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Where's the Money?

Paris:- Saturday, 1. June 1996:- The big news of the week - besides three days of good sunshine - has been President Chirac's long-awaited announcement of the end of conscription in France. This has filled up a fair bit of TV time and many pages of the newspapers, which could have conceivably been reduced to the size of this paragraph. The wars of 1870, 1914 and 1939 are over and military and diplomatic intelligence says that they are unlikely to return - so the French armed forces have little need for massive amounts of raw manpower.

As far as I know, the armed forces have a generally good reputation and are regularly applauded on their official appearances, such as the traditional marches down the Champs-Elysées on the traditional occasions. From young citizen-soldiers, the complaint I have heard most often, is that the obligatory military service is boring.

The budget directors have been looking at the situation and have decided that downsizing is sensible. The new realities of Europe suggest that France needs only enough force to move in concert with its allies; and it is better to do this with a professional force.

When I mentioned the 'tempest in a espresso cup' a couple of weeks ago, about the alleged spying by United States' U2s based in France, an air force spokesman I talked to laughed the whole thing off and pointed out that the coordination and co-operation between NATO and European Union forces, was much cozier than generally perceived. Feeding a ragged hungry bunch of 18-year-olds for 15 months or so, does not really fit into the reduced military budgets of today.

Public TV's 'Contrats Mirobolants'

As the unending and general recession ploughs along year after year despite government appeals to consumers to spend their way back to prosperity - it is slowly dawning on everybody that restructuring and downsizing are not reserved for businesses or the military. The French are used to saving money, and if they have doubt about the future of their incomes, their spending stops.

What is new now is public indignation about what appears to be official waste of money - taxpayer's money. It has come to light that popular circuses in the form of public-TV variety shows, have been financed with very lucrative 'sweetheart' deals.

Popular show heads have there own production companies and it appears that the bean-counters, it not being 'their' money, were exceedingly generous. After paying 700 francs a year for a color-TV license, it is not funny to find out you are helping to pay some personable guy 400 million francs ('contrats mirobolants') a year to stage some Saturday night froth; especially when you might be spending Saturday evenings watching low-budget historical documentaries instead. The result has been the late-week resignation of the head of the popular state-owned national TV channels, Antenne 2 and France 3.

So what, you say? It wasn't one show presenter, it was at least six of them. The irony is, that this largess produced winning ratings and big revenues from advertising for state television. But the numbers! Ordinary TV viewers here cannot relate to the idea that anybody - not even a popular TV personality - regardless what sort of gross revenues they are generating, can take home a net profit of about 20 million francs a year. In the US entertainment market, this would be small change.

Recyclable Roadways

The other week, on my way to the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysées, I stopped for a moment to watch some burley stone-masons reconstructing the roadway with paving stones. These stones are about 10 or 15-centimetre cubes, and they are placed by hand, one-by-one, nudged into position by tapping one with another, and if necessary, they are cut on the spot to fit. The Champs-Elysées is 1,910 metres long and 70 metres wide, so it is a fair bit of work to do the whole thing.

At the time I took a photo, shook my head and went on to other things. By chance, on Thursday, after leaving the new Marché St. Germain, I was stopped cold by a magnificent stove in a shop window - it was big, black, iron; with chrome trim around its two ovens, and it was solid steel on top. An older couple came along and gazed at this wonder with matching amazement and we fell into conversation, which continued from there to the place in front of the St. Suplice church.

They were Parisians, so I asked them whether they preferred the stone paving there to the plain dirt that I had admired about 20 tears ago. This is real life mind you, so Monsieur tells me he did the paving at the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe - I forget which - but as a professional, he prefers the stone. He explained that most of the stone cutter-layers still come from the Bretagne, that he was from there and before retirement sometimes had three or four crews working around Paris, full-time. Stone is fairly cheap, it is easy to clean, you can use different colors, it can be laid in patterns, and although it is all placed by skilled hand, the actual labor cost of it is not high.

If you have any city manager friends, you might pass on this thought: there are other advantages of stone for city paving. You do not need loud machines to install, remove, repair or replace it. If you have to get at vital underground services such as gas, electro or telephone lines, you do not have to cut roadwork to pieces to get at it and you do not need an ugly mis-matched patch when you are finished.

However, if you have revolutions in the streets, stone cubes also make sturdy barricades - just in case you were wondering why you do not see much stone paving in the Quartier Latin.

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