Monday, June 20, 2005


What is tradition ? A quick look at a dictionary yields "practice, convention, ritual, ceremony, observance, wont, routine, way, rule, usage, praxis, habit, institution, principle, belief".

Bon, ça avance. When does something -- an event or a routine, say -- become a "tradition" ? How long is necessary ? Years ? Decades ? Centuries ? Is uniqueness essential ? Who or what confers the appellation "tradition" ? Is consensus required ?

All are questions worthy of careful consideration, indeed, although perhaps not here, in the interests of brevity.

So, descending through the clouds, back to reality (smile) ... in music, matters appear to be relatively simple: one hears locutions such as "traditional American folksongs" or "traditional Anglican hymns", for example, or "presenting the opera with the traditional staging". Food, too, is simplicity itself: "traditional French cooking", "traditional New York cheesecake recipe", "traditional German bread", or "in the tradition of Auguste Escoffier's Ritz."

Holidays -- and other significant dates during the calendar year -- can and do give rise to a multitude of traditions. Some of them may very well take root within families: the annual American Fourth of July picnic with accompanying baseball game, the Thanksgiving turkey dinner, and the French Christmas messe de minuit followed by a reveillon repast spring immediately to mind. Parents cognizant of the importance of tradition may even invent their own with their children, discussing it beforehand with them, to confer a clear continuity and unique solidarity between immediate generations. Reading portions of Shakespeare's Henry V en famille at dinner on October 24th every year ("... will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbour ..."), for example, turned out to be an excellent excuse for measuring the past year's historical temperature and putting events in perspective.

Some social actions lend themselves easily to being called "traditional". Supping after the theatre in London's West End is traditional -- most everlastingly so, if Conan Doyle is to be believed. (smile) The Spring Break among American college students can be called a tradition. Sports "traditions" abound: from drinking a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby, through partaking of strawberries at Wimbledon, to devouring a foot-long hotdog during the seventh inning stretch at Dodger Stadium.

Beware: one should not be overly cavalier in labeling something traditional. A consequential period of time is definitely necessary for a tradition to take root and for something to be termed "traditional": a few years are just not enough. Amerloque was reminded of this when travelling in the US in 2003 and seeing advertising for a restaurant which proudly proclaimed "A Tradition Since 1995." Eight years and already a tradition ? Things happen quickly in the USA, granted, but that's simply a misuse of language -- a field itself filled with tradition, from the use and meaning of basic words to proverbs and sayings passed down from time immemorial.

Traditions die out, too. The reason for the tradition can simply vanish: for example, a young girl sewing a sampler to demonstrate proper seamstress's technique. People may no longer attach importance to what was once flourishing and necessary to society: the disappearance of springtime village fairs in France, at which one was to take on hired help for the upcoming year, (la loué) is a good example.

Ending a tradition with forethought is never a simple matter. In France, a country where tradition is fortunately alive and well in many spheres, a national drama took place last week. On Wednesday, June 15th, the renowned Paris department store La Samaritaine closed its doors, undoubtedly for the last time in the form Parisians have known until now.

Founded in 1870 by an itinerant stallholder from the Charente named Ernest Cognacq eight years after the opening of the Bon Marché over on the Left Bank, La Samaritaine took its name from a water pump which distributed water from the Seine into the Tuileries and Louvre neighborhoods. On the pump was a gilded ornament showing Christ and a woman from Samaria, the former capital of Judea: hence, une samaritaine.

Cognacq and his wife Louise Jay, a former shopgirl at the rival store, built the Sama into the very best people's department store in Paris. Located only 100 meters or so from Les Halles, the store's clientele was overwhelmingly populaire and a far cry from the bourgeois, almost Brummelled patrons of Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marché. In 1905 the Sama employed over 6,000 people. Cognacq and Jay, both concerned about workers' welfare, were enlightened and (to use an older word no longer in vogue) paternalistic: they instituted a profit-sharing scheme, one of the first in France, for everyone working at the Sama. In 1916, they launched the Fondation Cognacq-Jay which among other activities built and managed a maternity hospital, a retirement home, a day-care center, and employee residences. After World War One, the Sama employed many war widows as a gesture of national solidarity: a member of Amerloque's French family, whose husband was killed at the front in 1915, worked at the Sama from 1919 through the 1950s.

