Ah money and markets. These concepts are always sticky subjects in France. One of the first things I heard about the difference between the two countries is that money is an impolite subject in France, at least in general discussion. French people, on the other hand, often hear that Americans freely talk about money with one another, even with strangers, from their salaries to the price of their cars.
From a French viewpoint, America is the epitome of a consumer society. After all, we are the country that brought the world McDonald's, Starbucks, and Apple products. At its best, our competitive capitalism can be seen as an example of American individualism, where every person has a right to seek his/her own wealth. And if big American brands have been imported internationally, then it’s just a result of American ‘pragmatics’ and ingenuity. In other words, some would say that Americans culturally have a special relationship with money that allows them to excel at commercialism and mass production.
At its worst, this exportation can also be viewed as a cultural colonization, where the United States is (yet again) trying to impose itself on the rest of the world. It’s not surprising that this doesn’t always go over well in France, where there is a fierce protection of patrimoine (cultural heritage) and tradition. However, the French are often in quite a compromising situation. While many may be self-proclaimed socialists and communists, others have come to really love American brands like McDonald's, and also appreciate the freedom of American markets.
I bring up this debate to talk about a recent very controversial event in France tied to money. At the end of December 2012, France’s government voted on a 75% income tax for the highest income brackets in the country (individuals who earn over 1million euros per year, or 1.34 million dollars). The vote was introduced by the new president, François Hollande, but was struck down by the Constitutional Court, both because it the rate was found too high and because the way it taxed individuals didn’t correspond to France’s taxing system (which taxes based on combined household income, for more on this, read http://www.france24.com/en/20121229-france-tax-hollande-depardieu-75-percent-tax-rate).
This proposal sparked extensive media coverage of wealthy French millionaires who decided to officially move out of France to other European countries like Belgium. The most outrageous reaction was from well-known French actor Gerard Depardieu, who was publicly criticized by France’s Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault for leaving the country. Depardieu made quite a stink about the proposal and even went so far as to surrender his French citizenship for a Russian passport.
This whole idea of a 75 percent tax rate is just perplexing for Americans, and shows this major difference in mentality where money is concerned between the two countries. France is a now run by a socialist president, and is constantly looking to its European neighbors and their economic models, while also being aware of the American model. But the fact that a 75 percent income tax could even be proposed says something about the French mentality and money. Even though the proposal didn’t pass, it shows that this kind of high tax rate is still a possibility in France. In discussing the issue with French people, some have told me that this was a very good career move for President François Hollande because much of the country supported the tax. The idea behind all of this is then that no one should have too much money, and if they do, then they better be ready to share a large chunk of it with the state. In my opinion, this is the very opposite of the so-called ‘American dream’ where everyone can, with hard work and perseverance, succeed financially and socially.
On the other side of things, when we’re not talking about the richest of the rich members of society in France, money is also different for the middle class. I return to something I once discussed in a conversation with a Franco-American couple. The topic of money came up and the couple admitted to loving the lifestyle in France, but returning to the US whenever they really wanted to make money or save up for big purchases. It’s true that in the US, salaries tend to be higher and we have less taxes (compare the 9.5% sales tax of the city of Chicago with the 19% sales tax in France). There is less job stability but it’s also easier to get hired. In short, it’s easier to make money, and more money, in the US.
On the other hand, while taxes are higher, job contracts more binding and jobs harder to find, the quality of life in France is very high, in my opinion. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, everyone still has health care, probably about 5 weeks of vacation per year, and strong unemployment benefits. It’s harder to strike it rich, but you’re more protected by the government. In the US, you can pursue the American dream and become wealthy if you work hard, but if you fall there aren’t as many government supports.
And so, money is a sticky subject between the two countries. In one, you may have less of it (per capita) but you have other services in return. In the other, it seems the sky is the limit, but there are fewer safety nets in times of crisis. Maybe Depardieu should have considered moving the US.