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“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).
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.