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France Today

It may be a cliché to say the French fret over their place in the world, but they do. Faced with the ever-dominant Anglo-American axis and hobbled by the global economic crisis, the French are rallying to protect their institutions, their language, and, above all, la vie française—their treasured lifestyle. Still, polls show the French are optimistic about the future—and there's plenty of good news.

Tourism is thriving, with France maintaining its rank as the world's top tourist destination, with more than 80 million visitors each year. The French remain leaders in science and technology. France is the world's leading producer of luxury goods, and fashion remains the nation's birthright. Dining in Paris has never been better, with the city experiencing a vibrant emergence of smaller, lower-priced bistros concentrating on quality and terroir, the local bounty that France is famous for.

Turning in Their Stars

Several of France's acclaimed chefs, including Alain Senderens and Olivier Roellinger, have handed in their Michelin stars and bowed out of the fast track in favor of smaller, less formal settings. The global crisis and changing lifestyles have deeply influenced a new generation of chefs seeking a more modern approach to cooking, yet still eager to strut their stuff for an educated, ever-appreciative audience. All of these trends have culminated in a movement that's taken France by storm—bistronomie.

Well underway since the late 1990s, the bistronomie movement is now in full swing, with exciting new restaurants opening in Paris every month. A hybrid of "bistrot" and "gastronomy," bistronomie broadly defines a new breed of bistro, run by ambitious young chefs who combine rigorous haute cuisine training with a more laid-back, individual, and creative approach. As the irreverent foodie publications Omnivore and Le Fooding—viewed as little more than cheeky upstarts when they appeared a decade ago—have evolved into major forces behind the movement, people have taken notice.

Bistronomie dovetails with other popular movements—like the locavores, who advocate the use of fresh, local ingredients, and the trend toward natural and biodynamic wines, which are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and produced with less sulfites. An international roster of passionate young chefs has also invigorated the movement, with no single approach stealing the limelight.

Marriage Equality

After a national discussion that had lasted more than a decade, France passed a law allowing same-sex marriage in 2013. In a country where most people believe the government should stay out of personal relationships, the debate was particularly acrimonious. A group called La Manif Pour Tous staged massive, colorful demonstrations in Paris, Lyon, and other major cities.

François Hollande’s Socialist government easily won passage of the law, and changed many minds in the process. At the time the law passed, polls found that about 53% of French adults favored same-sex marriage. In 2014, less than a year later, that number had jumped to 61%.

But Hollande also burned a lot of bridges along the way. In 2014, after another round of protests, his government announced that it would not push ahead with legislation to help gay couples adopt or use surrogate mothers.

Madame–Mademoiselle

The French government made a long-overdue concession to French feminists, finally enforcing a law that excises the honorific Mademoiselle from official forms, and advising that all women now be referred to as Madame regardless of marital status. What took France so long?

A deep ambivalence on the part of both men and women regarding gender roles certainly plays a part. As does the kind of entrenched inequality that puts France at a surprising number 46 on the World Economic Forum's Global Pay Gap survey—well behind Britain, Germany, and even Kazakhstan—with men earning wages an average of 12% to 20% higher than women. Attitudes here are slow to change, and with so few female legislators, another area where France lags behind other nations, it seems that French women have their work cut out for them.

Pity the Rich

French millionaires can relax—for now. In December, France's Constitutional Council struck down incoming president Francois Hollande's proposed 75% tax on individuals earning more than €1 million just days before it was to take effect. Hollande may have clinched the presidential office with the election promise of pushing through this tax, and so far he's refused to back down, even though some people assert that it will cause wealthy people to leave the country. Already, two prominent Parisians, Gérard Depardieu, France's most famous actor, and Bernard Arnault, its richest citizen and chairman of the French LVMH luxury group, are preparing to jump ship. Depardieu, courted by none other than Russia's Vladimir Putin, put his 20,000-square-foot mansion in Paris's elegant 7th arrondissement up for sale, and Arnault has requested citizenship from neighboring Belgium. Even the ex-president has been implicated in the scandale. Nicholas Sarkozy set France abuzz when his plan to vacate Paris and start up a hedge fund with a group of wealthy investors in London was uncovered during a police raid on the scandal-ridden former president's property.

From a distance, an income tax this steep may seem like madness. But the French have long reconciled themselves to higher taxes in the interest of a fundamental French value, égalité, reaping the benefits in the form one the world's best health care systems, low-cost education, universal child care, and a plethora of social safety nets. With the global crisis, however, preserving the French quality of life is an ever more delicate balancing act. Whether President Hollande is up to the task remains to be seen, and this battle may be a decisive one.

Driving Smart

Paris has taken another big step toward mitigating the noise, pollution, and congestion caused by the city's automobile traffic. The dapper four-seat, fully electric Bluecar has finished its test run and is now available at 500 stations around the city.

Based on the successful Velib' bicycle exchange, which boasts more than 20,000 bicycles and is still growing, the Autolib' program allows cars to be taken from one of the semicircular metal-and-glass stations to any point in Paris, and 56 suburban destinations. After a nominal subscription rate, each ride is paid for in half-hour increments, costing €4–€8.

Updated: 2014-08-19

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