Secret Sarkozy (and Carla Bruni) Tapes Are So Bad They’re Good

Carla Bruni Sarkoy and former French preisdent Nicolas Sarkozy enjoy pretending that he is a "kept" man.

Carla Bruni Sarkoy and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy enjoy pretending that he is a “kept” man.

There are moments when France feels very small. Like in the middle of August, when almost all French people seem to have gone on vacation at the same time, as though school were on break. Or like now, when a tacky drama involving a vain former president, his supermodel wife, his reactionary former advisor, and the advisor’s estranged son, unfolds in the national spotlight, like a bad day-time melodrama with everyone gathered around the TV watching.

What happened is that on Wednesday, several French media published secret recordings of former president Sarkozy that were taped by one of his closest advisors, Patrick Buisson, without the knowledge of Sarkozy or anyone else. And these secret recordings were leaked to the media not by Buisson himself—but by an as yet undiscovered enemy of his. Whom many suspected initially was his son. Who is suing his father.

That’s just to give you a teaser. It gets worse, or better, depending on what you consider good spectacle.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his former advisor, Patrick Buisson, were close throughout the former French president's administration.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his former advisor, Patrick Buisson, were close throughout the former French president’s administration.

It is important to note that Patrick Buisson, who has been close to Sarkozy since 2005, a few years before his election, is often referred to in French media as “a shadow advisor.” A shadow adviser, not only because Buisson has never held an official position in any kind of administration, but also because of his longstanding political affiliation with the extreme right. He is, in fact, the advisor directly responsible for Sarkozy’s decision to turn his politics sharply toward a nationalist, anti-immigration right near the end of his 2012 re-election campaign. That he lost. In part, many think, because of this right-wing turn.

Implicit in the description of Buisson as “shadow” advisor is “shadowy,” as he is now regarded with some distaste by many people in Sarkozy’s own party and considered guilty of an and undue influence that was responsible for the eviction of their party from power. “Shadowy” also because this same guy who had open-door access to the Elysée palace and the French president’s thinking, and a key policy-making influence, was also described by Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and former leader of France’s extreme-right National Front party, as “an intellectual of the French right who, in the bottom of his heart, probably shares my ideas more than those of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

So that describes who the spy is in this case: pretty much your boiler-plate villain, the faux best-friend type who ends up having all sorts of skeletons in his closet and a recorder in his pocket. He even bears a striking resemblance to the famous Simpsons villain, Montgomery Burns.

Capture d’écran 2014-03-07 à 21.18.18

Montgomery Burns, Simpsons villain.

 

Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy villain.

Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy villain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And what the recordings reveal is just as tawdry as the Buisson character is caricatural. President Sarkozy and his former supermodel-and-singer wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, are recorded bantering about money—all the money she’s giving up by having married the president and not being able to accept big modeling contracts anymore. “Julia Roberts 44, Sharon Stone 52, Julianne Moore 53…All of them, with these incredible contracts, right? That I can’t accept for the moment…because it isn’t proper,” she says wishfully. “Afterwards,” she goes on, “I’m going to re-sign those contracts. I’m not even going to wait that long…if I can avoid it….”

Sarkozy in the recordings confirms every received idea everyone has ever had about him since the very first minutes of his ostentatious presidency (spent on the yacht of one of France’s richest men). He jokes about how, despite all the free room and board they get—three different government apartments, he says—they still choose to rent a house (Bruni-Sarkozy’s townhouse in a private mew of Paris’s posh 16th arrondissement). He is evidently quite delighted by all this excessive spending. “In our relationship,” the former president clucks, talking about his wife, “it’s Carla who gets the bill…I’m a kept man.” He loves it.

In the recordings, Carla Bruni Sarkozy looks forwzrd to signing modellign contracts again, saying it's a shame to leave it to 22-year olds to sell eye-wrinkle cream.

In the recordings, Carla Bruni Sarkozy looks forward to signing modeling contracts again, saying it’s a shame to leave it to 22-year olds to sell eye-wrinkle cream.

The political discussions revealed are probably typical of any back-room dealings that high-placed politicians engage in when they think they’re in private. Lots of close presidential advisers accusing ministers of incompetence, lots of ingratiating themselves with the President. Except that the particular recordings published (just two, from a few days in 2011) do sound particularly full of intrigue.

