David P. Hamilton :
On living in France

Within the narrow parameters of my own life, living in Paris was epic. I returned stunned, trying to determine what the experience had meant to us.

Entrance to the Marche d'Aligre. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

Entrance to the Marche d’Aligre. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

By David P. Hamilton | The Rag Blog | January 22, 2014

“’Americans should never come to Europe,’ she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry. ‘It means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.’” — James Baldwin, from Giovanni’s Room

Last year my wife Sally and I spent six months living in Paris. This was our seventh stay of two weeks or longer in Paris during the past decade. But this visit was longer than all the others combined. It was an attempt to get beyond being tourists, to actually “live” outside the U.S. for an extended period, to assimilate another culture to a qualitatively greater degree. Where better than Paris? That ambition was at the top of my “bucket list.”

On returning from Paris, I was surprised at how few people seriously questioned me about the experience of living in Paris. No one seemed very interested in how it might have affected me. One old friend expressed an entirely reasonable and likely common feeling when he said, “Don’t tell me about it. It would only increase my envy.” People busy with their standard realities subtly implied that I should spare them having to hear about the joys of living in Paris.

Within the narrow parameters of my own life, however, living in Paris was epic. I returned stunned, trying to determine what the experience had meant to us.

My central conclusion is simply that life is better in France than in the US in many important ways.

To assert that idea to Americans is, of course, heresy of the first order. The U.S. is the “exceptional” and the “indispensable” country. Most Americans believe that the U.S. is a nation divinely anointed as superior to all others. Voltaire would laugh at these believers in “the best of all possible worlds,” devotees found primarily among the roughly 70% of Americans who never own a passport. One expatriate American friend who has lived many years in France referred to this attitude as “that particularly galling American brand of sanctimonious collective naval gazing.”

How do I see France as better than the U.S.?

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Lunch by Jean-Luc. Photo by Sally Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

1. Food

Let’s get a slam-dunk out of the way first. In 2010, UNESCO pronounced that French cuisine was an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” the first national cuisine to be so recognized. GMO food products are practically non-existent in France. They would have to be so labeled and then no one would buy them.

Our experience in Paris included living five minutes’ walk from the city’s best street market at the Place d’Aligre. Besides three blocks of fruit and vegetable vendors loudly competing for your business in multiple languages, there were about 40 specialty food shops in and around the market; multiple boulangeries, poissonneries, boucheries, charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries, and more.

The quality and diversity of foods available in that market was mind-boggling, far exceeding anything we’d ever seen in Berkeley. A typical fromagerie might have 40 different kinds of French goat cheese among its selections. There are nearly 400 distinct types of French cheeses and considerable variety within types.

French wines are universally considered the best in the world and they’re cheap there. The prices for produce or anything made in France, were as good or better than what we pay for similar items at home, e.g., heirloom tomatoes commonly for around $1 a pound (1.5 euro a kilo), wines and cheeses for half their U.S. prices.

There are 72 street food markets during the week in Paris. Despite the encroachment of supermarkets, they remain very popular. The diversity and seriousness of the shoppers and the variety of offerings at Place d’Aligre market tops my list for spectacular street scenes in Paris. For a while, we seldom went out to eat because we bought so much at the street market.

The French simply have more healthy eating habits. They emphasize structured meal times, discourage snacking, and prioritize quality over quantity.

The French simply have more healthy eating habits. They emphasize structured meal times, discourage snacking, and prioritize quality over quantity. One result is that, according to the CIA, the U.S. ranks 18th among 191 nations in obesity, the highest among developed nations, while France ranked 108th, second lowest in Europe.

U.S. food culture offers the world McDonald’s, Monsanto, high fructose corn syrup, and Paula Dean. More people in France are becoming overweight, principally because of the growing access to American fast food and their adoption of the eating culture that promotes it.

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In Belleville. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

2. Health care

In 2000, the World Health Organization rated French health care the best in the world based on “the overall level and distribution of health in the populations, and the responsiveness and financing of health care services.” The U.S. ranked 38th in that poll. That rating had its critics and the WHO quit making such rankings.

