As I write this, I am on the Eurostar train whizzing back from Lyon, France's "second city," to London. I've just spent a few days touring Bourgogne (Burgundy) — arguably the center of the most exclusive wine region in the world.
It also gave me a chance to read and watch the local media in a country that many Americans may visit, but few would ever invest in.
Today, the French economy is in a funk, a blot on the euro zone's economic recovery, despite the economy expanding by 0.6% in Q1 following zero growth in the previous quarter.
Not surprisingly, the educated French are voting with their feet. Thanks to the French socialist government's policy of charging income tax to high earners of up to 75% until December 2014, London is now chock-full of French expatriates. In my London neighborhood of South Kensington, you hear French almost as much as you do English. And as I saw on my last visit there, Silicon Valley is also chock-full of French engineers.
Things looked a lot different in 2007 when French voters gave the son of a Hungarian, Nicolas Sarkozy, a sizable mandate to pursue market reform.
Opponents of Sarkozy derided him as an "American conservative with a French passport." Libération, a left-leaning newspaper, described him as "Thatcher without the skirts."
As well-known left-wing commentator Bernard Guetta noted on French radio:
Almost 30 years late... France has at last taken the liberal turn that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gave the world. Others will say that after three decades of resistance, France has been caught up by international change — the retreat of the state and the pre-eminence of the market, which it could no longer avoid. Some are rejoicing, others are deploring it but the fact is there.
Well, the left got its wish.
Five years later, Sarkozy was ousted and France lurched back to the left after the election of socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.
And France's economy is paying the price...
The Surprisingly Productive French
Take politics and economics out of the equation, and France does have a lot of things going for it.
Most obviously, the French are remarkably thin and healthy-looking. This despite the fact that smoking has not gone out of style. The women are elegantly dressed. We Americans and Brits look positively frumpy in comparison.
The trains run on time. And they are fast as heck. The distance between Paris and London is about 307 miles, and it takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel between them. That's roughly the distance between Philadelphia and Boston — and what is at best a five-hour train ride.
Stores, at least in small towns, are more often closed than open. You have to organize your day around the few hours you'll actually find someone available to sell you something. It is almost as bad as trying to get the attention of the smoking and bantering waiters at a restaurant.
With this kind of work ethic, you may be surprised to learn that France is one of the most productive economies in the world.
I suspected that was because they get a lot more done in the few hours that they do work.
Statistics confirmed my suspicion. In 2013, output per worker in France was 13% higher than in the United Kingdom. But because Brits work longer hours than the French, on a comparison of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour, the difference jumps to a whopping 27%.