This is an idea I've been developing for a while. I think that French society is one that is built around the idea of compartmentalized knowledge, that no one should know everything, that you learn from those who already know something, the idea that you have a certain set of knowledge, and you should not stray beyond your knowledge box.
Take fonctionnaires at the préfecture, for example. They always know better than you what papers to bring in. Even if another fonctionnaire told you to bring in a certain set of documents, the next guy you talk to will give you an entirely different list! You have no way of knowing what is true because you, not being one of those fortunate employees of the préfecture, do not have access to The Definitive List. You are completely dependent on them to give you information.
Or doctors. Many French doctors (my jerk specialist, certainly, but not my generalist) believe that they are God and that you, the lowly patient, cannot possibly comprehend anything about medecine, medications, or how the body works. What right do you have to know what is happening to your body and why when you cannot possibly understand any of it without having been through the same extensive schooling as they have? When I disagreed with my doctor's medication plan for me (because he was wrong) he told me that he is a world acknowledged "expert" and that I should basically shut my mouth and do as he said, without any real explanation as to why he was correct besides his self-described status as an expert. Even nurses are reluctant to explain things and answer questions. Without their level of schooling, we cannot ever hope to attain the same exalted state of enlightenment, regardless of years of experience dealing with our own medical problems or knowledge that we can harvest ourselves over the dreaded internet.
What about their obsession with certificates and qualifications? Despite the fact that I have a four year college degree I would probably never be hired to work in a retail clothing store because I don't have the silly sales certificate. In order to have a management position at a factory, you have to have a BTS, so a guy who has worked on the line for 20 years and has proved his worth but doesn't have a BTS can't earn a management position based on proven experience, knowledge, and leadership skills.
Even the public schools are part of this, although that is changing. Who else has worked with old school teachers who expect the kids to sit down, shut up, listen, and then regurgitate everything the teacher has said without ever questioning it or learning critical thinking and analytical skills?
While the fact that Einstein flunked math in fourth grade and that Bill Gates dropped out of college are very well known in the US, few people in France tell these stories. I can only think of one story I've ever been told about a French person who picked himself up by his bootstraps (to use an extremely American expression) and earned their way to success without having all the trappings of the elite: Nicolas Sarkozy. I knew that story, however, from reading American newspapers, and not because someone French told it to me. This is perhaps not the best example because we know how unpopular Sarko is, but in general the French don't seem to value these types of stories about self-made people who rose out of nothing to become successful. The idea of the "self-made woman" is one of the most important components of the American Dream, whereas in France it barely exists. Justice Sonia Sotomayor's personal story was a huge component of the discussions about her candidacy for the Supreme Court. Even if these people who rise from humble circumstances to great success do exist in France, their stories are not told and admired the way they are in the US.
This isn't meant to be a critical "France is so terrible because...." post, I'm just putting some observations that I have made out there as sort of an experiential sociological writing about what I learned during my time in France. These are of course just my experiences in "my" France, and I would be interested to hear what others think, especially about the idea of the self made person in France, because my experience on that topic may be part of the fact that I lived in the second worst département in France.
I also think this idea of knowledge limiting goes hand in hand with France as an extremely hierarchical society but that is a post for another day.