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Monday, March 21, 2005

Vie en Rues #3

La Vie en Rues, #3
March 21, 2005

A Tale of Two Paradoxes, and an Anniversary

Spring has sprung in Paris, and it is exactly as glorious as it is fabled to be. A few weeks ago, however, I witnessed a sublimely French mid-winter ritual. It seemed an odd little thing, at the time, if also perversely practical. Its significance has only slowly dawned on me: It was no less than a bellwether indicator of the second French paradox.

Most of us are familiar with the original French paradox, given all the press it has garnered in the last 15 years. For all their heavy, rich, artery-clogging food—the foie gras, the cheese, the fatty charcuterie—the French tend to have lower cholesterol and less heart disease than their American counterparts. Moreover, it is less frequently fatal, which impresses doctors and dieticians alike. The French are also, as a population, dramatically thinner, which only pisses everyone off. There’s a current best-seller, stateside, exploiting this nugget. It’s called, blatantly, “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” In your face, as it were.

How do they eat lard-filled baguettes, stay thin and keep their hearts healthy? It’s gotta be more than red wine and lingerie, regardless of their benefits. That’s the original French paradox.

The second French paradox is actually quite a bit more impressive, but it’s certain never to spawn a best-seller.

Consider this: Every year, without fail, each region in France takes two winter weeks off. Here’s the thing that makes it more than just enviable vacation time, though: the government makes sure the various regions all shut down for a different fortnight. Why? Well, you wouldn’t want the entire French populace to hit the ski slopes at once, would you?

So, not only does the government ensure that the country is completely unproductive for a couple of weeks each winter. It goes one step further and gazettes the holiday to be the equivalent of rolling strikes. When all the workers from one region come back from their ski holidays, all those in the region next door head off. And I’m sure you’ve already dropped to this being two weeks in addition to the whole of August, during which the entire nation posts a “We’re Closed” sign at the border and spends the month at the beach.

I have always had what I consider a pretty typical view of France’s politics and economy. In essence, it boiled down to this: they don’t work. (Pun with malice aforethought.) France has had more constitutions and governments since the fall of Napoleon than even the French can count, and government corruption scandals are national sport. When comparing political stability in Europe, the French motto might as well be “Thank God for Italy”.

As for the economy, “basket case” wouldn’t overstate the casual outsider’s view. Strikes, workers you can’t fire, economic socialism bordering on communism, unbelievably high taxes, and a national pension system famous both for its generosity and for constantly threatening the Republic with the brink of bankruptcy.

I think it fair to say that, in the last few decades, most of us have identified more with the UK than with France. We see it as a sane, mostly well-run country. You know, in our hearts, the UK is to the US as France is to, say, the Ukraine. Or perhaps Guatemala.

And therein lies the second French paradox. According to The Economist (Nov 2004) and the OECD, the French economy has been beating the US for most of the last 15 years.

Whatever else is going on in an economy, productivity growth has long been America’s favorite indicator of medium-term health. As well it might be. Productivity growth, as The Economist primer sums up, drives income, inflation, interest rates, profits and share prices more than anything else. It’s also a favorite standard in the US because America is usually seen as the world’s productivity champ.

Not so fast. When factoring both labour productivity and capital productivity, together, France wins. The two countries’ productivity grew at about the same rate during the first half of the 90’s. But between 1996 and 2002, France pulled ahead by a clear margin --- particularly notable given America’s dramatic late 90’s growth spurt.

The US is still richer, of course. It has higher GDP per capita. But the productivity growth gap, alongside higher French academic achievement (OECD), makes you wonder for how long. Could that be behind a little of the France-bashing in the US over the last few years?

The US economy has been sluggish for more years than the current administration wants us to note. And the dollar’s steady slide against world currencies has been obvious outside the US, if not within it, as US debt has ballooned. According to Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman, the chance of a US currency crisis in the next few years is 75%.

It’s just a little gob-smacking that the US president looks better in a suit, but the French president is running a healthier economy. And Americans are still fatter. Maybe it’s all those freedom fries.

* * *

Geri and I are doing our best to even things out on the fat front. We keep making our little contributions to the ranks of fat folks on French territory. First, there was the dinner party we threw a couple of weekends ago. We sat down with six local friends at about 8pm. We didn’t leave the table until 4 the next morning. We left the dishes for the following day.

We indulged in a more intimate version just this last weekend. Our third wedding anniversary isn’t for another ten days, but I took a half day on Friday and we escaped to a Chateau about an hour from Paris. The attraction was a night in the country, a little celebratory romantic getaway, and the chance to treat the Queen Of My Heart like a real queen for a night. But it wasn’t just sleeping in the luxurious 16th century Chateau d’Esclimont that attracted us. The restaurant is renowned, too.

So, we settled in with a half-bottle of Champagne, and then set off to enjoy the warm spring sunset with a long walk in the palace grounds. The muskrats scurrying by the river’s edge, the water garden with its black and white swans, and the forest of tall oaks made a lovely contrast even to the most beautiful city in the world. After a short rest, a bath and a change of shoes, we got comfortable in the renaissance dining room at a table overlooking a mist-covered landscape.

It’s a good thing we got comfortable. I’ll spare you the plate-by-plate run-down, but it was ten courses and three wines before the dessert emerged with lit sparklers and “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate. I think we covered all the reasons why the French ought to be fat long before we retired to our canopied bed for a long sleep in.

Thank goodness the following day was as brilliantly spring-like as picture-book Paris could present. Time to work off a few calories by donning the skates in pursuit of my very own set of gendarme-like buns. The Sunday skates through the streets of Paris are swelling in size with each rise in temperature. Thousands of skaters set off from the Bastille, on Sunday, to make our way to the Pantheon, then across the Seine, under the Eiffel Tower, then down Boulevard St Germain, and across the river again to the Bastille. It would be a lot more fun if there was something to look at besides scantily clad French women and historic Paris scenery.

Fortunately, distractions abound Chez Spencer. The magic of spring in Paris is proving irresistible to visitors. Thank goodness. Some friends from Australia made us their first stop on a grand European tour, bringing a few bottles with them from my Australian wine cellar. (A bit like bringing ice to the Eskimos, perhaps, but, hey, it was an 11 year old Aussie shiraz.) More friends are coming in a week, and we’ll share the rest of our anniversary celebration with them. Then a friend from Shanghai will grace us. And we’re keenly anticipating my nephews’ first international foray.

As always, I close beseeching you to come visit, too. There are still a few blank spots left on the calendar. But start training, now. You have to be able to sink ten courses without getting up from the table, and rollerblade the length of Paris the next day.

Cheers. --h