France’s Foolish Idea

by Mario Rizzo  

After having written about “Germany’s Foolish Idea,” I see that the French are not immune either.  

First, I apologize to the many French (and Germans) who do not share their governments’ ideas or agree with their policies. It has, unfortunately, become a habit in journalism and even in the professional writing of historians to refer to actions by states as if “France or Germany did this or that.” More correctly, we should say the “French or German government did this or said that.”  

This is not just a semantic issue. It goes to the root of a major ideological problem: the confusion between society and the state. 

The Financial Times reports that many French politicians are upset about a private restaurant chain, “Quick,” deciding to serve exclusively halal beef-burgers in a few of its stores to attract Muslim customers. (Halal refers to food that is “lawful” according to Islamic law. There are restrictions on the kind of food, the method of slaughtering the animals, and the processes of food preparation.)  

Now the French public is being told that this is inconsistent with France’s secular traditions.  

I could not believe my eyes when I read this. But French society is so politicized (shall we say “governmentalized”) that the distinction between state and private action is almost absent. 

Some are arguing that Quick should sell both halal and non-halal food. Wouldn’t that be in the spirit of French secularity?  I have no idea. But it is certainly in the spirit of ignorance of the nature of the problem.  

Halal food must be protected from contact with non-halal food. The equipment used to cook the burgers must be separate. There is a cost issue.  In addition, if both kinds of food are available many Muslims will worry that the two will get mixed up. So there is also a credibility issue.   

There are many good reasons that the state should be secular in its outlook and promulgation of laws, especially in an increasingly diverse society. But society is more than the state. 

A “Great Society” does not require us all to agree on values and the ends we pursue. As such, it must have a variety of institutions and specific organizations which favor some values and discriminate against other values.  

The market is the pre-eminent pluralistic institution. It enables Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and Atheist to live in harmony with each other because each individual in these groups can engage in voluntary trades with willing partners. We cannot, however, trade with everyone at once. Specialization and cost-efficiencies mean that sometimes people will have to go elsewhere to get what they want.  

Even more fundamentally, private property involves the right of private individuals to make decisions about resource use. And since some uses are incompatible with others, private property must imply the right to exclude. We cannot provide everything to everyone at every location at every moment.  

Therefore, let Muslims in France have their halal-only establishments. I am sorry if the Frenchman who wants to eat only non-halal food might have to cross the street or cook at home. Is freedom not worth even the slightest inconvenience?

24 thoughts on “France’s Foolish Idea

  1. Dear Jerry and Mario,

    You have every right to think that private and public matters should be separate, and indeed they are in my country (France), but here the problem resides in the fact that Quick is state-owned (by a state branch called the “Caisse des Depots et Consignations”)

    Two things are wrong in this affair : the first is, as you might have felt it, that it SHOULD NOT be state-owned (it’s a restaurant chain !!) ; the second is more disturbing and raises in itself a definite case for moral misconduct : Quick uses controversy by using and stigmatizing minority groups in order to create news and buzz. Not sane.

    As for names, yes if one’s family name is “fer” and wants to call their daughter “Lucy”, it could be a bit of a problem for the growing girl, although concrete “Conseil d’Etat” action on this particular matter is very seldom (but such actions do exist in every major democracy).

    So right you are for certain aspects of the problem, but I just hope I gave you more insight on how it works (it’s never as easy as it seems, but keep watching because that is how we keep democracy and freedom alive).

  2. I cannot agree more with Mario. The French are in love with the idea of “laïcité” which is that government and society must not only be secular but also free of any strong cultural values that might dominate (see here for more information:ïcité). It is a very difficult notion to translate and explain, but it permeates the ambient discourse in government and the media.

    The trouble with this idea is that, unlike what his promoters believe, it is not value free. It actually carries a lot of value with it. These values come directly from the French Revolution and its attempt to secularize society through the state. The abolition of the Catholic Church and its replacement with the worship of reason is an instance of the ideas that we find today in the French version of secularism.

