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.

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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.

Hello, This Is France Speaking, Are There Any Leaders Out There?

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The French Socialist Party is currently gathered at their annual summer summit.

As the August Paralysis (see my previous post about this) comes to an end, France is beginning to reawaken, with the politicians taking the lead. The great tradition in French politics is for each party to regroup in “Summer Schools,” which are informal summits that take place in lovely seaside spots or the south of France with a lot of networking and genuine hammering out of agendas. But while the Hollande administration gathered this week for a seminar with the theme “France in 2025,” and the Socialist party gathers now for their weekend summer school in La Rochelle (a pretty port town on the Atlantic coast), the opposition UMP party is…bickering. A lot.

And they’re bickering about something that probably seems very strange to the uninitiated. The different (and quite hostile) factions of the UMP are arguing about the right to perform a restrospective assessment of the Sarkozy presidency. It seems like an odd thing to forbid, since what else has any observer been doing since the moment the former president lost his bid for reelection. It also seems like an odd thing to forbid in a democracy! As though the president were some divine king figure whose actions were too sanctified to judge–at the risk of committing a crime of lèse-majesté. (This in itself says a lot about the way the figure of the president is perceived in France, and the way Sarkozy is, for the most part, perceived in his own party).

But here’s the thing: that fomer president is in the midst of doing what no other leader of a democracy in Europe–except Berlusconi in Italy–has ever done. After having failed to be reelected as president, he is unofficially making plans for a comeback to run for president again.

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Fomer French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made an official comeback in early July.

An assessment by his own party of what Sarkozy accomplished during his five years in office will undoubtedly highlight many accomplishments, but it’ll mostly be the occasion for the UMP party leaders who don’t support a comeback to enumerate all his mistakes and political miscalculations. It’s a very public way of undressing the emperor before he’s even made his first real sortie as a presidential candidate. For an election, by the way, which doesn’t take place until 2017. It’s also a missed opportunity for France’s primary opposition party to be focussing on the Hollande government actions at this crucial back-to-school moment.

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France in 2025?

In the French media this week, there was an interesting unity in the criticisms of both the right wing and the the left wing strategies at the moment. On the one hand the Hollande government was actually ridiculed for deciding to dedicate the opening cabinet meeting to speculations about the country 10 years from now, while the right-wing opposition was criticized for being narrow-mindedly focussed on their own past.

Neither party, it seemed, was talking about France…today.

When an Illegal Substance in France Is Not What You Think

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When it comes to the technology of making babies, the United States is often considered the Wild West: if you have the means to pay for it, pretty much anything is legal—egg donors, sperm donors, surrogate mothers, picking your child’s sex, and any combination of the above. Yet France, where very little is legal when it comes to assisted reproductive technology and all of it’s highly-regulated, is actually becoming an even wilder West, with women and men taking things into their own hands—illegally.

This July, a judge in Nantes, the capital city of the Loire region, granted a man visitation rights with a child born from an “artisanal” sperm donation he had made to some lesbian friends. “Artisanal” here actually means “illegal”. Wait, how can sperm donation be illegal…in France? Well, it is legal—but only for heterosexual couples. Gay couples, although they now have the right to marry, do not have the right to access any kind of assisted reproductive technology. Indeed, this is the big sticking point that remains unresolved after the enormous gay marriage debate of 2012.

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An online catalog of egg donors from a U.S.-based egg donation website. It is an essentially unregulated free market.

What’s happening is that gay couples are, instead, doing things “artisanally” (cf. “illegally”). Concretely, that means that gay women, and even single women who want a child—since unless a woman is in a committed relationship with a man, in France she doesn’t have the right to sperm donations either!—are seeking out donors on their own. They’re using their own informal networks (mostly the internet) to ask a man to donate sperm, which they then inject themselves.

So if you thought the phrase “turkey baster baby” was an old-fashioned term from a politically incorrect era pre-dating reproductive technology, well, in France it hasn’t fallen out of use. (Although they don’t eat much turkey here—they prefer capon at Christmas—so it’s usually a syringe).  And by the way, if the parties involved in this informal exchange of reproductive matter are found out, they theoretically risk up to two years in prison and up to $40,000 in fines.

All of this says a lot about how France, despite its reputation for being quite liberal on social issues, actually conceives of the idea of family. And it’s a pretty conservative idea: according to the law, the proper family does not include gay couples or single women, since neither is allowed access to the means to found a family.

The French idea of a family.  Edgar Degas's "La famille Bellili".

The French idea of a family.
Edgar Degas’s “La famille Bellelli”.

This recent legal decision makes a lot of people nervous, spelling out clearly the risks of “artisanal” sperm donation and insemination. Since the process is not necessarily anonymous (as it is mandated by the law when done officially), the donor could at any time demand to be legally recognized as the father or, conversely, gay or single mothers could demand that the donor assume paternity. None of which is usually part of the informal plan, and certainly it wasn’t in the case of the Nantes couple.

The sheer awkwardness and anachronism—“turkey baster baby”—of these situations that are brought to light by court decisions like this one will undoubtedly add to the already growing pressure to make the reproductive technology laws in France evolve. But it’s a political hot potato and, not by coincidence, the Hollande administration pushed back the scheduled hearings on the issue…to 2014.

If the French Are Among World’s Most Productive People Then Explain August

"Paris in August": it's even a film (and a novel).

