24 February 2012

Adieu mademoiselle

In sociology we speak a great deal about the symbolism tied to our social roles and to our interactions with others.  How we name things and refer to them is also symbolic, as language signifies all kinds of social meanings, for the people, objects, or actions to which we are referring.  The names we give our social roles--mother, father, daughter--have symbolic meanings tied up with them as do the names we give ourselves.  I can use myself easily here as I have not only firmly held on to my name upon marriage, but I have also maintained its Finnish pronunciation for much of my life.  Both the name and the pronunciation are symbols for me, of both my ethnolinguistic identity and my feminist orientation, that I affirm to myself and project to others.  I've already talked about my surprise and frustration with the challenges in using my legal nom (last name) here (see Une féministe, October 9, 2011).  By now, it's on the bank account and checkbook, and on one utility bill (thanks to a clever French friend who suggested I open one utility in my name and the other in my spouse's).  I am still the good wife with her spouse's last name on the rental agreement, and the spouse receives all school correspondence, even though I am the parent who signs every single absence or late attendance/early arrival slip and who attends the school meetings and conferences and corresponds with the school staff.  His name is also on my cell phone bill (because I did not have a utility in my name at the time we set it up).  As for my first name  I have generally always introduced myself by pronouncing my first name as it is pronounced in Finnish (on'-neh), but strangely enough, in France, this works about as well as it does in the U.S.  The French consistently refer to me as 'Ann' because that's also how they pronounce a name spelled as mine.

Despite these little challenges, in one significant way, the French have made a big change just this week in how it names its people.  The use of Mademoiselle (Miss) on any government documents will no longer be permitted; French women will no longer have to signify their marital status by selecting Madame or Mademoiselle on government forms.  Instead, all are Madame, like men are all Monsieur.  This is akin to the U.S. convention, of using Ms. as the honorific for all women.  All of the teachers in our boys' elementary school were called Ms. unless they expressly indicated a preference for Mrs.  To be fair, in France despite what we learned in our French 101 classes back home, Mlle (the abbreviation for Miss) has not been widely or practically used in some time.  In the fall, I made the mistake of addressing an unmarried school official as Mlle So-and-So in an email (because I heard someone referring to her as such), but she swiftly and professionally corrected me, and I've come to notice that any women from their 20's on are generally called Madame.  As the New York Times calls Madame the 'senior' honorific, it is a little jarring to me to hear a young college student being called Madame, but that is the moniker here and apparently also in Quebec for unmarried and married women alike. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/23/world/europe/france-drops-mademoiselle-from-official-use.html 

The French government though apparently will not be rushing to make new forms.  The New York Times article linked here notes that in not wanting to waste the old forms, the government will create new ones after the old ones run out.  On the one hand, that makes sense during this challenging economic time in Europe where the French government along with its neighbors is trying to save the Euro currency by limiting public sector spending, but there is something symbolic, from the perspective of gender equality, in making the change immediately apparent.  I will have a good opportunity in the next few months to see if the government recognizes this symbolic opportunity, as the spouse and I will need to see about getting our permis de conduire (driver's licenses).  (We have just one year in which we can use our American ones here.)  One rendition of the current application asks one to indicate one's status as M., Mme or Mlle, which will obviously change with the new forms.  The current form then asks for one's last name at birth, one's first name and nom d'époux (s'il ya lieu) (married name or literally, husband's name, if applicable).  Apparently, this literal reference to one's spouse will also be removed, from this line, and one will simply be asked to indicate the last name being used now.  From my perspective, this latter change may be the more significant one!

16 February 2012


While I can't bear to read parenting books in general (after being a parent all day long, when I have time to read, I much prefer a literary novel or a well-written memoir), for work I do keep track of parenting books and newspaper discussions, mainly as sociological indicators of family trends.  For example, I have the students in my sociology of family courses discuss last year's book about so-called Tiger Moms (by Amy Chua), for its reflection of intensive parenting in U.S. society and for how it exemplifies the collective need to tell adults how to parent their children.  The review for a new book in that vein, Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, caught my sociological eye a few weeks ago, and I decided to see what it adds to the genre, and also, to see how the author's observations about French parenting compare to mine.  (It's an engaging, light read, with plenty of astute observations.)

As I told a friend, I'm not sure that I am ready to make any pronouncements about French parenting because so far, I have seen all kinds of parenting here.  I've seen engaged parents and disengaged parents, very involved and nervous parents, indulgent parents, distracted parents, beautifully dressed parents with beautifully dressed children in tow, and I have even seen a few ordinary-looking parents slapping their children's faces in public.  French parenting?  Druckerman herself speaks of the limits of her experiences and observations, as these pertain to one social class of families living in one city.  So, it's not clear to me yet if French parenting is all that different from parenting elsewhere.

