Wednesday, January 17, 2007

habits of mind...a la francaise

This morning while driving to work I caught this brief exchange...(the general subject was the EU)
"With respect to the law. Do you think that enough work has been done?"
"As you know, in France quite a lot of law is being made all time."
"Yes, but not necessarliy enforced."
Then in the salle des profs I saw on the table a union advertisement with a banner headline, "Profession en colere" (Angry Teachers). There is a photo of teachers protesting in the streets, banners unfurled. In the foreground is a resolute young woman in a teeshirt on which is emblazoned the following text. "J'ai rate mon BAC parce que ma prof de francais etait prof de maths!" (I failed my baccalaureate exams because my French teacher was really a Math teacher.) In smaller print you can also see "18 hours of class = 44 hours of work. More than full time!" I sympathize with the sentiment even if the math appears a little fuzzy to me. It's a call to arms for all teachers to march through the streets of Paris on Jan. 20.
It's a far cry from the labor relations I'm familiar with back home. There everybody knows everybody else... it's more personal, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a difficult thing. Every so often "big guns" are brought into the mix but these outsiders while they represent backing and resources from larger interest groups are still there to do the bidding of the local parties involved, the local union or the school board. I wonder how my colleagues would feel about moving in the direction of a statewide bargaining unit if they had a chance to sample the dynamic that prevails here. I suppose it's a bit easier to get fired up and become activist if your adversary is a larger, faceless entity, but it also seems to me that something is lost in trading one scale for another. Acting locally (even when thinking locally) requires taking into account a human factor that is not abstract but very real and present. People tend to go slow in that kind of environment, the very definition of a conservative temperament, but part of the reason they go slow is because they are loathe to put in jeapordy what they perceive as the well being of their own community.
But that is not France. Here the scale is national. Federal government, nationwide unions.
Pinned to one of the walls is an article examing the phenomenon of "bivalence", that is to say, teachers who are certified to teach two different disciplines. The article, which is far more dispassionate in its tone and its analysis than the union publication discloses that while the rest of Europe makes ample use of bivalence and polyvalence (Germany routinely certifies teachers in a speciality and a complimentary discipline) France has only recently entertained the idea with any seriousness. Last year only 33 such teachers were certified in the entire country.
The reason apparently is the gridlock caused by the longstanding distrust between the major players, namely, the syndicats (unions) and the government. Specialization is a jealously guarded hallmark of teacher formation in France. Even closely related disciplines are separately certified here. The union poster rails against bivalence, asseting that it threatens the primary motivation cited by young teachers as their reason for entering the profession, namely the opportunity to study and then to teach a discipline that is one's personal and lifelong passion. Diversifying a teacher's teaching assignment, so the argument goes, encourages mediocrity and a banalisation of the subject matter.
A cartoon next to the article on the wall pokes fun at this mentality. It shows two teachers talking. The first one says, "I remember the old days when there were history/geography teachers." The second one shrugs and says, "I wouldn't know. I'm a geography teacher."
Hamed, the syndicalist, comes in the room while I'm looking at this so I ask him his opinion. Actually, he says, this issue is not a major one for him. He understands that there are reasons to promote bivalence. He then cites one which I hadn't thought of...the desire to ease the transition to college (middle school) from elementary school by reducing the number of different teachers each student has to deal with.
Is it likely to happen? I ask him. He shrugs doubtfully. He doesn't trust the people on the other side of the political fence who are pushing the proposal. Even if the idea has merit he doesn't doubt that their motives are disingenuous...in short, the proposal might be a kind of Trojan horse, or the camel's nose under the tent...let this in and there might be no stopping them. The really hidden agenda that many teachers wonder about is that the government wants to change teacher working conditions to those more like those in the United States...which is to say, longer contact hours, longer hours on campus, more responsibilities, and proportionally anyway, less pay for all their trouble. I say, to Hamed, "One might get the impression that you distrust the right (political types are typically identified as either left or right here)."
He laughs. "You might say that."
He mentions the newly annointed presidential candidate from the right, Nicolas Sarkozy. Hamed is adamant that the right will dismantle everything he holds near and dear. Regarding Sarkozy he says, "He loves to use the word work (travailler). He says to the French, 'If you want more, you have to work more, work harder.' He wants to reduce taxes for the rich and lengthen the work week. But you know, the fact is that history shows that productivity goes up as work hours go down. It is because the workers are allowed to share in the productivity and the benefits it brings."
I am impressed by the reach of that last syllogism and I am incapapble of ascertaining it's validity right then and there so I simply nod...not that Hamed would take it amiss if I were to dissent;quite the contrary, it would only energize him. I don't always agree with Hamed's positions but I like him a lot. He is a soldier in the trench warfare that is French politics. As the photo in the poster attests, solidarity is a cardinal virtue in this kind of cultural context. This is not to say that everyone in France lines up on the left or the right ... in fact, many people I talk to are tired of the polarization and seem to yearn for more pragmatic approaches.
