Dispatch from Toulouse, January 20, 1998

David G. Novick

Language and communication have been attracting my attention in various ways. These range from origins of words, to the way words are used now, to the way people make a point. Two words, in particular, stood out due to their connections to France. On a recent trip to London, Lynne and I took a walking tour of the old Jewish quarter, which lies roughly between the Tower of London and the East End. A number of Jews came to London at the time of the Norman conquest. They were compelled to live outside the city walls in a street with gates at either end that could be locked at night. When night fell, the forces of law and order would shout that it was time to lock the gates and, as fires were both dangerous and common, extinguish all fires. And as this was about the year 1100 or so, the language they used was that of the Norman rulers: French. "Couvre feu," they shouted, which in the usual English way changed into the word we use today, curfew. Interestingly, I just found out that the word in contemporary French for curfew is still couvre-feu. A second word has a special tie to Toulouse, where in 1838, Jules Leotard was born. He excelled in sports, winning the Toulouse-Villefranche bicycle race in 1869. Professionally, he was a circus performer, based in Toulouse. He actually invented the circus act of the "flying trapeze," and performed it to great acclaim in the capitals of the world. He also designed a costume for trapeze artists, and the leotard is still with us today as both a garment and a word. Jules Leotard died in 1870 at the age of 33.

The regional language of southwest France is called Occitan, or the langue d'oc, "oc" meaning "yes" in Occitan. It sounds sort of like half French, half Spanish, although it is not a creole but an independent language like Provencal. I gather that this language was spoken by something like 80 percent of the local population as late the beginning of the Second World War. This was a language of troubadors, poets, and courtly speech, as well as the language of the countryside. Toulouse's most chic square contains, in a fountain at the square's center, a marble statue of Toulouse's most celebrated poet, who wrote in Occitan. However, a strong government program of homogenization, combined with the compelling qualities of emerging national mass media, led to the virtual eradication of Occitan as a living language. A school teacher reported his observations of rural language over a number of decades; he noted that while even ten to fifteen years ago rural children used Occitan expressions as a matter of course (thinking it was French!), today this use has pretty much vanished. There is something of an Occitan revivalist movement. The local paper prints a couple of columns a week in Occitan, and the language is taught in many schools. It is estimated that there are now about 70,000 speakers of Occitan (more than of Breton, for comparison), but my guess is that most of these are not native speakers. The traces of Occitan, though, are still heard daily on the streets of Toulouse in the form of the strong local accent.

French itself continues to evolve. There press last week reported a fight between the minister of education and the members of the Academie Francaise. The minister is using the expression "la ministre" instead of "le ministre" because she wants references to make it clear that she's a woman. The members of the Academie, referred to as "the immortals" and whose basic purpose as the most distinguished literary figures in the country is to "defend" the French language, have taken up arms against this--they say--hideous corruption. The battle is far from over, as Mme la ministre has defended this use, pointing out that French has feminine counterparts for positions like directeur (directrice), so the fact that French lacks a counterpart for ministre means that this word must wear two hats. The ministers, as well as radio and TV reporters, continue to use "la ministre," so it may fall to the president of the republic to resolve the issue, if he can.

The use of language is a battle that is taking place in the media rather than in the streets. In contrast, if someone in France really wants something they demonstrate or, even better, go on strike. Last year there was a debilitating strike by Toulouse's mass-transit workers over pay, hours, and retirement age. The strike lasted for several weeks, which hurt particularly for the poorer parts of society, the disabled, and the elderly. After the strike, ridership dropped off sharply and, I gather, has yet to regain pre-strike levels. This year, transit workers all over France are going on much more succesful short, one- or two-day strikes over unsafe working conditions due to crime. Each week, it seems like three or four French cities have their bus systems shut down because a driver was assaulted. These strikes are fairly effective, in that the city normally promises immediately to step up security. Occasionally there are strikes trying to force a city to keep such promises. Everybody goes on strike. Lawyers in Toulouse went on strike for a day, but it wasn't clear to me what their aims were; their picture, shot while they demonstrated in the streets wearing their robes, appeared in the paper. Railroad workers in the Paris region went on strike for a day or two to claim increased levels of staffing to deal with the anticipated influx of travelers for the World Cup this summer. Hospital emergency-room personnel across France went on a "symbolic" one-hour strike the other day; no-one was turned away or left untreated, but the "strike" was dutifully reported by all the media. The workers at one of France's three major television channels went on strike over pay issues; their stations broadcast a test pattern and music (from a radio network) for two weeks until the strike was settled.

Strikes are so frequent that there's usually a run-down on the radio news every morning, sort of like a weather forecast. Today, for example, half the kindergarten and elementary school teachers are on strike over pay equity issues, the bus drivers in Chartres are continuing their strike from last Saturday over safety issues, and railway conductors in Marseilles are striking over pay issues ("One train in three running; TGV service is assured.").

Occupying government offices, or places in general, is also a well-used and usually successful tactic for getting what you want. Some of these incidents are less serious than others. Last month a group of village mayors occupied the tax office of a central town because the office was scheduled to be closed and this would leave their citizens without service. The mayors held the tax office's lone functionary "hostage" for about two days; there were TV pictures of the tax official at his desk surrounded by the mayors. After about two days of this the government gave in and cancelled the closure, and the functionary will keep his job.

