[Outlook]France takes baby steps

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[Outlook]France takes baby steps

Recently, I visited Paris and stayed there for about a week. My last stay there was almost 10 years ago, but to my surprise, nothing much has changed. One of the few differences was the biking craze that Velib, a free bike rental system, has created. Bikers riding down the street along with cars were definitely a new scene in Paris.
Other than that, most things are the same as before. It still takes two to three weeks to set up telephone and broadband Internet service. If you buy furniture, you have to wait more than 10 days for it to be delivered. The floors of the cafes are still covered with ashes, despite the worldwide trend to ban smoking.
The streets are covered with canine excrement just as before. In a good way, this can be seen as an appreciation of life that runs so deep that people do not care much about changes in the world. But in a bad way, there seems to be a lack of energy in an old society.
People living in Paris said there are some changes that cannot be seen at first. Young students work hard to learn English, a very big change indeed. In fact, I saw some staff at restaurants or cafes who took orders in English. English, a universal language, has finally showed its power even in France. These changes under the surface could have led to Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory as president, as he pledged to introduce some Anglo-Saxon models. President Sarkozy and his wife send their son, Louis, to a bilingual school where he uses both English and French.
There was another change that made me, a Korean, feel proud. In the television section at Darty, an electronics retailer, Samsung and LG products were on central display. Korean LCDs and PDPs were the most expensive ones. A clerk advised me to go for a Samsung or an LG if I wanted good quality. If I wanted something less expensive, I should choose a Sony. Ten years ago, Samsung and LG products were in a corner, covered with dust. In France, Samsung has the biggest market share in LCDs and PDPs. It has also caught up with Nokia in the cell phone market. For the French, who are known for having difficult tastes, to regard Samsung products as among the best is a big change.
Samsung Electronics’ annual sales volume in France is $3 billion. Samsung’s local retailer in Paris has 300 employees. In terms of sales, it is among the top 150 companies in France.
President Sarkozy certainly has made changes. French newspapers are full of articles about his reform policies, day after day. The French president has started reforms in pension plans in the public sector, such as the state railway company, SNCF, and Paris’s transportation corporation, RATP. Before him, no one dared to touch this issue for fear of labor union resistance.
At the request of the business sector, Sarkozy promised to weaken civil punishment on financial crimes, such as embezzlement or misappropriation. This could be seen as a way to institutionalize lenient punishment for white-collar crimes, but this is expected to help businessmen do better in their businesses.
However, things were the same where changes were needed. Customs at Charles de Gaulle Airport is always full of people. When I was going through customs, hundreds of passengers were waiting in lines for tens of minutes. But only one counter was open. They do not seem to have the flexibility to increase or decrease counters depending on the number of passengers. While some people work, some don’t, as always.
The president of a Korean company, which is a local subsidiary in France, has not received a residence permit yet even though he has been employed there for over six months. In England, for instance, all administrative procedures would be finished within one week. But in France, the authorities take more than one year to issue the residence permit because he is in a high position.
The French people need to change their mindsets if they want to stop criticism that their country lags far behind England.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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