Sunday Rest Required

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Sunday leisure for all. Edouard Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

And now it’s also illegal in France to do any home repair on Sundays!

After this past Monday’s decision about restricting Sephora’s hours, another court yesterday ruled that two of France’s leading home improvement stores, Castorama and Leroy Merlin, both large chains nationwide, are no longer allowed to stay open on Sundays. The rationale of the court was pretty much the same: that the stores were violating labor codes that are meant to guarantee workers’ rights to Sunday rest.

The difference this time though is that it wasn’t the labor unions that sued Castorama and Leroy Merlin–it was another store! And the reason why? Bricorama, another home improvement chain, had been denied the initial right to a “Sunday exception” that the other two stores had obtained and so, if they couldn’t be open on Sundays, well, the other two chain stores shouldn’t be allowed stay open and steal all the business. And the judge agreed.

The court took it as an occasion to remind businesses yet again that all this overnight and weekend working is a flagrant abuse of labor law, and since nobody is legally entitled to earn those extra profits–well, no one gets to.

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What Crazy French Labor Unions Actually Get Right

In France: forbidden after 9pm (buying it that is).

In France: forbidden after 9pm (buying it that is).

I have always been a firm disbeliever in the stereotype that the French are slouches and lazy-pants and don’t like to work. Despite the shortest work-weeks and the longest vacations—and the comatose month of August—I have defended their (miraculous) productivity. Despite even this latest piece of seemingly work-averse news, a decision by a French court forbidding a big Sephora store from ever staying open after 9pm, I will continue to defend the idea that the French are getting something right when it comes to their philosophy about work. Even if, admittedly, it’s getting harder.

The appeals court said Sephora breached labor regulations by staying open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends at its big store on the Champs-Elysées. This decision is actually just the latest in a series of verdicts that have restricted the opening hours of stores like the Galeries Lafayette and Monoprix (France’s Target). Anything between 9pm and 6am is considered night work in France, and it is actually illegal to keep a business open—and thus compel employees to work—after 9pm. The way businesses have done it is by trying to fit into one of a very few possible exemptions like, for example, if staying open is necessary for “a continuity of economic activity”. In other words, if the nature of the business depends on night work in order to be viable.

Evidently, the court decided selling lipstick and perfume after 9pm is not necessary for the viability of Sephora (which is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH). But the court’s judgment is not just about that. It’s actually more about the idea that selling more cosmetics after a certain hour is never necessary. The decision is about a much deeper, core philosophy that more is not always better. That at some point the marginal amount more (of stuff sold and money earned) does not produce any benefit other than the material one. And—this is the essence of the verdict—profit for profit’s sake is not what France is about.

A Sephora employee crying in reaction to the court's decision to forbid work after 9pm.

A Sephora employee crying in reaction to the court’s decision to forbid work after 9pm.

Basically, it’s a decision about a social good versus a social bad, and what’s bad here is the liberty of a business (and incidentally several hundred employees) to earn more money. Or so most Americans would probably see it.

This, in fact, is where most Americans, as left-leaning and supportive of regulating markets as they may be, raise an eyebrow: who is the government to say that not working nights is a social good? What if I wanna work at nights? (Night work is often paid up to 20% or 30% more in France, precisely because it’s considered pénible or difficult). The courts in France are essentially saying that it’s not a choice it’s healthy for you to make. The lure of money is fundamentally going to compel you to make decisions you shouldn’t even be faced with the temptation of making. Basically, it would be coercion—because how could you say no? So we’ll ban the temptation. Voilà, now go enjoy your leisure.

A poster in support of laws forbidding stores from opening on Sundays.

A poster in support of laws forbidding stores from opening on Sundays.

The decision is a defeat for any employees who enjoyed the night-work pay, and for any businesses hoping to extend their profit margin. It is a victory for France’s big labor unions, who collectively sued the store. But it’s also a victory for a whole way of thinking about work in France, the idea that the freedom of businesses to earn a marginal Euro more comes directly at the cost of the employees’ right not to work. And especially their right not be compelled to work during a time, in the evenings, that in thriving, fulfilling lives—so the thinking goes—ought to be dedicated to family time, resting, and to pleasure, to all those personal pursuits that enrich the social fabric and are, incidentally, the whole point of…living.

Which, if you think about it like that, is not totally crazy. What could seem like basic anti-capitalist regulation and heavy-handed judicial over-reach—especially given France’s current economy and soaring unemployment rates—doesn’t seem quite as crazy when you think about just what that social “good” is that French judges seem so eager to protect. At the heart of their thinking is this idea: that the essence of life—the good life—is not, above all else, work.

The Good Life ≠ Work. Radical, huh?

When a French Film Director’s Teenage Prostitute Fantasy Becomes Real

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In Jeune et Jolie, a well-to-do teenager prostitutes herself.