The first of the current four buildings, with its iron-framed structure, dates from the 1890s; architecturally it was heavily criticized, just as the Eiffel Tower was when built. In 1906 the Journal de Débats went so far as to trumpet theatrically: Maintenant, l'horreur est consommé.. ("Now, the horror is consummated.") Fortunately the lengthy procedures to preserve all the buildings and Art Nouveau / Art Deco facades as historical monuments were brought to a successful conclusion in ... 1990.

La Samaritaine celebrated its centenary in 1970 and Amerloque was there. (This was just a few years after the closure of Les Halles, by the way: a memorable last day and night that was.) As a matter of fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, Amerloque spent many hours wandering around the Sama, discovering and studying strange and wonderful things: it was like strolling through a living, full-size catalogue. Many items were quintessentially French and offered clear insights into just how French society was organized, with a thrift and economy of movement that would have put the much-vaunted skinflint New England Yankee to shame.

How different it was then and there compared to the nascent consumer-oriented society in the 1960s USA. One went to the Sama when one needed a piece of thread (or a sewing machine), a window pane (or an entire frame), a pair of work pants (or a complete bleu de travail), a bicycle (or just an inner tube), a bidet (or the full porcelain bathroom suite), a birthday gift (or simply a greeting card) or a christening spoon (plated or solid silver, if you please). One could purchase one nail, or a kilo of nails; one dust bag for one's Hoover, or the entire package; a radio for one's automobile, or just one fuse; a cotton or linen pillowcase for one's bed, or a thin paper pattern to embroider a pillowcase oneself. One brought one's empty wine bottles to be filled with pinard from huge barrels, in an odoriferous part of the Sama where strange, unknown - French - smells and fragrances mingled unceasingly with those of freshly baked goods wafting in from the outdoor stalls. One never had to go outdoors to change stores, though: the basements of the four buildings were interconnected by a warren of passageways. One could spend an entire morning ambling in the aisles, go to the top floor for a summary lunch in the customers' self, with its fantastic view of Paris, and explore at will until closing.

That was a time, too, when television sets were pretty few and far between. One could trundle over to the Sama on a blustery evening and watch TV, free. When an important soccer game was scheduled to be broadcast, the store would put sets in many of its windows; passerby would congregate on the sidewalks to watch the silent, flickering pictures on screens, behind the store's thick glass. There was always someone who would pull un transistor out of his pocket and turn it up to full volume. After the game, the spectators would treat him to a few refreshments at the closest café. Needless to say, Amerloque always brought his radio along: it proved to be an invaluable tool for making acquaintances, a few of whom have remained friends to this day.

Fast forward. LVMH, the luxury group which currently owns La Samaritaine has been forced to close the stores. The prefectoral safety commission decided that the store "no longer fulfilled safety requirements" and, in its February report, said that the Sama should be shut down "for public safety". LVMH has stated that the Sama "will remain a retail store" and at the end of the month will decide either a) to close it all down for three or four years to do the necessary work or b) to remain open and stagger the works over the next decade while c) not sacking any employees at all, whatever the solution adopted. The unions are furious and really don't believe LVMH. They feel a) that the Sama is gone forever, b) that the 1500 employees will be thrown out of work through no fault of their own, and c) that the closure is linked to real-estate speculation. Note that the "not up to standard" bone has been thrown to jackal developers and speculators time after time since 1981; the future will reveal just how right the unions are.

Parisians will no longer be seeing the classic advertising with the inimitable On trouve tout à la Samaritaine ! ("Everything can be found at the Samaritaine !" or, more colloquially, "You can find anything at the Samaritaine !"). It was true. One could, indeed, find anything and everything at the Samaritaine, if one looked hard enough.