They include a request from President Sarkozy on the eve of a big public address to discreetly forward his speech to the head of France’s leading right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro. Patrick Buisson himself does it. He even advises the editor-in-chief, “to get in the headline the idea of the need to adapt to circumstances. That’s the idea.” Presidents indirectly writing headlines is as pretty cliché as it gets when it comes to political manipulation. That probably wouldn’t even sustain an episode of a political drama on TV: too done, too potboiler.

But the plot gets even more hackneyed. The person initially suspected of having leaked the recordings to the media—was the villain’s son. Georges Buisson was a son who followed in papa’s footsteps. First he became a journalist like his father. And then he went to work in the network of which his father was vice-president. And then he became a partner…in his father’s political consulting business. Father-son identity nepotism self-esteem manipulation issues, right?

Right. The father-son consulting firm is audited for its overly-lucrative contracts with the Elysée, the son realizes he’s just a straw man in the company unwittingly helping the father evade taxes, the father and son come to public blows in the hallways of their TV network, and the son sues the father for mismanagement. Pretty stale, but the comments each has been tossing out about the other in the media recently are even more trite low blows.

Georges Buisson confirms his father’s recordings existed since at one point—like all sons for their technology-challenged fathers—he uploaded the recordings to Patrick Buisson’s computer. He says that his father is paranoid and obsessed with recording everything, that he has recorded things his whole life. The father probably doesn’t appreciate the son’s…openness with the media and has explained that his son is “psychologically vulnerable,” “feeble-minded”, and “manipulated by people who are after the father.”

Sigh…so seen-before, right?

Here’s wishing it were just a badly-scripted melodrama that made you wonder who watches this kind of cliché crap. Except that it involves France’s former president and the man allegedly responsible for much of the country’s policy for five years. It’s a badly-scripted melodrama that has no place in public life and yet is the reflection of a very recent period of French public life when politics and media and money were all mixed up, and bad friends who turn out to be villains had a lot of influence.

Here’s wishing France weren’t so small.

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Why Another French–Youth–Revolution is Coming Up

Could May 2014 look like Mai '68?

Could May 2014 look like Mai ’68?

A big survey of French youth came out this week and France has declared, yet again, that it is very worried about its young people. I have written about it here before and, besides, what country isn’t worried about its 25 and unders, right? It’s been a long global recession, and all over the world, there’s been talk of a lost generation, of whole decades’ worth of kids without futures.

But France has had problems with its youth before. It was called May ’68—you’ve probably heard of it—and it both terrified and totally revolutionized French society. And this week, for the first time since France has been officially deeply concerned about its youth in this time of crisis, the word “revolution” is on people’s lips again.

“The self-portrait is dark”…“It’s a generation that’s been sacrificed, scorned, downgraded, that’s been denied a fair shot by society and the professional world, and that faced with so much frustration, could explode.”

Those are just a few of the assessments of a large-scale survey of 18 to 34-year-olds done last fall in a partnership between some of France’s leading media (the newspaper Le Monde, the public TV consortium France Télévisions, the radio station Europe 1). The first results, focusing on youths under 25, came out this week, headlined with some pretty depressing numbers. It turns out that not only do 45% of France’s kids think they will be worse off than their parents, but 43% think their own children will be worse off than they. Also, over a third of youths think they won’t ever know anything but economic crisis throughout their lives.

False promises, say French youth, who don't actually believe they are guaranteed any opportunities up ahead.

False promises, say French youth, who don’t actually believe they are guaranteed any opportunities up ahead.

French youth, it seems, is totally exploding the French barometer of pessimism. This might not seem terribly unusual, since the French manner, as it tends to be perceived abroad, always comes with a subtext of pessimism—this is the French way (they always rank highest in global measures of pessimism). But usually it’s not the way of 18-year-olds. Usually there is a sense of dewy expectation and hope, a notion that—as most parents, most societies, most governments tell their kids almost mechanically—you have your whole future ahead of you.

Not the French kids. They are, evidently, disgruntled, bummed out, depressed. In France, over 25% of 18 to 25-year-olds are unemployed. One in four kids is sitting by the phone feeling, to some extent, disempowered from any control of his or her own fate, which makes it hard to make plans for that whole future ahead of you. Among those who do have jobs, 60% believe they are underpaid relative to their qualifications, and nearly half think they are over-qualified for their jobs.