It is widely believed, especially among the French, that the quality of the French health care system has declined since the ranking was done, largely because of government austerity policies. Regardless, there is no doubt that the French system remains superior to that in the U.S. by any objective measurement; longevity, infant mortality or whatever.

The U.S. health care system leads the world in only one respect — cost — and that by a wide margin.

The U.S. health care system leads the world in only one respect — cost — and that by a wide margin. In one recent study, the average expense for all health care costs including insurance and taxes in the U.S. was $6,500 per capita per annum. That figure for France was $3,500 and they get better results for a wider spectrum of their population.

The U.S. may have the most technologically advanced health care in the world, but that level of care is a very high-priced commodity, only available to those with the financial resources to pay for it. Meanwhile, millions in the U.S. die prematurely due to lack of health care. Medical expenses have driven more Americans into bankruptcy and poverty than any other cause. That simply doesn’t happen in France.

The U.S. system is made vastly more expensive by its cumbersome inefficiencies growing out of its privatization. When I walked in to a Paris emergency room with an infected cut on my leg, they asked if I lived in France, what was my address, and could they see my passport. That took less than one minute and was the entirety of the paperwork required.

When I go to my local pharmacy here, I wait several minutes while the most senior person on the staff spends all her time calculating bills that vary wildly on the basis of your particular health insurance plan. Billing departments are almost entirely unnecessary in French health care facilities. Everyone is in the same system and pays the same amount.

When we walked out of that emergency room in Paris a little over two hours later, three doctors had examined my infected abrasion. I was advised what to do about it. My bill was zero. As a legal resident of France, even if just on an extended visa, I was covered.

In France, chronic conditions such as cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and mental health are covered 100%. Costs not assumed by the government are usually covered by private insurance, increasingly by “mutualités,” non-profit insurance collectives.

In France, health care is a right of citizenship. In the U.S., it’s a commodity, a means to make money off your health issues. What matters most in the U.S. health care system is not the potential benefits of a drug or procedure for the general population, but whether it will make money for investors. Hence, it is impossible for health care in the U.S. to ever be as good as in France for the general population.

3. Crime and violence

The intentional homicide rate in the U.S. is 4.7 per 100,000. Make that 12.4 for Texas, 19.0 for Georgia, 13.9 for Washington, D.C., 18.3 for New York, and 54.6 for Detroit. In France, the same intentional homicide rate is 1.1 and for Paris is 1.36.

Among the many invidious comparisons that might be drawn from these recent statistics, one is a little more than 10 times more likely to get murdered in the capital of the U.S. compared to the capital of France. In 2012, France had a record low incidence of murders. These statistics for murders are representative of broader trends in crime incidence that one finds when comparing the two countries.

The low crime incidence is felt on street. One feels more secure in Paris compared to any U.S. city.

The low crime incidence is felt on street. One feels more secure in Paris compared to any U.S. city. Sally walked our dog Birdie alone late at night on many occasions in our unfashionable East Paris neighborhood without incident. The sense of security at night in a big city was so novel that she came to prefer taking Birdie on that last walk of the day.

This security on the street has been accomplished despite the almost complete lack of “beat cops” and a typically low level of police presence of any kind compared to anywhere in the U.S.

It is my entirely subjective perception, but threatening or violent behavior seemed entirely out of the question in Paris. We witnessed none of it whatsoever on the streets of Paris in six months. Our pockets remained unpicked through hundreds of metro and bus rides. Virtually no one has a gun.

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The democracy of the Metro. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

4. Public transportation

Paris has layer upon layer of affordable public transportation. New York and Washington,  D.C.,  have comparable systems, but Paris is more committed to restricting car usage and providing cheap public options, especially when compared to U.S. post-auto cities like Dallas or Los Angeles.

The current mayor of Paris twice ran successfully on a platform that called for reducing car traffic in Paris by 15% during his term. Nowhere in the U.S. is car transportation so consciously discouraged. They build more subway lines while we build more freeways.

Paris has overlapping networks of buses and metros that go everywhere frequently and use the same ticket, costing roughly $1.70 for a ticket that allows you to transfer. Long term passes are even cheaper. Almost nowhere in Paris is more than two blocks from a metro entrance — and even closer to a bus stop.

