“Les Trentes Glorieuses” and The American Dream: A Father – Son Story
“Les Trentes Glorieuses” is an expression that refers to the 1945 -1975 period in France following the end of the Second World War. In France as in other European countries such as West Germany, these thirty years were characterized by strong economic growth, high productivity and fast-growing wages, with the advent of “welfare states” that offered unprecedented social benefits and safety nets. Purchasing power for French people almost doubled in that period, and personal consumption soared. Internationally, this era represents the establishment of a number of Western institutions, encouraged by the U.S., who had helped the rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan or European Recovery Program launched in 1948. The Bretton Woods agreement had already provided a framework to stabilize the Allied nations’ currencies in 1944. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created in 1945 to foster global monetary cooperation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO was established in 1949 as a military alliance between the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. After the 1951 Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community was launched in 1957 following the Treaty of Rome, with Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and West Germany as founding members. Today the European Union has 27 member countries and represents the largest free-trading economic and political community in the world.
What did “Les Trentes Glorieuses” represent for the French middle class? They had a towering president—figuratively and physically—in the larger than life Charles de Gaulle, who ran the country from 1958 to 1969. But how did the French live?
When I was born, shortly before de Gaulle’s first presidential election and the start of France’s Fifth Republic, my parents weren’t rich. By U.S. standards, they were poor. Both of them were professors and worked full time. That allowed them to rent a modest apartment in the projects area of a small city 120 miles East of Paris, Chalons-sur-Marne. Transportation? A 125 cc two-stroke locally made Monet Goyon motorcycle, with a backpack to carry me between my father and mother—like many poor families in third world cities. Holidays? Visiting their parents in Paris and Marseilles, traveling by train. My father later used to joke that if he and my mother had been academics in the U.S. at that time, they would have lived in a real house and motored around in a nice automobile like a Chevrolet Bel Air, a car successful business owners would have been quite happy to drive in France then.
OK, that was in the late 50s. Move forward ten years, to 1968, and how were my parents doing? My father worked for the “Quai d’Orsay,” the French foreign service. My mother taught at the “Alliance Française.” The family had expanded, I was blessed with one sister and two brothers. We were stationed in Copenhagen, and lived in a lovely four bedroom brick house with a large garden, with lots of apple and pear trees—ah, those gallons of apple compotes for our glorious “goûters,” the 4-5pm feast of bread, biscuits, chocolate, fruits and sweets enjoyed by French schoolchildren after their time in the classroom. My father had just upgraded his Pininfarina designed Peugeot 404 with a mighty Citroen ID 21 station wagon, and my mother had her own car, a convenient Renault 4. In Denmark, everyone has a secondary “residence” in the country, even if it is a shack, and my parents had emulated the Danes: They owned a nice little apartment on the sunny Spanish Mediterranean coast, 60 miles South of Barcelona. Twice a year the comfortable Citroen took six Deffarges and our “au-pair” lady across most of Europe to Cataluña, barreling down at over 100 mph over German autobahns. There were also ski vacations, in the French or Swiss Alps over Christmas and the New Year to see the family, and in Norway in the spring. My parents were attentive not to spoil us, and so when we went to the restaurant—an expensive proposition in Denmark—they would say, “lobster is only for the adults, but you may have a bite.” If I wanted more toy cars or model trains beyond my nice birthday and Christmas gifts, I could earn them by washing cars and cutting lawns for the neighbors. But who would argue that we were not enjoying a very enviable and extremely comfortable life? Amazing what ten years amidst “Les Trentes Glorieuses” had done for my parents’ standards of living…
After Denmark my father got assigned to the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. We continued to live very comfortably, while discovering the huge societal contrasts between Denmark and Brazil. My mother taught at the local French “lycée,” the “colegio Franco-Brasileiro” spanning kindergarten to high-school, like most similar French schools all around the world. Being in Brazil, where inequality was very high, there were children from seriously rich families at the school, and many of my high-school classmates were making plans to attend U.S. universities. Not wanting to be left behind, and having good grades, I asked my father once if he could pay for my university education in the U.S. A scrupulously fair man, he replied: “Well, yes, your mother and I could afford to pay for your higher education in America. However, we could not afford this expense for four children. And I am sure you would not want us to give you something we could not also give to your sister and brothers, right?” My father had himself escaped a childhood of poverty through his brilliant academic studies at the “Ecole Normale Supérieure,” one of the toughest higher education institutions to get admitted to in France, after grueling competitive examinations—France in that respect is similar to Japan and South Korea. He promptly enrolled me in an excellent Parisian high-school and told me that if I too succeeded in these competitive examinations, I should be able to get a fellowship to study in America.
