This Sunday marks Bastille Day, the symbolic start of the French Revolution in 1789. Think of it like France’s version of the 4th of July, complete with fireworks and parties.
The French Revolution — and much of the France we know today — was born at a time of economic crisis and famine. The French national anthem was penned just before the execution of the Queen, Marie Antoinette, who legend has it said of the hungry peasants, “Let them eat cake.”
Helene Person knows something about cake. She sells it at a Parisian bakery filled with brightly lit trays of colorful tarts and éclaires.
“The French economy is not so good,” she says, but that doesn’t mean the French people are buying less flan and tarte tatin.
“Really, I don’t see the difference,” says Person with a laugh. “People like eating. Everything is okay.” Her laugh suggests that, despite its economic woes, you won’t find the same despair in France as many other euro zone countries.
“People are not panicking,” says Dominique Barbet, a senior economist with the French bank, BNP Paribas. “It’s definitely not like in Italy or Spain, [where] you have terrible recessions. People in France know that.”
Instead, Barbet says, people worry that the old French model of generous social welfare spending is over. The French government spends more than any other developed country on things like healthcare, pensions and childcare — programs that are very popular among the French people.
“The problem is that it has become too expensive,” says Barbet, “and we can’t finance it anymore.”
The bigger concern is that unemployment in France is at 11 percent.
“It’s so difficult to find a job,” says Medhi Moujane, an unemployed 29-year old outside an unemployment office in Paris that would have been right in the shadow of the Bastille prison walls that were stormed over two centuries ago. Moujane says the jobs that are available are short term and low pay, but he does have an upbeat message for those lucky enough to have work.
“Maybe you’re pay is not high, but you have a job, so be happy,” says Moujane.
Call it blind optimism or wishful thinking, but it all brings to mind another song from the French Revolution. Two hundred years ago revolutionary soldiers sang “Ça Ira”, which literally translates to, “It’ll be fine.”
“Good times will come,” the lyrics go. “The French always shall win.”
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