Jonathan Brun

France: A country for old men

Last year I spent eight months in France, primarily in Paris. In 2003, I lived in Marseille and Dunkerque and I have been to France over 26 times. I hold a french passport, a french name, and a french heritage. Perhaps, given all that, I can say a few words on the country of my fathers.

If you would like to skip the rest of the article, my points basically boil down to the following sentence. The country is currently run by old men, for old men – (or by young men who pretend to be old). The smart, young, ambitious frenchmen and women are fleeing the country – to Canada (4,026 in 2006), the US, and elsewhere. Why? In many ways, France is well placed for a young ambitious person; you have access to open european markets, a dynamic immigrant workforce and some of the best infrastructure in the world. Yet, the brain drain is remarkable.

In many ways, the country and its young people have the sense that all has been said. On a number of fronts, the country feels finished. Part of the problem is the centralization of the nation in Paris. Nearly all the top schools and international businesses are based in Paris, the government is highly centralized and if you are not in the capital, you are a nobody. This leads to a major problem: the top tier of French entrepreneurs, businessmen, lawyers and engineers all end up together, in Paris. Living, studying and working in the same place leads to groupthink. Innovation is fundamentally an ability to think differently. Canada has a fairly spread out intellectual basin between Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The United States has various poles of expertise in Boston, New York, Houston, San Francisco and Chicago. In France all of the most ambitious end up in Paris and they all end up alike.

Installing a Bixi platform in Montréal

Paris feels like a museum, the entire city has been developed to the maximum height of six stories, and companies located in Paris dare not leave for fear of losing the top talent or being perceived as inferior to their parisian coutnerparts. If Paris is disregarded, the remainder of the country seems equally developed – all the way down to the residential home and the bike racks. As an example, both Montreal and many French cities offer communal bike systems to their citizens. In Montreal, the bikes sit on mobile platforms that are solar panelled. The platforms can be picked up and moved to different locations with a simple forklift and flatbed truck. In France, the bike racks are cemented into the ground and hard wired to the grid – making it impossible to adjust the distribution according to usage. The French plan for permanence, but the world is moving in the opposite direction – more mobile and distributed. The centralized french model is dead.

A cemented, permanent, velib station

Another example are residential homes in France, they are usually surrounded by a high fence. In North America, most properties flow from one to the other, with no physical barriers in between. In France, everyone seems determined to mark their land and proudly proclaim, “This is mine! Don’t touch”.

To live by what is and was reduces your ability to see what can be, what might be. The French culture is obsessed with its glorious past, the focus must be shifted to the future. Throughout the country, you find monuments to past accomplishments – the renaissance, Napoleon, the Republic, but there are so few monuments to the future. By emphasizing past achievements, the country has developed an air of superiority that prevents the desperately needed change and adaptation to a new global reality. There is no denying the monumental achievements France made, they moved the world forward; but no one can live off the past for long. France’s cultural and economic inheritance is being spent fast.

Their passion with the past leads to reactions that smack more of fear than anything else. At the time of writing, the Assemblé Nationale just passed a law banning burqas in public. The government, all members save one, did this under the pretext of protecting the secular state, increasing social cohesion and ensuring woman are not oppressed by men. The law will affect 2 000 french women and some tourists. Despite the benevolent paternal intentions, it is fundamentally contrary to liberal enlightenment principals and will only further fragment French society. In Turkey, when Ataturk wished to secularize the country, he first passed an outright ban on hijabs – it failed. Instead, he decided to attack the problem indirectly, he obliged all the prostitutes in the country to wear a hijab. All of a sudden, woman removed their headscarfs.

France prides itself on equality and justice, yet it remains a deeply unequal country – only 14.8% of the Assemblée nationale is made up by women (compared with 30% in Quebec, 53% in Rwanda, and 46% in Sweden). The burqa ban is designed to protect women from oppression, yet their own Assemblée nationale, theoretically the bastion of gender equality, fails to represent the population of the country.

France’s love affair with their enlightenment past leads to other bizarre reactions. For the second time, Quick, the French fast food chain, is proposing to convert 20 of its outlets to Halal serving venues. This is to attract business from the very large muslim community. Again, the political establishment, both left and right are crying foul. They claim that it will segregate the society and play to religious extremism. How?

France is paralyzed. With the success of the far-right Front National party in the last regional elections (over 20%), one must start to worry. Studies have shown that minorities are tolerated by most countries, until they reach about 15% of the population. At that point, populist politicians, especially in tough times, start to point the finger at the “different” people, claiming they are stealing jobs and changing the spirit of the nation. France, like many countries, has not come to grips with diversity – they tolerate the immigrants. But, when you tolerate something – you are not accepting it for what it is. Do you tolerate your children? Fundamentally, you cannot both love and tolerate something, and if you do not love your fellow countrymen regardless of faith or skin colour, how can they fully be your countrymen?

Fundamental social reform is desperately needed in France, the french economy is based primarily on three things: the state, large corporations (which are supported by the state), and agriculture. There has been a failure to innovate – not due to a lack of resources, but rather due to a mindset that has infected the country. The current mentality is to secure a government job or get out of there. As an example, France employs half a million more bureaucrats than Germany, despite having a population 20% smaller. When I tell my French family that I am starting a business (two actually), they look at me dumbfounded – like I just told them I converted to Islam.

Just last week, the French took to the streets to protest an increase in the retirement age – from 60 to 62, still amongst the lowest in the world. If people are not prepared to work two more years for a very generous pension, one must wonder how bad their jobs are. The problem is not the amount of time they need to work, but rather the attitude they seem to have towards their work (WSJ Article).

It is sad. France of the 1980s and early 90s was a dynamic and moving place, they built state of the art technology – La Défense, High Speed Trains and led important social movements. In the late 90s, something changed. France went on the defensive; perhaps it was the fall of the soviet empire and the rise in power of the american liberalized economic model. Perhaps it was a change in leadership in France or the rising age of the population. Whatever it was, at some point around 1995 the country changed, or rather, it stopped changing. And that was the beginning of the end.

The fear of change, the paralysis in the face of challenge and a degeneration of political discourse on minorities is becoming tired. France must move beyond beyond 17th century enlightenment, they must embrace the global world and assert their role as democratic and technological leaders. Today, the country holds great potential – a young and energetic immigrant population, a strong infrastructure and world class schools. To unleash that potential, bold steps must be taken. The old guard must be shoved aside, the republic must be rebuilt and the country must undergo a quiet revolution. De Gaulle, came to our nation some years ago and proclaimed, “Vive le Québec libre!”, it is time someone returns the favour and shouts from the Eiffel tower, “Vive la France libre!”

Published on September 20, 2010

Bus Optimization

Why are so many huge buses half-full.

Published on March 13, 2008

The French, the English and the Ugly

Interesting debate on billingualism on Québec. Full Thread here on facebook.

The Original Post:

«On est une province bilingue, qui va de plus en plus vers trilingue, quadrilingue. Donc, je pense que c’est important de parler autant en anglais qu’en français, deux langues qui sont égales, qui sont reconnues au Québec» – François Beaudry, président de la Commission jeunesse du PLQ

Êtes-vous d’accord ou pas en accord avec cette position ?
Bon débat respectueux tout le monde. Nous ferons un effort de modération afin de ne pas personnaliser le débat…

And My Reply:

Let me try to address this. I am bilingual, Quebecois and Canadian. Dire que le Québec est le Québec parce qu’on parle le français n’est simplement pas vrai. Yes, we share a common language and by extension a common culture – colloquialisms, musicians, writers, and leaders.

Mais, ce qui nous tient ensemble est nos valeurs, notamment le libéralisme. Essaie de trouver en Amérique du Nord une joie de vivre comme celle de Montréal, la ville de Québec ou les petites villes à travers le Québec.

We cannot draw a line in the sand and say Quebecers are francophone the others are not. This smacks of racism and fear. In a globalized, connected world, he who segregates himself gets crushed – not the other way around. We must be open to cultures and languages, not try to tell people which ones are good and which ones belong overseas.

Sans la loi 101, je crois qu’il est très probable que la langue française aura été reléguée aux petits villages. Cela dite, il faut éviter les abus tels que les contraventions contre les entreprises au Chinatown qui ont leurs affiches en chinois ou les Anglophones qui ne peuvent pas communiquer avec leurs médecins en anglais.

Le français est une langue incroyable et nous ne devons pas insulter les anglophones pour le faire croître.

By including people of all backgrounds into Quebec society, we will create something much stronger than any uni-lingual society. Oui, français en premier, mais anglais comme deuxième langue officielle. Nous avons laissé tomber la société décrite dans “Two Solitudes” de Hugh MacLennan et il ne faut jamais retourner.

Si on respectait vraiment la langue officielle du territoire québécois, nous parlerions tous l’abénaki, algonquin, attikamek, cri, inuktitut, micmac, mohawk, montagnais et naskapi.

“If we unite, we will form a political nationality independent of the national origin and religion of individuals.” — 1865 George-Étienne Cartier


Jonathan Olivier Brun

Donc, je suis d’accord avec François.

Published on September 3, 2007

St. Jean Baptiste, Quebec’s National Holiday

With Quebec’s national holiday fast approaching, I decided to reflect upon what it means to be Quebecois and a Canadian. The celebrations that take place on June 24th across Quebec act as a reminder that being from Quebec, or living in Quebec, is a unique experience. Sadly, I came to realize that regardless of your religious beliefs, Quebec heritage and place of origin, it is difficult to feel truly part of the celebrations on our national holiday unless you are “pure laine” or at the very least, brought up in a French neighborhood at a French school.

Unless your mother tongue is “Quebec” French, the French community ostracizes you. This sad truth is a display of Quebecois insecurity with being different from the North American English community. Leading to the point that if you are not a “pure laine” you will not be embraced to the same extent at events.

In stark contrast, on St. Patrick’s day, Ireland’s national holiday, anyone can take part in the festivities regardless of their proximity to any Irish heritage. It is no mystery that Ireland and Quebec retain similarities; both were oppressed by the British, struggled to survive in a global community, possess their own unique culture and have similar rural origins. The difference is most visible in the way that they are capable of allowing people to be Irish on their national holiday. I distinctly remember a bunch of Irishmen in Brussells who demanded that my friend and I accompany them to a local Irish Pub. I had never really spent any time with people from Ireland and had only the stereotypes we see in movies: dancing on tables, singing, and drinking.

Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Promptly after arriving at the bar and ordering pints, we were singing and dancing. However, what struck me most was their welcoming attitude. They took in a couple of young, less than hip Canadians, for no particular reason. Somehow, I find this hard to imagine with a bunch of French Canadians doing the same, let alone on the National Holiday.

The main thrust of this brief cultural comparison is that Quebec should attempt to transform St. Jean Baptiste Day into a celebration of Quebec culture and values similar to that of St. Patrick’s day. It is true that St. Patty’s has become a reason for us to drink ourselves silly while we attend festive parades, but it also acts as a vessel to remind cities across the world of the existence of Ireland and the Irish people. Instead of promoting federalism in Quebec, perhaps we should promote Quebec in Canada and around the world.

Quebec has produced tremendous culture in the form of films, theatre, literature and music. The majority of high quality Canadian films come from Quebec. Tourists from around the world, and most notably from the United States come to visit our enclave of French liberalism. Many people have an idea of what Quebec is, great food, great culture and a certain “joie de vivre”; I am just not sure what Quebecois think Quebec is.

I recently listened to a sovereigntist radio station where they were debating the various merits of separation from Canada. It became quickly apparent that there was little to no consenus on why we should separate, how we should separate and what would happen afterwards. One guest suggested that a sovereign country would allow us to spend more money on social programs while another guest proposed that after a split, Quebec would have to become more economically right wing to show that we are capable of surviving on our own. Similar contradictions arose about Quebec’s possibilities regarding culture pre and post separation. More than disagreement, it was a display of a deep lack of understanding of what a sovereign state is, does and requires.

Most separatists simply want to separate on some fantasy that all will be better without a federal government, but fail to come to grips with the numerous problems that already exist at the provincial level and that we, as a community, have been unable to solve. They neglect to mention how they will build an army, embassies, and all the other responsibilities of the current Federal government. Sovereignty in and of itself is not necessarily a bad idea, but to be sovereign of Canada without a clear plan is.

Anyone in the third world would kill to come to Canada, let alone people in the first and second world. To separate from this great nation and try and improve on it, seems a little bit cocky. I also cannot stand the notion that two people, who do not share the same language cannot live and thrive together. If that were true, then perhaps Quebec should be separated into French and English enclaves where people can be at peace in their native tongue. Rather, it is the combination of French and English heritage that makes Quebec and Canada so strong. To give that up would destroy, not only Canada, but also Quebec.

Returning to the thrust of the essay; the idea that an English person cannot fully celebrate St. Jean Baptiste on June 24th is analogous to the concept that French and English Canadians cannot coexist. Our hesitancy to accept English-speaking Quebecers as Quebecers and French-speaking Quebecers as Canadians is not acceptable and is a pin in the Canada’s back. This pin, once removed, would allow us to move forwards with more power, drive and energy. We need start at a younger age and push the children more. We must encourage more exchanges between Quebec and other provinces, insist upon more French language courses at all Canadian schools and make French a prerequisite on all signs in Canada. Perhaps this year, French Quebecers can honor the memory of their patron saint and baptize all Canadians as Quebecers, if only for the the one day that is our national holiday.

Published on June 19, 2006