Monday, April 23, 2012

Ich Bin Ein Franzose

The day the French voted for their president, some of them also had brunch in a little café called Le Valmy in the Paris neighborhood of Canal Saint-Martin. Brunch was quiche and salad with beets and green beans and smoked salmon and ham, couscous, a small dish of applesauce and cheese and coffee, tea or (naturally) wine enjoyed as causally and moderately as water. The street outside the café runs along the canal and it is closed to cars on Sundays; families with children in strollers and on hand scooters passed alongside men and women of all ages on bicycles rented from community rental sites stationed all over the city. The café Le Valmy is far from the Champs Elysees. No one was speaking any language other than French.

Parisian families in a park near their poling place.
I wished I spoke their language better so I could ask some of them about the election, about whom they supported and why. The race will come down to Nicolas Sarkozy, a kind of French neo-con, and Francois Hollande, an old-fashioned socialist. I read an essay a few days ago in The New York Times by a French journalist who said neither man is on the right track. He believes that the socialism of Mitterrand that Hollande wants to revive has been discredited; and both men are urging that France, which has been beat up by globalization, return to isolationism at a time when, the journalist believes, only fiscal austerity will save her from ruin.

In the United States, those on the right warn that President Obama is a socialist who wants to make America like France. Now, here is a Frenchman, speaking for many others too, who wants to make France more like the U.S., or at least like the U.S. our social Darwinists would have us be.

It is sometimes said that Europe is a few hundred years ahead of the U.S. in terms of its cultural and political evolution. Certainly France is ahead of us in the march toward guaranteeing health care and other social services to her citizens. But like American car companies, with their generous pensions and medical benefits for retirees, the financial burden of that generosity has become too great. There will have to be a retreat.

That seems to be the way of it, for car companies and countries alike. We want to have economic vibrancy, and we want to keep people out of the gutter. It can be tough to do both. Each time the pendulum swings one way or the other, the forces of gravity, represented by the need to work, on the one hand, and compassion for the less fortunate, on the other, exert their inevitable pull.

There is no utopia. Karl Marx didn’t find one. Nor will Grover Norquist. What I see around me here in France, though, in this neighborhood of Parisians, is people living life the way we all strive to. There are noticeable differences between our countrymen. The French (at least the ones around me as I write this) are thin. I would say they are fit--they look great--but they smoke too much. On the other hand, they are way less addicted to their smartphones. They seem happy in a way we all want to be, gathered in warm conversation, embracing, kissing on both cheeks like they really mean it. They also--men and women--wear neck scarves with a casual flair I could never pull off. A toddler across the way grins shyly when I make a silly face. As we get up to leave, I glance over and see that she is contentedly breast feeding while her mother chats happily with a woman who must be her own mother.

We have no need to fear becoming like the French. They are us, and we are them. Each of us rides the bob of our political pendulum, swinging between productivity and compassion, looking toward one another as our paths converge and diverge under the influence of the forces of social and economic gravity.


  1. > There is no utopia

    Unless it's a life spent with such a thoughtful person. :-)

  2. Nicely written Mac. I think we'll always be attracted to what we don't have. The pendulum will always swing.