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06.22.2003

Moustiers

[Note: I'm going to disguise some proper and place names in this post. Please don't take it personally]

In 1997, I moved for a while to southern France. I had conned my way into a fellowship to spend a year doing landscape painting, and the only condition attached to it was that I had to leave the country. Reasonable enough, I thought.

I started out in Scotland, gradually drifting out from Edinburgh into the Inner Hebrides. The summer was beautiful, but then the days shrank to eight short hours, and storms began blowing from the North Atlantic straight into my bones. One day in October I looked out and saw that the little waterfall near my house, where rainwater dropped off a cliff into the sea, had turned into a perfect circle. The wind was picking it up and re-depositing it back at the crest of the hill, a perpetuum mobile. It occurred to me to head south.

I needed a place to live where I could paint happily for a few months while spending the maximum proportion of my fellowship on red wine. Provence seemed like a natural choice, provided I could find a convenient corner far from the sea. The littoral was insanely expensive, and frankly speaking I didn't have the body for it. Peter Mayle country (the Vaucluse) was out as well, since his books had drawn hordes of tourists to the area, and kicked up prices tremendously. The Rhône valley was out because of the mistral, that teeth-removing mountain wind that scours the valley for most of the winter. Also, the Front National had recently won some local elections in that part of the world, and actually held the mayor's post in Orange and Nîmes. Not good for a seedy-looking foreigner like me, with no visible means of support.

I was intrigued by the guidebook description of the Alpes de Haute Provence, a kind of placeholder département preventing the Alps from sliding down and smushing the Côte d'Azur. The region was very sparsely populated, with no off-season bus service, and instead of exercising minimal foresight (did I want to go crazy from loneliness?) I decided I just had to see the place. My specific destination was a town called Riez (rhymes with punaises), which the guidebook said was supposed to contain 'golden light'.

The only way to get to Riez was by hitchiking from the semi-industrial armpit city of Manosque, forty miles away. It took me four rides to get within striking distance. My fifth ride came from a funny red-headed woman in a dinky Puegeot. She grilled me on my provenance, my intentions, and then she said "Forget Riez. You should go to the town of X. Do you want to come see my goat?"

I spent a long time thinking about that proposition. It sounded like a euphemism to me, and I dearly wished I spoke better French. Did I really want to "see her goat"? Would it involve nudity? Was there a polite way to refuse? The miles passed in deep reflection.

The goat turned out to be a handsome young animal named Gary. He spent his days chained up in a little pen, eating grass, stones, bottle caps, and anything else he could reach. He spent his nights wailing with loneliness (again, red flag!). He lived right outside the pottery studio where the woman (let's call her C) had been working for the past few months.

There were a lot of pottery studios in X, and many people worked in them as decorators, painting little hens and froufrou borders on plates, pitchers, and unspeakable ceramic cuckoo clocks. The town apparently had quite a reputation for the stuff. Many of the decorators, C included, worked "au black", meaning they got paid under the table. The boss would hire them for part-time work, and then pay them extra in cash to work overtime, in order to avoid hiring them as full-blown employees.

In France, I learned, employee status carries a host of legal obligations with it. The employer has to pay benefits and taxes that cost about as much as the base salary, and is required to provide vacation time, parental leave, and require no more than 35 hours per week of work (40 at the time I met C). Moreover, once hired, there are all kinds of barriers to firing a worker, especially if unions are involved.

For people who have full-time work, this is a very good arrangement. For civil servants (that is 25% of the French work force, it's a dream, since their benefits are even better, and it is extremely rare for a civil servant to be fired for any reason.

For people like C, the arrangement is not so good. It encourages an unregulated grey market in labor, especially in low-wage jobs like hers, leaving workers with minimal benefits and job security. With real jobs scarce, people settle for unofficial work without any of the protections that French labor law is so determined to provide. C worked insane hours, her boss would sometimes bilk her out of pay she had earned, and she couldn't complain to the local cops because they would have shut the whole place down. The work was seasonal, so by the start of the winter, everyone was going to close up shop anyway.

