Carolyne Lee writes: A friend from London says she often hears her compatriots complaining (presumably after visiting France), “Why can’t France be more capitalist? You have to go to about five different shops to buy your headache tablets, your newspaper, your fish, your groceries, and your bread. It’s so inconvenient.”
The people who say this must be taking as their benchmark a place like Asda, or similar superstores where you can buy absolutely everything in the one shop — food, books and newspapers, pharmaceuticals, clothes, and even furniture and household goods. I did go into one of those places once when there was absolutely no alternative, and it’s not something I want to repeat.
Maybe such places do make a country more ‘capitalist’ which presumably means more profit-oriented. But profit for whom? For the owners or bosses on their obscenely high salaries, and probably also for those gamblers we call ‘shareholders’.
But the sort of capital I am more interested in is ‘social capital’, a concept well known to those such as sociologists and social workers who care more about the quality of the lives of individuals, rather than the quantities of material gain, or profits. Social capital refers to our daily interactions, our conversations, our recognition of each other, if not by name, certainly by face.
This starts to happen quite frequently, at least it seems to here in Paris, after only a couple of weeks of buying my daily necessities at the cheese shop, the coffee supplier, the boulangerie, and even in my local restaurant (the wonderful Le Square Trousseau from Paris je t’aime fame), all in my immediate neighbourhood.
Of course, these petits commercants also have to make a profit — their own livelihood depends upon it. But there is something very satisfying, that goes way beyond concepts of profit and loss, about buying my still-warm morning baguette from the people who have been up since before dawn to bake it. Or my coffee from the man who buys the raw beans wholesale and then roasts them in his shop in the rue d’Aligre, only grinding them when I have chosen the particular variety that I like.
The couple who run my favourite vegetable stall in the daily Marche d’Aligre know me as l’Australienne, and the wife likes to practise her English with me, while her husband corrects my French.
Even in my local Franprix supermarket (where I know several of the cashiers by sight, if not by name), a quick chat can start up in the (very frequent) queues. This evening, the woman in the queue behind me said (in French of course), “Oh your hair looks so nice and shiny!” I thanked her for the compliment and explained that I’d just coloured it, as one of my daughters-in-law had brought from England a couple of packets of the type I like, but of which I couldn’t remember the brand. We then moved on to discussing our children’s ages (almost the same!), whether we had grandchildren or not (she does, I don’t), until the queue finally moved, and we bid each other a bonne soirée.
Superstores probably exist on the outskirts of French cities like they do in many other countries, but for people who have a choice about whether or not to use them, I think we need to stop and reflect on what sort of society we want to be part of.
As anyone who reads Wikipedia could tell us, our word society comes from the Latin word societas and before that socius, meaning comrade, friend or ally, and signifying interaction among individuals who are friendly towards one another, who give each other mutual assistance.
There are many things I love about living in the 21st century, but uber-capitalism at the expense of social capital is not one of them.
Carolyne Lee is a writer, teacher, and researcher who tries to spend every spare moment in France. In her other life she lectures in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. This post first appeared on Carolyne’s French travel blog Escape to Paris.