Let Paris Decide

Come the end of the two-month summer holiday period, everyone’s attention in France turns toward la rentrée, a fortnight of caffeine-fuelled activity where children return to their Nike trainers, politicians to their dodgy housing deals, and the rest of us to paying our income tax bill. Indeed, on Thursday 2nd September, children returned to school as everyone else came to grips with the idea of getting back to work (except for the country’s massive 9.8% unemployed, that is). Of course, the same happens all over the world. I remember as a child growing up in England, hounding my mother for a set of spanking new pens, pencils, and copy books as soon as there was a hint of the prospect of having my sprouting frame measured up by some failed-headmaster-cum-tailor for yet another itchy school uniform.

No sooner home with bags full of scholastic goodies, the only thing I could think of doing was practise my signature with every single writing implement purchased, promptly filling all the copy books with fanciful scribbles. Then, bored, it would be back to kicking a football around in the street. But the beginning of the new school year here in France is far more ritualised than my experience. After all, thanks to the likes of Charlemagne and Descartes, this is the country that likes to see itself as the birthplace of formalised education. In fact, one could almost say that elements of Cartesian philosophy can be applied to the whole September rigmarole; to be an intellectual one must first have the idea of being an intellectual, and thus as August comes to an end, you cannot enter le supermarché without being buried under a mountain of fluorescent pens, rulers, calculators, and enough paper to make the Amazon rainforest look like a well-clipped bonsai. If the number of pages I autographed as I was growing up is anything to go by, I must be a genius.

But this year’s rentrée des classes could have been an anxious affair as legislation forbidding any ostentatious show of religious affiliation in state schools came into effect. Hijabs, kippas, turbans, and large crucifixes — along with knives, guns and other weapons — would have to be left at the school gate, as the century old separation of Church and State would be made to take a stand in the playground. But as we were all gearing up for endless debates about the freedom of religious expression, multiculturalism, public-private arenas, and the inevitable question of Islamophobia, a twist of fate saw Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot save the socio-political day.

On 20th August these two journalists, along with their Syrian interpreter, were taken hostage by a militant group called the Islamic Army in Iraq. Their ransom: the repeal of the “anti-headscarf law”. Two weeks later, with no sign of the hostages being released, only a handful of girls turned up at school sporting the hijab; most removing it after brief discussions with the teaching staff. There were no demonstrations, no defiant hordes. Dominique de Villepin, the Home Secretary, may have waxed lyrical about his political prowess, but the simple fact is that no one wanted to be associated with the terrorists. French politicians may continually profess their wish to unite the French people, but history has shown that the French people don’t wait on political decisions to come together. Unless it’s to act against them.

One could argue that while other nations remain torn over the developments in Iraq since the “end” of the war, this secular republic, symbolic of archaic modernist integration, finds itself at ease with its foreign policy. And this will continue to be a thorn in the side of Bush and his allies. The revelations made by the Texas-based French investigative journalist William Reymond in his book, Bush Land (Flammarion 2004), that upon re-election — or rather, upon retaining the presidency — Bush intends to punish France by helping countries dilute France’s power within the European Union. This comes as no surprise. The irony is that the majority of the French population were against invading Iraq, and Jacques Chirac’s stance toward the situation in the Middle East was simply expressing this. The French people were speaking for themselves and the government in Paris was speaking for its people, and both were saying “NON” to France’s involvement in an invasion of Iraq.

That’s called democracy in action. Any attack on France because of this is, therefore, an attack on democracy. But to be fair, Bush did remind us that he doesn’t “do nuance”, so perhaps he doesn’t do irony either. It may be worth pointing out, however, that Dick Cheney’s comment during his speech at the Republican congress in New York that “Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending”, beyond being a gross misrepresentation of how the U.N. Security Council functions, works both ways. Why should Washington be allowed to decide when France needs to attack? and why should Washington be allowed to decide when the French government should override the wishes of the French people? Because ultimately this is what Bush and his administration were trying to do.

During the Republican congress, the British press continued to marvel over the fact that the Republicans persist in voluntarily confusing the War on Terror with the War on Iraq: even though the former is notably a war against al Qaeda, an extremist Muslim network, whereas the latter, though a war against a murderous dictatorship, was also a war against a secular state and therefore in some ways a state at the polar opposite to that for which al Qaeda stands. And just to make things seem even more odd, the former deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, is a Christian. Perhaps as a born again Christian in a country whose moral majority sees itself in a covenant relationship with God, the real pretzels caught in Bush’s throat is secular states in general.

Although elsewhere the first day of term was marked by truly tragic events, in the end France was plagued by the usual worries about teacher shortages and class sizes. And as is also traditional at la rentrée, no sooner are the French back at work than the first strikes begin. France’s biggest union for secondary school teachers, the SNES, will be the first to call for action. Perhaps they will be able to exchange fashion tips as they demonstrate through the streets of Paris. The left-wing daily newspaper, Libération, actually ran an article discussing how teachers dress to teach and their anxieties as fashion role models for the pupils! And this two days before it ran the story discussing the growing class sizes and staff shortages. You have to love the fact that even the most intellectually and culturally driven newspapers here always managed to get their priorities right.

England also saw a new regulation come into effect as children went back to school. For 14- to 16-year-olds, learning a new foreign language is no longer compulsory. This may well be the right way to go. Because so many people speak English and because the US holds so much power on the world stage, many believe it be the lingua franca. But if we push these arguments through to their logical conclusion, then perhaps, with a population of over 1.3 billion poised to see their country become the next superpower, we should start learning Mandarin. Except that, by the time that happens, surely they’ll all be speaking English.

