Paris Journal 2005

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

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Yesterday’s Le Parisien had a fascinating story.  Here’s my translation:


Windskateboarding on the Esplanade des Invalides.



Graffiti on a wall near Le Petit Prince restaurant, in the 5th arrondissement.



How France is Going to Rebound


For three days, Le Parisien will feature how France plans to leave the morosity and pessimism that undermines the country.  A new beginning is possible.  Thanks to the massive departure of people into retirement and new jobs opening up as a result, the unemployment rate is finally going to diminish.  Numerous cities are revitalizing their projects.  Tomorrow [today], the government will announce to the public the “frying pan of competitiveness” that will be created in all the country with businesses, researchers, and universities working together. 


For “rebounding” from its morosity and pessimism, France has 7 strong points:


  1. A dynamic birth rate.  It is a real treasure for France that it has the highest rate of fecundity in Europe, with 1.88 children per woman.  [Elsewhere I’ve read that France plans to have the largest population in the EU by 2015.  Then everyone will HAVE to think they are important, right?]


  1. A large country in terms of industry and exports.  With the fifth most powerful economy on the planet, France has kept a manufacturing employment rate of 22%, compared to only 11% in the U.S.  A number of businesses (Axa, Carrefour, Michelin, Renault, Lafarge, Air France-KLM, Accor, Total, LVMH, Bouygues, Sodexho, Saint-Gobalin . . .) are world-wide leaders.  France is the fourth largest exporter in the world.


  1. Stunning attractiveness.  Because the hourly productivity of the French surpasses by 15% that of the Americans, foreign businesses move themselves into the Hexagon [France likes to call itself the “Hexagon” sometimes].  In 2003, France was classed just behind China in material sent to foreign countries.


  1. The second largest agricultural producer in the world.  [Now here is where you must remember that wine is a food, and growing grapes is agriculture.  And chocolate is a vegetable.]  Just behind the U.S., French agriculture is that which offers the greatest quality and reliability of products present on our plates.  France guarantees for Europe its alimentary independence.


  1. Infrastructures without par.  A high-speed train network unequaled in Europe, a dense highway network, a telecommunications network that works, cheap electricity, a high quality hospital system – all that makes France a country with the best infrastructure and public services.


  1. The first destination for tourists.  More than one tourist in ten spends their vacation in France.  The Hexagon receives 77million visitors per year, a manna of more than 35 billion euros.


  1. The contained inequalities.  As a consequence of strong growth in productivity from 1973 to today, the inequalities have not been aggravated.  The total rate of households at or below the poverty level was 15% in 1973 and is 7% today.


One knows the refrain:  France is sick, France is morose, France slips into a decline.  Often arrogant, the French also love the big crises of depression and self-denigration.  In 1998, champions of the world in soccer, they celebrated a country of black-blanc-beur [roughly translates to “a country of blacks, whites, and North Africans”], reconciled with itself and confident in the future.  Seven years later, the French are mourning the loss of the Olympic Games 2012, and they say that, decidedly, nothing is going well anymore.


Reasons for despair?  They are there, for sure.  The unemployment rate has undermined French society for thirty years.  Parents have the feeling that their kids are not going to succeed as well as they have.  The famous social elevator is always out of order.  The factories ferment.  Outsourcing threatens.  The EU is functioning poorly.  The French manifested their anger in voting NO on the referendum of the 29th of May [on the EU constitution], but at least they went out to vote.  They swear that their leaders are often okay locally, but nationally are judged to be incompetent or deaf, if not corrupt.


Is it all going black in the beautiful country of France where, nevertheless, according to the Germans, God will live happily?  It isn’t clear.  Because if the French are collectively in complete disarray, looking in vain for a project on the horizon that will enable them to inflate their enthusiasm a little, they aren’t unhappy.  When asked in a poll at the end of 2004, 96% of the French declared that they were happy.  Not bad for a people in the midst of a nervous depression.  This disconnect between personal happiness and collective morosity has been measured for a long time by researchers.  But it has a tendency to rack the collective brains and above all, explains the sociologist Gerard Mermet, it is without an equivalent in other European countries. 


Happy in their family life, the French have exploded in their birth rate.  With 1.88 children per woman, France is the country the most dynamic in the EU.  Only the very Catholic Ireland has done better.  But the demographer Jean-Yves le Bras dampens the conclusions on the birth rate:  “The good birth rate is the sign of a response to the private life, not strongly a proof of confidence in the future.”  Another number that seems more positive is life expectancy.  With 76.7 years for men and 83.8 years for women, France is one of the countries in the world where one lives to be the oldest.  Proof, among others, of the excellent health care system.


The French are morose, but the tourists who come in larger and larger numbers to visit France could be struck by the dynamism of the provinces.  The time of the French desert is turning around.  The high-speed train and the decentralization are going there.  The region of Provence-Alsace-Cote d’Azur has received the Iter project [?].  The big cities of Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Bordeaux are in the midst of a metamorphosis.  The indicators of competitiveness are multiplying.  The French businesses are often champions in exportation.  The foreign businesses continue to want to come to France.  Jobs will increase.


