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Category: cultural commentary

France’s national car museum

Musée national de l’automobile

In my book, French License, I detailed in the chapter on Car Culture how little France cared about the automobile. I contrasted French attitudes toward motorised vehicles with those of their neighbours and the USA, where I come from. The differences are stark and plentiful.

So, on a trip to Alsace this week, I was stunned to learn that France claimed the world’s largest, most prestigious and valuable car museum, the ‘Musée national de l’automobile’ in Mulhouse. I just had to see it. Perhaps I had sold the French short, and this place would be the exception to the rule.

First of all, where’s Mulhouse? It’s so far East, it’s almost in another country. You could throw a rock one way and hit Switzerland. You could throw a rock another way and reach Germany. Their international airport serves the three countries. When you land at EuroAirport, you can literally walk to exit in Mulhouse, France or Freiburg, Germany or Basel, Switzerland.

In fact, Mulhouse was a part of Germany from 1871 to 1919, and a couple times before that. During this period, in the 1890s, the automobile was born. Many French manufacturers participated in creating the industry. The Peugeot factory in Mulhouse is still running.

Pulling into the parking lot of the museum, we saw license plates from Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and a few from France. Mind you, this is just after deconfinement from Covid-19, and the French plates were still a minority.

The brothers Fritz and Hans Schlumpf were brought up in this heyday of personal motor vehicle invention, and they never lost their passion for it. Swiss nationals, born in Italy, they moved to Mulhouse, Germany in 1908. They took over their father’s textile business in Mulhouse in the 1930s and became very rich. Neither ever married nor had any children, so they could consecrate their vast fortune on buying rare automobiles. They focused exclusively on European brands, especially those from the very early days of creation. Their greatest affinity was for the maker of the most luxurious and powerful vehicles in-between the two wars: Bugatti.

Ettore Bugatti was an Italian immigrant who worked for several car manufacturers before establishing his own factory in Molsheim, Germany, in 1909, now in the Alsace region of France. He obsessed over every detail, seeking perfection in both engineering design and style. While Rolls only ever aspired to luxury and Ferrari only to speed, Bugatti wanted it all for his models: class, power, beauty, sophistication and innovations galore. Bugatti vehicles were winners of races at the highest levels in the ‘teens 20s and 30s. Bugatti customers were royalty and heads-of-state across the world. Even when the depression, and war hit, he refused to make concessions, continuing to build the most exclusive cars in the world.

During WWII, his factory was requisitioned by the occupying Nazis. Ettore got back his factory, but never recovered, and died three years after the war. His brand and company changed hands several times since, today owned by Volkswagen. You can visit Ettore Bugatti on my first Chairfather tour of Père Lachaise: 

A buddy of mine from the area got to ride in several of the Schlumpf cars as a youth, including two Bugatti’s which were the most luxurious, and the fastest of their age. His parents were friends of the Schlumpfs, and Fritz would pop by and offer a trip to Seppala. The boy only found out years later just how lucky he was.

At the end of the museum tour, you’re invited to cruise in a classic car on a closed circuit. There are several Italian, German and French makes to choose from. Count minimum €40 for 7 trips around the track.  

So, to summarise, what I wrote in the Car Culture chapter about French disdain for cars still stands. The ‘Cité de l’automobile…’ 

  • is located in a border town that’s almost in Germany
  • represents the personal collection of two brothers from Switzerland
  • contains a large majority of cars from an Italian builder, whose brand is now owned by VW
  • attracts most of its visitors from outside France

I rest my case about the French attitude toward cars.

But the museum has a very, very good case to be made as the biggest and the best. More than 400 classic cars are on display, and more than 150 others are in storage, allowing the curators to rotate in some others from time to time. Nobody else has so many which can be seen at once. But what about prestige? Here’s just one example. The most priceless vehicle on the globe is the Bugatti Royale type 41 released in the late 1920s. Just one of these cars is worth at least €40M and probably closer to €100M. Nobody really knows because they hardly ever change hands through purchase. No matter which Rolls Royce or Ferrari you pick, you’d need to trade several Silver Ghosts or 250 GTO Berlinettas to get just one Bugatti Royale. They only ever made six of the Bugatti Royale. This museum has three. Oh, and 120 other Bugattis. And 14 Rolls, including Silver Ghosts. And 13 Ferraris including GTOs.