The British often mock the relatively small number of passport holders in America; there are roughly four times as many passport holders in the UK than in the US. The British see this as a symptom of insularity and parochialism. However, many complain that Brits who go abroad often go to English-speaking countries or to English-speaking communities in Spain and France. When these home-away-from-home tourists come into contact with a native by mistake, the only effort made is to speak deliberately slowly and loudly in English. The Brits employ the very behaviour toward non-English speaking people that many would qualify as American. Of course, many complain that the French or Spanish aren’t particularly well behaved when travelling abroad, either. I remember staying in a hotel in London when two student-looking French girls began shouting in French, demanding croissants and “something other than this confiture à l’orange“, and eventually storming into the kitchens never to be seen again).

But anyway cynicism aside. Let’s say that Blair has got this one right. Even if 75 percent of the world’s population doesn’t understand a word of English, let us admit for argument’s sake that most foreigners we have to deal with speak English. Learning a foreign language is therefore a waste of government resources as its only real purpose is to make middle class tourists feel superior when abroad. Okay, so you’ll get those liberal intellectuals who claim that learning a foreign language broadens the mind because it gives you not only insight into another culture but another vision of the world. But this would mean that only knowing one language limits one’s scope to encode, apprehend, and comprehend the world. Worse still it may even suggest that some languages are more limited than others and therefore limits the speakers’ intellectual capabilities.

The French language differentiates between rivers with an estuary (fleuve) and those without (rivière), English doesn’t. Does this mean that speakers of one language comprehend rivers better than the speakers of the other? Is there a linguistic hierarchy? Surely this is a dangerous road that no one wants to go down. Besides, we all know that business and pleasure should never be mixed. Most contact with foreigners is through trade — even tourism is a trade — and the language of business is English. Learning a foreign language would, therefore, only be for pleasure. And why should taxes have to pay for that?

In France, learning a foreign language at school and at university remains central to the education process. To others, the French may often come across as rude and arrogant, but they can also be rude and arrogant in English with, chances are, some German, Spanish or Italian thrown in. They may not be the best linguists in the world — Scandinavia and Eastern Europe probably carry that mantle — but they understand that geographically they are at the crossroads of Europe and this has had a huge impact on the culture and economy of their country. France remains the number one tourist destination in the world, welcoming around 75 million holidaymakers a year: almost 25 million more than its nearest rivals Spain, and 35 million more than the United States. Touristically speaking, France should try and remain on good terms with the US. Even though Americans only represent 3.9 percent of the total number of tourists to tread upon French soil every year, they spend a huge 15 percent of the total 35 billion euros paid out by France’s visitors. This is a lot of money, but it still hasn’t stopped the tourist industry from complaining that they have seen the summer holiday period reduced from nine weeks to eight. How can you earn a living working only eight weeks of the year? Nine weeks does seem far more reasonable.

However much time the French have had to spend lapping up sea, sex and sun, they are now back at work and school. The French, though, often find themselves accused of being slackers and they do have an extremely short 35-hour working week compared to the average Britisher’s 45-hour slog; the longest working week in Europe. The average French person works about 1,459 hours a year, or if you prefer, 339 hours less than the Americans. And yet France is the fifth biggest exporter in the world (the United States does come second behind Germany, shipping out 9.68 percent of the world exports, almost twice as much as France but for a population that’s five times as big), and the second largest exporter of foodstuffs. It may cost a boss more to employ somebody in France than in most of the other European Union member states, but foreign investment is around $47 billion, $7 billion more than the United States and three times as much as Germany and Britain. And to top it all, the buying power of the average French person is huge, outstripping that of their cross-Channel neighbours.

So how can this be explained? Well, one could start by looking at the productivity index. The average French worker is more productive than most, outstripping the assiduous Japanese, the toiling Brits, the organised Germans, and the labour-driven Americans. Perhaps this is linked to their schooling. The French are often caricatured as a nation of black polo-necked, Gauloise-smoking, wannabe intellectuals, but this may not be too much of an exaggeration. In fact, 53.6 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds are in an institution of higher learning compared to 34 percent in the United States and the United Kingdom. If these facts and figures are anything to go by, then it would seem that the French are overeducated and too efficient for their own good.

Just to let you know, this is not a propaganda tract. The title of this piece may be “Letting Paris Decide”, but I should point out that things are not completely rosy here at the moment. The quality of life may be good but economic growth is slow and the country is undergoing massive institutional reform as well as interior political turmoil. However, the reason why I wanted to outline the figures above, published at the start of this month in France’s conservative daily Le Figaro, is to put forward a very non-conservative idea regarding France’s 2.5 million or so unemployed. Either French workers will really have to slack and become less efficient, thereby requiring the hiring of more workers, OR we have to rethink the whole unemployment question. The problem is that unemployment is stigmatised, and yet in a world where full employment now seems extremely unlikely, perhaps we should recognise that the ideology behind the notion that every person is entitled to work is a thing of the past. We need to come to a new social consensus whereby those who want to work and can find work are willing to guarantee, through taxation, conditions that ensure a good quality of life for those who cannot.

Conversely, those who are out of work may need to understand that long-term lack of professional activity can be proactive, can, in fact, be doing society a favour. The most difficult thing would be for us to shake off this petit bourgeois notion that unless we’re constantly active, constantly giving 110 percent, whether it be professionally (email, mobile phones), at home (D.I.Y., children), or on holiday (extreme sports, cultural excursions) then we’re in some way failing society. Only then would we be able to drop the stigma. Work hard, play hard? If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room? Give me a break! No really, a nice long break. La rentrée has tired me out, already.