C was resourceful and a hard worker. In the States, she wouldn't have had problems finding a job, but in Provence it was hard to even get a menial gig. Fast-food restaurants, for example, would hire temps on a three month 'training' contract and then bring in new faces, to avoid having full-time benefits kick in. My other close friend in town was an entrepreneur who sold freakish New Wave hairdo posters to hair salons. He could have used some help, but there was no way he could ever hire C, except on a cash basis. Like all entrepreneurs everywhere, he complained bitterly about the tax and legal burden of being self-employed. But the quantity of documentation he had to fill out to get anything done seemed to back him up.

At the same time I was watching this little labor market parable unfold, I kept hearing about strikes and 'social actions' taking place elsewhere. These almost always involved the SNCF (French national railroad), as well as opportunistic students who didn't mind the occassional 'solidarity strike'. Yes, French students were unionized!

Most impressive to me was the two-week period when the Nice post office went on strike - people couldn't get their mail at all. Little old ladies stood in line for pension checks. I went around scowling, a disdainful American. I began to move to the right of Calvin Coolidge.

By the end of my stay, I was ready to become a raging free-market liberalist. A visit to France a year later made me change my mind.

C had had a baby, by a guy who suddenly recalled important engagements elsewhere after she became pregnant. The aptly-named O was possibly the roundest baby I had ever seen, with large eyes and a perpetually stunned expression. He may have been stunned at the fact that he was living in a clean, comfortable apartment in government-subsidized housing. Or that his mom was on maternity leave because of the same French labor law that had made it hard for her to find work in the first place. Or that he would continue to enjoy free day care and medical care when his mom went back to work in his sixth month.

Back home in the States, my own mother (who cannot afford health insurance) had begun flying regularly home to Poland to get medical care. The plane ticket cost her about as much as a single blood test back in the US.

For all the strikes that had taken place in my absence, I noticed the SNCF had managed to finish the Marseille - Paris TGV line, meaning that the 500 mile trip now took three hours (the Amtrak trip I took yesterday from Rutland to Washington, DC took four times as long to cover less distance). The 35 hour work week had become law, but my dire predictions about it causing even more unemployment had been wrong. Unemployment had gone down.

These observations left me feeling profoundly ambivalent about the French (and, by extension, European) political philosophy. On the one hand, the regulation and corporatism felt stifling, and I could see they were making life difficult both for small businesses and people who wanted a job. The constant strikes were infuriating, especially when they were in defense of benefits that already seemed excessive (an early retirement age for railroad workers, for example, which dated from the days of coal-fired steam engines and black lung ).

On the other hand, I was impressed that the country continued to function despite the strikes, continued to prosper despite the rigid labor market. And I was impressed by the committment to affordable health care, public education, and the kinds of policies that would instantly be dismissed as 'class warfare' in this country, these days. People in France seemed to be willing to put up with a huge amount of inefficiency and red tape in order to guarantee everyone certain basic economic rights.

The Bush administration is busy dismantling social services in this country, mostly through the expedient of cutting taxes so much that social programs become unfundable. This fits a certain philosophical dogma, namely that the free market is always preferable to government control. Many Americans honestly believe that dogma, and endorse it. But I have been shocked at the absence of protest, discussion, or even comment by those Americans who don't share the philosophy, who until recently formed the majority of the electorate. At the same time as massive rollbacks of the welfare state were being rubber-stamped here, France was undergoing a fresh wave of widespread strikes, over some administrative reforms to the civil service.

I wrote to one of my favorite French bloggers, the extremely non-dogmatic Laurent at navire.net, to ask him what was up. I was curious to know why France (like the rest of Europe) was so prone to strikes, and so opposed to even minor reforms. But the unspoken corollary to that question goes out to my fellow American readers - why are we so willing to allow the present American administration to dismantle our social safety net without a peep? The French, Germans, or even British would have shut the country down before allowing their leadership to cut taxes for the rich at the same time local governments were forced to cut services. Why are we such patsies?

Instead of throwing that very question back at me, which was his right, Laurent took my question in good faith and threw out some (provocative!) answers. Not only that - he even started a thread on his site for others to participate. I want to devote tomorrow's post to what he has to say.

But fair is fair. If you Americans have an answer to that second question, send it in! How can we explain this incredible apathy, the American phobia about criticizing radical laissez-faire capitalism? We have to get to the bottom of this.

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