I Am French, Therefore I Am Entitled: Yet Another Charming French Problem

"So, if they ever want to come and take away our bennies, the answer is a firm 'no'!"

“So, if they ever want to come and take away our bennies, the answer is a firm ‘no’!”

There is a word in French that is difficult to translate into English and yet it’s a word that is deeply and inextricably grafted into the DNA of French identity. That word is acquis, (pronounced “ah-key”), and it translates as benefit or gain. But in France it defines not just certain benefits—and there are lots of them!—but a certain spirit surrounding them. A determination to cling to them fiercely that, with growing frequency, defies rationality. Just as it did, once again, last week.

On Monday, France’s Court of Auditors, an official institution whose job it is to audit all public expenses, published its annual report and the star of egregious over-spending was France’s national rail company, the SNCF. The Court found that the SNCF spends too much on free and discounted ticket privileges for its employees. The report revealed that over one million people cashed in on these benefits in 2013 for a total cost of about 100 million Euros.

Which is kind of funny because the SNCF doesn’t actually have a million employees. It turns out that only 15% of those people claiming the bennies are actually active employees. The rest are just people who are—totally legally—entitled to the same benefits. The rail company gives free train tickets not only to employees and retired employees, but to their spouses or partners, their children and their step-children (until age 21), and their parents and grandparents. And the parents and grandparents of the employee’s spouse. Oh, it should be noted that the kids’ free train trips are capped out at 16 a year, after which they get a discount of…90%.

Chances are, these passengers were already, for some reason or another, riding the train for free in France.

Chances are, these passengers were already, for some reason or another, riding the train for free in France.

But what’s really delectable, and very symbolic of the deep-rootedness of the culture of acquis, are all the wonderful sub-clauses and exceptions to the formal benefits policy. For example, the employees and retired employees of the SNCF are actually restricted on free tickets at peak times and they’re obliged to contribute to the reservation fee on high-speed train tickets (which can go all the way up to 13.40€ for a round-trip 1st class ticket!). Unless, of course, they choose to use one of their eight annual entitlements to be exempt from the fee!

A few more marginalia of the benefits policy includes employees’ handicapped children—they get free tickets for life. And the 3360 doctors who are employed either full-time or part-time by the SNCF are also entitled to the same benefits as actual railway employees. And suddenly it becomes a million freebies at a cost of 100 million Euros.

It’s hard not to find this entitlement scheme generous, even insanely, irrationally generous. Or just incomprehensible in 2014 when France is barely holding onto the edge of the precipice of another recession. But it’s even more irrational when you discover that it’s not the first time the Court of Auditors has rung the alarm about the SNCF benefits. It turns out it’s actually an annual ritual. Already, in 2010, the Court had suggested—cautiously, timidly—that perhaps, “without calling into question these benefits, one could wonder if it is justified that they be so widely and liberally distributed.” The Court had requested that the benefits policy be reformed—but then gave up.

Over one million people took advantage of free SNCF train tickets.

Over one million people took advantage of free SNCF train tickets.

And here’s why: “This entitlements subject is so sensitive,” said the Court, “that it halts any attempt at simplification and has dissuaded until now any attempt to rethink and modernize a policy that is 75 years old.” Because to say that the French are fiercely attached to their benefits underestimates the absolute sense of entitlement that they feel about them. Even the highest audit institution in he country is loathe to go down that road, totally befuddled about how to get out of an impasse that’s indirectly costing taxpayers a ton. (You can imagine the SNCF is not the only public company sinking millions into bennies it doesn’t know how to stop paying. It’s just the only one I’m writing about today!)

The French cling to their entitlements with a determination that goes beyond any actual objective need or material justification. It’s as though the mere act of giving something up, of conceding something even in the context of a rational negotiation aimed at a greater good, aimed at assuring the sustainability of, well, everything else—were tantamount to some kind of annihilation. I am French therefore I am entitled (insert head in sand).

The replies of the union leaders to the Court of Auditors’ findings this year is revealing. “We’re not worried, because the SNCF has clearly stated that it did not wish to cut these benefits, which are contractually guaranteed,” said Thierry Marty, one of the union leaders, broadcasting his undeterred confidence in the sacrosanct right to these entitlements. Interestingly, he also added that the benefits “are a very strong symbol of railway culture”: entitlements are part of their identity, part of who they are—at whatever the cost, evidently.

