It may be a cliché to say the French fret over their place in the world, but they do. Faced with the ever-dominant Anglo-American axis and hobbled by the global economic crisis, the French are rallying to protect their institutions, their language, and, above all, la vie française—their treasured lifestyle. Still, polls show the French are optimistic about the future—and there's plenty of good news.
Tourism is thriving, with France maintaining its rank as the world's top tourist destination, with more than 80 million visitors each year. The French remain leaders in science and technology. France is the world's leading producer of luxury goods, and fashion remains the nation's birthright.
La Vie Is Belle?
"Life is beautiful?" A poll initiated by the French newspaper Le Parisien confirmed what Francophiles already know: the French are a grumpy bunch and getting grumpier. The BVA-Gallup poll found France to be the most pessimistic country in the world, earning a dismal 79%, the lowest score in the poll's history. With one of the world's most beautiful and geographically diverse landscapes, an unparalleled art de vivre, and an enviable standard of living, what could the French possibly have to grouse about? All of the above, it seems.
That is, the feeling that what the French have long taken for granted as a birthright is indeed in peril. Between a cascade of political scandals, an S&P credit downgrade, a rise in the retirement age (from 60 to 62), high unemployment, and an unprecedented number of French living below the poverty line (13.5%), perhaps the descent from healthy skepticism into full-blown negativity is justifiable.
Pity the Rich
The French never quite forgave Nicholas Sarkozy's misguided postelection cruise on a multimillionaire friend's yacht, earning him the sobriquet President Bling-Bling. In a country where discussing one's salary is considered irredeemably gauche, an overt show of privilege—especially by le chef d'état—flouts a fundamental French value: égalité. The global crisis, and the feeling that France's social pact is crumbling, have only underscored perceived abuses by the rich and the feeling that they are not shouldering their share of the social burden.
The Left took full advantage of this growing anger, with Socialist Party leader François Hollande using the slogan, "It's their crisis," meaning the rich, and running his 2012 election bid on the promise of levying a 75% income tax on those earning over €1 million. Apparently this struck a chord: on May 6, 2012, France elected Hollande as its first socialist president in over 15 years. Although his nickname is "Flanby," a type of homey French pudding, Hollande has shown consistency, resolve, and above all, serenity, something greatly lacking in Sarkozy's hyperactive presidency. With promises to repeal Sarkozy's unpopular austerity measures, the head of Europe's second largest economy has a formidable task ahead. In the meantime, Hollande's promise of "calm, reconciliation, and unity" is one the French can get behind.
The French government made a long-overdue concession to French feminists, finally enforcing a law that excises the honorific Mademoiselle from official forms, and advising that all women now be referred to as Madame regardless of marital status. What took France so long?
A deep ambivalence on the part of both men and women regarding gender roles certainly plays a part. As does the kind of entrenched inequality that puts France at a surprising number 46 on the World Economic Forum's Global Pay Gap survey—well behind Britain, Germany, and even Kazakhstan—with men earning wages an average of 12% to 20% higher than women. Attitudes here are slow to change, and with so few female legislators, another area where France lags behind other nations, it seems that French women have their work cut out for them.
Are the French the Best Parents in the World?
First fashion, then diet, now kids: Americans are as eager as ever to regard the French as pillars of wisdom in everything from tying a scarf to taming a toddler. Two recent books by American moms in Paris, Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, and French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon, laud the French savoir faire when it comes to raising healthy, well-behaved kids. Although commonsense notions like no snacking between meals and no TV at dinnertime are not the domain of any one culture, the French may have a leg up in knowing when to treat kids like kids and when to treat them as intelligent beings, able to grasp concepts like, "conviviality, good taste, and the rules of life," which, according to Le Billon, are what distinguish the savvy French from their savage American counterparts.
Denying immediate gratification is a running theme in both books, with myriad examples of French withholding until the proper moment. Nor do French parents scream and rage at their children. Their superior disciplinary skills seem to require nothing more than a stern look and a firm non. According to both authors, French kids eat their vegetables (and organ meats), respect boundaries, and exhibit admirable self-control. Maybe $24.95 is a small price to pay for access to the latest Gallic secrets.
Paris has taken another big step toward mitigating the noise, pollution, and congestion caused by the city's automobile traffic. The dapper four-seat, fully electric Bluecar has finished its test run and is now available at 500 stations around the city.
Based on the successful Velib' bicycle exchange, which boasts more than 20,000 bicycles and is still growing, the Autolib' program allows cars to be taken from one of the semicircular metal-and-glass stations to any point in Paris, and 56 suburban destinations. After a nominal subscription rate, each ride is paid for in half-hour increments, costing €4-€8.
Au Revoir George Whitman
The death of George Whitman, owner of the legendary Left Bank English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Company, marked the end of an era. For 60 years, the generous and irascible Whitman presided daily over the perennially disheveled shop, which hosted readings from such literary giants as Samuel Becket, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and William Burroughs. By Whitman's own estimate, the bookstore—still going strong under Whitman's daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman—housed a revolving group of young people numbering in the tens of thousands, who came to bask in the mystique while also staffing, cleaning, and maintaining the shop.
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