Friday, October 17, 2008

Au Revoir La Bohème: Recession and the Plight of the Parisian ‘Bobo’

At first, the politicians were afraid to say it out loud, but now it’s official: the effect of the economic crisis in the United States has hit France. The country’s PIB (produit intérieur brut, or gross domestic product) has decreased for the second quarter in a row, the stock market plunged over nine percent on October 6th – the most drastic decline in one day in the CAC-40’s entire history – and French consumers, already living under the strain of a weak national economy, are cinching the proverbial belt even tighter. No matter how you pronounce it, recession (or récession) means la merde all around.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy – who must not only continue to fulfill his duties at home, but is president of Europe for the next few months as well – has been spending a significant amount of time with his E.U. counterparts to try and stop the damage from spreading while attempting to maintain the confidence of his countrymen. No matter what one may think of Sarko, it’s safe to say that his is not an enviable job: accustomed to living with negligible buying power, the French have long been skeptical of what their leaders will (or won’t) do to improve their lot. The recession may provide a new topic of conversation at the corner tabac, but the underlying theme of the discussion remains the same: it’s getting tougher to put food on the table, and it’s a good thing that we live in wine country, because with the current state of affairs, we could all use a drink.

While Paris is somewhat separate from the rest of the nation – as the Big Apple is to the States, the City of Light is to France – it’s uncertain as to how long its residents will continue existing in their little bubble. A recent survey of French real estate found that while prices are leveling off in the rest of the country, the cost of property in Paris remains high, and will unlikely reach a plateau any time soon. This was before the stock market’s historic crash, of course, and although the rich and comfortable suffer less in tough times, those who were doing most of the buying may be less inclined to sign on the dotted line. If, that is, they can even find a bank that is willing to furnish them with a mortgage in the first place.

The question is: what does this mean for the city’s post-millennial yuppie, the Parisian bobo?

A more politically correct version of the eighties yuppie, the standard bobo – or bourgeois bohème, in English, bourgeois bohemian – is the embodiment of what the long version of the term suggests: he or she is financially sound or even somewhat rich, but remains critical of society’s conventional rules. While the suits that pepper the stock exchange spend the daily commute scanning the right-leaning Figaro, a self-respecting bobo is more likely to rely on the reporting of Libération or the highly sarcastic (and widely acclaimed) Canard Enchainé. The businesspeople that populate the Champs-Elysées drive to work in Mercedes and BMWs; bobos favor scooters and Smart Cars. A faithful participant in café life, the standard bobo – clad in the de rigueur uniform of designer jeans, three quarter-length coat and artfully mussed hair – accompanies his daily dose of news with a morning espresso, shaking his head at how the government is once again bailing out the rich while taxing the poor. After work, the suit-and-tie set will wind down over champagne at Le Fumoir across from the Louvre while the bobos flock to Chez Prune along the Canal Saint-Martin. Professionally, bobos are largely entrenched in the media and the arts. When selecting a destination for a holiday, they demonstrate a strong attraction to Thailand.

There’s no denying that Parisian merchants are reliant on the city’s bobos, and that even while bobos wrinkle their noses at mass consumerism, it’s they who are doing much of the consuming. But with rising prices and an economy that has slammed on the brakes, it’s likely that bobos, too, will think twice before opening their wallets. Not to mention that the anti-consumerist sentiment that already exists among Parisian thirty-somethings is, under these circumstances, growing more prevalent.

“I am not a bobo,” sniffed a Parisian who, because of his fashion taste, could be mistaken for one. “I’m a proletariat.”

Which makes one wonder: could the pro-bo become the new bobo?