It was initially tough for me to leave my family and the relaxed Rio de Janeiro life, a kind of tropical “Dolce Vita,” but my father’s advice proved to work. Six years later, after the Baccalaureat, competitive examinations and engineering school, I became a newly minted French national aeronautical engineer, with a nice fellowship paying my tuition for a MS from the University of California at Berkeley, plus the princely sum of $300 per month for lodging and food there. My new career in America was launched.
Well, almost. When I inquired about working visas in the U.S. after my Berkeley graduation, with a couple of job offers in hand, I was told in no uncertain terms by Immigration that “foreign students with scholar fellowships cannot stay in the U.S. upon graduation. Never. Even if they marry their girlfriend—this gets a green card to most people but specifically not for recipients of academic fellowships.”
After my teen years in Brazil, I loved South America, and the nice folks at Schlumberger offered me a well-paid field engineer position, starting in Commodoro Rivadavia in the Argentinean Patagonia. This was followed by stints in Mendoza, in the foothills of the Aconcagua; Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazonian jungle; Macae, 100 miles East of Rio; Bogotá; and finally, El Tigre, in the Eastern Venezuela savannas. Great work, lots of responsibilities, some beautiful locations, but not much of a social life. This would greatly improve, though, when I got admitted to the Harvard Business School. This time I could afford to pay tuition from my savings (there were not many opportunities to spend one’s pay in El Tigre), and I was told this would solve the visa problem. It did work indeed, and after a two-year student’s visa, a W1 working visa renewed a few times, and a green card, I became a proud U.S. citizen in 1993, exactly ten years after leaving El Tigre. Hurray! The American Dream beckoned for this immigrant.
The American Dream is highly individualized, “The Pursuit of Happiness” meaning very different things to different people. For me, it mostly meant the possibility of raising a family comfortably in a mid-sized city close to wonderful nature. Building a career in France in the early 80s meant living in a mega city, Paris, with pollution, long commutes to work and a stressful life. Northern California at that time was quite the opposite—relaxed, casual and practical, with most people as interested in hiking along the coast, camping in a state park or skiing in the Sierras than in career advancement. And the vistas in San Francisco! A sea of adorable Victorian homes perched on hills with sweeping views of the bay, that was my first home on charming Collingwood street. “This is the beauty of Rio de Janeiro in the first world; the Riviera with a diverse economy,” I wrote to my parents, asking them to visit soon. Believe it or not, San Francisco was almost affordable then; Silicon Valley was in its infancy, not the gigantic industry and Wall Street financial rival it is today; the Bay Area infrastructure was exactly the same as today, with only a third of the traffic; and locals did not take themselves seriously. So little, in fact, that out of a class of over 800 at the Harvard B-Scholl, only 40 of us chose to move to California. Most of our classmates thought that showed very little seriousness. Careers were built in New York and Boston, or in Europe, not within a few blocks of Haight-Ashbury and its hippie legacy.
I still took work seriously and put my heart into a variety of professional adventures: Fifteen years as a management consultant, followed by another fifteen in technology, first in energy and then in healthcare. I became a managing partner in a venerable consultancy, a senior executive in a global technology company, and an entrepreneur leading a start-up to “unicorn” status. Along the way, I experienced two IPOs and good financial rewards, at the cost of way too much air travel, eight million miles or so.
