French lessons for the millennium


    This year, my niece and nephew-in-law and their 6-month-old baby traveled from France to join the California part of the family for the holidays. After talking with them about everything from what is perceived here as French fanaticism about food to socialized medicine, I realized there are some huge misconceptions here concerning French culture.

    The French, who piqued the Clinton administration by refusing to import our genetically altered foods and dairy products produced with bovine growth hormone and antibiotics, have a whole different idea about food than we do.

    To the average French person, eating food is the way of celebrating every event. It’s at the heart of who they are. They have higher expectations than Jacques dans la Boite.

    In Paris, they go into Mac Donahlde primarily to use the restrooms (deemed more commodious than those in the average French bistro). Meals, even quick lunches, are not bought through a window or eaten in cars. The supermarche sells organic fruits and vegetables packaged in plastic (there’s an anomaly here), but the greengrocers proudly sell peaches arranged in rows, front row for today, back row for tomorrow.

    Farmers are using fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the result is safer produce and cleaner water. “We see now fish are sensitive to that,” my nephew, Dominique, says. “In the Seine, some species we thought were extinct have come back.”

    France, which decades ago had a severe paper shortage, has learned to conserve le papier. Public toilettes have electric blowers (nuclear power has replaced fossil fuels) to dry the hands and tiny slivers of papier de la toilette similar to that found in this country only in rural gas stations.

    There are no French tree huggers because les forts are well managed. No need to call on the spotted owl to protect them. For every tree harvested, dozens are planted. Greenpeace is active there but concerns itself more with fishing and ocean protection.

    To Americans, who are lucky to get a two-week vacation, the French seem to be toujours en vacance. Erin, my niece, who studied in France during her sophomore year at Notre Dame, then returned years later to marry the son of the family with whom she had lived in Angiers, explained, “I arrived with my Puritan work ethic intact, and now it’s gone. I thought they were lazy, always talking about their five-week vacations. Then I realized what’s going on. It’s not negative, it’s positive. That’s family time. In all the years I was growing up here, we only had one family vacation. The French pack up and go off as a family somewhere every year. It’s the opportunity to get away from work responsibilities and get back to their real values. That’s a luxury that can’t be replaced. That’s why the family ties are so strong.”

    France developed its socialized medicine without the divisive debate that sunk Hillary Clinton’s more modest proposal. The doctors are not controlled by HMO efficiency and profit motives. There is no problem about doctors limiting time spent with patients. There is no French phrase like the almighty franc. “Erin’s prenatal care and delivery was so incredibly humane,” her mother says. The average hospital stay is five days. Erin had a private room and the baby was in the room most of the time. “They won’t let you go home until the baby is gaining weight, nursing properly and everything is fine.” Tell that to our ill-prepared teen mothers who are kicked out the day after delivery, ready or not. And it has already been decided that in the coming year everyone, regardless of whether they have a job or not, will be covered under their social security program.

    Have the French given up any freedoms for all these benefits? Dominique, a Paris policeman, says, “Non.” They have the right to bear arms, but “Only hunters and criminals have them.” All guns are registered. People may use them for hunting and at shooting clubs, target, skeet etc. People do not keep arms for self-protection. The police carry guns but have no more right to use them than the average citizen. The law says you can only shoot someone who is threatening you with a gun. Police cannot shoot a fleeing suspect. There is no French equivalent for “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

    While our Supreme Court prepares to revisit the Miranda decision, the French, in the land of libert, egalit, fraternit, have no such protection. You will not hear French TV cops spouting, “You have the right to remain silent … .” Dominique says, “We present ourselves as police officers and our reason for arresting them. “Mettez les mains en l’air” — the French equivalent of “Stick ’em up” — is used only for dangerous suspects. Livre de garde vue is as close as they come to, “Book em, Danno.”

    At the police station, the perp is given a written document of his rights by the Officer Police Judiciary, a sort of liaison between the police and the district attorney. The perp may be detained for 20 hours without an attorney, whose job is only to see the prisoner is fed and cared for properly, not to protect him from incriminating himself during interrogation.

    For all of that, Erin says, the streets and le metro are safe. “There’s pickpockets and purse snatchers, and sometimes people on the trains doing drugs, but I’ve never feared for my person.” That is because there is very little gratuitous violence. They want your money, but they don’t want to hurt you.

    There are no drive-by shootings, although in some quarters, Dominique says, groups of young teens sometimes burn cars.

    And morality is viewed differently. Erin said at first she was shocked by what she saw on TV. “They use naked ladies to sell yogurt.” Dominique explains it’s a difference in culture. “Bare breasts do not shock a Frenchman.” Women sunbathe au naturel on their balconies, on the beaches, and no one is offended. In Malibu, you would be arrested. Allez les mains! Book ’em, Danno.