Is that just Generation Y entitlement? That generation of kids that expects promotions right away and is talking about work-life balance in the first five minutes of their job interviews? That generation that, allegedly, wasn’t educated in the ways of hard work and hard knocks and doesn’t really get the concept of delayed gratification?

The disaffection of French youth could lead...

The disaffection of French youth could lead…

According to this survey, no. It’s not a free-lunch generation. Among those polled, 81% say they believe strongly in the value of work. Their disgruntlement, it seems, is more complex, rooted in the very way the system is structured. It’s not that they don’t want to work hard or that they don’t appreciate the opportunities to do so—it’s that they feel that they’re denied those chances. Fully 70% of youths think that French society doesn’t give them the means to show what they’re capable of. That’s a sharp rise from 2006, when 53% thought that. The highly-selective secondary school system, the prestige-driven higher education system—61% of kids say it lacks meritocracy, that the education system doesn’t reward skill, and doesn’t give equal opportunities.

So what is to be done? The French government, for one, doesn’t really seem to know; or to want to acknowledge what this survey reveals: that the disaffection of French youth doesn’t concern just their own future, but the whole way things work in France. Like lots of other problems, the French government does seem to want to acknowledge that its youth problem is structural. And in any case, as far as the 18 to 25-year-olds are concerned, the government probably doesn’t have the solution anyway since 46% of youths don’t trust politicians at all.

The disaffection of French youth could lead to revolt.

The disaffection of French youth could lead to revolt.

According to sociologists who are interpreting the survey, the time for solutions for youths may be over, and the possibility of revolution could be real. They describe it as a pressure cooker without a release. “It’s a generation that wants entry into an ageing society,” say the sociologists. “They are enraged to be left waiting on the doorstep. They don’t want to overthrow society—there isn’t actual a conflict of values—but they are tired of hitting against closed doors and they are sending out a warning.” They see the classic ingredients for a potentially explosive social cocktail: frustration with being excluded, with a lack of social status, with unfulfilling, under-paying jobs, with having no jobs or homes at all.

Add to that mistrust of politicians and the sense of being denied the right even to hope for success in the future and you get this kind of answer from youths to the question of whether they could imagine a May ’68 type revolt now or in the near future: 61% said yes. Including more than half of those youths who do have jobs.

French youth might depressed and pessimistic, but evidently, they’re also pissed.

The French might want to have a serious think about finding a new—potentially terrifying, undoubtedly disruptive, and necessarily innovative—place for their youth today… before May 2014 rolls around.

 

 

 

 

How the French President Got Firm

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking.

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking. On his left, Julie Gayet, his lover; on his right, Valerie Trierweiler, his long-term girlfriend and the First Lady.

Who knew that François Hollande was so hard. Such a dog. Such a Don Juan. Such a baller. Forgive the porno-speak, but those are just a few examples of the kind of language that’s been recurring in the endless commentaries of the Hollande affair in recent days. Even if no one in France is really surprised that the president is having an affair, they actually do seem surprised about—and impressed by—just what this President has got up to.

He’s “a magnificent baller!” declared Frédéric Mitterand, the former Culture Minister under Sarkozy (and the nephew of former president François Mitterand), literally cackling with tawdry glee on Belgian television in a clip that was leaked today.

Mitterand (who’s got his own sexual affairs baggage about which he’s been quite explicit and who’s been known to sometimes go overboard in his public comments) explains exactly why he is so surprised that the President pulled off such an exploit: “He doesn’t really have the looks for this kind of affair…if you were looking for someone to play the role of the total seducer, you wouldn’t pick a guy who looks like François Hollande!”

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a "magnificent baller!"

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a “magnificent baller!”

Mitterand, in his own bawdy terms, has said out loud what everyone has been thinking silently to themselves (and a little less silently: the very well-known political journalist, Michèle Cotta, was caught on microphone calling the President “ugly and pathetic”). Quite simply, Hollande didn’t look or act the part. There seems to be a general sense of genuine surprise that Hollande really could be such a seducer—this kind of seducer in the most traditional and literal sense of the term, with all its masculine and caddish connotations. The kind of guy who would have been involved with a beautiful and much younger actress for, reports are saying today, what may have been nearly two years, while still involved with a First Lady, also younger and attractive, for whom he’d left his previous partner of over 20 years.

