Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shaft your neighbor

France is a Latin country, which means that it shares the tradition of machismo that one finds in all Latin countries. France is perhaps the least afflicted of Latin countries in this respect, but it's still a handicap.

One of the characteristics of Latin machismo is petty (and sometimes not so petty) dishonesty. In France, as in other macho countries, it's okay to be dishonest and do illegal things as long as you don't get caught. Violent acts are eschewed, but white-collar crimes and minor frauds are tolerated and even expected. It's something I've never really been able to get used to, as I've been honest to a fault all my life.

Examples? Well, French people routinely cheat on their taxes. I've heard that it's so common that the government adjusts tax rates in the tax guides to compensate for the fraudulent underreporting of income that they expect from taxpayers. Executives are the most honest, perhaps because they have the hardest time hiding income. Farmers are the worst, who by some estimates “forget” to report as much as 90% of their income or more. This is tolerated because farmers are numerous and influential in France and riot like toddlers throwing tantrums when they don't get their way.

I've seen innumerable other examples. People defraud the government, they defraud their employers, they even cheat their neighbors. They put false dates on documents, they cook the books at the office, they deliberately misrepresent things to avoid responsibility for expenditure, etc. This sort of behavior exists everywhere in the world, but it's more a part of the macho mindset than it would be in other cultures. The macho mindset requires that one resist and disobey authority, lest one be considered unmanly.

A glaring example of this sort of dishonesty concerns intellectual property. I've occasionally mentioned to friends or colleagues that I can't do this or that on my computer because I lack the software, and I lack the software because it's expensive to buy. Invariably, French people look at me as though I'm retarded, because I mention paying for commercial software, something that they've never done. Everyone copies everything illegally. Even companies do it. I recall leaving one company many years ago, and having my office PC nearly pounced upon by other employees, because they knew that it was perhaps the only PC in the building that contained nothing but legal, paid-for software. Everything else at the company was pirated. I had magic, wonderful things that nobody had ever seen before, such as actual installation disks, support contracts, and printed documentation.

It's not just software that is involved. Educational authors have trouble making a living because for every book they sell, 1000 illegal photocopies are made (entire books, not just a few pages). Nobody wants to actually buy a book. And nobody sees the inherent disservice to society that pirating intellectual property does. It's everyone for himself—no trace of civic duty or the Golden Rule.

This is so ingrained in the society that there are special taxes on blank cassettes and writable CDs that are used to compensate authors of music, video, and literature, justified by the assumption that people only buy these blank media if they intend to pirate something. If you are buying a blank CD just to save your own stuff, tough … you're assumed to be a pirate, so you pay anonymous authors in advance for things that the government assumes you will steal. And a lot of French people apparently do buy blank media for this purpose.

Downloading is also a big problem, so much so that there's now a law that says that your ISP must cut off your Internet access if you are found to be downloading things illegally. How this is determined, what constitutes an illegal download, and other details are not specified, and the civil rights implications of this have been largely ignored. Media companies lobbied for it. But there are a lot of people who download everything from suspicious Web sites. They are willing to put up with a tremendously inferior version of the movie they want rather than pay to see a good version. Doing things cheaply is more important than doing them right (this is to some degree a pan-European affliction that I'll have to address in more detail in a future post).

One of my previous employers was a software publisher. At the French affiliate of this company, where I worked, employees ignored corporate policy and made copies of everything to give to friends and relatives. The company offered software at huge discounts to be given away as gifts, but employees in France resold the software at a profit, completely ignoring official policies. Another company I know of maintains a media center filled with home-made copies of commercial DVDs, cassettes, and CDs. I've tried to explain that this is illegal, but my explanations fall on deaf ears; in France, someone who points out the illegality of copyright infringement, even on a massive scale, is just a troublemaker.

As I've said, I have difficulty adapting to this. I once called the cable company (in the U.S.) to tell them that I was receiving a channel that I was not paying for. It took a while for them to understand that I was advising them of something that was costing them money, and not complaining about not getting something for which I had paid. I occasionally called the telephone company to ask why certain long-distance calls were missing from my bill, which also puzzled people. And that was in the U.S. You can imagine the reactions of people in France.

There are countries where things are worse, of course. Italy springs to mind, for example. But just because it's worse elsewhere doesn't make it okay here.

I note that wherever there is petty dishonesty, there is corruption and poverty. You can't build a society if everyone is trying to steal from his fellow man. But no society is perfect, I suppose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely true and well said. The French are amongst the most dishonest cultures and should be avoided. Thank you.

Post a Comment

Blog Archive