To The South of France, October 25th-26th, 2010
On the one hand, this is good, because south means warmer. (It’s been in the low 60’s here in Luxembourg.) On the other hand, due south also means we will be plunging into the teeth of the nationwide strike being waged by the French Government Workers’ Union. Say what? A strike in France? Sacre bleu!
For the most part, this union consists of middle aged French guys whose primary exercise consists of shouldering around their massive entitlements, but never mind, the price of maintaining France’s work rules (making it, in that one regard, at least, the laughingstock of the Free World) is eternal vigilance.
These, however, are not the guys providing most of the images of violence that you see. The car burnings and rock throwing at the police in places like Lyon, Nanterre and Marseille are, as usual, provided opportunistically and gleefully by the “student” movement, a surprisingly cohesive and organized aggregation of anarchists (organized anarchists? Can you say “Jumbo Shrimp”?) radical environmentalists (plants good; people bad; animals good, unless domesticated) who function, it seems, like the Labor Movement’s Public Relations arm, always ready to jump in and supply the mediagenic activities so admired by their cohorts and found so ridiculous by most everybody else, but who seem to appear instantly and energetically every time someone in France wants to have a hissy fit about just about anything.
No, they’re not students so much as career “revolutionaries” interested not in the specific issue at hand at any given time but, rather, eager for any opportunity to give expression to and presumably thereby validate their chosen career paths as, indeed, revolutionaries. This works out okay in places like France, but less well in other places, like, as just one example, China, which impose a downside to revolutionary activity, such as execution. But that’s why listening to what they say or trying to figure out what might be their issue is completely pointless, mirroring their activities themselves. No, you have to wade through the dramatics, the puerile acting-out of the “Press Corps” and look to the middle aged guys if you want to find out what’s truly going on and whether it’s something that might actually have some merit to it. Okay, unlikely, but, hey…
Also, of course, since in the end it’s all about me, from our point of view the issue is gasoline, more specifically whether we can get any in France, since the strikers are shutting down all the refineries, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, a couple of thoughts about these news making events: As you might have read, the precipitating issue for this particular strike is Sarkozy’s bill—which is going to pass, most assuredly—to increase the minimum retirement age of government union workers from 60 to 62. This affects a huge number of people. What? Do you think the infamous government bureaucracy runs by itself?
Now, in fairness, it should be stated that we’re talking about the minimum age, not the “usual” age, which is more like 65, if you want a full pension, immediately upon retirement, right away. But if you’re willing to settle a bit, there are provisions, very attractive ones, that allow for that 62-and-out proviso, even encourage it, with only minimal and temporary reductions, so those are the numbers most often being bandied about.
From an American’s point of view, or, for that matter, the point of view of anyone not actually in line for this largesse, this all seems a bit preposterous. I mean, it’s not like these folks are unaware that the country is essentially bankrupt and can’t possibly meet these pension obligations, ones that have been extracted over time piece-by-piece from one bullied government after another. Is working until you’re 62 rather than 60 really the end of the world as we know it?
Nevertheless, there are, again from an American’s point of view, a couple of interesting things about all this, one of which has to do with a French sensibility, born of a specific French history, that we tend to be oblivious to, and the other having to do with a specific event that we might learn from.
The historical and cultural part is this: Never underestimate the “us vs. them” dynamic in Europe in general and France in particular, and this is a battle that has been waged over generations. Maybe it goes back to serfs vs. nobles, vassals vs. Dukes, Beatles fans vs. Stones fans, I don’t know. But it’s there, an entrenched legacy of the class systems whose sinews still reach throughout these societies.
Many of the labor battles have been “won”, either perceptually or actually, by prior generations. And this current generation feels not only desirous of maintaining these hard won advantages for their own sakes, so that they can enjoy them, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, because losing them would represent a betrayal of their fathers, grandfathers and even great grandfathers.
This is the aspect outsiders often overlook as they focus on what can seem like the pettiness of the underlying issue. These strikers are fighting less over the specific terms on the table– than they are fighting, in some measure, for family honor. Should they lose ground that their forebears gained, it would be a humiliation and a weakness too awful to contemplate, not because of what that ground actually consists of, but, rather, what it represents, which are victories valiantly and courageously gained by bloodlines whose banner they now carry, with no less determination than Henry IV.
As you watch the news reports, most of which miss this aspect, look for it: It’s not only about the thing itself, it’s about the winning and losing and the carrying on of generational banners.
The second thing, a specific, is this: Politicians matter, especially when they are ideologues willing to do whatever it takes to press their agenda. In 1982, François Mitterrand, an unapologetic and avowed socialist, was prime minister.
Probably flowing from true belief, but certainly with an eye toward political opportunities, he wanted to become a hero to his constituency by reducing the then retirement age of 65 to 60. The possibility that Parliament would pass such a measure was exactly zero. Hence, Monsieur Mitterrand fashioned a “work around” and did it by something they call a “special Ordinance” (can you say “Executive Order”) that bypassed Parliament altogether, and, without any Parliamentary input at all, the reduced retirement age became law.
