Volume 4, Number 100
12 April 2004

Note: I continue with my autobiographical experience, on how I learned economics out in the real world. In 1948 I was introduced to one of the greatest (most distressing) rich-poor gaps in the Western world, in France. — Jack

Lille, 1948

Dear Friends,

"How would you like to lead a group of economics students to France?" Donald Watt asked me. He was the founder of the Experiment in International Living, a student exchange organization with which I have been associated since I went to France at age 15. "You could live in workers' homes, and find out how they really think." The idea appealed to me greatly.

He put out the notice, and soon we had ten students of economics.

When we arrived in Lille, however, neither the workers nor the Rotary Club (which had sponsored us) would think of such a thing. Worker families of four or five living in a single room did not have enough space. The Rotary Club thought it would not be "right" to submit guests to such miserable conditions. So, I was lodged in the home of Pierre Crépelle, a trim Frenchman of about fifty but looking about forty. He owned a factory producing diesel engines for the barges (péniches) one sees on the Seine. His lovely wife's duties were to pick the currants and the raspberries, feed the goats and the pigeons, plan the menus, and supervise the servants who cleaned the house and prepared the meals. She knew that her husband produced engines for boats, but nothing else about his business.

Upon my arrival, Madame prepared tea for me. "I'm so bored here, alone," she said, "waiting for the others to come." Their younger son, Pierre, was in the Transvaal with relatives, and Jacques, 21, was about to come home from the French army in Germany.

Jacques was small, very pleasant, quite good looking with an oversized nose and face thumb-tacked with freckles. He rarely spoke at the table, instead listening to his father's longwinded "conversations," consisting mainly of complaints against the French government. Politically, religiously, and socially, Jacques and his father were the same person.

Still, I planned to work in the Crépelle factory. So, the first morning I dressed in my blue jeans and work shirt. "How long will it take you to get ready to go to the factory?" asked M. Crépelle when he appeared, immaculate in his coat and tie. "Tout de suite," I replied, and changed into my business suit immediately.

On the way to the factory, and in countless dinners thereafter, M. Crépelle complained about the French government. "There is too much direction of the economy," he said. "Dirigisme" was the word I heard most often. "The best machines come from America, but they go to the nationalized industries, which put them to bad use. A man must be close to his own plant to know what the customer wants." At the time, I had little sympathy with M. Crépelle, but today (2004), having experienced governments in many countries, I understand exactly what he was saying.

M. Créprelle walked me around the whole factory, while the workers, dressed in their bleues and berets, gawked at us all the way. "It will be hard for me to get acquainted with them," I thought, "after they had seen the boss showing me around like this." Finally, he took me to an empty office, with vacant walls, no pictures or decorations, only a large desk in the middle. "This will be your office," he said. "I understand that your main purpose is to make contact with the French worker and to understand how he lives, so I leave you with a certain independence." He shook hands and walked out the door.

After a moment of thought, I took off my coat and tie and repeated the circuit of the factory, this time without the boss, and tried to strike up conversations with the workers, which was not easy to do. I read the bulletin boards, one of which belonged to the CGT (Confédération Générale de Travail), the Communist union. It carried an announcement about the status of a wage dispute, and at the bottom I found the signature, "Courmont." I asked the first worker I met where I could find Monsieur Courmont.

Monsieur Courmont was happy to talk to me. "The French worker," he explained, "has nothing against the American worker. It's the politicians and their plans that we object to. The Marshall Plan is a scheme for putting the French government under the control of the Americans. Over a year ago the Americans told Prime Minister Ramadier to dismiss the communists from his cabinet, and he obediently did so. Last year the Americans told us to devalue the franc, and we did. Everywhere in France we see the American influence: Ford Motor Cars, Esso gasoline, and now you. You are about to work for an American firm in Paris." He was not at all angry with me, however, even pleasant and friendly.

I tried to get the subject off of me. I told him I would like to see where workers lived. "Bon," he said, and invited me to supper two days later at his home.

That night at the dinner table, M. Crépelle wanted to know what I had done during the day. Among other things, I said I had been invited to the Courmont home for dinner. I still remember the astonished reaction: "Monsieur Courmont ... vous a invité à diner? ... et vous avez accepté?" "Oui, Monsieur," I replied meekly. I felt the dilemma of violating his hospitality, but I would not let him take away my freedom.

The Courmonts lived in a small, modest home with their two children. They were all very polite as they explained calmly how my country was ruining theirs. I acted as if this were first-time knowledge for me. I was learning from them.

"But you are a union leader," I pointed out. "Where do the rank and file live?" He pulled out a map of Lille and pointed to some streets.

When I visited those streets the next day (I had no duties at the factory), I was appalled. About ten families lived in an alley, each family in one room, with one faucet and one toilet for all of them. A gutter ran through the center of the alley, carrying the sewage of all ten families into the gutter in the street. What a stench! Alley after alley was the same. On nearby walls were exhortations, "Votez Communiste!!" with paintings of angry workers wielding sickles and hammers.

A middle class included Francisque Carpentier, an engineer at the Crépelle factory. He was just out of engineering school and was about my age (28), so I felt comfortable with him. He also invited me to supper but did not tell his wife. She scrambled to put together hors d'oevres of cold meats and stuffed eggs, followed by a main course of meats and vegetables, cheese and butter, and wine. The Carpentiers thought all Americans lived in big houses and had cars, so they were surprised to hear of my one-bedroom apartment in New York (where I slept on the sofa, and my mother in the bedroom), and no car. "Tell me," he said, "is the bread in America white?" The French were still eating corn ("mais") bread, since they did not have enough wheat after the war.

The lives of my economics group were luxurious. When we compared among ourselves, one said: "I had my shoes shined this morning." Another: "Why were we told to bring only one suit and three shirts (standard Experiment clothing) for a life like this?" "My family wanted to know if I had brought my tuxedo." "I've never eaten this well in my life." "We should have a Marshall Plan in reverse, to send patisserie and champagne to America."

The Crépelles took me to a wedding in Tourcoing, a linen-making suburb of Lille right on the Belgian border. The tables had linen tablecloths and the service was of pure silver. The food, delicious and expensive, was catered. The guests were obviously of the richest sort, having made their fortunes in linen. One of them was Mimi DeWinvrin, a lovely young French girl from one of the "best" families, with whom I became immediately smitten. With M. Crépelle's permission, I invited her to dinner at the Crépelle home. Afterward we played Monopoly in French. I remember that M. Crépelle's piece landed on territory owned by Mimi. "Vous êtes chez moi," she announced with glee. "Mais quel plaisir," Monsieur responded gallantly.

I never saw Mimi after that. BUT later that summer, at a youth-hostel-type tent camp (le Camp Volant, because the campers — not the camp — were "Volant") in the heart of Paris, I met Robin Roberts, who was on an AFSC mission "to save the world," she said. It took her five years to save it. Once that was done, we were married in Moorestown, N.J. in 1953.

The family of one of the American girls was explaining that French bread had "mais" in it. She refused to eat anything touched by “mice.” The same girl, eating her full in her French family, felt embarrassed to consume so much, so she said, 'Je n'aime pas être grosse, mais j'adore le moyen de le devenir." As soon as she realized what she had said, she murmured, "Je suis embarrassée." If you don't understand French, forget this whole paragraph.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

There were no comments on TQE #100, other than personal notes of some readers who had been in France about the same time I was. Why not? My guess is that this TQE was not controversial enough. I hope the present one is more so, and I welcome your comments. (Be sure to write TQE as the subject.)


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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