Friday, August 8, 2008

Quote of the day

While in France I picked up a copy of Bruno Le Maire's Des Hommes d'État. Le Maire was an assistant to Dominique de Villepin before and after he became prime minister, and he offers an interesting perspective on the Villepin-Sarkozy rivalry. He writes well, though at times he seems to be running through various exercices de style a little too self-consciously, and one suspects he covets a future in literature rather than politics. Still, certain of his aperçus are arresting. I quite liked this one:

The majority's Tuesday breakfasts in the Prime Minister's office gathered everyone who was anyone on the Right, people who were sometimes jealous of one another, sometimes detested one another, and quite often mistrusted one another. Politics is rather like a religious exercise, which obliges the faithful to set aside their rancor, boredom, fatigue, and irritation in order to frequent the same congregants year after year while affording no opportunity for extended refuge in solitude.

Remember, as you read this, that the people thus described are still running the country. Of course the description applies equally well, if not better, to the opposition.

Two Frances, Two Americas?

Two Frances? Perhaps the image of une fracture sociale is too simple. Perhaps there are not just two Frances, but many. Perhaps there is not just one fracture sociale but several. Which contrast is the most important? The one in the picture? That between the secure and the precarious? The educated and the uneducated? Between les Français de souche and ceux issus de l'immigration? Management and workers? Héritiers and sans patrimoine? Right and Left?

Take employment patterns. In Cambridge, Mass., if I get on a bus, ride a subway, or take a train, the odds are better than even that the driver or conductor will be a member of a minority group. This is not true in France, where these quasi-public sector jobs are relatively privileged. They confer un statut. Minorities don't get them. Just as minorities in Cambridge, Mass., don't get to be plumbers, electricians, or, by and large, carpenters. The mechanisms by which these patterns are enforced are subtle. They do not block social mobility altogether. Paths of advancement do exist, just not these. Conversely, in a high-end hotel in the south of France, the staff--and I mean the desk staff, the maître-d', the waiters--were Maghrébin, while the chambermaids were native French. At the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, minorities make the beds and work in the kitchen; the clientele are served directly by people who resemble them more closely, in skin tone if not in pocketbook.

Why do these differences in patterns of relative privilege arise? I'm not sure I have a fully adequate answer.