Romasco-Kelly Family

December 4, 2002

La Politique Fran├žaise (French Politics)

You can tell Mike is back at the updates since this month's posting focuses not on great food and hiking, but politics.  It is (or was, when I started writing this!)  November, which means Election Day in the US. We've also gotten some email from friends in the U.S. curious about French (and more generally, European) reactions to the Iraq crisis, which is headline news virtually every day here in France as it is in the U.S.

There's also been some interesting French political machinations, including a series of strikes culminating in a national general strike last Tuesday, the first in seven years.


This article from Slate captures the sense of recrimination and suspicion between the U.S. and France right now over Iraq.  And there is, I think it's fair to say, wide contempt for President Bush in the French press.  Even I was surprised to read the lead editorial this week in one of France's leading newsweeklies, L'Express -- this is no left-wing rag, but more akin to the Newsweek of France -- titled "Who wants peace?" which starts "Nothing in the record of George W. Bush since his ascension to the White House reassures us.  His ignorance of the world is obvious, and his simplistic nature, evident."  These are strong words from the mainstream French press, and they aren't unusual -- another mainstream newsweekly, Le Point, a few weeks ago ran on its cover a not very flattering picture of Bush with the title "Bush: Can He Be Trusted?" (It should be clear what their answer was.)  This may help to explain why France has been a leader of the opposition to U.S. action in Iraq -- simply put, they don't trust Bush to do the right thing.  In America, it seems to be seen the way Bush has drawn it: either you're with us or against us, and Americans can't understand why any Western country wouldn't be with them.  In France, it's seen not as being against America, but for a "third way" that Europe is trying to find; even the editorial I mentioned above goes on to say that, if it comes to war, "[France] will have no choice but to say to America, as de Gaulle did to Kennedy in 1962 at the time of the Bay of Pigs, 'We stand at your side.'"  But just drawing the parallel to certainly one of the more embarrassing moments in recent U.S. foreign policy tells a lot about the French and European skepticism about the Iraq undertaking.

Fundamentally, France looks at the U.S. dominance of the world stage the way that many Americans look at the dot-com millionaires -- a mixture of envy, admiration, resentment and a sense that they don't really deserve all that they have.  Many French intellectuals and "thought leaders" doubtless believe that if there were any real justice in the world, France would be leading, not the U.S.  And there is a fierce sense of French pride against "the American way" -- which to them involves two things:

France in short sees itself as a bulwark against the spread of American influence in the world.

The Strikes

The strikes also capture an interesting difference between France and the United States.  First of all, there generally aren't strikes in the U.S. and if there are, they aren't usually accompanied by loud public demonstrations.  Unions in the U.S. operate from a position of weakness and generally -- the UPS strike five years ago or so is an exception -- can't count on public support, especially if the public is at all inconvenienced.  In France, strikes are generally public events, with large marches through the streets, and a poll I saw recently found that even when inconvenienced, 2/3 of the French support the strikers.  Imagine that trucks blocked freeways leading into major US cities, demanding fewer hours of driving per month -- and Americans affected by these blockades supporting the drivers!  But that's exactly what happened here in France a couple of weeks ago.  The strikes are also taken in stride, with posters on the buses announcing a few days beforehand: "Because of a national strike on Tuesday, schedules will be disrupted, particularly on service to the center of town."  The school sent this flyer home advising us to have the kids bring a cold lunch on that Tuesday (normally strictly forbidden) since the school kitchen workers would be out on strike.

Unfortunately, the main issue behind all the strikes is fear.  Fear for what the new conservative government's plan for "decentralization" of many government programs will mean, fear for the solidity of retirement and health care plans (both government-run in France) and fear for job security as large French government-held companies (France Telecom, the French phone company; La Poste, the French postal service; and SNCF, the French railroad) are exposed to private competition over the next several years as part of the European integration that brought the new Euro currency at the start of this year.  There's reason for this: the French post office runs 17,000 individual offices, 2/3 of which are not profitable.  France Telecom has 108,000 employees and just needed a $9 billion infusion of French government capital to keep it solvent.  But France is in a tough position, having fallen to 30th in a recent study of global economic competitiveness (behind Slovenia and Estonia, and just ahead of China and Tunisia), and falling either just below or just above (depending on whose figures you believe) the European budget deficit standards that are the basis for the common currency.  France must figure out how to operate effectively in a global competitive economy while still maintaining what is special about France.  U.S. conservatives who believe that isn't possible need to explain how Finland and Sweden, both countries with rich social welfare systems, ranked 2nd and 5th, respectively, in this survey.  They have figured out how to have their cake and eat it, too -- the French haven't yet.  On the other hand, another study finds that the French live the longest in Europe -- so maybe it's not all competitiveness after all.  But as our friend, Marc, who is French but just returned after living for several years in the U.S. says: "In the U.S., I'm a Democrat because the American system isn't concerned enough with equity and dividing the cake fairly.  In France, I'm a conservative because you have to have a cake before you can divide it, and the French aren't concerned enough with producing any cake, just arguing on how to divide a shrinking cake."

Personal News

Since our last update, we've been to Normandy on the kids October vacation, where we saw the D-Day beaches.  We've also had some visitors -- Mike's sister, Maureen and her daughter, Lia, in October and our friends, Jody and Steve with their kids, came for Thanksgiving, which we had here at our house.  It was a bit odd because it was otherwise a perfectly normal Thursday in Grenoble, with all the stores open and the kids in school (we took them out for the afternoon).  We even had a great crown roast of lamb instead of turkey, but we did have the stuffing (courtesy of Steve), a great potatoes dauphonise (a local recipe made by our friend Marc) and apple pie in a French style made by our friend Beth.

On the paper chase front -- we've gotten (just this week!) our cartes de sejour and the kids have gotten their documents de circulation pour enfant mineurs -- so we're now legal in France, no longer sans papiers (without papers)!  Just in time, because we'll be leaving in three weeks to come back to the U.S. for a visit at Christmas, and it might have been difficult to get back into France without the official papers.  As a funny aside: despite all the involved paperwork and process, it ended up that Lisa received a carte de sejour which allows her to work in France -- which she shouldn't really be able to do.  When we asked the clerk at the Prefecture if we were understanding that right, she said, "Oh, aren't you lucky?", neatly dismissing the mistake -- and giving Lisa the right to work in France until 2007!

We did our first skiing of the season at Alpe d'Huez, about an hour's drive away -- it was great!

If we don't do another update before the Holidays, hope you and those important to you have a great holiday!