Filthy Lucre

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Karl Marx1 Filthy LucreIs it a Marxist-inspired perception of society (reinforced, no doubt, by Catholic-sourced notions of the iniquity of monetary pursuit) which has firmly anchored in the French mind the belief that all human effort tending towards pecuniary gain must necessarily be soiled by the stains of exploitation and immorality? Whatever the explanation may be, the view is rooted deeply enough in the national identity to make many of those whose professional activities are oriented towards financial return and management of others feel guilty enough to withdraw into postures of self-defense.

Take, for example, my bourgeois company-owning neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Now Monsieur Martin informs me that when he’s on holiday and is asked by a stranger what line of business he’s in, he’ll mutter something vague about ‘being in industry.’ And when pushed for more details he’ll reluctantly admit to working ‘in an Accounts Office.’

‘I prefer this,’ he smiles. ‘It doesn’t cause any embarrassing tensions and gives people the impression I’m just an ordinary employee … like everybody else. Then we can go ahead and have a nice, friendly, relaxed relationship between equals!’

Porsche Filthy LucreAnd only the other day Monsieur Martin took delivery of an expensive new sports car. Now an Englishman or American would have taken the first opportunity to show it to others with undisguised pride. They might even have revealed, without the slightest complex, how much it had cost. Not so with Monsieur Martin. Monsieur Martin adopted an almost apologetic attitude, and it was only after informing me that’ ‘Ils m’ont fait une offre que je ne pouvais pas refuser,’ that they’d made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, he began to relax and the semblance of a smile illuminated his face.

It has to be admitted, however, that the ordinary Frenchman’s attitudes to money are highly complex, not to say contradictory. For, strangely enough, the antipathy which he feels towards ‘les riches’ does not stop him – along with millions of his peers – from spending considerable sums on the lottery each week – presumably in the hope of winning the jackpot and joining their ranks. And royalty – provided it resides beyond the Hexagon – has a fairy-like attraction for these guillotiners of sovereigns. Moreover, the Frenchman shows little hostility to conspicuous wealth emanating from the world of sport and entertainment (perhaps because these constitute an intrinsic part of his own leisure life), and the extravagant trappings of grossly-overpaid sportsmen and show business personalities which, had they been displayed by a wealthy businessman, would have aroused popular wrath, are greeted, at worst, with a Gallic shrug.

Yannick Noah Filthy LucreAnd it is not unknown for these stars of popular entertainment to undertake the consolidation of their public image by going to considerable pains to convince us that, in spite of their huge fortunes, their heart is, and always will be firmly oriented towards the left. On the eve of a presidential election some time ago, an ex-French-tennis-star-turned-pop-singer, now contending to become the champion of inter-racial fraternity, sought to reassure his fans by publicly declaring that ‘si Sarko passe, moi je me casse!’ – that ‘if Monsieur Sarkozy gets in, I get out!’ If by ‘get out’ he wished to indicate that, in the event of this right-wing presidential candidate being elected, he would have no hesitation in seeking refuge under more brotherly climes, he seems to have had second thoughts: for though Monsieur Sarkozy did get in, our ex-tennis-playing pop singer didn’t get out. Would I be cynical in thinking that this was due, in part at least, to the fact that most of his considerable royalties are generated in France? It would appear, however, that he had again hit a winner as a survey later revealed he’d been voted France’s favourite personality – for the seventh year running!

Eric Cantona Filthy LucreMore recently, in a similar attempt to reinforce his popular image, a retired football-star-now-turned-actor staged a media show, the goal of which was to turn to his advantage the antagonism of a good proportion of the French public towards what it perceives as being at the heart of an unjust, exploiting, capitalist system. During an internet interview he went so far as to suggest that the collapse of immoral banking structures might be brought about if 20 million people all decided to draw out their cash at the same time. In all fairness, however, our multi-millionaire ex-football star actor, though busy making a film on the fateful day, did, apparently, practice what he preached by trotting along to his bank to make a symbolic withdrawal.