No one was surprised that men like Strauss-Kahn, or Chirac or Mitterand, would have had affairs. Those men had an aura, they looked, respectively, charismatic, charming, and regal. But Hollande just didn’t look like a man who would—or could—engage in the kind of behavior that, from the outside, plays perfectly into the cliché of the 19th century gallant or the contemporary bad-boy.

That wasn’t Hollande. Hollande was the man without definition, literally and figuratively, the overweight insipid-looking guy nicknamed Flamby—after a shapeless dessert pudding—who went from a strong dominant mother to his strong dominant partner, Ségolène Royal, and then a strong dominant girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler. Trierweiler’s unflattering and sexist nickname is Rottweiler, because of her reputation for being overbearing. (On the evening of Hollande’s victory, cameras captured her ordering him to kiss her—“on the lips!”—in front of the crowds.)

Capture d’écran 2014-01-17 à 20.54.06

Flamby is a jiggly caramel pudding dessert. It was also Hollande’s nickname.

Hollande was the man whose apparent inability to effectively deal with France’s economic problems, to rally political will to make tough changes—whose perceived impotence had translated into the lowest presidential ratings on record in modern France.

But suddenly the President’s edges have hardened. If there’s one thing he’s not, it’s impotent. He’s now the man with the desire and the drive to pursue a reckless love affair. To follow his wants. To take what he needs. Despite his circumstances or the risks. (Or, arguably, decency, when it comes to Valerie Trierweiler, who evidently discovered her relationship with the President was over when he told her, the night before, about the imminent tabloid magazine cover on his affair with another woman).

Everybody is terribly impressed that that guy not only got the girl—but went to get the newer younger sexy girl, while holding onto the previous girl. “A lady-killer!” say innumerable commentators, “It’s a shake-up!” headlines another magazine. He’s no Flamby anymore.

This is, for better or for worse, a model display of the cliché of virility: boundless sexual energy and a sense of power and impunity. “Sexually, François Hollande doesn’t come across as a modern man anymore,” said Eric Fassin, a well-known sociologist, “On the contrary, he’s revived a traditional model in his economic policy as well as his romantic life, from here on in, the President has set a course, and he’s going to hold to it firmly. In brief, he’s become ‘a man’, ‘a hard guy, ‘a real one’, at the expense of his women….”

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

Firm, hard, real. According to friends and colleagues of the President (none of whom actually agree to go on the record) this is actually Hollande’s true nature revealing itself. In a story in the newspaper Le Parisien, someone cited as being “close to” the president says that “his physique makes people underestimate him. It’s a big mistake. Inside, he’s a blade of hard steel.”

Perhaps this blade of hard steel will take an invigorated approach to leading France and that he’ll hold firmly to the new economic course he set last week, pledging policies to make the economy more competitive. But Hollande appears to be dealing with the matter on a personal level, with Valerie Trierweiler, in the same firm, hard manner. He’s set a course and he’s holding to it firmly. Like a political matter, distant and business-like. Ouch. Hollande left Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, in a similar way that evidently he’s been leaving Trierweiler for the past two years: gradually, silently, a little insidiously, without actually telling either woman until public reports would eventually force him to confirm that he was more or less already gone.

Which, even for a “magnificent baller,” is pretty shabby.

Why everyone in France is only pretending to care that François Hollande might be having an affair

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

So the big news in France today is that the president, François Hollande, might be having an affair. If it sounds like the opening line of a late-night show, that’s because the French public and French media seem to be greeting the news with the same deadpan tone that comics like to use. Because nobody’s really that surprised and, mostly, nobody actually cares that much.

Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a big media frenzy and hubbub of social media activity, and lots of snickering. First of all it’s a break from conversations about the Dieudonné controversy. People are tired of debating the issue of the rightness or wrongness of banning the comedian’s anti-semitic performances, so a presidential affair is the perfect—legitimate—excuse to talk about something else. But there’s no real intensity to the reactions. If people are commenting the claim by the tabloid magazine, Closer, that Hollande is having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet it’s because, well, after all he is the president of France.

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on "The President's Secret Love Story."

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on “The President’s Secret Love Story.”

Many French media seem to be echoing a similar refrain: that the presidential entourage has known for several days that the story was going to come out “but did nothing to prevent it.” Which is a media’s enigmatic—or disingenuous—way of implying that, well, the story is true, without actually appearing to report anything more than the fact that these allegations have been made and that Hollande may choose to pursue the tabloid for invasion of privacy.

