The French Work Ethic – Something to Sing About

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.

Dealing with Terrorism in the New French Way of Life

In the aftermath of the November 13th horrific terrorist attacks on Paris, there have been many political speeches and social networking conversations that are using the word “war”.   They say we are at war here in France.  That the assault on Paris was a “game changer”.

The very much respected French way of life.
The very much respected French way of life.

That nothing will ever be the same.  That we all have to change our attitude.  We all have to be vigilant.  We all have to work together to catch and neutralize the barbarians who have threatened the French way of life, the French “joie de vivre”.

One politician said we urgently need a French Patriot Act.  The same one said we should also follow the post-911 guidance of “See Something, Say Something”.  I believed him.  So, when I actually did see something a few days after the Parisian murders, I did say something.  And the whole process scared the wits out of me.   Here’s what happened.

I was walking on a Parisian avenue in the middle of the day and happened to notice a piece of paper on the ground in the middle of fallen leaves.  I don’t really know why I picked it up but I did.  It had something written on it that, in line with the recent terrorist events, was more than a bit troubling. I put it in my pocket and went home to think about it.

I called a few family members and friends and asked them if they thought I should bring it to the attention of the French authorities.

Logo of the National Police in France.
Logo of the National Police in France.

They all agreed it would be a good idea and encouraged me to call the police.  When I called the police and explained what I found, they told me to come to the station and do a “declaration de main courante”, which basically means going on record.  I have had reason to do that sort of thing before when I had my checkbook stolen; lost my passport, etc. and it was always an excruciating exercise in witnessing the inefficient French administration at work.  But I thought it would be different now – now that we were at war and we all have to work together towards a common goal of saving this country and its citizens.  I was wrong.

First off, there was a waiting period of at least an hour while I witnessed one policewoman yelling at an adolescent who fabricated an aggression just so he could cut class.  He now wanted to come clean and take back his declaration.  She had no idea how to handle this and was, of course, upset that the kid lied in the first place (as was his father and everyone else in the station).  In the meantime, I felt my possible evidence should have given me priority over this teenager who actually came in after me.  But I have lived in France for 25 years now; I have learned to be patient and polite in administrative situations.  So I waited.

Finally, a policeman came and led me into a back office to type up my declaration.  I spent an uneasy 10 minutes telling him who I was; where I live; why I live in France, etc. while he typed away at 1 mile an hour.  I was anxious to give him the paper and spar the police into action.  I had what could be an important clue in my pocket.  Could he please hurry up?

“So what is it you have?” he finally asked me.

I showed him the paper.  He looked at it with a puzzled expression on his face and showed it to his boss, the policewoman who had been yelling at the teenager.

She replied sharply, with a typical French down-putting attitude in her voice, “What the hell do you expect me to do with a piece of paper?”

I told her she might want to show it to the people who were taking care of the attack investigation and she just clicked her tongue and snarled, pretty much calling me an idiot for even thinking that this could be useful.  And, might I remind you, she was the police station chief.

When the boss turned her back on me, I thought it was time for me to leave but the police officer took my statement and kept the paper.  So I did go on record but I was totally convinced that this was an exercise in futility and that disturbed me almost as much as the threat of more violence in Paris.  Perhaps what I found was useless but perhaps not.  In either case, I was doing my civic duty and, even if she thought it was useless, she could have been professional about it.  The fact that my life might be in her hands at this time was definitely unsettling.

French Hotline number to call with any terrorist-related information.
French Hotline number to call with any terrorist-related information.

In the end, I called the Terrorist Attack Hotline number which has been put into place in France (it is 197).  I explained once more what I had found and, at least, the lady I spoke to sounded interested.  She took all the information I had already put on record and assured me someone would follow up on it.  As I mentioned before, what I found could be nothing but that’s not for me to decide.  I saw something and I said something. And, finally, someone in authority actually listened.

The moral of this story is, if France is at war, everyone needs to change their attitude.  That includes the politicians, the citizens and the local authorities. peopleIf this is a game changer for us all, police administrative business-as-usual cannot work.  Citizens need to be alert and report potentially dangerous or strange situations.  True, we all have to walk that fine line between paranoia and vigilance.  But, as part of dealing with terrorism, we all have to pay attention in our daily lives.  And the police have to listen.