This firmly-embedded conception of a Manichean society, split into opposing factions of rich and poor, places considerable pressure on French governments to remedy the supposed imbalance through re-distribution of what are popularly viewed as ill-gotten gains. As a result, it is, above all, the middle-class citoyen who bears the brunt of a complex and, for some, confiscatory system of social and fiscal contributions, obliging him to part with substantial amounts in the name of solidarité with his fellow man. For France is one of the highest-taxed countries in the world. One of the most controversial of these taxes is the Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune, or ISF which is levied on all households whose total earthy possessions (including the wife’s golden ear-rings) exceed an amount which would make an American laugh his sides sore. And even though at the time of writing the entry level has been raised, the resulting revenue lost by the French State will certainly be amply compensated for by a substantial increase in taxes on the interest, profits and dividends deriving from the citizen’s estate.

 Filthy Lucre

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A Marxist France?

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Karl Marx A Marxist France?It is interesting to note that, from the Revolution of 1789 onwards, the different French Constitutions which began by giving almost total priority to the notion of individual liberty have gradually – though there have been periods of hesitation – come to place more and more emphasis on social equality, thereby creating that unique, incongruous mixture of conservatism and collectivism which has come to characterize the nation. So, in this more than two-century-old contest between individual liberty and social equality which game does the France of today play? Does she privilege the citoyen as an individual, or the collective entity in which the citizen lives? Does she prefer a society whose laws guarantee the freedom of each, or one which seeks to impose equality on all? Should the individual be free to run his own life and, if he does this badly, be obliged to accept the consequences? Or should the individual allow the State to impinge on this liberty but, in return, be comforted in the knowledge that this same State will provide him with all necessary means of assistance and subsistence in case of need? In short, is France a liberal, or a socialist, even Marxist-oriented country?

Economists seem to agree that there are three simple, mathematical (and, therefore, perfectly quantifiable) operations we can use to determine on which side of the border a country’s heart really lies. The first of these is what the French call les prélèvements obligatoires, expressed as a percentage of the Gross National Product. Now the prélèvements obligatoires, the mandatory contributions, are all the taxes, duties, levies fees, tariffs, charges, contributions, etc. which a State or collective authority requires its citizens to pay in return for the various benefits, allowances, pensions, indemnities, compensations, grants, subsidies which it allows them in certain defined circumstances. The GNP, on the other hand, is a measure of the total value of the goods and services which a country’s citizens produce. And it’s perfectly understandable that the higher the mandatory contributions are in relation to the GNP, the more this reflects the obligation the individual citizen is under to finance the collective body, and the more this collective body has the means to manage the citizen’s affairs. But it also means that the citizen is less free to do what he wants with his money. In present day France the prélèvements obligatoires represent approximately 53% of the GNP. Now it’s generally agreed that below 40% we’re in a country which gives priority to individual liberty (in the USA it’s around 30%, and in the UK 36%), and above 40% one where social equality has precedence. So there’s no doubt about it. On this score, at least, we’re well into socialist territory.

The second criterion – equally mathematical – is the percentage of public sector workers which a country employs in relation to the active working population as a whole. And, once again, the higher the percentage the more we’re in socialist-dominated country. This is also perfectly logical in so much as a state which undertakes to manage the lives of its citizens must have the necessary administrative structures and personnel to be able to do so. In France, according to a recent study, there are around six million state workers representing roughly 20% of the working population. The average for the 26 most industrialized countries of our planet is around 15.5%. So here we have additional confirmation that the political colouring of France tends towards a brighter shade of red.

But perhaps the most important indicator as to whether we’re in a country which gives precedence to individual liberty or social equality is the number of laws, decrees and legal texts which a state imposes on its citizens. For though laws are necessary both to guarantee the liberty of each and provide a certain harmony in regard to the social structures within which we live, when we have a multitude of laws regulating the citizen’s life in the minutest detail, these necessarily limit his freedom to manage his own affairs. In this respect, it’s significant that in a country where individual freedom dominates, laws are kept to a minimum. In France, it’s estimated there are at least 520.000 laws and diverse legal texts – more than twice the number in force in the other G7 countries!

The only conclusion we can draw, then, is that a state which has been given (or granted itself) the financial, human and legal means to decide for the individual rather than allow the individual the necessary freedom to decide for himself is a state which, without necessarily being Marxist in the extreme sense of the term, is one whose roots are solidly implanted on the left.

 A Marxist France?

