A quelle sauce on sera mangé

With which sauce will we be eaten? This is the question the French have been asking themselves ever since Macron announced that the coronavirus lockdown in France would be lifted starting from May 11. If we all behave ourselves and stay home until then, that is.

The political system in France is based on a President, who makes high-level decisions, and a Prime Minister, who puts them in motion with the ministers in his/her cabinet. The hierarchical nature of such relationships was first made clear to me in an interview with the late French President Jacques Chirac, who, when asked to describe his relationship with his then-Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was famously quoted as saying: “Je décide, il exécute.” (Basically: he does what I tell him).

No one was really surprised when PM Edouard Philippe began presenting his detailed plans for deconfinement with a warning that May 11 could easily be pushed back if there is a spike in new cases before then. Meaning: stay home now or forget about going out again any time soon.

The plan is based on three pillars: protect, test, isolate. It is a phased approach in which schools, stores and most everything else will reopen and get back to business over May and June. As of May 11, people will no longer require a document stating their business when outside home. But we will have to stay within a 100-km radius for now, unless for work or family emergencies. This is to prevent the entire country from racing to the coasts for the May-June long weekends and causing a new wave of COVID-19 to spread.

In the meantime the goal is to step up testing to 700K tests per week. Tracking and tracing through an app is also planned so that any new outbreaks can be contained. Masks will be available, and required in some public places like the trains and métro, although people will have to buy them, a concept that many of my state-reliant fellow citizens find abhorrent.

Restaurants and beaches will remain closed until further notice, probably reopening sometime in July for a later-than-usual holiday period.

All in all, people in France will still have to be patient but there is hope that things will return to a ‘new normal’ by summer.

As sauces go, it could be worse.

There is a consensus among many of the media that France has fucked up in its management of the pandemic. The dearth of masks and hand sanitizer, the earlier confusing messages about whether or not to wear a mask, to go out and vote in municipal elections or stay safely at home — all of these critical points and failures are true. It’s their interpretation that is somewhat open to debate. Yes, our leaders could have handled many things better. But when I look around at what has happened everywhere else in the world, it could also have been a lot worse. It seems this healthcare crisis has exposed the worst cracks in our society at every level, like fault lines in an earthquake. I only hope we will learn from it and that these mistakes will be lessons on how to do things better in the future.

In the end I suppose I’d rather be eaten in a French sauce, even mediocre, than a Chinese or an American one.

Et toi?

Perturbations

One strike may conceal another.

We are seriously ‘perturbés’ in France today. This may not be breaking news for anyone who follows French news. But beyond the disruptions of the massive strike action kicking off today around the country, I fear we are perturbed in a way that is closer to the English meaning of the word.

My diagnosis, dear France, is that we are suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

Web MD describes those who suffer from GAD as people who “always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work, or school. In people with GAD, the worry is often unrealistic or out of proportion with the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, the anxiety so dominates the person’s thinking that it interferes with daily functioning…”

Depression may also be a symptom. Emmanuel Macron, speaking to students in Amiens, said that the French are too negative, too hard on themselves. Compared to other countries, we don’t have it so bad. He is not wrong, but he misses the point: the French don’t care about what’s going on elsewhere. They want things to be as they were right here in France, twenty, even fifty years ago. This is one reason why our president, as much as I personally think he’s a good leader, has such a high disapproval rating at home.

Today marks the beginning of a general strike in France. From teachers to transport workers, everybody and his uncle is unhappy about the pension reform that Macron is trying to push through. Basically, it is a simplification of the current, extremely complex system where each sector has its own plan, with dozens of schemes offering different terms and conditions for retirement, to a universal points-based pension plan for all. The last time a government tried to mess with pensions was in 1995, when the general strike made such a ‘pagaille‘ of things that Jacques Chirac and and Alain Juppé were forced to withdraw the controversial measures. So today’s strike, which has been talked about for months, must have the current government quaking in its boots.

What this means for regular people is a very big mess. Beyond the inconvenience, there is more fear and anxiety. Our GAD is getting worse.

People who don’t absolutely have to travel have been asked to stay home, employees who can are being allowed to work from home, and everybody else is muddling through. Because while they can cancel trains and flights, postpone meetings and otherwise organize different events, the frail and elderly still need caring for, hospitals are filled with patients and people need to eat.

If the disease were acute rather than chronic, you might hope for the fever to pass and the patient to get better. In this case, I fear the only cure may be a revolution. Here’s hoping we can make it to the end of the year without it coming to that!

‘Bon courage’ to all those who are affected. Best of luck and please share your war stories!

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?