ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort



I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the seduction of the world's most beautiful city continues to operate. Whether strolling past the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso in a café, or ambling by the Seine, the charm never dulls, the glow never dims.

To live in Paris is to live with the constant jolt of beauty. Writer Joe Murray opined that "Paris should be declared as an international shrine...The people of Paris should work at no other job than simply that of being Parisians."That's a job I'm definitely happy to work at.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages, brings you one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

A " Royal " Socialist..... (Letter From Paris)



the elegant charismatic 52-year-old French Socialist Deputy, president of the southwestern Poitou Charentes region, and former minister who is running for President of France, has announced she's planning a meeting with Hillary Clinton in June.

My little finger tells me they're going to have a lot to talk about.

In spite of different countries and different languages, the two have a lot in common. Both are highly intelligent, attractive politicians in - whether you like it or not ­ a man's world, especially in France where women only obtained the right to vote in 1944 and represent a mere 12 per cent of the deputies in the National Assembly, one of the lowest percentages in Europe.

In fact, so macho is the French political scene that when Segolene announced last September that she might run in the May 2007 Presidential election, one of her male Socialist colleagues, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius queried : " Who will look after the children ? " Jack Lang, former Socialist Minister of Education and himself a contender for the Presidency, huffed that " The presidential race is not a beauty contest. "

Segolene's " coming out " has in fact totally destablized the Old White Male Guard who rarely have women challengers and when they do, manage to make short work of them. This time, though, their little boy inside jokes and asides aren't taking ; they've had to rethink their strategy ­ and change their language, in public at least - as Segolene has soared in the polls.

France may be a conservative country ­to wit, last year's resounding " non " to the referendum on the European Union and this year's massive " non " to a proposed law to loosen up rigid labor laws that set off a month of demonstrations. At the same time, the French, who are so fearful about globalization and risk and the future, seem to have no qualms about a woman for President.

Not just any woman. What is it about Segolene Royal that has everyone going around in circles and four magazines in the same week devoting cover stories to her ? Who is this woman who has singlehandedly breathed new life into the stagnant halls of French politics ? Can she be compared in any way to Hillary Clinton, a politican she admires and plans to meet soon ?

In terms of intelligence, for sure. Hillary has sterling educational credentials and a sharp mind. Segolene was trained at the exclusive Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) that produced French Presidents Jacques Chirac and Giscard d'Estaing. Like Hillary, she's got brains in bundles. Like Hillary, she doesn't really suffer fools ­ whether they're in the opposing camp or her own.

In terms of the way they started and managed their political careers, Hillary and Segolene differ slightly. Hillary was a brilliant Yale law student with big ambitions when she met Bill and hitched herself to his star. Although she had her own career as a lawyer and was in the spotlight as First Lady, it took her years to come into her own as a Senator. Segolene met François Hollande, the father of her four children, when both were students at the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques, " Sciences Po ". Some sources say that at that time Segolene didn't want a career in politics and it was François who convinced her to take that path. The Royal-Hollande team went on to built their separate political careers in the French Socialist Party of which Hollande is the leader. (In an ironic twist, if Hollande decides to join the race, he'll be pitting himself aainst his own partner ­ which only makes the suspense greater.)

Although Hillary wanted to remain Hillary Rodham, she had to give in to " Clinton " as the price to pay to get him elected. Royal has not kept her maiden name for one good reason. She simply never bothered to marry François Hollande, She insists that they're together by choice, not because of a piece of paper. In some ways, it's a rebellious act for someone who has nothing of the bohemian about her.

The fourth daughter of the eight children of a French military officier , Segolene was born in Senegal and brought up in a strict household. She escaped by doing well at school, entering ENA, and adhering to the Socialist Party, working her way up through the ranks. Like Hillary, Segolene is a mother and a devoted one, shunning glittering dinner parties in Paris to be with her family. When her youngest daughter Flora, now 14, was born, she nettled her male colleagues by allowing photographers to take pictures of her and the new baby at the hospital. They thought it was normal for them to appear in magazines with their wives but not a woman with her baby ! Segolene's cool reply ? She said she thought the French would be interested to see someone who manages to juggle two full-time jobs. Touché ! Over the years, this pretty (let's deal with this once and for all ­ Segolene IS pretty, even at times glamorous, as well as feminine and bright which is surely why her male colleagues are so inordinately threatened by her) politician continued to make sure she's in the public eye, a strategy that's paid off well in terms of recognition.

