CONTEMPORARY FRANCE AND ITS SILENT TAKEOVER OF U.S. CORPORATE CULTURE
In French—a language in which even the most mundane things sound complicated and forbidden—the closest equivalent to the word corporation is société anonyme (“anonymous society”). While both terms refer to a publicly traded business, their etymologies couldn’t be more different. The English noun denotes a single legal entity (the Latin “corpus”), while the French term suggests a plurality—a “society” of people aggregated under an artificial name. One emphasizes the individual; the other, the group.
Those of us who obsessively follow our two countries’ on-again, off-again romance know that when it comes to business, France and the U.S. are often hopelessly incompatible. The “corporation,” with its connotations of a solitary human body, reflects the solo spirit on which American business is (however speciously) founded—the self-made man, the rags-to-riches self-starter, the go-it-alone visionary. The American business media expend great amounts of energy measuring and ranking individual wealth. To place No. 1 is not just a validation of financial importance but a cultural one.
On the other side of the Atlantic, French business has historically tended toward a self-effacing reticence. “Business leaders are not public heroes in France,” write Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow in their cross-cultural compendium Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. “Journalists do not quote their opinions about anything except business, not even the economy.” The authors observe that in the Fortune 500 listings, French companies usually appear around the fiftieth mark. “The same pattern appears in each sector: French business will be second, third or fourth in their category, but rarely first,” they write. “It’s as if the French don’t want to be number one.”
In France, a corporation is above all a social organization. Indeed, the French adjective “social(e)” can be translated as either “social” or “corporate” depending on context. Consider the importance of les syndicats (trade unions): the collective power of employees to bring business to a halt whenever demands are not met is more than just a right; it’s a national pastime. Also consider le cadre, the general term for management. The word itself has socialist connotations. Within a corporation, the term suggests a homogenization, as if individual managers all thought and acted alike—almost as if they were a part of a revolutionary army.
Not surprisingly, the individual employee is marginalized. My junior year French professor told a story of a friend who worked as a secretary in a French corporation and who always addressed her manager as Monsieur and his last name, never by his first name. In fact, she didn’t know his first name. She worked for the same manager for more than ten years—typing his letters, answering his telephone calls, even becoming friendly with his wife. When she finally left the company, she still didn’t know his first name. Anonyme, indeed.
For a society that collectively puts in so little time at the office (less than twenty-eight hours per week on average, versus 34.5 hours in the U.S.), the French have a strange obsession with the day-to-day textures of corporate drudgery. Michel Houellebecq’s 1994 novel Extension du Domaine de la Lutte—published in the U.S. in 1998 as Whatever—embodies this fascination with perverse intensity. The novel’s anonymous antihero works for a nameless corporation in what feels like a nothing job. (He trains clients on the company’s proprietary software product but spends much of his time waiting for directives that never come.) He has no family and few friends. He spends most of his time alone, at home, doing nothing.
Like the secretary who doesn’t know her own boss’s name, Houellebecq’s protagonist has internalized the anonymity of the corporation to a point where it feels comforting. He is content to be an office nobody, cutting himself off from work and from those he works with. Professional decorum resembles a serene indifference at best, and at worst, an irreversible alienation.
Americans may interpret France’s recent no-vote on the E.U. constitution as just another rejection of the Anglo-Saxon business-first work ethic. But the truth is more complicated. At a time when the sanctity of France’s thirty-five-hour work week has come under attack as an unaffordable social luxury, and at a time when the French government is privatizing its massive utility companies (gradually turning these holy emblems of Mitterrand-era socialism into full-fledged corporations), France has never seemed so… un-French.
Even the stereotypically retiring French businessman is asserting himself in untoward ways. The career ascent and flameout of Jean-Marie Messier, former chief executive of Vivendi Universal and business celebrity extraordinaire, is the most famous example. More recently, the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s former finance minister (and now likely to be the country’s next president), has ushered in a new period in French business—that of the “national champion,” pan-European super-corporations with a French controlling interest (e.g., drug giant Sanofi-Aventis; mega-carrier Air France-KLM) that are intended to compete on a global scale, which is to say, against American companies.
These tectonic shifts in French business beg the question: could contrarian France be trying to imitate the U.S.? Certainly, French companies are growing bigger, meaner, and richer. They also are striving to be what they have historically despised: No. 1. If the fiction currently coming out of France is an indication, the self-asserting businessman (or businesswoman) is no longer a taboo. Art is imitating business; and France, the U.S.
