Many American children who are brought up on Mother Goose stories, as well as other fairy tales, may not know that their author was a 17th-century Frenchman, Charles Perrault. They may also not realize that the fable of the melodious grasshopper (in actual fact a cicada) who whiles away the warm summer months in full-throated song, while the busy ant stocks up provisions for the bitter winter—so charmingly illustrated years ago by Walt Disney in one of his first “Silly Symphonies”—was the brainchild of another 17th-century Frenchman, Jean de La Fontaine.

This might seem a roundabout way of leading up to Edith Cresson—who was appointed French prime minister in May 1991 and then resigned after the Socialists’ big defeat last March—but for the fact that it was she herself, an outspoken defender of French industrial interests, who used the famous simile to warn her overly nonchalant compatriots—implicitly likened to easygoing grasshoppers—about the looming threat posed, not only to France but to Western Europe as a whole, by the ant-like industriousness of the Japanese.

Many attempts have been made by commentators to explain why President Mitterrand ever chose in the first place a woman deputy to replace his enemy, Michel Rocard—an enemy because he long ago founded a Socialist Party splinter-group, dared prematurely to stake out his own presidential ambitions, and managed to survive three years in office with his popularity in public-opinion polls virtually undiminished (a feat no French premier has achieved since Georges Pompidou). If this gamble was intended to curry favor with feminine voters, who now outnumber French menfolk, it clearly failed. Edith Cresson—who had held the ministerial posts of Agriculture (1981-1983), Foreign Trade (1983-1986), and European Affairs (1988-1990)—was no Margaret Thatcher, and within weeks of her appointment her rating in the polls had sunk to a level unequaled by any of her predecessors. It was, furthermore, an act of rashness to pick a woman who once belonged to the presidential serail (seraglio), for this offered Jean Amadou, the witty scriptwriter, and his puppet-operating colleagues, a golden opportunity for mercilessly lampooning her past relations with her “chou-chou” and “chéri” (François Mitterrand) in Stéphane Collaro’s Bebête Show, where she acquired the name of Amabotte (freely translated—the Boot-Licker) and was presented to television viewers in the guise of a fawning, doll-like creature, ever ready to drool at the mouth in the presence of her god and master.

I must confess that, notwithstanding her parler cru (crude talk) and certain unnecessary lapses—such as suggesting that one Englishman in every four is a “pansy”—I felt a lurking sympathy for Edith Cresson. For regardless of the Socialist François Mitterrand might have chosen to succeed Michel Rocard, he or she would have faced the same daunting problems and the same social unrest.

There are a number of reasons for France’s present economic plight, of which I will simply pick out three. The first has been the increasingly glaring discrepancy between what French manufacturing industry needs and what a hopelessly sclerotic, monstrously bureaucratized, and centrally controlled educational system is able to provide. To cite but one example: the Peugeot automobile company, run by Jacques Calvet—the very prototype of the capitalist magnate most French Socialists abhor, but who had been one of Edith Cressoii’s firmest supporters in demanding measures to dam the inrushing tide of Japanese manufactured goods—needed a full year to recruit the 1,500 engineers and qualified technicians needed to operate an ultramodern plant it recently opened at Poissy, northwest of Paris. At the present time some 14,000 engineers are graduated every year in France, when at least 25,000 are needed—among other things to manufacture and control the robots increasingly used in many fields of production. (A year and a half ago, in an eye-opening article published in Figaro, one of France’s most persistent modernists, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, was already sounding the alarm, pointing out that Japan’s manufacturing supremacy was due in no small part to the awesome fact that it had 175,000 robots in operation, compared to a mere 35,000 for all of Europe.)

Another root cause of France’s present industrial woes has been a built-in system of job security that has remained virtually unchanged since the immediate postwar years. During that period, which began with General de Gaulle’s 16month premiership (September 1944- January 1946), when the French railways, the steel and coal industry, and five leading banks were nationalized, the main aim of social policy was to assure each French working man and woman guaranteed stability of employment. This proclaimed objective of “justice for the worker” was naturally championed by the communists, who for a dozen years controlled 25 percent of the vote, and for similar ideological reasons by the Socialists, who formed one of the three supporting pillars of the short-lived coalition governments that were formed and that kept collapsing right up until the end of the Fourth Republic.

