19 April 2013


To rent our apartment in France, we were asked to provide details about my spouse's salary, my occupation, and our family's structure to our prospective landlord.

To join a sports club in France, one son had to prove his parents' national identities with copies of their passports, and show evidence of his U.S. player's license.

To get a cell phone and account in France, I had to provide a French electric bill (which was in my spouse's name) and then subsequently prove my marital status, with a copy of my marriage certificate.

To the France tax authorities, we have had to declare all of our bank accounts and earnings, local and overseas, our children's birth dates and birthplaces and our own (U.S. authorities also require information about overseas bank accounts).

Some official information that we have had to provide here in France has felt quite personal, while other seemingly relevant pieces of information haven't seemed that important.  It seems few really care all that much about our names (see my post on Noms and prenoms, Sept. 2012), our medical histories (except the insurance company), or the finer details of our origins (see Département 13, April 2012 ).  And while U.S. census takers ask Americans about their race, the French government does not 'officially' keep tabs on race, and French media frequently blur the images of faces in their news stories, making reading or watching  the news stories a frustrating experience.  This is due to French privacy laws requiring consent for the publication of photographs (see Legal Week "French Privacy Law.... 17 Sept. 2012).  Yet, whose breasts, photographed here, in FRANCE, made it into the international newspapers?  Those of the Duchess of Cambridge.  And, it's not like similar body parts aren't on display all summer long at French public beaches.  So why the big deal about photographic records?  On the other hand, school records here seem hardly private at all, with teachers loudly announcing student grades in front of everyone else and even revealing these to other parents during parent-teacher conferences.  My kids can tell me their classmates' grades on any given assignment.  In the U.S. on the other hand, school privacy is very strict; as a professor, I cannot discuss any details of any of my students' school records with their parents or any other family members, even if the students are minors.

La transparence (transparency) in some matters but not others highlights cultural differences about what is considered public and private information.  Yet, in all societies, some members can get away with being more vague and less transparent about their affairs than others, at least until someone blows the whistle.  A big man in the French government, the now-former French budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, responsible for making sure the French (and current residents like us) pay their taxes appropriately, publicly criticized French actor Gérard Depardieu a few months ago for moving out of France to avoid taxes (here's one English language news account of this, "Actor Gerard Depardieu..." CBC news Jan. 6, 2013).  A media outlet then alleged that Cahuzac himself had his own undeclared personal assets in bank accounts outside of France which he vehemently denied to the French public.  Well, it turns out that Monsieur Cahuzac lied, and now he has not only lost his ministerial post but has also resigned his seat in the national parliament (yes, one can hold multiple French governmental positions at the same time, but that's another blog topic), AND his actions have forced his former colleagues to publicly and transparently declare their assets for the first time.  Just like our landlord knows my spouse's annual salary, we now know which French ministers are millionaires (some of whom admit that their wealth may be difficult for most French to 'understand'), and which ones have low bank account balances.  One French leftist politician joined in the act with such enthusiasm that we also know his height, weight and hair color.  At least he stopped there; after all, there is that fine line between public information, private information, and too much information.

A shop window in Nice celebrating Bridget Bardot, a French icon who has managed to be both revealing and enigmatic at the same time.

15 April 2013

Blocs de construction

Building with blocks is one game or fundamental skill we learn as children.  We learn about physics, we exercise reason, and we have fun building up houses or towers and knocking down the blocs de construction (building blocks) to start over all over again.  Building is a fundamental element of adult society too.  After all, it ensures that we have shelter, a place to live.  It's not enough to have lots of old shelters that we recycle though, such as the one in which my family currently lives (dating from the first half of the 18oo's), or the knoll in an old plane tree in the middle of town now housing this particular pigeon family.  New construction is important too, to accommodate growing populations,  young families, and changing lifestyles.  It is so important actually that 'construction starts' are seen as a major indicator of an economy's health or at the very least, its ability to recover in the event of an economic recession.  Building and construction starts tell us how many constructions projects are started, and hopefully eventually completed, which affects multiple other economic sectors.  Buildings after all need people to offer multiple services and products in order for these buildings, residential or non-residential, to be completed, used, and maintained.  Construction is related to real estate which is then related to sectors that supply, distribute and sell consumer products, office products, building personnel.  Construction also requires capital or lending, it may influence interest rates, and it certainly affect the level of tax revenues earned by our governments.  So, economists pay attention to building and construction activity, to how many new homes are being built, and to the employment figures associated with that kind of activity.

In France, construction is one of the sectors that remains weak, contributing to troublesome nationwide unemployment.  (I wrote about this in Une porte fermée March 2013. )  Here in the south, building cranes are especially prominent over public works projects, as in Marseille where the city is still in the process of completing its Year of Culture preparations, but it is unclear how much the new construction is actually affecting the high unemployment rate in the city (some indicators suggest 16%, compared to 10-11% nationwide,  Renier, Romain 7/0/2012 "Marseille: entre precarité..." La Tribune ).  Meanwhile in Aix, other public works projects are beautifying the city, adding more pedestrian-friendly elements, and bringing in some housing.  At least one major private sector non-residential project is underway, at the former site of the Aix tourist office which will be transformed into a new Apple retail store (see the initial demolition below, this past winter).  Yet, even the slight improvement in the past months that Moody's credits to construction is still too light to improve the employment prospects here (Moody's Analytics 2013. ", Dismal Scientist: France ).  