A staple of U.S. corporate mythology is the megalomaniac asshole CEO—all self-worshiping grandeur and type-A bluster. Less despised by the public than tolerated like a misbehaving child, he is a quintessentially American creation, like the cowboy. In his 2004 novel Le Capital, Stéphane Osmont creates a French version of the American archetype, the bizarre result of which could be described as the evil twin of Houellebecq’s white-collar nobody. Osmont’s protagonist works in a French corporation, narrates his own story (unreliably), and regards his job with no small amount of contemptuous alienation. Unlike Houellebecq’s creation, however, Osmont’s hero is the president of his company and is obsessed with being king in an MBA world.
I was first drawn to Le Capital by its jacket. Covering the front of the book is a photograph of a wolf’s open maw—fangs bared in mid-attack, gums glistening under a harsh light. Given the novel’s preoccupation with animalistic aggression, the wolf provides an excellent metaphor for the lethal corporate loner. Insatiably bloodthirsty, the animal perhaps poses the most danger to itself. As the saying goes, a wolf will chew off its own foot if caught in a trap—an extreme act of self-preservation that ironically depends on an act of self-destruction.
Would a corporate predator do the same? Osmont’s hero is named Marc Tourneuillerie—forty-one years old, a graduate of France’s elite business school HEC. He works at the largest investment bank in Europe, Crédit Général, a fictional fusion of the names of two real-life French banks, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale. Tourneuillerie is a corporate celebrity—his face appears on magazine covers, news broadcasts, and the internet. He cavorts with other big-name CEOs, including Richard Branson, and in one scene, Bill Gates. Hardly an “anonymous” existence—but this being France, Osmont suggests that the CEO is in many ways a company’s most faceless employee.
A pivotal scene comes when Tourneuillerie makes a surprise visit to Crédit General’s London office. Arriving early in the morning, he finds the building virtually empty save for a single receptionist. “Do you recognize me?” he asks the young woman. “No...I don’t recognize you,” she replies casually. “Should I?” Tourneuillerie keeps his anger in check. (He fancies himself a bit of a Henry V, visiting the troops incognito.) As his employees arrive, they file past him without recognition. Tourneuillerie’s resentment mounts. “None of them deigned to pay me any attention,” he says in a tone of self-pity. “So this is what an anonymous life feels like.” His logic is reductive and childish: Because he is not instantly recognized, because he is not swarmed by admirers, he is a nobody. And this oppressive anonymity, which is real if only because he perceives it so acutely, is what Tourneuillerie spends the rest of the novel fighting viciously against.
A brief addendum: “Stéphane Osmont,” the name of the author, is actually a nom de plume. According to Grasset, the novel’s publisher, “Osmont” is a graduate of France’s prestigious ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration) and spent many years working in large companies as a financial expert. An author without a real name; a protagonist without a real identity; Le Capital is a novel without a discernible human trace: un roman anonyme.
For French readers and critics, much of the appeal of Le Capital came not from Osmont’s literary style (the novel is as trashy as its protagonist is wealthy), but from the real-world parallels between the novel’s Tourneuillerie and Jean-Marie Messier. At the height of his career in the late ’90s, Messier presided over a media conglomerate that included Universal Pictures, Universal Music, USA Networks, and Canal Plus. Vivendi was a global monstrosity and Messier had an ego to match it. He purchased a Park Avenue penthouse using Vivendi’s money; he flew the corporate jet for personal trips; and perhaps most notoriously, he suggested that his French employees conduct all business in English. In 1999, he published his autobiography, entitled J6M.com, the six M’s standing for “Jean-Marie Messier: Moi-Même, Maître du Monde” (Myself, Master of the World).
Messier, like the fictional Tourneuillerie, was a relatively young (early forties) product of the French elite whose white-hot ascent through the ranks of a major corporation became the object of endless media attention, not all of it in France. (Messier was once Time’s Person of the Week and graced the cover of Fortune.) Like Tourneuillerie, Messier fell fast and hard. Last year, the “master of the world” was arrested on charges of stock manipulation and his worldwide media conglomerate has since been dissolved.
To equate Tourneuillerie and Messier may be too facile a leap—as was noted in a review in Le Nouvel Economiste, Osmont’s fictional protagonist could just as easily have been based on any number of recent CEO-perps such as Kenneth Lay of Enron or the Italian Tanzi family of Parmalat. Still, Osmont’s roots in the world of French high finance (or rather, his alter ego’s) suggest he mingled in the same circles as Messier and had the opportunity to observe him in his natural (that is to say, highly artificial) habitat.
