Recently I wrote an article celebrating ten things America still does best, and in the interest of fraternite with my newly adopted home of France, it is perhaps laudable to consider those aspects of France that are also exceptional. Too often I see the world as an endless parade of misfits, blunders, and tragedies — so for the moment I want to focus on the positive instead of the mundane. Believe me, I’ll write a separate piece about the ten things France does wrong, and to be honest I might have a hard time stopping at just ten. But, for now, here’s the list of things sheer genius a la Francaise…
1. One of the best things that France does is garbage collection. Yes, that’s right. Hear me out. Here in Paris, as a resident in a building with eight other apartments, we have a common trash bin that the gardienne for our building pulls out to the curb each night around 6:00. The garbage trucks come rolling down the street a bit later (after rush hour, so they don’t block traffic), empty the garbage all along our street, and it’s brought back in later to the building. We also have a separate collection for glass bottles (like the myriad wine bottles we go through each week), and for plastics. Additionally, during the mornings the city of Paris has sanitation workers who sweep, spray, and clean up the sidewalks and the street curbs (the men in the green suits with the brooms and the little spray trucks) – this was initiated by then-mayor Jacques Chirac in the 1980s who wanted Paris to be the cleanest city in the world. Compared to garbage collection in New York City (oy gevalt), Amsterdam (ridiculous for a Northern European city – more like a third world country), or even progressive Los Angeles, Paris is a world leader in garbage collection.
2. Along the same vein as garbage, the French have a very robust political culture (see how I did that transition?). Unlike the U.S. with only two political parties, France has several parties that carve out the landscape from farthest left to farthest right. Various personalities are associated with some of the smaller parties, which add to their ability to stay in the news and give them a disproportionate influence in the political realm: I’m looking at you Melanchon and your Front Gauche. While it’s difficult to align French parties on a simple left/right continuum, or make facile comparisons to the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S., there are, of course, left of center and right of center blocs that form to govern. For a political junkie like me, one always has several choices for whom one can vote… feeling anti-status quo with the ruling Socialists? Send a message by voting for the Ecology party, or the Front Gauche, or even one of the smaller center left parties such as the Radical Gauche. Want to send a message that you’re tired of the center-right’s anti-gay marriage posturing? Vote for one of the centrist parties … Tired of the gypsies inundating Paris? Vote for the Front National. In France, the political system is like Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors — there’s something for everyone. Participation rates in the presidential elections are in the 80 percent range, and whether it’s the politics or the incredibly entertaining soap opera of French politics that gets them to the polls, it works.
3. Last weekend, Paris had one of those amazing little events that make living here so enjoyable. Thirteen out of the twenty arrondissements participated in a “treasure hunt” that was organized by the mayor’s office. Community through civic culture is one thing that France excels in – the treasure hunt drew thousands of participants who used a guide with clues to find the path towards the final destination – where if they arrived in time they could be eligible to win prizes. This next week is the beginning of Paris Plage (a mile-long beach that is constructed from the Paris city hall along the right bank of the Seine down to the Louvre) that acts as a big beach party during the sweltering summer months. And finally, with the big national holiday known in the U.S. as Bastille Day, there will be countless village and neighborhood dances that bring people together. For more on the treasure hunt go to their English website – http://www.tresorsdeparis.fr/en/
4. Nothing epitomizes the French lifestyle more than cafe society. Settling into a sidewalk table and ordering a cafe creme and a croissant for breakfast while tucking into the morning copy of Le Monde is the ne plus ultra way to begin one’s day. Or later in the afternoon, ordering a glass of wine (oh what the hell, a little 25cL pichet!) while people watching and talking with a friend about life. Locals usually have one or two cafes that they frequent on a regular basis, and develop a convivial relationship with the staff. Similar in many ways to American diners, which are now more and more a thing of the past except in smaller towns, yet cafe society in France is still a strong and a vibrant part of the daily life. What is striking is how the French go to cafes almost every day after work for an apero with friends – while in the US, we get in our cars and make the commute back home to our insulated lives in front of the TV or online. Vive le cafe!
5. It almost goes without saying that the French excel in architecture and urban planning. Preserving the past architectural heritage across the country while integrating the needs of a modern society is what makes French cities not just livable, but beautiful for the hardcore aesthete and casual observer. Transportation is focused mainly on mass transit solutions, and more and more eco-friendly alternatives to the automobile are promoted vis a vis bicycle sharing, electric car rental (by the hour), and pedestrian-only zones. “Social Housing” (France’s euphemistic attempt to integrate neighborhoods with disadvantaged people – whether the elderly, un/under-employed, or racial minorities) is also a continuous evolution in most neighborhoods as older, underutilized buildings are renovated by the city for mixed residential uses. In Paris they even have a museum at the Trocadero devoted to France’s architectural and urban planning leadership.
