Saturday, July 28, 2007

La Fermeture Annuelle

It's that time of year again when the French hear the dire warnings of Le Bison Futé, the Wily Bison, about how bad the traffic is on the routes to the sun and surf: 556 km of traffic jams today dans le sens des départs. But not everyone is going. As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Clichy Plage," the divide between those who vacation and those who don't is one of the great class markers in France today. Le Monde has the numbers: depending on which survey you believe, either 12 million or 21 million French don't take vacations. Some don't go because they're very old, although it seems that "seniors under 65" are the great beneficiaries of increased leisure time (which reminds me that I don't have much time left to enjoy the boon). But most are held back by lack of means.

I was thinking of all this last night as I watched Michael Moore's Sicko. Of course it was heartening to see France presented in a positive light in an American cultural product, however one-sidedly polemical the presentation. But I admit to squirming in my seat a bit as Moore encouraged American yuppies working in Paris to rattle on about their marvelous vacations (as if the legal guarantee of vacation time made expensive vacations universally available), and when he showed the French engineer's wife with her collection of sand samples from exotic beaches (as if every Frenchman sojourned annually in Saint-Tropez, Bali, or Rio), to say nothing of the thirty-something convalescent who got a note from his doctor entitling him to three months' recuperation on the Côte d'Azur at his company's expense.

Film, it seemed to me as I watched, is a powerful medium for presenting comparisons of "social models" in a form accessible to large numbers of people and therefore useful for enriching democratic debate. A certain intellectual hygiene is desirable, however, or at least it seems so to me with my academic biases. Of course decorum has not always been a salient feature of democratic debate, and maybe it's better that no holds should be barred. I'm not sure that the kind of film I have in my mind would reach an audience as broad as Moore's, and the people in the theater didn't seem disappointed or bothered by the omissions or the obvious comparative improprieties. There was applause in the theater. But of course this was in Cambridge, Mass.

Sundays Off

The historian Patrick Fridenson explains in Libé the history of the law governing work on Sundays. A reform of this law is currently under discussion. Fridenson makes a number of interesting points, especially when he discusses the frequency of exceptions to the law of 1906: "Despite its determination to universalize and generalize, which comes from the French Revolution and the Church, France is also the country with the most exceptions [to its laws]--in contrast to other countries which regulate less but also grant few exceptions."


The parliament last week passed the first university reform measure. Although Marianne's article on the reform is entitled, with characteristic subtlety, "Cultural Revolution or Feudal Regression," the text notes that the bill submitted by the government was significantly amended in the course of debate to provide for election of the presidents of the newly autonomous universities by their faculties, and candidates must be chosen from the ranks of professors and lecturers. The original bill had envisioned the potential recruitment of non-academics. Jean Fabbri, the head of SNESUP, the union representing academics, calls this a "noteworthy evolution."

Nevertheless, Pierre Cohen, a PS deputy from Haute-Garonne, hints darkly at a "Sarkozyization" of the universities, with a concentration of all power in the hands of university presidents. Meanwhile, Marianne has another piece alleging that Bruno Julliard, the head of the student union UNEF, is "in a relationship of incredible seduction with Sarkozy," but this quotation is attributed rather vaguely to le milieu syndicaliste. It is further asserted without attribution that Sarko won Julliard's heart by letting drop the remark, "The profs are reactionaries." He is also alleged to have inserted the proposal to select students at the entry to masters' programs specifically in order to withdraw it when Julliard predictably made this issue a deal-breaker. Win-win, says Marianne: Sarkozy got to appear flexible, Julliard got to appear victoriously intransigent, and in fact the whole issue has only been postponed until the other pieces of university reform are in place.