Shopping at the Samaritaine, a Paris icon, was a precious tradition. That tradition is gone. Probably forever.


Update on June 24th: Off on a break. Back after July 4th, US Independence Day and July 14th, la Fête Nationale !

Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, June 13, 2005

Rite of Passage

Every year, no matter what the weather or the economic situation, a whole range of established events marks the calendar in France. The French word marronnier translates to chestnut tree; however, in media parlance it means a list of events which come around every year at the same time, like clockwork. Since the French are highly active and consistently imaginative, shaking their marronnier reveals a multitude of experiences that an expat American should be familiar with -- from public holidays through summer vacation to back-to-school day. Fashion shows (spring/summer and fall/winter) dot the year's calendar, as do famed events such as the Salon de l'Agriculture, the Foire de Paris, Bastille Day, the Tour de France, the Festival d'Avignon and the Fête du Patrimoine.

The school year ends in June. For a particular portion of the population, the second week of the month is crunch time, year after year: it's the Season of the Bac ! One ignores it at one's peril: it is part and parcel of French life. It is a rite of passage.

Expats fail to pay enough attention to the influence of the Bac on French society. This last Thursday, June 9th, was the first day of the Bac 2005. The philosophy questions were, as usual, front page news.

Bac is short for baccalauréat, the national matriculation exam that crowns the end of secondary education. It is considered to be at the same level as an American high school. Without delving into too much detail: a student who has passed the General Bac is allowed to proceed directly to university or a school which prepares her/him for the grandes écoles. There are three series in the General Bac (L = Literary, ES = Economic and Social, S = Scientific). There is also a separate Technological Bac and a further Professional Bac, both of which are more vocationally-oriented and basically designed to allow the successful candidate to enter the job market after obtaining the diploma.

Note that the Bac is not just one exam -- it's a series of exams that takes place over three weeks. The student is tested on each subject in the curriculum, during a three- or four-hour period. These are not rinky-dink, easily-corrected multiple-choice exams, either: they're all essay exams, wherein students are expected to develop a logical, reasoned argument that responds to the question or comments the text, in correct French. Of course, some subjects are tested orally, too: languages, for example. Students also may have theoretical and practical tests in electives they've chosen and prepared, such as playing piano, or judo -- or even using a third, fourth or fifth language.

One of the basic tenets of French society is that the people must be educated as well as possible, and that the state -- most definitely not the parents -- must take care of the task. The French educational system is a huge organization that has developed the Bac, originally instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, to a fine art. Briefly - the country is divided into various districts, called académies. Students in each academy are summoned at precise times, at various places, for each exam during the three-week period. The questions are not necessarily the same from academy to academy, but professors, teachers and instructors in a given academy correct tests for that academy only. All exams have 20 points maximum. Each exam is weighted with a coefficient: the mandatory exam in philosophy, for example, counts for more (a coefficient of 7) than the one in history (coefficient 4).. To pass, a student must have an overall average of 10/20 of all exams taken. There are oral makeup exams for scores between 8/20 and 10/20 in July and September, but it's "sorry; come back next year" for those candidates with less than 8/20. A student can only try to pass the Bac three times.

During the year of the Bac, the secondary school students – and most often the parents, too -- live, eat and breathe Bac. Mock exams, corrections, possible year-end subjects: all are examined with careful attention and discussed en famille, especially if the student is trying for a Bac with honors (avec mention assez bien at 12/20 or avec mention bien at 14/20 or avec mention très bien at 16 and more)

Americans are always more comfortable with numbers. (smile) To give an idea of the scale this year's Bac, here are a few stats from the Ministry that were published in a daily paper:

Overall number of students taking the Bac 2005: 634,168

Number of students taking the General Bac: 329,833 (52% of overall)
L = Literary: 18.81% of General Bac total
ES = Economic and Social: 31.59 % of General Bac total
S = Scientific 49.6% of General Bac total

Number of students taking the Technological Bac: 184,612 (29.1% of overall)

Number of students taking the Professional Bac: 119,723 (18.9% of overall)

Exactly 4,112 lycées (high schools) are being used as exam centers throughout France. Over 4,000 different questions were developed for Bac 2005 and over 4 million separate tests will have been corrected by the conclusion of the series at the end of June. Correctors (129,441 this year) receive from 1.46 euros to 1.83 euros for each test corrected, depending on subject. Results will be given to the students on July 4th.

