French people are not as interested in money as people in other western countries – or so claims the cliché that is often trotted out.
But does it hold true?
The answer is no, according to two economists we spoke to who said that money actually plays a central role in France and this has been the case since the war.
Contemporary economic history lecturer Patrice Baubeau, of Université Paris Nanterre, said: “The ‘no interest in money’ cliché is part of a supposed French exceptionalism that is crumbling.
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“There is a long list of platitudes that are perpetuated from one generation to the next – and this is one.”
Experts say the ‘no interest in money’ cliché does, however, have some historical grounding up until the end of World War Two, though it was at the same time deliberately played up by writers as being a part of the country’s cultural identity.
‘French people were for a long time reticent towards money’
Yannick Marec, emeritus professor of contemporary history at Université de Rouen-Normandie, said: “French people were for a long time reticent towards money.”
He said this was due to the country’s roots in Catholicism, which historically did not allow loans with interest and resisted the opening of institutions such as pawnbrokers. The rejection of money by the Church strongly influenced French thinking since the country was predominantly rural and populated by farmers, he added.
Thus, France distanced itself from trade-savvy Britain and the Netherlands. Those countries’ contrasting relationship to money was due to the reduced role of the Catholic Church there, with the emergence of Protestantism.
In France, Catholic writers such as Charles Péguy, Charles Maurras or Léon Bloy, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, propagated clichés around money to distance the country from foreign societies.
Their writings nurtured a nostalgic image and the idea of a reactionary rejection of modernity from France that has however progressively cracked under the sprawling progress of globalisation.
French people now have a more ‘normal relationship with money’
French people now have a more “normal relationship with money,” according to Dr Baubeau. Fifteen economists also rejected the money cliché in the 2021 book Les Français et l’argent. On the contrary, money matters a lot to the French, they said, even if they may not like to make a show of this.
Co-editors Daniel Cohen and Claudia Senik, both professors at the Paris School of Economics, wrote in the introduction: “Each chapter shows how dependant French people are on money while they like to think of themselves as being removed from the Anglo-Saxon model where an individual’s success is mostly the result of family wealth.”
The book shows that French people often link happiness to salary level, rejecting the popular adage that money does not buy happiness.
Mr Cohen and Ms Senik note, however, that while France’s GDP grew fourfold since the 1970s, French people were not in fact happier in 2021.
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Distrust in public institutions
French people’s close bond with money is partly due to a distrust in public institutions, three of the economists argue in one chapter. This is despite a state which is in reality relatively protective socially.
People withdraw to their inner circle and save their money linked to pessimistic outlooks about the state of the country and the state’s ability to provide for their needs, the writers suggest. It is seen as being needed for security, but is not necessarily to be flaunted as a status symbol.
Money is seen as a private matter – this writer’s mother refused to tell him her salary until he was 23, fearing it would lead to unhealthy competition with school friends.
Even so, the French tend to evaluate happiness using their neighbours or other people in their close circle as a metric and feel they have to try to ‘keep up’ with them.
French do not like to give money away
Figures on charitable giving suggest the French do not like to give their money away.
Donations by the top 10% of France’s wealthiest represent around eight to ten times less than those of wealthy Americans as a proportion of their overall income, five times less than Canadians and half of the amount given by the British.
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French people typically attach importance to how money is earned, admiring entrepreneurial spirit over inherited wealth.
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Les Français et l’argent shows that French people do not resent footballers, even though they can earn many, many times more than the minimum wage. In recent years, French footballers have been caught up in countless controversies – from Franck Ribéry being (unfairly) mocked for grammar mistakes to Karim Benzema not singing the national anthem – but rarely are these money-related.
Entrepreneurs including telecommunications mogul Xavier Niel also feed into a story in which French people recognise themselves: hard work can generate money.
The same goes for celebrity chefs such as Cyril Lignac and Jean-Philippe Etchebest, regularly ranked among France’s favourite public figures.
Flaunting one’s wealth while evading tax is less appreciated.
Nicolas Sarkozy was nicknamed the ‘bling-bling president’ for his tendency to appear with visible signs of wealth, such as Rolex watches and aviator sunglasses.
Ask any French person what they think of French tennis players who live abroad for unavowed low-tax reasons and you will most likely get a reaction of disdain.
Advertising mogul Jacques Séguéla provoked similar disapproval for a famous remark seen as out of touch with most people’s daily struggles.
Mr Séguéla, is now best known for the Force tranquille campaign ad for Francois Mitterrand’s 1981 presidency bid and for saying: “If you have not bought a Rolex by the age of 50, you’ve failed in life” in a 2009 interview
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