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Real Camembert?

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In a land internationally reputed for both the quality and uniqueness of its traditional food and wine, it’s hardly surprising that the French State should have gone to considerable pains to guarantee that the words printed on the bottle, box or package accurately describe the products contained within by instigating a system of norms, labels and ‘appellations’ which require a producer to respect a certain number of rules and criteria in order to have the right to use a given name.

Camembert cheese Real Camembert?And when it comes to traditional food what could be considered more typically French than such a distinctly flavoured, world-renowned cheese as Camembert? Now, as all gourmets certainly know, Camembert is a soft cheese with a slightly salted, flowered crust, made using raw, unpasteurized milk drawn exclusively from the udder of a Normandy breed of cow grazing in Normandy pastures, and which has been moulded by the traditional ‘à la loupe’ method, with a minimum fat content of 45%, and a maturing process lasting at least 21 days in one of the five Normandy départements. These same gourmets might also be interested in the fact that the cheese owes its name to the small village of Camembert near Vimoutiers in the region of Argentan in Normandy where it was first produced around the time of the1789 Revolution, and that the beginning of its national and international reputation can be traced back to 1863 when the Päris-Granville railway line was inaugurated, and the Emperor Napoléon 111 tried it (and found it very much to his taste) during a halt at a station along this line.

Camembert Real Camembert?So you might be excused for thinking that the box labelled ‘Camembert de Normandie’ lying on your local supermarket’s cheese shelf contains a real Camembert – that’s to say one which has been made and matured in strict accordance with the description provided above. Well, I’m sorry to have to say this, but you’d be horribly wrong! For the label ‘Camembert from Normandy’ simply means what it says: that it’s been produced in the geographical region of Normandy with a minimum fat content of 45% – and nothing more! For not only can the milk be either raw or pasteurized, but it can be drawn from the udder of a non-Norman cow which has been grazing in non-Norman pastures in the Jura, in Lorraine, in the Haute-Saône, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the production and ripening process, well, there are simply no requirements at all!

Camembert AOC Real Camembert?Mind you, it’s still reassuring to know that today’s biggest French producer of Camembert cheese is located in the Normandy département of the Orne. What’s less reassuring, however, are the methods of production which have got nothing to do with the original process. The milk (which can come from anywhere) is first heated to 72° for 20 seconds in order to kill all the pathogenic micro-organisms, and especially the active bacterial flora. This results in what is called a ‘lait mort’ – a dead milk, to which a modicum of life (and taste) is restored by the addition of laboratory-cultivated ‘aromatic’ ferments (yeast, bacteria fungi). The milk is then curdled by injecting an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves, after which everything is immersed in a solution of brine, and finally sprayed with mould! Even though a Camembert produced in this way offers all necessary hygiene guarantees (at least, let’s hope this is the case), can it be guaranteed that the average consumer is fully aware that when he buys a box labelled ‘Camembert fabriqué en Normandie’ he’s buying a cheese which has been made in such a radically different way to that which he’s being led to believe, and that if he wants to have the guarantee he’s buying the real McCoy, the label on the cheese box should read ‘Camembert AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé) de Normandie?’ I’m not so sure. And it’s perhaps significant that the production of real Camembert represents just 4,2% of the total quantity of French-produced Camembert.

 Real Camembert?

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Dear Nancy

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As I have already had occasion to observe, displaying a modicum of gallantry to a Frenchwoman by, for example, opening the door for her, helping her on with her coat, or complimenting her on a new dress, or hair-do is usually expected, and will rarely go without reward. In contrast, the more feminist-oriented English or American woman might be more likely to perceive this kind of male attentiveness as not much more than sexist provocation – a maddening affirmation of female inferiority in that it treats her as an object of male condescension. Take, for example, the case of Nancy.

During my first years of residence in France, I kept body and my French and English souls together by gainful employment with a language school, inculcating the language of Shakespeare, in mainly commercial form, into French business people – often at their place of work. In one company the number of staff wishing to improve their English language skills was such that two separate groups were formed, each requiring, of course, a different teacher: my own split self … and Nancy.