Opinions about Segolene differ. Her friends see her as an intelligent, warm, open person. Her enemies see her as cold, distant, and authoritarian. In the Poitou Charente region, which she rules with a big smile and an iron hand, she's known for wanting to go fast and do things ­ her way. As one pundit phrased it, " for some, she's like Uma Thurman in " Kill Bill ", cutting her adversaries in two with a sword of publicityfor others, she's a kind of a Saint Therèse de Lisieux, who provokes an irrational devotion. "

However that may be, she's ahead in the polls and the French are clearly excited about the prospect of a woman President. Not only that, but a debate between the less experienced but attractive and combative Socialist Segolene and the baldly ambitious and controversial right wing leader Nicolas Sarkozy would, at the very least, provide some first-class entertainment.

And her ideas ? In her typically maverick but calculated style, Segolene is putting them down in book form online so she can integrate the observations and comments of her readers into the print edition which will come out in September. Other than that, she clearly thinks it's premature to get to specific.

Her critics seize on that to say that the packaging is pretty but the bottle is empty.

Madame Royal will indeed have to work on what's inside the bottle if she's to be any match for others with more experience in her own party, or a contender on the right, especially if it's Nicolas Sarkozy, whose ideas may be admired or reviled, but are, at least, clearly and widely known.

The French may be ready for a woman President, but they'll vote for her ideas, not her gender.

Meanwhile, Segolene's being in the running, and in the news, is a positively palpitating event in the boring old male-dominated world of French politics.

Definitely, as the French say, " une affaire à suivre ".

To who's who

The French and change....(Letter From Paris)

 The French freak out over labor law reform...  David is 25. He's got a doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne and besides French, speaks fluent English and good German.
In spite of these qualifications, David goes from one prestigious slave wage internship to the next and hopes that one day he'll break the vicious spiral and land a full-time job - something, by the way, none of his highly educated friends have managed to do.

Take his girlfriend, R, for example. R has everything - besides being beautiful, which never hurt anything, she too holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy. In addition to her mother tongue of French, she speaks English, Italian, and some Spanish. R recently landed a six-month internship at a big French company. She's paid minimum wage - and works a lot more than the 35 hours a week the French are so famous for. R has no job security and has no idea of what she'll do after her six month contract is up. If she's lucky, she'll get a "real" job within the company. If not, she'll be out on the street again.

David and R's friends - all university graduates - aren't any better off. All of them subsist on odd jobs, most of them still live at home because they can't afford to rent an apartment.

They all have the same dream - a job with a decent salary that will allow them to make a respectable living, become independent, rent or even buy their own homes, start a family. C'est normal!

Now, a new French labor law has come on the scene to puncture their seemingly unattainable dreams even more. This law, pushed through Parliament by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who sees himself as the next President of France, allows employers to hire people under the age of 26 for a two-year period - and to fire them at any time during that period without having to give a reason.

Under the new law, if Pierre shows up late for work every day or turns out to be totally and abjectly incompetent, the employer could get rid of him in the twinkling of an eye and hire someone else.

Sound logical? It may be elsewhere but it's not in France where strict labor laws highly protect employees. In France, in fact, it's so hard to fire an employee that most employers simply don't hire them in the first place. The new law was conceived to remedy exactly that situation in the hopes of stimulating employment (unemployment hovers around ten per cent in France, a little over twenty per cent among young people and about twice that among the disadvantaged youth in the suburbs ).

Students saw the new law as a breach of the French work code and in good French fashion, blockaded their schools and took to the streets. They say they'll keep on marching until the government caves in.

Not all young people are against the new law. Some, who have minimal schooling and un-French names, welcome the idea of being hired for a relatively long period of time in which they can show their stuff. On the other end of the spectrum, the elite graduates of France's "grandes écoles" aren't worried about the new law because they have dozens of job offers waiting for them after graduation.

A word of explanation: France prides itself on an egalitarian system in which all students who have their "Baccalaureat" (school leaving exam) can enter college. The simple fact that they've passed their "Bac" means that they are qualified to go to university. What they pay for their higher education would be every American's dream - about 200 dollars a year compared to 20,000 dollars and up at an American university.

It's not as egalitarian as that, though. The "crème de la crème" of French high school graduates go to prep schools to prepare for entrance exams to the "grandes écoles" which are France's answer to MIT, Harvard, Stanford. After two or three grueling years, they take the exams and then get their education at these institutions which cost more than the university but still much, much less than U.S. colleges (about 400 dollars a year!)

The system is such that these young people need not worry - but of course they represent less than five per cent of the student population!