Over time, this new law accomplished exactly the thing that the majority of Parliamentarians could easily envision that it would, because they saw clearly what would ensue if you reduce the retirement age at a time of increasing life-span, a life span fully and generously pensioned, the very scenario that, indeed, made it an impossibility to get any such bill passed through them or by them in the first place—which is the bankrupting of the national treasury, despite ever-increasing, deepening and broadening and ultimately crippling taxation.
Bear in mind that Sarkozy is not proposing to return the retirement age to the original 65 years that was obliterated by the stroke of a pen under Mitterrand: No, a mere 62, in the face of what is, arguably, financial catastrophe in France.
Under the “reasonable man” theory, one might think this is essentially do-able. Oh, wait; did someone say “reasonable man” in relationship to anything French? (I once had an office in Paris and I will not, here and now, provide a full explanation of why “reasonable” when it comes to anything French, especially as it relates to French business and commerce, is beyond ludicrous, but I could.)
Now, one final thing about the “students”, only this time let’s talk about the real ones, not the professional agitators. We see these students getting all exercised about a retirement age, something that isn’t going to affect them for decades, and we are dumbfounded because based upon our own experience, and I don’t know about you, but when I was their age I didn’t care about or even think about anything that might affect me beyond, at most, next week, it’s impossible to reconcile such forward-thinking with personalities that, in all other respects, care only about today’s bong hit.
But that’s where we’re not “getting it”, and it surprises me how pervasive in the American Media is this misplaced ridicule, misplaced because it misses the picture.
No, these students aren’t agitated because they’re looking way down the road to their own retirement and don’t want it to be three years later than it is currently scheduled to take place. No, they are worried about how this affects them right now.
How so? Think of a pipe, where the pipe consists of available jobs. It’s a finite number. As oldsters get pushed out the far end, via retirement, that creates an opening on the front end, for a young person. But if you don’t push the old geezer out the other end, if you keep him in there for an extra two or three years, well, then it’s going to take that much longer for that job to open up on the front end for the “student”.
Get it? That’s why they’re so upset. They don’t have jobs, at least not ones where they can sign on for twenty years, be essentially un-fire-able, and then retire for life with pretty much what they were making when they worked. But push someone out the far end of the pipe…
Now, it should not be held against anyone that none of these protesters, young or old, takes into account the fact that the reason the pipe never gets any bigger is precisely because of the very rules and labor architecture they are trying so hard to keep rigidly in place, and the reason it should not be held against them is because…. okay, maybe it should.
In summary, Classmates: Despite what you might hear on the news, for the young people it’s about jobs right now, and for the union folks it is at its core more about generational loyalty than anything else (and, for more on this generational issue and a full explanation of why it is an utterly insurmountable obstacle, please see “The Irish”.)
From my point of view, I don’t care about any of it. All I care about is getting enough gas to make it to the South of France, and that’s a problem because the strike is causing all the refineries to shut down which is causing, in turn, all the filling stations to run out of gas.
Let me put that another way: We have now, I would argue, arrived at true outrage, because, after all, it’s affecting me.
We’ve heard that most of the gas problems (gasoline, that is) are in the Northern part of the country, especially around Paris, and that you can still fill up once you get farther down past the mid-point of the country. That’s what we’ve heard but we don’t know it for a fact, and I haven’t been able to get any solid information on the internet. One thing we do know is that it’s not going to get any better, and it is inevitably going to continue to get worse, until the strike abates, which it’s giving no indication, so far, of doing.
However, the actual vote on the measure is assured of passing since the country has absolutely no other choice but to deal with it if it is to survive—and maybe then the strikers will go home to lick their wounds and fight another day, having satisfied their obligation to their ancestors to apply best efforts and maintain the noble tradition of blind “Your problems are your problems and my problems are your problems, too” Union class warfare and proud intractability.
In any event, we’re going to have a decision to make: Wait it out, or go and take our chances. If only we could reliably convert Max’s methane to fuel…
We decide to go, to chance it, and as it turns out, we never had a problem getting gas, other than longer than usual lines at the pump. A more pronounced problem was a wind the entire way so strong that it threatened to blow us off the road, and when we did stop for gas there was danger of being hit by careening garbage cans and other debris flying across the plaza.
We are packed to the gills and Max and Chloe are not pleased with their space allotment, but let’s not forget: They’re dogs. I am equally unconcerned about their retirement age, but I can’t speak for Alice in this matter.
We decide to break the trip into two days, and, after considerable internet searching, Alice locates a hotel willing to take the Monsters, in the town of Bourg-en-Bresse just outside Lyon.