In 1958, when Charles de Gaulle returned to power, first as premier, then as president of the republic, he chose a conservative, Antoine Pinay, to be his finance minister. But Pinay, one of the most underrated French politicians of modern times, did not share De Gaulle’s anti-Anglo-Saxon and anti-NATO prejudices or the General’s addiction to prestige politics, and after 18 months in office he resigned. His place was taken by a brilliant graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique (roughly speaking, the equivalent of our M. I. T.), Valery Giscard d’Estaing, an ardent dirigiste who invented the pernicious Value Added Tax (a boon for finance ministries but a bookkeeping nightmare for shopkeepers and entrepreneurs) and who was an ambitious and often demagogic opportunist with one eye trained on the presidency.

It can be argued that, even if France had been fortunate enough to have a Ludwig Erhard to free its economy from the shackles of state control, it would not have made that much difference, given the unimaginative stodginess of many French entrepreneurs and the lack of worker discipline in a country that has no less than four major labor confederations and where today only one worker in every ten actually belongs to a union. But what is undeniable is that under the , successive presidencies of Georges Pompidou (1969-1974), Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981), and for the first five years of François Mitterrand’s presidential term, the credo of job security remained an “untouchable,” a sacred cow. This meant, in practice, that no entrepreneur wishing to expand his operations could hire a worker or an employee and then decide to fire him or her at short notice for laziness or incompetence without having to pay exorbitant amounts of compensation according to complicated stipulations prescribed by the state. For big concerns possessing large capital resources or partly financed by the state, the indemnities having to be paid out for the laying-off of workers have never posed a major problem, but they have had a disastrously inhibiting effect on the managers of medium and small companies in a country where two out of every three newly formed enterprises founder before the end of the third year.

It would of course be expecting too much of a Socialist government to grasp a nettle of this kind. But in 1986, when a conservative coalition led by Jacques Chirac toppled the Socialist government of Laurent Fabius, the moment seemed to have arrived at last for a wholesale dismantling of the complex fiscal restrictions and taxes that had long been crippling medium and small enterprises (most of which in France employ from 1 to 500 workers). Jean-Marie Benoist, who at the time was the self-appointed “philosopher” of the Chiracian “renaissance,” advocated the launching of an all-out offensive, employing the Napoleonic language of “one hundred days” as the limited time available for making decisive breakthroughs on the legislative front before the powers of inertia regained the upper hand. Unfortunately, his “strongman” idol turned out to have feet of clay; for Jacques Chirac, like his successor, Michel Rocard, is a typical product of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, where future “public servants” (including many politicians) were until recently trained in an emphatically dirigiste atmosphere. Faced by the prospect of tens and perhaps of hundreds of thousands of workers taking to the streets behind their left-wing rabble-rousers to uphold the sacrosanct “right to work,” Chirac’s courage failed him, and the Napoleonic “offensive” bogged down in the usual morass of interminable negotiations.

It has been calculated that if French managers of medium and small enterprises (roughly one and a half million strong and comprising 63 percent of the labor force in the un-nationalized industrial, commercial, and service sectors) were freed of their present fiscal and other shackles, an unfettered freedom to hire and dismiss workers could produce as many as 500,000 new jobs—in a country where the level of unemployment is now approaching the three million mark. Such predictions are necessarily speculative. What is certain is that whereas from 1979 to 1988, major French industrial concerns, in a “streamlining” campaign aimed at making them more efficient and better able to withstand foreign competition, had to lay off 870,000 workers and employees, France’s medium and small enterprises managed to create 450,000 new jobs.

Due credit must be given to Edith Cresson for having tried to reverse the tendency of previous governments to favor big industrial concerns. “Small is beautiful” was the caption chosen by the editors of the weekly Le Point for her photograph last September, when she came out with a program of 19 specific measures intended to help medium and small enterprises—but which, predictably, fell short of what is needed.