Construction starts are important for the coastal town in which I was raised too, which has long been dependent on the logging and sale of lumber.  Today's New York Times features an article about that town (with a nearly 14% unemployment rate), which is hoping that the slight improvements in construction starts nationwide will spur enough demand to allow a paper mill to reopen.  (Click here Thompson, Kirk. 2013, April 15. A Mill's Fate Weighs Heavily on a Washington Timber Town, The New York Times.)  As in France, since the mid-2000's , the U.S. has seen a significant decline in housing and non-residential construction ( Hadi, Adam. 2011, April. "Construction employment peaks..." Monthly Labor Review. Bureau of Labor Statistics), and this affects all kinds of communities, and not just the folks who are unemployed, but those who provide support services or even run or work at the local grocery stores and restaurants.  The biggest difference though is that in France, some of the construction starts that are taking place are public ones.  We don't see the state as active in our construction sector in the U.S.  Unemployment benefits are higher in France (the minimum weekly benefits for 2013 in Washington state is $143 which is about 109 euros, while the minimum benefit is 193 euros in France, about $252), and they seem to last longer.  So, creating jobs through public works is at least one way to get les sans-emplois (unemployed) off the dole in France, and perhaps spur some private housing investment.  We'll see what kinds of building blocks the private sector is able to come up with in my little hometown.

10 April 2013

Les tenues

The day we moved to our neighborhood a year and a half ago, we were startled by an entourage of French gendarmes (armed police) racing down our new street outfitted dramatically in all black uniforms, complete with face masks.  (Apparently, there had been a big criminal case involving big names and big money taking place just down the street at courthouse hence the supposed need for special police uniforms.)  We discovered, along this same street, distinctively uniformed city workers who clean, clear garbage and make repairs, while unarmed city police, in their own, different uniforms, walk by frequently, enforcing the parking rules.  At the famous bakery on the main boulevard just a few streets over, the staff wear old-fashioned dresses with frilly aprons, while the waiters across the street at the brasseries are in traditional black waiters' garb.  Throughout town, the artfully wrapped scarf is an essential element of virtually any outfit for men and women alike.  And the wearing of sweats or workout clothes in public?  Well, that means you are working out only, and you might still get some strange looks.  It's best if these exercise outfits are somewhat coordinated, unwrinkled, and maybe accompanied by some jewelry or carefully fixed hair.  You can be a little more crazy at carnaval time, as shown below, but those elaborate costumes are also carefully put together and worn.

 The French seem to adore uniforms and outfits and costumes.  They are certainly well-known for their sense of style and for the emphasis they put on outer appearance; one can think of the fashions inspired by the former French royalty and the many world-famous French fashion designers and their labels.  The French seem even able to make nudity look stylish, as on the topless Riviera beaches or in its public squares (the nude below was found in Nice).  Clever French sophisticates like Ines de la Fressange recognize the consumer appeal of this somewhat undefined French style and promise to tell us its secrets.  De la Fressange calls her variation of the style "Parisian chic" in her book of the same title, and her revelations include 'bye-bye bling' (wear nothing too obviously expensive) and 'explore' (mix and match new and old, luxury and casual).  Other secrets such as 'outfits are out' apparently do not apply to the south of France given the penchant here for a more coordinated or more studied 'matchy-matchy'  look, where shoes might match scarfs and nail polish and sunglass frames.  Even here though, one of de la Fressange's central points about French (or Parisian?) style does apply, and that is that all of the style and care put into what one is wearing must look effortless.  That must be what makes the French chic.  Meanwhile, the rest of us work hard to keep up appearances according to the French style.  An expatriate friend tells me that her previously more rumpled husband now irons his own shirt each morning for work and threatens to iron his son's shirts too for school, while my spouse's wardrobe has expanded markedly to include the floral prints and pastel colors more common in the south.  One son is no longer content with just the maillots (jerseys) of his beloved professional teams, but now must have the full tenue (outfit or uniform, or we call them kits in soccer), including the matching shorts and socks just like his teammates wear to practice.  And both sons say that they must have proper, stylish (and expensive) skate shoes, to go with their new skateboards.
So, keeping up with French appearances does in fact take lots of effort.  The idea that 'effortless style' is even possible is actually quite amusing from a sociological perspective because we recognize that a great deal of deliberate impression management takes place in our daily social interactions, and that includes how we choose to dress ourselves.  Some of us may appear to make less effort and some efforts may be less conscious, but as sociologist Goffman argued, we all work to manage the impressions of ourselves that we present socially, as we slip in and out of social roles and move between front stages and back stages in that setting called the social world.  How we dress and present ourselves helps us and others know our social identities, maintain expectations, and recognize how we are supposed to behave in different situations.  Both the effortlessly chic French look and the what-do-I care grungy look more typical in our hometown of Seattle are not achieved without a great deal of effort and intent.  Even the effort to look effortless implies that we are trying to manage a certain image or impression of ourselves.  Whatever that desired impression is here in France--we might call it a certain cool detachment or a sophistication or je ne sais quoi, (an indescribable quality, often referring to the French)--the French are good at creating and maintaining it, and many of us non-French are eager to emulate it.