The opening exam of the Season of the Bac is always the philosophy exam. Students are asked to comment on a text or answer one of several questions. Grading is based on logical reasoning and argument, as well as overall coherence. Parents interested in the successful education of their children learned when the children were very young to pay very careful attention to the yearly philo questions. Many families, Amerloque's among them, discussed the questions every year with the children at the dinner table, on the first day of the Bac -- and continue to do so, even though the kids are now in university. It is one of the pleasures of living in France.

If you're an expat American, give it a try. You might be surprised, especially if your children are in a French school. Ready ?

Bac 2005 - Philo

General Bac - Series L = Literary

The students could choose to comment on a text by John Stuart Mill concerning nature and how Man can tame it, change it or submit to it.


They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Are fairness and unfairness only conventions ? (Le juste et l'injuste ne sont-ils que des conventions ?)

2. Is language only good for communicating ? (Le langage ne sert-il qu'à communiquer ?)

General Bac – Series ES – Economic and Social

The students could choose to comment on a text by Kant concerning ethics and moral law.


They could answer one of the following questions:

1. What do you expect from technique ? (Qu'attendez-vous de la technique ?)

2. Must political action be guided by the knowledge of history ? (L'action politique doit-elle être guidée par la connaissance de l'histoire ?)

General Bac – Series S – Scientific

The students could choose to comment on a text by Malbranche concerning the personal search for truth.


They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Is being free not encountering any obstacles ? (Etre libre, est-ce ne rencontrer aucun obstacle ?)

2. Does sensitivity to works of art need to be educated ? (La sensibilité aux oeuvres d'art demande-t-elle à être éduquée ?)

Technological Bac (the majority of students taking this Bac)

The students could choose to comment on a text by Aristotle concerning imitation and art.


They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Why do we want to be free ? (Pourquoi voulons-nous être libres ?)

2. Does one reason well when one wants to be right at all costs ? (Raisonne-t-on bien quand on veut avoir raison à tout prix ?)

Technological Bac (a minority: majors in industrial techniques and sciences, applied arts and music and dance techniques)

The students could choose to comment on a text by Epicurus concerning the need to be study philosophy at all ages in one's life.


They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Does Art lead us to the truth ? (L'Art nous mène-t-il au vrai ?)

2. Can humanity be envisaged without religion ? (L'humanité peut-elle se concevoir sans religion ?)

Note that there is no philo exam in the Professional Bac.

The French people have long felt that education is for life, not necessarily for an occupation. This view is beginning to change slowly, since like most Western countries France has had under the force of circumstances to move from an education for the elite to education for the masses. The overall pass rate in 2004 for the Bac was 79.7 %, down from the record 80.1% in 2003 -- but quite a change from the 33% or so in the 1960s ! Dumbing down ? Most definitely. Still, it's worthwhile to take the time to examine (and discuss !) the philo texts and questions to see just how French society has been constructed. The philo questions do not spring from some ivory-tower educational vacuum: they very much reflect what France is all about. American expats who want to be happy in France would do well to take note.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, June 06, 2005

Keeping Perspective

The past week was eventful, both in Europe and in France.

After the French voted down the proposed European Constitution on Sunday, the Dutch followed suit three days later, by an even stronger majority. It would appear that the Eurocrats' Constitution is dying and the inhabitants of Europe are now going to be able to see just how long and how far this headless chicken can run.

