The French do get off their derrieres

People rally at the Bastille square in Paris, during a demonstration against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Stop me if you've heard this before, but there are going to be some big street protests in France next week. Pretty much every major labor union and university student as well will be striking over an increase in the retirement age, from 60 to 62.

There tends to be a "so what else is new" attitude when we hear about French protests over here. I mean, they do do it all the time. And they don't really work over there anyway, right?

Robert Zaretsky says au contraire. He's a professor of French history at the University of Houston. And he argues in Foreign Policy magazine that the French just have their own way of doing things. He teaches that, actually, using a book called "Montaillou." It's about a 14th-century village written by a 20th-century Frenchman.

Robert Zaretsky, good to have you with us.

Robert Zaretsky: It's good to be here. Thanks.

Ryssdal: How did it come to pass that you wound up writing this article?

Zaretsky: Well, it was an accident -- as everything was in the past. We just make stories out of them. And I was about to teach a class and it was the same day as the first wave of strikes in France at the beginning of the month. I was outside the classroom with a couple of colleagues, and their attitude was remarkable. It was ill-tempered, it was impatient. My colleagues simply couldn't understand why the French were taking to the streets. And it was only after I went into the classroom, and I began to discuss "Montaillou" with my students that I saw this bridge.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and that book, it's called, as you said, "Montaillou" by a guy named Emmanuel Ladurie, written back in the 70s, some time. It's about this town, 600 years ago, and the lifestyle that they had there.

Zaretsky: Well, yeah. But it wasn't a lifestyle; it was a life. Jacques Fournier who was an inquisitor who was sent by the papacy to this town to rid out what was left of the Cathar Heresy. The Cathars were a heretical sect that saw the world in Manichaean terms, namely black-and-white terms. And the villagers love to lie around in the sun, chat with one another, spend time de-lousing one another. Part and parcel of village life was not working. And I think the heresy that Fournier wanted to rid out was Catharism. But in fact, what was heretical was their refusal to follow a certain work ethic. Just as my colleagues at U of H, or I think many Americans in general, what they find heretical is this French refusal to take our work ethic seriously.

Ryssdal: The French have enjoyed their leisure time for centuries. That's what I hear you say.

Zaretsky: That was the point that I wanted to make in my article. What Ladurie saw in the villagers, the ways in which they lived their lives, was similar to the ways in which his students in the 1970s, those who had participated in the student rebellion of 1968, saw their lives -- both the villagers and his students were rebelling against a work ethic that we associate with the Protestant Reformation, that we associate with the industrial revolutions.

Ryssdal: That is, put your head down and go to work, correct?

Zaretsky: Exactly! And that was the attitude of France, following the Second World War. And for 30 years, France experienced remarkable economic growth. And come 1968, the children of the parents who were working on behalf of this economic renaissance, realized, well, there are other things to life.

Ryssdal: There are books that have been published over there, "Bonjour Laziness" and "In Defense of Laziness. Is a better translation perhaps "leisure"? I mean, your article in Foreign Policy is titled "In Praise of Laziness," but really that's not what you're talking about. It's a more leisurely lifestyle.

Zaretsky: Exactly. The French are not lazy and one of the two books that you just mentioned, "Bonjour Laziness," is "Bonjour Paresse," "Bonjour Laziness" by Corinne Maier. But Maier's point in her little pamphlet was that real laziness takes place in the workplace, not outside the workplace. That it's corporate France that encourages you to leave your thoughts, your passions, outside the door when you enter the corporate workplace.

The real work comes in leisure time, finding meaning there. Conversation at a restaurant, it is spending time without children, in our garden -- not picking out lice, but picking snails off of our plants in the garden.

Ryssdal: Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston. His article, "In Praise of Laziness," is in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Rob, thanks a lot.

Zaretsky: Thank you, the pleasure was all mine.

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