Monday, October 31, 2005

Rise and Ebb

Halloween is here and it's time for pumpkin pie !

In Paris during the 1960s and 1970s, American products such as peanut butter, Kleenex, Q-Tips, Tide and frozen chickens were available only at the military PXs and at the ANIC (American National Interests Commissary), over on the rue Marcadet in the 18th arrondissement.. Membership-financed (expensive !), the ANIC closed some years back, as globalization began taking hold and the rising tide of American pop culture started inundating the world.

Finding a decent "American" hamburger, tequila, Napa Valley wine, or Tabasco sauce was a daylong job requiring patience and ingenuity. The only venue for "real" American meat (and chili con carne) was the restaurant at the Hilton Hotel on the avenue de Suffren in the 15th, which at that time apparently imported all its meat from the USA. The stiff prices certainly reflected the distance the meat had traveled. The best American-style hot dogs were to be found … at the top of the Eiffel Tower, until the concessionaire changed in the early 1970s. In 1972, the New York restaurant Joe Allen in Les Halles opened and took some of the pressure off the Hilton. There was no doubt of it, though: Joe Allen had to be considered as simply "New York" rather than representatively "American". Mexican food was hard to come by in those days, too. Amerloque's US family would ship over five-pound bags of "Masa Harina" at regular intervals so that proper enchiladas and tacos could be made from scratch.

In the 1970s, too, the first McDo opened in France. At the time the McDonald's Corporation hadn't yet embarked on its program of worldwide conquest: it had simply sold the franchise for France to a fellow named Raymond Dayan. He proceeded to open a number of outlets in and around Paris, the initial one being in Creteil, a quiet suburb to the east of Paris. Amerloque was there at the grand opening to test the burgers and, even more importantly, the milkshake, a beverage which was impossible to find in France. That first spanking new McDo building was in the middle of an otherwise empty expanse, by the way. Across the street, a sign proclaimed in French that the new prefecture would be built on the spot "in a few years". The only modern buildings in Creteil then were the architecturally revolutionary "petalled" apartment buildings (aka "les choux"), the work of the French architect Gérard Grandval. There were no public transport stops, shopping centers, high rise building projects, freeways, or, of course, parking problems.

Dayan and McDo soon parted company. The Stanford University website sums up the reason quite nicely:

One franchisee who chose to ignore franchisor policies about product quality and cleanliness was Raymond Dayan, the owner of the French franchise license for McDonald’s. By 1982, Dayan had 12 restaurants in Paris but blatantly ignored the company’s strict specifications on food products, including the quantity and quality of ingredients. In addition, he held food so long and served it so cold that McDonald’s managers sent to inspect the stores found it difficult to eat. Although these shortcuts allowed him to save on costs, the reputation of the chain suffered. Ultimately, McDonald’s, with the court’s support, terminated his license.

Dayan, not a man to take things lying down, promptly renamed his outlets "O'Kitsch" and continued to serve hamburgers and all the fixings, including onion rings. One of his main outlets was the building at the intersection of rue Monsieur le Prince and the Boul' Mich', quite near the Place Edmond-Rostand. The hamburgers he served were American in name only and O'Kitsch didn't last long.

For Amerloque, the lack of "real" American food took on particular significance when an American holiday rolled around. For American apple or cherry pie on the Fourth of July, it was tough going. Baskin-Robbins ice cream cones were but a dream. Even in the early 1980s, Amerloque's (French) wife would order the family Thanksgiving turkey four weeks in advance from the local volailler, so as to be certain of obtaining one: the end of November was basically basse saison for turkeys in France, back then. Things are somewhat easier now on the turkey front, fortunately.

Another American holiday that required a modicum of preparation was Halloween. During the 1980s, the last week of October would always find Amerloque and his wife haunting the open air markets in Paris and Normandy in search of suitably symmetrical pumpkins to turn into Jack O'Lanterns for the children. Halloween was imported into France in a big way during the 1990s, but its celebration nowadays appears to be on the ebb. For several years, the media (and shops !) here were full of goblins and witches, black cats, children's costumes and disguises. It was carefully and repeatedly explained to the French that Halloween was of "Celtic" origin (Bonjour la Bretagne, donc !) and was not simply an American culturoimperialist invader designed to eradicate traditional French culture. Halloween commercialism neatly filled the void between la rentrée and Christmas, too. For the past few years the holiday has been declining in popularity and has been subject to increasing criticism. In 2002 the Roman Catholic Church even devised a major anti-Halloween "Holy Wins" promotion, contrasting the Halloween emphasis on death, witches and vampires with the celebration of a renewal in life through belief in Christ. The media gave it huge play last year.

