May 2006 : A " Royal " Socialist.....
|the elegant charismatic
52-year-old French Socialist Deputy, president of the southwestern
Poitou Charentes region, and former minister who is running for
President of France, has announced she's planning a meeting with
Hillary Clinton in June.
My little finger tells me they're
going to have a lot to talk about.
In spite of different countries
and different languages, the two have a lot in common. Both are
highly intelligent, attractive politicians in - whether you like
it or not a man's world, especially in France where women
only obtained the right to vote in 1944 and represent a mere
12 per cent of the deputies in the National Assembly, one of
the lowest percentages in Europe.
In fact, so macho is the French
political scene that when Segolene announced last September that
she might run in the May 2007 Presidential election, one of her
male Socialist colleagues, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius
queried : " Who will look after the children ? " Jack
Lang, former Socialist Minister of Education and himself a contender
for the Presidency, huffed that " The presidential race
is not a beauty contest. "
Segolene's " coming out
" has in fact totally destablized the Old White Male Guard
who rarely have women challengers and when they do, manage to
make short work of them. This time, though, their little boy
inside jokes and asides aren't taking ; they've had to rethink
their strategy and change their language, in public at
least - as Segolene has soared in the polls.
France may be a conservative
country to wit, last year's resounding " non "
to the referendum on the European Union and this year's massive
" non " to a proposed law to loosen up rigid labor
laws that set off a month of demonstrations. At the same time,
the French, who are so fearful about globalization and risk and
the future, seem to have no qualms about a woman for President.
Not just any woman. What is it
about Segolene Royal that has everyone going around in circles
and four magazines in the same week devoting cover stories to
her ? Who is this woman who has singlehandedly breathed new life
into the stagnant halls of French politics ? Can she be compared
in any way to Hillary Clinton, a politican she admires and plans
to meet soon ?
In terms of intelligence, for
sure. Hillary has sterling educational credentials and a sharp
mind. Segolene was trained at the exclusive Ecole Nationale d'Administration
(ENA) that produced French Presidents Jacques Chirac and Giscard
d'Estaing. Like Hillary, she's got brains in bundles. Like Hillary,
she doesn't really suffer fools whether they're in the
opposing camp or her own.
In terms of the way they started
and managed their political careers, Hillary and Segolene differ
slightly. Hillary was a brilliant Yale law student with big ambitions
when she met Bill and hitched herself to his star. Although she
had her own career as a lawyer and was in the spotlight as First
Lady, it took her years to come into her own as a Senator. Segolene
met François Hollande, the father of her four children,
when both were students at the prestigious Institut d'Etudes
Politiques, " Sciences Po ". Some sources say that
at that time Segolene didn't want a career in politics and it
was François who convinced her to take that path. The
Royal-Hollande team went on to built their separate political
careers in the French Socialist Party of which Hollande is the
leader. (In an ironic twist, if Hollande decides to join the
race, he'll be pitting himself aainst his own partner which
only makes the suspense greater.)
Although Hillary wanted to remain
Hillary Rodham, she had to give in to " Clinton " as
the price to pay to get him elected. Royal has not kept her maiden
name for one good reason. She simply never bothered to marry
François Hollande, She insists that they're together by
choice, not because of a piece of paper. In some ways, it's a
rebellious act for someone who has nothing of the bohemian about
The fourth daughter of the eight
children of a French military officier , Segolene was born in
Senegal and brought up in a strict household. She escaped by
doing well at school, entering ENA, and adhering to the Socialist
Party, working her way up through the ranks. Like Hillary, Segolene
is a mother and a devoted one, shunning glittering dinner parties
in Paris to be with her family. When her youngest daughter Flora,
now 14, was born, she nettled her male colleagues by allowing
photographers to take pictures of her and the new baby at the
hospital. They thought it was normal for them to appear in magazines
with their wives but not a woman with her baby ! Segolene's cool
reply ? She said she thought the French would be interested to
see someone who manages to juggle two full-time jobs. Touché
! Over the years, this pretty (let's deal with this once and
for all Segolene IS pretty, even at times glamorous, as
well as feminine and bright which is surely why her male colleagues
are so inordinately threatened by her) politician continued to
make sure she's in the public eye, a strategy that's paid off
well in terms of recognition.
Opinions about Segolene differ.
Her friends see her as an intelligent, warm, open person. Her
enemies see her as cold, distant, and authoritarian. In the Poitou
Charente region, which she rules with a big smile and an iron
hand, she's known for wanting to go fast and do things
her way. As one pundit phrased it, " for some, she's like
Uma Thurman in " Kill Bill ", cutting her adversaries
in two with a sword of publicityfor others, she's a kind of a
Saint Therèse de Lisieux, who provokes an irrational devotion.