There is also the public bicycle program with over 15,000 bikes available at hundreds of bike stands covering the city, the largest such program in the world outside China. Once plugged into the bike system with a deposit on your credit card, you can get one free for 30 minutes and pay about one euro [$1.35] per half hour afterward. Using the many bike lanes, you can cross half of Paris in 30 minutes.

There is now a public electric car rental service with 3,000 cars available at charging stations in groups of four-five, for five euros [$6.50] for 30 minutes. Then there is the RER suburban train service that links the departments that make up the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris. And there is the Bateaubus service of eight large boats that take you up and down the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin des Plantes. And there is a new tramway that will soon circle the city just inside the “Route Peripherique” ring road.

This network has hubs at each of the six Paris train stations where rail connections will whisk you to all of France and Europe on high-speed electric trains that travel up to 200 mph at a reasonable cost, especially if you book ahead and online, and with lower rates for families with kids. In 2011 there were over 2,000 kilometers of high speed trains in France with more planned and under construction, doubling the size of the system by 2030. Such trains, in France since 1976, still don’t exist in the U.S.

The emphasis on public transportation reflects the relative French propensity to favor collective solutions over individual ones.

This emphasis on public transportation reflects the relative French propensity to favor collective solutions over individual ones, i.e., the personal car and the ethic of “one man, one car” that is favored in the U.S., largely due to the efforts of the automobile and petroleum industries to cripple public alternatives to their products.

As a consequence of their greater reliance on public transportation, the average European’s environmental impact is lessened. Although there is some opportunity for private investment in these transportation facilities, the public at large, manifested in the government, owns a controlling portion of each.

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End of Gay Pride Parade at Place Bastille. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

5. Education

French free public education starts at three, is mandatory from six to 16, provides more vocational alternatives than the U.S., and is paid for by the state from kindergarten through graduate school. Ninety percent of French students pass the “baccalaureat,” the exams at the end of lycee [high school].

An expat American friend with a teenager currently preparing to take the “bac” said, “the scholastic level required for it would make most American high school students shrink in disbelief.” One element of the “bac” on the academic track is a four hour essay test on philosophy.

France has had 99-plus percent literacy for so long they quit measuring it.

France has had 99-plus percent literacy for so long they quit measuring it. Comparisons of results in terms of student achievement in France and the U.S., however, are similar, despite the U.S. spending almost 50% more per pupil, with France usually slightly ahead. The recent study by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development rated France a mediocre 48th in the educational achievement of its 15 year olds. The U.S. was 59th.

In stark contrast to the U.S. system, however, the educational system in France is highly
centralized. All public school teachers meet the same qualifications and are employees of the state — the central government. The Ministry of Education is the nation’s largest employer. Every public school uses the same books and curriculum. Everyone nationwide must pass the same tests to graduate. Hence, the system is much more standardized and there are smaller differences between one area of the country and another.

The principal difference in the educational systems concerns costs and the role of wealth. The French system is entirely state-funded, pre-K to PhD. The most that a Masters Degree from a major French university would cost a student is less than $5,000 and there are subsidies for those unable to pay that. No one in France ever graduates with the $30,000 student debt now typical at U.S. universities and few French students finish their education with any school-related debts at all.

One advances in the French system according to one’s interests, aptitudes, and achievements. If you want to go on to higher education, you must pass the academic “bac.” If you want to go the “grand ecoles,” you must score high. How much you are able to pay or your family legacy are not legitimate factors.

French secondary education provides many vocational options on the “professional” track. Many students leave the academic track at 16 and receive a much more varied and detailed technical preparation than is commonly available in U.S. high schools. Critics of this system say it pushes kids on to lifelong tracks too soon.

To me, the primary end result of the French educational system is that the average French adult is more literate, well-informed, and articulate than the average American. While that opinion may not be scientific, I’m hardly the first to have it.

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Statue of Leon Blum, Place Blum, 11th arrondissement. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

6. Art

It is impossible to objectively compare the quality of Western art with non-Western art. However, within the parameters of Western art, a French-centered school, the impressionists, produced the most popular art in the world. The greatest art museum in the world, by consensus, is the Louvre in Paris. Most important Western art movements from 1850 to 1930 were based in Paris — realism, romanticism, impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism, deco, art nouveau, and surrealism among others.

