Guy Sorman

“The more I know both countries, the more I discover how much the French and the Americans are different”

September 25, 2013

Guy Sorman is a leading French public intellectual and author, who has written more than 25 books on social, economic, and global affairs. On September 24, Dr. Sorman will discuss his newest work, The American Heart: In Praise of Giving.

Other books by Dr. Sorman include Economics does not Lie, The Children of Rifaa: In Search of a Moderate Islam, and The Year of the Rooster, The Truth about China, among many others. 

In 2013, and building on a long career in publishing, Dr. Sorman became president of the monthly magazine France-Amérique. In 1975, he founded Sorman Publications, which publishes weekly newsletters on public finance, ecology, local administration, small business, urban planning, and health care, among other topics. He is also a contributing editor to City-Journal in New York and a syndicated columnist with Project Syndicate. Sorman's columns have appeared in newspapers worldwide. 

Sorman received PhD degrees from the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) in 1964 and from the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in 1965 before attending the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) from 1966-1969. From 1970 to 2000, Dr. Sorman was a professor at Sciences-Po, teaching economics and political philosophy. He has also served as a visiting scholar with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In 1979, Dr. Sorman founded international Action contre le faim (Action against Hunger), of which he is honorary president. Since 2004, he has been a member of the French National Commission for Human Rights.  Dr. Sorman has also served in political capacities, currently as Chairman of the Boulogne-Billancourt's Economic Council and previously as the city's Deputy-Mayor in charge of culture and science; economic adviser to the French Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister of France; and chair of the India France Economic Council. 

Dr. Sorman has received the highest distinctions in France (Légion d'honneur), Brazil (Southern Cross), Argentina (Order of May), and Spain (Excelencia Europae).

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Dr. Sorman, we are delighted that you will join us on September 24 to discuss your new book on philanthropy in the United States and equally delighted to have you tell us more about your work and the diverse subjects you have explored during a long and successful career in publishing and intellectual debate.

You’ve written on many topics throughout your career, often on international affairs, economics, and politics. In your new book, The American Heart: In Praise of Giving, you laud the American tradition of philanthropy and charitable giving. What inspired you to choose this topic and write this book?
After having written several books on the United States, from a political (The Conservative revolution, 1983), cultural (Made in USA, 2004), and economic perspective (Economics does not lie, 2008), I suddenly discovered that I had totally forgotten to cope with a seminal dimension of the American society: philanthropy. No doubt, my shortsightedness came from being a foreign observer: a writer, in spite of all his efforts, always remains the prisoner of his cultural background. Philanthropy being nearly non-existent in France, I did not look at it when in the United States. All that changed when, from 2004 onward, I decided to live part time in the United States. Living among the Americans, I became impressed by the importance in everyone's life of giving – giving money and time by volunteering. It became evident that philanthropy did not stand at the periphery of the American society but was essential to it. One cannot understand what makes America different if philanthropy is not given its proper place.

Paradoxically, because philanthropy is that central, few books describe it properly. There were none in French. Most U.S. books focus on one aspect – the biography of a famous philanthropist or how to better manage a Foundation. But I can hardly think of a synthetic book. As a rule, when I cannot find the book I am looking for, I tend to write it myself.

What does your praise of American philanthropy say about your native France? What are the key differences between France and the United States in their respective philosophies on giving? If the French do not have of a system of philanthropic giving as developed as the American one, what is the main reason for this? How has this situation been evolving in France?

Philanthropy started in France and in the United States in the mid-18th century, based on the same premises, born from the same Enlightenment philosophy. As Benjamin Franklin said when giving away his wealth at age 42, the purpose of philanthropy is to change the world so that charity will not be needed anymore. Philanthropy is about systemic changes. At the end of the 18th century and along the first half of the 19th century, foundations and charities were similar in scope and methods on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, philanthropy, around 1860, vanished from France, for strictly ideological reasons. Socialism on the Left and Statism on the Right promoted a secular welfare state as a more efficient and more just way to erase poverty and inequality. Since those days, philanthropy has become minor in France. We have many associations but they all depend on public funding and apply public policies. No significant foundation in France tackles poverty and inequality by raising its own funds and following its own path.

You often hear in France that philanthropy does not exist because giving is not tax deductible. Actually, the French – at a personal level or corporate level – hardly use the tax deductions which are available. The reluctance to give has clear ideological roots: the French do not give because, after paying higher taxes, they consider that the welfare state should take care of everything.

