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French Items from 2010:                                         to enlarge a photo, click on it

La Galette du Roi    2010 Quality of Life Index   Old postcards of Bengy sur Craon   ETA bombs in Bussy   Thin France  Psychological Violence   Time warp   Bettencourt scandal   Heavy legs   Rom   Culture of demonstrations    French economy    French Christmas     The French hexagon       Maison de la Reine Blanche   What is a secular state?    French gender    Welfare in France   Le Printemps de Bourges    Nuclear France    Before and after DSK    Vegetarians in France   Boulanger    The Philosophy Exam               

La Galette du Roi

Last year at about this time of year, Harry went to his computer club holiday get-together. At the previous meeting everyone agreed to have a galette for the food. The galette turned out to be a large pastry called a Galette du Roi. Everyone had a piece. Harry was warned not to swallow the bean (which is not a bean) if it was in his piece. It was not. It was in someone else's piece and they were proclaimed the king and got to wear the paper crown. This year Harry noticed them in the bakeries during the first week of January, each sold with its own paper crown.
The cake is two disks of buttery flaky pastry with almond paste between them to make a sort of pie without the pie tin. In it somewhere is a bean or a small porcelain figure or a plastic one, which ever if is it is called a feve. This may be were the coin in the Christmas pudding came from. So the king (or queen) gets to wear the crown, gets a fuss made of them and has to buy a round of drinks. This all centers of Epiphany, Jan 6, Twelfth Night and the weekends either side of it.
This King Cake in various forms is found all around the Mediterranean, especially France, Spain and Portugal and where ever, around the globe, that the French, Spanish and Portuguese colonized. The King name refers to the Magi or the three kings from the east. Long ago it was called a Twelfth Cake in England.
galette
My little pocket of ignorance about Catholic holidays had to be filled in on the subject of Epiphany. It seemed very vague. But I ran across an explanation that helped. Before Christmas was invented in the 4th century, there was Epiphany which celebrated early signs of the divinity of Jesus: his birth, being recognized by the Magi, his baptism, his first miracle at Cana. When Christmas was developed it took on some of the rituals of Epiphany by separating the birth out from the rest of the package. Gift giving for instance moved to Christmas.
What about the bean? It seems to pre-date the Christian celebration and was part of the Saturnalia feast in the Roman Empire. It seemed to represent the seed of new growth.
Of course I have a problem because I can't eat flour but I am in good company because Presidents of France can't eat galette either - something about the danger of wearing crowns I believe.


2010 Quality of Life Index
Every January, International Living ranks 194 countries for the best quality of life. They consider the categories of Cost of Living, Culture and Leisure, Economy, Environment, Freedom, Health, Infrastructure, Safety and Risk, and Climate, using data from "official" sources, including government websites, the World Health Organization, and The Economist, etc. and the accounts of their editors around the world. France came in first.
“For the fifth year running, France takes first in our annual Quality of Life Index. No surprise. Its tiresome bureaucracy and high taxes are outweighed by an unsurpassable quality of life, including the world's best health care.
France always nets high scores in most categories. But you don't need number-crunchers to tell you its bon vivant lifestyle is special. Step off a plane and you'll experience it first-hand.
I always wish quality of life indicators could measure a country's heart and soul. But it's impossible to enumerate the joy of lingering for hours over dinner and a bottle of red wine in a Parisian brasserie. Or strolling beside the Seine on a spring morning, poking through the book vendors' wares. Or buying buttery croissants in bohemian Montmartre...hearing Notre Dame's bells...walking antique streets paved with poetry.
Romantic Paris offers the best of everything, but services don't fall away in Alsace's wine villages...in wild and lovely Corsica...in lavender-scented Provence. Or in the Languedoc of the troubadors, bathed in Mediterranean sunlight.
Provincial French properties are often keenly priced and lifestyles are less expensive than Paris. The Southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region is a particularly good hunting ground for village homes for less than $100,000—and classic three-course lunches for $14. Houses cascade with wisteria blossom; outdoor markets are everywhere. Foie gras, pink garlic, Armagnac, and crystallized violets aren't gourmet fare for locals. Rather, just another day's shopping.”
France's scores out of 100 were: Cost of living 55, Leisure & Culture 81, Economy 69, Environment 72, Freedom 100, Health 100, Infrastructure 92, Risk & Safety 100, Climate 87.
Next was Australia, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand. US was 7th, Canada 9th, Austria 13th, UK 25th.

