x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Happiness Index? Zut alors, the unmitigated Gaul!

Reluctantly, with a leaden heart, I must admit that the French, yet again, might be right. This epiphany came to me over the past few days.

Reluctantly, with a leaden heart, I must admit that the French, yet again, might be right. This epiphany came to me over the past few days. I was struck by the behaviour of my dearest French friend, who came to enjoy a few days of winter sunshine here with us and his family. What I liked most was his restraint. We took him to lavish buffets at the Shangri-La, but he ate sparingly, while admiring the food and the interior of the hotel.

He came to a New Year's Eve party on my terrace, but left soon after midnight and well before dawn (unlike my Irish American friends, who at one point looked set to stay until our traditional Swedish midsummer bash.) He is one of southern France's finest winemakers, having built up a business from scratch that now sells 12 million bottles a year, but drinks just a glass or two every evening. He is a model of moderation, who understands the balance between work and play.

In a similar vein, his president, the vertically challenged Nicolas Sarkozy, stood on his tiptoes the other day to suggest that the pursuit of GDP figures is a wild-goose chase. Feel the quality, not the quantity, was his message. Rather than endless growth at any cost, he would like to see a happiness indicator. Last year he charged Joseph Stiglitz, an Economics Nobel laureate, and a few advisers, including Amatya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for work on the UN Human Development Index, to come up with a new system.

"GDP is an attempt to measure one part of what is going on in our society, which is market production," said Mr Sarkozy. "It is what I call GDP fetishism to think success in that part is success for the economy and for society." He said he would persuade other world leaders to join him in embracing this new indicator. Mr Stiglitz added that the new measure would help France for it would also credit leisure time "which France has a lot of". I can vouch for that. With the exception of my winemaking friend, the French are pleasurably unburdened by an work ethic. If you agree to wait in for a plumber or a delivery man to call you will find a whole new meaning to the phrase "leisure time".

France, however, weathered the credit crunch and global meltdown better than just about every other country, even recording a small level of growth of 0.3 per cent (don't tell Sarko) in the second quarter of last year. This is because French bankers were too busy enjoying their leisure time - cycling, playing boulles, enjoying long lunches - to press loans on their customers. It is well known that a French banker will only lend to you if you don't need the money. As my winemaker friend Jean-Claude puts it: "On ne prête qu'aux riches" - they only lend to the rich. But there are enough just rich people in France, so it doesn't really matter.

In China, something different is happening. Economists and historians are becoming terribly excited about development there. My pal Niall Ferguson, who by most accounts has enjoyed a good global economic crisis, enthuses in his latest book about the Middle Kingdom's potential. But economists are about the last people we should rely on to tell us how to live. Why do you think there are no famous French economists? Because they can't add up? Mais non! It is because they are concerned with more important matters - what to wear, how to create beautiful handbags and, most crucially, where to find a decent baguette.

There are those who sneer at such pursuits, viewing them as effeminate and unworthy of our attention. I am not in their number. Ladies always need somewhere to store their valuables. As we watch Australia turned into an open cast mine to satisfy China's need for raw materials, as we observe the new scramble for Africa, where despots are rewarded as long as they hand over the mineral rights, should we applaud this or be appalled?

Nobody can calculate the environmental damage that China has done to its own country. Many of its rivers no longer reach the South China Sea; much of its forests have been felled. There is a telling couple of pictures in Mr Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. The first shows a rather pleasant scene in Chongqing, a city in central western China. The children are paddling in the river, their parents are wearing rather nice hats. Turn the page and you see the place transformed into a concrete jungle. The children have gone, the water looks polluted.

As the world tries to move to some sort of sustainable development, away from blowing its natural resources, it seems odd that we should act as cheerleaders as we watch the Chinese chomp their way through rainforests. And for all the statistics on the burgeoning middle class, there are still millions and millions of peasants in the place. France may move at a leisurely place, but what's all the rush? It is no surprise that the rest of the world has not raced to take up the challenge and adopt Mr Sarkozy's Happiness Index.

The French may be grumpy, but they know how to live. My wife tells me they have even introduced us a law that prevents husbands from shouting at their spouses, but I told her loudly to pipe down. @Email:rwright@thenational.ae