11 November 2013

Les entrepreneurs

My ados (short for adolescents in French) and their homies are big into skating and longboarding.  Up to a dozen classmates meet in town for skate days, trying out tricks at the local skate park or seeking out new surfaces and skate-able nooks and crannies around town (and trying to avoid getting yelled at in the process by passers-by).  The hallway outside our apartment's door is often a parking lot for the many different kinds of boards, or 'decks', when the skaters need a break.  Skating seems to be a great way for young teenagers to be athletic, social, and inventive.  Thus, it was with mild interest that I caught an article in the New York Times about a skateboarding Finnish carpenter who invented a business niche for himself, selling handmade boards made out of new combinations of materials (Foster, Nick. Nov. 3, 2013. "Taking a Local Approach to the Global Sport of Skateboarding, The New York Times ).  While his creativity and craftmanship are inspirational, I was really taken by the brief mention about the entrepreneurial spirit that has become popular in Finland, making it possible for someone like this carpenter to start a business with a global reach.

The entrepreneurial spirit is something that I see as very American, even if the word comes from old Europe, from France.  Entrepreneurship, as we understand it in the U.S.--the idea that one can start a company with an innovative idea and weather the risks, hopefully with a solid business plan and generous investors, and then propel that into a successful business, locally and perhaps even globally--has been slow to establish itself in Europe.  This feels particularly so in France, where about one-quarter of the French are employed by the state or local governments and where the start-up culture is stymied by complex administrative regulations and sometimes punishing taxation.  I've read elsewhere that French culture just lacks that creative and independent spirit associated with entrepreneurship.  I don't know about that.  The French are definitely creative, and there are all kinds of small businesses here, especially those associated with agriculture and food (think of the many small family-owned wineries, the outdoor food markets in every town).  However, it appears to be true that the growth in the numbers of auto-entrepreneurs in other sectors has only come about very recently.  This may be a Europe-wide trend, given what seems to be happening in Finland as well.  Certainly, the persistently high unemployment in France has likely pushed some to get creative and seek their economic livelihoods by starting small-scale businesses. On our street we have new and old ones, the Persian rug repair shop, the tattoo parlor, the Szechuan Chinese restaurant, and the secondhand clothing store, but it is amazing how many small retail businesses and restaurants, have come and gone in the short two and half years we have been here.  Entrepreneurial efforts based on digital and manufacturing technologies can also be found here, with many such businesses concentrated in an office park area southwest of Aix.  I can't say how many of those are thriving and which ones are surviving, but it is one such start-up that brought my family to France in the first place.  That the office park area itself continues to be expanding and the traffic has gotten heavier, prompting more road construction, suggests some business successes there, or new ideas for new companies. We know that among the EU countries, France has the highest rate of entrepreneurial development right now (Tozzi, John. Aug. 16, 2013. "Europe's Hotbed of Entrepreneurship? France" Bloomberg Business Week). That, along with a new school specializing in entrepreneurship (Mitchell, Adam. Aug. 27, 2013. "France to launch school to teach entrepreneurial skills." France24) indicate a certain momentum.  On the other hand, capital and spending are tight all over Europe, so it might be difficult to launch a true entrepreneurial revolution right now in France, or elsewhere.  It's a bit like attempting a bigspin or another trick on a skateboard; the momentum and the conditions must be just right if the skater hopes to land on his feet with his board and body intact.

04 November 2013

L'énergie nucléaire

In just about two weeks, the impressive holiday lights will be illuminated as they are each year on the main boulevard in Aix en Provence (see Le Shopping Dec. 2011 for a photo of these lights from two years ago). The French seem to really like night-time lighting; Paris' Hotel de Ville comes to mind, and well-lit Lyon has a special fête des lumières (festival of lights) in early December.  The energy costs must be pretty significant for these lighting displays especially during the winter heating season when energy loads are already heavy.  I haven't been here long enough to note any significant grumbling about the prodigious use of energy in this way, but it may be that French value the visual pleasure more than they worry about the cost.  Electricity in France is on the inexpensive side and most of it is generated through l'énergie nucléaire (nuclear energy); France is even able to export electricity abroad because of the relatively low cost of generating it (the nuclear energy infrastructure has been in place for decades, see the map and article here, "Nuclear power in France" by the World Nuclear Association, updated Sept. 2013).

So, for the past few years the electricity used by my family to power our various laptops and charge our electronic devices has been supplied mostly by nuclear energy.  It's not that nuclear energy isn't common in the U.S., (the U.S. is the largest producer of nuclear power, see"Nuclear power in the USA," by the World Nuclear Association, updated Oct. 2013), but most of the electricity produced for our use in Washington state comes from other sources, for better or for worse (see "Washington Electricity Profile 2010" by U.S. Energy Information Administration).  However, this isn't a post about the merits and costs of energy sources (I may be the child of a retired public utility employee, an electrical engineer no less, but I am not really able to evaluate the pros and cons of energy very knowledgeably).  Where nuclear energy comes up for me this week is in my observations about the sociological implications of energy production, especially in relation to social power.

