Struggle & Zen
Updated: May 11
Life in France is very appealing to a lot of us. We see France as a beautiful, charming, picturesque, romantic place, which it is!
French people in general are more relaxed and less arrogant than they used to be.
Even though 52% of the restaurant business is fast food and even though most bistros and brasseries in big cities have adapted their menus to the American crowd by serving enormous burgers with French fries, there are still a lot of places where you can have a good, authentically French meal.
Life in France is not cheap, but it is cheaper than we think. Even Paris is more affordable than New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Wages in France are low, and besides being low, the French are taxed heavily. As a result, there is very little money, if any, left at the end of the month. No wonder McDonald's is doing so well. A family of four can afford “eating out” at McDonald's twice a month. They manage to make it a special outing, a fun, family night. They cannot afford the fancy place with the fancy menu across the street. The numbers are there: France ranks 12th out of 17 European countries when it comes to how much money the French taxpayer keeps at the end of the month, based on wages and cost of leaving.
Start driving in France, and you will quickly realize that luxury cars are quasi non-existent. French people drive small, inexpensive cars. They drive the cars that they can afford. When they purchase a car, they seldom opt for the leather seats, the automatic transmission, and all the bells and whistles that we, in America, supposedly cannot possibly live without. They save money on car payments.
Gasoline is expensive. When you see the price, you think you are in oil heaven; but the first time you stop at a gas station to fill up, you realize the price is per liter… Then you have to roughly multiply by four to make it a gallon… Ooops… not so cheap, after all.
Specialty food bought at open-air markets such as the wonderful farm-fresh cheese, the local beekeeper’s honey, the smoked ham from the mountains, the fresh fish from the Atlantic Ocean – These are all high quality, artisan products that are still so very good, but from which the French have to shy away more and more. Why? Because their tight budget no longer allows them to support the small producers. Thankfully, the latter have been able to join co-ops, and thus keep the family businesses and the traditions going, but they too are struggling because their profit margins are very small so that the co-ops can distribute to medium and large chains, which, themselves have a strong and fierce purchase power. Unavoidably, the small producers are then pushed to cut corners, and the quality suffers.
20% of the employment in France is government employment. In other words, 1 out of 5 wage-earning individual works for the government. This is not the only reason why the French are taxed heavily – Add to that a multitude of wonderful social programs that the tax payer has to fund, and you end up with a struggling, angry, and cranky French man.
I love to chat with French people when I am there, and I do that a lot, whether it be the taxi driver, the insurance agent, or the baker at the supermarket. They all admit that they struggle and there is no way that they can get ahead. Yet, once they are done complaining, they tell you that they cannot wait until next week’s hiking vacation. And the baker returns to his proofer, the agent to her cubicle, and the taxi driver to Zen. When traffic and road rage reach a peak, taxi drivers switch to the “zen” mode. They roll down the window, and they start humming.
Next week’s vacation is what keeps the French going… Between eleven paid holidays and five weeks of paid vacation a year (see my blog “C’est la Vie”), the French have a lot of family time to look forward to, and that is their escape, their refuge, their “raison de vivre”, their oxygen, their “joie de vivre”. And believe me, the French can be very frugal, plan a trip very economically, yet have a grand time. Anywhere you live in France, you can easily drive to the mountains or to the sea, rent a large “gite” for very little money or go camping, and enjoy the moment, and relax, and never think of how it could have been with a bigger budget. They are more and more tuned into the “zen” mode promoted by the taxi driver… Good choice!