At least four major Paris art museums are the best in the world in their area of specialization besides the Louvre: the Musee d’Orsay (impressionists, post-impressionists); Centre Pompidou (modern); Musee Branly (folk art); and the Picasso Museum (Picasso). Other prominent art museums include the Orangerie (with Monet’s water lily murals), the Modern Art Museum of Paris, the Musee Carnavalet, and the Monet-Marmotton among many others.

Paris may not be as preeminent today in the art world as in the past and the work that has emerged from New York, London, Mexico, and elsewhere is now at least equally important. But most art critics would agree that Paris has been the most important site of Western artistic creativity for most of the past 200 years.

While in Paris this trip, we saw major retrospectives of Chagall, Keith Haring, Lichtenstein, Braqu, and Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo.

While in Paris this trip, we saw major retrospectives of Chagall, Keith Haring, Lichtenstein, Braqu, and Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo. These were the high points among dozens of shows we saw in many different public venues. Then you could start checking out the hundreds of private galleries and hundreds more street artists keeping Parisian art alive. Another of our favorite pastimes became cruising the flea markets for castaway jewels by Parisian artists of the past.

To a much greater extent, the arts in France are publicly subsidized. Access to cultural offerings is considered a right of citizenship and is made affordable if not free. Every public cultural institution offers discounted tickets to students and the unemployed.

7. Age, conservation, and housing.

This is an unfair comparison. The French have a deep historic heritage going back over 2,000 years in the same spot and they seek to preserve it. Marseilles was founded by Phoenicians 3,500 years ago. Roman era ruins stretch along the ancient road from Paris to Rome. In 250 ACE Paris had an amphitheater that seated over 11,000 spectators. It’s still there.

The oldest building in the U.S. is a stone hut on the Hopi reservation. Notre Dame de Paris was a couple of hundred years old when that hut was built and it’s not the oldest church in Paris. In 1300, France had 20 million people. This number fell by half over the three centuries that followed the initiation of the Black Plague in 1347. One result of this large early population is that thousands of French villages, towns, and all the cities have a medieval core. Often, these are now pedestrian only areas and protected.

In the U.S., it is rare to find a home or an office building from the 19th century. In France, it is the norm that buildings are at least that old if not much older. As reported in the Washington Post,

The French have been saving, restoring and adaptively reusing their architectural patrimony as a matter of course for many centuries. To us, 100-year-old buildings are antiques. To the French, they are the commonplace fabric of cities, towns and hamlets that deserve protection, as do France’s truly antique structures dating to Greek, Roman, medieval and Renaissance times.

An architectural technique called “façadeism” has been widely employed in Paris to renovate buildings for modern use while maintaining their centuries old exterior.

In the U.S., yesterday’s skyscraper is hidden among ever taller new giants of glass and steel. Anything older than a couple of decades is antiquated, needing to be replaced. New is worshiped. Old is denigrated.

The French build houses with the idea they should last many generations.

The French build houses with the idea they should last many generations. Their houses are built of stone, not wood. Modern French houses are built of reinforced concrete covered with stucco if not of cut stone. Often it is required that houses be built in a style consistent with the existing housing, much of it centuries old.

The French have the world’s highest level of second home ownership and the market in French real estate remains hot as foreigners, including a quarter million Brits, buy up bucolic retirement settings.

The three bedroom wood-frame brick house where I grew up in Dallas was expanded, replaced with a McMansion, and that replaced a few years later with a “starter castle,” which will likewise be gone in a generation. All were built on a wood frame with sheet rock that is designed to wear out in no more than 50 years. Houses that don’t wear out are bad for the economy. Capitalism must sell every generation a new and bigger one.

There have recently been disturbing trends in the development of car dependent suburbs and the appearance of shoddy wood framed housing in France, another example of the negative effects of Americanization.

8. Secularism

According to Gallup polls, 41% of Americans attend church regularly, while only 15% of the French do. A Harris survey found over half of the French population “never” goes to church except on special occasions such as weddings or funerals. The British are even less likely to attend church services. The U.S. (43%) trailed only Ireland (46%) and Poland (63%) in “weekly church attendance” in the Harris study.