6. What neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without a fresh food market? Food (markets and preparation) is a distinctly French fetish – with officially controlled designations on the origin of various cheeses, fruits, and vegetables being regulated by the government. Organic — or as the French call it, “bio” — foods are important for most people as they take their shopping bags with them to the weekend open-air markets looking for the freshest strawberries, cherries, and tomatoes – a cornucopia of produce laid out for blocks. As for presentation, a table laid for friends out on a terrasse or in a garden usually looks like something from an ELLE magazine photo shoot with a fresh linens, a bouquet of sunflowers, bone china and etched glasses, with iced wine buckets and an abundance of serving bowls brimming with fresh salads, vegetables, and cheeses on boards nestled with baskets of still-crusty baguettes.
7. Because the French do urban planning so well (see above), getting around a French city is a breeze with the impressive infrastructure of public transportation. The Paris Metro is famous for being easily accessible (a station within a five-minute walk from any point inside the city walls) and inexpensive. And when it’s rolling at full efficiency (every two minutes a metro train arrives at the station), for the most part it is not a terrible experience. Bus service is just as well managed and perhaps a bit more enjoyable since it is less prone to tourists and social misfits. My only recommendation would be to raise the rates considerably so that better security and more cleanliness could be financed, which is something that both London and Amsterdam have been able to successfully do.
8. I have to confess to having a soft spot for train travel, and in France – the home of the TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) high-speed train travel is my preferred way of travelling the far corners of the country. Yes, I know that Japanese high-speed trains are probably the best in the world, and that China is building high-speed rail networks that largely don’t fall apart (but occasionally do), yet in France there is still a certain ease of travel in arriving at the train station fifteen minutes before scheduled departure time, grabbing a magazine or newspaper at the kiosk, then boarding your car and settling in while it smoothly pulls out of the station and starts its gentle rocking down the dedicated track towards your destination. If able to travel in first class there is free WiFi and cabin service involving complimentary wine, sandwiches, and desserts served at your seat. Otherwise there is the club car where you can stand around the counter and watch the beautiful French countryside whizz by as you chat with your friends and fellow travelers.
9. This is a bit snarky, but from a business perspective, the French do many, many, many things wrong. But, like I said, this is supposed to be a celebration of things they do right. While the French are world leaders in many luxury products and brands (Hermes, Chanel, all things LVMH anyone?), the one thing that they pretty much are able to do well for most any business segment is to create a brand image that is appealing for the consumer – even if the product or service in reality has no relationship to that image that is portrayed. Thus, marketing (*cynical exploitation of branding a service or product) is one aspect of consumerist capitalism that the French do well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an advertisement for say, France Telecom/Orange and thought – “wow, that really looks great, too bad I know that their service is awful and I would sooner drive a rusty nail through my hand than buy anything again from them.” Same thing when I see an ad for a bank (“Oh my word, how much I hate them, but that ad almost brings tears to my eyes”), or for Renault, Citroen, or Peugeot (“lovely, just lovely, but their cars suck”), or any smiling, handsome, well-shot, beautifully designed advertisement marketing a French product or service. If you didn’t know any better, you might just want to try their product…
10. And finally, we have one product and service that is actually the world leader, with little marketing involved to burnish its image. The French health care system is amazing. As a percentage of G.D.P., it is almost half of what the U.S. spends on health care, and yet there is just the same level of quality (perhaps even better, since here in France, doctors still make house calls), while the out-of-pocket costs for someone who needs service is almost laughably minimal. And if you augment your universal coverage with private insurance to cover even those small out-of-pocket costs, you really have a stress-free system for the health consumer. I can’t tell you how much it drives me nuts to hear U.S. conservatives lie about how the U.S. has the “best health care system in the world,” or how a single-payer system leads to rationing, and death panels, and blah-blah-blah nonsense. The French have pretty much perfected the delivery of health care to their citizens. And it extends to all parts of your life – from child birth, to free daycare for children, all the way through your adult life to old age, where the French system will also provide aides to the elderly to help them with their shopping, and basic needs so that they can still live at home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been touched to see a young woman or man walking with an old woman with a cane and her shopping cart slowly towards the corner grocery store. Formidable, les Francais!
Under France’s crested banner of brotherhood, liberty, and equality, stand a wonderful people with an amazing history and a complex social fabric that, for better or for worse, occasionally bubbles over in street manifestations and a revolution ignites every generation or two. But when America looks at the French, and the French look at America — it is often with the envy, jealousy, and love of a sibling.
And without the two nations working together, the birth of both of our republics may have never germinated past our imaginations. And with that I say, God bless America, and vive la France!