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).
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!)