the engagement paradox from my recent experience in France?

  • All engagement is personal. Engagement comes from within, from our genes, our families and the way we are raised. Engagement is not a result of one political system or another; engaged people find an expression for their passions no matter what the government.
  • Engaged people vote with their feet. When a country fails to create opportunity for its engaged population, they flee when they can. Clearly, the high costs and regulations related to hiring people in France has had an effect. As one merchant told me, “The cost is the huge number of highly talented people leaving the country to find opportunity elsewhere, despite the five weeks of vacation and relatively large safety net.”
  • The U.S. must be doing something right. Despite our crumbling infrastructure, lack of vacation time, work-life balance challenges and poor worker protections compared with other countries, our talented youth are not fleeing the country and the official unemployment rate of 5.1%, while perhaps under-reported, stands well below that of France and other European countries.

The Enterprise Engagement Alliance steers completely away from politics to focus on business, but we cannot discount the impact government can have on the ability of engaged people to find success and fulfillment when it creates so many bureaucratic impediments to launching and expanding a business. Ironically, the current socialist government in France is taking considerable heat from its left wing for passing laws to reduce labor regulations and enable retailers to open on Sundays.

That said, does a country have to neglect its infrastructure and have a laissez-faire approach to employee rights to have a vibrant economy, or even low taxes for that matter? Based on the huge infrastructure investments and high taxes during the era of President Dwight Eisenhower, it appears not. On the other hand, entrepreneurs cannot thrive when dealing with labor regulations that thwart flexibility at every stage of growth, and engaged people cannot thrive in a work environment in which class warfare and a sense of entitlement infect just enough people to discourage others from excelling or stepping forward to help innovate.

To those Americans who complain about high taxes and government regulation, they don’t know how good they’ve got it compared with most European countries, and the impact is clear. Despite all of our nation’s problems, including its recent severe recession and challenges to work-life balance and security, our young talent for the most part stays put to find their fortunes.


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