Bresse is well-known for a variety of things, but famous for one, poulet de Bresse, and for that it is very famous, indeed.
Chicken. Blue feet, white body, red plume. Red, white and blue: Très français, n’est pas? Go to any three-star Michelin restaurant today and the chicken dish will invariably be poulet de Bresse.”
Believe me; these chickens lead the life of Riley, running around free, being fed generously but with a diet purposely low on protein so that they will be encouraged to fill up on local insects, the better for generating flavor– and part of what makes a Bresse chicken a Bresse chicken. Towards the end (which, of course, they are without knowledge of, blissfully) they are provided with a comfy indoor shelter to take the equivalent of a post-prandial nap.
Apparently, it’s been this way for much of recorded history, going back to Roman times, although the first substantiated mention of the bird, the Bresse chicken, was in 1591. But, things being as they are and life being what it is, you would have to know that if the Bresse folks have a good thing going, by dint of many centuries of diligence and hard work, resulting in a unique product that they can be justifiably proud of—everybody and his uncle is going to try and cash in on it.
Sure enough, you eventually had “Bresse” chickens showing up in a lot of other places in France, so, in 1936, having no intention of taking this lying down, especially because the money involved wasn’t exactly chicken feed (so to speak), they did what any red blooded American who found a puddle in Wal-Mart to purposely slip on would do: They found themselves an attorney and sued the pants off all the fraudulent farmers who were claiming to be raising “Bresse” chickens, which was a physical impossibility since there was only one Bresse and they weren’t in it, no Ma’am.
It was a tough battle, but eventually experts were able to prove that the unique clay-rich soil of the region, the temperate climate, the proven purity of the breed and the specific poultry-raising procedures, when taken as a whole, did, indeed, produce something unique and unmatchable elsewhere, so nothing could be called a Bresse chicken except a damn Bresse chicken, from then on.
And then in 1957 it got even better, maybe even a little whacky.
You know the term, “Apellation Controlée”? That’s right, you see it on wine bottles all the time, and it simply means that the name (“Apellation”) is controlled (“Controlée”) so that, for example, nobody gets to call it Champagne if it’s not from Champagne, all which works out well for Moët et Chandon. It’s a legal thing. Very legal, issued by the government and officially called an Apellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) and you don’t get them just by asking. It’s almost like a patent, with a kicker, meaning that there’s something about the way you do things that nobody could copy, really, even if they wanted to. Prove that and maybe you can get an AOC.
In ’57, that’s exactly what “poulet de Bresse” got, and, to my mind, that’s not too shabby for a chicken. So if you’re up in Harlem at 328 Malcolm X Boulevard and bop in to Sylvia’s World Famous Soul Food Restaurant for a little down home, and you see that they’ve changed the “Southern Fried Chicken” moniker on the menu to “poulet de Bresse” (admittedly, not a likely scenario) you can call them on it, alert the French authorities, or both. (Although, as I think of it, you might not want to do either of those things; in this case, maybe you want to let it go…)
That, my friends, is a pretty famous chicken, and you gotta believe it’s for a reason. So as we pulled into Bourg-en-Bresse, found our hotel and unloaded our cargo, canine and otherwise, I had one thing in mind: I’m gonna git me some of that poulet-de-Bresse, right here in Bresse, yippee.
It was Sunday, sun going down, streets quiet, one coffee shop open and one restaurant, a Brasserie on the corner with the red and gold décor, white linen tablecloths, a flower here and a flower there, the usual.
The first item on the menu was, naturally Poulet de Bresse en crème. I’m in.
Let me try to describe this dish for you: The chicken, a breast with a tiny little wing still attached, was approximately the size of the interior circumference of my palm, maybe four ounces. It was so completely drenched in the cream sauce that it looked like a dead muskrat swamp-drowned some days before. Even with a sharp knife, cutting in to it was difficult, chewing it like trying to masticate a lacrosse ball.
Alice saw the look on my face and said, “What’s wrong?”
“Taste this,” I said, forking over a small morsel I had managed to hack off.
“Wow. That’s really awful.”
“So it’s not just me?”
“No. It’s really, really awful. That could be the worst chicken I’ve ever had. Are you sure it’s chicken?”
“It said, ‘poulet de Bresse’. Isn’t that what I asked for?” I needed to make sure, since Alice was the French speaker.
“Absolutely. No doubt whatsoever.”
It was late. We had been driving all day. I was tired and not inclined to make a fuss. “Well,” I said, “I guess there’s something to be said for coming to the place that everybody says has, literally, the best chicken in the world, and having the worst chicken I’ve ever had. I mean, why not?”
My advice? By all means, if you can, have some poulet de Bresse in a fine restaurant. A reputation dating back to Roman times is deserved, I’m sure. Just don’t do it in Bresse.
The next morning we rose early and finished our journey to Callas, our home for the next several months.
# # #
[click any image to launch gallery]