My first observation comes from a disturbing article in Paris Match about how uninformed the residents in the area around Fukushima, Japan, have been about the dangers posed by the radiation leaks resulting from damaged nuclear reactors after the tsunami in 2011 ("Avoir 20 ans à Fukushima" by Alissa Descotes Toyosaki, Paris Match, no. 3363 du 30 Octobre au 6 Novembre 2013).   Amid continued elevated readings of radioactivity, widespread evacuations are actively discouraged (except in limited zones) and the officially acceptable levels of radioactive contamination have been raised then lowered.  The government has focused public attention on other aspects of public safety, such as on the regular testing of schoolchildren for radioactivity (but not publicly providing the results) and the non-contaminated food being brought from southern Japan, and on the promotion of economic redevelopment in the affected area.  The state is maintaining the impression that everything is under control, while a French engineer and founder of the independent nuclear research agency Criirad suggests that one should really be talking about widespread evacuations given the contamination of the soil and the elevated readings throughout the area. Shifting the focus of the public by controlling the information they receive or don't receive shows the power that social institutions and organizations may have and may abuse in their efforts to maintain social order, especially in unstable situations as represented here.  People's perceptions of their safety are being manipulated in ways that may potentially harm them and prevent them from taking action, such as leaving.

A second example is the story of four employees of a French nuclear energy company (the world's largest, mostly government-owned) who escaped a captivity but of a different sort.  They had been captured while employed at a uranium mine owned by AREVA in Niger and held hostage for 3 years by a faction of Islamic extremists.  Here, the pursuit of nuclear energy is related to social power on several levels.  First, there is the presence of multinational corporations doing business in less developed areas, potentially taking advantage of cheaper resources of material and labor to make greater profits but creating resentment among locals or others who are not benefiting from such an arrangement. Underlying that is the more fundamental civilizational conflict between the so-called Christian or even godless West, and Islam.  And then there is the story itself, the details of which are still carefully being guarded, by the French government, or alternatively, spun by the French media. Did the French government pay a ransom even though it has denied it?  What is the nature of a hostage debriefing?  Did a rightist politician really imply the four bearded hostages may have been brainwashed to follow an Islamic extremism like a character on the U.S. television show Homeland?  Even 'official' sources about nuclear energy, such as those that I cited in the previous paragraphs must be considered carefully, as much for the information and the sources that are being presented as for what is not being told.  Whose interests are being represented and promoted?

01 November 2013

Provence, 2013

While not as macabre as the gory scenes in the horror movie my sons watched with their friends last night in honor of Halloween, my local boucherie (butcher shop) is featuring brains, hearts, kidneys, necks, and intestines right now.  All parts of the lamb are available, including cervelle d'agneau (lamb's brain), coeur d'agneau (heart of lamb), rognons d'agneau (kidneys), as are pale legs of veal and filet mignon porc (what we call pork tenderloin in the U.S.).  The clerk at the butcher explained to me that it is butchering time. Some of the foods associated with this time are regional specialties from here in the South, such as pieds paquets (lamb's legs and tripe).  And not only this, it is also hunting season in France (last year at this time I first tasted wild boar, see Les plats traditionnels, Nov. 2012).  Sciolino of The New York Times Paris bureau describes the culinary excitement in Paris that comes with the annual start of this wild game season (see "Turning the Hunt into a Trip to the Market," The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2013).

At the Boucherie du Palais, Oct. 2013
Because of my family's sojourn in France where food and the eating of it are considered quintessential to the French way of life, food has been a topic more than once on my blog (see À table, May 2013, Où est le boeuf? February 2013, La cuisine fusion January 2013)  However, I haven't fully explained that there is a sociological specialty that considers how food and eating are intertwined with our social experiences, institutions, and structures. Food and its consumption is highly sociological because food has meaning not only on the personal level, but socially and culturally too.  What we eat, how we produce the food and process it for consumption, and how we eat it are all closely tied to who we are as individual and social beings and what we represent as societies.  The connections between society and food happen to be especially evident in France, with its tight seasonal and regional following of food and wine traditions, as represented by the autumnal dining focus on organ meats and wild game described above, and the myriad specialties associated with the different regions in France.  This week, I discovered in Marseille another specialty, this one associated with the Mediterranean part of France, a pan bagnat.   It's an excellent version of a tuna sandwich that comes from Nice, and it typically features bread moistened with olive oil, and olives, anchovies, and capers.  (Here's a recipe from the New York Times, "Pan Bagnat" by Melissa Clark, June 12, 2013.)

If you can avert your eyes from the outstanding view, the sandwich on the left tray is a pan bagnat
As we know, the French food culture has had foodies from elsewhere gushing and writing about it for decades.  Yet, France is not alone, nor is its culture frozen in place.  All societies have intimate connections to food, and they all have their food moments, when new processes, ideas and even new practices come about.  Just as societies evolve while retaining traditional elements, so do their foods and the rituals associated with them.  I've just picked up Luke Barr's Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste where he writes about a seminal moment in the evolution of the U.S. food culture, and in a more contemporary vein, I've casually been following the popular New York Times' food writer Mark Bittman's growing emphasis of vegetarian and vegan recipes over the past 2 1/2 years.  As it turns out, my family's French food moment, let's call it Provence, 2013, is ending soon, as we are returning to the U.S.  Bittersweet as that may be, it doesn't mark an end to my sociological observations of daily life. It just means that now I will see for myself if a vegetable-based food revolution is taking place in the U.S., and how that may be reflected in social terms.