les jours fériés

Most Americans have eight federal holidays a year: New Years’ Day, MLK Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans’ Day Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Certain states also grant President’s Day and Columbus Day as paid holidays, but not all.

Of course, when we’re talking about “holiday” as a day off, and especially the concept of a “paid holiday”, it’s often not mentioned that only a certain class of workers experience these days as days off at all, let alone paid days off. For many industries, especially the service and retail industries, these are not only workdays, but sometimes they are days where one works even longer hours than usual.

And if they are lucky enough to have such days off, they’re often unpaid. Many workers in the United States, even full-time workers, receive no paid days off. The United States is the only highly developed* country in the entire world that does not mandate paid vacation time for its workers.

France, on the other hand, grants five weeks’ paid vacation to every full-time worker, thanks to a long history of labor battles and general strikes. In addition to those five weeks off, the French have many days off throughout the year known as jours fériés, most of which function as the equivalent of federal holidays. In 2018, they are as follows:

January 1, Jour de l’an (New Year’s Day)
January 6, Épiphanie (Epiphany)
February 11, Carnaval (Mardi Gras)
March 30 – Vendredi Saint (Good Friday)
April 1, Monday after Easter (Lundi de Pâques)
May 1, Fête de Travail (May Day)
May 8, Victoire 1945 (V-E Day)
May 10, Ascension
May 20, Dimanche de Pentecôte (Friday of Pentecost)
July 14 – Fête Nationale (Bastille Day)
August 15 – Assomption (Assumption)
November 1 – Toussaint (All Saint’s Day)
November 11 – Armistice (Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day in the US)
December 25 – Noël (Christmas)
December 26 – Saint-Étienne (Boxing Day in the UK)
December 31 – Saint-Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve)

For most of these days, banks, government offices, and most non-retail establishments are closed. And while the labor code does not mandate being paid extra to work these days, collective bargaining agreements often mandate it. Only one of these days is a mandatory paid day off for everyone except for those in certain industries that cannot be interrupted such as hospital, hotels, and emergency services, That day is May 1, a day that in the US isn’t even a holiday at all.

(Which is rather sad and ironic, given that the origins of May 1 are in the tragedy of the Haymarket massacre, which took place in Chicago in 1886.)

Even public transport shuts down on May 1, which happens on no other day.

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Sign in the Rennes Métro a few days before May 1.

In lieu of working, May 1 is full of various celebrations throughout the towns and cities that function similarly to block parties do in the US. They are known as Fête de la Paresse, or ‘Festival of Laziness.’ For hours on end, there’s food, drinks, music, craft activities, and conversations with friends and neighbors.

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And as you can see from the dates I posted above, May stands out in that there are four jours fériés in one month. And the way that they fall, especially May 8th on a Monday and May 10th on a Wednesday, means that many folks do what’s known as faire le pont, or ‘making the bridge’.  That is, they take off the other days in between the jours fériés, so that they can have the entire week off. Which may seem rather luxurious to Americans, but when you have five weeks’ of paid vacation each year, it’s not such a big deal.

As a result, the month of May as a whole is rather slow and laid back around here. Many small businesses close for the first two weeks, which coincides with the spring break for the universities. May feels more like a vacation month than anything else, much more like I would expect July or August to, especially compared to how May feels in the US.

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blocage!

It was a Thursday morning six weeks ago, the first week of classes, and I was running about five minutes late. So I was a bit surprised when I exited the metro station and saw crowds of students huddled in groups outside of the university instead of being inside and in class.

One I got a bit closer, the reason why became evident: the doors to the buildings had all been barricaded by tables and chairs.

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Blockaded doors at Université Rennes 2, Thursday, February 1, 2018

Groups of professors and students alike mulled around, talking quietly, both parties overall much more amused than angry. I wandered around for a moment until I saw one of my language professors from last term, who upon recognizing me waved me over.

Y’a un grève?” I asked her

Oui”, she responded. “Vous habitez proche d’ici?”

I nodded yes.

Donc, vous devriez rentrer chez vous,” she replied. “En fait, ils sont sur le point d’annoncer que tous les cours ce matin sont annulées.”

I nodded, but the look on my face must have betrayed me a bit.

Bienvenue à France!”, she said with a mischievous smile.

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About an hour later, it was announced that not just the morning classes, but that the entire day was cancelled. Several student groups had coordinated a shutdown, not just at the University of Rennes, but in several other cities across France, in order to protest the reforms that Emmanuel Macron’s government has proposed for the following school year. It was estimated that around 25% of France’s public universities had been shut down, but much of the media attention was on Université Rennes 2, as it is generally recognized as the most radical university in the country, especially when it comes to demonstrations and protests. IMAG1348.jpg

Later that day, the student group that coordinated the blockage announced that they would do so again the following Tuesday and then again on Thursday. And sure enough, the next week they also effectively shut down the university and once again I had unexpected days off.

During an assemblée generale the following Tuesday, over 500 students decided by consensus to to continue blocking the entrances on Thursdays until their demands are met. And sure enough, nearly every Thursday since the beginning of the term, a large group of students has shown up at campus at 5:30 AM, and physically blocked the entrances with tables and chairs, preventing anyone from accessing the building.

The tactic of the blocage, as opposed to a strike, was chosen in large part because it is more effective in shutting down operations, and they are correct in that regard. However, arguments have been made, both within the student body as well as by outside critics, that such a tactic is undemocratic as it removes the element of choice from the equation. In a strike, one can theoretically choose to walk out or choose to stay put. But the blocage prevents everyone from accessing the building, regardless of their opinion regarding what is being protested.

The critics have a point, but at the same time, one cannot deny that the reason for the protests is supported by the vast majority of the student body, as well as many of the professors.


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Similar to their long and beautiful history of labor strikes, France has a long history of university strikes, almost always in opposition to reform attempts that are centered around concepts like ‘competition’ and ‘efficiency’. Proposed university reforms were one of the catalysts for the French uprisings of ‘68, with the education minister at the time stating that the French university system was akin to “organizing a shipwreck to find out who could swim”.

In 2009, when President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to overhaul the entire university system with the intent of making the system more ‘competitive’, nearly a quarter of the nation’s universities went on strike, some for up to four months, until the government backed down on a majority of the proposals. Then, like now, the plan was to introduce a merit-based entry system in which potential candidates would be chosen based on their high-school transcripts, known here as a dossier.

