Friday, November 30, 2007

It's a Riot!

I feel like I really should write a post about the riots, since my American friends keep asking me about it. Sigh. Why is this the only kind of news about France that makes it into the US press?

Well, The word on the riots is that they are over . . . they only lasted a couple of days, but were a lot nastier than those in 2005. And like in 2005, they were in a distant suburb so they didn't have any impact on anyone who doesn't live there. One of the many sad things about it is that the people who got their cars burned and schools and shops destroyed are the struggling neighbors of the rioters. I didn't follow it all too closely, but it seems there is a huge amount of hate towards the police out there, a situation that has not been rectified since 2005. For some stupid reason, there are no beat cops who get to know the people in the hood and are familiar faces. Instead, the police cruise around in cars and stop people at random and demand their papers. I gotta say, even the police in Paris are not particularly approachable. You'd never ask them for directions. They travel in packs—there are always at least four or five of them—and they don’t give you the impression that they could give a good goddam where the Louvre is. I'll give them one thing though—their uniforms fit a lot better than those of US cops. Anyway, President Sarkozy seems to think the rioters were just a bunch of thugs, which could be partially true, but doesn't seem like a particularly constructive observation. But then, this is the guy who made the papers in 2005 by calling people scum. In the States, a politician who made a nasty comment about members of a minority group would be forced to apologize or resign—here, he gets elected president. So much for French multi-culturalism.

OK, now that I've totally depressed everyone, I'm going to move on to my next post on a completely frivolous subject.

Face Time

I just did something I have no business doing: I got a facial. I haven’t had a facial since sometime in the last century, so it’s not like I indulge frequently in this sort of thing. Still, it feels so naughty. Facials are so unjustifiably expensive. How can anyone justify paying that kind of money to get goo slathered on their face? Then again, it was a special deal wherein you buy 50 euros worth of products and get a free facial. Of course, if you buy beauty products in a salon, 50 euros isn’t going to get you far. As it turns out, I ended up paying 74 euros for a little bottle that is supposed to change my life.

Financial issues aside, if you are going to have a facial, France is the place to have it. This is a place where the female form is a semi-sacred topic, and every tiny village seems to be endowed with an institute de beauté. Also, they do it really well. Every beautician seems to know everything there is to know about every pore of your skin. The act itself is particularly seductive: low lights, massage, soothing unguents, and reassuring words lull you into an absurd dream state where 74 euros seems like a normal price for a pot of face cream. “Why haven’t I done this sooner?” you wonder, “I can actually feel my skin rejuvenating!” The beautician speaks with such assurance, and you feel so soupy, that it’s hard to even think of bringing up minor issues such as whether a “lifting” cream actually does anything, or that you read in a consumer magazine that it doesn’t.

Perhaps what you are really paying for is the experience itself. Having someone fuss over you for an hour. You wonder what life must be like for people who can actually afford to do this on a regular basis. And for a few glorious minutes, you are one of those people. Suddenly, you are no longer Wanda the Working Stiff, but Rachelle the Ravishing Socialite. That is, until you get home and notice that the pink eye shadow that the beautician told you would bring out brown in your eyes actually makes you look like the Easter Bunny. That’s when you realize that you could have bought a set of dishes for the same money, and enjoyed it for a lot longer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hallelujah, the strike is over

And there was much rejoicing.

And the SNCF and the RATP communed with the CGT and the other unions and they were One. And a ray of light pierced the gloom at the Gare Saint Lazare, illuminating the platform, and Behold, the trains began to move. A band of angels descended from the grimy skylight strumming harps, as a heavenly chorus began to sing. Radiant railway employees joined in, as did the crowd of no-longer-desperate commuters. Soon the music of the spheres was complemented by screeching railway breaks, announcements on the loudspeaker, and blowing whistles. Passengers were heard to say “excusez-moi” and “pardon” as they mounted their trains. Smiles were seen and laughter was heard. The entire station began to glow, and everyone in it was bathed in an other-worldly light. Soon the Gare du Nord, Montparnasse, and other stations were glowing too, while clarion blasts began to emanate from Métro stations. A rosy hallow crowned the Eiffel Tower, and manna poured down from the heavens.

And it was good.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Strike Two

I suppose with today being Thanksgiving and all, I could say that I am thankful that the SNCF (the French national railways) and the government have finally started seriously negotiating an end to the strike. This means that the trains are/should be running more often, in particular the ones that will get me to the Gare du Nord tomorrow so that I can go visit friends in Germany. The métro, however, is still striking up to their ears, and the commuters have had it up to their eyeballs. Everyone is complaining, way above and beyond the normal French penchant for griping.

I think what it all comes down to is this. No one minds a strike. Strikes are part of what makes France, France. Strikes are an expression of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité. Strikes are Gallic performance art. What people mind is when strikes make people who have nothing to do with the issues at hand suffer. I tend to agree. I mean, what ever happened to worker solidarity? Why should Joe or Josette Shmoe have to lose money/time/customers because the railway workers want to retire before everyone else? Joe and Josette are workers too. If transit employees really wanted to show which side they were on, they would simply let everyone on the trains and buses for free. This would have the dual benefit of totally pissing off the government and making everyone a big fan of transit strikes. But no. When this scenario is suggested by callers on TV panel discussions, the labor experts just scrunch up their faces and talk about something else.

