Today is July 14th, the equivalent in France of July 4th in the US. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which is considered to mark the start of the French Revolution.
I lived in France for over 5 years in the late 1980s. Like all countries, France is a mixture of things some of which are admirable and some of which are frustrating.
It is a great place to live with a deep culture. Food and wine, in particular, are an integral part of the culture in way they are not in the US. My kids got a 3-course lunch every day in school, since it was regarded as part of a school’s job to educate children about food. Eating in France is truly a social experience as well as just refuelling. When I first moved to France I was recommended to read the books by "Major Thompson" an Englishman living in France and bemused by the local habits (actually Pierre Daninos using this as a way to poke fun at his countrymen). He would pick on little things that the French made big often without even noticing. For example, lunch is at noon exactly in France. And it really is. When Disney opened in Paris they hadn’t planned for the fact that every single French family would want to eat at precisely 12, not spread out their meal from 11 to 3, which resulted in longer lines to eat than to get into Space Mountain. Dinner is late (but not Spanish late) and some restaurants don’t even open until 8pm.
The French culture has at its base an assumption that French culture is clearly superior to every other culture. It tends to be rather backward facing though, and sometimes willfully ignorant. If you think of French food, you think of that wonderful cuisine in the little restaurant in the little village. All true…but did you know that the largest private sector employer in France is McDonalds. The reality and the perception are not quite in step. I lived 20 miles from the Italian border but it was almost impossible to buy Italian wine. After all, French wine is obviously better. In Summer, the south of France is inundated with everyone in Paris since the French largely vacation only in France since that is where the best food, the best wine, the best beaches and the best vacation are to be found.
France has a two-speed society. If you have a job, even more so if you have a job in the public sector, then life is good. You are well paid, you can’t be fired, you have a generous pension, you have maybe 8 or even 10 weeks of vacation. If you don’t have a job then you are probably not getting one any time soon, and this was true even before the current downturn. Companies will do everything they can to avoid hiring people since once hired they cannot be fired. You might have read that per-capita productivity in France is higher than the US. This is true, but it is not really something to be that proud of. It reflects the fact that using a lot of capital makes more sense than using people; with a high minimum wage marginal jobs (supermarket bagging, say) don’t get done at all. And, especially, only employed people are included in the equation and the 10% or so unemployed are not counted as inefficiently producing nothing. In the US right now we are really worried at the unemployment rate. It has been at about that level in France for 30 years. Further, that doesn’t count the 2M people, mostly young, who had to leave the country to find a job. London is "France’s" 6th biggest city, in that more French people live in London than all but 5 French cities.
France has a streak of racism beneath the surface. A Swedish friend of mine, who had messed up his form applying for a work permit, was helped through it by the official. “Of course, if you were Arab, we’d have just rejected it,” the official said casually, as if it was obvious that anyone would share that opinion. Many of the “Arabs” are in fact French. The rules for French citizenship are not quite as immediate as in the US (if you are born in the US you are American, period) but take a second generation (if you are born in France, you are French if either your parents are French or your mother was born in France). Nonetheless, many of the people who originally immigrated from Algeria and Morocco have been there for generations.
The combination of a welfare state, the difficulty of getting employment for anyone, and the racism meaning that getting employment if you are of north African descent is even harder, is a toxic combination. The word “banlieue” in French means suburb, but it has come to mean the areas of public housing where the “immigrants” end up. Unemployment among the young can be as high as 50% and there is a level of violence in these areas that makes some of them no-go areas even for the police, and worrying for anyone. I once had to pick up a prescription in Cannes in the middle of the night when one of my kids was sick. I called the police to find out where the duty pharmacist was (no 24 hour Walgreens in France; you need permission from the existing pharmacies to open a new one, so obviously it is never forthcoming). They refused to tell me, but would only meet me at a street corner so they could escort me to the pharmacy since it was in one of these danger areas.
So the France you think of and see as a tourist is real. The history, the food, the wine, the language, the countryside, the markets, the cheese. But behind the curtains is some disturbing stuff and some foolish public policy that needs to get addressed for France to once again be truly great.