Unlike in the United States, where a system of merit-based competitive entrance has long been the norm for most schools, France’s public university system has long been based on a system of equality where entrance to public university is guaranteed (and nearly free) to any high school student who passes the baccalaureate. Private universities in France are competitive and only accept a small number of applicants, but private universities make up less than 5% of total universities in the country, a stark contrast to the United States where nearly three-fourths of four-year colleges and universities are private.

As some universities and programs in France are naturally in higher demand than others, applicants are asked to give several choices of preferred university, and are often selected (or rejected) based on proximity and/or the desired program, or subjected to a lottery system as the last resort, but the current laws in place forbid selection based on one’s academic record in high school.

Along with the proposed university reforms is a proposed change to the baccalaureate, the French equivalent of the high school diploma. This proposal, which will require students to pick a specialization early on in their high school career, is intended to aid the aforementioned selection process. This reform is also widely opposed, in large part because it is seen as disadvantageous to poor students, whose schools may not offer as many specializations as those in wealthier areas.

From the cultural perspective that I was indoctrinated into as an American, such a system is hard to conceive of, and I’ve noticed on a personal level that the only other folks on campus that I run into here who scoff at such a system are students that come from countries where a hyper-competitive system is normalized, namely the United States and China. But to the French, where “égalité” is part of the motto of the state, such a system deeply reflects the values in which this country was founded on.

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Other than wanting to be “competitive” on an international level, the reasoning for such reform is based on the claims that the French university system is in disarray and has been for decades, and that a competitive system is the only way to remedy those issues. Supporters of the reforms point to the overcrowding of the system and what the government claims is a 60% failure rate for incoming freshmen as the primary reason why such reforms are necessary. That failure rate has been contested by outside sources who claim that the government does not take into account the fact that those who drop out of a specific discipline often simply change disciplines and go on to graduate.

Objectively, based on both what I’ve read as well as my personal experience as a French university student, one can definitely argue that there is some truth to the idea that aspects of the university system in France are in need of reform. French universities are indeed overcrowded, underfunded, and generally disorganized in comparison to the American university system, and these conditions have indeed been overall constant for decades.

However, from the perspective of both the students as well as a significant portion of the overall population, those negative aspects are worth the price in terms of maintaining and preserving equality. While the French university system often leaves much to be desired and by international standards is not nearly as competitive and impressive as the university systems of many other Western countries, the idea that universities should be ‘competitive’ in the first place is anathema to the average French citizen. The reform proposals are (rightly) viewed as capitalist and neoliberal, and fly in the face of society that overall values equal access more than looking impressive on the international stage. And what is often pointed out and cannot be denied is that most of these issues can be solved by simply funding the universities better, and that the failure rate itself acts as a form of self-selection. The general consensus is that it’s better to allow everyone to try and to have many fail than to decide beforehand based on grades who will succeed and who will fail.

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One thing that must be stressed, which something that I first noticed about French society during the labor strikes in the spring of 2016 and which severely differs from American society, is the willingness of people to strike and protest and often put themselves at risk in the name of changes that don’t actually affect them personally.

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For the most part, those who are currently protesting will not actually be affected by the proposed changes. They are already enrolled, their place at the university is already secured. It’s those younger than them, those currently in grade school or high school, who are the ones whose future at university is potentially threatened by these changes. And while there have been a limited amount of protests at French lycées as well, for the most part the responsibility for preventing these changes has been taken on by current university students. That it won’t affect them is irrelevant to them, it’s a matter of principle and the common good.

I will never forget, during the general labor strike in June of 2016, seeing a large group of retired folks out in the streets, some with canes and walkers, shutting down the city of Rennes along with thousands of others of all ages. As I was writing a story on the events at the time, I asked an elderly man why he was out there that day.

But you no longer work, right?” I asked him.

Oh no, I’m retired,” he said with a laugh. “I’m out here because I want the next generation to have the same rights and the same benefits that I did.

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This coming Thursday, March 22, the planned blocages at Université Rennes 2 will be part in coordination with a national strike effort centered on Macron’s proposed reforms of SNCF, the French national railways. Unions representing teachers and air traffic controllers have announced their intentions to take part in the strikes. Additionally, the public transit system of Paris, RATP, is also expected to strike.

I can’t ignore nor forget the fact that we are only two months away from the 50th anniversary of the May ’68 events in France. And given the manner in which strike movements in France have a tendency grow in strength over the course of several months, notably in the springtime, I have a strong feeling that the coming months around here are going to be very interesting.

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Situationist graffiti, May 1968.

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Here are some links with details and background on the current situation. The last few are in English, but most are in French – Google Translate will fix the latter for you if you copy the link into the translation box.

https://www.20minutes.fr/rennes/2212923-20180201-video-rennes-bloque-fac-plaisir-defendent-etudiants-rennes-2

https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/rennes-35000/universite-rennes-2-ils-vident-le-campus-au-lieu-de-mobiliser-5599371

https://www.20minutes.fr/rennes/2237875-20180314-rennes-malgre-annonce-blocage-direction-rennes-2-invite-etudiants-venir-cours

https://www.20minutes.fr/societe/1697467-20150928-universites-valls-renonce-ponctionner-100-millions-euros-budget-facs

http://www.leparisien.fr/societe/selection-a-l-universite-tout-ce-qui-doit-changer-des-cette-annee-28-10-2017-7360407.php

https://www.thelocal.fr/20171030/university-admissions-heres-whats-set-to-change-in-france

https://www.thelocal.fr/20150929/french-uni-students-protest-overflowing-classes

https://www.thelocal.fr/20141211/france-university-in-ruin-studying-french-paris

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/critics-take-aim-macrons-reforms-french-baccalaureate

les origines de la droite et la gauche

In the spring of 1789, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the representatives of the Third Estate (the commoners and the bourgeoisie) broke off from the First and Second Estates (the nobles and the clergy) during the Estates-General of 1789 and formed what became the Assemblée Nationale. In this action, the Third Estate regarded themselves as a legislative body with power equal to that of the King. They then invited representatives from the First and Second estates to join them, which the First Estate did after a few meetings.