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who, as the irrepressibly irritating French Minister of Foreign Affairs, stood up in front of the United Nations to announce that France would not participate in any way, shape or form in the Iraq War, was obviously not thinking about how his new law would play among the vast majority of students. But then why should he? He himself is a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), a tall aristocratic type with a head of gorgeous white hair, piercing blue (or maybe they're brown - hard to tell!) eyes and full sensual lips. He's elegantly dressed and slender. He's tall. His head in fact is very up in the clouds above the rest of us down here on earth, from having attended ENA which produces most of France's Presidents and top civil servants.

When you've attended ENA, you don't need to do anything else in life. It is the absolute key, the passport, the ticket to power in this very hierarchical society. "Enarques", as they are called, are mostly in government but they are legion in the upper echelons of big companies. Enarques don't have to do time consuming things like climb up the company ropes to get to the top. They are parachuted in. If they don't know much about the company they're going to head, well, not to worry. They are so brilliant that they'll learn what's essential in about five minutes (so the thinking goes). Same thing in the government where they rule the roost.

All this is to say that Dominique de Villepin is not bothered by an excess of humility and not in the habit of consulting other people before making a decision. He's got a reputation for loving a good fight and for being a first class manipulator, spinning situations into motion and then sitting back to see what will happen.

And enjoying every minute of it.

He must be in heaven now.

Millions of frustrated, unhappy, worried French young people, joined bytheir moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas, plus the unions who were only to happy to jump into the fray, have spent much of the month of March in the streets of cities all over France acting out their opposition.

They don't want Villepin's law and since he wasn't courteous enough to consult the students or the unions before he got it passed, they've made it clear that they're not going to any negotiating table until the law is purely and simply revoked.

Actually, there's nothing new in all this. Over the past few years, various governments have tried to push through laws to reform French society. And every single time, whether the law touched education or the labor code, the French freaked.

They freaked at the idea of change. They took to the streets to vote with their feet - and in almost every case, they won, with the law in question being revoked.

Mr. Dominique de Villepin isn't having any of this. He sees himself as the sole defender of what needs to be done to change French society. It's de Villepin against the rest of the country!

He won't budge.

His opponents won't budge.

President Chirac, almost a shadow figure these days, appeared on TV to say that he supported the law but would be willing to make a few changes in it. Nice - but not enough.

I personally am getting ready for a month or more of strikes. Who knows how this will end?

In the meantime, when you watch Fox News or CNN, where an anchorwoman compared the French cops firing off water cannons on the Place de la Republique in Paris to the massacre of Chinese protesters in Tienanmen Square, take it all with a big bag of salt. The thugs and the troublemakers from the extreme left and the extreme right infiltrating the marchers have always been an unwelcome part of demonstrations. They are there to rob and pillage and they want to fight. The cops are there to arrest them. So far the police have exercised admirable restraint. Unfortunately, as things get more tense, this restraint may not last.

What's important is what will happen next in this battle of wills, never forgetting that the French aren't all that interested in the global economy: a recent poll showed that an astonishing majority of the French are against the free market society!

So good luck, Mr. de Villepin. And next time, if there ever is one, take off your ENA cap and try to explain your laws to the "people" before shoving them through.

And good luck to all those French people, young and old, who harbor the illusion that people still have jobs for life.

They don't.

That's what I tell the "David" in the first paragraph.

He's my son.

I wish him - and his generation - well.

They deserve so much better than this.

To the French and change

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 Lithe! Slender! French!

Lithe! Slender! French! 

Where - April 2005 by Harriet Welty Rochefort

 It started a few weeks ago with a spate of e-mail messages from friends in the US. Had I heard about the best-selling book, French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano?