The French have seemingly rejected the permanent import of Halloween - if observation is anything to go by, that is. Note that making real pumpkin pie absolutely from scratch (without boxes of prepackaged "ingredients") turned out to be child's play compared to the effort required for some French holiday dishes. If several delicious dishes and recipes - and not just pumpkin pie - had been associated with the holiday, perhaps Halloween here would've fared better: the French would certainly have paid more attention to it !


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, October 17, 2005


In the USA the past few years have seen outsourcing and offshoring take their places among the leading methods for companies to improve their bottom line. Too, not a day goes by but that more bad news on the economic front hits the front pages: venerable companies thrown into receivership and bankruptcy, pension plans cut or eliminated altogether, companies looted by amoral executives, blue- and white-collar employees laid off in their thousands.

Still, media in the USA trumpet to the (endlessly ?) gullible American public that they have never had it so good. Still, the USA dares to hold up its indebted economic model as the one to be adopted by others, even though the quality of life in America, for the many, is manifestly regressing, not progressing. (One has only to visit after an extended expat sojourn in Western Europe to see for oneself, alas). Still, misinformed (or ignorant, or malicious, or simply bribed … one wonders ...), deskbound American newspaper columnists and partisan media outlets laugh at France, pillory the French, denigrate French solutions, deride French concerns and relegate France and its society to the "losers" column – without fully realizing (or caring) just how good daily life for the "common man" is in France, compared to other countries, including the USA.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in France, of course – oh, far from it ! Low cost excellent healthcare and free education for everyone are hardly the only yardsticks of success, after all. Nevertheless, it is glaringly obvious that in both France and the USA, for basically the same reason ("competitiveness"), the social safety net is being unraveled. Decades of consensus and acknowledged social partnership are being thrown into the trashcan in a frenzied race for "economic performance" – a concept couched in the easily saleable and apocalyptic term "survival".

In France, the unraveling (le détricotage) is called la perte des acquis sociaux ("the loss of social entitlements"). With globalization, immigration, European Union expansion, unemployment and public safety, it's right up there among the leading causes for French unease, discontent and gloom. It's one of the reasons the French voted against the European Constitution, since it has become apparent to many French people that the European Union, with its insistence on "competition" and "free markets" - neither of which are conducive to maintenance of the social safety net à la française - is indeed part of the problem and not just the solution.

Here's a simple example of what's happening in France: British Airways (BA) – which posted 300 million euros in profits for fiscal year 2004 – has embarked on a worldwide costcutting program. Among the measures is the outsourcing of ground operations at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. From January 1, 2006, ticket sales, passenger and baggage registration, boarding, business client services, and aircraft handling/refueling will be entrusted to a subcontractor. BA will be sacking about 190 employees outright … and transferring approximately 400 employees to that subcontractor, Globe Ground. These employees will work every day where Globe tells them to work that day, and not necessarily at BA.

Globe has promised to maintain the salaries of the transferred workers – but has also sworn to renege on the collective bargaining agreements signed between the workers' unions and BA.

So, concretely, just what will the workers lose in January; straight away ?

- their bonuses linked to their individual job performance;
- their bonuses linked to company profits;
- their commuting/travel allowances;
- their restaurant tickets; and
- their uniform allowances.

The unions estimate that these losses represent, from 300 to 600 euros for those workers earning between 1200 and 1300 euros net per month, depending on the individual and her/his seniority. That's somewhere between 23% to 50% of earnings. (No prizes, by the way, for guessing which airline employees marched in uniform – a first !- during the demos at the beginning of the month.)

The BA story above sounds like it could have happened in the USA, of course. So what ? Why is it so "French" ?

Every day, on TV and in the press, the French are informed that yet another small brick in their societal edifice has been reformed and remodeled to the detriment of the people - and the commonweal, i.e., the structures in the society. Both in the USA and France, the unwinnable race to the bottom is on, thanks to "competition". Quite simply; the French social model, for all its failings, has a much longer way to fall to reach that bottom, since the quality of life in France for the common man was better to start with than that in the USA.

If one multiplies the BA story a tenthousandfold, one can see that the destruction is enormous. At least some of the BA workers still have a job, which is not the case for thousands of French men and women. From the average French person's perspective, what is taking place is not acceptable.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, October 03, 2005


Once the feverish activities of la rentrée have subsided a few notches, and after the French celebrate the now-traditional journées du patrimoine on the third weekend of September, politics come to the fore.

Just as autumn's low temperatures and overcast skies always appear quite soon after the Fall Equinox, the French really embrace la rentrée sociale during the last week in September. It's the time of year when they fully discover which laws and regulations were passed and published (sometimes surprisingly discreetly !) during the summer break, and just how much various unavoidable expenses (e.g., transport costs, electricity and gas services, school fees) have risen concretely since July 1st. Invariably, on the front pages of the papers and weeklies, and in the mouths of the TV newsreaders, the words are ever the same: Est-ce que la rentrée sera chaude ? ("Will the rentrée be hot (for the current government) ?"). For practical purposes, this really equates to: "Will the first autumn anti-government demos turn out large crowds ?" coupled with "Will the government have a tough year ?"