By contrast, all surveys in the United States show that Americans are not that tax sensitive: they give whatever the deduction is, fiscal elasticity is low. Moreover, there is no tax deduction on volunteering.

Finally, religion in the United States is a major incentive to give: 60 percent of American donations go to churches and social programs managed by churches. The French, being more than secular, do not share this spiritual incentive.

The French have a much more developed system of government programs that fund the nation’s health care, education, cultural institutions, and more. Are these tax-funded, government-led programs the French equivalent to American philanthropy? Would you advocate for a system more like the American one? Why?
Most of what is dealt with by philanthropic interventions in the United States is managed in France by the government: culture, public health, education, environment, research, helping the destitute… In the United States, however, let us not forget that government is active in these fields as well. American philanthropy is adding to government-led programs; it is not a total substitute, as many French tend to believe. Can we compare both systems? It is nearly impossible to compare the outcomes because no nation is a laboratory with citizens as guinea-pigs. Each system should be examined separately. What I find most interesting in American philanthropy are two things. First, giving brings a purpose to the life of those who give as well, as to those who receive. Most retired people in the United States are involved in philanthropic activities, most often as volunteers; in France, retired people feel useless. Secondly, foundations and charities in the United States are allowed to try untried, new programs in very difficult social environments like dealing with drug addiction, former inmates, discrimination, etc. Through trial and error, these philanthropic experiments may lead to social progress. In France, by contrast, when a public program fails, the government will pour more money into it, in order to hide its failure.

In 1979, you founded the non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger or Action Contre la Faim, which works to end world hunger through response to emergency situations resulting from war, conflict, and natural disasters. The organization now has offices throughout North America and Europe, including in New York and Paris. What are the primary differences in the operations of this NGO – a 501(c)(3) in the United States – in different nations, notably between France and the United States?
The main difference between a French NGO and an American charity has nothing to do with the tax system; their behavior is, rather, dictated by the source of their fund raising. In the United States, you try to raise funds among the people; in France, you lobby government and European institutions. In France, ACF, which I founded and chaired, is a de facto subcontractor for public programs: in the United States, we have more freedom to choose our own programs. Distinct sources of funding lead to distinct forms of accountability. In France, one is accountable to the public bureaucracy, in the United States to the people who grant funds. In both countries, though, transparency is deficient; many American foundations are far from being well-managed or efficient. My research in the United States led me to discover many ill-managed and useless foundations, mostly among the biggest institutions with famous names.

After a long and successful career in publishing in France, founding Editions Sorman in 1975, you recently brought this legacy across the Atlantic, assuming the role of President of the iconic France-Amérique. This monthly French-language magazine hailed from a tradition of French publication in the United States started in 1943 by World War II France Libre exiles. What inspired this new role? What are your goals for France-Amérique, and what do you hope to bring to this historic publication?
Instead of retirement, I have chosen to take over France-Amérique. To tell the truth, it had been my dream for a long time. The French community in the United States is growing as never before. For the first time in French history, the French go and live abroad in large numbers. France-Amérique will allow them to stay in touch with the French culture and all French-American matters, be it in economy, foreign affairs, military cooperation, etc. The list of topics is endless. France-Amérique will not overlap with what can be found on the web; everyone can access French media by Internet or find a French restaurant next door by surfing an appropriate website. But only in France-Amérique will you be able to read in-depth, well-researched, and hopefully, well-written essays which are to be found nowhere else. Not to forget that half of France-Amérique subscribers happen to be Americans who love French culture.

In addition to your leadership at France-Amérique, you’ve worked quite a bit in the United States, having served as a regular columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a Contributing Editor to City Journal, and as a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. From your various experiences, what would you say is the one greatest thing France can learn from the United States – whether politically, economically, or socially – and vice versa?
The more I know both countries, the more I discover how much the French and the Americans are different; those are two different cultures within the Western civilization. What can the French learn from the United States? In a nutshell, U.S. entrepreneurship is more dynamic than in France because everyone may try and fail, higher education is better in the United States because you have competition within the academic institutions, philanthropy allows trials and errors in coping with social problems, journalists are more professional in the United States than in France. What the Americans can learn from the French? A better diet, universal health care is costly but good, a less-politicized civil service…