Is it a coincidence that both Messier and Tourneuillerie are forever sounding the first-person (the I, the me, the moi-même)? Consciously or not, they are rejecting the stifling anonymity of the French corporation and openly embracing the self-aggrandizing, superego-charged spirit of American business. In the end, this may be what gives the French public permission to enjoy their respective downfalls, and the loathing is clearly more than mutual. After he was arrested last summer in Paris, Messier held a press conference and took the opportunity to insult Old Europe by comparing the French legal system to “something out of the eighteenth century.” It’s hip to diss France, never more so than when the person doing it is French.
Fiction most closely resembles fact in Tourneuillerie’s disastrous acquisition of a much larger competitor, a move that strongly smacks of Messier’s ruinous purchase of Universal. In Le Capital, Tourneuillerie pursues Mizuho Holdings (a real-life bank) even though he knows the Japanese company is a debt-addled time bomb (several billion in the red). True to his advisors’ warnings, the digestive pangs of the acquisition prove too great for Crédit Général to bear—the company ruptures and disintegrates. As was the case with Vivendi Universal (which was in the red by $17.1 billion in 2002 just before its collapse), Crédit Général’s shareholders revolt and its board of directors organize an internal coup d’état that results in the ouster of the CEO.
Near the end of Le Capital, when Crédit Général is in the final stages of its death spiral, Tourneuillerie notices something while en route to a meeting. “The back of my hand was bleeding,” he says. “I passed my tongue over the wound. The bleeding quickly returned, rising in abundance over the open flesh.” A wolf caught in his own trap, Tourneuillerie engineers the quasi-suicidal purchase of Mizuho Holdings as an act of self-administered mercy—the equivalent of chewing his foot off. After all, giving yourself a juicy bite is the surest way to verify that you are in fact you.
Another hallmark of the American corporate ethos is the unstoppable multinational firm, a virtual predator that devours foreign competition in the unquestioning pursuit of growth. If French companies have historically been content to stay at home, tending to their employees’ well-being, American companies are addicted to the thrill of cross-border combat. In the film demonlover (2002), director Olivier Assayas creates a French multinational that is seeded with a distinctly American strand of DNA. Volf (another kind of wolf) is a Paris-based company whose lines of business include, but are not limited to, securities trading, mergers and acquisitions, real estate and multimedia ventures. A generic, “anything” corporation—one that is populated by equally generic, faceless employees.
Taking a cue from America’s love affair with the office, demonlover blurs the line between self and profession to such an extreme that they melt into each other.
Diane is a corporate spy (or is she a huntress?) who has infiltrated Volf with the intent of scuttling the company’s joint venture with a Japanese anime porn company. (As in Le Capital, a Franco-Japanese business axis takes center stage—a potential source of anxiety for American audiences for whom the two countries epitomize the notion of foreign otherness.) But who is Diane, exactly? As viewers, we know nothing about her. She has no family or friends. She has no personal history. Like Houellebecq’s antihero, she seems to have emerged fully formed from a void. The fact that Diane is played by Danish actress Connie Nielsen, in a performance that switches between French and English, only heightens her unplaceability. In fact, Diane isn’t even who she says she is. As her corporate nemesis Elise (Chloë Sevigny) says at a crucial turning point, “Your identity papers are fake; all the information in your résumé is made up. And your name isn’t Diane de Monx. I don’t know your name or where you’re from…”
“Diane” seems beyond psychological analysis—like Houellebecq’s character, she’s opaque, all haute-couture surfaces masking something unknown and perhaps unknowable. Possessing no concrete identity, she conforms to whatever persona (boardroom bitch; cat burglar; internet fetish object) the situation requires. She literally is what she does; the border between self and occupation no longer exists.
By the end of demonlover, Diane has successfully stolen many corporate secrets, but she is not in control of the game. Like a computer avatar, she is the protagonist of her own story (from certain angles, she even looks like Aki Ross, from the video game Final Fantasy—hair dyed black in a mid-length cut; alabaster skin; a perpetually blank expression), yet the control panel always lies in someone else’s hands. Just who that is shifts throughout the movie. Sometimes it’s Elise, or perhaps her Volf coconspirator Hervé (Charles Berling), or maybe even Elaine (Gina Gershon), an American whose eponymous company wants in on the lucrative internet porn/torture market.
Diane fights viciously against the smothering anonymity of the corporation, but she fails to reach escape velocity. As the movie reveals itself to be a Russian doll of conspiracies, Diane becomes an increasingly passive player—her individual agency (whatever little there was to begin with) is completely annihilated in the final scene. In fact, her physical presence is also annihilated: she becomes a digital playtoy for horny websurfers. If Le Capital’s Tourneuillerie rebels against corporate dehumanization by aggressively asserting the “I,” Diane violently resists being absorbed by the fathomless anonymity of the internet—that most global of media in which anyone can be anybody, and identity is fluid at best, often times meaningless. She loses in the end: born from nothing, she vanishes into nothingness.
