“C’est à la tête seulement qu’il appartient de délibérer et de résoudre, et toutes les fonctions des autres membres ne consistent que dans l’exécution des commandements qui leur sont donnés” Louis XIV (Memoires, 1661) Rough Translation: “Deliberation and decisions belong to the chief of the government. All other members of the government only exist to execute those decisions”
This particular text goes a long way towards explaining the behavior of French people in positions of authority with respect to those below them. For a society built on “Liberty, Egality and Fraternity”, it is curious to see that such an authoritarian and condescending view is taken once folks have an ounce of power allotted to them. The French expression “petit chef” or “little boss” refers to the ever-present, peeking-over-the-shoulder,micro-managing, on-your-back management style of many first- and second-line French managers. I suppose there is a touch of Napoleon complex mixed in for taste as well. It seems that French business schools format managers into pretty common and limited molds and that the most popular management technique is that of being overbearing to get people to get things done. To be honest, I have found only a relatively small percentage, let’s say for sake of argument 10-20%, of managers fit this particular description – and not all of them were French I might add – but the behavior is so annoying and counter-productive that at least for me it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Taken at a governmental level, the same principle applies. France remains a very top-down kind of democracy. Grass-roots movements rarely make any headway until they are co-opted by the powers that be. That doesn’t mean the French do not put up flimsy resistance from time to time. As anyone who has lived here for any length of time can verify, striking is the common way of getting one’s point across. Sadly though, it is exceedingly rare that anything really concretely changes. It is also helpful to notice that the French Revolution itself was a bourgeois movement and not specifically working class. One must, in any political context – not just French, always take care when politicians play to the working class because it is nearly always pure manipulation. In most places and especially here in France, politicians ALL belong to an elite class and they are very, very protective of that special status. There is even a specific school here called ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration) from which a massive percentage of the political class issues. Their main interest is staying in power and like in every other modern democracy, they will manipulate the press and appeal to the working class to get their numbers up. Then when it comes to delivery, well, they protect their own caste and give excuses (budget, etc) for why more cannot be done for everyone else. And so it goes.
Coming back to working for a French company and the differences with regard to working for an American company, there are some values that just don’t travel well. Autonomy is one as should hopefully be obvious from this article. One must pay in time and blood before “earning” one’s autonomy. Things have become perhaps slightly less rigid in recent times but essentially there is relatively little autonomy for the average worker here. Again, the management droids at two or more levels above have an obsession with keeping their power and they tend to feel that “enabling” their employees to take some decisions reduces their own power and so it is not encouraged. Another particularity with respect to this is access to information. Taking my power example again, the French are convinced, partially rightly so, that knowledge is power. But rather than spreading that knowledge so that more people around them are “empowered” and informed as to what is happening and what is at stake, knowledge is preciously guarded close to the chest and only divulged when absolutely necessary. “We know what is good for you” as the saying goes. For me, these are the two hardest things to get used to and after 15 years, I cannot honestly say I am still struggling with them.
Until the next post…