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French Items from 2010:
to enlarge a photo, click on itLa 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
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
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
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
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
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,
Next was Australia, Switzerland,
Germany, New Zealand. US was 7th, Canada 9th, Austria 13th, UK 25th.
Old postcards of Bengy sur Craon
|le lavoir et le vieux port||la Grande rue|
|route de Flavigny||la nouvelle ecole la gare|
|la rue de la Gare||la chateau pres la gare|
|la mairie||rue de la Gare|
|rue de la Mairie||rue de l'Eglise|
|mairie et ecole||vue 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
- The richest woman in France is
Liliane Bettencourt who pays more tax then anyone else in France and
has a visible income of 34 million euros a month plus whatever is
invisible. She is 80.
- Her daughter thought that her
mother's accountant and friends were milking the fortune and tried
to get power of attorney. Liliane Bettencourt fought back.
- In the public civil court fight
between mother and daughter, it turned out that Liliane's servants
had been secretly taping conversations between her and her
accountants and her friends for some time. Some very odd dealings
came to light.
- One of the people defending
themselves against Bettencourt's daughter made public that Liliane
gave dinners for key right-wing politicians and distributed her
famous brown envelopes full of cash. Eric Woerth, the Prime Minister
Francois Fillon and the President Nicolas Sarkozy were guests. Eric
Woerth is a prominent minister and his wife was one the
- This was where a family quarrel
turned into a political story and the start of the cover up. The UMP
(Sarkozy's party) tried to suppress documents but they were declared
in the public interest. Documents and statements were coming out
faster than they could be suppressed anyway.
- Large gifts to politicians are
illegal as are cash donations – so brown envelopes of cash are a
crime. Bringing in money from another country for a political party
is also illegal and it was alleged that 100,000 euros of campaign
money came from Switzerland.
- The UMP said that the police
interviews were not accurate but it turned out that the witness
statements were confirmed by bank records which had been seized by
- Woerth and his wife appeared to be
involved in some tax hocus pokus for Bettencourt. Followed by
revelations of Woerth's questionable activities when he was mayor of
Compiegne. It seemed that Bettencourt's tax file had stopped being
audited every 3 years as required and had not been looked at since
- The accountants said that the
large cash withdrawals were Bettencourt's pocket money. But then it
appeared that they increased by eight times before elections.
- Sarkozy went on TV but did not
convince anyone with his address/interview.
- Then the public learned about the
microparty scam. Under French law, one person or organization can
only give 7,500 euro a year to any polictical party but they can
give to more than one party and parties give give any amount to one
another. It turns out there are over 300 parties registered in
France. A bunch of little parties can gather money for a big party.
Woerth has a personal party, Sarkozy has two, other politicians have
- Laurent Wauguiez took an offical
trip to London and spent his time soliciting money from French
businessmen. Money starting show up all over the place – much in
500 euro notes.
- The Sarkozy tax cut paid
Bettencourt 100 million euros in refunds over four years. It also
became clear to the public that L'Oreal dividends go into a shell
company and sit there having been taxed at source. Bettencourt does
not pay tax on this income until she withdraws money from the shell.
The interest that the money earns is not taxed.
- Woerth had been given some very
unpopular pension legislation to move through parliament before the
scandal broke and now it was even harder because of his part in the
scandal. But Sarkozy could not get rid of him because he knew too
much – he had been UMP's treasurer and the Minister of Finance
before his present Minister of Labour. It was time for a diversion.
- The police shot a gypsy and a riot
followed and the government became involve in making the matter more
'news worthy'. The government is being accused of manufacturing
- .... and so it continues, probably
for a long time. Oh my goodness, there is now a story
that will keep Bettencourt out of the headlines – the Karachi
scandal. But it will not make Sarkozy happy.
In 1994 France sold some
submarines to Pakistan. Part of the deal was commission payments to
Pakistani officials (not then illegal). Sarkozy was the Minister
that personally set up the company in Luxembourg to handle the
payment of the commissions.
What was illegal was an agreement
with the Pakistan officials of a kickback (called a
retro-commission) to the French. All was well until the kickback
money, 80 million euros, was used to finance the election campaign of
Edouard Balladur against Chirac. Sarkozy backed Balladur but Chirac
won. Chirac wanted revenge.
Chirac stopped the payments to
Pakistan and when they realized that Chirac was not going to
re-start them, they blew up a bus and killed 11 French engineers
working on the subs in 02. It was blamed on Islamists.
Now the victims families and a
judge are rooting through the documents and secrets. Sarkozy is now
the President of France and the main Pakistani recipient of the
bribe is now the President of Pakistan, Zardari.
“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.
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
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
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
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.
2003 – demonstrations against
changes to pensions – government back down.
2006 – demonstrations against
changes to youth employment legislation – government withdrew
reform. This I remember from when just arrived in France.
1968 – led by students in Paris,
demonstrations brought the country to a stand still. General de
Gaulle was scared.
1958 – the end of the Fourth
Republic and founding of the current Fifth was due to unrest verging
on civil war due to events in Algeria.
The country itself was born in a
revolution (started by the Paris mob).
Here are some quotes from the current
“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
“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.
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
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.
Here is an illustration from Berry Deep France blog. (With thanks to them at http://www.fabfrog.com ). Click on picture to enlarge it.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
CAN A SCIENTIFIC HYPTHESIS BE PROVEN ?
IS MAN CONDEMNED TO BELIVE IN HIS OWN
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM NEITZSCHE
IS LIBERTY THREATENED BY EQUALITY?
IS ART LESS VALID THAN SCIENCE ?
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM SENECA
DOES CULTURE DISTORT MAN?
CAN WE BE RIGHT AGAINST THE FACTS?
COMMENT ON THE EXTRACT FROM PASCAL