In Other Words

France's New Capitalists
By Alain Minc 179 pages, Paris: Grasset, 2000 (in French) Voyage au cœur de la nouvelle économie
( Voyage to the Heart of the New Economy)

By Jean-Marie Messier 240 pages, Paris: Hachette Littérature, 2000 (in French)

Even as antiglobalization literature runs rampant in France, two of the most important figures behind the country's "new capitalism" have accepted the challenge of brazenly advocating this economic system: Alain Minc, head of leading consulting firm AM Conseils, authored, and Jean-Marie Messier, CEO of the giant environmental and communications conglomerate Vivendi, penned Voyage to the Heart of the New Economy.

That these two stars of French capitalism and eminent members of the French elite take such a public stand in itself constitutes a revolution. The French continue to cherish an entire "economic school" that delights in denouncing the damage done by capitalism and condemning the all-encompassing market and the "McDonaldization" of the world. The leaders of this school are neither economists nor politicians, but an aristocratic novelist (Viviane Forrester, author of The Economic Horror), a militant "peasant" who has helped spark demonstrations in Europe and North America (José Bové, with The World Is Not a Commodity), and an engagé sociologist (Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market). All three books were huge commercial successes [Forrester's 1997 work was reviewed in Foreign Policy in fall 1997]. Although these bestselling tracts paint the new economy as something to be fzeared, others believe that France has fallen behind the rest of the industrialized world. A recent government report spoke in alarmist terms of the need to bring French technology up to snuff to prevent the "economic and cultural hegemony of a few major world corporations." Down to their dot-com titles, Minc and Messier's books clue readers in to this rising sentiment.

Despite the felt need to improve France's place in the world economy, the few writers who have attempted to respond to the Forresters and Bourdieus have not met with popular acclaim. The latest initiatives of Minc and Messier therefore deserve note: The success or failure of their books will permit the world to judge just how much French attitudes toward globalization and capitalism have evolved in recent years.

Even if they deny it, Minc and Messier are key characters in the French establishment. Both attended l'ENA, France's National School of Administration, the machine that has for years produced members of the French administrative and political elite. Through their education and careers, they have preserved strong relations with the state and its political leaders. Attracted by power, they both understood that it no longer -- or only marginally -- remained in government ministries, but had moved to the boardrooms of large private companies. Having thus broken with government administration, they began assiduously networking in the world of business. It is there that they became the symbols they are today.

Minc and Messier also harbor acute appetites for debate, for the defense of their convictions. Both explain why they believe their presence in the "public agora" is necessary. Messier goes so far as to say it is a question of "a democratic requirement." But their styles of debate take completely different forms. Minc's work is a classic of the essayist's craft, written by a talented author who has mass-produced books (about one per year) on diverse themes; he recently wrote about judges, then ... Spinoza. In contrast, the work of CEO Messier is the direct testimony of a "master of the world" reflecting on his exploits.

As such, these two books read very differently. The first, quite French in its organization, is rather severe and stiff; the second, more American in its writing, reads like a thriller. Yet each in its own way defends the new capitalism, a system where the market is king and new actors (namely, shareholders and consumers) have taken power. The market imposes itself everywhere and dictates its law to everyone, they note. It is unavoidable. The two authors share a common view, however, that for the moment, capitalism is "the worst system, except for all the others." This opinion is steeped in French history. A look at 18th- and 19th-century French political and economic thought reveals the seeds of the classic laissez-faire tradition. Both reality and history dictate, then, that countries must adapt to the market.

Minc's analysis of this argument seems, at first, rather banal. With the Internet, he says, the world is living a new revolution, of the same breadth as the one precipitated by railroads and later by electricity. The world has also entered into "a new stage of capitalism" (a reference to Marx is still obligatory in France). A passage from "wage capitalism" to "owner capitalism" -- where capital enriches more than work -- opens a new era of prosperity for the world, but it will not automatically make life paradise on earth, concedes Minc. The market calls everything into question: "It brings down states, unions, and the socioeconomic equilibrium laboriously fashioned since 1945, but is not in a position to impose itself completely."

Considered in France to be one of the fathers of la pensée unique (the economic orthodoxy that defends price stability, balanced government budgets, and flexible markets), Minc attacks the "tyranny of markets" -- a central idea of Forrester, Bourdieu, and friends -- with perseverance and efficacy. He shows that the market itself helps create antidotes to the problems it causes. "New counterweights [to the market] continually assert themselves, dominated by the alliance of justice, media, and public opinion, which exercise on economic actors a more diffuse pressure than the state did in the past, but without a doubt the pressure is more intense." His analysis of "the ambivalence" of this new capitalism is also convincing: It is "at the same time oppressive and democratic, obsessed by profitability but transparent in its function, crushed by the weight of shareholders but liberated from the abuse of powers and games of traditional influences."

"Yes to the market economy, no to the market society." This slogan, dear to French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and taken up by "the new left" (British Prime Minister Blair, German Chancellor Schröder, and even U.S. President Clinton) is then disputed in great detail by Minc. For him, it is impossible to believe that the market can be good for the economy but harmful to society as a whole. Competition cannot be restricted; it will ineluctably impose itself everywhere -- in education, in health, in public services. And that's for the better, so we must encourage competition. Naturally, it is on this point that Minc's book is likely to incite the liveliest debate in France. While Republicans and Democrats in the United States argue over the intricacies of Social Security privatization and school vouchers, the thought that such issues could ever be the subject of a mainstream political debate in France is considered, except on certain fringes, almost heretical. Any negative reaction to should therefore come as no surprise.

Jean-Marie Messier is already an American in his head, and he's proud of it. His book bears witness to that; some are surprised that he hasn't yet taken U.S. citizenship. Without a doubt, this is the first time that a powerful French CEO has devoted himself to the game so often played in the United States, the one of self-promotion, known in France as "moi, par moi-même" (Me, by myself). This game surprises no one in New York, but it is astonishing in Paris. His nickname, J6M, stands for "Jean-Marie Messier, Myself, Master of the World." His book's title,, is a self-portrait, but his writing explains his conception of the new capitalism, his reading of the new economy. Like Minc, he disputes the dictatorship of the shareholder in business. He estimates that a CEO is a "manager of contradictions" and must know how to juggle multiple interests: those of clients, workers, and shareholders. Messier next explains his personal feelings toward the people and the situations faced in his recent ventures -- at the time of the spectacular merger of Vivendi and Seagram, for example. He recounts failures and anecdotes, such as the difficulties he encountered selling the French newsmagazine L'Express, part of his global media empire. Messier is also transparent throughout his work, notably by revealing the amount of his very high salary ... and then justifying it: I am well paid because I make my shareholders rich, he says, and for that, I work and I take risks. That kind of candidness is new on this side of the Atlantic.

Previously in France, the business world functioned on the basis of the old principle, "To live happy, live hidden." The market was considered the place where "the wrong sort of people" went; it was a machine that created inequalities, insupportable in an egalitarian society. All of that is finished, or almost. This proposition is, in any case, what Minc and Messier try to prove. To use their own credo, it is now up to the market to judge their ideas. Competition is alive and well in France, but which one of these two will show it most convincingly? Will these books surpass the popularity of Forrester, Bové, and Bourdieu? That test will help us judge just how much France has been Americanized.


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