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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Anything He Can Do She Can Do Better

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Slim girl Anything He Can Do She Can Do BetterWhen it comes to comparing English and French women my Gallic frequently reminds me of his unshakeable view that the words ‘eating’ and ‘ drinking’, when applied to the latter, are gross misnomers. For though she’s an awesomely efficient cook, capable of creating a mouth-watering meal in record time, life for her tends to be one calorie-controlled diet, and what she herself nibbles or sips would barely fill a sparrow’s crop.  And even though I can’t deny that some French women do let themselves go, I’d bet my bottom euro that if you weighed all those over sixteen on a huge pair of scales, and then divided the total by the number, the resulting average would be significantly lower than that obtained by performing the same operation on their English sisters.

It is, nevertheless, far from my intention to imply that the figure-conscious English woman doesn’t exist, and is not prepared to make a valiant effort to keep her weight down. But, since the Englishman, when he walks past a female, systematically focuses his eyes on a spot on the ground two yards ahead, evidence that she has gained an excessive number of pounds is rarely seen reflected in the gaze of the passing male. It usually has a more objective source: the implacable verdict of the bathroom scales, the resistance of the skirt which she slipped on with ease last Easter, but which now opposes all attempts to be levered on. In addition, transforming that resolve to reduce calorie intake into determined daily action frequently requires the promptings supplied by the impending approach of calendar periods rendering her adipose pleats more directly visible to public view (i.e. Spring or Summer holidays). Moreover, her determination is generally cyclic in nature: once Autumn comes and all risk of public exposure is past, she will revert back to type, and the whole process will be reactivated the following Spring.

Girls on café terrace Anything He Can Do She Can Do BetterThe Frenchwoman’s neigh-on zero consumption of strong drink as well as her limited frequentation of establishments in which it is offered for sale (with the exception, that is, of the summer terraces of fashionable cafés in Paris and large provincial towns), is made considerably easier both by alcohol’s reputation as a substantial calorie provider, and the fact that in France whetting one’s whistle is still generally considered to be enough of a male preserve to be out of line with her tactics of seductive, controlled femininity. She maintains, therefore, a relatively distant relationship with intoxicating beverage, and usually prefers soft drinks or just plain water. As a result, it is extremely rare to see her in anything more than the mildest state of tipsiness. The only concession she might sometimes be tempted to make takes the anodyne form of a panaché (a shandy), a small lager, a pre-prandial glass of white port (in France port is drunk as an apéritif), a Martini, or a Kir (white wine, or even champagne, with blackcurrant juice). Strong drink, such as brandy, whisky or pastis, is almost exclusively reserved for the male. To accompany a meal she will often drink sparkling mineral water, though she may take a little wine (frequently diluted with still mineral water), but rarely in proportions greater than what can be contained in one single glass which – amazingly for you English – will be made to last from beginning to end of meal.

Women drinking Anything He Can Do She Can Do BetterIs it, once more, that carefully organized, long-term, puritanical repression of all spontaneous feeling,  exacerbated, no doubt, by the restricted number of legal hours allocated to public drinking, which has caused you English to rely on the euphoric effects of inordinate volumes of alcohol, imbibed in the shortest possible time, to extract you from your legendary reserve? Whatever the reasons may be, you are a nation of compulsive tipplers. For how else can I describe the inhabitants of a country where having a good night out, and being a real man is inextricably linked with the ability to down stupefying volumes of alcoholic drink (usually beer), in not much more time than it takes to say ‘Here’s to your good health!’ And what is more understandable in a nation where the female battle cry is ‘Anything he can do I can do better:’ that women should now be storming the gates of this traditionally male-held bastion?

And the generalized masculinization of English girls would seem to be substantiated by Jacques, my neighbour Monsieur Martin’s son, who spent last year studying at an English university. Though already enough of a man of the world to be shocked by very little, Jacques confessed to being rather surprised by the behaviour of some English girl students, not only in the desire they unashamedly displayed to have personal confirmation of the French lover’s legendary reputation, but also in their ability to compete with the male in swilling enough alcoholic beverage as to render them incapable the following morning of having no more than just the haziest or recollections, if any recollections at all, of the previous evening’s events. I’m sure the Englishman in me will agree that this type of anti-social, ‘laddish’ conduct which momentarily destroys all natural inhibitions, and all too often leads to grossly degrading, often violent behaviour, even on the part of women, is the very antithesis of that refined, composed and alluring mystery with which most French women still seek to surround themselves.

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