Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Getting Politicized

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

The French love to discuss politics. At the dinner table or a cocktail party, rather than pepper you with personal questions or complaints, they are more apt to try to draw you into a political discussion. Since living here, I too have become an adept at the political discussion. I simply care more and more deeply, and I strive to keep myself informed. Back when I lived in the US, I was not in any way politically savvy, nor particularly concerned. I loved reading the NYTimes, but stuck to the Magazine, Arts and Leisure, and the Book Review sections. When it came time to vote, I would call a friend who had worked in political circles for years and ask her to give me the list of her preferred candidates. I knew we thought and felt alike, so I simply voted her suggestions. As a system, it worked.

But since I began living in France, I've felt the need to be informed, and when possible to act. It could be because people here follow assiduously local and national politics, and also international. They're up on Chavez, on our presidential elections, on the political bents of the Germans and the Italians, what's happening in China. There is just a significant majority which reads about and discusses the issues of the day.

I moved to France during the Clinton years, and lived through the Monica scandal on French soil. At the same time, the French were publicly discovering the presence of Mitterand's illegitimate daughter with his longtime mistress. The comparison of our reactions was interesting at the least, and often amusing. Living amidst the less strict French (at least where mistresses are concerned) I felt that it was a bit much to expect a charismatic man in a position of power not to flaunt it. Attracting women is just one of the benefits for these men. I don't applaud it, but I'm not so innocent as to think that those who resist are in the majority. So, perhaps disrespectfully, I would say, why couldn't he have had better taste? JFK apparently bedded some of the great beauties of his time. Marlene Dietrich at least knew how to be discreet. Am I jaded? or just realistic when considering attractive and powerful men? I've definitely got a more continental view on this aspect of the political world.

Living in France means living amongst people who believe their individual actions, when collected into the organized actions of their unions, can change government. The people who stormed the Bastille and overthrew a king are still here. They shall not be dictated to. And yet, they do very much respect authority and the patriarchal structures that surround them. It's an interesting blend. As many visitors have discovered, much to their frustration, the French engage in and support organized strikes, those that can that is. So those who have guaranteed jobs for life with the civil service -- postal workers, the police, teachers, transit workers--or those who are well organized in unions such as the truck drivers strike with amazing ease and frequency.

This means that your average French citizen has to cope yearly with a week or more of no school for his/her child. One year, they missed so much school in the public system that the baccalauriat exam was in jeopardy. Parents were pulling their hair out seeking options for keeping their kids safe and occupied while they went to work (or missed work coping as they could).

He also becomes adept at juggling shifting train schedules (and the lack thereof), potential gas shortages due to truckers blocking all the highway exits, air flights being cancelled, mail not delivered, and so on and so on.

I remember fondly my experience in the winter of 1995 when all forms of transit -- the trains local and tgv, the busses, and the metro-- were on strike. It was just around Thanksgiving, and Erick had to drive me back to Paris and my job there. Once there, I simply walked everywhere -- something I love to do in any case. But I was joined now by all of Paris. Some were on roller blades, some on bikes. Some hitch-hiked up the Champs Elysées in their handmade shoes, cashmere coats and buttery leather brief cases. Everyone arrived at work with bright red cheeks and stories to tell. Those coming in from the outlying suburbs had it the hardest, but they also regaled their co-workers with tales of sharing rides, hitch hiking and general comraderie. I really loved that strike, strange as that may seem. Paris has never been nicer. And I've never had such lovely legs since.

Remarkably few complained of the situation as they were pretty much behind the strikers and they too wanted then prime minister Alain Jupé humbled. And they succeeded. He has now left central government and returned to his city of Bordeaux to be mayor again.

Though the strikes drive everyone crazy, remarkably often they are supported or at least tolerated by the general populace. There's something hopeful and reassuring in knowing that if you make a stink about an issue, and if there are a sufficient number of you, you will be heard and government will respond.

I've also been brainwashed into believing in the virtues of a single party health care system, and one where everyone gets cared for no matter their prior illnesses, genetic history, etc., I like that education is a nationalized system, designed as much as possible to give equal access to all. It is not paid for with local realestate taxes, and as such, the better neighborhoods don't have a complete monopoly on the best educators.

A fascinating media creation here is a nightly show of puppets repeating the news events of the day in the exaggerated personas of real-life politicians, tv newscasters, celebrities and more. It is called the Guignols, and it is the vehicle through which many French school children are introduced to politics and all the major players in France. Because of this show, your average ten year old likely knows the names and faces of a couple dozen major French political figures, from the head of the green party to the workers' party, the wives and paramours of the sitting presidents (and former as well), all the cabinet ministers. It is a brilliant show: funny, pertinent, and wryly informative. Imagine Jon Stewart but as a puppet.

When I go out on my visits, we chat about family, the weather, and politics. The baker follows Obama's visit to Europe and the various reactions to his presence. The chocolatier would like to know who you're voting for (on this particular occasion, it was Kerry or Bush). What happens in the US affects the French. What happens on an international level will eventually touch them on a local level, be it lower wheat yields in Africa encouraging local farmers to plant more grains, or the fighting in the Middle East increasing immigration, or the economic woes of the sub prime lenders reverberating out to pretty much destroy middle class tourism for a year or more.

I've not lived in the US now for nearly fifteen years. And as such, I no longer have any idea as to the political intensity of your average American. I know many in my own family and amongst my friends worked hard to get Obama elected, give regularly to help along medical initiatives, encourage green policies, etc., But there are also many who simply find discussing politics awkward, inappropriate and unsettling. And so, we are careful, tactful, and avoid "going there." I've been unable to not put a bit of oil on the fire though. Each time I've had a young American au pair in my house, she's gone home with a head full of thoughts about politics, whether she agreed with me or not. Indoctrinating susceptible young women was not necessarily part of the agreement when they came over to care for my kids, but, living amidst this world of fierce thinkers and debaters, I couldn't help myself. Spread the word.

No comments: