The Anti-Anti-Americans

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The New Yorker has published an article by Adam Gopnik titled The anti-anti-Americans, a point of view of an American about France and Paris.

Before I tell you how great this article is, there are few things I need to complain about. This is just because I’m French, so I’m expected to complain.

First, Bertrand Delanoë is pictured as the “green and gay mayor of Paris”. He is socialist, not green. So, let’s say he’s the socialist and gay mayor of Paris. Although this is as relevant as depicting Chirac as the right-wing and heterosexual President. Oh, sorry! I’m a little ahead of my time in that thinking, we’re just not there yet (but that the head of the capital city and one of the most prominent and popular political figures in France is overtly gay will help a great deal).

Secondly, and I’m starting to believe that our social system is so far away from anything conceivable for an American that it must be pure science-fiction, Gopnik makes two misleading shortcuts about the recent conflict raised by the “intermittents du spectacle” (part-time workers in show business, as he translates it).

Basically, for thirty years or so part-time actors and night-club bouncers and musicians in France have had a ridiculously generous unemployment-insurance deal, which, owing to the “precariousness” of their situation, lets them work for about three months to collect a year’s worth of unemployment insurance.

The span of the insurance is long indeed but it is only a fraction of their salary, which is not known to be particularly high (I don’t know of a high profile actor in France who benefits from this system). But the main point, which Gopnik completely misses, is that those who benefit the most from this system are the show business companies and the State. It helps companies save about 25% on employment taxes compared to the normal social system and they profited from it as much as they could, bringing all their personnel, including the switchboard operator, under this “intermittents du spectacle” regime. It also helps the State (as well as regions and cities) diminish cultural spending by forcing troupes to organize themselves as companies or non-profit organizations and hire themselves as part-time workers (it’s technical, but the point is that it is cheaper for a public body to pay a bill than to subsidize a theater.) If you miss the factual evidence that those who benefit the most from this system are those who are at the top of the food chain, you are missing the root cause of the conflict. I don’t think that the switchboard operators who get fired every three months so that their employer can save on their social costs would qualify this system as “ridiculously generous”!

When the country and its joys can be shut down by part-time trombonists, however, something is wrong, or at least ridiculous.

Considering his colorful and accurate description of French strikes and protests, I’m sure Gopnik knows better. Those strikes did cause problems to many festivals this summer, but they did not even come close to shutting the country down. Watch France during September, that’s usually when the serious “shut down the country” business happens.

End of the compulsory complaint, resuming normal report.

I liked the article a lot, actually. I have not read the books he mentions except Emmanuel Todd’s “Après l’Empire” (“After the Empire”). I would certainly not rate Todd’s book as anti-American, unless you are using Bush’s scale (if you don’t agree with me, you are anti-American). This is a must-read book to me, but I don’t know if it has been translated in English.

What is striking, and a little scary, in Paris this year is the absence of anti-Americanism—of a lucid, coherent, tightly argued alternative to American unilateralism that is neither emptily rhetorical nor mere daydreaming. (In fact, it is easier to find this kind of argument in Britain than in France.)

We took five days to (re)visit Paris along with two American friends, and I’m happy to report they are still alive. Actually, I think they loved it :-).

“For the first time, French people care about their houses,” a leading French journalist complains in shock. “That was always a little England thing—and now you find intelligent Parisians talking all the time about home improvements.” This narrowing of expectations and horizons is evident already in the French enthusiasm for cartoon versions of French life, as in “Amélie,” of a kind the French would once have thought fit only for tourists. It has a name, “the Venetian alternative”—meaning a readiness to turn one’s back on history and retreat into a perfect simulacrum of the past, not to reject modernity but to pretend it isn’t happening.

This is, to me, the most thought-provoking part of this article. It should be noted that Amélie (the movie) did get this critic when it was released — a film depicting a clean and nostalgic vision of a France that do not exist anymore (provided it ever existed in the first place). I also heard the same exact critique of Lartigue’s vision (as being nihilistic).

But is this exercise of shielding ourselves from an unwanted reality only a Parisian, or even French trait? And isn’t the fact that we are aware of it, and feeling uncomfortable about it, a positive sign? Don’t give up hope on France, we’re not ready to stop complaining about our friends and everything anytime soon!

[Thanks Edouard for the link]