A French economist becomes a rock star in the US for writing on the growing gap between rich and poor

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Economist as rock stars? Doesn’t happen a lot but Thomas Piketty seems to have attained that status these days. His surprise bestseller, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," offers a stinging critique of the growing gap between rich and poor in America. Back home in France though, his thesis isn’t seen as breaking any new ground. That’s what Vivienne Walt told me. She’s in Paris for Time magazine. Vivienne Walt: I think the French are somewhat bemused that the this somewhat retiring academic with a heavy French accent would suddenly become a celebrity in the United States. There have been several cynical sort of tongue-in-cheek articles in the French press about how peculiar the Americans are in embracing somebody whose ideas are, in the French way of thinking, are really pretty old hat. Everybody in France has long assumed as just a given that economic inequality is rising fast and that it’s a very bad thing for the world. Werman: His book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was published in France last year. What kind of reception did it get then? Walt: By and large it was well-received as being a fairly solid piece of academic work but it was simply that. It was nothing particularly groundbreaking, certainly not, in the words of Paul Krugman, who said “change the conversation.” It certainly didn’t change the conversation in France in anybody’s mind. Werman: Was it at all in any way, the book, a call to action or was it just discussed in left-wing salons? Walt: I don’t believe it was a call to action at all and certainly not bestseller. It was a weighty tone, very empirical. There were attempts by many political scientists to pick holes in some of his data, but generally speaking, it was simply another intellectual book. This is a country that is really still very attached to intellectual traditions and you get on the bus in Paris and most people are reading books. But it was not really a sensation until the US made it one. Werman: You know the United States pretty well. You mentioned Paul Krugman earlier, he’s been critical about many of the same things that Thomas Piketty has been, talking about income inequality and the failures of capitalism. Why do you think it took a Frenchman to rile up the Milton Friedman camp in this country? Walt: It’s pretty interesting. Here you have a total outsider really coming back and talking about the 1%, the same 1% that the Occupy movement was talking about. It does seem to me a little bit like Alexis de Tocqueville and the French press have made that kind of link between Thomas Piketty and de Tocqueville who went to the US and basically looked at the US through French eyes and wrote a seminal work about America. Of course, Piketty’s book deals with a lot more than just America, he’s looking at many, many countries but in a way perhaps it is more palatable to have somebody who is not from the US and who can essentially say things which, at least in France, is very widely accepted. Werman: Speaking of economic inequalities, the French are celebrating May Day today, like many people around the world, and it’s not all Vive le Proletariat. You spent the morning at a May Day rally covering Marine Le Pen, she’s the president of the Far-Right National Front, the third largest political party in France. What was that all about? Walt: Marine Le Pen has essentially embraced May Day as their major holiday, which is a very canny political move of course because May Day was always the day for the far left. There are going to be EU elections for the European Parliament in three and a half weeks. She is the leader of the Far-Right party of the National Front, all polls have been top at the moment going into the EU elections. They essentially want to get into the EU and effectively tear it apart. She wants France out of Europe, out of the Euro and to stop all immigration from the rest of Europe. Werman: Vivienne Walt who writes from Time magazine from her base in Paris. Always great to speak with you Vivienne, thanks for your time. Walt: You’re welcome.