As you can imagine, the King obviously didn’t like this, and initially worked with members of the Second Estate in an attempt to prevent the delegates from meeting. These attempts failed, the Second Estate then also joined the Assemblée, and the King then relented and recognized their legitimacy as a governing body.

As they met throughout the spring and summer of 1789, both before and after the storming of the Bastille, the supporters of the Ancien Régime sat to the right of the podium, while the supporters of the Revolution sat to the left.

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Storming of the Bastille. (Public Domain)

After the Ancien Régime collapsed in 1791, the Assemblée Nationale was dissolved after adopting the French Constitution and was replaced by the Assemblée Législative. In this body, the Jacobins and Cordeliers sat on the left and the Feuillants, who were still sympathetic to the Ancien Régime and supported a constitutional monarchy with the King intact, sat on the right.

This seating arrangement is the origin of the designation of “left” and “right” in terms of the political spectrum – those who supported liberty and equality versus those who supported monarchy and a rigid class system. By the mid 1790s, French newspapers started to refer to the two competing ideologies as “left” and “right” based on what side of the chamber they were seated on.

This system disappeared once the French First Republic was overtaken by the First Empire under Napoleon, but then re-appeared after the Bourbon Restoration after a constitutional monarchy was established. By the mid-1800s, referring to “left” and “right” to designate progressivism versus traditionalism became known throughout Europe and by the turn of the century such definitions has rooted themselves into American politics as well.

Interestingly enough, however, while the same left-right distinction is obviously used in American politics, in the United States Congress its the Republicans that traditionally sit to the left of the podium and the Democrats to the right. Which seems at least half-fitting from a certain point of view, as the platform of the Democratic Party aligns much closely with most center-right European parties than any truly left party.

*shrug*

les petits différences et les grandes similitudes

The big culture shocks come and go quickly.

Different food, a different language, different mannerisms – these are initial big hits, but hits that are easy to digest and then are quickly normalized. For example, I’m now completely used to the fact that the cheese section in most supermarkets here is five times the size of the cheese section in an American supermarket. And I’ve stopped trying to hug people when I see them on the street and instead I automatically give them a kiss on each cheek, known here as bisous.

But for me, it’s the smaller differences that are more affecting in the long run, that stick out and consistently surprise you when you least expect them to. While concentrating on the obvious cultural differences, it’s the little things that have the insidious tendency to throw you off long after you have convinced yourself that you have mostly assimilated yourself to this new culture.

The square pillows, for example. Or the couette on my bed, for which getting the cover on is an endlessly frustrating exercise that more often than not results in me having to climb completely inside in order to make it work. Or the fact that folks drinking wine in a café at 10am is not an automatic red-flag for alcoholism, but a socially accepted occurrence. The idea of “day-drinking” and its related stigma is simply not a concept here.

There’s the fact that hallway lights are almost always on a timer, and that I don’t have a say in when or how they go on and off. Or the fact that a big package of toilet paper costs around $2 and a package of Q-tips is less than $1 and organic milk is less than $2, but a plastic hairbrush will run you around $15.

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It’s seeing dogs in restaurants, or in grocery stores, or off-leash without anyone making a fuss. Or that to not have a TV is considered normal by many, that to own one means the government will tax you 60€ every year, and that those who don’t own one are not always considered to be “hippies” or “freaks”. Or that turning the water off while scrubbing dishes or scrubbing yourself in the shower is often expected, even when there’s no fear of drought, and to not do so is often a dead giveaway that you’re an American.

Or that everyone’s shoes seem to be perfect, all the time, which instinctively makes you want to buy new ones so that you fit in, only to have to face the reality that similarly to the hairbrush, shoes cost twice as much here as they do back home.

But then on the other hand, your rent is less than half. And unlike in the “free market” of the United States, here your landlord legally cannot raise your rent without a solid financial justification to do so. Which is one of many reasons why there isn’t a housing crisis, why people with jobs aren’t living on the street because they were booted out of their flat with 30 days notice after their landlord decided to double their rent because of gentrification. Which is why there is no “tent city” in the middle of the town here, and when you mention the tent cities back home to your friends here, the only frame of reference they have is the conditions in refugee camps.

And then you remember that at least in terms of economics, the tent cities back home really are a form of refugee camps, and the only reason they’re not viewed that way is because the amount of ideological brainwashing and lack of critical thinking has resulted in an American populace that is unable to draw connections between the systemic forces that create refugee camps in Europe and the systemic forces that create tent cities in the United States.

And then there’s that day when you’re drinking a cup of coffee at a café, minding your own business and trying to write, when you see a man yelling in the street, obviously going through some sort of psychological distress. But instead of tuning it out, as you so often would do back home, you find yourself unable to ignore it, and then you realize that the reason you are paying such close attention is because this is the first time in two months that you’ve witnessed something that is a daily occurrence in any given US city.

And not only are you paying attention, but everyone else is too. Everyone is concerned. Nobody’s looking away, nobody’s averting their eyes, nobody’s apathetic. They are concerned and trying to help. You watch someone make a phone call, and a few minutes later, a crew of emergency workers shows up. Not cops, mind you, not someone who is about to arrest him and take him to jail, but a group of folks who look like something between paramedics and social workers, who calm him down, ask him what he needs, and then upon his request, take him to what you can only assume to be either a shelter or a medical facility.

And not only are you in complete and utter shock at the entire scenario, from the lack of apathy to the fact that it didn’t end in a violent arrest and that there are actually services available for this man, but it’s a double-whammy in that unlike the differences in foods and the price of a hairbrush, pretty much nobody here save for your other American friends can relate to or understand your shock. For the type of scenario that you used to witness on a daily basis in you hometown is inconceivable to most folks who were born and raised in a country where people generally get their basic needs met, and it would be both too painful as well as too frustrating (in terms of disbelief) to try to explain that you spent years advocating for people just like him, only to watch it descend into an episode of state-sanctioned violence more times than you could possibly count.

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But then there’s the things that generally remain unchanged, the things that for better or worse are a universalism across the Western world. And those things are shocking too – their similarities hit in a comparable way to the differences I describe above, but for a very different reason. Like when you go into a bathroom and you realize that you’ve gained enough language skills to recognize the French equivalent of “suck my dick” and “for a good time, call…” scrawled on the inside of the stall. Or the ubiquitous penis graffiti that can be found outside the bar when you exit the bathroom.

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Or the punk kids with mohawks and big dogs that congregate in the city center, begging for money and cigarettes. Or when you walk past a light-post and spot stickers warning you of the dangers of chem-trails (which surprise you a bit only because you kinda hoped that a society that overall has a much higher capacity for critical thinking than that of your native country would know better, but nonetheless it’s a strange comfort).

Or when you spot a teenage girl sitting on a stoop, glaring sullenly at another girl walking with a cute boy, and you quickly recognize the dynamic and immediately empathize because after all, you were once her too.

And it is in those moments that tie together something very deep and meaningful for me, which never fail to remind me despite my being a “foreigner” here, under the myriad layers of cultural differences, there is something deep and unexplainable that links us all. That is to say, there’s something about the penis graffiti and the sullen teenagers that almost completely wipe out my frustration with the shape of the pillows.

But I’ll admit that I still resent paying $15 for a hairbrush.

le siège et la truie

While I’m certain that I was far from the first to notice or say such a thing, one of my first observations about American suburbia as a teenager (which was rooted in dark humor but disturbingly true nonetheless), is that far too many of the streets were named after either the trees we killed to make way for them and far too many of the towns seemed to be named for the Native people that we killed in order to “settle” those areas.

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Oak Street, New Orleans. Photo by Infrogmation.

And in my extensive travels through and across the United States over the next two decades, including but definitely not limited to five cross-country journeys by car, the observation only stood out more and more. The tendency wasn’t limited to streets or towns, but also extended to schools, gated communities, public parks, the list goes on and on. If I had a dollar for every time I drove past something called “Mohawk Estates” located on “Pine Street”, I’d probably have enough money to start a decent reparations fund as well as a tree-planting operation.

But to be frank, all this is quite expected from a colonial-settler state which was “founded” on stolen land under capitalist principles and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In contrast, one of the things that initially made me fall in love so hard with France is that no matter what city you are in, the streets are mostly named after either notable historical figures, significant places, or significant historical events. Much of the time such namings are localized – many of the streets in Rennes, for example, are named after former mayors or governors of this city – but many of them are also named for nationally or internationally known figures, and not always French figures either. Rennes has streets named after General George S. Patton (who liberated Rennes from Nazi occupation in 1944), Mother Teresa, and Pablo Neruda, among many others.

But for me, it’s the streets named after local figures that interest me the most. Given that this city is over 2000 years old, any given street name potentially contains a fascinating story, which makes every street in itself a miniature history lesson, especially for a foreigner like myself. And some of the stories behind these historical figures are priceless in terms of capturing the essence and spirit of this city.

One of the greatest examples of this can be found literally right outside my door, on the street I live on, rue de Penhoët.

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The street itself dates back to the medieval era, and was first called rue de la Fracasserie due to the constant noise that came from it being a blacksmith’s row, and later was named rue de la Poulaillerie after a poultry market which was held there until the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the current buildings on the street date from the time it was a blacksmith’s row, and the street contains the smallest building in all of Rennes, which dates back prior to 1720. After the poultry market closed, the residents of the street petitioned the city to rename the street, and it was then given its current name, rue de Penhoët, by the municipal council of Rennes in 1903.

Guillaume de Penhoët (1325-1404) was born in Plouégat-Guérand in Finistère, the son of a nobleman. The event which guaranteed him a spot in the collective memory of Rennaises came during his tenure as the governor of Rennes in the 1350s, a position to which he was appointed after a career as the captain of the Royal Fleet. During the War of the Breton Succession (1341-1365), which was fought between two noble families over control of the then-independent Duchy of Bretagne, Rennes (then a walled city) was besieged by English forces from 1356-1357. Knowing full well that the townspeople inside the walls were suffering from severe famine, the English decided to graze approximately 3,000 pigs right outside the Porte Mordelaise, the main gate to the walled city, in the hopes that the desperate townspeople would open the gates and pursue the pigs in desperation, allowing the British to then enter and overtake the city.

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The Porte Mordelaise

But de Penhoët outsmarted the British. He hung a live sow from a postern near the main gate. The squeals of the sow caused the grazing pigs to rush the gate, at which time he opened the gate and let the pigs run through before the British had any idea what had happened. The townspeople, saved from famine, mocked their besiegers from the ramparts. The siege was lifted a short time after, following a treaty between England and France.

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After I learned this fascinating tale, an important question still remained for me: But why were the British involved in a war between two Breton houses of nobility?

The War of the Breton Succession was in itself a part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which was not a single war but actually a series of wars between England and France over the control of and succession to the French throne. The War of the Breton Succession was not only a battle over the land of Bretagne itself, but an auxiliary theatre in a much larger conflict in which not only royal allegiances but Salic law became a primary issue.

In short, the two houses that fought for control of Bretagne, the House of Blois and the House of Montfort, had a fundamental difference between them in the House of Blois claimed the right to the Duchy of Bretagne based on female succession, while the House of Montfort claimed the right to the Duchy based on a male heir.

The two houses had been interconnected through marriage and divorce throughout the prior century, and both houses had ancestral links to England. When John III, Duke of Bretagne, was near death in 1334, he refused to cede the Duchy to his half-brother, John of Montfort, due to his hatred of Montfort’s mother, John III’s stepmother. Meanwhile, his niece Joanna had married into the House of Blois, which granted her and her husband Charles of Blois a potential claim to the Duchy of Bretagne, but John III died before the matter could be resolved.

After his death, both John of Montfort and Charles of Blois claimed the right to the Duchy. The French king supported the House of Blois, which laid claim based on Joanna’s relationship to John III, while the English king, justifying his choice based on Salic law (which forbid inheritance based on female succession), supported the house of Montfort. This dispute, which originated as an internal affair, soon became a significant conflict within the larger political turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War. While the Hundred Years’ War was eventually won by the French Crown, the War of the Breton Succession was won by the House of Montfort in 1365, which was backed by the British. But the British victory did not include a successful invasion of Rennes, thanks in large part to the actions of Guillaume de Penhöet.

And although it cannot be historically argued that the larger political motivations regarding succession had any bearing on the actions or loyalties of Guillaume de Penhöet, the fact remains that aside from his heroic actions that halted the famine in Rennes and prevented a siege by the English, he was also indirectly fighting in the name of female succession.

