Dispatch from Toulouse, October 15, 1997

David G. Novick

After a long Indian summer, the weather has quickly turned cloudy and much colder. Two weeks after record highs along the nearby Languedoc coast, Toulousains are pulling out their woolen coats. The socialist government, too, enjoyed a long, easy summer, riding an unexpected wave of popularity, perhaps attributable to the warmer style of Prime Minister Jospin, especially in contrast to his predecessor, the gelid technocrat Alain Juppe. But now the season is changing for the government after it sponsored a national summit meeting of labor and management on October 10 to deal with issues of employment and unemployment. In a bid to live up to his campaign promise to reduce the work week to 35 hours (with no loss of pay!), Jospin ended the meeting with a pronouncement that the government would put this policy into effect for most businesses by January 1, 2000. Needless to say, management was not happy, and the immediate result of the summit has been to knock the relatively moderate leader of management's national association out of his post in favor of what is likely to be a hardliner, and thus to increase social divisions rather than to create an understanding or at least a willingness to negotiate.

It may be that this apparent hardening of positions will, like the seasons, return again to a more agreeable state. At the risk of reducing a diverse nation to charicature, I am finding elements of social interaction that recur regularly. First among these is the fact that you will not be taken seriously about some matter unless you make a histrionic federal case out of it. Thus if management is at all unhappy, they must let everyone know that they are extremely unhappy and that the government's actions hoodwinked them with an unforeseeable betrayal, etc., despite the fact that this is basically what Jospin had promised in his campaign.

The issue of the 35-hour work week is a puzzling one. Ostensibly, it is supposed to address the painful issue of unemployment, which is chronically over 12 percent and is particularly deep among younger people. But a work week of 35 hours with 38 hours pay would seem to have the effect of (a) reducing output, (b) maintaining costs, and thus (c) neither creating nor freeing resources with which new workers could be hired. In short, the country's GDP would be reduced with no new people employed. To the extent that output were maintained, costs would rise, which would have to be offset either by productivity gains (in which case no new people would be hired) or by spreading the costs to the consuming public, thus merely redistributing the burden of compensation for unemployment from taxpayers to consumers. In fact, the 35-hour issue may be less about dealing with unemployment than about continuing a 60-year-long social movement with regards to working conditions. France already has one of the shortest work weeks in the industrial world, significantly shorter than Britain's, for example. Eventually, everyone here will work 20 hours a week at "full" pay but somehow won't be able to buy anything.

France is full of surprises about regulating business and personal life. For example, during the summer the winemakers of the nearby Cahors region held a big tasting one weekend in Toulouse's main square. About a hundred winemakers offered tastes of their wares. There were live musicians and a generally festive atmosphere to kick off a month-long promotion of Cahors products, to culminate at the end of the month with an antique railway excursion from Toulouse to Cahors, symbolized amidst the wineries' booths by the presence of a life-size mock-up of a stream engine, which served as a stage for the performers. We purchased a tasting glass for ten francs (about $1.70), which entitled us to sample as many wines as we could handle--in our case about six, which hardly made a dent with respect to what was available. Some of these were really pretty good, and we asked one of the winemakers about buying a couple of the wines we'd tasted. It turned out that, by law, the winemakers were prohibited not only from actually selling any wines at the tasting but also from even letting us know their prices. I am still unsure what purpose this regulation served. It certainly didn't stop people from enjoying themselves. Lynne and I noted in particular a girl of about eight or nine years of age who accompanied her father from booth to booth, her own tasting glass in hand, sampling the wines. Presumably this is okay because it wouldn't violate the proposed curfew laws discussed in my last dispatch.

This week, across France, is officially the "Week of Taste," where numerous activities are organized around themes of food and cooking. For example, school children attend cooking classes and the week's scholastic meals are of an especially high quality. Although it's no surprise, food and wine seem to be much more in people's consciousness in France than in the U.S. This manifests itself regularly in the advertising circulars we get. At the end of September we had ads from all the big supermarket chains promoting their competing wine weeks, where they offer special promotions on newly released wines. The local newspaper had a number of articles discussing how best to take advantage of these sales, strategies for shopping, and independent evaluations of some of the wines. I bought two cases of organic Corbieres, the organic Muscadet having been sold out before I got there. We also recently received a glossy 16-page ad from a major supermarket chain promoting their "Fair of Fat," which featured theme products like foie gras. We did not participate in the store's fat fair, but did purchase a smoked duck breast, some rillettes and a couple just-bottled fifths of Gaillac wine of at a village market.

Food also follows the tastes of the consumer. One supermarket is near the suburb that serves as the Anglo-American colony for people in the aerospace industry centered around Airbus, which is based in Toulouse. It's a huge store, with something like 40 check-out aisles, offering everything from clothing to meat, and so large that many of the clerks wear roller skates. The bakery section is proportionately vast. And at the far end of this section, in the furthest corner the store offers, are shelves of remarkable products, including "American-style" sandwich bread in gingham-print plastic bags, banana-nut muffins, "snowballs" covered in pink shredded coconut--just about the whole panoply of the bakery section of your typical 7-11.

On a more positive cultural note, September brought a piano festival, and October finds us in the middle of organ festival, with some 20 concerts over 10 days. The performances are wonderful. The events are massively overscheduled, though, so the concert-goers scramble across town from concert to tour to concert. Many of the concerts are being taped by France Musique radio and could conceivably find their way to NPR's "Performance Today." Some of those clapping hands on the radio could be ours!


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DGN, October 15, 1997
Copyright 1997 David G. Novick