So, what’s lacking?  Like the undisputed champions who have a fear of winning, France, reputedly arrogant, has no more confidence in herself.  She waits for a new beginning.  Or a re-training.  Like always in France, the new beginning must come from the politicians.  That key to political life is called the Presidential Election that will take place in less than 650 days.


Now, for another point of view, check out today’s column by John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune:



The International Herald Tribune

Politicus: France's power caste is tuned only to itself

John Vinocur International Herald Tribune
TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2005

PARIS What friend of France, wishing the republic well on Bastille Day - and thinking of its no vote on a European constitution, its failed candidacy as 2012 Olympic host, and its sense of going nowhere as a wannabe world-player - might not hope, this once, that the French power elite would go still on the 14th of July, and just listen?


The issue is not the people, at home in a country that truly remains exceptional in its beauty, style and ingenuity. Rather, the issue is large parts of a leadership caste, so tuned only to itself, so played out, so fearful of saying we've got to change our act, that it approaches autism.


The secretary general of Jacques Chirac's ruling conservative party can say, very exceptionally, that he is fed up with the boss's "socialistic monarchy," and Le Monde can write that the president is "no longer a central element of European unity." But the country's novice prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, decided a couple of weeks ago (as if the referendum never took place) to send this hallucinatory message to Europeans on France's place in their lives:


"Never before have the peoples of Europe expressed with so much force their hope to build a Europe of values and determination. True to the continent's history and our vision of the future, France wants to advance with them along the path marked out by Jacques Chirac."


The president himself, from the depths of a 77 percent no-confidence rating in July's Le Figaro Magazine national poll, speaks to the nation at midday on Thursday in a traditional exercise that's meant to echo the cymbals and hoorahs of the morning's military parade down the Champs-Élysées.


But what is he to say? That the economy will get better, melting away French unemployment figures of 10 percent plus, although the signposts point to more stagnation? That Europe looks to France for a way out of its misery, when his audience knows Tony Blair has taken its leadership in hand? Or that the country will defend the honor of its "social model" against the locusts of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - while somebody like Pierre Méhaignerie, once Chirac's justice minister, insists this translates out to paying for 30,000 supplementary public sector employees next year?


Of course, Chirac could insist what a fabulous job Villepin is doing. Villepin has now proposed that Europe (as he says, rejecting petty nationalisms "in the manner of France and Germany") adopt a kind of economic governance that would give politicians a lever into the up-till-now independent European Central Bank.


In fact, France's credibility for economic leadership in Europe is nil.


Quite on their own, the French and Germans trampled the European Union's Stability and Growth Pact when they couldn't hold the line on its debt and deficit requirements. Because both countries ignored the standards for economic reform contained in the EU's Lisbon Agenda, their noncompliance became a demarcation line between members accepting the rough edge of change or hiding in the no-growth status quo.


But where are the other mainstream French voices? In truth, the opposition Socialist Party does not speak very differently from those in power, loving the French social model and an imagined French-place-in-the-world with a kind of passion more at home with myth than reality. This is the autism of a political class whose greatest shared conviction is a seeming notion that France can get away with anything, as long as it listens only to itself.


People do notice. Bob Geldof, the poverty-appeal entrepreneur, did. A few weeks ago, Geldof, who's Irish, told Time magazine: "Actually, today I had to defend the Bush Administration in France again. They refuse to accept, because of their political ideology, that he has done more than any American president for Africa. But it's empirically so."


More of the same reflexively closed French establishment mind emerged when the International Olympic Committee's choice of a site in 2012 went to London last week. Stupefaction was enormous here because the French Olympic Committee, French politicians and the French media all agreed beforehand that their application was the best. Against the fine instincts of a supercharged delegation from the French power elite, any decision other than Paris by the rest of the world had to be malicious.


Yet even at its most incontestable, not much of the last years' evidence of failure seems so obvious as to require a gentle rewrite of the eternal, official Muzak on French "genius" and France's "universal conscience."


Here's Philippe Douste-Blazy, a neophyte just sworn in as foreign minister, going off 10 minutes later about how the world, by French definition, is a multipolar place with Europe serving as a counterweight to the United States. No matter that France, in rejecting the European Union's constitution, has lost any claim to defining the EU's mission or European primacy, and the rest of Europe wants to take a pass on permanent confrontation with the Americans.


No matter that in the Arab world, there are just traces now of France's onetime conceit that it held a special place of influence among Western countries. The French are totally removed from the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and in Lebanon, they follow the U.S. lead. As for Africa, Blair has left Chirac in the dust to become the embodiment of the industrial world's concern for its well-being.


Say all this in a gulp, pronounce the forbidden d-word for decline, and if you're French, you can be labeled a defeatist or an agent of the awful Anglo-Saxons. Still, the situation has become so obviously loopy that Nicolas Sarkozy, a politician never troubled before by French pretensions but who wants to be the next president, seems to think it worth the risk of pointing out.


He said on Sunday: "I can't get around the idea of France piling up the disappointments without stopping to ask if, just by chance, it's not us who are wrong and the rest of the world that's right. If everything the world does is bad and unfair and that everything we do carries the seal of total genius? I'm calling for a tiny little critical examination that won't hurt France's image at all."


Should that approach, like stillness, be beyond reach or official imagination on Bastille Day, a little general humbleness, call it modesty, just might do for starters. 


IHTCopyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune |



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