(This is the first of what I hope to find the motivation to continue as a series of vignettes about the history of Rennes based on the street names…)

 

le dimanche

I wake up at ten o’clock here in Rennes every Sunday, whether I choose to or not.

In my former life in the States, I readily admit that such an interruption would have likely infuriated me. But here, I have found an unexpected joy in this weekly event, both in terms of the overall circumstances that make up Sundays as well as the specific noise which wakes me up: cathedral bells.

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Specifically, the cathedral bells from the Église Saint-Melaine in the city center of Rennes, a beautifully glorious cacophony of sound that goes on for a half-hour straight. Sleeping through it is absolutely impossible, at least for me. But getting annoyed by it is equally impossible for me. And yet, I know I wouldn’t have always felt this way about it.

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When I first arrived in France sixteen months ago, Sundays came as quite a shock for me. As a person born in raised in a culture that is geared primarily towards convenience, I had a very hard time adjusting to a society in which nearly everything is closed on Sundays. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and so the idea of making sure I have everything I need until Monday on Saturday night does not meld well with my habits. Not only that, but my first association with such a tradition other than a loss of convenience was that of boredom due to past experiences.

I spent my high school years going to school in one of the few counties left on the East Coast where blue laws were and are still in place. In Bergen County, NJ, to this day all stores are closed by law on Sundays unless they sell food or printed reading material. And in a county where pretty much the *only* thing to do as a teenager was to hang out at the mall, Sundays were a special type of torture, a dreaded weekly ritual of utter boredom that eventually resulted in most of us engaging in various illicit activities in order to waste the time away.

However, context is everything, and I have now come to understand and appreciate that the effects of blue laws in the cultural wasteland that is northern New Jersey was/is completely different than Sundays here in France, where despite commerce being shut down for the most part, there is always a plethora of activities, cultural and otherwise, that take place on any given Sunday. Blue laws are rooted in Puritanism and Calvinism, in the idea that Sunday was a day solely for the Lord and that no fun was to be had. In France, however, while Sunday traditions are still rooted in Christianity, the intent is much more focused on a “day of rest” than a “day without sin”.

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A braderie, or clearance street sale, in Rennes last Sunday.

Stores are closed, but bars are open. Not only open, but often packed. And especially in the warmer months, there is a constant stream of public concerts, street parties, sidewalk sales. Here, Sundays are for fun, for enjoyment, for relaxation. It is a time to get together with family and friends, to play board games and have picnics by the river, to nap in the park with a bottle of wine while a brass band plays in the background.

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However, while being woken up by cathedral bells on Sundays is typical, there are other sounds that you will *not* hear. Because not only are Sundays meant as a day where one rests and does not work, that principle is enforced by many municipalities in the form of noise ordinances. Running a chainsaw or a leaf blower on Sundays is legally prohibited through much of France. One of the most beautiful things about the cathedral bells is that its the *only* sound I hear at 10am. They ring through the silence.

The prohibition on work-related sounds on Sunday is one of those areas that demonstrates the differences in how the French perceive freedom compared to how Americans perceive freedom. As I’ve written about before, the American idea of “freedom” is mostly concentrated on the idea of positive liberties, or the ability to do what one wants without hindrance or restriction. In France, however, “freedom” is understood much more as a balance between positive liberties and negative liberties, meaning the idea of “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to”.

From an American perspective, not being allowed to run a leaf blower on Sundays would be often viewed as an infringement upon one’s freedom. Its when I mention such things to conservative Americans that I often hear rumblings about the evils of “socialism” and other related nonsense. But in France, the right to be able to enjoy Sundays without having to listen to such a noise is what is valued as freedom. The right to be free from such interruptions is valued over the right to be able to do whatever you like.

At the end of the day, the difference is a value system that prioritizes the common good instead of individual desires. And for me, I’ll take the sound of cathedral bells over the sound of a lawn mower any day.

comment apporter un chat en France

How To Bring A Cat To France: An Attempt at a Simple Explanation

There are many resources online that attempt to explain this process, but I have yet to find one that’s clear, concise, realistic, and accurate. Here’s my attempt to fix that. Although I’m told that most EU countries have the same requirements, there are a few countries where it apparently differs so I want to make it clear that these instructions are specific to France.

First off, you don’t need to put the cat in quarantine. That is by far the most prevalent myth I have come across – nearly every time I’ve mentioned to someone over the past several months that I was planning on bringing my cat to France with me, the other person would mention that they had heard that quarantine is necessary. So let me make this clear: QUARANTINE IS NOT NECESSARY.

However, the process itself is very exacting, and if you screw it up at all, upon arrival you will theoretically have three options: an expensive and lengthy quarantine, sending the cat back to the US at your expense, or euthanasia.

The process is as follows:

Airline Requirements and Procedures:

First, you need to find an airline that will accept your cat on an international flight. I flew out of JFK, and as of this writing most of the airlines that fly to France did not accept pets in either the cabin or the cargo hold. Most of the low cost airlines – Norwegian, WOW, etc., do not transport pets internationally. The only airlines I could find out of JFK that will transport animals were Air France, Lufthansa, and XL Airlines, and of those two XL was the only affordable option for me.

There are two options: travel in the cabin or in the cargo hold. For health reasons, the cabin is recommended. There are size and weight restrictions for traveling in the cabin – Air France requires that the cat and the carrier combined weigh no more than 8kg or 17 pounds and XL’s maximum is 7kg or 14.4 pounds. The carrier must fit specific dimensions, which varies by airline and can be found on their websites. There’s a bit of flexibility in that requirement, as a soft-sided Sherpa carrier can squish a bit to fit the dimensions. Most Sherpa carriers weigh between 3 and 4 pounds. I got my medium size Sherpa carrier down to 2.5 pounds by taking out the hard piece which lines the bottom, the two plastic poles which shape the top, and the long strap.

If you are over that weight or size, the only option is to travel in the cargo hold, which requires a very specific steel cage carrier which each airlines specifies in terms of height and weight. Travel in the cargo hold is also most expensive. For XL, travel in the cabin is $55 and travel in the cargo hold is $75. If you put the cat in the cargo hold, you will be asked to sign a liability waiver which states that the airline is not responsible if the animal dies in the hold. Again, try to do the cabin if you can.