And so yet another year, yet another Court of Auditors’ report denouncing massive over-spending on wonderfully or grotesquely—depending on your point of view—generous benefits.

My point of view is that it shouldn’t be too hard to get in on it. Having a conversation and, say, a communion of spirit with the 21-year-old son of a retired railway employee ought to do it, right? Or perhaps running errands for the grandmother of the ex-wife of a current employee…

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All Hail Zee Burger: the Culture Wars Are Over Between France and the U.S.

A burger from popular Paris burger joint, Blend. (Credit: Paris by Mouth)

A burger from popular Paris burger joint, Blend. (Credit: Paris by Mouth, where they also review Blend.)

Breaking news: the French ate nearly one billion burgers in one year. The numbers are in for 2013 and it’s not looking good for the ham sandwich lobby. Last year the French consumed over 970 million hamburgers. But no one’s freaking out. That’s the breaking news part. But as usual, because this is France, it’s about a lot more than food.

The numbers come from a study conducted by Gira conseil, for the European Sandwich and Snack Show, and it comes out to about 14 burgers per person per year. Which is a lot, but which isn’t nearly as impressive as the number of burgers eaten compared to the number of classic baguette sandwiches consumed. Just a few years ago, in 2009, burger sales accounted for just one in eight baguette sandwiches eaten. Last year, the French ate a burger for every two baguette sandwiches consumed (and burgers accounted for fully half of all sandwich income).

The French are now openly indulging in what they’ve secretly inhaled for years: fast food. France has always been a big market for McDonald’s. In terms of numbers of restaurants, it’s the 6th biggest market in the world and the second in Europe, after Germany (and ahead of the UK, where you might have imagined a solid Anglo-Saxon appetite for beef patties). Burger King came back into the French market just a few months ago after having called it quits and pulling out in 1997. They reopened in central Paris to long lines and lots of excitement. Yes, this is the effect of the Whopper in Paris (I don’t even know how to say “flame-broiled” in French, but evidently they like the way it tastes).

 

So who cares? Remember in France, it’s never just about food. It’s a massive bulldozer of a symbol when the burger, the most symbolic incarnation of the United States—and everything that the French both love and deride about the US—upstages the ham baguette sandwhich, the quintessential emblem of the Frenchest of French lunches (it still is France’s favourite lunch, representing 58% of all sandwiches consumed). Normally, this ought to worry the French, it ought to prompt protectionist legislation, civic activism, a campaign to defend the national gastronomic patrimony besieged by the steamroller of consumerist globalization (not unlike the way legislators and activists defend the French language from the invasion of English, which I wrote about last year).

The French ham baguette sandwich or jambon beurre. Important cultural patrimony.

The French ham baguette sandwich or jambon beurre. Important cultural patrimony.

It’s all the more surprising that it’s not prompted the usual soul-searching—what’s become of French values and French identity?—because until very recently the French still were defensive about their jambon beurre (that’s the name of the ham baguette sandwich, also called the Parisien, which consists of a few slices of cooked ham wedged inside half a buttered baguette). When these same numbers came out comparing jambon beurre to burger consumption in 2009, headlines were triumphant, even triumphalist, with that little tone of superiority that always gives away the true complex of inferiority quietly gnawing away at French self-esteem: “In France, the Jambon Beurre Knocks Out the Hamburger!” At the time, for every one hamburger consumed in France, there were eight sandwiches eaten. Take zat.

To understand the symbolic importance of the jambon beurre it’s important to know that the ham on buttered baguette sandwich is so widely and commonly consumed in France, they even talk about the jambon beurre index. It’s the French equivalent of the Big Mac index, a concept created by The Economist magazine in 1986 as a way to compare purchasing power all over the world (For example, the average price of a Big Mac in the U.S. in January was $4.62; in China it was only $2.74). The jambon beurre is as intensely local as the Big Mac is global, and the jambon beurre index can tell you how much further your Euro will go in different regions of France.

