Friday, November 19, 2010

France & the Guilds

Though Americans traditionally bash France (once the heart of the Church) for much worth bashing lately, there is one tradition that stands — reminding us of why we did admire them so, once — and it is reported in this article from American Spectator.

An excerpt.

“One of the more heroic feats of nearly 75 years of French socialism is to have made "work" a particularly nasty four-letter word, something to be avoided like very sin.

“For decades, assorted handouts have multiplied and overlapped, along with ever more generous, extended-and flagrantly abused-unemployment compensation. Labor legislation required employers to grant longer, and still longer, paid vacations, now up to five weeks and counting. Doctrinaire leftism topped off its campaign against the country's once-proud work ethic with a signal victory in the 1980s, when President François Mitterrand pushed through laws lowering the retirement age from 65 to 60 and limiting the legal work week to 35 hours. With these sops to radical socialist mullahs, many highly qualified senior professionals were sidelined, to the detriment of the French economy, and every other week became a three-day weekend….

“And yet, defying the corrupting zeitgeist, there exists still a small, tight-knit band of brothers who find personal satisfaction in a job well done. These few good men who take pride in careful workmanship are a happy anomaly not only in France, but in our "quick 'n' easy" Western societies in general.

“They are les Compagnons, heirs of the rigorous stonemasons, carpenters, and other craftsmen who festooned ancient France with cathedrals and châteaux. Along with the redoubtable French Academy, the Compagnons, numbering around 10,000, are one of the country's rare institutions to have survived revolutions, religious persecution, and, perhaps most remarkable, modern time-and-motion studies. Steeped in the ritual and methods of medieval craft guilds, these lovers of la belle ouvrage make a cult of manual work. To hear them tell it, they rub their hands with relish at the prospect of another hard nut to crack. "For us it's never a chore to go to work," Serge Mory, a young compagnon carpenter in Paris, told me. "The tougher and more complex the problem on the job, the more we look forward to solving it."

“When 19th-century industrialization dehumanized work and devalued traditional craft trades, the Compagnons were momentarily caught in a time warp. Since then they have adjusted. Compagnon boilermakers now shape sheet metal, coachbuilders do automobile bodywork, saddle makers painstakingly stitch fine upholstery. Compagnons leaven most of France's big projects, from restoring Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre, to boring the Channel tunnel and making rocket engines for the Ariane satellite launcher.

“Today the three Compagnon groups that comprise France's craft guilds train apprentices in nearly a hundred trades. What they all have in common is an idea: manual work is a noble calling as worthy as tapping on a computer keyboard in an office. The notion is hardly new, of course. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras held that "man thinks because he has a hand."

“But besides the satisfaction of making things well, there is an ethical dimension. "Being a Compagnon is about brotherhood and sharing," Laurent Bastard, curator of France's Guild Museum beside the Loire River in Tours, told me. "If the Compagnons thrive today, it's not only because they teach a trade better than anyone else, but because they inculcate a moral reference point that's lacking among most young people."