Because the fact is, the strikers are victims of the same sort of administrative rigor-mortis as the government. This is the way they have been doing transit strikes ever since the government first started trying to reform retirement policy in the public sector, which from what I understand was several decades ago. One of the more disturbing aspects of French strikes is that every time a strike is called, you have the feeling you are watching reruns. The same sectors scream about the same issues, and in the end, nothing seems to get resolved. What’s more, nobody seems to understand what exactly is going on. If you ask your average French person what the underlying issues are, usually no one can get much farther than what they have read in the headlines, and most will simply shake their head in despair and say “I have no idea, I just want it to be over.” Because for some reason, despite the barrels of ink being spilled on the subject, and the endless analysis in the media, no one seems to be able to clearly, objectively explain what the two sides are arguing about.

Clearly I’m getting just as cranky as everyone else about all this. I nearly blew a gasket when my husband’s nephew tried to tell me that the students were striking because the proposed university reforms call for “American style” universities run by private enterprises. I told him that unless I’ve been brainwashed by Martians, I am certain that American universities are not run by private enterprises and that if anyone suggested such a thing there would be even more students in the street over there. After an hour or so of Internet research I managed to find an explanation of the proposed university law…as near as I can figure, what’s got everyone riled up is the concept of fundraising, which is virtually unknown over here. Oh I don’t know. I just want it to be over.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Striking Out

Strike season is in full swing in France, and now that the transportation strike is almost a week old, it’s getting, well...old. Before I go further, however, I think I should make a few things clear. First of all, let’s define what a strike actually is in France. Unlike American strikes, which are rare, no-holds-barred, nitty-gritty affairs where no one in the affected sector works or gets paid; French strikes are frequent and almost always some form of work slow-down where services continue to operate, but at a reduced level—not enough to bring things to a grinding halt, but just enough to really mess up your day. Whereas in the US strikes mean impenetrable picket lines, fevered slogan chanting, teeth-gnashing, and a rash of rentals of the film “Norma Rae,” in France strikes mean political posturing, media hoopla, massive inconvenience, and endless rounds of TV panel discussions.

In France, you’ll hear the Average Joe or Josephine complaining almost as loudly as the striking workers, since it’s usually the general public that takes the brunt of the inconveniences. For the striking workers, on the other hand, you get the impression it is their hour of glory. Not only do they finally get to be front and center in the political debate, but they also get to make idealistic statements that are actually heard and bring up issues that are actually discussed. And when the parties finally come to the table, the first issue to be hammered out is how much the workers will be paid for the days they were on strike. This is not to say that strikes are a fun-fest for affected workers, or that they don’t have very legitimate beefs (and very few options for making their voices heard other than striking). This is just to point out that there is a difference in intensity and aura between French strikes and their American counterparts.

One essential ingredient of a French strike is the manif. This is short for manifestation, or demonstration/protest march. Contrary to what you may hear in the US news, manifs are usually quite peaceful, if noisy, and include loud music, chanting, and even the occasional dance step. At this point you may be asking yourself what is the difference between a manif and a rock concert, and at times I would be hard-pressed to tell you. Depending on the intensity of the demands and the length of the strike, manifs can have almost a festive air. When I lived in Avignon, one sunny day hundreds of joyous school teachers and other civil servants blocked the streets for hours, and when the whole thing was over they all repaired to the nearest café to partake in an apéro (early evening drink).

But to get back to the current transport strike. Well, at first it didn’t bother me too much. Strikes are announced in advance, so with a little careful searching of train schedules, I got around. And a lot of people took the first day or two off, so the trains were almost less crowded than normal. It was kind of a challenge to find a route in and around the city, but one that you could easily rise to. And then, there are all those Velib' bike stands (see my Oct. 2 post "Velib' Liberates Paris") where you can borrow a bike to get to where you need to go. Some of the Métro lines are almost functioning normally, so it wasn’t really too bad. But then, the other night, I found myself on the Number 4 line at 10pm on a Saturday. Trains on this line were running once every 40 minutes or so and a crowd of rowdy young people (am I really so old that I’m calling them “young people?”) had gathered on the platform. When the train finally came, those of us who could wedged ourselves into the overstuffed car. For the youngsters, all in various states of inebriation, it was clearly an adventure. For older bags like me (notice I said “older,” not “old”) it was a royal pain, and for people who have to commute to work I’m sure it’s a major drag.