Sometimes occupying places is the only tactic available. For example, there is a huge wave of unrest among the unemployed, the unemployment rate in France being about 12 percent. They can't go on strike because they don't have jobs. So, with the organizational help of the CGT--France's largest union--they have been occupying (and occasionally getting forcibly thrown out of) unemployment offices, universities, city halls and, most recently, fancy hotels and restaurants. The demontrators began by asking for a holiday supplement of 3,000 Francs per unemployed person, plus increases in the minimum levels of unemployment compensation levels. After much hemming and hawing, the government found 350 millon, then a billon Francs for emergency financial assistance those in extremis, added representatives of the unemployed to the organization that oversees the collection and distribution of compensation payments, and promised to look at raising the minima in 1999, 1998 being out of the question due to the need to meet requirements for entry in the unique-currency group by the end of the year. With the movement continuing, it looks like the government will offer another 3 billion francs in aid. The movement is not satisfied with these measures, and continues to demonstrate for immediate raising of the minima by 1,500 francs per month.

There is a strong soak-the-rich theme in what the unemployed and their backers are saying; for example, they propose to double the French tax on wealth (this is not an increase in the income tax but an actual tax on wealth). Such a sense of great divisions between haves and have-nots seems to be felt generally here. Polls of public opinion indicate that, in general, more than 70 percent of the French back the demonstrators rather than the government. Four to five thousand people marched up the main street of Toulouse on Saturday, carrying banners and signs, as part of a national "day of action" that saw similar demonstrations across the country. A TV news report yesterday pointed out that if the demands for raising the minima were met, the value of the compensation plus attendent subsidies would equal or surpass the minimum guaranteed salary for workers. One odd thing about this movement is that the CGT is affiliated with the French Communist Party (PCF), who are strong, public backers of the movement of the unemployed. This movement is by far the most serious challenge to the left-wing coalition that is in power, and it seems peculiarly ironic to me that the PCF is leading a movement that threatens to destabilize a government in which they are one of the three major components.

There clearly are substantial differences in economic status here, much as in the U.S. Many people earn salaries that would be regarded as significantly low in the U.S. For example, the vast majority of elementary school teachers earn, before taxes and payroll deductions, less than $20,000 per year. However, compared to the U.S. one sees many fewer "status" automobiles, and basically everyone in need is supported by public funds.

For the better off, use of cellular phones here is booming. Huge numbers were sold over the holidays. They're becoming smaller and smaller, with some models fitting easily into one's palm. The press reported a study that drivers using cellular phones were six more times likely to have an accident compared to non-phone-using drivers cellular phones, which I gather is even worse than the situation in the U.S. I have yet to see any "Shut up and drive" bumper stickers in France. Actually, bumper stickers of any kind are rare here. A cellular-phone accident of a different kind was reported by our local paper. One of the zillions of phones intended as a holiday gift was placed in its wrapping under the tree. On Christmas morning, the family awoke to find the wrapping open and phone gone. They searched the house but couldn't find it. Eventually, someone had a bright idea: they would call the phone's number and then use the ringing sound to hunt it down. So they dialed the number... and the dog rang. The paper reported that the phone was restored to the family "via normal means" the next day.

A longer-term trend than the advent of cellular phones is the depopulation of smaller towns and the countryside in favor of big urban areas like Toulouse. This trend is part of what led the government to try to close that tax office. As a result, there are plenty of interesting places to stay or live in villages or farms. Lynne and I had a Shabbat dinner last Friday at the home of some friends. She's American, he's French, and they live with their new daughter in the rectory of a village church some 30 miles east of Toulouse. The village, which has maybe eight houses, sits on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding fields, with a view to the south of the Pyrenees. The church, no longer able to support services due to the depopulation, is the center of the village, and the rectory forms part of the church building. As charming as this is, we plan to stick with the crowd and stay in the center of Toulouse, enjoying city life. We finally sold our house in Portland, by the way; and with the travails of the sale fresh in our minds, we're in no rush to buy something else. I did notice, though, that for well under a million dollars (as if we had that kind of money), one can buy a perfectly serviceable XVIIIth-century chateau. For between 200 and 500 thousand dollars, you can buy a picturesque run-down chateau in need of renovation. And for 220 thousand dollars, you can buy a 1500-square-foot apartment in the former chateau of the Dukes of Mirepoix, some 80 miles from here, that has been converted into a condominium.

Finally, here are a few Web sites for those dreaming of France. The Paris pages can be found at http://www.paris.org. This is a collection of everything regarding the City of Light, including a monthly "Kiosque" with topical contributions from regulars and visitors alike. A somewhat more personal view of Paris can be found in Metropole Paris, "a weekly magazine about Paris. It is for lovers, dreamers, hopeless romantics and visitors to Paris; past, present, future and virtual." Metropole Paris is at http://www.wfi.fr/metropole. And, if you're interested in buying that perfect chateau, check out Proprietes de France at, naturally enough, http://www.proprietesdefrance.com.


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DGN, April 4, 2003
Copyright 1998 David G. Novick