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May

05/09/06 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST)The month of May in France is for long weekends and new ideas. Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking about how the French are trying to preserve their way of life despite the pressures of globalization.

(MARTIN) Oh, the sweet month of May. The trees and fields are fuzzy with gold and green. The sun warms your skin again. The whole month is quick and intense, heady and impatient.

In many countries around the world, May 1st is Labor Day and workers often parade in the streets. In France, the tradition is to offer and wear lily-of-the-valley or "le muguet" as they call it. A week later, the French celebrate World War II Victory Day, then the Ascension, and then Pentecost. So May is a happy, carefree month when, some years, French workers observe a holiday per week.

What's more, the French enjoy a wonderful tradition they call "faire le pont." It's a custom that is hard for us workaholic Americans to understand, but basically it works like this: if your holiday falls on a Thursday, you also take Friday off. This makes a bridge or pont from the day off to the weekend. If the holiday falls on Wednesday, you'll need a two-day bridge. These are sometimes called "viaducts" because they're bigger. The French take big vacations in July and August, but May is a month filled with flowers and long weekends.

This spring, the French took to the streets to protest a labor reform that would make it easier to hire and fire young people. Although fewer cars burned, these mass protests were bigger than last fall's riots in the housing projects. The Prime Minister has backed down, so the French get to keep their high job security, free universal health care, and considerable vacation time for now. But since employers pay for these benefits, they will continue to hire slowly, leaving many young French without jobs.

The way these recent events have been portrayed in the American press has led some people to think that France is a country of espresso-sipping slackers, but this caricature misses two key points. The first is that, unlike the stereotype, the French private sector and its employees are dynamic and extremely capable. Think of successful multinationals like Alcatel, L'Oreal, the food group Danon, and the oil giant Total, all French. The second cliche is that the French would rather strike than work. This too is an oversimplification when you consider why they are up in arms. They aren't just fighting a new law they are fighting for their way of life.

Like the month of May, life in France now is too good to last. In the coming years, the French will have to liberalize the workplace and make sacrifices. But right now they are fighting globalization as it sweeps cultures aside and subjects people to the cruel calculus of the bottom line. The French are worried about their jobs going overseas, but they're even more worried about overseas labor conditions being forced on them. They worry that huge corporate earnings will raise the standard of living for some, but not for most. The French are asking their leaders to support what they call "capitalism with a human face." Maybe we should too.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School. Our music is the traditional tune "Les temps des cerises," performed by Toots Thielmans.
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