France Is Not Impressed with Thomas Piketty

In the English-speaking world, he's the economist du jour. But in his home country? Le shrug.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PARIS — That Capital in the Twenty-First Century book those Américains have been making such a fuss about?

It’s "red tape Marxism," sniffed French economist Nicolas Baverez. "It’s an old theory" shrugged Elie Cohen, an economist with France’s National Center for Scientific Research. "Piketty’s view of the redistribution of wealth is very classical." And the success of Capital? "A Stiglitz and Krugman effect," Cohen said — nothing to get excited about.

In the United States, Piketty fever is still on the rise. On April 24, more than a month after Capital’s release, the New York Times editorial page had two columns dedicated to the work of the 42-year-old economist. That’s on top of at least a dozen pieces the paper had already run. Paul Krugman called the book "discourse-changing"; for David Brooks, it is a "phenomenon." The book is both a policy heavyweight — in late April, Piketty met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers as well as an improbable commercial triumph: a nearly 700-page economics tome that reached the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. 

The United States and Britain have fallen hard for Thomas Piketty, a London School of Economics-trained academic who helped start the Paris School of Economics and who has been dubbed a "rock star" for his ideas on wealth and inequality. Back home, however, in the phenom’s native land, the French have watched all of this unfold with utter bewilderment. "What has bewitched the Americans into seeing a messiah in Piketty?" French author Guy Sorman mused in a recent column.

In France, the country where he spent almost two decades forming these ideas, Piketty’s sweeping account of soaring wealth disparities has met with little more than a Gallic shrug. 

Capital in the Twenty-First Century was warmly received when the French edition was published in September 2013, but it was a much more "discreet" reception, noted the French news website Atlantico. In September, the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro reviewed the book as "nothing new" and "obsolete class analysis." Left-wing newspapers, meanwhile, applauded the book as a major work — but unlike in English-speaking countries, where the book has turbo-charged a larger discussion about inequality, the debate stopped there.

"People brushed off his work, the depth of the data and his analysis," said Camille Landais, a French economist and professor at the London School of Economics, and one of Piketty’s former Ph.D. students. "In the U.S., people actually wanted to discuss the material of his book, the data, the models, and the trends…. The quality of the debate was much higher."

The French edition of the book has sold close to 50,000 copies — a very good run for a piece of academic work. But in the United States, the book has already sold out, selling 80,000 copies in less than two months (publisher Harvard University Press is in the process of printing another run of 80,000 copies and expects to print 35,000 more in the near future).

There’s a certain irony that the United States and Britain, which produce the vast majority of superstar economists, have taken to Piketty so warmly, while France, which might have found in him a favorite son, is less convinced. If U.S. economists are besotted with Piketty, the feeling doesn’t appear to be mutual: As a young prodigy, Piketty cut short a promising and prestigious career in American economics to return to France, having discovered that, as he wrote in Capital, he "did not find the work of U.S. economists very convincing." This work, he said, was caught up in abstract math and divorced from society’s largest problems.

But Piketty opted to return to a country where academia in general, and economics in particular, is not accorded the same respect that scholars in English-speaking countries take for granted. French policymakers hold a deep distrust for the academy. A majority of top officials, politicians, and business leaders are still trained in the country’s elite Grandes Écoles, such as l’École Nationale d’Administration in Paris — highly selective schools that are isolated from the universities that train most of the country’s academics. In these halls, many still embrace a philosophy that the state is best placed to organize the economy.

Piketty may be something of an exception: He once served as an adviser to presidential candidate Ségolène Royal and has strong Socialist Party ties. But "in France, there has never been a head of the national bank who was an academic," said Philippe Aghion, an economics professor at Harvard. "French policymakers look down on academics. They don’t respect us — we try to speak to them but relations are very difficult."

Economists especially have it rough. Up until the mid-20th century, the French ruling classes saw economics as a subversive discipline. Ever since Napoleonic times, economists had been seen as too liberal, with views that challenged authority. Its study was, if not repressed, at least contained, said Pascal Le Merrer, a French economist with the École Normale Supérieure, a Grande École in Lyon. 

It was only in 1968 that economics was introduced into universities as an independent discipline. Until then, the subject was only available as a sub-discipline within law studies; French officials wanted students to be learning about the legislation that governed the economy, not about economics itself.

"Foreigners find this very difficult to understand, but for a long time, economists were rejected as revolutionaries who held subversive ideas," said Le Merrer. "Surrounding them by lawyers was a way of controlling them."

Catholics were very influential in law departments in France at the time, Le Merrer said, and they saw economists as dangerously utilitarian — academics who no longer saw men and women as human beings, but as inputs and widgets. Economics students had to join unofficial seminars run by peers to learn about the discipline in the1960s, and it was here that, behind the backs of their law lecturers, they pored over economics manuals from the United States and Britain.

Today, the study of supply and demand no longer has to be surreptitious, but economists still do not command the same respect as traditional French academic heavyweights like philosophers and historians — and neither do even the heftiest of their books, it seems. This might part
ly explain why the release of Piketty’s magnum opus has seen such a lukewarm greeting in France. 

In addition, Piketty’s work in France has carried the burden of an image problem: In English-speaking economics circles, even among those who disagree with him, Piketty is seen a rigorous and careful empiricist, making his arguments with centuries’ worth of tax records. In France, however, Piketty "is seen as being to the left of the left," Le Merrer said. "Someone who is against the rich and large fortunes — that’s why many may not have bothered to read his work."

In Capital, Piketty opens his dissection of inequality with the warning that he is not a Marxist, and that the "lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism" does not sit well with him. But his work with Socialist politicians and advocacy for tax reforms has marked him as a radical. And in France, a country that is struggling with a staggering public deficit, anemic growth, and labor legislation that badly needs reform, inequality simply may not have the same traction as a policy issue that it has in the United States. The French want to hear about growth, jobs, and a more competitive economy, Le Merrer said.

That said, could the phenomenal success of Capital overseas change the face of economics in France? Economists here feel it is unlikely — at least in the short term. "The body of data he collected is really outstanding, but he is no Karl Marx," said Aghion.

Piketty is a scholar whose ideas — on one side of the Atlantic, at least — have found the sort of audience of which most economists can only dream. In the meantime, a French journalist has noted that, after his triumphant victory lap of the United States, Piketty will return to his office in Paris. It happens to be very small.

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