Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's Different Here

Americans residing in France sometimes have difficulty adapting to French manners and customs.

Good sense should prevail, of course. People living here – whether European, North American or South American or Central American, Asian, African, or whatever – are expected to conform to French tradition and, more appositely, to French law. A carefully practiced Bonjour, Madame ! or Merci bien, Monsieur ! can and will go a long way to establishing an atmosphere of cooperation. A smile never hurts, either, as long as it's placed at the right moment in the conversation. However, here one shouldn't expect the same things or assume the same reactions as in the USA. On that path lies trouble.

It's different here; not necessarily better, certainly, but different. If one is planning on living, working and procreating happily in France for any length of time, a bit of self-development is required. Asking oneself "Why did this go wrong ? What did I do ? What did I not do ? What do I have to do next time to obtain the desired result ?" after an unsuccessful – or frankly disastrous - encounter with the French is always a good idea. This introspection might require unaccustomed effort on the American's part, but it will be worth it in the end.

Divergences sometimes arise in the most unexpected places. Playing on the grass in a park, for example. Parking one's vehicle on the street. Facing the tracasseries of French administrative paperwork. Trying to shop at a small shop at lunchtime. Dealing with bank tellers or postoffice personnel.

One might hear French men and women say les américains sont de grands enfants when they are exasperated with Americans, who seem in French eyes to reason like children: impulsively, with immediate personal gratification required. Americans should understand that France is a country designed by adults for adults, not for children. Here, as an adult, it is one's responsibility to make oneself aware of the relevant law or custom before one acts, not afterwards. One shouldn't expect to be told how to act, either, unless one is under 13 or over 70, when "100% adult" behavior is not necessarily possible, desirable or expected. One shouldn't plan on finding a sign or a bulletin board briefing one about how to behave. This generally holds true throughout France.

Comprehending this definition of "adult" - and accepting it by putting it into practice on a daily basis - can significantly reduce the disheartenment felt when things seem to spiral out of control and even a simple task appears to take far too much time and energy. For foreigners in France for the long term - and especially for Americans - familiarization with the French concept of adulthood is the key to a happy, productive life.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Higher, Faster, Stronger

For the last several months, the French media have been stridently promoting Paris 2012. Unless one has been living in a vacuum – or is allergic to news organizations and/or sports – one cannot escape being aware that Paris is one of the shortlisted finalists to host the Olympic Games in the Year 2012. A united front is being presented to the world, although, as is quite usual in France, there are dissenters from the prevailing politically correct view. Strangely, too, no Paris 2012 boosters seem overly keen on pointing out the exceptionally heavy reliance on starry-eyed volunteers during the staging of the 1998 World Football Cup - which kept enthusiasm high chez le peuple while keeping running costs artificially low.

At any rate, the other cities remaining in the running for 2012 are London, Madrid, New York and Moscow. The host city of the Games of the XXX Olympiad will be elected at the 117th IOC Session in Singapore on 6 July 2005, when a secret ballot is held among all IOC members.

Observers "in the know" are saying that the IOC Selection Committee is split. Some members allegedly feel that the 2012 games should go to New York. Why ? Simply because the Olympic selection tradition means that – since the political warfare and boycotts in 1980 and 1984, which threw a proverbial monkeywrench into the selection process - the Summer Olympics "must rotate", i.e., they "must never take place on the same continent at too short an interval".

So … there was Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964, Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004. Forthcoming Summer Games are in Beijing in 2008. Bringing the Summer Games back to Europe after only eight years (Athens -> Paris) wouldn't be "following the tradition", these members assert. So New York would fit the bill nicely … especially since the gap would be not even be twelve but sixteen years insofar as Summer Games in the USA proper are concerned.

