A pension in every pot

While in the US last week I was often asked: how is the middle-class French person (Joe sixpack’s pal, ‘Jacques vin-ordinaire’) reacting to global economic bust?  Being then in the US, where the brownout on news from Europe dates back to 1620, I had no clue.  But now after a few days home in the Marais, here are some snapshots…


On the one hand:

–Equidistant between chez moi and the apartment turned into museum of radicalinski Victor Hugo is ‘Chez Hugo’, a cafe-restaurant normally abuzz morning to midnight with flush tourists and a few locals unfazed by the waitstaff apparently on crack.   On this Sunday afternoon, however, tranquility and the pigeons reigned, with tables half empty.

–Ditto the Boulevards at eleven p.m.  A few dog walkers.  No revelers. Never seen the


–Factories announce closings.  Lay-offs loom while unemployment is already around 7 percent give or take depending on the region.  (These are more accurate figures than in the US, where people drop out of the statistics as benefits run out.)

–Paris mayor and 2012 presidential hopeful Bertrand Delanoe (famous for the Ve-Lib public bike system and out-of-the-closet courage) REALLY regrets having declared himself a ‘liberal’ kind of socialist a few months ago in a bally-hooed, pre-meltdown book.  In Europe generally, ‘liberal’ still has the old Adam Smith meaning of free and open market…

–The French stock market, or CAC 400 (no wisecracks please) has lost about 40% during the past year.  Around three quarters of that since the start of the financial swoon.


On the other hand (sort of):

–There are no major demos in the streets.  (Yet.)

–A brand-new radio ad from major bank BNP Paribas assures small businesses that loans are easily available–come on in, folks, let’s get on with enterprise as usual!

–President Sarkozy claimed recently to have ‘solved’ the crisis in the region already, by having rammed through his concerted Euro-zone policy, with the delicious side-effect of dominating his German ueber-rival Angela Merkel.  (But today many closely linked non-Euro dominoes are tumbling: the Baltics, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Pakistan–to name some of the states staring at insolvency.)

–People can’t figure why the US government is supporting busted banks (and their stockholders and jam-smeared execs)–in other words making the taxpayer pay the piper instead of letting the weakened losers be bought up cheap by the strong.

–Fashion Week in Paris was a blast.  Especially Givenchy’s runway show, themed ‘Cowgirls in Bondage.’


Underneath the anecdotes are two fundamental, life-changing differences between France and the US.   First, almost all workers here have legally guaranteed pensions, not 401ks, stock options and similar leak-prone buckets.  All citizens and certain immigrants also enjoy the right to top-notch medical care, free higher education for their children, and an extensive social safety net–so hey, investments are a nice add-on, but not a necessity of the decent life.  Second, by the same token, a relatively small portion of the population invests in the market.

So ‘Jacques vin-ordinaire’ and his wife aren’t faced with foreclosure, or the inability to pay for their kids’ schooling, or the need to slink over to the church food hand-out.  They are likely to be found grousing as usual about the lousy politicians, while remaining fairly ‘zen’ about it all over a smoke and an espresso at their local, no-name cafe’.

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