It’s well worth a visit. I came expecting to spend an hour, and ended up lingering for four hours… on an empty stomach during lunchtime. That’s how captivating I found the exhibits. I’m certain you will, too.

To plan your visit, here’s some practical information:

Cité de l’automobile

192 ave de Colmar, Mulhouse


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Saint Joseph’s day

The Catholics really know marketing.  Before loyalty cards, they invented the concept of the ‘Saint day.’  Every saint has one, and most of them match common first names.  So, unless you have an offbeat name like Moon Unit, or Dweezil, that means, if you’re catholic, you have a Saint day, too!  You’re celebrated on your birthday and your Saint Day!  Do you get TWO birthdays as a buddhist?  I don’t think so!

Today is Saint Joseph.  While not a catholic, I do live in France, which upholds the tradition.  So, I’m allowed to usurp the day (and the accolades).  No, you don’t need to get me a present, but downloads, likes and reviews for my tours and books are welcome!

I like my name.  It’s versatile, with lots of spellings and diminutives like Joe, Joey, Jo-Jo, but never just ‘Jo.’  The French always want to turn me into a girl with that spelling, which I only accept on Saturday nights 😉  When they do include the ‘e,’ they say ‘Joé’ which is pronounced like ‘Joey.’  While kinda screwy in French, my name sounds good in English, and is pretty universal around the world: José, Josef, Giusseppe, Yusuf and Yossef.

Although Joseph did have the most irrelevant role in the Bible, he definitely deserves Sainthood in my book.  While many of us consider the ‘Good News’ as just that, imagine Joseph’s reaction to learning that his wife was pregnant…

“So, honey, Mary, let me get this straight. We haven’t laid together yet, and you’re already pregnant? You ask me to take it on faith that you haven’t been with anyone else? How does that even work? And this child which isn’t mine, you expect me to raise him, feed him, and teach him my trade? Uh, well, OK.”

As a last note, a kind of ‘drop the mic and walk off the stage’ moment, I challenge ANYBODY to come up with a better all-time baseball lineup, all with the same first name:

  • P- Joe McGinnity
  • C- Joe Mauer
  • 1B- Joe Adcock
  • 2B- Joe Morgan
  • 3B- Joe Sewell
  • SS- Joe Tinker (to Evers to Chance)
  • OF- Joe Dimaggio
  • OF- Joe Medwick
  • OF- Joe Jackson aka ‘Shoeless’

Manager- Joe Torre.  By the way, on the bench I got Joe Garagiola, Joe Carter, Joe Girardi, Joe Kelley, José Rijo and Jersey Joe Stripp!  Don’t mess with Joe!

Only one personality on MyVoiceMap audio tours of the Père Lachaise cemetery has the first name ‘Joseph,’ and that’s just one of his three first names.  No bother, THIS Joseph visits all of them, and so if you wanna hear the goofy things I have to say about Hugo or the other 50 personalities I had lunch with, check this out:

See funny pics and text from my picnics in The Chairfather book.

The passed have never been more alive!

Book a lunch date with the fallen famous NOW!

Or later…

Really, it doesn’t matter. Their agendas are quite open.

#Paris #tourism #travel #VoiceMap #audioguide #eBook #goofball

© 2018 Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved.


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traffic jammin’ with Joe

If you’ve poked your head out the rolled-down window, trying to see who’s at the front of a long line of unmoving cars, I’ll tell you.  It’s probably me.

The world traffic jam report is out, aka « Global Traffic Scorecard » from Inrix.  Los Angeles, where I was born, is #1.  Paris, where I now live, is #9.  In all, I’ve lived in 5 of the world’s Top 10 most congested cities.  Apologies everybody.

Today is the 38th anniversary of the longest traffic jam in history, according to Scienceoholic.  Bumper-to-bumper cars stretched for 175 km from Lyon to Paris on February 16, 1980.  No, I wasn’t there 😉

On the eve of Parisian schools’ Winter vacations, where masses of people drive to the Alps to ski, let’s not try to break any records, people.  I’ll do my part by staying home!

Three of the most clogged cities feature prominently in my travel memoir French License.  Read a sample.  Buy the book.  Keep a copy in your glovebox just in case.

© 2018 Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved.