Framing the door of a family home in Aix
That said, the one observation made by Druckerman that does seem notably French  (but that may or may not be a reflection of unique parenting à la française) is the construction and use of un cadre (a frame or framework).  In regards to parenting, the cadre is a framework or ideal in which parents set clear limits for children, essentially creating a structure of rules and expectations for children to follow.  The French parenting framework is, according to Druckerman, relatively firm and authoritative (as any good frame needs to be, whether it's holding a painting, or a door, or a behavior in check).  The frame of expectations creates a reassuring predictability for French children because they know clearly how to behave in various circumstances.  It's also liberating for them because within the framework's limits, these children have much freedom and independence (which outsiders might unknowingly see as a reflection of loose parenting).  This all apparently creates calm parents and happy children in France.  In a way, Allen and I unknowingly used an encadrement (framing) approach in regards to sweets with our boys (which we adapted from other, far more clever parents than ourselves, Finnish ones, in fact).  From age three, our boys have been allowed to have candy, on a weekly candy day, one piece for each year of their age.  When they were younger, we'd talk about how they might want to balance a big lollilop with a smaller candy, or chocolates with other types, but we gave them the freedom to choose, at the store, or from the candy jar, ANY candies within those limits and they could enjoy them anytime on that once-a-week candy day.  We think that framing candy day in this way has given the boys an ability to enjoy sweets without gorging on them (as almost 12 year olds, they don't really even need a candy day anymore), and it also eliminated the constant questions about candy and the pouting when it was denied, which surely made for more relaxed family time and calmer parents.

While the framework, as an idea, may in fact be used broadly by French parents in their private family lives, (and it sounds brilliant), where I really see it, is as an organizing principle in French public life.  Public interactions are framed in certain ways; for example, I know that I will hear bonjour and au revoir every time I walk into a store and that I have to respond similarly, and our boys have come to know that each coach is greeted at each practice and game with bises (cheek kisses, one on each side).  Even in public written correspondence in France, there are specific protocols for how to communicate in regards to renting, buying, or fixing real estate, to dealing with the bank, or to seeking a job.  In the U.S. we certainly have 'the business letter' and 'the resume' but these are fairly loose frames. In France, the frames are much more formulaic and formal; the following French website provides 500 templates for appropriate public correspondence http://www.modele-lettre-type.com/!  I first became aware of these protocols just a few weeks ago, when I received three extremely formally written emails from our landlord who was responding to an electrical issue in our apartment.  He maintained the same style in his email even after meeting us in person.  Just today, we received a similarly formal letter from the boys' school asking us to provide an equally formal explanation for a recent 5-minute tardiness by one boy (a not unusual incident or request apparently).  The letter opens with, in translation, "I have the honor to inform you that [your son], student in grade 6 section 4, was late to the following class without a valid excuse....," and its closing line is, "[Sir], please accept the assurance of my most distinguished consideration." Now, it's a wonder that we actually were able to attain our apartment, given my much more direct and informal, "anything goes" American style of correspondence, emailed in bad French on top of all that, and knowing about the special French correspondence protocols, I'll have to look up the appropriate modèle (model or formula) that will allow me to successfully complete the motif du retard (reason for tardiness) on the school form and reverse the demerit on our boy's school record.

Finally, in public and secular France, there is even a calendrical framework for everyday life, provided by the Catholic church where every single day is a particular saint's day (yes, there was that St. Valentine's day this week, though without as much fuss as in the U.S.), and the holy days frame particular eating customs.  As newcomers, we now know that Epiphany in January means we're supposed to eat Kings' cakes all month long (but we have many choices of which kinds and from which bakeries), and then we eat sweet crepes, with cider, for Candlemas (which explains the puzzling displays at Monoprix of crepe mix boxes next to bottles of hard ciders, and the sudden appearance of temporary crepe stands), and then these are eclipsed by the special pastries and sweets we'll scramble to eat at the local carnival grounds before the end of Mardi gras (yes, that's next, fat Tuesday).  And then we have the somber 40 days of fasting before Easter.  I'm sure most French do not fast, but when you think about it, Lent sounds like a convenient framework for a new diet, after all these sweets.