My father found it intriguing that his eldest son would choose to pursue his professional career in the U.S. He was an admirer of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and JFK, and regaled us often with stories of American industrial might at our diner table. His knowledge of U.S. geography was excellent, and not limited to the industrial capitals Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, not to mention all the great cities of the Northeast. For example, if we were having a conversation about trains, he would tell us about Erie, the “locomotive capital of the world.” But he did not know much about the business world, and even less about U.S. businesses. He and my mother visited us every year in San Francisco, and he could see I was very engaged at work. One day I was explaining how every 2-3 years I had to face the challenge of an “up or out” review at my firm, and he commented that this practice seemed “ferocious” to him. He asked, “Isn’t this how the Hell’s Angels (a famous motorcycle gang) select their leaders—every so often you have to beat-up a bigger guy to stay in?”
He did not show much concern about my prospects, though, thinking that I could always go back to France if I was fired, and also that my French schooling of competitive examinations had prepared me well for this highly individualistic pursuit. Actually, I thought that too, a decades-long misunderstanding of what makes American business leaders successful. They embrace teamwork—starting in high-school and continuing at university, they get trained in multi-student projects as opposed to lonely competitive exams, and team sports are fundamental. The only sports I was ever good at were mid-distance running and skiing. And when we faced a crisis or crunch time at work, my first reflex was to tell my team, “no worries, give me a few hours and I will solve this.” It took me quite a while to observe that the preferred—and superior—operating mode here was to first convene an “all hands” team meeting, get inputs from everyone, and then “divide” the tasks to “conquer” the challenge at hand. Now I know, but this was the toughest challenge I encountered in my American business apprenticeship, understanding that working successfully through teams is not an inherent contradiction in a highly individualistic society.
I became an entrepreneur late in life, around my mid-forties, but that turn of career was easier to understand for my father, since both my brothers, based in Paris, are successful entrepreneurs in their own right. He did find it amusing that the May 2010 IPO of the company I co-started took place on what happened to be the worst day for the Dow and S&P 500 that year, since he played the stock market in France very successfully. But there was also pride: “It must have felt good to represent your company at IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, at the heart of Wall Street.”
Immigrating to America, pursuing a career in business, raising a family in the same city while traveling incessantly…my father always supported the choices I made in life. This started early on: When I turned eleven, we were spending the summer in Spain, and I declared I wanted to see my school friend Bernard, who was vacationing in Annecy, in the French Alps. My father said, “sure, we will drop you there on the return trip to Denmark. But of course, we won’t drive all the way back to pick you-up, so you will just have to take the train by yourself from Annecy to Copenhagen.” My mother mailed me my first passport, and after a 24-hour rail journey through Geneva, Basel and Hamburg I was safely reunited with the family.
I grew up with a lot of freedom but was frequently reminded that with freedom come responsibilities and accountability, and foremost respect of others. My father was exceptionally well read, and taught us about the Enlightenment, the Lumières— Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire—and the eighteenth-century revolutionary concept of individual liberty.
He kept arbitrating the many brotherly fights we had with “one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins” (from the ‘Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen’ of August 1789) or John Stuart Mill’s concept of individual liberty, which can only be restricted “to prevent harm to others.” One day we were having a wonderful drive through the mountains North of Rio de Janeiro. Tropical forest, steep volcanic rocks, beautiful scents amidst glorious sunshine…and my brother and I were fighting like animals in the back seat. I got one warning, another, and then my father stopped the car. “Obviously you are not enjoying this family outing, and so you are free to walk alone to our destination.” That destination was a country ranch where we were staying, between the two colonial towns of Petropolis and Teresópolis, about 15 miles away. This long walk gave me plenty of time to think about not being a pest during beautiful drives in the countryside, and beyond that to be accountable for my actions, always. In addition to the great education they gave me, I feel privileged that my parents always took us with them in their travels, from the Northernmost reaches of Scandinavia to the Southern Cone of South America. We got to see a great deal of the world, with the best of fathers at the wheel.
My father Jean-Pierre Deffarges passed away peacefully, in his sleep, on July 8 of this year. He would have turned 90 in August. Rest in peace, Papa.
Tags: American Dream, Argentina, Brazil, California, Copenhagen, De Gaulle, Denmark, Education, Entrepreneurs, Father - son, France, Germany, Norway, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Scandinavian social democracy, Spain, Switzerland, Trentes Glorieuses, United States