Keeping perspective is crucial. In the cascade of media coverage, two simple but significant facts seem to have been neatly shoved into the background by reporters, politicians and commentators:

First, of the six founding members of the European Economic Community (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), two have rejected the Constitution. Second, of the six largest net financial contributors into the proposed 2007-2013 European Union budget (Austria, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), the citizens of two have voted "no" on the Constitution. That's 33% of each overlapping group. In a nutshell, the people of two original mover-and-shaker countries either a) don't like the direction the EU has taken, b) don't like the planned changes in the EU, or c) both.

It's clear to Amerloque that the French feel that last choice ("both") is at the top of the heap. All last week -- from left to right and across the rapidly shrinking center -- people looked askance - if not with outright puzzlement tinged with dawning horror - at the concrete manifestation of the "new impetus" promised by President Jacques Chirac a few days before the election. After the result came in, Chirac sacked unpopular Prime Minister Raffarin and replaced him with one of his most faithful liegemen, the poet-diplomat-historian Dominique de Villepin.

Studying the makeup of the "new" government, Amerloque was reminded of one of ex-President and father-of-the-rejected-Constitution Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's vague 1970s doctrines: le changement dans la continuité ("change within continuity".). Application of that fuzziness didn't bring about any wholesale changes in direction. For the moment, the new French administration looks, alas, to be a business-as-usual, musical-chairs response to profound social malaise. Furthermore, just what can -- or should -- one deduce from the fact that the new, improved government's spokesman, Jean-François Copé, is the very same fellow as the previous government's ? Amazing.

As expected, the world's press has not been nice to France, trumpeting the habitual refrains, accusing its people of the usual outright self-centeredness, extreme selfishness, terminal left-wingism and – this time around - the apparently greatest insult of all - "fear". Foremost among the French-haters were three opinions-for-hire penpushers over at the New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune (John Vinocur, Roger Cohen and Richard Bernstein) who pulled out all the stops and vilified the French people for all they were worth. Not to be outdone, the ever-sophomoric Thomas Friedman managed to prove that he was as ignorant of France as he is of the rest of the world by cutting and thrusting at the 35-hour workweek (a hint from Amerloque: it's all about productivity, Thom, not about hours !). Only Boston Camerata leader and musicologist Joel Cohen, invited to contribute a personal commentary, saved the IHT from op-ed page ridicule.

Amerloque's view is that the French people did not vote primarily from "fear", whatever the international and politically correct French media assert. While the iconic "Polish plumber" makes a nice soundbyte referential for everyone to poke fun at, it should be remembered the French simply want the same rules for everyone living and working in France, whether a Polish plumber, a Lithuanian lorry-driver, an Estonian engineer or a Hungarian horticulturist. Is that too complex to understand ?

Remember Abraham Lincoln and the quotation attributed to him ? "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time" . The French are quite lucid and have taken Honest Abe's words as their own. Misconstruing the reasons for the French vote can only prolong European agony. In simple words: many French people feel that the destruction of essential public services such as the national railroad and the postoffice is directly attributable to "Europe". Looking at it from the average French citizen's point of view: one fine day-- sometimes in the 1980s, it was – the French people were informed, without so much as a by-your-leave: "Your public services are no longer public services, folks: they're now in competition". This much heralded competition, meant to improve the quality of those services, has had exactly the opposite effect. Subsequently these same French citizens were told in the 1990s: "Vote 'yes' for Maastricht and things will be better." They voted "yes" – and the situation didn't progress: quite the contrary. The introduction of the euro and the ensuing hike in prices was the icing on the cake.

When asked by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1972 what he thought of the impact on the world of the French Revolution in 1789, the Chinese Premier and Foreign Minister, Chou En-lai, reportedly answered, "We Chinese feel that it is too soon to tell." Ever mindful of history, some French men and women realized before the vote that many of their fellow citizens were unhappy with the proposed Constitution and launched a call to engage a process of A Constituent Assembly for a Different Europe.

Amerloque's experience in France has taught him that it would be impolitic to underestimate or misunderstand the French people: they do not practice reform when the situation becomes catastrophic. Rather, they sweep away the existing structure and set up a new one. Future historians may very well look back at May 29th, 2005, as a landmark date during the tumultuous advent of the Sixth Republic.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque