The French Work Ethic – Something to Sing About

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The French often get a bad rap for their work ethic, or, rather, what the outside world sees as a lack of one.  They are usually shown demonstrating on the streets of Paris and other major cities; striking or threatening to do so or just plain old vacationing.

The French take to the streets - often.
The French take to the streets – often.

(After all, they have between five to nine weeks a year during which they can spend their free time.  And they do spend it, proudly.)  The French also take long lunches; hardly work on Sundays (since Labor Laws prohibit them from doing so) and are not ashamed to call in sick. Good for them.

With all this free time to enjoy themselves, it seems strange not to see smiling faces when you walk around the city.  That’s a Parisian paradox I still don’t understand – the fact that the French can stay home from work and get paid for it should make them jump for joy.  But that’s just not the case.  They are a discreet, dressed-in-black, serious bunch.  Last night, however, I saw about two thousand French men, women and children dancing and singing like crazy.  What were they all excited about?  Work, of course.  Well, actually, not working.  But smoking, lots of smoking.  Let me explain.

It was a Pink Martini concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris that inspired this fit of French celebration.  Firstly, let me tell you that the Olympia Theater in itself is a French musical icon of the highest order.  It opened in 1888, founded by Joseph Oller, the creator of the Moulin Rouge.  As you might have guessed, it is very red and has a sublime art deco theme. All the people who work there are extremely pleasant, doing their best to make you feel welcome.

The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.
The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.

The Olympia hosts rock bands, pop music, jazz and comedy.  I will name just a few of the legends who have played there and you will understand how important this stage is to the musical world – Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Marlene Dietrich, the Beatles, Charles Aznavour, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, the Grateful Dead and on and on.  And last night, it was Pink Martini.

Pink Martini is an American jazz/pop/eclectic musical orchestra based in Portland, Oregon, whose first album, “Sympathique” included a song in French that rejoiced in not working.  The title means “Nice” in English.  The chorus, the popular refrain of the song translates to: “I don’t want to work, I don’t want to have lunch, I only want to forget and so, I smoke.”  The intro describes a hotel room in the form of a cage and the sun that’s filtering in through the windows – and the urge to light up a cigarette.

Some of the lyrics to “Sympathique” (also known as “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler”) were taken from a poem called “Hotel” written in 1913 by the famous French poet,

Apollinaire's take on happiness.
Apollinaire’s take on happiness.

Guillaume Apollinaire. The rest of the lines were penned by the Pink Martini bandleader, Thomas Lauderdale, and the group’s singer, China Forbes.  However, the smoking instead of working idea was definitely Apollinaire’s.  “Sympathique” quickly became an international phenomenon, nominated for the “Song of the Year” award and France’s “Victoires de la Musique” in 2000.  The French car company, Citroen, used it for the soundtrack of an extremely popular television commercial for its Xsara Picasso model. (You can watch the video of that ad at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiDoOMXNdg8).

In the course of the evening, Pink Martini performed many wonderful, catchy numbers but none of them could get the French spectators out of their seats and into the aisles of the gorgeous Olympia concert hall. Staying put is pretty much business-as-usual for French

Pink Martini - the group that got the French moving.
Pink Martini – the group that got the French moving.

concert-goers.  They don’t move much.  In fact, they usually yell at the people in front of them who stand up and start gyrating.  They want them to sit down and stop twirling so they can sit comfortably and see the musicians on stage.  In this case, in the “I-don’t-want-to-work” theme song case, the French audience really got into it.  They spread out.  They were everywhere.  They ran from the balcony to the orchestra seats and onto the stage – singing and dancing, dragging their children along with them.  It was fun to see them so happy and exuberant.  Even if the inspiration for this was all about not working and even if they would be snarling in the streets the next day.  For one night, just this one night, they were all happy campers.

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