    I believe the French are utterly confused as to what multiculturalism means. This is because they reject the market system as the ultimate coordination mechanism of all values, as Mario explains. If you reject the market, you cannot have a multicultural society, you can only have what the state imposes. Thus the search for a third way, bases on “laïcité,” which supposedly imposes no value and avoids clashes, is doom to failure.

    Problems will continue to exist for the French state. France has many minorities. Muslims for instance form 10% of society. Halal food is just one issue among many. How to deal with the display of religious belief in general is a big question that can hardly be reconciled under French secularism. The French want multiculturalism as long as it is all the same.

  3. Excellent point by David on Quick being state-owned. Of course, that, in itself, shouldn’t mbe a justification for interventions in how Quick handles its business affairs. On the other hand, it does show the problem of having “state” owning or having a stake in things that belong in private hands. As soon as the state owns or is implicated in such matters, it claims the right to act as a vested individual. Not good at all.

  4. Laicity comes from the fear that behind all religious activism there is an absolute verity that would crush any other view of the Universe, a conception of personal faith kept personal that the French “Enlightened”, Jefferson and Washington shared.

    Behind the Muslim Hikab or Hijab in any country for instance, one cannot but think that a certain set of ideas contrary to the pluralism of thoughts and values is just waiting to do harm, devide, gring forth both fear and hatred amongst people. Laicity in France is not to forbid an individual’s private belief, but instead to prevent any group from taking advantage of civil freedom in order to impose religious bias.

    The fringe is frail, and one can always argue that in any ideal world, common sense would balance absolute freedom of expression ; needless to say humanity is far from perfect, and as sure as human perversion, thirst for power and egotic fantasy can hamper free trade hopes and ideals, it can also, as it had so many times before in History, turn reasonable societies into blood baths and holy war hero nations.

  5. I fear that David’s explanations just reinforce Mario’s and Frederic’s observations. David is stipulating the intrusion of the French state into personal areas, but is trying to justify it.

    There is no comparison between laicite and the American system of religious plurism. America has a free market in religion, which is why it is the most religious of the Western nations. For those Americans who are religious, treating their religion as merely personal, in France’s sense, is incomprehensible.

    While I’m on it, the Constitution guarantees religious freedom (pluralism) and bars federal establishment of religion (the horror the founding fathers wanted to avoid). There is no prohibition of states establishing religion. State-established religion continued into the 1830s.

  6. Quick is indeed owned by the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (CDC), a holding managed by the French state – something which was revealed by a journalist inquiring into the Roubaix affair! It used to belong to a Belgian millionaire and the CDC acquired it in 2006 for an estimated 800 M Euros (while it was estimated to be worth…300 M in 2004). The former owner is a close friend to France’s revered President, the Great Nicholas Sarkozy.

  7. David writes:

    “Two things are wrong in this affair : the first is, as you might have felt it, that it SHOULD NOT be state-owned (it’s a restaurant chain !!) ; the second is more disturbing and raises in itself a definite case for moral misconduct : Quick uses controversy by using and stigmatizing minority groups in order to create news and buzz. Not sane.”

    Isn’t this contradictory? The state owns this chain, this is your first point, and it’s true. And the second is that Quick is using controversy and stigmatizing minority groups. Why don’t you say that it’s the state – the owner of Quick – that is stigmatizing minority groups as it has been doing for years now?

  8. I don’t want to get mired unnecessarily in complex details. However, if a company manages the retirement portfolio of French government workers and this includes shares of Quick, that does not mean Quick is owned by the state. First, do the workers own a controlling interest? Second, when the French workers are paid, those wages/benefits do not continue to be state property.

    It is also unclear from the description above if this company Caisse des Depots et Consignations is the relevant entity. Quick seems to be owned by an “arm” of it. Look here:

    “Qualium Investissement is the private equity and venture capital arm of Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations specializing in growth capital transactions, recapitalization, leveraged buyouts, leveraged buy-ins, and turnarounds.” Qualium seems to be the owner of Quick.