Old postcards of Bengy sur Craon
bengybengy
le lavoir et le vieux portla Grande rue
bengybengy
route de Flavignyla nouvelle ecole la gare
bengybengy
la rue de la Garela chateau pres la gare
bengybengy
la mairierue de la Gare
bengybengy
rue de la Mairierue de l'Eglise
bengybengy
mairie et ecolevue generale

ETA bombs in Bussy
Bussy is a little village (400 people) about 17 kilometers from Bengy, on the way to Dun sur Auron. It is even more of a backwater then our village. On February 19th the police and bomb squad from Orleans raided a house there and found evidence of bomb making. The occupant was arrested in Spain and under questioning gave away his French address. The other residents of Bussy were very surprised that they had a ETA bomb maker living in their village. Apparently, the place to live for a ETA terrorist is in the quiet countryside around Bourges, Limoges or Gueret.
Here is the background of this curious arrangement from Le Monde (using the Google translate which accounts for some of the strange English):
“A murder of a French police on Tuesday evening March 16, has revived questions about the location of ETA in France. Notably, it is about fifty miles from Paris, Dammarie-les-Lys, Seine-et-Marne, Brigadier-chef Jean-Serge Nerine was killed in a shootout Tuesday night March 16 , assigned by the Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, to counter the Basque separatist organization.
As ETA have always used the French Basque country as a base, police combing the border region have forced them to move away from the Pyrenees and back still farther north and east. In 2008, in Bordeaux is what was agreed on by its successor, Javier Lopez Pena, known as Thierry. Far from the Basque country, ETA settled in the Haute-Vienne, in Creuse, in Cher, even in Savoy, where were the arrests last summer.
"La France serves as the base for rest and logistics base for ETA, said Jean Chalvidant, a researcher at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Paris II, a specialist organization. It is a holiday camp because that is where the militants retreated after leading their actions, and it is a logistical base for this is that we find hideouts and arsenals. This is hardly the only basis - it are also Portugal, Italy or Latin America ... - but from a geographic standpoint, the most natural. There are only three arrest of a member of ETA held in France. "
Specialists agree that they are now between 150 and 200, against 800 in the 80s and 90s. Most of the organization has in effect been put behind bars: about 650 ETA members are in Spanish jails and 150 in French prisons. Characteristic of the activists today: unlike their elders, often university graduates, new recruits are getting younger and have little or no training. With the repeated arrests, the rotation is faster and some are found quickly propelled to the head of a commando with little experience. In France, the average age of ETA arrested and is 25 years.
The "brains" of the organization does not remain in Spain sought by law enforcement authorities, their face is known, often plastered with search. They then took refuge abroad, and many of them in France. Until 1984, the ETA has benefited from relative leniency of the French authorities. In 1981, Gaston Defferre, then interior minister, spoke of the "resistance". Spain then paid for forty years of Franco and opponents of the dictatorship of Franco was seen positively in France. The tone has changed with the coming to power in Spain's Socialist Felipe Gonzalez, who persuaded François Mitterrand in 1983 that ETA is a terrorist organization. Four years later, the two countries signed an agreement for cooperation in the fight against ETA.
Since then the French authorities are working closely with police in Spain. "At Bayonne and Pau, for example, teams are mixed," noted Jean Chalvidant. The Spanish civil guards brought their French colleagues their knowledge of how the organization, enabling French investigators to target more precisely the members of ETA. The French liaison officers have also been stationed in Madrid. At the judicial level, a joint investigation team, under the control of the Paris prosecutor's office and prosecutors from the Spanish National Court, was opened in late 2004. "Recent raids observed in France against the organization are not the result of recent policies, but the result of over twenty years of cooperation, "notes Mr. Chalvidant.
With the death of Sergeant Jean-Serge Nerine, which would be the first French officer killed by ETA, is there a new stage in the presence of the organization on French soil? Nothing is less certain. Since August and the explosion of three small bombs in Mallorca, ETA specialists emphasize especially the lack of organization of the group, weakened by the arrest of its charismatic leaders.”
Recently the political wing of ETA has changed its stance and now wants to acheive independence through peaceful, democratic means. The military wing has said nothing about stopping its bombing strategy. Maybe the violence will slowly decline like the IRA's. We can hope.

Thin France
A few years back France noticed that its population was gaining weight. The French pride themselves in not being as chubby as their neighbours and so they started to do something. Now they are getting the dividends as the weight gain levels off. They have created a protective environment from the global rise in obesity.
What have they done? Vending machines were banned from all schools and replacing with water coolers. Warning labels now have to be put on unhealthy foods. Food companies have to run warnings on television, radio and billboard ads to avoid a 1.5 % tax on their ad costs. The warnings are about avoiding snacks, excess sugar, fat and salt and about doing exercise. Future measures will be modeled on the campaign against tobacco. Officials are worried about the recent increase in portion size in restaurants.
Obesity has stopped increasing in children and there appears to be a general plateau. The current obesity rate is about a third of that in North America. Just looking around at the French in the Cher, I would have guessed that the difference would be more extreme. I seldom see another as overweight as myself.