Most airlines will not allow snub-nosed cats in the cargo hold because they often have respiratory issues.

All pet travel reservations must be made when your reservation is made.

Veterinary Procedures:

First, your cat needs a microchip that is ISO compliant, which means that it can be read by a microchip scanner in the EU. If your cat is already microchipped, you need to find out what kind of chip your cat has and whether or not its ISO compliant, and if it isn’t, you need to have the car microchipped again. Many are not. The “HomeAway” brand of microchip is the most common one that is ISO compliant. 

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Squirrel and I at the vet for her health certificate appointment. To say that she was not happy is putting it kindly.

Then, your cat needs a rabies vaccine, and the rabies vaccine MUST be given AFTER the cat has an ISO compliant microchip. If your cat was vaccinated prior to being chipped, you need to have the cat vaccinated again after an ISO compliant microchip is implanted. The rabies certificate MUST have the microchip number listed. This also MUST be done at least 21 days before travel. Rabies boosters expire after a year, so if your cat already has an ISO compliant microchip and a rabies vaccine but the vaccine is over a year old, you need to have the cat re-vaccinated, again at least 21 days before travel. You will need an original copy of the rabies certificate with the microchip number and the signature of your veterinarian.

Then, no more than 10 days before you are set to travel, your cat needs to have an exam and a health certificate filled out by a USDA accredited vet. Most vets are not USDA accredited. Google is your friend, and/or you can contact the USDA for a list of accredited veterinarians. Since most vets are not USDA accredited, those who are tend to charge an arm and a leg for the health certificate. In suburban NJ, the cost of the exam and the health certificate came to $300. You need to provide a blank bilingual model health certificate. There are websites that will sell it to you, but the USDA APHIS office has it as a free download.

After you have acquired the health certificate, that health certificate then needs to be endorsed by the nearest USDA APHIS office. There are two ways to do this: overnight mail, or an in-person visit by appointment. If you go the overnight mail route, keep in mind that if you are missing any needed information, your endorsement may be delayed and you may not get it back in time. My suggestion is to have it done in person if at all possible. The USDA endorsement costs $38, and is only payable by credit card or money order. You need to bring or send a copy of the rabies vaccination certificate as well as the signed health certificate.

I got the endorsement in person at the USDA office at JFK airport. And when I was there, I discovered that despite paying $300 for my health certificate, the vet had goofed in a few places – she didn’t write the dates of vaccination correctly (she used the US format MM/DD/YY instead of the French format DD/MM/YY) and she also forgot to put her phone number next to her name, which means that if I hadn’t been there in person my paperwork would have been delayed.

Once you have the endorsed health certificate, you are good to go!

Actually Flying With the Cat:

When I checked in for our flight from JFK Airport in NYC to Paris, the airline staff asked for and examined my USDA endorsed health certificate thoroughly. However, they (XL Airlines) did not weigh the cat to make sure whether or not she was under the weight limit. I can’t say whether this is typical or not, but it was a bit annoying on a personal level as I had stripped the carrier of the padding and kept the cat on a diet for a month to make sure she was under the weight limit.

The other surprise, which I also don’t know whether is typical or not, is that the airline staff at check-in was the only person to ask for the paperwork. Despite the fact that there’s a section at the end of the paperwork that is supposed to be filled out by French authorities upon landing, nobody asked for it upon my arrival at CDG in Paris. Despite the fact that I was told that the cat would be scanned upon arrival, hence the necessity for an ISO compliant microchip, customs officials at the airport waved me through without asking for anything despite very much noticing that I had a cat with me.

And that was it. The cat and I were in France, and a week later she has settled in quite nicely.

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“My shelf. Fuck off…” says Squirrel.

Other Considerations: 

Sedation: I was advised against sedating the cat unless absolutely necessary. And it was not necessary – my cat was silent through the entire journey – 17 hours from door to door – and slept most of the time. However, several people I know who are knowledgeable in animal medicine told me that if you think that sedation is necessary, gabapentin is the safest form of sedation.

Nature Calling: Cats can hold it for a LONG time. Seriously. Think of the cat who is stuck up in the tree for several days straight. They’re holding it the entire time. When cats are stressed or uncomfortable, its often typical for them to hold it for many many hours at a time. And sure enough, after 17 hours of not relieving herself, my cat showed little interest in the litter box for several hours after I finally let her out of the carrier. So don’t worry about the bathroom issue. Your cat will probably be fine.

une lettre en amérique au moment du départ

(this is a slightly edited and expanded version of a letter that I posted on Facebook from the airport as I was returning to France. I realize that some context is missing and I will do my best to fill those gaps in as soon as I am settled…)
This is my last day on American soil until further notice. For many reasons, I honestly don’t know when I will ever return. I’m not saying that I won’t return, but that such a decision is as much in question as the future as a whole is in question right now. And there’s a few things I need to put forth before I remove myself from the egregore that is America. So here goes:

I think that America-the-idea is not one that can be saved. It is rotten to the core. For centuries we have been ideologically brainwashed into believing a whole litany things about “America the Beautiful” that are not and have never been true. People of color for the most part have always known this. White people are only now beginning to wake up to this reality en masse, and its going to be a real bumpy ride as they go through the various stages of grief around accepting it. But it stands as it is. If we ever want to live in a society that can truly live up to the ideals that “America” promised, we need to start anew. I have no love for “America”, never have, and never will, and at this stage in my life I feel both grateful and guilty that I never bought into the lies, as I have much less baggage to shed than the majority of white Americans do.

That being said, America-the-populace, while divided, stands as one of the most beautiful things, both collectively and individually, I have ever known. I have no interest in saving America, but Americans are a different story. Americans deserve better than this – no matter your color, origin, gender, or socioeconomic status. We ALL deserve better. Living in America is akin to living in an abusive relationship. I’m not a fan of states, but the American people deserve better than what they have been given by this state, and I will continue to fight for them, no matter where I may be.

I need to leave. This has been made clear to me more times than I care to think about. As much as I’ve risked and sacrificed to do what I am about to do, I know that personally the consequences will be much worse for me if I stay. And so I go. But does that mean you need to leave? Does that mean that you should leave? Not necessarily. We all have different roles in the battles to come. My advice is to listen to your gut, listen to your gods, listen to those who you trust the most.