The enigmatic and disingenuous media is an issue that the French love to revisit. And they’ve been indulging all day. With unavowed nostalgia they recall that time, back in the 80s, when for years—nearly a decade—the media covered up the story of President Mitterand’s second family. Most observers agree today that they should condemn that time and that culture; not the President’s affair, but the culture that entitled the President and other powerful politicians to some divine right of discretion, and engendered a self-enforced censorship among the media. Since the Strauss-Kahn affair, it’s become more complicated to defend that omertà or any powerful person’s special entitlement to indiscretions.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand's second family--his mistress and their daughter--only emerged years after his death.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand’s second family–his mistress and their daughter–only emerged years after his death.

Nonetheless, there’s also been a unified chorus of responses from Hollande’s ministers and his supporters, and even his political opponents, condemning Closer’s publication of the story. They have all come out stating that the President—or, as many have said it, “even the President”—has a right to privacy. Some socialist politicians were actually refusing to comment, saying that the matter has nothing to do with politics, end of story.

So is that true? Does the President’s affair, if he’s having one, have nothing to do with politics? Is the President just a normal guy who deserves privacy? Interestingly, the editor-in-chief of Closer makes the same argument to defend her magazine’s publication of pictures allegedly proving the affair. President Hollande, she said on the radio this morning, “is a normal president who was swept off his feet. There’s no need for so much drama around (the publication of) these pictures.” That a man—even this man—falls for a woman, she implies, is no big deal.

It’s not exactly an uncalculated defence, since Hollande’s campaign slogan—which was much ridiculed—was that his would be a “normal presidency,” in opposition to the ostentatious presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy who had so immodestly spread the details of his private life before the public, divorcing shortly after his election and then just a few months after that marrying the former model and musician, Carla Bruni.

Whether a “normal” president is one who deserves the right to privacy or one who deserves the right to let himself be seduced now seems to be a question. The answer, of course, is that a “normal” president deserves both. It’s just a uniquely French rhetorical obliqueness (or disingenuousness) to defend the former while actually, really, defending the latter.

And what’s also wonderfully, uniquely French is that politicians are defending the president at all. Could you ever imagine American politicians simply refusing to talk about published allegations that the president is having an affair? Could you ever imagine a senator or congressman, when asked about widely-circulated photographs featuring the President of the United States of America spending the night with a woman who is not his wife in a building that is not the White house—simply saying it’s none of his business? Well, that’s how they roll in France.

To give another example of how these things go down in France—and to continue reinforcing a few more stereotypes about French culture—there is some speculation among political analysts and pollsters about the possibility that this affair will actually be good for Hollande politically. The same magazine, a mainstream tabloid publication, that broke the story on its website last night published a poll today asking readers whether:

  • The affair will make François Hollande more popular!
  • After these revelations the President loses all credibility!

(The results as of 11:50 p.m. this evening are 22% thinking it’ll be good for Hollande, and 78% thinking it’ll hurt him).

One final subsidiary point in the underwhelming affair of  President Hollande’s affair is the fact that he would find time to have one at all. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that the President of the 5th largest economy in the world—that also happens to be on the brink of another recession—is able to find the mindspace, and the slot in his schedule, to take a lover.

The Morning After.

The Morning After.

Part of the story revealed by Closer in the photographs published is of the morning after one of the supposed lovers’ trysts. Pictures show a man who is allegedly the President’s bodyguard entering the building with a little paper bag of…croissants.

In France, it’s not really a Morning After unless there are croissants. Even for the President.

Buying “Made in France”: Say, what’s the terroir of your t-shirt?

Imagine buying clothes and household appliances like you might buy wine or cheese: with close attention to where it was made, how it was produced—who produced it—what the ingredients are, whether it keeps well. What’s the terroir of those pony-skin gloves? How long has that blender been produced in this part of Normandy? What is it about the locals here in the back-country of the Limousin region that they make such exceptional men’s loafers?

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Now imagine a whole economy built on that idea—terroir consumption or “loca-buying”—and you have an idea of the “Made in France” movement that’s been quietly spreading in France over the past few years.