08 February 2012


We continue to freeze here in the South of France, we were up to -9 degrees C this morning in Aix(!), with orange weather alerts around France from Météo France (the French national weather service), and yesterday, l'alerte rouge EcoWatt (red alert) from Réseau de transport d'électricité (RTE, the network that tracks the transmission of electricity), due to record-breaking electrical power usage nation-wide.  People are staying in, sports teams are cancelling trainings, and even the professional football matches this weekend are all being moved up to earlier daylight hours when the temperatures might rise out of the negative degrees.  In some areas, school buses are still not running (although the schools seem to be open to receive any students who do make it in), citizens are being asked to turn off all standby electronic devices, and the Nice airport reportedly took itself off the power grid yesterday and ran on generators in order to ensure enough power to the Cote d'Azur! (See  The Connexion for this and other weather-related stories, http://www.connexionfrance.com/Weather-Meteo-France-school-buses-freezing-power-13436-view-article.html).  It's COLD!  Here's the beautifully ice-encrusted Rotonde fountain in the center of Aix.

I was one of many amateur photographers out yesterday snapping photos.  Despite the freezing temperatures, Aix has actually been a hopping place, primarily because we are nearing the end of les soldes (the four-week sale season).  I'd wondered about after-holiday sales in a post back in January, and several French friends made sure I knew about the annual sales starting on a set date in early January and lasting five weeks, until mid February.  This is one of two national sales seasons, allowed by the state, in which retailers are allowed to sell their goods, get this, at a loss(!).  Retailers can run promotions at other times, but may not sell items below cost at those times.  Each week during the sale in Aix, new signs have appeared in shop windows, revealing a new demarque (price reduction).  If you could brave the cold and stand the lines, there were deals to be had, for sure, especially by the dernière demarque (the final mark-down).
The state-regulated retail sale season and the national alerts related to le grand froid (the big cold spell) have really gotten me thinking about the relationship between l'état (the state) and its people.  France is one of the most centralized societies in Europe, and the government is much more present in the daily lives of its residents.  While I wondered why my kids were left out in the cold at school on that first snowy day last week (see my previous post), since that day, it's clear that the national weather and power alerts are being taken seriously, almost as directives from the state, especially in regards to children and to health (my boys' rugby and soccer tournaments and trainings have been canceled several times already due to the extreme cold, and not just due to the field conditions).  And while I don't know any French retailers, I find it interesting how normal it seems to everyone, to have twice-annual sales.  In contrast, in the free market U.S., no retailers would ever accept such conditions about when one could clear out merchandise at bargain basement prices, and consumers certainly expect sales year round.  And while there is a U.S. national weather service and no single power supplier, the weight of the weather service announcements are diluted by the many private weather forecasters and news station reports, so there is no one organization whose alerts are the end-all, be-all ones.  (In the U.S. we do have that funny U.S. Emergency Broadcast System now apparently replaced by the Emergency Alert System, that makes its monthly beeping tests on the radio and some t.v. stations, but I cannot ever remember being alerted by it for real.  Maybe a presidential directive would carry some weight, but in general the U.S. president does not make pronouncements for activities at the local level.)  This means that weather-related decisions are made by governors, individual organizations, and private companies, based on a variety of sources.  Think of the U.S. public school districts which are soundly criticized at every turn, whether they take the advice of the weather services or television stations or not, while private sports organizations rarely cancel due to economic obligations, and may do so only when lives are actually at stake, such as in the case of imminent lightning storms or tornadoes. 

Is this telling me that the French care more about their kids, or their health, or how money is made here, than say, North Americans do?  I am not sure, but the weather and retail examples highlighted here are, to me, reflections of an enhanced, protective state role in private life, one that is accepted broadly in French society.  The U.S. and modern French states are both products of similarly-conceived notions of liberté, égalité et fraternité (liberty, equality, and brotherhood), but how those ideas are interpreted and "lived" in the resulting societies vary considerably.  We can make arguments for greater or lesser degrees of state influence in private lives.  From what I've seen, under the French system, people do live comfortably, eat well, and play for four weeks each summer.  And they clearly are not greatly hampered in their everyday lives by infringements on their freedoms.  I've already suggested in earlier ruminations that rule-following in France seems somewhat arbitrary.  Or maybe it's like this: as free democratic citizens, the French have the liberty to prioritize which concerns are their most important ones and thus which rules (government-made or otherwise) they will follow.  Are parking rules, or rules about picking up after one's dog worth following!?  Maybe.  How about rules that affect children's well-being, or health, or how one spends one's leisure?  Bien sûr! (Of course!)