BEAUNE, France - Tête de noeud, meaning dickhead, describes a lot of French labor leaders and bosses. Now they're playing chicken over train service. But the strawberries are ripe, and spring lambs are fat on clover, so I drove backroads from Provence to Paris, stopping at any excuse to investigate life in a socialist gulag run by silk-tie capitalists.
Any wine snob will recognize this dateline. The Hospices de Beaune auction each year offers velvety Burgundy vintages, redder than the Wyoming voters who can afford them. And their origin says much about France.
A nobleman named Nicolas Rolin built the splendid Hôtel-Dieu, with its colorful tiled roof, as a hospital for poor people and war veterans. He gave vineyards to the church to pay for free medical care. That was 50 years before Columbus happened upon America.
I've lived in France way too long for any illusions. It is often infuriating. No one anywhere is more galling than a prime French connard. A butthead. Yet there is also the opposite extreme. Beware of any sentence beginning, “France is…” Yet some basics apply.
Fraternité is iffy, and Liberté is getting stressed a bit. Egalité, however, is anchored in stone. Small-s socialism means you can be vastly rich, but you don't brag about it. Safety nets – human rights, not charity – keep people from starving or dying from lack of care.
That extends to politics. Short campaigns have strict rules and evenly shared TV time. Nicolas Sarkozy, who lived high in the Elysées, could be jailed for 10 years if convicted of taking funds from Muammar Qaddafi (who he later helped depose). Corruption is hardly unknown in France, but here you can get punished for it.
And that’s why unions, maddening as they are, are crucial. They keep big business and state from tipping a delicate balance.
Photo © Alison Harris. www.alisonharris.comRead More