Just this week yet another book came out about products made in France. It’s called “Objets éstampillés France” (meaning, literally, “Objects Stamped France”), and features beautiful photos of objects as diverse as black lace from Calais (first manufactured in 1816), and notepads from the Rhodia company (founded in Lyon in 1932), with captions of admiration written by French celebrities for these mythical French-made products that have become celebrities themselves.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

Black Calais lace.

Black Calais lace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The term “movement” is probably over-stating the impact of “Made in France” (pronounced “med een Franz” in French), but it has definitely become a frequently-cited slogan—and clearly a business opportunity—since France’s Minister for Industrial Renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, launched the idea last year as a strategy to jolt France out of its economic crisis. Instead of buying imported goods or French products manufactured in outsourced hubs abroad, he encouraged the French to buy products that are French and made in France, investing money that might have been subsidizing foreign companies and foreign workers back into the French economy. Last October, he posed on the cover of a magazine wearing a striped sailor t-shirt (Armor Lux, Brittany region) and holding a blender (Moulinex, Normandy region) to make his point.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

The whole plan felt a little iffy, with a scent of nationalist protectionism edging generously towards populism. Montebourg got a lot of flack for the magazine cover which seemed very out of step with the buttoned-up tone of traditional socialist politics and because, well, the whole anti-foreign, flag-waving thing traditionally belongs to parties on the opposite side of the spectrum.

It turns out it may not be the soundest economics either. This summer, a report by a non-partisan research institute revealed not only that buying “Made in France” would cost consumers up to $400 more a month, but that the extra money spent on French-made products would divert consumer cash from the service industry—which actually generates more employment than the manufacturing industry. In brief, buying exclusively “Made in France” might actually be bad for the French economy.

This guy looks excited about the "Made in France" movement.

This guy looks excited about the “Made in France” movement.

What it’s good for though is the French spirit. More than a plan for the economy, “Made in France” is a rallying cry for French identity. It’s a reminder of what the French are good at, of what makes France…France—in the minds of the French. Craftsmanship, know-how, innate good taste, a tradition of objects with meaning, rooted in a place and a culture. Being really good at something. Heck, being the best at something.

This is the image the French have of themselves and want to project to the world. The idea of what “Made in France” represents—a certain uniqueness and exceptionalism—is the rampart protecting France’s place in the world from the onslaught of an overpowering global economy.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

And the fact is that stuff that’s been made in France for generations really is, generally, beautiful and just…better. I’m a fan of terroir chic, of seeking out the best that loca-style has to offer: that grand cru of tobacco pipes made in the village of Saint-Claude (since 1855), that perfectly aged method for making Sophie, the natural-rubber toy giraffe (manufactured since 1961), those beechwood-encased folding knives by Opinel that haven’t changed shape or materials since 1890. It’s true that these kinds of objects are hard to find out there in the world these days.

But guess what? They’re still made in France.

I leave you with a map of French terroir fashion, a guide to style-by-region featured in the fashion magazine Madame Figaro last month. You just might be tempted, on your next trip to France, to get some Fabre gloves (since 1924) along with your case of Côte du Rhone near Nîmes in the south of France, or a vintage studded belt from the leathergoods company Laffargue (since 1890) along with your Iberian ham in the Basque country.

A map of terroir fashion. Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

A map of terroir fashion.
Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

You’ll be doing good to the French spirit—in fact, you’ll be wearing the French spirit home. And you’ll look undeniably the chic-er for it.

Has Someone Said the Unsayable Truth About the Roma?

There has been one single word in French headlines non-stop for the past week and that’s “Roma.” The French have a Roma problem and it is one of those intractable issues with no easy solutions and so loaded with taboos and unsayable truths that it makes everyone squeamish. It’s not a new problem, but it was set off again last week when France’s charismatic and very popular Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, said in a radio interview that most Roma people in France “don’t want” to assimilate, and hence “are best off returning to Romania or Bulgaria.”

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

The comments set off fireworks of reactions, most notably from the Minister of Housing, Cécile Duflot (who is from France’s left-of-the-socialists Green Party). She accused Valls of betraying the “Republican Pact”. Those, in France, are fighting words—quite strong ones, the French equivalent of one senator accusing another of being un-American—and created a political stand-off between the two. Duflot is right, of course, on principle: it’s a terrible thing to stigmatize an entire ethnicity as being unwilling to assimilate, the kind of thing that was said about Jews, sixty years ago. In fact, if you replace “Roma” with any other ethnicity or race—Asian, Kurd, Arab, whatever—nobody would disagree that Vall’s statement was profoundly racist.