I find myself wondering if in a culture that prizes solidarity within political factions, ideas do not simply rise and fall based on their merits; rather, their prospects depend, for good or ill, on their politcal patronage. It's one thing to assent to the merits of a certain proposal; it's quite another to allow agreement with it to be construed as support for its politcal partisans who are your sworn rivals.
I suppose that politics in America is also susceptible to this sort of thing, though I wonder if it isn't a little easier to for American political types to crossover from one side of the aisle to the other on individual issues.
To change subjects just a little...
It probably comes as to no surprise to readers that in France things are closely regulated.
A timely example of this is the post Christmas sales which are called soldes. If you are a retailer here you are not allowed to launch your sales until the officially designated date, this year Jan 10. There are numerous regulations in place which affect how much of your inventory you can put on sale and how much of a discount you're allowed to offer. You are not allowed, for example, to sell goods at a loss. Records must be kept to document the cost of goods and the selling prices. Usage of promotional gimmicks like liquidation or going out of business sales must be approved in advance to certify their veracity. Finally, the duration of the soldes is strictly limited to six weeks. What I have just described represents only my superficial understanding of what is, I am certain, a very complex set of regulations and language that only a lawyer could love. Apparently there is a difference between promotions and sales but don't ask me (not yet anyway) to tell what it is. The beginning of the soldes comes with great fanfare and media coverage. It is not unlike the day after Thanksgiving phenomenon in the U.S. Consumers arrive early and in great numbers at commercial centers all over the country. Beth braved the crowds with her friend Christelle and came back with all kinds of great deals...mostly clothes for the kids...Christine now refers to Beth affectionately as her copine de soldes (sales sister).
I asked Hamed about the soldes and gently needled him about whether the French consumer needed protection from merchants who might spring sales and discounts on them unexpectedly during the year. He took it in good humor and said that the idea was to prevent retailers from selling items below cost. I was still in a mood to play, so I said, "So, in France there is no right to commit commercial suicide? I can't decide to sell my goods for a loss?" He didn't miss a beat and came back with, "It's not suicide; it's murder." He went on to cite the practices of giant retailers who undercut competitors and drive them out of the market only to hike prices after the competition is gone. He looked at me with a sly smile, and I knew he was thinking of Walmart. Then he said with a perfectly straight face, "We regulate the soldes to protect competition." It was an effortless display of the kind of mental gymnastics and argumentation that is practically a national past time here in France.
I'm tempted to generalize...probably something I should resist but hey only eight people are reading it anyway (including my mother of course). How about this? French habits of mind as allegorical figures: Ideology officiates the marriage of Logic to Paradox, their offspring being the twins Skepticism and Irony.
Late in the evening I decide check out the tv...my expectations are appropriately low...tv is bad everywhere in the world, I imagine. Nevertheless, I manage to become intrigued by a couple of shows. One of them is a variation on an extremely common format here, the talk show. This particular show's theme is "old songs revived and revisited". The guests are all either performers, songwriters or "experts". There are almost a dozen guests representing everything from classical to hiphop. One guy takes a Jacque Brel tune and uses it as a point of departure into a "soft" poetic hip hop meditation accompanied by piano. Another performer spins a variation of Cher's popular song "Bang, Bang"...it's surreal really to see popular culture remixed and re-presented to an audience that may or may not be familiar with the "original" anticedent material. The music isn't all that interesting to me but I am struck by the programming...two full hours devoted to a discussion of a particular topic. The French attachment to this idea of a soiree en conversation seems to me to be something that Americans lack patience for. I wonder how many French viewers sit and watch the entire thing....
The other show that interests me is a special report on the government policy of using automated radar and cameras to deter speeding on France's roads and highways. In 2002 Chirac announced a get tough policy, referring the death toll on the highways as a national embarassment and a form of violence that would no longer be tolerated. Since then, French drivers have been surveilled remotely to an unprecedented degree. The death toll has plummeted. The number of people driving without licences and/or insurance has skyrocketed. The documentary reveals an interesting fact about the cost of enforcing the new laws. Each time a driver is cited in person (that is to say with a policeman and a ticket) when all the processing and administrative costs are calculated it costs the taxpayers something like 40 euros. (don't quote me on the figure) On the other hand when speeding tickets are issued automatically using radar and linked technologies and notification by mail, the net result is each ticket nets the government positive euros...in other words, it's a revenue stream... the prospects for French drivers seem positively Orwellian.
As always, repressive measures always inspire individual acts of resistance. One driver revealed a very slick strategy for evading the system. It takes advantage of the as yet imperfect merging of laws between member countries of the EU. He holds driving permits for both Spain and France. When he is France, if he is stopped, he produces his permit from Spain. The French system does not talk to the system in Spain so he loses no points for his infraction. When he is in Spain uses his French permit for the same reason. In this way he can rack up speeding tickets without fear of losing points and ulitmately losing his permit. The more laws and regulations, the more confusion, the easier for him to slip through the loopholes.

K

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