The ultramodern flavor of demonlover’s Volf corporation is something that former finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy could certainly appreciate. After all, Volf is large, seemingly profitable, high-tech, and competitive—a model of French capitalist success. Volf could very well be a Sarkozian creation—much in the spirit of Sanofi-Aventis—which is to say, an acquisition-happy megacorporation whose raison d’être is to devour its rivals and usurp the No. 1 position in its field.
A June 2004 profile in the Wall Street Journal pointed to a fundamental contradiction in Sarkozy’s economic policy, one that also applies to the forces at play in demonlover. While Sarkozy claims to be a free-market disciple, openly embracing the forces of the global economy, his policies nevertheless have protectionist, even nationalist, overtones. Sarkozy’s much publicized bailout of Alstom, one of the largest French engine manufacturers, was an overt slap to the face of German competitor Siemens, which had been wooing its French counterpart for several months. And when Sarkozy arranged the marriage of Sanofi and Aventis earlier that year, he did so to the deliberate exclusion of Novartis, a Swiss rival.
Demonlover’s Volf is a company whose ambitions similarly combine a lust for global capital with a curious xenophobia. The Japanese and especially the American characters in demonlover are shifty, inscrutable, and more than a little bit sleazy. (Gershon and her retinue of tattooed, gold-chain-wearing henchmen come off as small-time gangsters.) These foreigners are unknown quantities who must be contained and controlled—or else bought out. In this respect, capitalism is the new imperialism—a game of divide-and-conquer in which the weak end up as the property of the strong.
Thus does demonlover echo a distinct unease in contemporary France towards the encroaching world—in particular, the omnipresence of American corporations. The movie begins with Volf on the offensive, seeking partnerships if not outright takeovers. But by the end, Volf finds itself the victim of the very companies it sought to dominate. The American firm demonlover turns out to be more powerful than Volf thanks to its network of corporate spies (the extent of which the movie leaves enticingly vague). The progression of languages sums it up: demonlover starts out entirely in French, but is gradually (almost imperceptibly) taken over by English.
Fashionably international, the corporations at the center of demonlover and Le Capital could be poster children for a recent publicity campaign touting “The New France.” The ads—sponsored indirectly by the French government—started appearing in late 2004 in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and many other U.S. publications. The agenda: to dispel stereotypes of French working habits. A typical ad profiles a foreign company that has chosen to set up operations in France. Here’s an excerpt for an ad that profiles U.K.-based Compass Group, the largest food-services company in the world:
“Committed, loyal and hardworking.” Sir Francis Mackay couldn’t be talking about the French. Could he?
Sir Francis Mackay of Compass Group came to France and discovered one of Europe’s best-kept secrets: the French actually like to work.
“The French are the most productive people in Europe. They’re committed and competitive. France is probably the most ‘can do’ country in Europe.”
The New France. Where the Smart Money Goes.
More fun facts are provided on the campaign’s website: France ranks second worldwide in hourly productivity and fourth in research and development. Also, 60 percent of people under thirty speak English.
Considering the adjectives used in the ads (productive, loyal, hardworking), it would appear that the French are repackaging themselves as ersatz Americans. To be industrious and competitive are typically American traits, though not exclusively so. More significant is the campaign’s relentless emphasis on big brand names (GE, Motorola, and IBM are all cited as trans-Atlantic success stories). It’s as if France is finally professing faith in the unstoppable power of the corporation. And with the casting of CEOs as the stars of the ads, France has fully co-opted America’s celebrity-driven corporate culture in which the CEO is the designated media magnet.
In a different way, the ads act as an in-your-face rebuke to the success of Corinne Maier’s Bonjour Paresse (Bonjour, Laziness), which briefly graced French bestseller lists in early 2004, and was published in the U.S. earlier this year. A pamphlet-sized treatise on the “necessity of doing as little as possible in a business,” the book encourages all corporate serfs to engage in a kind of passive resistance against management. Rather than openly voice discontent or go on strike, Maier says we should allow ourselves to be absorbed by the corporate machinery and thus become unnoticed, which is to say, anonymous. Only then do we achieve a real and lasting freedom from our jobs.
