This post is part one, of a three part series on consumerism in France and America. Come back next Monday for part two, or better yet sign up for my feed to be sure not to miss it!
One of the more recent friends I’ve made here in France is, like me, an American married to a Frenchman. She’s about my age, with kids about the age of my kids, and she lives not far away from me in a tiny apartment about the size of my teeny house. I feel lucky because, above and beyond all these factors, she’s a friend of chance not circumstance- the sort of person with whom I’d want to be friends even if we didn’t have these other things in common.
Given that both of us are American, we are both familiar with the urge to spend and American society’s encouragement to do so.* We aren’t immune from this urge either, at least I’m not. I’ve talked before about my battles to avoid buying stuff: clothes, couches, random things. Living in France hasn’t really changed my learned behavior that buying things and spending money is patriotic. After all, the government is giving all Americans extra money to do just that in the hopes that it will ward off a recession- if the economy collapses, then, it’s all our fault.
In the weeks leading up to my vacation to the United States my friend and I had lots of conversations about ‘stuff’. Specifically about our dissatisfaction with our teeny tiny houses and how to better organize and decorate them on our teeny tiny budgets. About our frustration with not being able to afford bigger houses and the nicer furnishings that go with them. I know that there is part of me that is jealous when I see others who have big houses with nice gardens, a room for each child, large kitchens and so on and so on.
But my friend and I also talked about how having the nice house and all the pretty things that go in it means, usually, working lots of hours to be able to pay for it all. And one of the other things my friend and I have in common is the reluctance to work the hours needed to pay for the stuff that, after all, isn’t really necessary.
France’s recently elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigned on a promise to increase le pouvoir d’achat (buying power) with the slogan Travailler Plus Pour Gagner Plus (Work More To Earn More). After his election, he introduced a bill that allowed overtime hours to be paid free of payroll taxes and employer contributions, thus inciting employers to pay workers overtime hours. Many people, however, aren’t able to take advantage of this opportunity, as it only applies to those on an hourly wage.
The pouvoir d’achat lies at the heart of the difference between American and French consumerism, in my opinion. Americans simply have more disposable income than French people with which to buy things… or do they?