Saturday, March 18, 2006

Paris awakens, will America? (What are you buying this Sunday?)

"Il est cinq heures, Paris s'éveille." (Jaques Dutronc)

What's happening?
About a million French youth took to the streets yesterday. As usual, the American Press as well as the right-leaning French Press portrayed this as an example of conduct by disorderly, spoiled children who don't know the "real world." (You know the media drill: anyone fighting for their rights is considered a loser or a dreamer.*)

French workers, French students, French unemployed, France in general has been suffering from the modèle americain, which is now in the middle to late stages of spreading throughout the French economy. Indeed, the current French administration has been passing law after law against workers and immigrants, and ministers such as Sarkozy have been spreading fear without due cause to bolster their own agendas. Sound familiar?

The latest law, called the CPE, allows business to fire young workers much more easily during a two-year probationary period. The fear, probably real, is that there will be a large portion of young workers who are cycled through jobs during the two-year probation imposed by the CPE. It is assumed, probably correctly, that this will also allow for more exploitation of those in the probationary period since people beleive that businesses will only keep those who are the most subservient and self-sacrificing.

Why does this matter to Americans?
I'm sure "reasonable" Americans will say: "French workers live cushy lives already!"; "What are they complaining about, I earn 5 bucks and hour and have three kids!"; or "France needs to be more competitive."

Let's start with that last point. Forget the propaganda: the French are actually among the most productive workers in the world--in spite of 5 weeks of guaranteed vacation to those with full-time employment. The French work very hard, but they have an identity outside of their work. The fact that they French people can (or used to be able to) relax, enjoy a meal, and spend time with family is due to social protections and, importantly, to an attitude that values such activities that encourage and reinforce a social fabric.

For example, French people often spend Sundays having a picnic, visiting with family, going to a concert, or, yes, even watching sports. In general, though, they do not go shopping except for food on Sundays and most stores are not even open. (Alas, this is changing thanks to neo-liberalization). Sunday is still a day of rest and most people treat it that way, and if you don't believe me look at Paris traffic at 6 pm on Sunday evening and ask yourself what the people have been doing all day. I can promise you it was probably not work. (Hint: Sunday in the Country.)

On Sundays, when not watching sports, we Americans often shop. We shop "for fun." We shop because we "don't have time during the rest of the week." We shop because "we need stuff." Why is this important? In America, shopping is often more a symptom of a disease, a culture looking outside of itself (to commodities, to wasted time), for fulfillment. Many Americans have forgotten how to spend time with each other and to spend it away from TV and a purchase opportunity. More importantly, even those moments of distraction, of community events such as sports, or visits to a National Park, find Americans face to face with a corporate sponsorship.** This is profoundly disturbing. It is attributable to affluenza mixed with and compounded by economic ideas that are an insult to a humane way of life. Ideas such as "work is more important than family" or "work is more important than anything" or "I am where I work and what I own"--ideas that only function in a society that does not take care of the basics such as healthcare and education first and foremost.

Getting back to France and their cushy lives: well, the fact is that life is not cushy at all if you are poor in France, and let's not even talk about being a Beur***. But France has one of the largest middle-class populations (percentage-wise) in the world, and for many decades this middle class has fought for government programs that serve them and their community. Luckily, important parts of this have trickled down to the poor as well. There is not a single un-insured child in France. Every mother gets free natal care. Beginning with the birth of the second child, every family, regardless of income, gets a check to help support that child. Every person in France has a right to health care (though this is getting tougher and more exclusive).

In a word, life is less stressful in France because any number of risk factors are accounted for by a network of social support. Though American-style "modernity" is already there, what the French understand is that there are many, many areas of life in which people, elected representatives and governments can make a choice. America is great (yes, I'm a loyal American), but our economics are cruel and unhealthy--not only for the un-insured, but for all of us. Moreover, there is nothing inevitable about our economic system.

There are economic theories and there are economic laws. Politicians have been tricked or suckered into thinking that they are responding to economic laws when they have actually been enacting laws in the name of "economics," and then only one form of economics. If Milton Friedman defines something, that does not make it an economic Truth. So, no matter how many times economists, politicians and pundits state "that's just the way it is" or "that's how it is going to be", well, don't listen. But what about the inexorable global trade juggernaut?

Sure, global trade matters. I want to buy coffee and Hawaii just doesn't produce enough for me alone, not to mention all of you. However, I want to pay a fair price, and that is where we have a choice and where economic theories can be shaped into better economic laws. World trade, as Friedman states, seems inevitable, our version of it does not. But that is awfully hard to see from within our bubble, our little trickle-down exploit the poor and the hungry bubble.

So France matters because they are fighting. They are taking to the streets and they know first hand that things can be even better. They know that France is far from perfect, but they sleep knowing that at least from conception to l'école maternelle no child is left behind. Wouldn't that be nice?

Allez, encore un petit effort...


*Unless, that is, they are fighting against an official "enemy" of the U.S; then they are "freedom fighters."
**The Bush Administration is passing laws to encourage corporate sponsorship of national lands.
***Comes from the word "Arabe" (Arab).