But I will say this – don’t shame anyone for their decisions. Stop telling people that leaving is a matter of ‘privilege’ – especially in terms of white and white-passing people, not only do such statements demonstrate a real lack of understanding as to what that term actually means, its an insult to our ancestors, many who fled the EXACT material conditions that many are fleeing today. Everyone’s life circumstances are different. Everyone’s needs and desires and tolerances are different. I’m doing what I need to do to survive. Your survival may look different. I honor your choices. Please honor mine in return, as well as the choices of the others that you know and love. Ask yourself: what are you willing to die for? The answer will be different for everyone. And its not your job to try to convince others that your role is the same as theirs.

And if you do need to get out, one of the things I am dedicating myself to from this point on is being a resource for those who do have that need. Contact me if you need help or advice – whether we know each other or not is irrelevant. As a friend said the other day, the first rule of rescuing others from quicksand is to not be in quicksand yourself. I will no longer be in quicksand, and will be able to lend a helping hand to the best of my ability. I will be writing much more on this topic in the future.

Remember that the future is unwritten. Remind yourself of that every morning. Remember that you are as much an architect of the future as anyone else. Remember where your power lies. Remember where your fault lines are. Tread carefully. As Cora once said, “walk in beauty, run in freedom.”

Remember power. Remember love. Remember beauty. Remember freedom.

Remember the words of famed abolitionist Theodore Parker, words that inspired MLK a century later: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Remember justice, and never stop fighting. Fight for yourself, fight for your loved ones, fight on behalf of your ancestors, fight on behalf of your descendants. Never stop fighting.

Remember that your heart is the same size of your fist, and can often have the same effects. Keep loving and keep fighting.

I love you all so much. And I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, for what you have done, for what you are doing, and what you will continue to do in the future.

choix et corruption

I am sitting in Place Saint-Anne in Rennes, by far the most leftist city in France, and it’s only a few hours before the first round of the Presidential elections in France are decided.

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I wrote a basic run-down of the French elections for Gods&Radicals this week, which can be found here, but in the week since I wrote that piece I have learned and thought much more about the differences between the American elections and the French elections.

For many, the last election in the United States demonstrated more than anything the level of hegemonic control that the two parties hold over American politics and the perceived impossibility that such a stranglehold can ever be broken. Currently, the primary argument I hear from progressives and liberals in America is that the rise and fall of Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate has shown that we all have no choice but to rally behind the Democratic Party, and that our best shot at “change” is to rework the Democratic Party from within.

I laugh when I think of that right now, just as I laugh at everyone who thinks that the root of corruption in the American political system is due to Citizens United and that overturning that decisions in the magic bullet which will return power to the people. I laugh hysterically, as someone who has been observing the elections here in France for the past month, and can’t ignore the tension in the air a few hours before the results of the first round are announced. A round, mind you, in which four candidates have a legitimate chance at advancing, and two of them are from political parties that are less than two years old.

What’s the difference, you ask? Aside from the differences I outlined in the article I wrote for G&R, it really comes down to another core difference in how the French interpret “freedom” compared to Americans. What Americans and their respective court systems consider to be “free speech” in terms of the terms and rules of Presidential elections are regarded by the French as cheating the system, and so many of those aspects of “free speech” are prohibited here in order to level the playing field.

A few examples: campaign advertising on television and print media is forbidden. You will never see an ad for a candidate, which means that the amount of exposure/and or propaganda that French citizens are subjected to regarding a candidate or their positions is NOT determined by the amount of money backing them. Again and again, its been proven that in the United States that it’s pay-to-play. The candidate that spends the most money, and saturates the airwaves the most, usually wins. In France, this is not the case.

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Commercial billboards are also forbidden. While there are posters for various candidates everywhere you look, they are hung up (and then torn down and/or defaced) by the candidate’s supporters, not by corporations who sell space to those candidates.

Private mailings are forbidden as well. Each voter gets one packet, with an informational brochure from each candidate. That’s it. No third-party corporate-backed propaganda flyers, as opposed to what fills every American’s mailbox on a daily basis during election season.

It is in large part due to these differences that candidates such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon have a chance in a country which is still dominated by two major parties. The factors that doomed Bernie Sanders are not barriers here.

There are other significant differences as well. For one, the vote here is held on a Sunday, so that those who work can vote. As opposed to the United States, over here in France, voter disenfranchisement is not a national pastime. And the media is prohibited from releasing exit poll information prior to the conclusion of voting, so as to not influence the vote while in process.

But those differences, just as in the differences around the prohibitions I mentioned earlier, all derive from the same source: corporate money and influence in the American political system.

And that money and influence far pre-dates Citizens United. The only way that the two-party stranglehold will ever be broken in the United States is if strict measures are implemented in order to level the playing field as it is currently in France. But not only will corporations and politicians alike fight that tooth-and-nail, unfortunately they have decades worth of federal case law on their side.

Witnessing not only the differences but the excitement and enthusiasm here for an election where they have an actual choice and a true chance to make actual change, I am both left hopeful and renewed as to the potential of the political process overall, but more pessimistic than ever that the American process is truly unfixable in its current manifestation. Those who focus on Citizens United fail to see that its only the icing on the cake, the cake being a corrupt system that I doubt can ever be salvaged or repaired.

One thing that I’ve thought about a lot lately is how much Americans like to compare our history and our trajectory to that of France, pointing out so often that the American Revolution and the French Revolution occurred back-to-back and delighting in the fact that much of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was based on the American constitutional documents. But in those comparisons, they fail to recognize that while the French are now on their Fifth Republic, with two empirical interruptions in between, the united States is still working with the original structure. And in light of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s proposal to abandon the Fifth Republic and start anew with a fresh constitution, I think that Americans need to seriously consider a similar path.

quelques réflexions sur la «liberté»

Last summer, I had been in Rennes for a little over a week when I heard something that perked up my ears in terms of its relative unfamiliarity in this town: a family of native English speakers.

I was either heading to or returning from the supermarket, I forget which, when I heard them behind me. Many folks speak English in Rennes, but always with thick French accents, so the sound of obviously American folks made me turn around right away and smile.