Had I? It seems like I've heard nothing BUT rave reviews or irritated dismissals of this tome whose subversive subtitle is "The Secret of Eating for Pleasure". Why subversive? Guiliano's premise-"French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well, while American women see it as a conflict and obsess over it"-is so French that one US book reviewer admitted she "wanted to throw the book across the room".
Another disgruntled reader sniped, on the opinion page of the International Herald Tribune, that while Guiliano's former weight problems started in the US, the reader's own pack-a-day cigarette problem started in France where, she claims, French women don't get fat because they smoke all day to keep thin.
Of course, many readers were delighted by the book. I'm one, simply because, thanks to it, I will no longer have to come up with answers to every female visitor's favorite question: How do they eat all that food and not get fat? And believe me, even when Franco-American relations sink to all-time lows, as they have lately, the most impenitent French bashers continue to pop the admiring question.
The slim, 57-year-old French-born Guiliano, who is married to an American and lives in the US, is the perfect messenger for the answer, because she was fat when young, therefore: a) many of us can identify with her; and b) no one can accuse her of not knowing what she's talking about. Her book recounts the simple tale of a young French girl who went to the US as an exchange student and picked up atrocious eating habits. By the time she returned to France a year later, she'd put on 20 pounds and her horrified father barely recognized her. "Tu ressembles à un sac de patates!" he blurted out. ("You look like a sack of potatoes.")
He dented her feelings, but not her appetite. In Paris, she hit every pastry shop between home and the Sorbonne, devouring croissants, pains au chocolat, éclairs and millefeuilles at all hours. And that's where her frontal attack on her adopted country and its food attitude comes in. For, she states, the main culprit of her weight gain wasn't the Parisian pâtisseries. It was the bad eating habits she had acquired in the US. The French, she says, view food differently. And there, she has a point.
It just so happens I've spent a few decades of my life observing the eating habits and waist sizes of my French mother-in-law and sister-in-law and can personally attest to the fact that yes, they prepare and eat two SCRUMPTIOUS meals practically every day of their lives and yes, they are both trim as a euro note. I've even become a world expert on How They Do It.
They certainly aren't starving themselves, and they don't smoke. Every weekend they both head out to the country house where my sister-in-law cooks for a crowd ranging from six to 16. (At age 90 my mother-in-law has finally decided to throw in the kitchen towel and allow her daughter stove control.)

 My elegant, slender sister-in-law loves nothing more than getting in that kitchen-twice a day -and rustling up some rillettes de saumon or a terrine de poisson, canard à l'orange or boeuf bourguignon. In the fall, her homemade tart might be with apples or plums; in summer, it's strawberries or apricots. When she brings it to the table, all her skinny friends plunge into it (this is after three or four courses and a wonderful selection of cheeses) while sipping champagne (always a nice final touch to a meal).

If you think my nonagenarian mother-in-law is no longer in the game, think again. She's at the head of the table relishing every single bite. And we are not talking about one meal in one exceptional weekend. We're talking two meals a day, every day we spend in the country.
So what's the secret? My lithe in-laws and their lithe guests eat portions the size of a petit four, and my sister-in-law, in spite of MAKING delicious desserts never actually EATS much of them! She satisfies her sweet tooth with the wine (I once offered her water during a meal; her horrified response was the French equivalent of "never touch the stuff"). Before meals, at apéritif time, no one touches the nuts and chips. Or if they do, it's nut by nut, chip by chip.
My mother-in-law also remembers the deprivations of WW II too well not to have a healthy reverence for food. Nothing goes to waste. When watching me peel potatoes in the early days of my marriage (under her tutelage I have since improved), she would shake her head and say: "Ah, ma petite fille, I can certainly tell you didn't live during the War." This because I was not only peeling but whittling half the potato away. Not to worry: she would then put said potatoes into goose fat and come up with a tasty French-paradox treat.
Is my mother-in-law fat? Hardly. She's spent too many years cooking, gardening, sewing, sweeping, chatting and playing ping-pong with the grandchildren. In her younger days, when she would finally sit down to the table, it wasn't just to eat. It was to tell funny stories, make 1000 trips to the kitchen, and, above all, make sure everyone ELSE was eating.
My husband's aunt was an even more flagrant case. When I first met her, she was in her late fifties, a former model, very tall and stunningly attractive. We were invited to her apartment for dinner one night and judging from her figure I expected we'd have one petit pois or two and call it a night. Au contraire. From a kitchen the size of a thimble, she turned out a fantastic Lyonnaise meal, topped by a chocolate-chestnut cake my husband and I still remember with tears in our eyes. I don't remember watching her eat because I was so busy doing it myself, but I'd wager that, like the rest of my French family, she indulged in a bit of everything without going overboard.
And if French women eat this way, so do most French men. My late father-in-law, a hearty participant in the two-major-meals-a day-every-day-of-his-life routine, remained spare and slim even in old age.
My French husband still cringes when I bring American-size portions to the table. Like the women, French men rarely feel guilty about food and they eat a bit of everything in small portions.
Or at least they used to. Now, take a trip outside the chic districts of Paris. Hit any supermarket in the suburbs and watch XXL ladies load their caddies with nachos, Häagen Dazs and frozen pizza. Read famous mail-order house La Redoute's spring catalogue, where marketers have just introduced the elastic waistband (I kid you not). It may come as an XXL surprise, but some French women-and sadly, more and more-do indeed get fat.

To French woman

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Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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