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Back in the Groove
October 29, 2009
Vacances, congé, villégiature or simply repos: The French definitely have a word for time off, while the back to work concept is embodied in a single expression: la rentrée. Summer is a memory now. The Paris boulangeries and dry cleaners bustle again, and the chic Left Bank boutiques have raised their shutters to reveal windows draped in warm weather colors and textures. It's early autumn and the French, and Parisians in particular, fall back into their routine.
For Americans, the Labor Day holiday put a stop to whatever summer fun we may have gotten away with when threatened by financial crisis and overwhelmed by the idiocies of the health care debate. But for the French, the concept of la rentrée—which spreads itself out through September—carries a lot of weighty importance that's associated with being French.
It exists as a single concept, though with lots of variations, as in la rentrée scolaire for back to school, la rentrée judiciaire for back to court. And of course la rentrée politique, which is when the Paris-centric political elite clear their throats and renew their statements about all the things they've been talking about all along.
An obvious element in la rentrée is that everyone comes back relaxed, and filled with fresh thoughts. Nicolas Sarkozy's fresh thoughts are that he should (1) be re-elected so that (2) he can continue his pro-activist role as a major leader of the free world.
It's too easy to be snarky about le petit Nicolas. But after his near-fainting experience while jogging in July, he is getting good marks for a new sense of discipline.
Besides re-election, he has other things on his mind, like how to pay down the debt that has been laid on during the financial crisis, and how to move ahead with his reforms while not giving the opposition ammunition to bring him down.
Tomes could be written about that: Martine Aubry, who last spring squeezed in by a whisker as the Socialist Party's leader, has rallied forces and taken a firm hand. But that's not enough to protect her flanks. She beat out Ségolène Royal for the post, but Royal remains a deeply unfriendly force, principally through a celebrity that she complains about while assiduously cultivating.
It's clear that it will take more than Nicolas Sarkozy to get the Socialists focused. The disarray in the party can only bring to mind the French expression "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose". Indeed. It also brings to mind once again the realization that there's a pettiness about politics: it's invariable, unavoidable, international and unrelenting. It's inherent in the fact that politics is about winning elections, not leading the body politic toward a better life on earth.
The left wing press has been in a proper rentrée flap because more than two years before he faces re-election, Sarkozy is already shaping his candidacy for the 2012 race. Unlike in the US, where candidates start getting serious about campaigning at least four years before the fact, in France Sarkozy's early organization is being called du jamais vu, or never before seen. I wonder if they knew what they were looking at when they watched Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand out patting cattle butts at the annual agricultural fair.
An interesting if predictable aside on the shoring up is Sarkozy's ouverture to the right. Famously, sagely, he brought dissatisfied Leftists into his regime at its beginning. Now he has put a big brotherly arm around Philippe de Villiers, an aristocratic France-Firster from the Vendée, the region in Western France that fostered first a royalist plot against the Revolutionary government, and then in 1793 a full scale revolt.
Not royal, but certainly of noble pedigree, the Viscount Philippe le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon heads the party known as the Mouvement pour la France and runs a recurrent failing campaign that is unremittingly chauvinistic, but not so rancid or racist as Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front.
Sarkozy also welcomed the hunting and fishing party into the expanding right flank of his big UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party tent. The CPNT—the initials stand for the French words for hunting, fishing, nature and tradition—is a small, longstanding cultist force whose interests are stated clearly enough in its name. It has nothing to do with the Green ecologists.
Climbing aboard the Sarkozy Express, de Villiers displayed an adequate sense of irony, if none of apology, for all the criticism he has delivered of Sarkozy's pro-European policies. He noted that he preferred "the polyphony of the Right to the cacophony of the Left."
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France has had only unofficial bewilderment for the cacophony over health care on the other side of the Atlantic. America's approach to social services is always bewildering in a country that has made the most of its own brand of Socialism for many decades now. Besides, the country has its own debate on the general subject of health care—not on whether to provide it, but about the swelling red tide that's drowning the budget of the national social security system. Because revenues have declined so much in the enduring fiscal crisis, the deficit has doubled over the last 12 months. Under France's extensive social safety net, the system provides excellent health care, minimal pensions and a welter of other services.
A scoop in a recent issue of the Journal du Dimanche, the popular and serious national weekly, put the debate in terms that strike home because they talk about money.
Common analgesics like aspirin and paracetamol, widely used and easily available over the counter, would no longer be reimbursed when prescribed by a doctor, as they are now. Or they would be reimbursed at a much lower rate. Also, hospitalized patients would now have to pay a 25 percent larger daily contribution toward their care: €20 instead of €16. (The patient contribution is usually covered by the private mutuelle, or supplementary insurance, that most French citizens also have.)
Do you get what you pay for? It may depend on your frame of reference, but in mine, which was Made in USA, you get a lot more. The famous "French paradox" refers to a long healthy life despite a rich and liquid diet. It might apply as well to the excellence of health care at a fraction of the costs that Americans pay.
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Summer reading included the excellent Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes (reviewed in July/August issue), who recounts the marvelous story of Gustave Eiffel and his at-first infamous tower, which marked its 120th anniversary this year. I delighted not just in her tales of the remarkable Eiffel and how the tower got to be Paris's best known landmark, but of the Americans whose names filled the marquees in the city of light during the Belle Epoque. Notably, for me, there was James Gordon Bennett Jr., who founded the newspaper where I made my career.
A quirky, strong-willed publisher, Bennett gave advice as he founded the Paris Herald that probably did not help it evolve into today's International Herald Tribune. Nevertheless, I wish in hindsight that as editor I'd kept his preferences in mind from time to time: He was more interested, he said, in a dead dog in the Rue du Louvre than in more worthy events like wars in wherever.
He ran a lively newspaper and spared no cost in making it so. Jonnes's book, published by Viking, is about a lot more than Bennett, and her anecdotes make her story as lively as his newspaper.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of France Today.
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