Of course, two of the flies in the ointment are the scheduled Winter Games: Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010). Will the interval between Vancouver 2010 and New York 2012 (on the very same continent, the Americas) be too short ? Perhaps not, given the Athens -> Turin (Europe) precedent. Another mouche is anti-Americanism, currently exacerbated by events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of these same "observers" are even expecting (!) that London, Madrid and Moscow – among other European national committees – will put pressure on for a New York selection if Paris doesn't win outright on the first round of voting. What's the reasoning behind that ? If Paris obtains the 2012 games, then the Summer Games, if the tradition is scrupulously followed, wouldn't be back in Europe before 2024, or 2020 at the exceptional earliest. Dusseldorf and Leipzig are allegedly preparing very serious bids for 2016, as are, one hears, Barcelona and Budapest. Rumors persist of candidacies being readied in Berlin, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. In a nutshell, a number of European venues are hoping to land the 2016 games and a Paris selection would not be to their future advantage.

One other alleged reason for "not Paris" is Third World members' (and some First World countries' national members') enormous loathing of the Paris 2012 logo, which apparently reminds them of the Rainbow Coalition. The words "Gay Games" have supposedly been muttered more than once in the national corridors of Olympic power. This could be a dark horse factor that will upset the Paris applecart.

One should, however, temper all the negativism with a careful look at those who make their living from being spot on as frequently and as far in advance as humanly possible - the British bookmakers.

Ladbrokes, in Britain, is one good place to start:

October, 2004

Paris at 1 to 2
London at 4 to 1
Madrid at 4 to 1
New York at 8 to 1
Moscow at 20 to 1

April, 2005

Paris at 4 to 9
London at 7 to 4
Madrid at 16 to 1
New York at 20 to 1
Moscow at 50 to 1

The IOC Selection Committee has now visited the all the candidate cities. Paris is still the clear favorite – at least in the bookmakers' eyes. Whether or not the members of the Selection Committee feel the same way, of course, is quite another question and one which we spectators will discover the answer to in less than three months.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Simple Illustration

Only when one has dwelled as an expatriate in France for many years (and lived as a French person - speaking French at home, fully integrated into the French culture - rather than being the proverbial 'American in Paris') can one measure and illuminate the gaps separating America and France. For example, it is very difficult, if not well-nigh impossible on a given day, to discuss American domestic politics profitably, including government spending and taxes, with Americans who live in the USA but have never lived in Europe.

Sisley Huddleston, in his Paris Salons Cafes, Studios. Being Social, Artistic and Literary Memories published in 1928, put it quite neatly:

... there are exiles - expatriates as they prefer to call themselves - in Paris who know more about the United States, about Ireland, about England, than anybody who lives in these countries. They can see these lands with detachment. Moreover, they see fresh images, they can spread new colours on their palette, they see even their compatriots around them in a clearer light, and they contrast them and their manners with the French and their manners. They are no longer insular …

Take a look at what is generally termed 'the political spectrum'. When people - whatever their motivation - resort to labels such as 'conservative' and 'liberal', it would certainly be a good idea to define the terms. Rarely does one see the USA vs. Europe political spectra defined - neither in books nor the media. Robert Kagan (he of 'Old Europe vs. New Europe') didn't pay enough attention to it. For years one has seen and heard some people refer to the fact that 'Europe is more socially oriented than the USA', of course, and others who assert 'The USA is more capitalistic than Europe, so we're more dynamic'. People in the USA can be heard loudly condemning 'rampant socialized medicine in Europe', while people in France are wont to decry the 'dog-eat-dog social Darwinism in the USA'.

What must be understood and factored into any discussion about 'the USA' and 'France' (and, to some extent, 'Europe') is just how different the political spectra - and hence the resultant politics - are. There are other issues, too: simple definitions. In the USA, for example a 'liberal' means 'on the left', whereas in Europe, a 'liberal' generally signifies 'a proponent of laissez-faire economics rather than state planning'. Too, one can suppose that 'the people' want basically the same things from life in the USA and Europe, although they do not expect the identical things from their government.

