[Viewpoint]The agony of the French

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[Viewpoint]The agony of the French

A gamelan is a traditional instrumental ensemble of Java and Bali featuring gongs, metal xylophones and drums. A gamelan repeats a simple rhythm, alternating in high and low tunes, which has the magical charm of drawing the listeners into a spiritual world. Recently, a hybrid performance combining electric instruments such as a guitar and synthesizer received a favorable reception in the United States.
The version was imported back to Indonesia as pop music. It became widely popular with the youth.
I was reminded of the popularity of the gamelan when I heard the news that the French public sector unions, which had a reputation of invincibility in negotiations, yielded to stubborn President Nicolas Sarkozy and consequent discussions.
The champions of the hybrid gamelan claim the genre expands understanding and tolerance toward other cultures. Meanwhile, others say the new form of gamelan undermines the local culture by removing from the folk music the values and spirit of the local community.
Both sides have a point.
While the hybrid gamelan creates a musical genre that appeals to people around the world, including the younger generation that shuns folk music, it could turn into popular music which fades from fashion just as quickly as it arrived. If so, that would tarnish its original function, which was to pass down and develop the local community. That is the fundamental reason why France has been expressing antipathy toward globalization, especially in fields related to culture.
However, there’s nothing the French can do now that globalization has become an unavoidable trend, even at home.
The change is evident from the attitude of the French during the recent subway strike. A decade ago, the French would have been far more positive when asked how they felt toward the strike. They would say, “It feels refreshing to ride a bike sometimes,” or “I understand them. I might go on strike myself sometime.” I still remember the cultural shock. Koreans would have been furious that the union strike inconvenienced the citizens.
However, this time, the Parisians got angry. The majority expressed outright opposition to the union leaders and said the strike was inappropriate. They were far more displeased about the traffic jams.
Parisians have indeed grown short-tempered. The change started long ago.
One of the indications is the decreasing number of cafes. There were more than 200,000 cafes in France in the 1960s, but now there are less than 50,000. Enjoying warm sunshine and reading a book at an open cafe has become a luxury. The French are known to love dogs, but cats replaced them as a favorite pet long ago. They no longer have time to walk their dogs.
The aggressive tide of globalization led by neoliberalism has pushed the leisurely French into an era of infinite competition.
Even if the French would like to enjoy their lives, they cannot afford to live leisurely.
All of the other citizens are managing difficult lives and the public sector refuses to accept that, making the French upset. Sarkozy’s leadership indeed played an important role, but even without him, the changes were meant to be.
Ten years ago, Lionel Jospin’s French Socialist Party was in power and accomplished unprecedented economic growth and low unemployment.
Back then, the French had a faint hope that the French value of “capitalism with a human face” could defeat American neoliberalism, which gives equal opportunity to both the wolves and the sheep. However, the world has changed, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Pursuing a different lifestyle in the already globalized world is not much different from calling a bronze sword inhumane and opting for a stone axe.
Now the French have acknowledged the reality. They cannot argue, even when Time magazine ran the insulting cover, “The Death of French Culture.” They now know that they missed the chance to change. Instead of criticizing the gamelan performed by foreign musicians, it is time to contemplate how to defend, modify and improve it. Koreans should realize that the agony of France is our own affliction.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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