However that may be, she's ahead
in the polls and the French are clearly excited about the prospect
of a woman President. Not only that, but a debate between the
less experienced but attractive and combative Socialist Segolene
and the baldly ambitious and controversial right wing leader
Nicolas Sarkozy would, at the very least, provide some first-class
And her ideas ? In her typically
maverick but calculated style, Segolene is putting them down
in book form online so she can integrate the observations and
comments of her readers into the print edition which will come
out in September. Other than that, she clearly thinks it's premature
to get to specific.
Her critics seize on that to
say that the packaging is pretty but the bottle is empty.
Madame Royal will indeed have
to work on what's inside the bottle if she's to be any match
for others with more experience in her own party, or a contender
on the right, especially if it's Nicolas Sarkozy, whose ideas
may be admired or reviled, but are, at least, clearly and widely
The French may be ready for a
woman President, but they'll vote for her ideas, not her gender.
Meanwhile, Segolene's being in
the running, and in the news, is a positively palpitating event
in the boring old male-dominated world of French politics.
Definitely, as the French say,
" une affaire à suivre ".
March 2006 : The French and change....(Letter From Paris)
In spite of these qualifications,
David goes from one prestigious slave wage internship to the
next and hopes that one day he'll break the vicious spiral and
land a full-time job - something, by the way, none of his highly
educated friends have managed to do.
French freak out over labor law reform...
|| David is 25.
He's got a doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne and besides
French, speaks fluent English and good German.
Take his girlfriend, R, for example.
R has everything - besides being beautiful, which never hurt
anything, she too holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy. In addition
to her mother tongue of French, she speaks English, Italian,
and some Spanish. R recently landed a six-month internship at
a big French company. She's paid minimum wage - and works a lot
more than the 35 hours a week the French are so famous for. R
has no job security and has no idea of what she'll do after her
six month contract is up. If she's lucky, she'll get a "real"
job within the company. If not, she'll be out on the street again.
David and R's friends - all university
graduates - aren't any better off. All of them subsist on odd
jobs, most of them still live at home because they can't afford
to rent an apartment.
They all have the same dream
- a job with a decent salary that will allow them to make a respectable
living, become independent, rent or even buy their own homes,
start a family. C'est normal!
Now, a new French labor law has
come on the scene to puncture their seemingly unattainable dreams
even more. This law, pushed through Parliament by Prime Minister
Dominique de Villepin who sees himself as the next President
of France, allows employers to hire people under the age of 26
for a two-year period - and to fire them at any time during that
period without having to give a reason.
Under the new law, if Pierre
shows up late for work every day or turns out to be totally and
abjectly incompetent, the employer could get rid of him in the
twinkling of an eye and hire someone else.
Sound logical? It may be elsewhere
but it's not in France where strict labor laws highly protect
employees. In France, in fact, it's so hard to fire an employee
that most employers simply don't hire them in the first place.
The new law was conceived to remedy exactly that situation in
the hopes of stimulating employment (unemployment hovers around
ten per cent in France, a little over twenty per cent among young
people and about twice that among the disadvantaged youth in
the suburbs ).
Students saw the new law as a
breach of the French work code and in good French fashion, blockaded
their schools and took to the streets. They say they'll keep
on marching until the government caves in.
Not all young people are against
the new law. Some, who have minimal schooling and un-French names,
welcome the idea of being hired for a relatively long period
of time in which they can show their stuff. On the other end
of the spectrum, the elite graduates of France's "grandes
écoles" aren't worried about the new law because
they have dozens of job offers waiting for them after graduation.
A word of explanation: France
prides itself on an egalitarian system in which all students
who have their "Baccalaureat" (school leaving exam)
can enter college. The simple fact that they've passed their
"Bac" means that they are qualified to go to university.
What they pay for their higher education would be every American's
dream - about 200 dollars a year compared to 20,000 dollars and
up at an American university.
It's not as egalitarian as that,
though. The "crème de la crème" of French
high school graduates go to prep schools to prepare for entrance
exams to the "grandes écoles" which are France's
answer to MIT, Harvard, Stanford. After two or three grueling
years, they take the exams and then get their education at these
institutions which cost more than the university but still much,
much less than U.S. colleges (about 400 dollars a year!)
The system is such that these
young people need not worry - but of course they represent less
than five per cent of the student population!
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin,
who, as the irrepressibly irritating French Minister of Foreign
Affairs, stood up in front of the United Nations to announce
that France would not participate in any way, shape or form in
the Iraq War, was obviously not thinking about how his new law
would play among the vast majority of students. But then why
should he? He himself is a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale
a tall aristocratic type with a head of gorgeous white hair,
piercing blue (or maybe they're brown - hard to tell!) eyes and
full sensual lips. He's elegantly dressed and slender. He's tall.
