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.”


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?

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.