It’s hard to make light, or make art, of teenage prostitution. But that’s just what French filmmaker François Ozon has done with his recent film, Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful in English). It’s the story of Isabelle, a Parisian high-schooler who secretly meets and sleeps with strangers in exchange for large sums in hotel rooms. And last week, in a tabloidish twist on this interesting and (interestingly unsexy) film, life seems to have imitated art. In Cannes (which is where Ozon’s film premiered at the Festival in May), two teenage girls, aged 14 and 15, were arrested for having worked—or played—as prostitutes for two months this past spring.

What most shocks, or perhaps just interests, French audiences about both of these cases, fictional and real, is that the girls come from bourgeois backgrounds. They’re not just good girls, they’re from the cultural elite, upper middle class, intellectual-bobo families. In Ozon’s film, she’s a doctor’s daughter and goes to the most prestigious public high school in Paris. News accounts of the Cannes teenagers describe them as highly accomplished students and their families as well-to-do. They could have been good middle-class girls getting a mediocre education in a small town in the provinces whose parents work at the post office, but…who would care?

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François Ozon’s film, Jeune et Jolie, or Young and Beautiful.

The contrast between the girls’ social status, between the idea that there’s no imaginable reason any of them would want to escape their gilded lives and the promise of a fulfilling future to which their class and culture naturally entitle them—and the absolute debasement of prostitution is what gives the whole thing a sense of a legitimate narrative. It’s what makes it interesting. Otherwise wouldn’t it simply be teenage girls being paid for the use of their bodies by older male strangers in hotel rooms? Imagine a horny middle-aged businessman having sex with a 14-year-old—your daughter, your neighbor’s daughter, whatever—it’s abject. It’s not hot. It’s not interesting.

But Ozon’s film has been greeted with critical acclaim, and the report of the arrest of the Cannes teenagers with great interest. People are intrigued, not repulsed. For the French it’s more a story of class and culture than (for once) of sex. No one has found any of this repugnant or gross as, perhaps, might have been the case if this were all taking place in the United States, on New York’s Upper West Side or in Boca Raton. There’s mostly just a sense of wonder that these girls—good students, well-behaved daughters from educated families—would have somehow chosen to test the boundaries of authority and adolescence in such a consummately adult way. Like an extravagant game of dress-up, but with real johns and for a fee. Filmic, for sure.

But there is a huge, fundamental difference between the film version and the real version of these teenage prostitute stories. If Ozon’s story is enthralling it is precisely because he produces this heightened contrast between Isabelle’s class and her acts, a highly aestheticized (male) fantasy of innocence willfully drawn to the extreme sexual taboo. The actress playing Isabelle, Marina Vacth, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (worth seeing the film just for that), all fresh peaches-and-cream sensuality, the perfect French cliché of natural beauty and style, wearing jeans and no make-up, bursting with the erotic potential of her childish curiosity and good breeding.

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The stash of accessories that the Cannes teenagers used to dress up before meeting clients includes stilletos, wigs, leather gloves and handbags.

The two teenagers in Cannes don’t fulfill that fantasy at all. When they were arrested, it was stepping out of a Mercedes convertible in front of a luxury hotel in Cannes (which famously becomes an eldorado for high-end prostitution every year during the film festival), wearing wigs, heavy make-up and high heels. When police searched the home of the car’s driver (a 40-something man who is being investigated for pimping), they found a whole stash of clothes and accessories: stilettos, erotic lingerie, leather gloves, hair-pieces, and sex-toys. It turns out these girls, the real teenagers, weren’t dressed like girls, they were dressed like whores.

When police questioned them as to why they did it, they allegedly said it was “for the fun, for the sex, for the money.” One of the two girls even claimed to have made 50,000 Euros in two days and, according to police, she said she planned on earning enough to get her breasts augmented with the goal, ultimately, of going to the United States to become a porn star. So that’s what she wants to be when she grows up and it’s not because she flunked out of high school or comes from a tough background. One of the teenagers appeared, with her face blurred out, in a sensationalist investigative TV show called Enquête Exclusive, and in response to a detective’s question about her main motive for prostituting herself she replied, “mostly it was for the money—money is my little guilty pleasure.” She didn’t seem to think it needed any further explanation.

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A screen shot of Enquete Exclusive’s footage of one of the Cannes teenagers being questioned by a detective.

These real teenage prostitutes are the pure products not of a French film director’s fantasy, but of a generation of digital natives brought up on the Internet and reality television. They watch porn online after school like another generation watched Little House on the Prairie reruns, and retweet graphic sex pictures for the banal thrill of it. They naturally know their way around the online protocols of anonymity and false identities, at ease with the dichotomy between real life and virtual life—that’s a Facebook generation’s normal life. The stars of today’s globalized teenage culture include Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, sex-tape celebrities with $1500-dollar handbags and rich boyfriends, and no real identity other than celebrity.