    But if indeed the French state has its tentacles in just about everything, it has succeeded in making a mess greater than I had ever imagined. In that case I say that it behooves the French state to act *as if* Quick were completely privately owned. If not, it risks losing the benefits of a complex and rich civil society.

  9. As written in the link posted, “the Caisse des Depots et Consignations is looking at possible sale of Quick Restaurants SA.” If it is intending to sell it (in September 2010 according to some reports), then it must obviously own it.

  10. There was a Financial Times article on the government-sponsored company that appears to own shares of Quick.

    As you can see the fiduciary relationships are complex. I do not know whether it is accurate to say the French government “owns the company” as opposed to, say, it simply owns some shares, or even the French government workers own some of it through the pension funds, etc.

    The French “disease” is so complicated because even when it may not own a controlling share of a firm it will sometimes own shares to prevent foreigners from taking a controlling interest.

    As far as I can tell, without spending too many of of my scarce resources to delve into the details, the French government has succeeded in inserting itself into “private” enterprise in complex ways. So it is not easy to say, in some cases, whether a firm is government “owned” or not.

  11. Here is a comment I posted on CP.


    I am not a specialist of the CDC, but I have always regarded the CDC as another way for the French government to raise taxes. What the article doesn’t say is that the CDC centralizes savings from the French population through the “Caisse d’Epargne” (Saving Fund), which, in the old days, used to be the main bank for many people in France. It uses the savings of millions of people to invest in private companies in the name of the “general interest”. It is based on a very collectivist and dirigist understanding of the economy (like everything else that emerged from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era). See their website and their motto here:

    So it is a fund that uses taxpayers’ money to invest in private companies. This is in some ways similar to what is done in Singapore or in New Zealand (with Kiwisaver). It is true that the investment is done on behalf of French taxpayers but I think this is where the comparison with a mutual fund ends. French taxpayers do not have any decision power over what the CDC does and they do not own any tradable shares per se. I don’t know the track record of the CDC, but I would suspect that it has lost taxpayers’ money over the years, considering the incentives it faces.

    I think it is correct to say that when the CDC owns the majority of shares in a company, it is a de facto nationalization. From that perspective Quick is a state-owned entity. This is capitalism, French-style… Mind you, Singapore does something similar. The difference is that the Singaporean government taxes less than 20% of GDP, so it leaves a lot space to the private sector to correct the mistakes of the public one.

  12. I am wondering why the author don’t mention animal welfare ?
    Why he doesn’t say that under European Law animal must be stunned before being killed and that the exception of halal and kosher food slaughter is unacceptable in the XXI Century ?
    The number of burqas in France is underestimated but more importantly a number alone will mean nothing, we have to see the evolution and the growth of this practice.
    The reality is that the Republic and its principles are endangered by commnunautarism …
    We are proud of our secularism and we don’t need any moral lessons , thank you sir !

  13. Mario bashes “old Europe(an governments)”
    and he does it well 🙂

    I fully agree with this post – nothing to add!

  14. Slightly off-topic : The new edition of Le Sociétal, a French magazine focused on economcs and society, features an article by Janos Kornai warning the readers to “Not be mistaken about Marx”. There isn’t anything thqt can better define that exception française as a Hungarian economist having to explain to French economists and intellectuals that Marx was wrong (plus a political scientist explaining that Olivier Blanchard and several other French economists living in the US are actually regard as leftish economist there and not some right wing extremists as in France 🙂 ):

  15. I agree with you Jerry ; the very fact that it raised a debate is in itself the proof that the subject was well chosen by Mario. It’s good to see you all debate and try to decipher right from wrong…Truth is, an ideal system as we envision it does not exist in this world – to my knowledge at least – but exchange of thoughts and a broad-minded way of finding balance, set ideas, try and find solutions that fit the time and space, are simply essential to Human Progress…

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