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I am a lapsed American. After living in New York City for 25 years, I left in search of other climes and ended up in France, where I have been for 20 years now. As a lapsed American, however, I have not lost track of what happens in my native country, nor have I totally shed my Americanism.
As a European, by choice, I watch with great interest as the European Union makes increasing headway toward a unity that may, one day, resemble the United States. But as an American by birth, I still retain certain ideals that are considered to be specific to the "New World".
Jeremy Rifkin's The European Dream therefore struck a chord with me. This book, according to its blurb, is an analysis of "a new European Dream [that is] beginning to capture the attention and imagination of the world." To read the book's jacket is akin to reading a tourist brochure for some new "land of the future" exhibit at a World's Fair. "Europe has become a giant laboratory for rethinking humanity's future," and "the European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life, and the nurturing of community."
Really? This is all very interesting, for, after 20 years living in Europe, I hadn't heard of any "European dream". Of course, I have not, as Rifkin has, "advised heads of state and political parties, consulted with Europe's leading companies..." I'm just an average guy, living among other average people.
And you know what? A lot of what Rifkin says about France (I can't judge his statements about other countries) is just plain wrong.
Now, if you're like me, and you read something in a book and you know it's wrong, you'll have doubts about the veracity of the rest of the book. If it's just an isolated item in the book, you'll let it go. But when you see it happen again and again, you start to question whether the rest of the book is indeed valid.
Anyone can dish out statistics as Rifkin does, with gusto, and comment on their deeper meaning. But statistics depend on their sources, and, often, on the political agenda of these sources. It really looks, at least from the village where I live, that Rifkin got lots of dubious statistics, believed them, and ran with them, basing his book not on real-life experience, but on a mass of rickety numbers.
You see, Jeremy Rifkin hobnobs with "heads of state", so he probably has no concept of how the majority of people live. In addition, he certainly discussed the issues he presents in this book with the politicos he knows, and they gave him their spin. But since politicians in Europe are so out of touch with reality (at least the French ones are), it's like the blind leading the blind. In addition, it seems as though Rifkin is purposely digging out the statistics that give credence to his concept that Europe is better than America (which I'm not necessarily contesting) and ignoring those that show otherwise.
I'll give a few examples; after all, this is serious criticism and needs to be supported. One point he examines closely is France's 35-hour work week, pushed through by the Socialist government in 1999. Rifkin claims that "most French employers have been won over to the scheme," but neglects to mention that this change is such a fiscal and social failure that the current government is planning to overhaul the law, and that the main French employers' union, the MEDEF, is strongly against it. While it is possible that this has created 285,000 jobs, as Rifkin states, the vast majority of these jobs were created in the public sector. In addition, this costs taxpayers more than $10 billion dollars a year, since the state pays employers the difference between what the 35-hour work week costs and what the previous 39-hour week cost.
To continue from the previous quote, Rifkin states that employers are "finding that fresh and motivated workers can produce just as much output in seven hours a day as less motivated and more tired workers can in eight hours." This is so incorrect that it is truly lamentable. First, while the idea of a 35-hour work week is certainly one to praise, hardly any workers have shifted from an 8-hour day to a 7-hour day. Instead, they accumulate "journées de RTT (réduction du temps de travail)", catching up every now and then with the additional hours they are owed. This has the unfortunate effect of leading workers to merely take these days as personal days, and has not, as Rifkin says, "boosted consumer spending." In fact, one of the big failures of this change, in my opinion, is to not have forced a 7-hour working day - this would have given the French more leisure time every day, rather than an additional day every now and then. For example, my brother-in-law, who is a senior executive with a French telephone company, gets 9 weeks vacation instead of the normal 5 to make up for this "RTT".
Rifkin goes on to say that "Workers often start their weekends on Thursday and don't go back to work until Tuesday." Huh? Where did he see that? Certainly not in France... Perhaps in the European Commission in Brussels... But not in a country where several books have recently been written decrying the increased stress placed on workers because of the 35-hour work week, or where a recent, best-selling non-fiction book lauded goofing off at work.
Regarding unemployment: Rifkin makes valid statements about US unemployment, suggesting that the real unemployment level is higher than what is suggested, since "more than two million discouraged workers simply gave up and dropped out of the workforce..." But he does not allow for the same effect in Europe, assuming that unemployment figures are valid. France, with nearly 10% unemployment, and this for a very long time, therefore does not have higher unemployment than in the US. However, in 2003, the French government changed the way they defined unemployment, and suddenly dropped the figure by about 1% for similar reasons. French pundits often mention the "unseen unemployed", those who have "given up". It's not only in the US that this happens.
Not all is incorrect. Rifkin is right to say that there are fewer homeless people in Europe, but they are not non-existent. He is right to say that there are fewer obese people, though this is on the rise. But he's wrong when he tries to discount racism, and talks about better "assimilation" in Europe. Each European country has its problems with racism from either recent immigrants or those who came to the countries after decolonialization. France, in particular, has a serious problem of racism, and in the last presidential election in 2001, the racist Nation Front party's candidate come in second in the first round of the presidential elections, defeating the Socialist candidate. In the second round, Jacques Chirac easily won, but the National Front candidate still obtained more than 18% of votes.
Another comment Rifkin makes is that Americans are individualist and Europeans are community-oriented. As I write this review, 300 truck drivers (out of France's 450,000) are heading for Paris, hoping to block access to the city in order to obtain, from the government, concessions to compensate for rising diesel fuel costs. This is a common form of blackmail in France, and shows little respect for the broader community. A few years ago, it was a group of employees at a delocalized factory who dumped acid into a river; before that, railroad workers who struck just as the French were leaving for Christmas vacation... The list goes on. Now, it is possible that Europe does not include France - and some Europeans would like it that way - but Rifkin's generalizations all fall flat looking at such incidents.
Some of the above comments may make it sound like I'm anti-European; not at all. I very much like living in a country where almost everyone has health care, where consumers are less greedy, where you can get real non-industrial food; and where I don't need to work two jobs to pay for my child's college education. I don't, however, appreciate a country where unemployment has been at or above 10% for just about all of the 20 years I have been here; a country where democracy is limited to voting for a handful of officials; and where the elite continue to be elite. While the distribution of income is more equitable than in the United States, the class limits - which Rifkin seems to think have disappeared over time - still prevent the lower classes from rising.
Rifkin is right about a lot: he is right about the malaise in the United States, and the way the American Dream has faded into the past. But he is mistaken that there is any such thing as a European dream, in a land where people speak dozens of different languages, where they disagree on many of the fundamental ideals behind society, and where the everyday struggle to get by is often as difficult as it is in the United States.