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03.14.2003

French Week: Day One

It's French week here at Idle Words, where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle salute the country that made them great. Every day for the next seven days, the better half and I will be manning the barricades (right next to the hot topless Liberty chick) for our beleaguered French friends, a daily défense d'honneur. If you're looking for liberty fries, you came to the wrong place.

Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!

We start our seven days of hot francophile action with a list of:

Ten Reasons to Love France


10. The TGV (Train wit' a quickness)

Just a few days ago I took a six hour trip on an Amtrak train from Rutland to New York City, a distance of about 200 miles. A one-way ticket on this speed monster costs $50.

In France, you can get on a train at the Gare de Lyon in Paris at noon and be in Marseille (600 miles south) by four in the afternoon. Not only is the French train four times faster, but it's also quiet. A TGV is a smoother ride than a Mercedes.

Hungry? Amtrak offers you the turkey Reuben, which consists of sliced turkey on a hamburger bun, sealed in a plastic bag and microwaved, with a packet of salad dressing (fat free!) on the side. This will set you back nine dollars.

In France, you can get yourself a fresh ham and butter sandwich, on a real baguette, for half that amount. And it's possible to carry the meal back to your seat without falling into anyone's lap.

9. The Statue of Liberty A 100th birthday gift from France to the United States, and probably one of the nicest presents one country has ever given another (compare the Soviet Union's generous gift to Warsaw). Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi designed the statue, Alexandre Eiffel figured out how to support its weight. The Americans couldn't scrape up the money to build the pedestal, their part of the deal, until (Hungarian-born) Joseph Pulitzer pitched in. The Statue of Liberty is one of those things that it's a miracle ever got built, when you really think about it. And it's there because tens of thousands of ordinary French people passed the hat.

8. Treating exiles right Oh boy, where do you even start? From the nineteenth century onwards, if you were a creative type who needed to take sudden leave of his country (or if you just decided to hit the road on your own), France was the place to go. The country amassed a pretty impressive A-list: Nabokov, Zamyatin, Ionesco, Beckett, Stravinsky, Van Gogh, and Picasso all lived in France at one time or other. Whole cultures in exile flourished in Paris (notably for the countries of the Soviet Bloc), and smuggled their wares back to the home countries that wouldn't have them. The French even suffered D.H. Lawrence. That is some serious hospitality.

7. Comic Strips for grown-ups

The Japanese have manga, and the French have the bande dessinée. For someone who grew up on Marvel comics and MAD magazine, it may be hard to take comic books seriously as an art form, but a visit to any French bookstore will quickly change your mind. In France, comics are taken seriously, and they are wonderful. The books are large, in hardcover, and run the gamut from kids' books to satire to erotica to full-on graphic novels.

6. Real family values

If you're a new dad in France, you get two weeks paid leave to spend with your new kid, whether adopted or natural-born. A new mom gets four months of paid maternity leave, with a guarantee that she will not lose her job to someone else. For a third child, maternity leave goes up to six months, still paid. When the kids are older, working parents can rely on excellent and affordable day care, or they can get government assistance in hiring a nanny. Single moms can get help finding an affordable place to live. When it's finally time to send the child to school, parents can count on the kid getting an actual education, in a clean and safe classroom, with teachers who are both well trained and well paid.

5. The food

What more can I say?

4. Real vacations for everyone

Five weeks! Five weeks of paid vacation, for everybody, and it's the law. Imagine cops coming to arrest your boss because you didn't get five weeks of paid vacation. At my own job, where the benefits are considered very good, it's not even possible to accumulate five weeks of 'personal time' because anything over four weeks gets transferred to a category called 'Sick Leave Reserve'. After all, what is illness, if not a "vacation from health"?

3. World's best Euroschlock

When it comes to effusive displays of jaw-dropping spectacular excess, no one holds a candle to the French. There is a reason why the word 'camp' doesn't translate. Whether you're looking for giant inflatable multiracial robots (World Cup 1998), an entire artificial universe of quadrilinear topiary, Habitrailâ„¢ architecture on a human scale, or a giant windowless mechanized library, chances are you can find an enormous, state-funded project in France that fits the bill.

2. They saved our ass

If it weren't for French money, French diplomacy, and French military assistance, we would still be paying taxes to London. Check back later in French week for all the Revolutionary details.

1. Living proof that the "Clash of Civilizations" is bullshit Ten years ago, you could get a lot of mileage out of the argument that France was facing a crisis of identity. One one side were the millions of disaffected Arab immigrants in the project surrounding Paris and other large cities. On the other was an increasingly polarized white right wing, centered on the Front National. Algerian terrorists were bombing the Paris metro, and had almost succeeded in crashing a hijacked airliner into the Eiffel tower.

But Le Pen got his bubble pricked, both in the dramatic Presidential election, and in the local elections some weeks later, when his candidates saw their share of the vote recede in their traditional strongholds. The Algerian terrorists were brought under control — no more bombs in the metro. The tensions in the banlieue simmer on, but slowly enough, France is becoming a multicultural and democratic society where Arabs and Europeans, both secular and devout, are assimilating to each other. And they're creating a common identity, as French citizens, that leaves room for them all. That's pretty damned inspiring. --

Tomorrow on French week: World War II, the real story.

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