Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi

Jules Cavelier, 1861

Take a few minutes and watch some of the Tour de France, not to watch the racers, but the countryside, and particularly the small towns. They don’t look like our towns, not just because they are stone and older, but because there is architectural similarity, and because there aren’t those real estate developments and shopping areas that surround every US city. Go to googlemaps and look for Taco Bell, Oklahoma City OK, click on B, and go to street view. Use the click and move tool and just follow the road, any direction.

Now look at Limoges, France on googlemaps. Move towards the north of town using the satellite view. See how things are arranged? There are zones for factories; generally, retail establishments are on the street levels of buildings, and signage is limited. As you move north through the industrial parts of town, you begin to see fields. The city ends. There aren’t any of those long strips of development, shopping centers, and pawn shops with gaudy signs. Those fields grow food, and the people of Limoges eat that food, fresh and home-grown. The fields are small, each a different color, because a different crop is growing in each. Or cattle. Charolais, I think.

This difference is, I think, a metaphor for the difference between French culture and ours. Our cultural view is that real property is ours to do with as we wish, regardless of the impact on others. That explains why the Kelo case, the eminent domain case in Connecticut, caused such a furor. It essentially held that private property rights had to give way to the public interest, even if that meant transferring the property to a private corporation. Many Americans, of all political stripes, think that wasn’t right, that private rights should control over public interests.

It may be that lots of French people feel the same way, but the law and culture go the other way. That explains the lovely French countryside.

The French have a $37bn stimulus plan going strong. About $100mn is going to rehabilitation of its chateaux and castles and other parts of its heritage. Most of that money is being spent right now, and will vastly improve French infrastructure. Here, when it was revealed that the stimulus bill included $50mn for the arts, republicans were outraged, and if it had been more money, I doubt that funding would have made it.

In France, health care is a national right. Several years ago, I was leaving the D’Orsay Museum and walked right into the revolving door. I knocked myself silly, and smashed my glasses just above my eye. Bleeding like a stuck pig, I staggered back into the museum, walked to the guard, and tried to explain what had happened. My pathetic French, and most of my English vanished, so I pulled the Kleenex from my eye, and bled a bunch more. He wheeled me into the nurse’s office, and they tried to stop it with a styptic pencil. No luck. They took me to the emergency room in an ambulance, and 30 minutes later, glued together, I was ready to go. They gave me a printout explaining the symptoms of concussion, and I asked about the bill.

Zero. The doctor seemed a bit nonplussed by the question, and reminded me that in his country health care is a right. I admit it was quite a relief, as I had been trying to work out an estimate of what it would have cost me in the US.

By the way, most people go to the D’Orsay for the collection of Impressionist art, but there is a lot of other beautiful art. The graphic accompanying this post is a detail of a statue by Jules Cavalier, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi.

This portrait of Madame De Loynes by Amaury-Duval is nearby. Portraits like this one make you want to know the subject, and lo and behold, we get this history (pdf). I particularly like the part about Prince Napoleon, called Plon-Plon by the members of her salon.

Sorry, I got a bit side-tracked. It’s summer, and a good time for digressions. Do you think we have to change our culture to get decent health care?