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The French and the Fat Lady

French economy | The French and the Fat Lady Bill Sharon

Every American school child learns of the exploits of the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. Some go on to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and learn of the author’s admiration for the establishment of our democratic state. In these early days it seemed that there was a love affair between France and America. But as we all know, those feelings changed and until quite recently there had been bad blood for some time.

If you look at the history of currencies backed by precious metals you find that countries who employed them usually printed more money than they had gold in their vaults during wartime. The imbalance was usually quickly corrected once the conflict was over. But the Vietnam War went on for a long time, much longer than any previous US war and the imbalance became exacerbated. In 1971 the French, alarmed by the discrepancy and concerned about the value of the dollars they were holding decided to demand the metal instead of hanging on to the increasingly worthless paper. The result was Nixon’s famous act of slamming shut the “gold window” and turning the dollar into a fiat currency. He blamed it on speculators but those in the know saw the French position as an act of betrayal. Coming on the heels of the French withdrawal from NATO several years earlier, the relationship became very frosty.

More recently, French opposition to the Iraq War brought the disenchantment into the public arena. Some believed that France was trying to protect its trading relationship with Iraq; others thought it was a calculated move to diminish the clout of the world’s only remaining superpower. The animus became heated. People who seemed to have a lot of time on their hands began a campaign to rename the French fry although one doubts that the French were overly concerned about being disassociated with potato slices boiled in oil.

Despite the cordial relations that have developed between Sarkozy and Obama it is clear that the French have made a habit out of disagreeing with the United States and lots of people here don’t like it. They are doing it again although not at the governmental level and out of sight of most media outlets. If they are successful the impact will be dramatic.

Enter Frenchman Eric Cantona. Dubbed “King Eric” and wearing the famous number 7 for Manchester United, he became an actor following his retirement from football. In recent days he has appeared in a YouTube video that is achieving viral status. In this short clip with English sub-titles Mr. Cantona makes some very clear and, in some quarters, very frightening statements.

First, he points out that public demonstrations are fundamentally a waste of time. Back in the days of the Nixon administration they had a dramatic effect. Now the only news item that is generated from them is a debate about the number of attendees. So he is certainly right on that account.

Second, he dismisses violence as an effective tool in changing the status quo. Again, he states what has become sadly obvious. The world has become inured to the savagery that occurs daily. Stalin, it seems was right – “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. Violence, for those who are not its immediate target, changes nothing.

But Mr. Cantona’s third point, while not a new idea, may be one whose impact could be profound He encourages people to withdraw their money from banks on a specific date. An organized run on the banks he believes will have the effect of causing them to collapse. What occurs when that happens is left to the imagination.

Whether or not this effort will be successful, it marks a distinct departure from the current conversations about the economic crisis. It is a tactic that comes from the traditions of Gandhi and King. It is an act of withdrawing (literally) from the system. It worked in the Salt March to Dandi and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It is almost impossible to defend against.

But there are differences between what Mr. Cantona advocates and what Gandhi and King wanted to achieve. The latter two had a goal; a vision of what the world could look like absent a clearly identified oppression. Mr. Cantona and others who wish the collapse of the banking system don’t seem to have articulated much of a vision aside from not wanting what currently exists. While that would be a very big concern in normal times we may want to consider the thinking of David Brooks, the conservative columnist from the New York Times. In his weekly appearance on the PBS News Hour several weeks ago Mr. Brooks suggested that change can come from two different areas – leaders and societies. While most of the time we look to leaders he thought this was a time when societies would actually be the source of new ways of thinking.

Societies are somewhat amorphous masses. It’s hard to figure out what is going on until something happens and then we go back and look for influences. Mr. Cantona and company may be one of those influences – or not. What does seem to be emerging is a wide range of ideas about what new economic models might look like. What finally emerges will likely be the result of different groups trying different things; that’s not a very sanguine thought for those who prize stability.

It is hard to find anyone (aside from the jabbering heads on cable news) who is optimistic about our global monetary system. It’s true that it ain’t over until the fat lady sings, but she is warming up her vocal chords backstage in her dressing room. We can hear her.

This guest blog was first published on

Tags: banks , economic models , financial crisis , France , French economy , US
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