Service national

The man who would become my husband was fresh out of his obligatory French military service when we first met.

“That’s outrageous,” I said. “Conscription in this day and age? A whole year of your life?”

His reply was a Gallic shrug. Military service was only right and normal for the French. After all, it had been in place since 1798. And it wasn’t so bad, he explained. After basic training (during which the young recruits in his division weren’t allowed to use real bullets!) and given that he was a hotel school grad, most of his military service was performed  – you guessed it – in the kitchens, later serving in the officers’ mess.

That was in 1985. France finally abolished its ‘service militaire obligatoire’ in 2002. As a mother whose son was getting close to the age of conscription, I breathed a sigh of relief. In its place they instituted a ‘parcours citoyen’, essentially an instructional course about the military as part of the educational system, complemented by a one-day training course.

Now obligatory national service is back in a new format: a one-month ‘Service national universel’ for all 15 to 16-year-olds. It has begun on a pilot basis in 13 French departments and will be rolled out nationally from 2020.

Macron’s SNU is more societal, culture-building scheme than military service. It designed to inculcate shared values and a sense of engagement, while breaking down social  barriers with two weeks of training camp followed by another two weeks of community service. Those who are interested can also sign up for a voluntary 3-month commitment. The logistics of the whole thing are still being figured out.

France being France, the SNU has been met with skepticism. The spirit of resistance to all things national and smacking of rhetoric is alive and well in this country, as can be heard in the lack of enthusiasm of recruits singing the national anthem, La Marseillaise, in this video of a training session in Tourcoing:

Personally I think it’s a great initiative. If done well it will be a true opportunity for young people across France to meet others from different departments and walks of life. It will be a chance to learn a few basic skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives: the importance of physical fitness, of community service, what to do in an emergency. It’s only a month, not a year, and presumably financed by the state.

What’s your take on this – is it a good idea or not?

If you’re interested…
– More info on the SNU (in French): https://www.education.gouv.fr/cid136561/le-service-national-universel-snu.html
– BBC report (in English): https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48755605

Cahier de doléances

A list of grievances? That is something I can relate to!

I was surprised to discover an entire history behind the ‘cahiers de doléances’ or grievance books currently in the news as part of the Macron government’s ‘Grand Débat National’ or what I am calling the great debate.

It seems that such books, called ‘cahiers’ or notebooks because people write in them, were first instated just before the French Revolution in 1789. At that time, King Louis XVI decided to gather the input of the three major ‘estates’ or social classes: the first being the clergy, the second the nobility and the third, the working classes and poor. What a modern fellow was Louis! Imagine crowd sourcing public opinion to manage the revolutionary winds over 200 years ago!

It didn’t end well for poor citizen Louis who was, bien sûr, decapitated along with the remaining royals. I only hope that outcome for our current leaders involves less bloodshed. For now, the cahiers have been collected by the mayors and we are waiting to hear what the government intends to do with the list of grievances expressed by the French citizens. Little has been said about the specific complaints, but the overall trend has to do with regional disparities and taxes. More on that later.

(I am no history buff. All of this comes from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahiers_de_dol%C3%A9ances)

In our corner of the Haute Savoie, we did not get any info about a debate or an opportunity to share our thoughts with the powers that be. However, in the spirit of airing grievances, I have compiled a few of my own:

Cahier de doléances de FranceSays:

  1. Stop resisting every little change
    France has a well-earned reputation for being ‘irréformable’ because its people will fight any change made to laws with demonstrations, strikes and riots.
  2. Support the democratic process.
    Laws voted by our democratically elected leaders are valid and should be respected as such.
  3. Stop inventing new taxes
    The people are taxed to death (or that is the perception). Simplify the way taxes are collected; make it fair and transparent.
  4. Teach foreign languages better
    Hire native speakers to teach foreign languages in their own tongue.
  5. Stop dubbing foreign content with French voiceovers
    Use subtitles on TV and in films if the production is not originally in the French language.
  6. Have fewer laws and actually enforce them
    See my recent post on ‘Les interdictions’.
  7. Allow people to demonstrate peacefully but
    Crack down on anyone who is violent or damages public property
  8. Prison reform must be a priority
    The conditions in our penitentiary system propagate criminality and waste public money; only lock up those who are a real threat to public safety. Find creative ways for offenders to pay their debt to society, for example through enforced public service
  9. Reform driver education
    It should be less costly and more accessible for all; essential rules of the road for driv ers, pedestrians, cyclists and others should be taught in school; people should be able to learn to drive with a family member or private tutor.
  10. Create a code of conduct for all
    This should include the values of the French republic and ‘good citizenship’ rules for all. Every citizen should be required to know it and agree in order to receive public services like healthcare.