Consequently, politics in the U.S. is deeply affected by religion, e.g., Kennedy’s Catholicism, Obama’s attendance at services conducted by Rev. Wright and Romney’s Mormonism. The segment of the U.S. population most discriminated against in successfully running for public office is clearly the out-of-closet atheist. In France, one’s religion or lack thereof would never be an issue in politics.

French secularism has deep roots in anti-clerical struggles that have gone on for centuries.

French secularism has deep roots in anti-clerical struggles that have gone on for centuries. Many French churches were destroyed during the French Revolution, especially in Paris. During the rule of the Paris Commune, the bishop of Paris was arrested and murdered by Communards. French republicans, advocates of representative democracy, always held anti-clerical views because the rich and powerful Catholic church always lined up behind their monarchist enemies.

The French have a special word for their secularism, laicity. This is the principle of the strict separation of religion from affairs of state, and the state from the affairs of religion. Religion is considered to be part of one’s private life that does not have a role in the public sphere.

This separation is considered a prerequisite to freedom of thought. Religion is considered incompatible with reasoned public debate. All religious buildings in France belong to the state. Secularism is enshrined in Article 1 of the French constitution. Politicians are expected to avoid talking about their religious beliefs. Discretion in regards to one’s religion is widely considered an essential part of being French.

This secularism has recently been strengthened by the banning of the wearing of religious symbols in public schools; no crosses, head scarves, stars of David, etc, by either students or teachers. The growth of Islam in France has tested this secularism, but the ban on veils being worn in public institutions (not including streets and parks) has demonstrated again that France is determined to maintain its secular character.

For a deist such as myself, who abhors organized religion in general, it is a great relief to be free from the constant intrusion of religion into the public sphere as occurs continuously in the U.S.

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Public transportation: the Bateaubus. Photo by Sally Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

9. Historical perspective.

I once asked an elderly American WWII veteran if he could possibly imagine his country, the USA, doing something that was evil or unjust. He responded, “Of course not,” shocked that I would even ask such a question. He couldn’t imagine the U.S. doing anything morally wrong by intent.

This attitude on the part of Americans is ubiquitous. These Americans believe that America may have made mistakes, but it always has had benign intentions. They believe that the U.S. is the paragon of moral virtue; slavery, genocide, unprincipled invasions, supporting bloody dictatorships, and being the only country to ever use nuclear weapons in war notwithstanding.

In fact, most Americans believe God has anointed the USA to be the model for the rest of the world to imitate. According to these Americans, because they have the highest moral standards, their judgments are just, if not infallible. Those who would oppose them constitute an “evil empire.” If some untoward event, such as the lies supporting the Iraq War or World Court judgments against them intrude on this consciousness, that event must be rationalized or forgotten.

The French don’t have this luxury. They study their history in a comparatively unvarnished version. Bloated kings, revolutionary excesses, Napoleonic Wars, the stupid slaughter of WWI, collaboration with Nazis, and the brutality of colonialism stare them in the face and they do not turn away. They know they are capable of being wrong and immoral, something Americans remains most loathe to ever acknowledge.

We often walked our dog in the Bois de Vincennes. Where we entered the park, there was a large plaque that commemorated the 1931 World Colonial Exposition that took place on that site. The exposition attempted to paint French colonialism in a positive light. The plaque there today notes that the whole event was a blatant exercise in deplorable government propaganda in support of a cruel policy. I doubt a plaque expressing similar remorse exists anywhere in the U.S.

Public debate in France is greatly informed and influenced by this awareness of the past.

Public debate in France is greatly informed and influenced by this awareness of the past. The historical perspective of the French is enlightened by their mistakes, while Americans wallow in the hubris of their misperceived perfection.

In the U.S., it is widely considered impolite to discuss politics. In France, it is a major national pastime, part of being French. Typically such debates are just as heated, but more substantive than one might expect in the U.S. The news channels there talk about worldwide news, not info-entertainment and the perpetual partisan horse race of domestic politics. While in Paris we had France 24, Al Jazeera, BBC, CNBC, Skynews (from the UK), and RT in English. Their collective coverage put CNN-MSNBC-Fox to shame, without even resorting to the channels in French.

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Anti-austerity demonstration. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

10. Democracy and political structure.

France is more democratic than the U.S. and its political structure is more efficient.
Political power in the U.S., like everything else, is a commodity, and in this case, a very expensive commodity. Giant corporations and the less than 1% who own the controlling interests in them also own the overwhelming bulk of the political power, particularly on the federal level.

By design, it costs so much to run for political office that only those with the support of the most wealthy can participate on a serious level in the electoral process. The U.S. is a plutocracy of the capitalist class. Both political parties stand united in support of the economic interests most crucial to that less than 1%, as evidenced by Obama’s “economic team” of Wall Street insiders.

In France, the role of money in politics is much more stringently prescribed by law.

In France, the role of money in politics is much more stringently prescribed by law. Corporations, unions and special interest organizations are prohibited from donating to campaigns. PAC’s are not allowed. Attack ads are illegal. Political commercials are forbidden.

Campaigns are limited in time to a few weeks and subsidized by the government. All qualifying candidates are given equal television time, but only to state their positions. The amount a citizen can donate and the amount a candidate can spend are capped at a small fraction of the cost of elections in the U.S.

The two finalists in the 2012 presidential election spent about 50 million euros ($65 million) combined. In 2012, Barack Obama raised and spent a billion dollars alone and the total bill on the presidential election was close to $5 billion. Campaigns in France are audited by an independent state bureaucracy and to spend more than allowed is illegal. Sarkozy was tried for campaign finance law violations, but slipped the noose. Chirac was convicted, but considered too infirm to go to jail.

Not that the results of the various election laws produce a perfect system. There is stagnation and money does influence elections. But politics in the U.S. is far more corrupted by capitalist class money, most of the damage done legally.

Metropolitan France is divided into 21 regions and 96 departments. These are administrative units, not political units. All laws are made in Paris and enforced by representatives of the central government. Hence, while the U.S. flounders in a labyrinth of conflicting state laws, France has no such issues.

When gay marriages became legal this year in France, that applied to the whole country. Local administrators who objected to performing them where threatened with being fired. The federalism of the U.S. may have once served a useful purpose, but now it promotes division and is a great hindrance to change.

11. Social integration and anti-racism.

France pointedly does not gather statistics on the ethnicity of its population. Everyone is just a citizen, not an African-French or any other hyphenated variant. Hence, it is almost impossible to make objective statements about the degree of social integration in France relative to the U.S. The statistics don’t exist. Collecting such statistics is frowned upon. So these are strictly my own anecdotal and subjective impressions.

I’ve lived in San Francisco and Berkeley and I’ve lived in Paris. San Francisco is probably as diverse as anywhere in the U.S., but it is qualitatively less diverse that eastern Paris and the surrounding suburbs. There are areas of Paris that are more “ethnic” than others. The western side of Paris is more white. The area around Chateau Rouge metro stop is known as “little Africa.” Sally and I have been there a couple of times in search of African print fabrics.

Social integration in eastern Paris is beyond any level that I’ve ever seen anywhere else.

But social integration in eastern Paris is beyond any level that I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Every imaginable type of urban human is there. While touring the adjacent suburb of Aubervilliers, we were told that there were 100 nationalities among its 70,000 residents.
But it is not just the numbers of different groups of people that matters. It is the integration.

I’ve done little studies of couples and groups while walking through various parts of Paris. I would routinely count more black-nonblack couples than black-black couples. Generally, it is more common to see black French citizens in interracial groups rather than in all-black groups. The same is true of the French of Asian or any other ancestry. The supposedly dangerous gangs in the “banlieu” are multiracial. Diversity and integration is the norm.

My racial antenna has been fine tuned by a lifetime of being a civil rights advocate living in the “South” and it is my subjective impression that interracial tension on the streets of Paris is remarkably low compared to the U.S. I’ve asked other Americans who have spent considerable time in Paris about this impression and they all agreed.

There is a long tradition of African-American writers and artists escaping the U.S. and moving to France: Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Tina Turner, and many others. Baldwin is reputed to have said that in Paris, the least interesting thing about him to people he met was his being black.

In France, “inciting racial hatred” is a crime even if it is unconnected to another crime. That kind of speech is not “free.” You can go to jail for it and pay a big fine. You may say that free speech is being denied, but there public expression of racism is a crime and there is less of it, particularly in the cities.

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Spontaneous dance partiy by the Seine. Photo by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

12. Collective consciousness, solidarity and socialism.

There is one thread that ties together these accomplishments of France, their concept of “solidarité.” This fundamental principle is that both the advantages and the burdens of citizenship must be shared equally and justly among all members of the society. French socialism is an expression of this concept. Its manifestations are many, but the most emblematic is that health care is considered a right and is available to all.

The social safety net in France is far more extensive and developed than in the U.S.

The social safety net in France is far more extensive and developed than in the U.S. A pregnant woman can look forward to free prenatal care, birthing services, postnatal support, a stipend for her child starting at her fourth month of pregnancy and lasting until her child is 18, free day care and early childhood education and paid maternity leave. If you adopt a child or have a disabled child, you stipend is bigger. The father also gets months of paid paternity leave.

There are massive public housing projects with rents on a sliding scale depending on income or disability. Education is free. Public transportation is subsidized. Unemployment insurance is lengthy. Pensions are generous and required. Five weeks of annual paid vacations are a minimum. The right of workers to organize is guaranteed.

In addition, the state owns significant interest in many major French corporations (Total, Air France, Renault, etc), so that the public’s interests are represented on their board of directors. These manifestations of social solidarity “have made France a far more egalitarian society than most Western industrial countries” according to the New York Times.

Invariably, these programs to benefit the public were instituted by socialist governments and political parties. When the Popular Front of Socialists and Communists won the election of 1936, their leader, Socialist Leon Blum, negotiated the Mantignon Accord with leaders of the employer’s organizations and the head of the CGT, the Communist-led trade union.

Under pressure from an impending general strike, the negotiations started at 3 p.m. on June 6 and ended 10 hours later. In those negotiations, the Popular Front won the legal right to strike, removal of all obstacles to union organization, the guaranteed right to collective bargaining, a 7-12% wage increase for all workers, the 40-hour week and two-week paid vacations.

Those victories have since been greatly expanded, always at the insistence of the socialists and communists. The French people have not forgotten where these benefits came from. Even the National Front, considered “extreme right wing,” does not advocate privatization or the dismantling of the French social solidarity system.

Not only is the U.S. not the “best of all possible worlds,” it is not even the best of all existing nations, especially in regards to the lifestyle experienced by the majority of its citizens. In fact, in that regard and despite France having serious problems of its own, the conditions of life in the U.S. are particularly inferior to France. The principal cause of this deficit in the U.S. is the preeminence of the capitalist class, economically, politically, and ideologically, and its so far successful suppression of socialism and social solidarity among the general population.

During my last visit to the wonderful street market at the Place d’Aligre, I saw an older white French woman with a shopping bag that had “Marché – Place d’Aligre” printed on it. I asked her where I could get one like it. She asked a North African vendor nearby who had provided hers, but he was out of them. I remarked how that was too bad since I had to leave Paris the next morning and return to the US.

In seeming dismay, she switched to perfect English and asked why I was leaving, adding that the “the lifestyle here is incomparable and there it’s a police state.” I agreed, but told her about our nice house and wonderful friends and family back in the U.S. She responded with conviction, “That is not good enough. You’ll come back or regret it.” Perpetually ambivalent, I ponder the reality of her prediction.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Allan Cantor, Chris Dobbs, Billy Mac Haile, and Paul Spencer, all American Francophiles, for the consultations.

[David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government was an activist in 1960s-’70s Austin and was a contributor to the original Rag. David and wife Sally spend part of every year in France. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to David P. Hamilton :
On living in France

  1. Lora Fountain says:

    Interesting article, but I have one correction, David.
    The complementary health insurance companies are “mutuelles”, not “mutualités”.

  2. C M Dobuis says:

    You forgot to mention that you can stop and spread a picnic blanket on any farmer’s field and no one will come out and shoot you!

    No, worse: You didn’t mention the bread! Can there be any doubt that it deserves a heading all it’s own? Bon, on te pardonne.

    Bravo, David. A quand le pied-a-terre?

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