In that context, in the life of the average, hyper-connected, affluent teenager with an iPhone and a laptop, craving money for money’s sake, dressing up as women and getting paid for sex in luxury hotels–none of that seems all that unimaginable.

As far as we can tell, for these good girls in Cannes—and this is what I find disconcerting—it doesn’t even seem all that transgressive. It was just fun.

Gangland on the Riviera: France’s Marseille Problem

Marseille seen from the old port.

Marseille seen from the old port.

The idea of the south of France doesn’t usually evoke images of drug violence or drive-by shootings. If anything crime on the French Riviera might call to mind diamond heists in Cannes (of which there’ve been quite a few this year). But not much further down the sparkling azure coast, built on rolling hills surrounding an old port, there’s Marseille, where just this week, yet another pair of assault-weapon shootings left two youth dead, confirmed the city’s reputation for being—literally—the most dangerous place in Europe to be young, and has definitively added a Marseille Problem to the current government’s concerns.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

What is most striking about the violence in Marseille is the perception of impunity. There is a sense about the city, which is the murder capital of France, with five times the national homicide rate, that it is actually beyond the power of authorities to do anything about it. That it has simply been left to its own devices. Several years ago already, in the summer of 2011, an incident occurred that got a lot of media coverage because it was so deeply symbolic of the situation.

A privately-run parking lot in the Porte d’Aix neighborhood, not far from the city center, was abandoned by the management company Vinci, who claimed that they were tired of dealing with the harassment and crime of the local gang of kids, and that they couldn’t insure the safety of their employees. The lot was soon taken over by the gang who ran the place, hitting up drivers for 5 Euros in order to leave the parking lot. The racket lasted for months. When the lot was finally evacuated, Vinci claimed the local authorities hadn’t done anything, the authorities claimed the police didn’t do enough in the neighborhood, and the police claimed that they regularly patrolled near the parking lot. Keeping in mind that the parking lot had formerly brought in about €100,000 of public revenue annually. “T.I.M,” you might say: This Is Marseille.

And this is the problem. In 2012, 24 people were killed in drug- and gang-related violence, and 15 have already been killed this year, despite the fact that both the Sarkozy government and the Hollande government each dispatched new brigades of hundreds more policemen and investigators in recent years. While I was editorial director of the news channel France 24, we produced a documentary about Marseille’s growing lawlessness that aired in October of 2011. Johnny, a 22-year-old aspiring rapper, drug dealer and gang leader, was one of the story’s affable characters, talking about himself as a kind of Robin Hood, just trying to get by without hurting anybody. A few months ago he was gunned down by a rival.

The sense of lawlessness in Marseille persists. Last summer, a socialist senator and district mayor from Marseille, Samia Ghali, called for the president to send in the army, raising eyebrows in her own party with this very un-leftist call for a kind of emergency martial law. Hollande at the time said this wasn’t the role of the army, and the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for a special inter-ministerial summit to study the Marseille problem. Last week, Samia Ghali renewed her call for the army to help insure security in Marseille. And the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, called for a “national pact” to solve the crisis, with an emergency meeting involving all of Marseilles’s elected officials that was held this (Saturday) morning.

The Marseille Problem obviously has no simple solution. But it is hard to get past the bizarreness of the fact that in the second biggest city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries–which sees the United States as being a violent and weapons-addled society–that drug bosses and gangs are running the show essentially undeterred in some neighborhoods.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

It’s unclear what the real root problems are and which to attack first: poverty, unemployment, alienated immigrant communities, gangs and violence itself? Marseille is a huge city with a  large immigrant population, high poverty, and among the highest unemployment rates in the country. But the problem runs even deeper, deep into the mafia history of the city, into the deeply-rooted culture of organized crime and omertà that goes back decades.

Still today, the local leadership will deny that this is all such a big deal. Marseille’s right-wing mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, an old-timer and a veteran of local and national politics (he is a former minister), sent aggressive tweets saying the media and the socialist government were giving a distorted image of Marseille and sullying its image. “Security issues” he tweeted, “allow too many politicians and the media to deform reality, to exaggerate the facts and hurt Marseille.”

The Marseille tradition of looking the other way seems to go way back, too. Here’s what the owner of a local bar where a man was shot dead said to a reporter from the French newspaper Libération, at the time of the parking lot affair. It sums up the resignation of locals who’ve gotten used to waiting for a solution to the Marseille problem:

“We don’t live in fear, we live in the expectation that this kind of thing will happen. Let me tell you, unlike other places, at least in Marseille they don’t mess up. They shoot, but not at customers. They know how to aim.”