As amusingly glib as Maier’s message can be, it strikes a distinct anti-capitalist pose, which is to say it was obsolete before it hit the shelves. These days, the engines of French capitalism are humming to a globalized beat. And the “New France” campaign is the latest manifestation of that trend, whiting out the image of the pathologically undermotivated French worker in favor of an elastic superemployee capable of conforming to the demands of the new economy. Laziness is dead; we’re all go-getters now.
So is the “New France” really just an imitation of the same old U.S.? Jean-Christophe Rufin’s novel Globalia, a best-seller in France as soon as it was published in April 2004, suggests that they are. Globalia imagines a not-so-distant world in which government and private enterprise are so incestuously intertwined that it is difficult to discern which is controlling which. Rufin’s decision to withhold until the final chapter the true extent of corporate influence is key: we don’t know how pervasive they have become until it’s too late.
In a May 2004 New York Times interview, Rufin (who is a physician by training and has worked for Médecins Sans Frontières) described Globalia as a depiction of the “present day as seen through a magnifying glass.” But the present-day U.S. or France? Or both? In the novel, Globalia is the name of a country that spans most of the Northern Hemisphere, including what is today Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. The rest of the world is the “nonzone”—areas of total chaos, akin to today’s third world. The overwhelming poverty in the nonzone breeds terrorists who launch regular attacks on the Globalian population.
The protagonist, Baikal Smith, is a young, discontented Globalian who organizes an escape into the nonzones. (Globalia is enclosed in an enormous glass biosphere.) In many ways, Smith is that most recognizable of American business clichés—the anti-establishment, start-up minded entrepreneur who single-handedly bucks the system. He is innocent and good-intentioned—traits that Americans idealize and that Europeans view with suspicion. Back in Globalia, Baikal’s image is broadcast continuously on TV as part of a government campaign to paint him as a terrorist. He isn’t anonymous, but the forces who created him are.
In the final chapter, those forces turn out to be the CEOs of Globalia’s leading corporations: a defense contractor, an automotive colossus, an agro-business conglomerate, a financial services behemoth. Globalia, it seems, is governed by a board of directors. Together, they vote on matters of national security, defense, and commerce, while always keeping an eye out for lucrative contracts for their own companies. Nervous and distrustful, they seem uncomfortable around each other, as if they don’t even want to be known amongst themselves. They are anonymous in every way imaginable, and their power derives directly from that anonymity. Globalia could be the ultimate Sarkozian spawn: a ubiquitous nation-corporation birthed from the merger of big industry’s fattest players.
At its most obvious level, Rufin’s novel condemns the Americanization of the developed world. (As a headline in Le Monde once equated it, “Globalisation, Americanisation?”) The official language of Globalia is “anglobal” (sounds like anglais, or English). The characters all have Anglo-Saxon last names even if they hail from non-Anglo-Saxon territories. Obesity is rampant and is even considered a kind of freedom. All public space is dominated by corporate advertising—giant plasma screens that emit a never-ending stream of brands, logos, and promotions. Most importantly, everything is monitored in Globalia—phone calls, electronic communications, purchases, and most physical movement—by the government’s all-knowing Social Stability bureau. There’s even an “Anxiety Index” that measures the population’s general ease of mind in relation to terror threats, perceived or real.
And yet, Globalia also bears an unmistakable resemblance to contemporary France. Globalia’s suppression of individual ethnicity echoes France’s infamous 1978 law that forbids the government from collecting and storing race-based data. In fiction as in real life, the law attempts to wipe out race in an effort to achieve a greater social good. If race doesn’t exist, there can be no possibility of racism, right? (Today, France’s law has come under much scrutiny as African immigrants continue experiencing disproportionate economic inequality.) As Rufin’s novel suggests, a raceless world is an inhuman one—patently artificial and ultimately unsustainable.
More shades of France: the official currency of Globalia is the globar, which, like the euro, serves as a multipurpose adhesive for the state’s far-flung regions. Globalia’s generous social services system ensures citizens receive a minimum income and health care for life—in fact, it guarantees more than that because the average lifespan of a Globalian is well over 100 years. (The notion that everyone is entitled to a state-determined standard of living is certainly not an American concept.)
In the afterword to Globalia, Rufin pays homage to that other Frenchman with a U.S. fetish, Alexis de Tocqueville. It was in Democracy in America that de Tocqueville described how “variety is vanishing from the human species…. In all corners of the world, we’re finding the same ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.” De Tocqueville could have added “and doing business.” Ultimately, the convergence of our two countries’ corporate cultures isn’t a merger of equals. It’s a silent takeover. What France sees when it looks at the U.S. is no longer a foreign adversary but an increasingly recognizable reflection of itself. La vieille France est morte; long live the New France!
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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