Richard Reeves

The More Things Change ... The More They Change

PARIS -- "Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the world," an American said rather casually during a United Nations conference on education here last week. Of course. LA is a city of Hispanics and Asians, with significant white and black minorities.

"I think London is more diverse," said Godfrey Hodgson, the British author now running a journalism program at Oxford University.

It is hard to argue that, too. That same week, London's Metropolitan Police, which already allows Sikhs to wear turbans on duty, announced that women officers would now be allowed to wear hijabs, traditional Muslim head scarves, as they patrolled the city. Still under consideration are dreadlocks, so that Rastafarians could become officers. All that is part of a program to increase the number of Asians and blacks in the police force from the present 4 percent to 25 percent in the next eight years.

In London, the subject was Bobbies -- and racism. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in June, Labor Foreign Minister Robin Cook, attacking what he called traditional Conservative Party prejudice, said it was time to see Great Britain as a "chicken tikka" society, referring to a popular Indian dish served in many restaurants. "Forget myths about our island race," said Cook. "Most people living in Britain today are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants."

In Paris the subject was "Bobos." Elle magazine speculated that "bourgeois bohemians" would decide the next French election -- that is, they said, affluent baby boomers who live right but vote left.

The first word may be French but the phrase is American, coined by David Brooks last year in his book "Bobos in Paradise." The Weekly Standard writer offered a breezy definition of a new American establishment of boomers more concerned with buying power and their own culture than with politics and such. "Dumb, good-looking people with great parents," wrote Brooks, "have been replaced by smart, ambitious, educated and anti-establishment people with scuffed shoes."

Duly crediting Brooks' pop psychologizing, the French magazine argued that homegrown Bobos were taking over from the country's traditional BCBGs, that is "Bon Chic, Bon Genre," describing the well-born and -bred of Paris, something like the sleek folk once produced by Manhattan's Upper East Side.

So the more things change, the more Europe becomes like America. Not exactly!

Talking with Europeans for a week or so, I found myself in the middle of debates about the morality of capitalism. Or, rather, the morality of American capitalism. "Extreme capitalism," as many call it in these parts.

In both political and business settings, British and French leaders focused on the salaries and bonuses being collected by American (and some British) corporate executives. "That gives away the greed game -- and it is a threat to capitalism itself around here," said a British corporate consultant who works in both Paris and London.

The story that has focused attention on such things is appropriately multinational, involving the French operations of a British corporation run by a Belgian. The corporation is Marks & Spencer, the worldwide department store group, which has announced the layoffs of 4,000 employees, almost half of them in France, at the same time its chairman, Luc Vandevelde, was taking a $1.2 million bonus in addition to his $1 million-a-year salary, $3 million in stock and $15 million in stock options.

"That is simply immoral," said a French attorney who works in both France and the United States.

Americans seem less disturbed by such things. We may not always like it, but our definition of things like "shareholder value" is somewhat different from that of Europeans, who prefer the words "corporate stakeholder." The term is meant to include not only "owners" but also employees, suppliers, customers and the nation itself.

Another French dispute, this one playing out in street demonstrations, is the decision by Danone, the food giant, to lay off workers during a time of great profits.

"We think this is wrong," said a writer in Paris. "For a time it seemed settled that America and Europe agreed on the fundamentals, the rights of people and the role of governments. Now we are beginning to wonder whether the United States and Europe really do agree on the basic principles of Western civilization. You have not heard the end of this, my friend."

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