But the majority of French people tend—massively—to agree with…Valls. A poll this past weekend revealed that 77% of the French agree that the Roma would be better off going back to their countries of origin, and it’s not just France’s right-wing nationalists coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of a political opportunity: 98% of the French voters on the right agree, but so do 55% of voters on the left. Another poll yesterday simply asked who people thought was right, Valls or Duflot—and fully two-thirds of the French agree with the Minister of the Interior and just 28% with Duflot.

Valls has said out loud what more or less everyone, or a great majority of everyone, is thinking to themselves. He’s said in a—slightly—more appropriate way what the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles said this summer on one of their August covers with the title, “Roma Overdose.”

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The August 22, 2013 cover title of this right-wing news magazine. “Roma Overdose,” reads the title, “Exclusive poll: the French have had enough.”

I probably could have told you that without seeing any poll numbers at all. Here’s why, the unvarnished, politically incorrect reason why: if you live in Paris, or a number of other large French cities, in any neighborhood but the most exclusive, then you too live with the Roma—a lot of Roma. Thanks to European integration, Romania and Bulgaria, the country of origin of most Roma people, are part of Europe. Romanians and Bulgarians are free to circulate throughout the European Union and it is legal for them to live and work within most of the 28 member states. They do not need a visa.

As a result, there are nearly 20,000 Roma in France, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in the greater Paris region, living in some 400 illegal encampments. France does not allow any race or ethnicity based census-taking, but the Roma are involved in two main rackets: organized begging and prostitution. Both the beggars and the prostitutes tend to be women and children. Because they live in squalid, makeshift camps with no running water or electricity, and because they don’t have jobs or income, they also run organized rings of garbage-pickers. In one encampment, with its own makeshift mayor and security force, every family pays a Euro a day into the “municipal” kitty for access to the day’s scavenged food. There are vans that, every morning at dawn, drop off teenagers and women all over the city, in Paris’s dozens of arrondissements: some women settle onto a street corner to beg, others set out to pick over trash cans, and bands of teenagers, often including pregnant girls, rove about tourist areas with pens and pads of paper waiting to hit up some foreigners. Their lives, frankly, sound awful.

A Roma encampment in Paris's 19th arroniddissement.

A Roma encampment in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

I live in a diverse, gentrifying neighbourhood of northern Paris, and my apartment happens to overlook a broad open green space, like a small public lawn. For over a year now, except during the winter’s coldest months, there has generally been a large family, or a big extended family, sometimes a whole gang of a several dozen Roma, camping out: mothers with babies, fathers, pregnant teenagers, multiple strollers, spreads of food, men lounging, even an old accordionist who all summer long, every day, from 6am to 6pm has played the same song. I either want to kill him or teach him to play another song. He’s there now. This summer for a while they’d dragged an old leather couch under a nearby scaffolding and hung out there when it rained. It stayed for weeks.

I wouldn’t want to live on the street. It’s a terrible life. But frankly, I wished they didn’t live in my street. Who does want them to live on their street? What community wants to host their encampment? What city will offer them jobs, education, and healthcare?

Roma are the thorny and taboo topic, the nuisance about which no one dares speak, now a part of everyday urban aggravation, a familiar and unwelcome feature of street-life, the unspoken target of everyone’s animosity, the legal and social problem to which no one on the left has dared offer a solution, and which the far-right has enthusiastically placed high up on their electoral agenda.

In reality, Manuel Valls said in language that was tolerable to the left (“they don’t want to assimilate”…“best off returning to Romania”) exactly what the right said in language that made them sound friendly to the far-right National Front party (“enough, leave, go home”). And now that he’s said it, it’s made him even more popular: he has become his party’s favorite campaign trail accessory in France’s local election campaigns that are now going full swing.

And that’s what’s so troubling—that most of the political spectrum, from the mainstream Socialists to the right to the far-right actually seem to agree. That should never happen. And when it does, it makes for a very ugly confusion of genres.

Because eventually Valls will no longer be able to cloak his phrases in euphemistic suggestions of “better off”, he’ll probably have to speak a little more clearly about exactly what he means—and then what will he sound like?

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?