02 April 2013

Le projet parental

Having children who have reached that milestone known in the English-speaking world as the 'teens' gives one plenty of opportunities to recall the personal reasons for having children in the first place.  I say this in jest, of course, but it is remarkable in the big picture that we can actually have personal reasons to parent.  Personal choice is a marker of contemporary parenthood.   Instead of following tradition and socially-prescribed expectations and roles as we have for centuries, we can now make private choices about parenting: whether or not to do it, when, and how.  As sociologist Judith Stacey (2011, Unhitched, NY University Press) so aptly puts it, the paths to parenthood today no longer appear "...natural, obligatory, or uniform as they used to, but have become voluntary [and] plural...."   In this way, parenthood is just one path we might choose to follow in adulthood, or it can even be thought of as a kind of life project that we may choose to undertake, un projet parental (a parental project), as it is referred to in some of the family law and reproductive technology literature in Quebec and France.  Thinking about parenthood as a chosen path or project though does not mean it is the same kind of choice for everyone, or that it is free and easy.  As before, some couples can just decide one night that they will make a baby and biology will cooperate, while for others, the project requires a great deal of personal intent, risk, and effort combined with external assistance.  In particular, for those who are involuntarily childless, such as the infertile, single adults, and homosexual couples, the parental project requires deliberate planning, money, persistence, and even creativity to navigate the biological, financial, legal and other barriers.

The supposedly free choices about parenthood are also constrained by social imperatives.  We may or may not need children for personal fulfillment, but our societies still need children in order to survive, and so societies, that is states, economic systems, and social institutions all still try to control and influence parenthood so that the broader social needs are met.  In this way, the parental project is much more of a joint one, where personal fulfillment is coupled with public needs: for example, we might make parenthood more attractive to some and control access to it for others.  This comes with the whiff of social engineering because entities other than the individuals intimately involved weigh in on who may or may not bear children.  China's one-child state policy is a vivid historical example, and we have plenty of lesser known examples, even in U.S. history.  In France, contemporary parenthood is tied to the need to sustain population growth, (see"Fertility: the crisis hits birth rates," Presseurop, Jan. 13, 2013), with the caveat that French children do have the right to have responsible parents (which is not the same as saying that adults have the right to have children as they choose.  See "Defining Parenthood" by Connie Cho, Yale Journal of Medicine and Law, vol. VII, issue 2, April 7, 2011.).  For most French adults, if they can bear children easily and they are not too young, then that seems to be enough to make them responsible in the state's eyes.  (For young French women the state offers excellent access to birth control and abortion is legal, thus discouraging childbearing until later adulthood.)  In return for their 'responsible parenthood,' French parents get generous social supports from the state, such as virtually universal non-parental childcare for young children (the famous crêches, or daycares), or cash benefits to mothers who stay home.  The former especially makes it possible for couples and particularly mothers, to continue working in the labor market while they bear and rear children.  However, for those who cannot take on le projet parental without some assistance, there is a bit more engineering going on in terms of who is given access and who is not.  The French offer tightly controlled assisted-reproductive technologies at low or no-cost, but only to some adults.  Certain categories of heterosexual couples (the most responsible ones, presumably?) have access to highly controlled procedures and resources, while single adults and homosexual adults are left out.  Some procedures remain illegal for all, like surrogacy.  Adoption too is tricky, particularly for gays and lesbians for whom it is illegal, (although this may or may not change soon, as France paves the way for gay marriage).  In the U.S., in contrast, the social engineering is less explicit (but should be no less controversial) because it is largely directed by the free market; the national government is relatively hands-off about childbearing, leaving matters like contraceptive access and the licensing of reproductive technologies and of adoption agencies to individual states and to private enterprise.  This means that in theory (but not in practice), anyone can choose to parent, so long as they have money to purchase services related to parenting and so long as services, technologies and resources are available in the marketplace. 
Clearly, while parenthood is more and more of a private choice, social (and biological) barriers persist.  As a parent of les ados (teenagers), I can see the attractions of trying to stay in control, of regulating the choices facing my kids, of deciding things for them.  They are still too young to evaluate and decide everything for themselves.  Yet, when they reach adulthood, I would hope for them, as I wish for others now, that they will have true opportunities to choose their paths freely and fully, whether these be to parenthood, to satisfying careers, or to simple, meaningful lives.  I'm pretty sure most parents would want the same for their own kids.

The results of my parental project as they grudgingly follow the path on a 'forced march,' or a Sunday family hike