AVALLON, FRANCE — The Gallic tribes could not have found a handsomer place to lose the Gallic wars to Caesar in 52 BC than at nearby Mont Auxois in the Burgundy countryside. Grain fields clad the rolling hills, each capped by a small forest.
Burgundy is a borderless expanse in north-central France, where rivers flowing to Marseille and the Mediterranean to the south, and Paris and the Atlantic to the West, get their start. It had been a trade route for millenia before Caesar, and a natural battlefield. Burgundy includes a rugged fastness called the Morvan, where Caesar himself encamped at Mont Beuvray. There he began writing his commentary on the six-year campaign against the Gauls soon after his defeat of their chieftan Vercingtorix.
Sites of defeat are not as noted as those of success. The great Romanesque church, the Magdalen of Vezelay, at the edge of the Morvan, gets more public attention today, as does chef Marc Meneau's restaurant, L'Esperance, within view of the hilltop church. At Vzelay in 1146, Saint Bernard preached the sermon that launched one of the great crusades.
Burgundy's adopted capital, Dijon, was built with money borrowed from Florence during the Renaissance. The region's name was imported too, from that of a meandering tribe of green-eyed Scandinavians who were finally settled in the 6th century in Geneva.
I was heading to Paris for an update on modern French economic affairs when I stopped in Avallon. It is not every day that one gets to see where a caesar ended one great campaign and a saint launched another.
"How is France changing?" I asked Claude Lorieux, a seasoned foreign editor at Le Figaro, the Paris daily.
"It is changing the way all of Western Europe is changing," he replied. "We are between two worlds, two ways of civilization. The 1970s and 1980s were a period of prosperity. Now there is unemployment. The 'safety net' is shrinking. Many provincial cities are losing their raison d'etre. Paris now has the best and worst, wealth and beggars. Big cities in the south of France are banning the homeless."
"Before the new age of modern technology is established there will be more suffering," he added, likening the social impact to that of the 1930s depression. French elite school graduates no longer get only the best of jobs. Once-secure professionals like chemists are unloaded from the work force.
The French have a term for the new social condition: precarite, or precariousness.
"We French had long admired the Germans for their discipline and industriousness," Lorieux continued. "That the Germans don't work all that hard comes as a surprise. We admire how the United States has rebounded."
European unemployment, at 11 percent, is double that of the US. From 1980 until 1992, service-sector jobs in Europe grew 20 percent, offsetting a 15 percent decline in jobs like farming, steel production, and mining. But since 1993, even service-sector jobs in the European Union have declined. The US, with a work force two-thirds that of Europe's, has added 20 million jobs since 1980, and continues to add them.
Government budget restraint in Europe, to qualify countries for economic union, is only part of the problem. Demonstrating workers have little idea of what they are protesting for.
The new caesars are based not in a Rome of military prowess, nor in a financial capital like Florence, but in the cybernetic centers of San Jose, Calif., and Seattle. No battle sites will mark the electronic reordering of the world. The conquest is ubiquitous, its cathedrals are but microchips and cassettes.
*Richard J. Cattani is the Monitor's editor at large.