Letter From Paris

Boon Companions

The anti-socialist resistance -- or finding personal satisfaction in a job well done.

By From the November 2010 issue

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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.

French young people now quickly learn that work is a necessary evil at best; real life can be lived only on vacation. Per ardua ad astra, the quaint notion of aiming at the stars by taking on a tough task? Fuggedaboutit. Polls show that no more than 15 percent have any interest in their jobs.

One national best-seller, Bonjour Paresse ("Hello Laziness"), gives tips on how to become a world-class slacker by doing the least possible on the job. A French civil servant was recently ostracized and threatened with a two-year layoff without pay for publishing a book ironically titled Absolument dé-bor-dée! ("Completely Overwhelmed with Work!"). It describes yawning bureaucrats getting through the day by browsing the Internet, sharing vacation photos, and planning their next street demonstration against working conditions.

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."

That plus the Compagnon tradition of one-on-one oral transmission of trade secrets from master to apprentice means no trouble finding a job. Employers snap up all they can get. One study shows that 45 percent own their own businesses, while others are variously shop foremen, technicians, architects, or engineers. Such a job training program in the U.S. could go far toward producing a better match of needed skills and reducing today's structural unemployment.

A would-be Compagnon can apply at an age as young as 15. If judged to have the right stuff, he is placed with a cooperative local firm where he learns the rudiments of his trade while earning about half the minimum wage. After two years, he sets out on the sine qua non of the Compagnon experience: a six-to-eight-year Tour de France, spending six months with a local chapter in each town he visits.

There a resident Compagnon takes the new boy under his wing and supervises his learning new techniques, new tools, new materials, depending on regional traditions and methods. After work the apprentice grabs a quick dinner, then heads for night courses in his trade. For most, those years on the road are an invaluable, unforgettable experience. As Patrick Kalita, a Compagnon stonemason, told me, "Where else but with the Compagnons could I have traveled like that, got that much experience, met that many good people, and learned how the world works?"

Male bonding based on shared skills and living together in a succession of guild houses is an essential part of the experience-from which women are excluded. If there were females in the group, as one sobersided Compagnon put it to me with a straight face, "Free time traditionally devoted to research and personal work would be used differently." Or as the provost of a guild house in Tours explained brightly, taking the long view, "Women have really only been in the work force for about 60 years, haven't they? We go back a thousand years. There's still time."

WHEN I LOOKED IN ON a chapter house in Paris where Compagnon bakers were celebrating a special occasion, traditional guild songs resounded off the coffered wooden refectory ceiling. Golden loaves of bread decorated with wheaty garlands stood on tables, including one four feet high in the hexagonal shape of France. All in jacket and tie, not a glazed eye, slack jaw, or long lock of hair among them, these young Compagnons were the most squared-away bunch you could find this side of Marine boot camp.

Increasingly, France's guilds are opening to the outside world. They are even considering a chapter in the United States. "The problem is," says one guild official regretfully, "many Americans tend to see manual work as just a dull job to make a living."

Individual French Compagnons have occasionally crossed the Atlantic to help America save its national heritage. At the request of the Historic Charleston Foundation, a handful of them flew to South Carolina some years ago to help repair hurricane damage, putting new roofs on stately homes and restoring antique furniture. Then there were the 10 metalworkers who set up shop at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Their job was nothing less than restoring the statue's high-raised torch, so corroded by Liberty Island damp that it was in danger of falling off. This was the kind of knotty challenge Compagnons love. To start with, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's original design drawings for the flame were long lost, so how could they faithfully reconstruct such an irregular figure in three dimensions?

Calling on age-old traditional techniques, they used a device called a measuring frame to plot the flame in all dimensions, then fabricated steel molds over the resulting maquette. After hammering copper sheets into the flame's shape with wooden mallets, they delicately added the final touch: 5,000 individual squares of paper-thin gold leaf that gleam above New York harbor. As one impressed New York architectural firm wrote them, "You have set a precedent for specialized metalwork not seen in this country for many years...a standard which other metal craftsmen should follow."

After finishing the job on Liberty Island, several of the Compagnons decided there was enough demand for their skill to stay on in America. In their Patterson, New Jersey atelier, their LMC Corporation produces one-of-a-kind architectural metalwork for everything from beautifully designed wrought-iron stair railings to monumental entrance gates for suburban mansions.

American craftsmen, who have their own proud tradition, can take heart from the Compagnons' toehold in the U.S. There is still a market for the best, who understand that working with their hands, more than just a dull job, is a way to self-fulfillment. Even without shunning girls or going back a thousand years. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.