It was a family, a tall Black man and two small children, who I realized upon turning around that I recognized from a few days earlier. I looked at them with a smile, and instead of “bonjour”, I said “hello”.

He immediately grinned back. “American?”, he asked me.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m assuming you are as well.”

We got to talking for a bit. He asked me why I was in Rennes, and I gave him the short version. And then I asked him the same question in return, assuming an answer as casual as my own.

But what he said stopped me in my tracks.

“I moved here for my children, to keep them safe,” he said. “Here the local police do not carry guns. I don’t have to worry about my son being shot in cold blood. And here we are treated with respect, not like criminals.”

I looked down at his children and a lump formed in my throat. Six thousand miles away from home, I briefly reflected on the conditions that Black folks in the United States live under every day, and my sadness quickly turned to rage.

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In most French municipalities, the local police, or police municipale, do not carry firearms. The federal police, both the police nationale and the gendarmerie nationale, do carry firearms and they make their presence known in every large French city including Rennes, but even then police shootings are very rare. A report by The Guardian last year showed that police in the United States kill more people in a matter of days than some countries do in years.

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Police nationale in Rennes, June 2016

While no official data on the number of police killings per year in France exists, it is estimated that in 2012, only 14 people were killed by police in a country with a population of approximately 66 million people. In that same year in the United States, a country with a population of approximately 314 million people, there were approximately 608 people killed by police.

That’s not to say that racism and police brutality are not significant issues in France. Two months ago, Paris exploded in protests and riots after French police brutally sodomized a Black man and then claimed it was an “accident”. And racial discrimination, especially against Muslims and North Africans, is very much a widespread issue here, although in my personal experience the average white French citizen is in much less denial about the problem than white folks in the United States.

While there are undoubtedly many reasons for the discrepancy, the most obvious being that local police do not carry weapons, one notable factor is in the different standards between the United States and the European Union in terms of what is considered a legal use of deadly force. The national standards in most European countries, including France, are governed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which allows for the use of deadly force only when “absolutely necessary”. This is in stark contrast to the “reasonable belief” standard that governs American police forces, which allows offers to kill with impunity and for the most part get away with it if they can convince those in higher positions that they reasonably believed their lives or the life of a private citizen to be in danger.

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A few days after my encounter with the American man and his children last summer, a mass shooting took place in a LGBT club in Orlando, Florida. The incident was almost as big of a news story in France as it was in the United States, and as an American I found myself fielding questions for several days after the massacre, mostly from French friends and acquaintances who were in shock and disbelief not only about the incident itself, but how and why Americans were so tolerant and/or supportive of citizens carrying firearms.

“But why?” I was asked in a bar a few nights later, by a college-aged man that I had just met. “Why do you all need your guns? Why is it so important to you?”

As someone who has always straddled a middle ground between the two dominant ideological positions when it comes to gun rights, I tried to explain it to him from a sociological and historical perspective.

I stressed that the United States was a settler-colonial state in which poor European immigrants came over for “free land” only to learn that they had to defend that land at gunpoint. I spoke of those who were removed from that land as it was given to European immigrants, how the indigenous tribes often fought back, and how from an psychic and epigenetic perspective the descendants of those settlers have been metaphorically looking over their shoulder ever since. I explained the immense amount of political power that the NRA wields, and the decades of propaganda linking gun ownership to “American values” as well as the toxic rhetoric that links guns with being a “real man”.

But my point seemed to be lost in translation, and at that moment I realized that what I had said perhaps only made sense from an American perspective. In a moment of frustration and garbled thoughts, which was not helped by the beers I had already consumed, I deferred to the default ideological answer.

“Americans tend to think that owning a gun is a matter of freedom.”

He laughed loudly, staring at me for a moment, trying to figure out if I was serious.

“Freedom?” he repeated in a tone of disbelief. “You all think that carrying a gun around equals freedom? Wow. I’ll tell you how I define freedom, how we define freedom. Freedom is when minorities and oppressed folks can walk around freely without worrying about being shot.”

I just stared at him, at a loss for words. If it had been a chess game, I was just put into checkmate.

“I can’t argue that one,” I said after a moment.

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It is true that while American ideology stresses ‘freedom’ as a core part of American values, our conception of freedom is quite narrow and much more a reflection of our isolated way of thinking and our lack of critical thinking skills than anything else.

It’s during times like that moment at the bar in which I am reminded that philosophy is mandated in all French high schools (lyceés), and that the average French person has a understanding of basic philosophical concepts that is far beyond the understanding of the average American.

The American idea of freedom mainly revolves around what is known as “negative liberties”, which is only one aspect of a much larger understanding of freedom that Americans often perceive as a dichotomy but the French (as well as most anyone who has studied German idealism, humanism, and/or critical theory) tend to view as two parts that create a whole.

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Isaiah Berlin, who has some strong opinions on freedom…

In short, negative liberty encompasses freedom from; freedom from interference or prohibition against one’s desires or goals. It is the concept of negative liberties combined with the ideology of individualism that results in the attitudes that so many Americans regard as “freedom”, mainly the freedom to do what one wishes despite how it may affect others.

“Positive liberties”, on the other hand, are often defined as freedom to, meaning the freedom to have the ability and opportunity to act upon one’s will and desires, as opposed to simply being free from restraint.

To frame this difference in the scenario I described above, the right to own and carry a gun would be an example of negative liberty, while the right to walk around free from the fear of violence would be an example of positive liberty.

Many have posited that the end game of negative liberty is in true anarchism, where there are no prohibitions on what one wants to accomplish, while the end game of positive liberty is in true communism, where society is engineered and structured so that everyone has what they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life. I think that such a framing is useful on one hand, but also creates a false dichotomy that does not take into account how and why the two concepts can and do interlink in order to create a society that is balanced in its freedoms and can still serve all.

However, the idea that so much of what is considered to be positive liberty is “communism” is a common feature in the American ideology and discourse around freedom. It is why things that the French consider crucial to a free society, such as universal healthcare and a strong social safety net and the right to walk around without the fear of being shot, are so often derided by Americans as “communism” or “socialism”.

And it is that narrow ideology, absent from critical thinking, that is leading to the current decay and crumbling of American society. It is that narrow ideology which is why American families like the one I met last summer are moving to France as a matter of safety.