Psychological Violence
The French are debating and probably going to pass a law against psychological violence. The only opposition that has been raised is that the crime would be hard to prove and hard to disprove. But supporters say that is true of many laws but does not keep them off the books. There is also some grumbling about the government kowtowing to feminists.
The law is aimed at stopping the severe damage that is done by continuous insults and denigration of one person by another, especially in married and co-habiting couples. As well as protecting people from psychological damage, it is also intended to stop domestic violence before it starts. The theory is that physical violence follows psychological violence. According to government stats 10% of women in France are victims of some kind the domestic mistreatment.
It covers men and women, so for the first time men would have some recourse against verbally abusive wives. In particular the law covers repeated instances of: rude remarks about a partner's appearance or behaviour, false allegations of infidelity, threats of physical violence. The government expects the law to promote awareness and social disapproval of this type of domestic violence.
Police will be advised to first issue a caution, with repeat offenders facing a fine, then a restraining order and finally jail. Convictions would give the offender a criminal record. A French lawyer responded to allegations that the law would interfere with normal arguments by saying:
“Domestic disputes and conflicts aren't just normal – they're usually salutary in releasing pressure and finding compromise...There's a clear difference between mental cruelty and having a row over where to go on vacation.”
I believe this is the first such law in the world. Vive la republique.


Time warp
An observer of France said:
“A lot of people like France because it is like somewhere that they might have lived fifty years ago, providing that they had been alive fifty years ago. Time capsule, old world charm or tradition - France never changes much. Yes we are really behind the times out here, and I can reveal in a photo exclusive that punk rock has just arrived in France.”
This was a joke with that grain of truth. In fact in many ways France is a very modern place. I have not lived anywhere with as fast and modern trains. It manages to have full computerized personal health records connecting all the health services which few other places have managed. It has satellite controlled watering and fertilizing of fields. I enjoy the modernity of France.
But it is also very true that France has a feel of older times. It does remind me of the sort of society that I grew up in. It may be because it is so rural; it may be how pleasant people are to one another; it may be the slower pace of life; it may be the lack of' change for change sake'. Whatever it is, it is charming.


Bettencourt scandal
France is currently in the middle of one of those big, big scandals that engulf nations from time to time. It has all the little asides that make people surprised, angry, entertained and rolling on the ground with laughter. The gist is:
Heavy legs
“What is this 'bloated' thing that women on TV complain of?”, asked Harry and I tried to explain that it is a pretty vague term but it does mean something or rather many things (water retention, constipation, gas, premenstrual abdomen swelling) and it is common. The French have a similar term, jambes lourdes or heavy legs. It is practically unknown outside the French speaking world. Apparently, the English suffer from it too but cannot complain without a word for it. Half of women over 45 say they have tired, aching, heavy legs and many suffer a great deal from their legs. There may be a link here – water retention may cause much of the heavy leg in France, the bloating elsewhere and the invisible English trouble with legs. Although there are many medications for each of these, one that is common to all is a diuretic.
Jambes lourdes' prescription medicine has just been taken off the list covered by the health system here, so the prescriptions have fallen dramatically and use of non-prescription produces have dramatically risen. Now the French, like the English, are not complaining to their doctors about their tired, aching, heavy legs. Apparently the French expect a prescription when they go to the doctor and if they are not going to get a prescription, why go? Just go to the pharmacy and get what you can without a prescription. This prescription expectation may be why France is one of the heaviest consumers of antibiotics.



