My husband and I just spent a week in Paris. Our aim was to see if we could live, in some small way, like real Parisians. So the first thing we did was rent a fantastically expensive sixth-floor apartment the size of a closet. It was so tiny that we had to leave our suitcases in the hallway.
The place wasn’t entirely authentic, though. Unlike a normal Parisian apartment, the plumbing worked. There was a decent kitchen and a comfortable bed. Our building even had a tiny elevator with a female voice that said, “Ouverture des portes” in impeccable French. That is the only French phrase I mastered, and it’s a shame I don’t have much use for it.
Parisians are different from you and me. They never look like slobs. As someone noted in this paper a couple of weeks ago, they eat fabulous food and never gain weight. The food is so delicious that you don’t need much of it to make you happy. French strawberries do not taste like cardboard. Instead, they explode in your mouth like little flavour bombs.
That’s not the only reason the French eat less than we do. On our first morning in Paris, I popped around the corner to the food market to pick up some provisions. I bought half a pint of perfectly ripe small strawberries and a fragrant little melon. My husband and I agreed they were the best fruit we had ever eaten. They cost $18.
The quality of life in France is fabulous. But it isn’t cheap. That amazing food is produced by heavily subsidized small farmers. In March, the Louvre was stormed by a flock of sheep as angry farmers protested reforms to the European Union’s agricultural policy that would reduce their subsidies. They warned that the only thing standing between la république and le déluge was their artisanal meat and cheese.
In France, quality of life is much more important than efficiency. You can tell this by café life. French cafés are always crammed. Not all the customers are tourists. When do these people work? The French take their 35-hour workweek seriously – so seriously that some labour unions recently struck a deal with a group of companies limiting the number of hours that independent contractors can be on digital call. Once you are a permanent employee, you virtually can’t be fired.
Not surprisingly, Parisians think our food and work habits are disgusting. They also brag about their child care, which is excellent, universal and (depending on your income) free. One expat mother of three described the arrangements at her local école maternelle: six highly qualified caregivers for 15 kids, plus a cook. She’s going to yank her oldest kid out of private school, because the public school is better.
But not all is well in the City of Light. The bourgeois class is reeling from the triumph of the National Front in the recent EU elections. When we were there, that’s all people could talk about. The Prime Minister of France called the election results an “earthquake.” The President, François Hollande (whose party drew an abysmal 14 per cent of the vote) was so alarmed that he even went on TV to talk about it. Unfortunately, he had nothing intelligent to say.
The French are embarrassed and distressed that the rest of the world will think their country is being overtaken by right-wing lunatics. But we discovered that Marine Le Pen – who pledges to “defend France” from the EU and the immigrant hordes – has gained support in some surprising quarters. “I have to admit I support some of what she stands for,” one North African taxi driver told us in flawless French. “The EU has too much power. And too many people are coming here from Eastern Europe for the welfare benefits.”
These days, the reigning French political class is even more despised than our own. Mr. Hollande, with his motorcycle trysts, his ex-wife, his ex-mistress and his current mistress, is a worn-out joke. So desperate is the state of affairs that people were even speculating about a comeback for Nicolas Sarkozy – until he and his party sank in the muck of some petty political scandal. Against this depressing backdrop, Ms. Le Pen is looking to some people like the new Marianne.
The most challenging part of our week in Paris was learning to slow down and enjoy ourselves. At first we ran around like maniacs, determined to check off every masterpiece and monument on our list. Eventually we realized that was foolish and exhausting, and we started spending more time idling in cafés. We sipped Chablis and debated the merits of their culture vs. ours, and decided it was hard to choose. The French pay more taxes and get more public goods, like great daycare and public transportation, than we do. (On the other hand, some part of the transportation is generally on strike.) They eat real food. They have time for proper lunches, take the weekends off, and hold hands in public. They aren’t too busy to have affairs.
The trouble is, they can’t afford it any more. The economy is moribund. Ambitious, entrepreneurial young adults are fleeing to London because it’s too expensive to start a business in Paris. Young people are working on temporary contracts because it’s too onerous for businesses to hire them. The elites have been totally discredited, and the entire nation has sunk into a deep existential funk. Parisians are wondering how long they’ll still be able to live like Parisians.
The portents are not good. The other day a piece of the charming Pont des Arts, where people plight their troth by putting a love lock on the railing, collapsed under the weight of all those locks. So much for romance. In the fashionable quartier of Montorgueil, the hottest new restaurant is selling takeout hamburgers.
Paris is a beautiful relic. It’s not the future, it’s the past. We love it there, especially the food. But we came back feeling ridiculously grateful that home is here.