I fail to see where making millions of working people suffer on their way to and from their jobs is going to win the strikers any fans, but I guess popular support is not what the strike is all about. When it started it was about when train workers get to retire, then it spread into the universities, where students are unhappy about reforms, and now the teachers are walking off their jobs to protest...well, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ll have to entertain my 5-year-old at home tomorrow and there still are no trains to the Gare St-Lazare.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blowing Leaves

Please excuse the lack of in-depth commentary in this post but I’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s leaf-blowers. Today I would like to examine leaf-blowers as a metaphor for all that is wrong with modern life, in particular, suburban modern life. I live in the suburbs of Paris. Oh I know, that sounds glamorous, but believe me, it isn’t. In the 1970s and 80s, ugly concrete apartment buildings started sprouting up all over what were once sleepy towns and villages like mushrooms after a spring rain. I should know, I live in one of them. To be fair, these apartment buildings are for the most part quite comfortable and a heck of a lot more affordable than those cute little stone houses, which now go for millions of euros. Many of said apartment buildings have a little landscaping around them, and ours has a lovely view of the local race track.

But here’s the thing. It’s autumn, and the leaves are falling. For some reason, it has been decided by our proud local developers that not a single leaf shall soil the pathways, lawns, and flower-beds of the résidence. Hence the leaf-blowers. Maybe I’m crazy, but aren’t fallen leaves part of the autumn experience? In fact, isn’t there a famous French song entitled Fallen Leaves? Isn’t walking through piles of leaves, or jumping into them, one of those cherished childhood memories shared by many of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere? Do we really care if there are a few leaves strewn across our path?

Apparently, the powers that be do. They have decreed that everyone in the neighborhood must suffer the noisy blasts of leaf-blowers at all hours of the day. Autumn is no longer the season of colors and fallen leaves, it is the season of endlessly whining leaf-blowers. I am a writer. I work at home. In addition to leaf-blowers, my neighbors get to listen to me whine about the noise. And I can’t even imagine the ordeal that the guy who operates the bloody machine goes through. Here in France, where lawsuits are not the national sport (but strikes are, stay tuned for the big one Wednesday), I see lots of leaf-blower guys working without earplugs. So let’s recap. In order to preserve the pristine environment of our sleek suburban digs, the developers have hired battalions of leaf-blower guys, whose machinery is noisy, polluting, and dangerous to worker’s health. Now instead of enjoying the quiet spectacle of falling leaves, we are regaled with unpleasant noise and smells. All so that our living area is spotless, so we can show the world how perfect and superior we are. Not only that, the cost of this unnecessary enterprise is added on to our rent. Are we to stand here, helpless, as more and more suburban communities around the world are afflicted by this plague? No! I call on you all, fellow residents of suburbia, to rise up against this oppression! Down with leaf-blowers! Long live the rake!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Ce n'est pas trés catholique...

I like Catholics. Really, I do. I’m even married to one. But living in a Catholic country can be a strange and mystifying thing sometimes. Take, for example, the cathos (pronounced “kato”). In the bourgeois suburbs just to the southwest of Paris, an area I am far too familiar with (OK, I admit it, I live here), you will occasional run into a family that simply does not fit into any of your preconceptions of France or being French. For one thing, the members of this family are virulently un-chic. They are, if fact, dressed like something out of a 1950s issue of Life Magazine. The mothers, who are generally sans make-up, tend to favor cardigans, practical shoes, below the knee skirts, and prim pearl necklaces. They are often preternaturally blond and fair, with freckles. Their children, and there are many of them, also have a distinctive look. The girls are usually miniature versions of their mothers, wearing dark sweaters, white Peter Pan collars and Mary Jane shoes. The boys—I kid you not—are often wearing knee pants. Even in the middle of winter, their little calves are stubbornly exposed to the elements. The fathers are less striking, just conservative versions of middle class men with purposefully bad haircuts. As anachronistic as they may seem, they do not seem to feel the slightest discomfort in a world of skin-tight jeans and exposed navels. In fact, they carry themselves with a lofty, somewhat smug air, and have warm, condescending smiles at the ready.

At first, I just stared. “Who are these people?” I wondered, “and where in the world do they find knee-pants in this day and age?” My friends patiently explained to me that these were cathos, i.e., devout Catholics. “But I don’t get it,” I protested, “my mother-in-law is practicing and she doesn’t dress that way…and why are so many of them blond?!” “Well, you see,” they went on, “many of them are breton, from Brittany, a rather damp, cold place where there are lots of, conservative, well, cathos.” “But it’s like a cult,” I sputtered, “they all dress alike! Is there some sort of special store where the sell clothes and equipment, like for girl scouts?” This induced chuckles, but no further information.

I still don’t entirely get it. Not only that, there is a housing complex right near where I live that its full of them, so some of the kids (that is, those that don’t go to private Catholic school) go to my son’s school. In fact, this complex is owned by the French military and is housing for army personnel. It consists of couple of apartment buildings ringed by a bunch of houses for large families. That is, for the cathos. Because, it seems, the military is infested with them. One of my son’s friends lives in this complex, so I’ve had the weird experience of walking into a gated community where dozens of children are running around, most of whom look like escapees from an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

Why are there so many cathos in the French military? Well, why are there so many born-again Christians in the US military? It’s the same mentality I suppose. Still, it seems so strange. Who would have thought the French could be so straight-laced? I thought it was genetically impossible, but no. Perhaps the dark underbelly of French culture is actually….prudish?