Typical English girl Dear NancyNow Nancy was a robust, blondish, blue-eyed English girl whose attributes the Frenchman in me considered to be not without potential. But those solid female arguments I was fleetingly permitted to glimpse were all but neutralized by tightly pinned-back hair, a succession of dowdy, sack-like sweaters, well-below-the-knee skirts, loose-fitting trousers or jeans, and flat-heeled shoes, combined with an almost total lack of make-up. And mentally she wore blue stockings. Had she been deeply disappointed by a past love affair? Did she feel more attraction to those of her own sex? Or perhaps this apparent indifference to men was simply due to a highly-developed sense of professional conscientiousness which had decreed that French male students’ attention should in no way run the risk of being distracted from the learning process by anything more than an imaginary assessment of her physical charms. Whatever the case may be, I couldn’t help feeling that in Nancy there lurked something of the Amazon which, without causing her to cut off right breast, was present enough to leave you in no doubt that the slightest attempt to intrude upon her private territory (a veritable no-man’s land) would be repulsed with considerable physical and mental injury to the assailant. And my relations with Nancy could hardly have got off to a more acidulous start.

Now the company we were to teach in was located some distance from the language school and, as Nancy was not in possession of a car, it was arranged that we should drive there together in my Mini. To this effect, I picked her up every Tuesday morning in front of the block of flats where she lived. And how can I forget that first time I went to collect her?

My Frenchman was at the wheel (on French roads the Englishman in me tends to gravitate towards the left) and, as I approached I saw her waiting, a tape recorder reposing on the pavement by her side. Now, in those days tape recorders were rather heavy, cumbersome objects so, after pulling up, I jumped out of the car, greeted her with a cheery ‘hello!’ and gallantly seized hold of its handle with the intention of depositing it in the boot.

‘No, leave it where it is! I can do that myself!’ she snapped with such an intimidating glare in her eye that I could only lower my gaze.

And by that she said it all: if we’re going to get on over the next few weeks, let’s get things straight right from the start. You wouldn’t have offered to do that for a man, so don’t come that one with me! Never forget that even if I am a woman I’m just as capable as you, so the sooner you drop that sexist, Latin male seducer nonsense, the better it’ll be for both of us – especially you!

Despite this more than chilly beginning, we did warm to each other over the following weeks. But never did I for one instant waver from behaving towards her in exactly the same way as I would have done with a man: for there was always something in her demeanour which left me in no doubt of the consequences of not doing so. Our relationship, therefore, remained well within those limits of friendly, co-operative civility which our shared professional duties imposed. And then came the Summer holidays.

By way of celebrating the end of the English lessons our students invited Nancy and myself to dine with them in a reputed gastronomic restaurant. The evening arrived and, as usual, I drove along to pick her up. There stood Nancy on the same pavement, in front of the same block of flats. Was it the make-up? Was her hair more attractively arranged? Perhaps her skirt was just an inch or two higher. Or was it simply because the tape recorder was no longer there?  Even though I couldn’t really put my finger on the reasons for the change, a certain je ne sais quoi gave the Frenchman in me the barely resistible urge to jump out, and run round to open the passenger door for her. I resisted his impulse.

It goes without saying that we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The meal was delicious, and both Nancy and I did more than justice to the excellent wine. But all too soon came the moment for us all to say ‘au revoir’, and after much cheek-kissing and handshaking we finally parted. It was certainly the Frenchie in me who took the wheel to drive Nancy back home for the very last time, and I had to stifle my Englishman’s yawn. After pulling up outside her flat I wished her a pleasant holiday, and was just on the point of bidding her a friendly goodbye when …

Perhaps it was my immoderate consumption of the first-rate wine which caused the events which followed to forever remain hazy in my mind. In what was, no doubt, a praiseworthy attempt to leave Nancy with a taste of what French gallantry was all about, it must have been the Latin within who prompted me to lean over her to open the passenger door. And as I did so, like some hapless fly, I suddenly found myself clasped in a paralyzing embrace, my head drawn helplessly towards voraciously parted lips … and all resistance began to ebb away …

A sense of propriety forbids me from relating the events which then ensued. Suffice it to say that a firm ‘Let’s go inside!’ was whispered in my ear, a resolute hand led me from the car, a determined arm marched me up the stairs, and the evening was brought to consummation in the depths of Nancy’s lair.

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