A simple example should suffice to put the magnitude of the difference into perspective. Don't confuse 'simple' with 'simplistic': it's not quite the same. (smile)

Take a ruler. Your usual footlong ruler, running from 0 to 12 inches. Put the ruler on the table in front of you. Horizontally. This ruler represent the 'political spectrum'. Now, draw this ruler on a sheet of 8x10 paper, landscape format, and write on the sheet in front of you as you go along. Use different colored pens/pencils if required . Three caveats before beginning:

1) It's hard to numerize political ideas and politicians (with questions on the order of "If Bush is 'conservative', how much more 'conservative' is DeLay, on a scale of 1 to 5 ?"). What is important is the big picture, not attributing a numeric value to every political philosophy, theory and politician in the public arena, as some of the American 'Congress watchers' do for politicians and their votes in the House or Senate.

2) A given individual's 'political opinion' or 'political dogma' is not monolithic. So the idea that, say, someone can be 'conservative fiscally' but 'socially oriented' is tough to quantify on any kind of numeric scale.

3) Only 'mainstream' political people/ideas are examined here. There are extremists on the right and on the left, but here a ballpark numeric value is being attributed to 'mainstream' only, for illustrative purposes.

To start off, take two prominent US 'political' or 'media-political' figures. Say, on the 'left', Michael Moore. Say, on the 'right', Rush Limbaugh.

Look at the ruler on the sheet of paper in front of you. Put a flag with Limbaugh's name at 11, and put a flag with Moore at 7, on the top edge of the ruler. There is the American political spectrum, the range from left to right, from 7 to 11 (with room between 11 and 12 for David Duke or Farrakhan types).

France ? Use Jean-Marie Le Pen - in spite of his obnoxious racist and anti-Semitic pronouncements to garner support - as the 'rightist' and Arlette Laguiller as the 'leftist'. On the bottom edge of the ruler, put a flag at 9, for the right border (Le Pen). Put a flag at ... 2 for the left border (Laguiller).

Three conclusions jump out immediately from the page. First: the political spectrum is wider here in France: 7 units, compared to 4 in the USA. (This is generally true in what Rummy called 'Old Europe'). Note that 'wider' doesn't necessarily mean 'better', of course. Second: the spectrum from 2 to 7 doesn't really exist in the USA (in the 'mainstream' !) . Third: there is not a whole lot of overlap between the two spectra: just from 7 to 9.

To continue the exercise, add a few other entities to the your nascent 'political spectrum ruler on paper'. Keeping it simple ... US Republican Party ? Span it from 9 to 11. US Democrats ? From 7 to 9.5. Dubya ? 10.5, say. The Governator ? 9, maybe. John Kerry ? 8.5, say. The current French government (the 'Raffarin' government: described as 'rightist' or 'center right)' ? Put it at 7.5. The French Socialist Party ? Span it from 3.5 to 5. French Communist Party ? Put it at 2.5 to 3.5. Jacques Chirac, the French President ? 6.0, or perhaps 6.5.

Still seen from here in Paris, remember ... where do some of the mainstream press/media fall on the rapidly-becoming-difficult-to-read spectrum ? If Fox is at 11 and the Wall Street Journalat 10, the New York Times is at about 8.. The major French papers ? Le Figaro (very definitely on the 'right') at 8.5, Le Monde ('center-left') at 6 and Libération ('left') at, say, 4. French TV news ? Private TV stations: from 5 to 7. State TV and radio stations ? They vary in accordance with the party in power but their general 'social position' can be called 'sixish'.

Note that the foregoing is basically about France. There are currently twenty-five countries in the European Union, and each has its own political traditions: left, right, and center.

Before criticizing too quickly and too loudly ... remember this is an attempt at simple illustration, may be imperfect and can undoubtedly be improved. Nevertheless, it can be recalled with profit when odious comparisons about 'the USA and France'or 'the US and Europe' are made by those with an axe to grind and a political or philosophical agenda to impose.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Sunday, April 03, 2005

It's Not Chicken Little Time

This past week the Establishment Spin Machine geared up to convince the French people that they should vote oui to the national adoption of the new European Constitution on May 29th. TV, radio, press: opinion from the left, persuasion from the right, exaggeration from the center. To hear the politicos and their braying media lackeys - including the fellow-traveling, fawning US mass media - one would think that the world will come to an end should the French reject the proposed Constitution.