His head in fact is very up in the clouds above the rest of us
down here on earth, from having attended ENA which produces most
of France's Presidents and top civil servants.
When you've attended ENA, you
don't need to do anything else in life. It is the absolute key,
the passport, the ticket to power in this very hierarchical society.
"Enarques", as they are called, are mostly in government
but they are legion in the upper echelons of big companies. Enarques
don't have to do time consuming things like climb up the company
ropes to get to the top. They are parachuted in. If they don't
know much about the company they're going to head, well, not
to worry. They are so brilliant that they'll learn what's essential
in about five minutes (so the thinking goes). Same thing in the
government where they rule the roost.
All this is to say that Dominique
de Villepin is not bothered by an excess of humility and not
in the habit of consulting other people before making a decision.
He's got a reputation for loving a good fight and for being a
first class manipulator, spinning situations into motion and
then sitting back to see what will happen.
And enjoying every minute of
He must be in heaven now.
Millions of frustrated, unhappy,
worried French young people, joined bytheir moms and dads and
grandpas and grandmas, plus the unions who were only to happy
to jump into the fray, have spent much of the month of March
in the streets of cities all over France acting out their opposition.
They don't want Villepin's law
and since he wasn't courteous enough to consult the students
or the unions before he got it passed, they've made it clear
that they're not going to any negotiating table until the law
is purely and simply revoked.
Actually, there's nothing new
in all this. Over the past few years, various governments have
tried to push through laws to reform French society. And every
single time, whether the law touched education or the labor code,
the French freaked.
They freaked at the idea of change.
They took to the streets to vote with their feet - and in almost
every case, they won, with the law in question being revoked.
Mr. Dominique de Villepin isn't
having any of this. He sees himself as the sole defender of what
needs to be done to change French society. It's de Villepin against
the rest of the country!
He won't budge.
His opponents won't budge.
President Chirac, almost a shadow
figure these days, appeared on TV to say that he supported the
law but would be willing to make a few changes in it. Nice -
but not enough.
I personally am getting ready
for a month or more of strikes. Who knows how this will end?
In the meantime, when you watch
Fox News or CNN, where an anchorwoman compared the French cops
firing off water cannons on the Place de la Republique in Paris
to the massacre of Chinese protesters in Tienanmen Square, take
it all with a big bag of salt. The thugs and the troublemakers
from the extreme left and the extreme right infiltrating the
marchers have always been an unwelcome part of demonstrations.
They are there to rob and pillage and they want to fight. The
cops are there to arrest them. So far the police have exercised
admirable restraint. Unfortunately, as things get more tense,
this restraint may not last.
What's important is what will
happen next in this battle of wills, never forgetting that the
French aren't all that interested in the global economy: a recent
poll showed that an astonishing majority of the French are against
the free market society!
So good luck, Mr. de Villepin.
And next time, if there ever is one, take off your ENA cap and
try to explain your laws to the "people" before shoving
And good luck to all those French
people, young and old, who harbor the illusion that people still
have jobs for life.
That's what I tell the "David"
in the first paragraph.
He's my son.
I wish him - and his generation
They deserve so much better than
To the French and change
Lithe! Slender! French!
Lithe! Slender! French!
Where - April 2005 by Harriet Welty Rochefort
| It started
a few weeks ago with a spate of e-mail messages from friends
in the US. Had I heard about the best-selling book, French Women
Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano?
Had I? It seems like I've heard
nothing BUT rave reviews or irritated dismissals of this tome
whose subversive subtitle is "The Secret of Eating for Pleasure".
Why subversive? Guiliano's premise-"French women take pleasure
in staying thin by eating well, while American women see it as
a conflict and obsess over it"-is so French that one US
book reviewer admitted she "wanted to throw the book across
Another disgruntled reader sniped, on the opinion page of the
International Herald Tribune, that while Guiliano's former weight
problems started in the US, the reader's own pack-a-day cigarette
problem started in France where, she claims, French women don't
get fat because they smoke all day to keep thin.
Of course, many readers were delighted by the book. I'm one,
simply because, thanks to it, I will no longer have to come up
with answers to every female visitor's favorite question: How
do they eat all that food and not get fat? And believe me, even
when Franco-American relations sink to all-time lows, as they
have lately, the most impenitent French bashers continue to pop
the admiring question.