Rom
In mid-July in the town of St. Aignan, the police setup a checkpoint for drunk drivers on a back road. One car, instead of stopping, drove through the trap, and the police fired on the car killing the driver, Luigi Duquenet. Passengers and police officers tell different stories of exactly how the death occurred. Luigi was a 'traveller'. The next day a group of enraged travellers destroyed the local police station. 300 extra Gendarmes were brought in to protect the local ones in St. Aignan who were frightened for their lives. The people who had trashed the Gendarmerie then turned themselves in, fearing reprisals if they didn't. It could have ended there – with a couple of trials and inquiries.
But Sarkozy held a cabinet meeting on the question of Roms and travellers and announced a plan to dismantling 300 camps and expel all the Roms  who did not have resident permits. There would be 300 euros for each adult and 100 for each child on leaving. The police took DNA samples so that people could not leave twice and get another 300 euros. The camps were bulldosed. The reason given by the government is that the Rom are responsible for crime – it is a law and order question. But the crimes that started the whole affair had not involved actual Rom.
This is a thorny problem for everyone. Who is and is not Rom, traveller, gypsy or whatever? How is Europe, as the whole, to deal with them? How can they avoid political exploitation of the question by the far right and left?
It was a traveller that was the spark but it is the Rom that are expelled. Travellers (gens de voyage) are French and have rights in France. They are free to roam and use any of the sites that all communes must provide. Of course, many stop in other more pleasant sites. One traveller said, “I am more French than Mr Sarkozy.” They follow agricultural work around the country and do odd jobs went there is no farm work. Many pay tax, have a hired postal address, school their children in local schools, with travelling teachers or by correspondance. This way of live is enshrined in French law. The Rom are different – they are foreigners. It seems this is the situation in many European countries. Each has their native 'gypsies' and their foreigner ones. There is tension between the two groups and tension between both and the general public. People can move freely in the EU. When Romania, which has a very large gypsy population, joined the EU there was a growing displeasure with Rom moving to other places in Europe.
No country nor the EU itself have found a way to solve the problem. There needs to be a way to educate, provide health care, protect living standards, employ, tax, police – all the rights and duties of citizenship - to millions of permanently itinerant people who insist on a nomadic life without borders. It is a touchy subject. Especially so with the shadow of the concentration camps before and during WW2. The same sort of fraction of the whole gypsy population is lost in the genocide as was lost from the Jewish population.
Sarkozy was in trouble. He had dropping in poll figures, was deep in scandal, had unpopular legislation in the pipeline. There is an election coming up and Sarkozy might not survive the first round (although if you does make it to the second round he has a chance of winning). When St. Aignan happened, he jumped at the chance to have a law and order issue and to gain popularity with the National Front voter. He did manage to get the Bettencourt scandal out of the papers for a while and to win back the right-wing vote. He did manage to make an issue out of an isolated incident.
The rest of Europe was very angry with Sarkozy for opening that can of worms. As every country was having trouble with gypsies (their own and foreign ones), there was an attempt to keep a lid on this question. What was wanted was to keep the Rom invisible until an EU-wide solution could be found that was in line with human rights and fair societies but maintained law and order and was acceptable to the general population. So finally the EU Justice Commisioner, Viviane Reding, talked to Sarkozy and worked out a fairly lame compromise. If the deportations were of individuals for individual reasons, that was OK. Sarkozy must not treat the Rom as the group, France must formally accept a 2006 EU directive on freedom of movement by Oct 15, etc. etc. But then a memo was leaked that showed that Sarkozy had instructed officials to ignore the agreement with the EU – target particular camps not individuals. After taking flak for being slow to bring France into line, the commissioner was now double-crossed by him and very angry. Sarkozy was happy because the far right knew he had not caved in under EU pressure. Two points for him – hard on Rom, hard on Brussels.
The European Parliament condemned France. Commissioner Reding condemned France in a speech drawing parallels with WWII. The deliberate targeting of an ethnic minority, if proven, would violate EU anti-discrimination laws and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Sarkozy made an angry speech in which he made personal remarks about Reding. His message was that the EU should not question what France did because: it was big, a founder of the EU, the original inventor of human rights. The speech was written for the nationalism of the far right – a third point. The Commission decided to proceed against France (and also to look at all the countries to see if they were infringing the law). This made Sarkozy very unpopular with the other EU governments. But it might just win him the election – I'm hoping he falls on his face but he has probably calculated his situation accurately.

Culture of demonstration
As I write this, the French are striking and demonstrating again. It seems the wrong time and wrong cause for strikes to me but apparently a majority of the public is in favour of the protesters - according to the polls.
But, I find that the whole thing is not that surprising and this is probably the fourth round of the same fight (2003, 2006, 2007, 2010). Twice before the parliament has passed legislation on pensions and street protests have forced the previous governments to retreat. The unions and much of the rest of the population just will not have it. It is part of a larger deal and if it is changed then every other bit of labour legislation and practice will have to be re-examined. The government (and previous governments) on the other hand feel that the reform is absolutely required. They don't intent to give up either. Sarkozy was elected with pension reform as a large and well publicized part of his platform so he feels he has a mandate. He certainly has the votes in parliament and the bill has already passed both houses.
People expected a deal with the government watering the bill down to a token and passing it while the strike and demos stopped. It made them angry that it didn't happen; more angry at the government then the strikers. It looks like it is not finished. If the government decides to back down, the next government will try again. If the unions back down now, they will be impossible to deal with for many years. Even though the pension age was 60 and now 62 this means nothing as your can't have a full pension until 67 and lose 10% for each year the pension starts before 67.
There is something deeper here. It seems that many people feel that the government must give in to sufficiently large demonstrations. The voice of the street is one of the components of democracy. For the government to ignore the street is no different from the government ignoring the courts. Some think that France has a permanent revolution on tap. If the government is out of line, people go to the streets in ever larger numbers until the government sees the light. An election mandate does not mean that the will of the people can be ignored.

