Back when I was living in Paris, trying to write a novel, I supported myself by teaching English to young French professionals. Working late one evening, I decided to share some pastries I had bought with my fellow teachers and staff members at the language school. When I offered some to the janitorial staff, then cleaning the classrooms, they looked at me as if I had come from Mars. My offer was unexpected. They didn’t know how to respond. They turned away and continued cleaning.
One of my fellow teachers, an American woman who had lived in France far longer than I had, explained that French professionals and intellectuals treat workers with disdain, seeing the class difference as a barrier to interaction. The attitudes of the French aristocrats which precipitated the Revolution of 1789 persist today among the educated élite.
I contrasted this Gallic class consciousness with something I observed one summer in high school when my father gave me a job working at one of the apartment complexes he owned. I swept parking lots, trimmed bushes, transported building supplies and hauled trash. My c0-workers, none of whom had gone to college, treated me as an equal, once even chastised me for slacking off. One of them who later distinguished himself by grasping the ins and outs of building management later would rise to manage first that complex, then another before taking a job in my father’s front office.
In the middle of that summer, when we needed to strengthen the upper floor of a parking garage, my father helped out on the day we hauled and poured the concrete, a somewhat daunting task because the engineers didn’t think the ramp could support the weight of the cement mixer. During the day, not only did he push wheelbarrows full of cement, but he also joked with his employees and asked them about their families. Some called him by his first name. One who did so, a World War II veteran who had fought on D-Day, knew all of his kids by our first names, always asking us about our lives and shared our stories whenever we toured a construction site with our father.
These stories came to mind when I read this post yesterday on Instapundit about why Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the recently resigned managing director of the International Monetary Fund, thought he could have his way with a hotel maid:
”If I try transposing the situation in New York on Sunday to France, I just can’t do it. . . . Not only because the woman is black and apparently an immigrant. But also because she’s a housekeeper. Perhaps even more than her race, her station in society would probably prevent authorities [in France] from taking her accusations against a rich and powerful man seriously.”
In France, class is a defining aspect of who you are, but in America, we tend to see beyond such superficial distinctions.