In some years the rentrée is chaude indeed, while in other years it's froide, since the trades unions and the opposition political parties are unable to coordinate sufficiently to formulate credible criticisms of whatever government policies (whether from the left or on the right !) are being attacked. This year ? This year … it's hard to call, on the surface. At least two special circumstances have contributed to the difficulty.

The first is Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's "100 days". Upon his appointment, he promised that tangible results of his (nominally free-market) policies would be clearly visible to all and sundry after a mere one hundred days. The end of this period fell during the second week of September. Politicians and commentators have since consecrated enormous space to the "balance sheet" of those elapsed three months, rather than focusing their time and energy on the upcoming rentrée period - and on the problems yet to be addressed.

The second circumstance is the unexpectedly animated and impassioned debate about candidates for the French Presidency, elections for which are scheduled less than two years away (May, 2007). Mme Segolène Royal, a Socialist, stated in the "people press" that she would be available to stand for President on the Socialist ticket, if asked. With at least six other Socialists maneuvering desperately to stake out their own shifting territories and conflicting claims, it was clear to Amerloque (among many other observers) that the Royal hat was going to be tossed into the ring sooner rather than later. Astonishingly, the ensuing media and political brouhaha was devoted to whether or not a woman could and should hold the Presidency, rather than whether or not Royal had the necessary qualifications.

Frequently phrases uttered publicly here resonate in the collective consciousness and can act a good guide to what French people are thinking privately. In July, Nicolas Sarkozy, the current rightist Minister of the Interior, said: La France gronde …" ("France is snarling" or "France is grumbling". The verb gronder can also used as "scold", "threaten" or "make an alarming noise".) He's certainly on target about that: the French people are unhappy about many, many things and are taking pains to show it to their leaders. However, as he uttered these words during the summer vacation period, not too many people paid attention, being concerned as they were with their usual summertime pursuits. Last week, Charles Fiterman, the Communist former Transport Minister in the Mauroy government (1981-1984) said, referring to the current political climate: Le temps se couvre …. ("The sky is turning overcast" or "The weather is becoming stormy."). When this retired politician speaks, it behooves one to listen, if only to give him the lie.

Looking at the situation today, the words that spring to Amerloque's mind resonate in occitan: Marcelin tornarà ("Marcelin shall return.")

Who is "Marcelin", you might well ask, and why on earth would he "return" ? Briefly: almost one hundred years ago, in 1907, Marcelin Albert was the leader of the peasant revolt in the winemaking region of the Midi. Over one million farmers demonstrated against imports of wine (hey; globalization already !) and fraud (plus ca change ...). Marcelin called for mass civil disobedience, including a general tax strike. The entire region sided with him - even an artillery regiment sent to break up the demonstrators joined them instead. After its victory, the winemakers' revolt (la révolte des vignerons) took its rightful place in the collective memory of the inhabitants of southern France. More recently, during the wine troubles in 1976 at Montredon-des-Corbières (in the Aude), a riot policeman and a peasant were killed during ferocious demonstrations, during which participants brandished signs reading "Marcelin, where are you ?". (Note that such fatalities are extremely rare in France, which is far from being a violent society.)

These latter events gave birth to a song by a village schoolteacher-cum-songsmith, Claude Marti. Written in 1976 in the occitan language, his immensely popular E tu, mon vilatge ("And you, my village") is still being sung today in the South of France: both around campfires on the eve of demonstrations and in chartered buses moving demonstrators to major cities, including Paris. An excerpt:

Podètz cantar, cigalas !
Si lo vin va mal,
Sus nostra tèrra blanca
Marcelin tornarà.

Sing you may, cicadas !
If wine is in trouble,
To our white land
Marcelin shall return.

While seemingly innocuous media catchphrases such as la France gronde and le temps se couvre can and do resonate in the consciousness of many French men and women, the stark and uncompromising Marcelin tornarà may well sum up the situation more accurately, if Amerloque's recent experiences around France are any guide. Wine - along with many other sectors in agriculture, industry and services - is indeed in trouble.

Last week the government sent highly-trained antiterrorist military forces in against ... unarmed unionized strikers. Well, it was in Corsica, not the metropole, and they had hijacked a ferry, after all ... Did seeing the soldiers abseiling from helicopters onto the deck of the ship resonate negatively in the hearts and minds of many French TV viewers ? For those fed up with what are perceived as endless union antics, no. For those who are fed up and suffering and seeking to forge and drive another nail into the coffin of the Villepin government, yes.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is a national day of strikes and demonstrations against the current government and its policies. The keen observer might seen a sign or two referring to "Marcelin". If there are many, it is a portent of events to come.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque