Saturday, March 17, 2007

French National Assembly

Tuesday, we visited the French National Assembly, which is its parliamentary body. We'd planned to meet with a member who is a leading figure in the conservative caucus of the assembly, but election duties had called him away. So one of his staffers gave us a tour of the facility, which was very regal and impressive, as legislative buildings are wont to be,
especially French ones that go back hundreds of years.

Inside, they had these great gifts for political junkies: dinnerware to let the world know just what side of the political spectrum you (and your food) are on. Droit is right, gauche is left. They'd work just as well in the U.S., given our red/blue state divide after the last election.

Also inside, this cool bronze sculpture of a painter working by Louis Mitelberg entitled "Daumier creant Ratapoil." I just liked it for some reason.

...and this Versailles-esque dining room being set up for an official function. Get a load of the gilt, chandeliers, and ceiling frescoes. Why do I get the feeling that were this room in the states, it would cause a stir for being too ostentatious for elected officials?

Here's the chamber where the members meet to make decisions. GMF Fellow Michael from Austin, served as a spokesmodel for this shot after showing me how to adjust my flash for the lighting conditions in the room. Camera mechanics, energy policy, knowledge of obscure political facts and research, and cracking the rest of us up with his asides are just some of his many talents.

We also passed through the members' library, which is an almost perfect replica of what heaven looks like in my brain, except that in addition to floor to ceiling books, my version has dogs underfoot and hot chocolate on tap. Guilty confession: I've been drinking almost one hot chocolate a day on the trip(!). They've been exquisite in both Paris and Copenhagen. Good thing we're walking a lot.

Over in the mail room, which was where members of parliament used to come to read and respond (by hand) to constituent letters, they have these great chairs. They were built oversized so that members could read a wide open newspaper without disturbing or encroaching on each other's space. How's that for form following function? I love it! And I want one. Note to Jason.
PS - you'll notice the functional hair I'm sporting. That's what happens when your flat iron falls victim to the quirks of international voltage changes. To do list for the evening: find a store with hair appliances.

Copenhagen preview, Paris politics and educational inequities

I'm in Copenhagen, Denmark now and it's continued to be a whirlwind trip. I'm way behind in posting. Every day is so jam packed with meetings and activities, I can barely stay awake when we return to our rooms each night. Plus, Copenhagen is REALLY expensive and there's no free wireless in the hotel, but it's great awesome otherwise.
I'll be traveling with a smaller group of GMF fellows in each of the next few cities, until we rejoin everyone in Brussels at the end. For now, the Copenhagen crew left to right below is Michael the professor from Texas, BryAnn the Exec. Director of a non-profit for immigrant women in Atlanta, Chad, the think tank guy from DC, me, and Cal, the attorney from North Carolina.
We spend each day together being briefed in meetings, absorbing info, asking questions, cracking each other up as we debrief during walks and cab rides to each venue, deciding where to eat each night if there's no dinner meeting (a surprisingly easy process), and tallying up who owes who how many kroner, euros and dollars for shared taxi rides, meals and host gifts. I don't know if the GMF staff chose potential fellows for having great senses of humor and being easy going, but they certainly succeeded with this bunch.
Here's a shot of my cool Danish room...which overlooks a bay and the opera house across the water. Motel 6 it ain't. This place is great.

One adjustment we had to make upon arrival is that although Denmark is part of the European Union, it's not on the Euro. Their monetary unit is the Kroner and currently it's about $1 USD = 6 Kroner. So the 300 Kroner I took out of the ATM was only about $50. Note to self.
But back to Paris. Here's a speed round summary of some of the activities during our last couple days there, which were wonderful. On Monday, we gathered in the hotel lobby for the continental breakfast included with our room, which was great. Buttery, flaky, mini croissants, muesli, dried apricots, prunes and figs, fresh fruit, yogurt, juices, coffee and hot chocolate. For the remainder of the stay, breakfast became a great way to power up for the day and catch up with folks who'd gone to personal appointments or other activities the night before.

Our first stop that day was a meeting with a reporter from L'Express and a Research Director from the Center for International Studies who talked with us about the French perspective on the European Union. Their general take was that the French political class had slowly allowed their influence
and stature on the world stage to erode as the UK seized leadership in Europe.

As examples, they pointed to the lack of interest in the French socialist approach to global issues, and the increased interest by Europeans and young people in how to adapt to the Anglo-Saxon/UK way of operating a country, with high growth, free markets, and the like, rather than the French way. They also pointed to the brain drain from France to other EU
countries and the U.S. Apparently, recent research indicates there are about 400,000 French people living in London, a number that would make it the 7th largest city if it were in France.These sentiments would be echoed and validated later that day when we met with students at a public high school.

But first, we had a a fantastic lunch and primer on immigration and access to education in France. We learned that education is fully funded by the state and students begin school with a rigorous pre-school program from ages 2.5 to 6 years. The rest of school up through the equivalent of our
high school is similar to ours, except that at age 16 or so, French students' GPA and test scores are used to funnel them onto either a vocational or classical/professional track. Once on that track, it is nearly impossible to change. Essentially, they must decide at 16 what they will be doing for the rest of their life! We would hear the students' worry and angst about this later.

However, it appeared to that they are funneled into a path much sooner, because social class has a lot to do with what schools kids go to, how good the schools are, and thus how well prepared they are for the testing to come later. The school principal there also told us kids who do the classical
track must also do two 8 week internships in their last two years of school, but because of France's class system, it's often hard for students whose parents don't have connections to find internships. Knowing this, they opt for the vocational track.

In fact, 60% of kids from poorer neighborhoods go the vocational track, likely because of these systemic roadblocks. But when asked about how this puts poor and immigrant kids at an automatic disadvantage, the response was that although some reforms were being considered, they told us, "It works pretty well and this is the way it's been set up." Basically the classic: this is how we've always done it, a phrase which irks me to no end, no matter the context, because it's a cop out for not trying to change things or look for ways to do them better. Yet we would repeatedly hear discontent with the status quo: very frustrating.

We take turns presenting gifts from our home state or city to our hosts. This is me presenting our speaker with a gift pack depicting beautiful pictures of the Pacific Northwest and a cool, hand carved bookmark from the Seattle Public Library.

That afternoon, we met with high school students to learn about their lives and interests. These students had been chosen to meet with us because they had very good English skills and were clearly tops among the student body. They were very smart, mature, and very knowledgable about some things in the U.S. But they also had some misconceptions, which was no
surprise since they said they'd perfected their near-flawless language skills by watching American TV and movies.
As students in their last year of school, they expressed concerns about having to choose their life's path in the next few months. Yet overall, they felt the French education system was much better than those in the U.S. because they saw it as a meritocracy, where smart kids could go to college for free, while it cost way too much to go to college in the U.S.
"Your parents shouldn't have to pay for an education," one girl said. While we agreed their system was better in that respect, and in its apparent rigorousness, we also pointed out that there are lots of ways to fund an education here and that our system provided the flexibility they craved to decide their life's path later, or change it altogether. "It's possible to succeed in our system without connections and without a degree at all," I pointed out. "A test at 16 or 18 does not set your life's course."

I also begged to differ with the meritocracy suggestion. Although public schools are free, just as in America (and even private schools are subsidized by the government) they are not all created equal. Getting into the good ones in Paris depends on where you live (also similar to the U.S.). But Paris is naturally segregated, with white and more affluent families in the center, and poorer and immigrant families typically farther out in the suburbs, where, not so coincidentally, the schools are not as strong.
So I pointed out, it was not just good grades and test scores that brought them together in that class, it was the social class of their parents, who presumably, could afford to live closer in. Smart kids who were not fortunate enough to born into the right family or neighborhood were out of luck. They didn't really respond and really, it was a rhetorical remark, because I could tell by looking around the room and the courtyard filled with students that it was a pretty homogenous place.

This topic obviously hits home for me because I feel fortunate to have had a teacher who looked beyond my skin color and saw my academic potential, and who recommended me to a school that nurtured, celebrated and developed that potential; A school that has made part of its mission finding today's talented kids, regardless of their background or family status and providing them the same opportunity to excel in a rigorous, academic program.

So it bothers me to hear French educators and students acting as if they operate in an egalitarian meritocracy when there are no doubt many, many kids out there who could be attending these more rigorous schools and using them as stepping stone to a better future, just as better connected students do, if not for their family name, religion, income level, and address.

But the discussion was not as much of a downer as that last paragraph might indicate. I shared the discussion with two other fellows, so we also
discussed the regional differences in education and other attitudes in the U.S. since I'm from Washington State, Jeff is from North Carolina, and Hussein is from Minnesota. It was an informative discussion all the way around and we enjoyed the students immensely. They were very forthcoming and amazed us with their near-flawless English, which they apologized for(!). Uh, it's WAY better than our French, we told them.

Some fellows headed off to personal appointments, but since I had none, I trekked back to the hotel by wandering through several neighborhoods and shopping districts in search of fountain pen and stationary stores before hoping the Metro for my temporary home. With all the walking to and from our meetings, I was beat! So I opted out of the small group dinner and settled for a simple teriyaki dinner from Tokyorama down the block before turning in. I love this city, but it wears you out!