Come off it. All the brouhaha should be put into proper perspective.

First: To their enormous and everlasting credit, Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin have decided to submit the question to the people in a referendum. Bravo. Other EU countries and governments (notably Germany) have decided not to put the issue to a vote by the sovereign people, for their own reasons which their citizens have every right and duty to question. In a world where "Do what I say, not what I do" has apparently become the norm for international relations, France's decision substantially reinforces its influence on and voice in international affairs when it calls for democracy. History shall remember. Other countries should pay attention.

Second: If nothing else, French experience over the past few centuries suggests that in French eyes regimes and constitutions are relatively transient affairs: Absolute Monarchy, Revolution, First Republic, Consulat, First Empire, Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy, Orleanist Monarchy, Second Republic, Second Napoleonic Empire, Third Republic, (Occupied Vichy Government), Fourth Republic and, today, enfin, the Fifth Republic. Whenever their form of government displeased the French, they went back to the drawing board. C'est normal.

Third: Many, many French people – left, right and center - are just not happy campers today. They're not content with their lot. They don't appreciate (in all senses of the word) the mutations their society is undergoing. Some of these changes come from national policy made in Paris (regionalization, immigration) , while others are directly attributable to the EU (free market economics, weakening of the "social model", too many countries in the EU - and more on the way, including Turkey). Even the French farmers, the beneficiaries of billions in EU subsidies and arguably the most cosseted special interest group in France, are coming out against the constitution (the latest poll shows 69% against). In the past twenty-five years, French society has changed, and not necessarily for the better (par exemple: wealth gap, unemployment, crime, sprawl, pollution) and the French don't like it. The Establishment politicos are trumpeting that the vote is about the Constitution and not about the Chirac/Raffarin government. They've missed the point: the Chirac/Raffarin administration and the Constitution appear to be branches of the same tree, one which many French people would chop down in an instant and turn into kindling with nary a qualm.

Fourth, just what would happen if France, one of the EU founding members and a mover and shaker from the word go, were to reject this Constitution ? The Establishment would have the French believe the France's role in Europe would be diminished, that France's influence would be curtailed worldwide, and that "the European dynamic" would be shattered, since rejection by one country alone is enough to cast the Constitution into the dustbin. All of this "sky is falling" à la Chicken Little nonsense is just that, in L'Amerloque's view. What would probably happen is a) the maintenance of the status quo, thank you very much, and b) the establishment of a new commission to draft another attempt at a Constitution. What harm is there in that ? Wherever is it ordained in EU rules that the initial attempt at a Constitution should be the last ? As a matter of fact, being the first country to reject the Constitution might enhance France and its people, demonstrating that they are lucid enough to recognize an unsuitable tool of progress and that they are patient enough to start back at square one for the benefit of all. France could take the lead in devising another Constitution.

If L'Amerloque were voting he'd vote non unhesitatingly. He thinks the EU is moving far too quickly and not allowing enough time for countries - and, more importantly, their people, of all ages and backgrounds - to adapt profitably to the EU. He feels that European society is being denatured at its most basic level, that its core values are being lost, and that this "constitution"- pages and pages of turgid prose which can put off the more dedicated of Europhiles (if they bother to read it, which is another story) - is not what is needed today to build Europe for Europeans, whatever their race, religion, or national origin.

This morning the French press (le Journal du Dimanche) reports the results of the latest survey of French voting intentions concerning the European Constitution. It's the sixth in a row to show a non majority (this time by 55% to 45%). As it stands today, all things being equal, there's a good chance the French will reject the Constitution. But are all things ever really equal ? The Spin Machine will take a bit of a break this week, what with events at the Vatican, and return with a vengeance after the funeral. Untruths and misstatements will be embellished and repeated, invading the airwaves and the press, while the proponents of non will have a more and more difficult time being heard.

The referendum on May 29th will be historic. By the way, May 29th, 1453 is the day that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. Is History sending a message down through the ages ?


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque