Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Plus ça change...

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose goes a familiar French saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Indeed the dance of stability and innovation itself seems to be one of the things that stays the same about the human condition.

The mythical picture of France envisioned by many of us is of a place that has successfully resisted change. For me, that France was best described by M.F.K. Fisher, a wonderful writer who shared her living, dining, cooking and food shopping experiences in a series of lovely books. Her memoir of living in Dijon in the early 1930s depicts an era of daily trips to do food shopping (various stops were required for milk, bread, meat, vegetables—no supermarkets here), cold water flats, gathering snails, wonderful pastries and an assortment of locals no one could really make up.

More recently Peter Mayle, celebrating Provence, has added his own stock of colorful characters and events from a world that time may not have forgotten, but where it sure moves more slowly. Mayle’s way with words makes him a great chronicler of the plus c’est la même chose side of things. Side by side with this sits another France, one which epitomizes plus ça change. When we were renting a car in January, the clerk reminded us that the tank had to be brought back full, adding, “the best price for gas is at the nearby Carrefour.” Carrefour is a household name here, a giant retailer that is second in the world only to Wal-Mart. Its stores are massive supercenters. Indeed, the structure of a hypermarché, combining a department store and a grocery store, was an innovation of Carrefour in the early 1960s. Whereas M.F.K. Fisher went from specialized place to specialized place, and whereas many of Peter Mayle’s neighbors still frequent outdoor markets, the food shopping experience of most French people now involves one enclosed destination: the hypermarket.

For buying food already prepared, it is la restauration rapide, fast food, which has taken hold. One of the great successful enterprises in France is none other than the American company symbolized by golden arches. McDo is doing boffo business in the land of haute cuisine. The French subsidiary ranks behind only the American original in profit for the corporation. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, evidence for the French love of le big Mac and other delights of le fast-food comes in the form of a knock-off chain, Quick. Quick looks like a McDonald’s, has a menu eerily similar to McDo’s, offers a drive-thru, embraces speed in its very name, and, well, is an unabashed copy. So, despite the voluble complaints about la malbouffe, “sorry-ass eating,” when people vote with their feet it is through the doors of a McDo or a Quick they go.

As far as actual voting, the main political opposition, the socialist party, falls on the side of plus c’est la même chose. Despite having long ago given up on the imposition of state capitalism, i.e. socialism, the membership steadfastly refuses to change its name. It is not as if names more attractive to voters are lacking. The simple “social democratic party” offers one accurate alternative. After several election debacles in a row, one would think that plus ça change would be in order here, but so far, “more of the same” remains the rule.

That kind of frozen in time attitude has not afflicted a political movement even further on the left. The Revolutionary Communist League, LCR, in the crowded bestiary of French political abbreviations, has decided to shed the tired term “communist.” Just a few weeks ago, after much debate (some things don’t change), the membership opted to shift the emphasis away from a fixed, and failed, 19th century utopian ideal, toward an emphasis on what should be changed. It is now called the New Anticapitalist Party, NPA. By contrast, the old-left PCF, French Communist Party, keeping change at bay, clings to its Marx-Engels inspired label.
So the dance goes on, some things changing, others remaining the same. On the local level, far from multi-national corporations and major political parties, our village still hosts a weekly outdoor market. Monday at 10:00 a.m. four of the vendors were seated around a table. On the table: 2 baguettes, some paté, and, to wash it all down, 2 bottles of wine. Oh what Peter Mayle could do with such a scene.

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