You write on many topics and have served in advisory capacities in many domains – politics, economics, environmental issues, human rights, among many others. There are many public voices questioning the prospects for France’s economy and, consequently, the many beneficial social and economic structures the nation has historically enjoyed. How would you describe the state of France today? What would you say is the main challenge facing the nation? Does France need considerable change and reform, as many claim? Are you optimistic that France will continue to enjoy economic and social prosperity in the future?
Most of the French still enjoy a good life mostly because their ancestors worked hard and accumulated wealth. If you do not belong to an old French family, though, you do not live that well because you inherited nothing. As a consequence, social inequalities are increasing: the victims are mostly the new French, born from immigrant parents. The country as a whole has clearly lost its economic dynamism and, to a certain extent, its academic dynamism. In the country of Louis Pasteur, anti-progress ideologies and fads (no GMOs, no shale gas, no reforms of any kind!) have become fashionable. How to explain this decline and how to reverse it? The social structure is not helpful; 25 percent of the population working in the public sector means there is a large portion of the population usually against any change. The largest French companies tend to be monopolies and profit-seekers, with close political connections, adverse to change as well. 

Luckily, we are incorporated in the European Union: the Union prevents the French government from spending too much and fights against French entrepreneurs’ taste for monopolies. The European Union is thus the major, maybe the only, agent for change. Only  more external pressures – like a rise in interest rates for selling state bonds – will lead to a more competitive and dynamic society. In the absence of external pressures, our decline will continue; as it is a slow process, most of the French do not suffer from it, except the poorest and the next generation.

Alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, you spoke with the French-American Foundation in January 2012 on the Arab Spring and the prospects for democracy and change created by these uprisings seen across the Arab world. Since the first signs of unrest emerged in Tunisia in December 2010, changes in leadership and new governments have emerged across those regions. The predominant unrest in the Arab world today seems to be in Egypt and Syria. The global community has struggled to form a common opinion or course of action to address more than two years of conflict in Syria, while power in Egypt seems an unsettled question. It has been only three years since the “Arab Spring,” but have your perspectives on the events changed in this time? How does the lack of consensus and resolution in these two nations reflect the sentiments and movements of the Arab Spring?
If I may quote myself, I wrote a book in 2003, Rifaa's Children: In Search of Moderate Islam , in which I describe the democratic and free-market aspirations of significant groups in the Muslim world, including the Arab world. The Arab Spring did not come as a surprise for me; I had warned the French government much in advance. When President Sarkozy asked me, "How did you know?” I answered that I only listened to the people, which diplomats forgot to do.

Everybody is now disappointed by the outcome because Egypt and Tunisia, not to mention Syria and Iraq, have not become liberal democracies. We should not regret the former dictatorship though and Arabs, mostly, do not want to revert to the past. What happened? I identify two main failures in the aborted Arab Spring. First, the people who took over did not grasp how important the economy was. Recently, in Egypt and in Tunisia, I gave talks stressing the priority of monetary stabilization, opening markets, letting in new entrepreneurs, growth-oriented policies. The new leaders would not listen because they put their political party first.

The second failure came from the division within the liberal democrats; they went at each other and still do, for the greater benefit of better-organized forces like the military or the Muslim Brotherhood.

What should the West do? Support the democratic Muslims, of course; the Western diplomacy is reluctant to follow this path and do prefer short-term security in the region. At the end of the day, I remain an idealist, because revolution is a very slow process, the outcome of which is difficult to predict.

You have produced many insightful books and writings. What one (or few) books(s) has inspired you the most?
If I were to select the most inspiring book I ever read and keep reading, it would be Moby Dick. Melville teaches us that myth is the driving force behind mankind’s behavior and quest, more often than rational thinking. As a trained economist, I tend to overestimate rational thinking: Moby Dick is a constant reminder of the limits of rationality.

Then it is impossible for me not to mention Alexis de Tocqueville; Democracy in America is the model all political writers try to emulate.

And Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading anthropologist of the 20th century, has been my mentor; he has shown that it was possible to observe different societies, with a cold, scientific eye, avoiding getting carried away by passions and prejudices. Lévi-Strauss wrote a lot on giving in so-called primitive societies; what I write about reciprocity in American philanthropy refers clearly to Lévi-Strauss's insight.