Review Society

French Society: Words and Numbers

About: L. Maurin, Déchiffrer la société française, La Découverte.

Using data from the Observatoire des Inégalités, Louis Maurin contrasts numbers with words to paint a portrait of the many kinds of inequality—economic, cultural, and sexual—which continue to divide the French.

Reviewed: Louis Maurin, Déchiffrer la société française, préface by Denis Clerc. Paris, La Découverte, 2009, 368 pp., 18.50 Euros.

In Déchiffrer la société française, Louis Maurin, a journalist at Alternatives économiques, paints a portrait of French society and gives an overview of recent changes. He relies on the work of the Observatoire des Inégalités, which he directs, and whose mission since 2003 has been to measure and analyze inequalities in France. The book is a broad survey of French society, and I will not attempt here to cover all of its aspects. Rather than summarize the author’s many points, I will try to sketch his overall approach and then zero in on his analysis of inequality, which is the central focus of the work.

A Work of Broad Synthesis

Maurin argues that much of what is said about French society does not correspond to social reality. For instance, the fact that power is concentrated in the capital often misleads elites as to the nature of various social milieus. He also rejects simplistic journalistic approaches, as well as analyses that unduly emphasize “radical change” or are overly nostalgic for a bygone era. His hope is that this book will contribute to a deeper, more empirical understanding of French society. To that end, he collects data that will help him to “decipher” the society and measure and analyze its changes. He draws statistics from a variety of sources (INSEE, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of National Education, Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Employment, Road Safety, Médiamétrie, etc.). In a less central way he also makes use of observations of daily life and describes debates around a range of social issues.

The book is thus a digest of a large volume of data. Its fifteen thematic chapters offer a panorama of French society covering such subjects as population, the family, inequality between the sexes, immigration, stages of life, schools, unemployment, inequality, social milieus, consumption, leisure, news, housing, the body, insecurity, and politics. The information it contains is rich and varied, and it is set forth with great pedagogical clarity. Each chapter begins with a glossary and ends with a bibliography and suggestions for further reading. Throughout the text one also finds explanations of ideas current in the social sciences and of useful statistical tools.

To give an idea of the author’s approach, I will focus on two chapters. Chapter 2, devoted to changes in the family, looks first at the growing number of divorces, then at the decreasing number of children per family, and finally at the increase in the number of single-parent families and individuals living alone. Chapter 7, entitled “Work and the Shadow of Unemployment”, describes the growth of the service sector, the degradation of the labor market from the mid-1970s on, and the spread of precarious employment. It also looks at changes in working conditions and at the effects of the thirty-five hour law and raises the question of the place of work in today’s society.

A Survey of Inequality

The question of inequality forms the central thread of the book. Maurin frequently points out the degree to which behavior varies from one social category to another. For instance, educational level and social category have a decisive influence on voting behavior, especially abstention. On this point, he draws on the work of Anne Muxel, [1] who shows that “only 9% of individuals with schooling beyond the level of bac+2 did not vote in 2007, compared with 19% of those without any diploma” and that “10% of cadres abstained, compared with twice as many industrial and clerical workers” (p. 326). Throughout the book, Maurin points out types of behavior that vary with educational level. For instance, the amount of time spent watching television, which is “the principal leisure-time activity” (p. 231) of the French (“Each Frenchman above the age of 15 watches television more than 3.5 hours per day, according to Médiamétrie”), is closely linked to educational level: “Twenty-six percent of those who hold only a school-leaving certificate watch more than 30 hours of television per week, compared with only 5% of those with a bac+3” (p. 233). [2] In a more original observation, the author points to inequalities associated with new technologies. Two main factors are at work: education and age. In 2007, 82% of those with university degrees had an Internet connection at home, compared with only 27% of those without diplomas, and while 92% of youths aged 12-17 owned a computer, 83% of those above the age of 70 did not (p. 229).

Maurin is also interested in inequalities between men and women. He notes that while girls do better than boys on the brevet (certificate of general education) and baccalauréat, they are more likely to follow tracks that lead to less well-paid jobs. The rate of female participation in the labor market has increased since the 1960s, but women are still seldom found at the top of the job hierarchy, and inequalities in pay remain. In the domestic sphere, Maurin notes that roles within couples have changed but that women are still responsible for most domestic chores.

The author also tries to describe the larger trends in French inequality. He points out that education has been democratized since the late nineteenth century, that advances in medicine have benefited much of the population, and that “until 2009, the standard of living steadily improved, even for the least well off” (p. 179). But he is also clear about the magnitude of remaining inequalities. He argues that the media tend to overestimate the standard of living of the majority of the population. For instance, in 2006, half of all households earned less than 2,263 Euros per months after taxes and social charges, and that half of all individuals living alone had a disposable monthly income below 1,340 Euros after deducting social charges. He also shows that those earning 3,200 Euros a month belong to the top 5% of the income distribution. Finally, he notes that since the 1990s, income inequality has been increasing. Although we are not witnessing an “explosion” of poverty, poverty has stopped decreasing.

Furthermore, there is a stubborn persistence of very precarious conditions for some people in today’s France. For instance, the INSEE reports that in 2004, “2.8% of the French indicated that they did not eat a full meal on at least one day in the previous two weeks” (p. 170). Maurin also measures the weight of inequality in terms of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital,” emphasizing the advantages that accrue to such capital in today’s society. By showing that social inequalities influence performance in the classroom, he reminds us that the democratization of the educational system remains incomplete. In particular, he sees the effects of an educational system that values academic learning over technical instruction and thus penalizes students who come from segments of society relatively estranged from the schools. He then points out the magnitude of the consequences of these inequalities in a labor market that often values diplomas more than personal experience and a society that stresses initial education above continuing education.

The abundance of information in this book makes it a useful compendium of French society and inequality. It is perhaps unfortunate that the author did not make greater use of academic research on these topics. He makes little use, for example, of numerous recent monographs on social groups. These are invaluable for understanding contemporary French society and would certainly have enriched his analysis. It is also unfortunate that he did not develop certain points more fully, but that is no doubt a consequence of his choice to treat a broad range of issues. In any case, the book is a stimulating contribution to the analysis of French society. It is an invitation to read and think about and work on these issues.

Originally published in Translated from French by Arthur Goldhammer.

by Lise Bernard, 23 February 2011

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Lise Bernard, « French Society: Words and Numbers », Books and Ideas , 23 February 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Anne Muxel, “La mobilisation électorale”, Le Panel électoral français 2007, Cevipof, Paris, 2007.

[2Here the author relies on the INSEE survey “Participation culturelle et sportive” (2003).