“Paris in August”: it’s even a film (and a novel).

There are many paradoxes in France, the most famous of which is probably the incredibly high ratio of patisseries and steak tartare to slim French people with no more heart disease than anyone else. Why aren’t the French fat and dying young? That particular French Paradox has engendered a whole industry of envy and literature. Less well-known but, frankly, even more confounding, is the August Paradox.

Contrary to national stereotypes, the French are actually not total flâneurs. Far from it. (In fact it’s a stereotype that can get even the most delightful French journalists all worked up). You may recall the highly-tweeted episode this winter, when the American C.E.O. of the tire company Titan International, Maurice Taylor, lashed out at workers and unions in France saying French workers just sit around talking a lot and taking long lunch breaks. Turns out that in citing that national stereotype, Taylor was just reinforcing another national stereotype—of Americans as boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

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Maurice Taylor, boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

Recent (and less recent) studies show that not only are French workers more productive than German workers (good to know these days when Germany is allegedly the labor model to which the rest of Europe should aspire), but they’re only marginally less productive than American workers. And American workers actually work 23% more hours than the French (who actually work more hours than the Germans). Mr. Taylor is free to think and say what he wants, and to be honest, he’s probably not the only one thinking that, but the statistical reality is that France, despite the image it projects, is the fifth biggest economy in the world. And with a population that is 20 percent of the United States population.

And with the month of August.

Now let me explain August in Paris. The city is a ghost town (and for those of you familiar with August in Paris, let me know if you think this summer’s ghostlier than others). You can cross the boulevard without looking, and ride a Vélib bicycle the wrong way up a one way street, because even if there is a car coming, there is a sense of complicity among the few warm bodies still hanging around this joint, something like “You too, eh? Here, let me give you a wide berth and hang in there, man.” Come September, that car will honk angrily and the driver will spit at you.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

More seriously, the city is at a commercial standstill. For most of the merchants still open last week, Friday or Saturday was their last day of business before shuttering up for three weeks (although a few, economic crisis oblige, are leaving for just two weeks). Market stands were hawking at half-price whatever limp produce they had left, and restaurateurs were serving truncated menus with only half their normal dishes in order to empty out the larders. Eyes were sparkling, waiters practically jigging, and you could sense it wasn’t the night to linger over that rest of the bottle of wine. As of Sunday, in every street, metal shutters were drawn over storefronts with the telltale piece of paper taped in the middle, announcing the dates of departure and return. There was even the occasional emoticon.

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Have you noticed that so many of the Vélibs (Paris’s free public bicycles) seem to be missing or broken or have flat tires? It’s August and everyone’s working at half-staff, Vélib maintenance included. In fact the only maintenance workers on duty are the métro staffers, because in August, since no one—pretty much literally—is around riding public transportation, that’s when they shutter whole lines for several weeks. Have you ever had a medical emergency in Paris in August? Don’t. I had a scheduled surgery a few years ago in the summer, on the last week this chief surgeon in a public hospital was taking appointments: the first week of June.

Small businesses will shut down entirely and the whole staff will take leave at the same time—because there aren’t any clients around to do business. In large companies, the executive offices will be empty, a skeletal staff will stick around enjoying the absence of phone calls and emails, and sometimes company cafeterias will just close. I worked for many years at a 24-hour international news network, a French-style CNN, and yet every summer, just like the rest of French media, the bosses’ offices would empty, the number of news bulletins would shrink, shows would be suspended until fall. As though the rest of the world’s news went on holiday in August like it does in France, where French newspapers run light summer series and reduce their news pages since, well, there’s really no news (N.B: this week’s headline is the revolt of angry egg producers who are smashing their stocks because of low prices. Believe it or not, this is interesting, so come back here for more on this shortly).

All I can say, unlike Maurice Taylor, is bravo. Although I, too, find French unions often dogmatic, and I actually feel quite torn about the August Paradox. I find the August ritual freakishly normative, and alienating for people who don’t have the option to leave (I could plan to be out of town if I chose to). I also find it really annoying when metro stations are closed, when my boulangerie is closed, when all the damn dry cleaners are on holiday (who’s got office clothes to wash?), when my French colleagues didn’t seem to think that there was a credibility issue for a network allegedly covering international news to scale down to a “summer news schedule.” How can any industry, let alone a whole economy, be globally competitive when three months of the year feel like write-offs (June is counting down, July is wrapping things up, and August is a black-out)?

Like so much about French culture, August is deeply resistant. And yet like so many other French rituals, August seems, paradoxically, to be highly functional. The August paralysis, this highly-protected custom of total shutdown, doesn’t seem to have made France the country of sclerotic inefficiency that Maurice Taylor claims. So bravo, because if you can take the most significant amount of vacation of any country in the world and still be more productive than the Germans, well, then you’re getting something right.

The French Are Good at Most Things. Except English.

The French nightmare.

The French nightmare.

The French tend to agree they’re pretty good at most stuff, but they’ll readily concede that they’re not so good at English. However, that doesn’t mean they want to speak or hear any more of it in France.

Last Thursday, after weeks of acrimonious debate and vociferous objections by critics from all across the political spectrum, the French parliament just voted a measure allowing French universities to teach classes…in English. The measure remains controversial and will undoubtedly ignite more grumbling. Which raises two questions… Continue reading