Monday, March 26, 2007

Adieu, Paris (for now, at least)

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure,
Les jours s'en vont je demeure.
-Guillaume Apollinaire

When I told my friend Justin, an Italian-American currently resident in Rome, that I was coming to France to recuperate from India last month, he wrote to me sarcastically “Oh, I feel so sorry for you. Paris. What hell. What condemnation. What a despicable place. Cultured people. Good looking, well-dressed people. Gourmet food at the corner shops.”

Of course, this is one image of France, a country that also has a ton of problems and appears to be going through some sort of agonizing personality crisis at present. It is a crisis perhaps best typified by the riots in the banlieues in fall 2005, the million-plus protesters the following year successfully scuttling a jobs bill designed to reduce the soaring youth unemployment the was one of the main causes for the unrest and this spring’s rather underwhelming presidential campaign, which pits a former interior minister given to feinting to the far right (Nicolas Sarkozy) against a rather unreconstructed big-spending socialist (Ségolène Royal) and a relatively undistinguished former education minister who enjoys portraying himself as a yeoman farmer (François Bayrou), none of whom seem to have the mixture of new ideas and compassion needed to bring France out of its slump.

When people in the United States complain about 4.5% unemployment and a 3.4% GDP growth rate, the picture in France looks as follows: France's jobless rate has not dipped below 8% for 25 years (measuring an astonishing 21.5% for the under-25s and nearly 50% in some housing projects) and its GDP growth was just 2% last year. That is in some ways a sick, staggering economy.

However, the French do have many things to be envied, not the least of which is first-class public healthcare and an excellent public transportation system, something that, living in New York, it is often easy to forget the rest of the United States conspicuously lacks, with some urban exceptions. There is a sense of societal responsibility for the welfare of the average citizen that has all but vanished from Washington after two terms of one of the most venomous, corrupt, oligarchic and unfeeling administrations the United States has ever seen. There is a brutal inequality in the American system, where minimum wages are beneath any possibility of making a living on them and generalized health care is non-existent (I myself lack any). The key for the French, it would seem, is how to reconcile the social protections and comforts they have grown so used to (and elements of which, in my view, the U.S. could learn much from), with an entrepreneurial and free-market zeal that will unblock the vast, dispirited underclass and youth that feel they have very little to gain from the French economy on the whole, and whose sense of hopelessness has been a main driver in the civil tumult seen here in recent years.

But alas, before France makes it big choice, I will have to depart, back to the United States. I will have to momentarily leave behind the rainy streets, the exquisite museums, the people selling stolen watches and households gems along the Marché Dejean, the call centers offering special rates to Côte d'Ivoire and Algeria, and the warm, inviting bistros and boulangeries that seem to line every street. But I will be back.

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