Here are some quotes from the current demonstrations:
“There are three million people demonstrating today. The government has to give in. It’s not normal that Sarkozy doesn’t withdraw the reform. He must give in.”
“We need some kind of rebellion or revolution to get rid of this reform. We need an indefinite general strike to shut down France and make the government scrap the pension reform.”
“Sarkozy is using Thatcher tactics . He’s not listening to anyone. Three million people won’t make him change his mind, and for France, this is revolutionary. A president who will not give in to people power.”
It seems that strikes and demonstrations are part of the checks and balances of French society. Just because a government wins an election does not mean it can just pass unpopular laws until the next election. Politicians who go too far know that their careers can end on a wave of discontent. Even the courts seem to agree. When Sarkozy sent riot police to a refinery near Paris and broke a blockade, the court made him withdraw because he was interfering with the freedom of the strikers to demonstrate.
Apparently no one expects strikes during holidays or cold weather and the bill has passed and become law. But Sarkozy has not made any friends  among the center voters. They don't like governments who do not listen to the population. People say he will probably lose the next election because he is seen as arrogant and dictatorial. 


French economy
The IMF said, “The French recovery is expected to be somewhat faster than in the Euro area as a whole.”
This is inspite of a slightly larger housing boom/bust then many other European countries. The prices peaked in 2007, having doubled since 1997. Older houses fell 5% in 2008/9 and about 3% in 2009/10. In some rural departments (including the Cher) the fall was sharper, up to 13%. The prices have not bottomed out yet. However, the sale of new houses is expected to rise by 8.5% taking advantage of the lower prices. Here, as in England and most European countries, older buildings are rarely demolished but tend to be renovated from time to time. They are valued.
The French unemployment rate is 10%, very close to the rate for the whole EU and for the US. It is higher than countries like the Germany and the low countries; it is lower than countries like Greece, Ireland and Greece.
The national debt as % of GDP is 77%, the same as Germany and Canada. More than the UK and USA. French and German banks have lent a lot of money to other Euro countries.
The inflation rate in France is 0.1% while inflation in the whole EU is 0.7%. Germany and Canada are at 0.3% and the US is negative at -0.3%.
So as far as I can tell, France is about average for the Europeans – not out of the woods but not in big trouble either.
noel pic
French Christmas
Here is an illustration from Berry Deep France blog. (With thanks to them at http://www.fabfrog.com ). Click on picture to enlarge it.



map


The French hexagon
I have a French school geography text from the 1960s. In it there is the way French children are taught to draw a map of France. First draw a cross: the horizontal is approximately the line from Brest, through Paris and on to Strasbourg; the vertical runs from Dunkirk through Paris to Perpegnon. Then make the sort of hexagon using the first four points and two more that are at Nice and Bayonnne.  The line from Bayonne to Perpegnon is the Pyrenees and the line from there to Nice runs through Marseille at its mid-point. Put in the fiddly bits along the coasts and the four big rivers and you have a pretty good map of France. I have seen a little kid do this on TV and very skillful and quick he was too. Obviously it is practiced.

























Maison de la Reine Blanche
Throughout France there are streets, hotels, restaurants and so on named after a white queen. Bourges has its Maison de la Reine Blanche which is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It dates from just before or after the great fire in Bourges in 1487. Currently it is shops, it once was an inn and may have been built as a private home and place of business of a deputy mayor called Ursin Sauzay. The name probably comes from its time as an inn.white queen
The house is located in a neighbourhood that was originally a place of merchants and craftsman who worked with wool and cloth by the Yevrette river. They were the rich bourgeois. The Sauzay family was powerful. They were Contremoret barons who moved to Bourges Saint-Sulpice at around the time of the fire. King Louis XI had a violent feud with the municipal elected government and when he won, he replace the elected group with his own supporters including William of Sauzay. The family remained prominent in the city for many generations.
The building is oak and it is carved with many scenes. It did have a third story but it disappeared in the 1600s. Jules Dumoutet made this drawing of it in 1850.
The common inn name 'Reine Blanche' refers to Queen Blanche of Castile (1188-1252). She was a woman who was remembered! She was the grandchild of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her sister was promised to Louis VIII of France but grandmother Eleanor thought that Blanche would make a better queen of France and arranged for her to arrive instead of the sister. She had 13 children of which 6 died in childhood and when her husband died the heir, Louis IX, was just 12. Blanche was the regent. Blanche had to bear the whole burden of affairs alone, to break up a league of the barons (1226), and to repel the attack of the King of England (1230). But her energy and firmness overcame all the problems; she had both military leadership and diplomacy skills. She was charming too. Louis owed his crown to her and he always remained under the spell of his mother's imperious personality. She ruled not only her son but his wife Margaret and several other important children. When Louis went on crusade, Blanche was regent again. Although she disliked the crusades, she kept the peace at home and got supplies and men to her son in the Holy Land until she died.


What is a secular state?
France has been a 'secular state' since the revolution. The Church was pro-crown and the revolution was anti-cleric. Both in a big way.
The Republic, through all its changes of constitution, has guaranteed religious freedom for all, as long as faith is private. But at first all education was done by the Church. Almost a 100 years later, in the third republic in the 1880s, a modern education system was created. The education would be free, obligatory, and secular. The fight over education raged between the Church and Republic for a few more decades.
They settled their fight in 1905. The State pays all teachers in the state schools and the religious schools.  Other religions could have schools, not just the Catholic Church. What is to be taught is fixed by the state.
Any manner of religious manifestation is banned in public including displaying anything that identifies someone's religious affiliation. You cannot group together in public to pray either. The Republic maintains the religious buildings built before 1905, classifying them as historic monuments. The problem is new religious buildings. The state cannot build these within the constitution. What happens if the Russian Orthodox want a church or Muslims want a mosque. They have to get the planning permission and if they can't or it is delayed – where are they to hold their services? Apparently Montmarte Muslims have been gathering in the Rue de Myrha which the police closed to traffic and for two hours every Friday it is an open air mosque. This is strictly against the law but arranged and overseen by the local authorities.
The problem is that many French people see buildings with onion domes or minarets etc. as proof of non-integration. Integration is basic. If you live in the Republic it will be good to you as long as you integrate – that is,  to speak French and adhere to the values of France. There are French people that do not see the difference between wearing a crucifix in public (a no-no) and building a mosque in public.
There is a deep confusion in this.
 
French gender

gnder cartoon

Welfare in France
This is part of what Polly Toynbee, a prominent journalist with the Guardian newspaper has to say about the French welfare state:

Sarkozy has made a striking promise to create a "new branch of the welfare state" to provide care for old people and those with disabilities. France has 1.1 million dependent old people, their numbers expected to grow by the middle of the century, when the over-85s could number 5 million.
In France, cross-party commitment to welfare runs deep, as does belief in the necessity and benignity of "l'état". Politicians on the right and the left use the word solidarité with sincerity (the National Front is statist, too, though its definitions exclude "immigrants" from the national compact). Perhaps solidarity is the modern expression of the 1789 cry for "fraternity". The Sarkozy government has a minister for solidarity and maintains the solidarity tax, only one of several payments by general taxpayers and employers levied in the name of strengthening social cohesion. On the annual journée de solidarité employees' pay is earmarked for old people's charities.
Fraternity begets equality. France is one of the few western countries where poverty and income inequality have fallen during the past 20 years. Meanwhile in the UK, income inequality is higher than it has been for 30 years. An impulse towards égalité is imprinted deep in the French political DNA: the Lavialle polling institute recently found that nine out of 10 French people think the income gap is still too large. The French are more convinced that the state is a force for good: leftist criticism of Sarkozy's government masks deep underlying agreement on the need for a big and benign state.
All this finds expression in willingness to spend on pensions, income support, health and social services which together amounts to 33% of national income, the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, where the average is 24%. The French benefits system is "Bismarckian", based on insurance funds. For health the employer pays 12.8% of earnings, the employee 0.75%; in state pension contributions 8.3% and 6.65% respectively, up to an earnings ceiling. But as in Germany, the funds still need large subventions from the state. Households pay a hypothecated tax, topping up the funds, which cover health, maternity pay, disability and pensions. Separate insurance covers family benefits, industrial accidents and unemployment insurance.
Since the revolution, the place of Catholicism in French life has been fiercely contested. But church and state have long agreed to encourage child-bearing and support mothers. Though the birth rate fell as elsewhere in Europe, it is higher than in the UK. In both countries the birth rate picked up from the boom years of 2002 onwards, yet both countries still have fewer babies than funerals. Ever since a great drive after the first world war to make up for its missing dead, the French state has been energetically pro-natalist, traditionally favouring families nombreuses. But there is not much sign of church influence in observance of marriage vows. In both France and the UK, figures for fertility and births outside marriage have broadly risen in step. Some 42% of UK births are out of wedlock; in France it's over 50%. Average age for first motherhood is in the late 20s.
A larger proportion of French women of working age take jobs than in the UK. In pay terms they are better treated, too. In Germany men on median earnings get 23% more than women, in the UK 21% more, but in France, the pay gap is 12%. That one difference contributes significantly to their greater overall equality.
French families get more help. Public spending on early years is the highest in Europe after Iceland and Denmark, at about 1.1% of national income.
Whether it's due to lifestyle, social security or high health spending, the French are long-lived. A Frenchwoman can expect to live 84.4 years, three years longer than her British counterpart and the highest in the OECD after Japan. For Frenchmen, however, life expectancy is 77.3 years, the same as for UK men.
All in all, France is a generous society, and it fights hard on the streets against attempts to cut back on good collective provision for pensions, benefits and health. Contrary to myth, it is not the power of its unions – France has fewer union members than the UK – but the power of collective will. As a result, it is a better country than most in which to be old, or sick or unemployed, or disabled or a little child.

Le Printemps de Bourges
Bourges has, for 30 years, held a big concert season called Printemps de Bourges or Spring in Bourges rock festival.

Printemps de Bourges Logo

This year the headliners are Zaz (jazz singer), Ben L'Oncle Soul (soul & reggae), Cali, Aaron (British pop), Angus and Julia, The Original Wailers, Tiken Jah Fakoly, and six other reggae groups.
It lasts 5 days, has 250 acts, 80 concerts, about 80,000 visitors to the city and is one of the most important rock festivals in France. We have not gone previous years and were going to try this year – but – Ciara and Ryan's visit is at the same time and much, much more important. Maybe we will hear some next year.

nuclear stations
Nuclear France
What is happening in Japan makes me think of nuclear power stations here in France. This country has just under 60 nuclear stations and they supply 80% of the country's electricity.  They are dotted around the country. 34 are 500 megawatts that are 27 years old, 20 are 1300 megawatts that are 21 years old, 4 are 1450 megawatts that are 11 years old and there is one under construction. EDF has a lot of experience with nuclear plants and a very good safety record. They also run some other country's nuclear stations. Still the Japanese were pretty good at it too until they suffered a tsunami that was larger than they had planned for. France also has coastal stations and stations near seismic zones along the edges of mountain ranges. There isn't an installation near us but then they do have the storage of weapons just down the road. I suppose in an emergency, fate will depend on which way the wind blows.







Before and after DSK
The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York is called the 'DSK affair' here in France. It has shaken things up.
The first reaction was shock that the Americans actually arrested such a important man and then put him in jail. Was he not a foreign diplomat? And in New York on international business? Should he be treated like a common criminal because Americans have a puritan attitude towards sex?
Then there was a change of mood as a result of some unfortunate remarks. The most noted of these was Jean-Francois Kahn, philosopher and journalist, who referred to the event as a 'troussage de domestique' and had to apologize and resign for that remark. This phrase apparently has no English translation but it is archaic, pejorative and was used to refer to aristocrats having the right to have sex with their servants (consensual or not) in the days before the revolution. In fact, it was one of the many causes of the revolution - that the lord had access to any of the women in his estates. This clearly put in context remarks by others along those lines but not so explicit. The political elite value an image of macho 'seducers' as a badge of power in politics, but they also had a very weak dividing line between 'gallantry' and sexual harassment, and between seduction and rape. It seems that DSK had been groping and pressuring any woman he could; he was known for it and admire by his male counterparts for it. His female counterparts dealt with it as best they could.
The French are proud of how independent and equal women in France are. They did not take well to seeing the way their political elite viewed and behaved towards women. Stories came out. Statistics were published. French women were not getting as much respect as people thought. There were marches, complaints and talk of new laws. The elite come under criticism and so did the media. The uncomfortable question was raised of the two parallel worlds in the French media and politics: what is printed, and what is behind it, gossip, and what must officially remain "unsaid". Private lives were simply out of bounds to the French media, even though female journalists had many stories to tell of being harrassed themselves. Now the treatment of those that had spoken out about harassment and rape before came under a new spotlight. Private lives will still be protected by not when it involves coercion or illegal acts.
The America and France cultures are having another of those moments. The French are coming to terms with the idea that some 'private' news should be published. But everyone agrees that they do not want a press like the America or English scandal-sheets with their muckraking. And the French are in shocked at the American legal system – because they interpret it in terms of the French system. In France you are not assumed innocent until proven guilty. By the time the police put handcuffs on you, you were assumed guilty and have to prove your innocence. A great deal of investigation preceeds arrest. The grand jury was misunderstood as a one-sided trial. Still the reputation of DSK cannot recover in France, even if his lawyers get him off.
How far DSK has fallen – from head of the IMF with an extremely rich wife and a shoo-in for President of France in the next election to a nobody on trial in New York. Meanwhile the unpopular Sarko is sitting pretty with his new trophy wife pregnant and no obvious rival for another term as president in sight. He says nothing about the DSK affair and appears macho enough but in good taste.
France is not the same as it was before the DSK affair and it's a good thing.