In case you’re wondering, you get the most ham sandwich for your money in the small town of Douai, in the chilly northernmost region of Nord-Pas de Calais, where ham and butter on baguette costs, on average, 2.22€, compared to Paris’s 3.29€. The most recent jambon beurre index also showed that the price of the sandwich is going up, and at a faster rate than other lunch foods.

Douai, in the north. Home of the cheapest ham sandwich in France.

Douai, in the north. Home of the cheapest ham sandwich in France.

But nobody seems all that worried that the French are eating fewer, more expensive jambon beurres. Instead, new hamburger restaurants are opening all the time, new burger blogs are being launched, everyone is trading names of new burger places and high-end hipster burger trucks. “American”-themed restaurants, like Lefty and Razowski’s, are also in fashion, featuring many (or mostly) burgers. American food has become cool. Or rather it’s become cool to openly like it (as opposed to openly disparaging and secretly loving it).

It’s not a new trend: you have to have been living under a vegan rock not to have noticed that, in Paris, over the past few years the burger—and eating and knowing about burgers—has become a full-on hipster trend that’s now migrated into the mainstream. Culminating in this recent news of 2013 as the banner year of French burger consumption.

But here’s the key adjective in the previous sentence: French burger consumption. The burger may be American, but the French eat it their way, and only 38% of those nearly billion burgers are actually fast food joint burgers. The rest of the burgers are being consumed in proper sit-down restaurants and probably, as the French are so quaintly wont to do, with a knife and fork. And prepared with ingredients like Normandy beef and unpasteurized blue cheese from the Auvergne region in central France or fondue cheese from the Alpine Savoie region.

In brief, all this means the French are…relaxing. It’s no longer automatically degrading and totally unallowable to like hamburgers, formerly the symbol of all that was wrong about America and better about France. The French are globalizing, and, in this case, without any recriminations or spasms of doubt. They’re cool with hamburgers now; no furtiveness or derision. Just pleasure.

Juicy Lucy: a molten cheese center.

Juicy Lucy: a molten cheese center.

There are undoubtedly limits. Chances are this best-selling accessory in the US, a kitchen utensil that allows you to stuff burgers with shredded cheese, inspired by a cheeseburger called Juicy Lucy allegedly invented in a bar in Minneapolis, will undoubtedly and thankfully never ever make it to France (Note: it’s is a cheeseburger that has the cheese inside the meat patty rather than on top, resulting in a molten core of cheese within the patty.) Because that actually would be the end of everything.

Meanwhile, at least when it comes to zee burger vs. zee jambon beurre, the culture wars are over.

How Gender Studies Made Headlines in France and Why It’s Scary

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Opponents in France to “gender studies” claim that it’s about erasing the differences between sexes.

The French have always used the term “political correctness” with playful derision. They see it as a consummately American aberration that they only ever refer to with gentle sarcasm. But this past week, a notion that had long been relegated to that same category of American earnestness, “gender studies,” has suddenly and bizarrely been propelled into the headlines. And how the concept of “gender studies” has ignited a full-blown political affair in France reveals something more—and more disturbing—than just a little friendly condescension.

The whole affair began to bubble up last week when it was reported that the parents of children in several hundred elementary and pre-schools scattered across France had kept their children home from school after receiving text messages with diverse warnings. The messages said that because their schools had embraced “gender studies” they would be teaching “boys to become girls,” or they would be teaching sex education to pre-schoolers. The text messages called for parents to keep their children out of class for a day. The rumors then went rapidly viral across social media and via emails.

Most of the parents targeted were Muslim. In a Strasbourg suburb with a a high Muslim population, the director of one elementary school told the media that he had to field anxious questions from many mothers including whether it was true that Jews would be coming to the school to teach their children how to masturbate. This was one of many rumors that rapidly inflamed the now full-on controversy about so-called “gender studies” being taught to kids.

It turns out the person spearheading this formal movement to boycott schools is Farida Belghoul, a former civil rights activist who had been a high-profile leader in the 1980s for the rights of France’s North African immigrants. Since then, she has veered away from the extreme left and is now close to the organization of an essayist from France’s anti-Semitic extreme right, Alain Soral, who is a vocal supporter of the now infamous French comedian, Dieudonné, whose shows were banned recently because of their anti-Semitism. Which gives a sense of where, in part, the strange resurrection of “gender studies” is coming from.

