|Christine Lagarde, finance minister, says the French should work harder.|
French urged to 'roll up your sleeves'
Campaign puts some on edge
PARIS -- France is the country that produced the Enlightenment, the Descartes one-liner, "I think therefore I am," and the solemn pontifications of Jean-Paul Sartre and other celebrity philosophers.
But in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, thinking has lost its cachet.
In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their "old national habit."
"France is a country that thinks," she told the National Assembly. "There is hardly an ideology that we haven't turned into a theory. We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves."
Citing Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," she said the French should work harder, earn more, and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich.
Lagarde knows well the Horatio Alger story of making money through hard work. She looked west to make her fortune, spending much of her career as a lawyer at the firm of Baker & McKenzie, based in the American city known for its broad shoulders and work ethic: Chicago. She rose to become the first woman to head the firm's executive committee and was named one of the world's most powerful women by Forbes magazine.
So now, after two years back in France, she is a natural to promote the program of Sarkozy, whose driving force is doing rather than musing and whose mantra is "work more to earn more."
Certainly, the new president himself has cultivated his image as a nonintellectual. "I am not a theoretician," he told a television interviewer last month. "I am not an ideologue. Oh, I am not an intellectual! I am someone concrete!"
But the disdain for reflection may be going a bit too far. It certainly has set the French intellectual class on edge.
Bernard-Henri Levy, the philosopher- journalist who wrote a book retracing de Tocqueville's 19th-century travels throughout the United States, is appalled by Lagarde's comments.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases," Levy said. "I'm pro-American and promarket, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this . . . is one of the reasons that I did not."
Lagarde was much too selective in quoting de Tocqueville, Levy said, suggesting that she read his complete works. In her leisure time.
The government's call to work is key to its campaign to revitalize the French economy by increasing employment and consumer buying power. Somehow it hopes to persuade the French that it is in their interest to abandon what some commentators call a nationwide laziness.