A third, less technical, cause has to do with lifestyles and a general attitude toward work. Some years ago an economist friend of mine, Guy Lambert, who had a passion for drawing up comparative charts of working productivity, told me that by the mid-1980’s in France the average employed man or woman only worked one day in every two (roughly 185 days in the year). His calculations took into account two-day weekends, a full month of paid vacations (for which most French workers and employees actually receive five weeks of pay), religious and other holidays of one kind or another, and work days lost through strikes, absenteeism, and an overindulgence in what is verily a national passion with this nation of disgruntled rouspeteurs (gripers)—street demonstrations.

Guy Lambert was not exaggerating. In 1987 a French businessman, Victor Scherrer, devoted an entire book to the subject, giving it the arresting title, La France paresseuse (Lazy France). It was panned by “serious” economists because the evidence produced was too selective. Yet recent statistical studies indicate that the average French factory worker or office employee now puts in about 1,550 hours of work in the year. If we subtract the four annual vacation weeks (reducing the yearly total to 48), this gives us a working week of just over 32 hours. The Japanese, on the other hand, put in 2,000, and even 2,200 hours (including overtime) in the year—which, again allowing for four vacation weeks, amounts to a working week varying from 42 to 46 hours.

In a radio interview given last November, Daniel Goeudevert, a dynamic French businessman who now heads the giant Volkswagen works in Germany, defended his company’s recent decision to raise its workers’ wages by 6 percent on the grounds that a farsighted management is the one that anticipates labor demands before they degenerate into a strike, which “is always a catastrophe.” Over the past ten years, he added, the Volkswagen company had not lost a single working day through strikes.

It is, of course, unrealistic to expect a nation of highly individualistic rouspeteurs to behave like disciplined Teutons. But the cruel facts are there—offering food for sober reflection for every French working man and woman, as well as for the demagogues who rule them.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that Western Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder can be explained in part by the fact that many German offices open for business at 8 a.m., as is the case in Switzerland. For it is by no means certain that the extra time “gained” by fixing the closing hour at 6 p.m.—the current practice in France—makes up for the lost hour in the morning, since many Parisian employees (I can’t vouch for others) begin their evening dash for the subway or the bus at 5:30 or even earlier.

My suspicions are also confirmed by what has happened in Switzerland and in the neighboring Franche-Comte and Jura mountain regions of southeastern France. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the Swiss came perilously close to seeing their watch industry destroyed—like the camera industry in Germany—by the mass production of cheap Japanese timepieces. But the Swiss, being a hardy folk, and in this case more resolute than the drowsing beer-swillers of Hessen and Franconia, pulled up their socks, tightened their belts, fired more than 55,000 redundant employees, and managed to rescue a traditional industry, in which one thousand small enterprises nevertheless went under. Today Japan leads the world with an annual output of 325 million watches, followed by Hong Kong, with an annual output of 180 million. Switzerland, with only 81 million, seems to lag far behind. In numbers of quartz-operated timepieces, yes, but in terms of money earnings derived from top-quality production, Switzerland still leads the international field—with a turnover in 1990 of 7.3 billion Swiss francs, or 55 percent of the world total.

France—if we exclude the huge terrae incognitae of Russia and China—is in fourth place, with 23 million watches, well ahead of Germany, in fifth place with 3.7 million. The hardy inhabitants of the Franche-Comte and the Jura mountains—an often cold and foggy region where France’s watch and clock makers have traditionally lived and labored—saw the handwriting on the wall and learned the hard way how to make high-quality watches with two hundred skilled artisans, where previously five hundred had been employed. But whether the cigales inhabiting the warmer regions of France will be prepared to limit their summer singing in time to meet the autumn chill of future years remains to be seen. It will require a psychological metamorphosis which neither the slick manipulations of that sleight-of-hand magician, François Mitterrand, nor the tough talk of his chosen handmaidens are likely to bring about.