So there you have my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Between you and me, I doubt that many will be on the list of grievances.

What do you think?

 

Maires de France: The Great Debate

When I first heard the expression, ‘Les maires de France’, on the radio years ago, I wondered why they were talking about French mothers. Was there some formal association? Why wasn’t I a member?

Soon enough I realized my mistake, an easy enough one to make for a non-native. Homonyms represent a special challenge. Especially this series: mères, mers and merde. Aside from mothers, we also have seas (although possibly not exclusively belonging to France), and we definitely have, ahem, our share of shit.

Basically, context is everything.

The Mayors of France have been in the news this week as they are instrumental to Macron’s much talked about initiative, ‘Le Grand Débat National’. Kicked off by the government in December in response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement, it is, somewhat ironically, not supported by the majority of that group.

The Great Debate, as I shall refer to it here, covers four main areas: the environment (transition écologique); taxation and government spending; democracy and citizenship; public services. It is a grass-roots affair of public consultation previously unseen, at least in my experience, in France.

Between now and April, public debates are being organized by the mayors of each city, town and local community so that people can weigh in on the topics that matter to them. The mayors have been asked to step up and lead the process, on a volunteer basis. Some have declined and citizens are free to organize their own debates. Starting by collecting a list of grievances and suggestions. (I wish them beaucoup de courage!)

It is a hugely ambitious endeavour, and it could be a game changer. Although critics are putting it down to PR exercise, for the first time all French citizens have a chance to give voice to their opinions on how this country is run. Is the role of Senator worth preserving? Which taxes are fair and which should be tossed out? What institutions are in need of urgent reform?

It is all very modern with a dedicated website (https://granddebat.fr/) and with events organized and shared on Facebook. My understanding is that following the live debates, citizens will also have a chance to put their two cents in online.

Emmanuel Macron held a kick-off event last week in the small town of Grand Bourgtheroulde (don’t even try to pronounce it; even journalists can’t) in Normandy, with the mayors from 600 mostly rural communes (French administrative divisions). A fraction of the total of France’s 35,528 mayors. That number alone is an indication of the administrative challenges we face.

France being a country that does not do things by halfway measures, the meeting lasted – wait for it – almost 7 hours. Whether or not you support Macron (I do), you have to admit he gave it his all. The chilly reception from the mayors at the start of the meeting was followed by a standing ovation when it ended.

Perhaps desperate to bring it to an end, six hours into the debate one mayor managed to ask a technical question for which the President had no answer. It added a bit of comic relief.

For anyone with the interest or courage to sit through the marathon exchange, here it is.

I will definitely be adding my two cents. What are yours?

La diplomatie

France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.

I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).

“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.

“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”

“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”

Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.

Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.

I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.

I didn’t get what was so funny.

Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.

This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.

I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:

Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”

Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”

Trump: “Fake news!”

Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”

Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”

Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”

Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”

Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”

Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”

Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”

Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.

Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.

Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French.  He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.

What do you think?

C’est du pipeau

Macron

Lies, baloney, bullshit. The French expression ‘C’est du pipeau’ describes the music of a pan pipe and the fake news that some would have us believe.

The rumours that Emmanuel Macron was gay began to circulate earlier this year, just as his presidential campaign was taking off. It was first whispered into my ear by my coiffeur, a normally reliable source of gossip. Marc fancies himself a hairdresser of the Warren Beatty school in the movie Shampoo, so presumably not batting for the other team.

I was shocked. Not that Macron might be France’s first gay president but rather that he was hiding his orientation behind a so-called ‘sham’ marriage.

The media picked up on the rumour that Macron was in a relationship with head of Radio France, Mathieu Gallet. It was continually denied but kept coming back, the way such things do. Presumably the source was political and designed to ‘déstabiliser’ the candidate.

The real-life stories of Emmanuel and Brigitte’s love affair, with their 24-year age gap, seemingly put to rest the gay pipeau. (Read this excellent piece in the New Yorker.)

Politicians are seductive, and Macron is certainly that. The fact that he is young, attractive and speaks fluent English doesn’t hurt. He is also the first French president to have figured out how to manage the media. Or at least keep them on a short leash.

Now Macron’s latest image abroad is that of le séducteur. His ‘saucy Gallic charm’ is immortalized by Tracey Ullman’s Merkel (not the funniest clip in the series but a propos…)

What’s the best ‘pipeau’ you’ve heard lately?