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Bourgeoise Nantes

I grew up In Nantes, the 6th largest city in France, with a pop­u­la­tion of almost 300,000. My par­ents lived down­town, and I knew the city quite well. I still do: it never really changed. Some shops closed, some moved, new trends appeared and some dis­trict devel­oped more than oth­ers. But France is an old coun­try, and some things never change.

The first split in the French pop­u­la­tion isn’t so much the one between the city and the coun­try­side. It is between those who live in the cen­ter of cities, and those who live in the ban­lieue ( the out­skirts of the city). City cen­ters are old but his­tor­i­cal, walk­a­ble and expen­sive. The out­skirts gen­er­ally con­notes areas of low-income apart­ments and social hous­ing. They are fre­quently described as “sen­si­tive urban areas” because of their high level of poverty, vio­lence and var­i­ous traf­fick­ing. The mid­dle and upper classes live down­town, immi­grants and poor peo­ple live in the outskirts.

Paris is a bit dif­fer­ent: they are some rich sub­urbs (like Ver­sailles), and even some “ban­lieues rouges” (red out­skirts — areas where, tra­di­tion­ally, the French Com­mu­nist Party was pow­er­ful). But these are excep­tions.

Class strug­gle is still omnipresent in France. Because pol­i­tics is a national pas­time, peo­ple like to describe them­selves as “à droite” (right-wing), “à gauche” (left-wing), “soixante-huitard” (a per­son who either par­tic­i­pated in the May 1968 Move­ment or has Utopian ideas) etc. Other com­mon social nick­names include “bo-bo” (short for “bourgeois-bohemian”, basi­cally the 1990s descen­dants of the yup­pies), “gauche caviar” (French “lim­ou­sine lib­eral” or “Cham­pagne social­ist” — fake social­ist), “bling bling” (describe nou­veau riche atti­tudes; such as Sarkozy wear­ing expen­sive and styl­ish suits and enjoy­ing being in gos­sip mag­a­zines), “beauf” (French “red­neck” — a per­son thought to be vul­gar, some­what alco­holic, unin­tel­li­gent, big­oted, chau­vin­is­tic, sup­porter of Nation­al­ism etc.)…

And because in France, his­tory and the past are more impor­tant than the future, and because noth­ing really changes, there is still a “us” and a “them”.

Nantes was the slave trade cap­i­tal of France, which led it to become the largest port in France and a wealthy city. A few large and pow­er­ful fam­i­lies set­tled in the city and still live there today: on the Cours Cam­bronne (where appart­ments are val­ued at over 800,000 €), around the Place Graslin nearby with the posh restau­rant “La Cigale”, the Place Royale (which is also the meet­ing point for demon­stra­tions). The Quai de la Fosse still bears mas­caron orna­ments on build­ings’ facades, sym­bols of the slave trade.

France is at the oppo­site of the “Amer­i­can Dream” ide­ol­ogy, where all cit­i­zens can pur­sue their goals in life through hard work and free choice. Born rich, born poor, lit­tle oppor­tu­nity for change, that’s the way it is. Priv­i­leges are kept jeal­ously… For exam­ple, in France, there is a law that requires cities to offer 20% of pub­lic hous­ing to their cit­i­zens. If they don’t, they must pay a fine, and rich cities don’t mind pay­ing it: bye bye “équal­ité”… Same goes for schools: by law, cit­i­zens are required to send their kids to a nearby school (assum­ing that way that all kind of social classes will mix). But some schools (are some dis­tricts) are noto­ri­ously bet­ter than oth­ers, and thou­sands of par­ents do every­thing they can to escape this reg­u­la­tion (pop­u­lar tricks include rent­ing a phony res­i­dence next to a bet­ter school).

Sweet old France…

Théâtre Graslin - Graslin Theater

Théâtre Graslin — Graslin Theater

Cours Cambronne

Cours Cam­bronne

Place Royale

Place Royale

Quai de La Fosse

Quai de La Fosse

13 comments

  1. @Agnes — France is a com­plex coun­try… even I have been away for so long that it takes time to reconnect.

    @Bill Miller — Thank you! God I wish… I love writ­ing. And pos­i­tive feed­back like yours keep me going!

    @barbara — See you… on Sat­ur­day! ;-)

    @Shantanu — Glad I can give you a snap­shot of French lives! Enjoy your Parisian hol­i­days :-)

    @Max Coutinho — Thank you for your recipe — I received it and will try it when I go back to Canada! Right now it’s a bit busy between friends and fam­ily. Social classes… yeah, this is def­i­nitely part of the old world, Canada is very different.

    @shionge — Bor­deaux is nice, close to Nantes actu­ally. Famous for its wine…!

    @Bluefish — Pas boeuf, beauf, like short for beau-frère. Je né sais pas si les Québé­cois com­pren­nent l’expression par con­tre… I wrote a post on health care a while ago: http://correresmidestino.com/sickos/

    @Sidney — I guess. That said, the coun­try has got­ten extremely expen­sive in the last decade, and I like Canada best to live.

    @Soleil — I agree with you! Some­times, French drive me crazy: they just don’t want to try any­thing new, no mat­ter which gov­ern­ment is reforming.

    @Lis of the North — Lille is lovely too: I vis­ited a friend there a few years ago and the down­town is really nice. Bit cold though!

  2. I lived in Scot­land for a cou­ple of years, and have been vis­it­ing Europe pretty often — some years up to 3x — since then, and have an idea of the im/balances of life between the Old World and the New World. The most abrupt shock of class sys­tem prej­u­dice was in my British life. There is snob­bery in Canada, for sure, but nowhere near the extent that I could feel it in Britain. It is not just the visual impres­sions, but the way a per­son speaks which denotes where, exactly, they’re from and sud­denly all the “impor­tant” infor­ma­tion is out there in the open. It doesn’t mat­ter any­more how you think or behave, peo­ple already begin to turn away because it is assumed you’re not on their socioe­co­nomic level. After grow­ing up in Canada, it is a cul­ture shock of a dif­fer­ent kind.

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