Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Jaloux !

Over the past few weeks, I have hardly had time to cut my fingernails, much less blog. I have been working day and night it seems for the past month. My singing career, on a tear only a month ago, is now in serious trouble. This in a country that supposedly has a 35-hour workweek. Actually, this is not inconsistent with my customers’ approach in recent weeks. Several of them think I do work 35 hours a week, … for each of them!

Despite all this, I am able to get a few minutes of radio news in each morning, and it was refreshing to wake up the other day to news reports of Newsweek’s latest exploit. As we all know, Newsweek has been in the news lately, but not exactly for the reasons it would have liked. It’s had to retract a story about alleged desecration of the Koran that has produced a firestorm across the Islamic world. My (French) radio station followed up with the item that Newsweek had found a sure-fire way to divert attention from that “news story” to one it thinks all its readers can agree on: France-bashing.

Apparently it was the cover story on last week’s international edition. I tried to find a print version of it, but my work schedule limited my search to the newsstand outside my office, which had only “Time”. I would have had to go to the railway station to find more. Anyway, we can all read the article here.

The article trots out the usual charges. French government showers money on unimportant things. The social welfare system needs reform. France has a rich past but its present is mediocre in every way. It is having trouble integrating its growing Muslim population. Its president is old and out of touch. In fact, the article harps so much on Jacques Chirac that one wonders if the editors realize there are 60 million other people in the country.

Even the caption under the picture accompanying the article on the magazine’s web site is called into service: “Lonely figure: After 10 years, Chirac looks weary”. In the picture, Chirac looks as if he’s ready to keel over. So would I if a picture of me were printed at a gravity-defying angle!

I’ve seen so many books and news articles with titles like that of last week’s article (“France: Delusions of Grandeur”), so much attention lavished on this Texas-sized country with a lot of old churches and surly waiters smoking Gitanes on their interminable breaks, that I’m beginning to think some quarters of American journalism are not so much disparaging of French people’s attachment to their history as they are ... jealous of it.

Many French people already believe this to be true. Several have told me personally, knowing that I’m American, that they view the United States as a country without a history. They sense (or think they do) a need for history amongst Americans and they associate Americans’ fascination with France and the rest of Europe as an expression of this. I tell them that we Americans view European history as our history as much as theirs, that it was Europe that gave birth to our country, but they don’t buy in. They want to see something deeply rooted – geographically – to the country. They want to see old stone buildings (“de vieilles pierres”). Are they on to something?

I’m going to drop out of sight for another week or so, but I promise to back with something exciting. I’m going to see lots of people I haven’t seen in years, 25 years for some of them.


Monday, May 02, 2005

Lundi de Pentecôte

I said in my last post that the French government has been in the doghouse lately. Well, it’s not as if they haven’t been barking. The latest thing they’ve bungled by making all the wrong noises is the Monday Pentecost holiday. Two years ago, after a heat wave sent an estimated 15,000 elderly people to their graves a few years earlier than expected because there weren’t enough doctors, hospital workers or air conditioners in Paris that August, the government decided that a grand gesture was needed. They decided that lundi de Pentecôte, normally a holiday here, would no longer be and got a new law passed to make sure of it. People would work on Pentecost Monday, but it’s still not clear to me whether they would be paid. I think they would be paid if they were hourly workers, but not if they were on a salaried basis. Anyway, let’s assume they were to be paid. Then companies would pay more payroll taxes. Come to think of it the workers would have to be paid, otherwise how could the companies pay more payroll tax. But then why is there now all of a sudden an uproar and threats of strikes on the grounds that the government can’t force people to work without compensation? I must be missing something.

The government has done nothing to promote this grand gesture. Meanwhile, union leaders have moved into the media vacuum and managed to turn the debate around to their terms, and I can’t say I blame them. They ask why should only salaried work be contributing to this noble cause. What about financial income? Shouldn’t that also be “taxed”?

While the government has been doing nothing, companies have been taking what little initiative they can. Some have decided on a grand gesture of their own: They’ll give their employees the day off, but they’ll still pay the extra taxes. Others have decided to let their employees take the day off, but in return, employees will have to give up an RTT* day. Still others will require employees to work, in accordance with the new law. S. says that soon the travel industry will be complaining, because families won’t be able to go away for a three-day weekend. Weekend getaways are hard enough to organize as it is. If you add more stars that have to align, the chances diminish.

See how helpful this will all be for elderly people?

* “RTT”, or “réduction du temps de travail”, is an outgrowth of the previous government’s inspired, forced-progress initiative, the 35-hr. workweek. Rather than increase the number of vacation days outright for people who are paid a yearly salary (as opposed to an hourly wage), it was decided that floating days would be given that could be combined with other vacation days only in very limited circumstances.