Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Franceland: My Dreams and Reality

Just a day ago, Jonah Goldberg summarized what I think of the land of my birth these days:

“…Write the place off. Put a wall around the nice bits and call it Franceland. The tourists will love the quaint historical re-enactments.”

Unlike other French émigrés who consciously made the decision to leave their home country in search of better opportunities, I came to the U.S. as a child not knowing much about what I was leaving behind. From my point of view at the time, France seemed like a swell place, with beautiful streetscapes and rural landscapes (we lived in Provence), aromatic outdoor markets with its amazing produce. Compared to what I would later encounter in the public schools in the U.S, elementary school in France was a pretty serious place, and I feared constant belittling from my teachers. The principle of self-esteem was non-existent in the French educational system, and teachers did not hesitate to humiliate you in front of everybody by discussing your results on a test or the failure to organize your notebook neatly. As a kid I loved France but I was not terribly confident of myself.

Moving to the U.S., I was quick to compare and judge my new environment quite negatively. Mid-sized southern cities seemed to have a whole host of problems, with their distant spaces and tacky streetscapes, steril supermarkets and schools that seemed to be more about having a fun time rather than evading the teacher’s scorn as I had been accustomed to until then (this was a good thing, as it was a big boost to my self-confidance) . And even at a young age, it wasn’t unusual to be aware of France’s rich cultural heritage. This consciousness colored my first impressions of America, perceiving it as culturally vapid, anti-intellectual, and overall kind of ‘fake’. In other words my attitudes as a child was not much different from many grown-ups who have some sort of beef against America, and who tend to idealize a more glorious reality in the land flowing with wine, cheese, and ‘joie de vivre’.

As an adult, I have settled in the U.S. without giving much thought to going back to France. After witnessing millions of young French people taking to the streets to maintain stasis over much needed change, I have no regrets of not having made a life there. Still, I would like to acquire a nice piece property there, perhaps some rural manor in which to spend some of my retirement. I’ve learned over time that France is still a wonderful place as long as you are not engaged in the reality of making a living there. Upward mobility is extremely limited, and the current social system actually ends up favoring the privileged classes over those at the bottom. If you are a person of privilege, in which you have parents in important positions in a major bureaucracy or industrial concern, chances are that you will do reasonably well in France. Without this advantage, your best bet is to compete against all others in highly selective national exams that determine who gets to go the country’s elite graduate institutions. There are no second acts in French professional life, and in many ways you have only one shot to succeed. Screw up that chance and you find yourself either unemployed or floating from one unpaid internship to the next for several years before hitting the jackpot by securing a tenured job for life.

Apparently that latter prize is worth everything to most of the French. Freedom from risk, uncertainty, and opportunity is the French person’s most treasured value. The stigma against unemployment is not that negative compared to the way Americans see it, so it has become socially acceptable to mill around at the expense of taxpayers for quite a long time before finding something secure.

My most treasured value as a Franco-American is freedom from stasis, from predictability and determinism. These values will hopefully allow me to enjoy France from a position of extreme privilege, where I can afford anything I need without having to worry about how to pay for anything. Provincial France is emptying out quite rapidly as the young move to Paris to find work, so there’s lots of idyllic historic properties waiting to be restored. I hope to enjoy ‘Franceland’ in the future but I wonder if it will become an even more unrecognizable place in thirty years from what I remember as a child.

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