Vegetarians in France
Is it possible to be a vegetarian in France? – yes, but it is not easy. Two vegan parents have been have been sentenced to five years in jail for neglect and feed deprivation after the death of their 11 month old daughter. She died of pneumonia but was extremely thin and had vitamin deficiencies. They were loving if somewhat incompetent parents. The public feeling against them included use of natural (ineffectual) remedies, not following doctors advice, washing the baby in clay rather than water, breast feeding as the only source of food – but their greatest sin was being strict vegetarians. How could she breast feed when she didn't eat right? Vegans have to be careful about vitamin deficiencies but this pair were not aware of the dangers.
An adult can be a vegetarian – its their choice. But children are not allowed – sort of. Schools have canteens, all the children eat the canteen meals. There are special menus for various health conditions and religious rules, but vegan is not recognized. Choice of animal protein is one thing but none is quite another. There is no such choice for children. What is more, the canteens put all the dishes on the plate. A child cannot say it will not eat any dish. What is more, the child is expected to eat everything on their plate. (Some schools are more enlightened and let children off with just taking a taste of the food they hate. Some schools even let vegetarian children eat around the dreaded meat. But even in the less rigid schools that bend the rules, the child is sure to know that they are doing something unhealthy, stupid, in bad taste and unpatriotic.) It is a good thing that France has a good standard of cooking, and the system does produce people who are not fussy about what they eat, only fussy about how it is prepared. French meals are also very high on animal protein – lots of meat, offal, fish and seafood, cheese and dairy, eggs, exotic things like snails, frogs etc. – so what is left when animal products are removed can be a little meager.
There are now quite a few vegetarians in France but they are far rarer than in other European countries and very few vegans.

Boulanger
One of the things I have loved about France since I first visited in the '60s is French bread. Now I live here and cannot eat a bite because of gluten intolerance. But I still remember what good bread it was.
The French still buy their bread fresh each morning. On average 3 baguettes. Why? French bread does not keep well. Buy it and eat it – that is the French way.
Most villages have one or two bakers and so do most neighborhoods in larger centers – a baker for every 1800 people on average. If a place is too small for a bakery (like our village) there is a place that sells fresh bread from a another nearby village in the morning, called depot de pain. So there is healthy competition and very good quality. These days there are big continuous bakeries on the edges of big cities where you can park, buy just fresh baked brain and go.
So if everyone is going to have fresh bread for breakfast, the bakers have to work in the early, early morning. And if everyone is going to pick up some fresh bread for the evening meal on the way home from work, the bakers have to work in the mid-day too. When do they relax?
Harry buys a half a loaf every morning and one or other of the neighbouring villages which have two bakeries each.


The Philosophy Exam
All students study philosophy as one of their subject in the last year of secondary school and it is the first exam in the Baccalauréat or le bac as it is known (think Canadian High School Matriculation or British A Levels). The bac is a European-wide qualification for university entrance but each country has separate exams. In France there are three types of bac: Scientific (S), Economic & Social (ES), and Literary (L) - and they all include the philosophy exam. You are not considered educated in France if you do not know the great philosophers.
In fact there is a good deal of overlap in subjects but the weighting given to the various subjects varies between the three series. The questions on this year's four hour exam were published in Le Monde right after the exam was written. Later they published what was apparently a marking guide for all the questions.
L series:
CAN A SCIENTIFIC HYPTHESIS BE PROVEN ?
IS MAN CONDEMNED TO BELIVE IN HIS OWN ILLUSIONS ?
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM NEITZSCHE
ES series:
IS LIBERTY THREATENED BY EQUALITY?
IS ART LESS VALID THAN SCIENCE ?
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM SENECA
S series:
DOES CULTURE DISTORT MAN?
CAN WE BE RIGHT AGAINST THE FACTS?
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM PASCAL