My computer tells me it is 17 degrees outside, so I think I will skip my morning walk and spend a few moments offering my impressions of France. The big news while I was there was of course the continuing gilets jaunes protests, named after the yellow emergency jackets French drivers are required to carry in their cars, and which the protestors have been wearing as their emblem. The protests have been extremely violent by French standards, with cars being torched and store fronts being smashed, both in Paris and in a number of other cities around France. The protests were triggered by two actions of the Macron government: a rise in the gas tax and the termination of the wealth tax. The latter is not an inheritance tax or an income tax, but a tax on accumulations of wealth. Rich French citizens have been moving their legal residence to other countries to avoid the tax, and middle class French have been stuck with paying it. While taking a cab from the airport I passed a gas station and amused myself by translating liters to gallons and euros to dollars. I came up with something slightly less than $6 a gallon, which is pretty close to what the web says. A word of explanation is called for. Paris is sort of like America turned inside out. In America, the poor live in the inner city and the rich live in the suburbs. In Paris, the rich live in the inner city and the poor live in the suburbs, or banlieus. A rise of the already very high gas tax hits provincial working class and petit bourgeois French especially hard, as they drive to work. The wealth tax does not generate much money, or so I am told, but it symbolizes a redistributionist political philosophy that is very important to the ordinary French.
With all of that as background, let me offer some subjective and entirely personal impressions. I want to emphasize that I know very little about the realities of French political economy, and while I was in Paris, I did not read up on it in newspapers like Liberation [the Socialist party voice] or Le Monde, so these really are impressions – sensory impressions. If any of my readers actually know something about this subject, speak up and correct me.
Watching the images on the television set while sitting in our favorite café, I was struck by a certain similarity between France and America. Both are highly stratified societies, stratified by wealth but also by education. Indeed, France is more highly stratified by education than is America. Roughly the same proportion of adults have Bachelor’s degrees in both countries – one-third, more or less – but just as there is an enormous difference in America between merely having a degree [which already separates you from two-thirds of the country] and having a degree from an elite institution, so in France an ordinary university degree counts for very little in the centers of power. What matters is a degree from one of a small number of super-competitive institutions, if anything more competitive even than our Ivy League, called les grandes écoles. When I first met my French relatives, Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowich, both retired science professors, I committed a terrible social gaffe by asking whether they had gone to the Sorbonne. Aghast at the very thought, they replied stiffly that they had studied at a grande école. This educational stratification seems to include those who serve in socialist governments as well.
I have written repeatedly about the educational and economic selectivity or stratification in America manifested on television and in government across the political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, remember, won second prize in the Intel science competition and holds a degree cum laude from Boston University.] America has always been economically and socially stratified, of course, but back when I was a boy, and only 5% of adults had a college degree, the stratification was not so markedly educational as well.
Watching on TV as provincial mayors were invited to meet with President Macron in Paris [remember, these are impressions, literally sense impressions], I was reminded of the William F. Buckley Firing Line TV show I have three times described on this blog, most recently last July 21st. [Three times for the same story seems to me enough, even for a garrulous old coot like me, so I will let those of you who do not recall it look it up.] The cultural, educational, and economic gulf between Macron and those mayors seemed immediately obvious.
One final bit of personal narration before I end this and turn back to the never-ending saga of the government shutdown. One day, Susie and I were sitting in our customary place in the café when we noticed a line-up of ten police vans and cars across Place Maubert. Since this looked like the prelude to a gilets jaunes manifestation, we sat for quite a while and watched. At one point a bus came down rue Monge into the Place with GILETS JAUNES written on it, but in the end, nothing much happened. When we got up to leave, we walked over to rue Monge and looked up the street toward a big building called Maison de la Mutualité, where there were indeed several hundred people gathered, apparently for a meeting, not a protest. The Maison is right next to Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, a big ugly Catholic church famous as the headquarters of the extremely right-wing old school branch of French Catholicism that rejects the celebrating of the mass in the vernacular and all other such like abominations. I later learned that the meeting that day had been address by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing nationalist National Rally party. It seems all three of her children were baptized in Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet.
Well, that’s it for personal impressions. Except that I made a fabulous dinner of Coquilles St. Jacques and served them up to Susie and myself in two of the shells, which I got the fishmonger to save and give to me. It was delicious!