The slim, 57-year-old French-born Guiliano, who is married to
an American and lives in the US, is the perfect messenger for
the answer, because she was fat when young, therefore: a) many
of us can identify with her; and b) no one can accuse her of
not knowing what she's talking about. Her book recounts the simple
tale of a young French girl who went to the US as an exchange
student and picked up atrocious eating habits. By the time she
returned to France a year later, she'd put on 20 pounds and her
horrified father barely recognized her. "Tu ressembles à
un sac de patates!" he blurted out. ("You look like
a sack of potatoes.")
He dented her feelings, but not her appetite. In Paris, she hit
every pastry shop between home and the Sorbonne, devouring croissants,
pains au chocolat, éclairs and millefeuilles at all hours.
And that's where her frontal attack on her adopted country and
its food attitude comes in. For, she states, the main culprit
of her weight gain wasn't the Parisian pâtisseries. It
was the bad eating habits she had acquired in the US. The French,
she says, view food differently. And there, she has a point.
It just so happens I've spent a few decades of my life observing
the eating habits and waist sizes of my French mother-in-law
and sister-in-law and can personally attest to the fact that
yes, they prepare and eat two SCRUMPTIOUS meals practically every
day of their lives and yes, they are both trim as a euro note.
I've even become a world expert on How They Do It.
They certainly aren't starving themselves, and they don't smoke.
Every weekend they both head out to the country house where my
sister-in-law cooks for a crowd ranging from six to 16. (At age
90 my mother-in-law has finally decided to throw in the kitchen
towel and allow her daughter stove control.)
elegant, slender sister-in-law loves nothing more than getting
in that kitchen-twice a day -and rustling up some rillettes de
saumon or a terrine de poisson, canard à l'orange or boeuf
bourguignon. In the fall, her homemade tart might be with apples
or plums; in summer, it's strawberries or apricots. When she
brings it to the table, all her skinny friends plunge into it
(this is after three or four courses and a wonderful selection
of cheeses) while sipping champagne (always a nice final touch
to a meal).
If you think my nonagenarian
mother-in-law is no longer in the game, think again. She's at
the head of the table relishing every single bite. And we are
not talking about one meal in one exceptional weekend. We're
talking two meals a day, every day we spend in the country.
So what's the secret? My lithe in-laws and their lithe guests
eat portions the size of a petit four, and my sister-in-law,
in spite of MAKING delicious desserts never actually EATS much
of them! She satisfies her sweet tooth with the wine (I once
offered her water during a meal; her horrified response was the
French equivalent of "never touch the stuff"). Before
meals, at apéritif time, no one touches the nuts and chips.
Or if they do, it's nut by nut, chip by chip.
My mother-in-law also remembers the deprivations of WW II too
well not to have a healthy reverence for food. Nothing goes to
waste. When watching me peel potatoes in the early days of my
marriage (under her tutelage I have since improved), she would
shake her head and say: "Ah, ma petite fille, I can certainly
tell you didn't live during the War." This because I was
not only peeling but whittling half the potato away. Not to worry:
she would then put said potatoes into goose fat and come up with
a tasty French-paradox treat.
Is my mother-in-law fat? Hardly. She's spent too many years cooking,
gardening, sewing, sweeping, chatting and playing ping-pong with
the grandchildren. In her younger days, when she would finally
sit down to the table, it wasn't just to eat. It was to tell
funny stories, make 1000 trips to the kitchen, and, above all,
make sure everyone ELSE was eating.
My husband's aunt was an even more flagrant case. When I first
met her, she was in her late fifties, a former model, very tall
and stunningly attractive. We were invited to her apartment for
dinner one night and judging from her figure I expected we'd
have one petit pois or two and call it a night. Au contraire.
From a kitchen the size of a thimble, she turned out a fantastic
Lyonnaise meal, topped by a chocolate-chestnut cake my husband
and I still remember with tears in our eyes. I don't remember
watching her eat because I was so busy doing it myself, but I'd
wager that, like the rest of my French family, she indulged in
a bit of everything without going overboard.
And if French women eat this way, so do most French men. My late
father-in-law, a hearty participant in the two-major-meals-a
day-every-day-of-his-life routine, remained spare and slim even
in old age.
My French husband still cringes when I bring American-size portions
to the table. Like the women, French men rarely feel guilty about
food and they eat a bit of everything in small portions.
Or at least they used to. Now, take a trip outside the chic districts
of Paris. Hit any supermarket in the suburbs and watch XXL ladies
load their caddies with nachos, Häagen Dazs and frozen pizza.
Read famous mail-order house La Redoute's spring catalogue, where
marketers have just introduced the elastic waistband (I kid you
not). It may come as an XXL surprise, but some French women-and
sadly, more and more-do indeed get fat.
To French woman