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Farida Belghoul, leader of the boycotting school movement.

Belghoul’s “School Boycott Day” movement targets an experimental school curriculum called The ABCD’s of Equality, launched by the Hollande government in September and currently being tested in 275 schools in France. The curriculum’s stated purpose is to combat inequality between men and women by targeting, early on, the underlying gender stereotypes. Belghoul and other right-wing groups are claiming that this initiative is a form of “gender studies.”

And they claim that the objective at the heart of gender studies—and of this ABCD curriculum—is to deny the difference between men and women, to encourage children to become transsexuals and homosexuals, and to destroy the heterosexual model of the family. (Obviously none of which—as you know if you went to college in the Unites States in the 1990s or after, when gender studies were becoming integrated into mainstream academic departments everywhere—is true.) They claim that the government, through public education and the ABCD’s, is trying to inculcate this anti-family ideology and LGBT propaganda as of the youngest age possible.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Muslim parents were the majority of those who kept their kids out of school last week, but they weren’t alone in expressing their objections to the ABCD program. If last week’s rumors about the government’s so-called “gender studies” curriculum got so extreme—and got so much traction—it’s because they were being heard in a lot of different places across the conservative and right-wing spectrum, including, with a resounding echo, conservative Catholics. Many Catholic organizations and family values groups organized seminars last week to “help” parents figure out how to deal with the situation and not allow their children’s identities to be hijacked.

The controversy couldn’t have come at a more strategic time for France’s conservative Catholic activists—and they have embraced it greedily. They had somewhat receded from public view after the defeat of last year’s widely-followed movement objecting to gay marriage. The law legalizing gay marriage and adoption was passed last May, but the opposition movement, called La Manif Pour Tous (Protest For Everyone) in opposition to the pro-gay marriage Mariage Pour Tous (Marriage for All) and largely coordinated by conservative Catholics, promised not to go away. Just last Sunday they helped organize a “March of Anger” protesting François Hollande’s socialist government, to be followed today by an ever bigger protest targeting the government’s family policies.

The same government that, in the past week, has had to deflect this rumor-fed controversy surrounding its alleged intentions to brainwash kids, eliminate sex differences, and encourage early-onset sexuality (one rumor even claimed that children would be given masturbation demonstrations with wooden penises and stuffed toy vaginas). This was, for the Manif Pour Tous activists, a controversy sent from heaven.

One of the most immediate results is that the numbers of expected participants in today’s march has jumped considerably including, it is predicted, a record number of Muslims. One organizer in the provinces, when asked about the effect of the gender studies rumor claimed that signups for the march increased 30% overnight and that as of early last week, Imams had started contacting him asking for flyers to hand out and pledging mobilization.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered  high muslim participation.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered high muslim participation.

Aside from giving the movement renewed momentum and new participants, it also gave them a strategic new name. As of yesterday, organizers had re-baptized the target of their opposition, calling the event the “March Against Family-phobia.” That’s what all these government policies add up to: first it was gay marriage and adoption, then it was the spectre of allowing gays access to fertility treatments and IVF, and now it’s this nefarious gender studies-driven attempt to convert kids—it’s clearly a government that hates families. Who wouldn’t object to a government that hates families?

So the story of how “gender studies” not only became worth talking about again last week, but ignited a full-blown political affair in France, is also the story of how all different flavors of the extreme opposition—right-wing extremists, Muslim conservatives, anti-Semitic activists, and ultra-conservative Catholics—all decided that they had some common ground.

But it is a rumor-fed and disturbing common ground that aims at a target that doesn’t really exist (gender studies?!). Leaving its real targets—and motives—unspoken. This amalgam of disparate disgruntlement and extremist activism is reminiscent of the Tea Party in the U.S in 2009. And in fact, just this morning, the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls made the comparison himself in an interview with the Sunday paper, Le Journal du Dimanche, calling this new extremist opposition a “Tea Party à la française,” and a “revolt of the anti’s:  anti-elite, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-Parliament, anti-journalist…But also and especially anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic.”

The JDD asked the Minister if he thinks the current climate is reminiscent of the 1930’s, and Manuel Valls said he did. I sincerely hope that analogy is going too far.