All stretch limos have a passenger bay like a cheap scaled-down version of a Hugh Hefner Sixties’ apartment, with strips of changing colored lights in the ceiling, sculpted undulating black leather seating and a wet bar shrine of chrome and fake mahogany. Outside the smoked glass windows, cornfields extended over the flat Midwestern horizon like an evenly mowed suburban lawn, guarded by huge stork-like wind turbines whose skinny blades turned lazily facing west where we were headed.
I was travelling with my French clients from one board meeting to the next. They had dressed “décontracté” for the road trip, meaning “minus the tie”. The jackets and dress shirts had not gone away in favor of the American staple of jeans. Still recovering from the previous night’s steakhouse dinner, everyone was quietly digesting corn-fed beef and their private thoughts.
When René put down his Wall Street Journal, I asked him how he was adapting to life in the States. He is now stationed in Chicago.
Through my work, I meet many French citizens who have permanently moved to the Midwest, and I am forever seeking comparative opinions on life on both sides of the Atlantic. The responses I receive always remind me of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The description of the beast is dependent upon the piece of trunk, tail, ear or hide in the speaker’s grasp. Ask a company director and economics will be the focus.
“Ah, you see, Déborah, in France we have an enormous middle class that we support.”
The use of the first person plural “we” caught my immediate attention. I know he didn’t mean “me.” We’re not looking at the elephant’s toe nails here. From this man’s vantage point, we are sitting squarely upon the elephant’s back, high above the rest.
Americans drool enviously over the six weeks of State mandated vacation in France, 13th month of salary and 35-hour work week. Most of my French interlocutors, however, are management who work many more hours than 35 per week, and who know what costs a single hiring brings to their business, with nearly impossible recourse to separation once the employment contract is signed.
I concurred that salaries are typically much lower in France, but health and retirement issues are covered by social benefits and don’t require major financial planning as in the States.
“Yes, but life is much more expensive in France as well. Everything is so much more expensive.”
Our conversation attracted the attention of the French CFO, who had just finished a call on his cell phone.
“C’est vrai… it’s true. To live “correctement” in France, mettons, you need to earn 20,000 Euros per month.”
Not sure if I had misheard the figure in the hum of the engine and the tires on the road, I repeated it. “Twenty thousand Euros?”
“Well, let’s say fifteen to twenty thousand.”
At the current exchange rate, that’s $250,000 per year.
I would translate “correctement” as “decently, reasonably well.” One needs$250,000 a year to live reasonably well in France.
My client once again modified his position. “I mean, that is the salary you need not to have any worries.”
I felt even more excluded from the “we” that is not the middle class.
We pulled into a roadside stop to allow the French their required smokes and I wandered off alone a bit to feel the gentle June breezes on my face and playing with the hem of my skirt. The view from the back of the elephant had made me dizzy.
I had never heard such an attack on the middle class before. The “house, two cars and a chick in a pot” American Dream. Isn’t the middle class the buffer between rich and poor? Doesn’t a well populated middle class ensure the balance that keeps revolution at bay and the guillotine in the closet?
We piled back into the limo and rolled on to Chicago, past the tiny peeling painted wooden houses of Gary, Indiana and towards the mirrored towers glistening in the sun on the banks of Lake Michigan.