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road rage

Today, the French government is expected to announce yet another measure to generate additional revenues from drivers.  This administration is setting itself up for a violet backlash, as a large majority of the populace opposes, as do many legislators and citizen groups, and they’re organizing.  If The speed limit is dropped from 90 km an hour to 80 km an hour on the départemental (meaning, the greatest network of roads in the country) it will be seen purely as another way to draw more tax money from the populace without doing anything to improve our security.

As exposed in chapter 15 of French License, the revenues from repression have increased exponentially since the introduction of the radar cameras while the mortality on the roads have barely budged and even increased the last four years.

The automobile is already the #1 revenue generator for the French government.  More than income taxes, and way more than corporate taxes, which are even lower following the €10B shortfall in December from the corporate dividend tax fiasco that happened on Macron’s watch as finance minister.

This may be the last straw.  I’ve never heard people so fed up.  If this government persists in its course, this could be the start of the wave of public opinion against Macron’s administration.  He cannot afford to take that chance, with a dozen major reforms scheduled for this year.

Watch this space for developments.


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The Day the Earth Stood Still

This is the only sign I’ve seen in the run-up to the Parisian carmageddon.  As usual, mayor Hidalgo feels no obligation to help drivers to prepare for the ‘day without cars’ in Paris.  Is there any information on the Péripherique ring road?  Not to my knowledge.  Are there public parking lots just outside the city limits, convenient to public transportation heading into Paris?  No.  Are there extra suburban busses ready to whisk you to a train station?  Nope, regular schedule for an ‘off’ day, meaning zero busses for most areas.

Ms. Hidalgo thinks that anything that happens outside of Paris isn’t her problem.  She cascades her agenda to the surrounding area, affecting a population 5x that of the city of Paris.

I must drive near Paris on the evening of Oct. 1 and I’ll update this post the following day with my experience on the suburban roads.


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Anti-Hidalgo Hotcakes

That book about the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo detailing her actions and virulent reactions: Notre-Drame de Paris, by Airy Routier and Nadia Le Brun, has been selling like hotcakes since its release. It debuted at #2 on L’Express top sellers for its category.  I’m not surprised because I’ve been visiting a lot of bookstores in Paris lately, and I’ve seen customers snatch it up.

French License has benefitted a bit from the controversy and uproar.  However, most expats I cross are completely oblivious, until they’re snared in a Parisian traffic jam, or receive an exorbitant fine for a minor offense, or they have trouble breathing and wonder why.



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give Anne an earful

French roads are becoming more pecuniary and pénible.  The worst changes are happening to drivers in Paris.  Car-sharing service Heetch was shut down by a court decision, forcing them to pay €500K in fines and court fees.  The judge saw a big difference between BlaBlaCar’s model, where the driver decides the route, and Heech’s, where the passenger decides, like in a taxi.

In 2014, Paris elected a new mayor, Anne Hidalgo.  She’s from the socialist party, or the PS, on the left, so you’d expect her to be more concerned with ecological issues, and have a people-pleasing manner.  Well, she’s one out of two.  If Ralph Nader had a child with Napoleon, it would be her.

While many residents agree that changes in transportation should be made toward alternatives causing less pollution and noise, citizens expect advanced notice, to have their views heard, and a time to adapt.  That’s not what you get with Ms. Hidalgo.  She dictates new measures which are confusing to follow, much less adhere to, and they take immediate effect with severe penalties for non-compliance.  Her public enemy number one: the automobile.

Auto access to the capital has been drastically reduced.  No cars older than 20 years may enter the city limits.  That’s 10% of all cars.  Bus access to the capital has also diminished, as 26% of busses are 20 years old.  Mass confusion ensued.  It’s not as if you can sell or exchange your car right away, or easily alter your mode of transportation with a snap of the fingers.  Tour groups from foreign countries which plan group excursions months in advance only discovered the new legislation upon entering the city.  What a way to welcome tourists to the most visited city in the world.  A city which is going to host the 2024 Olympic Games.  Since Ms. Hidalgo’s measures began, a new record was set with 484 kilometers of traffic jams around Paris.  Commuters spent 90 hours in Parisian traffic jams in 2016, which is 12 1/2 hours more in one year, a 16% increase.

Once they are authorized to enter, and newer cars and buses finally get into the city, there’s fewer places they can legally go.  The widest street in the capital, the Champs-Elysées, becomes pedestrian only on the first Sunday of every month.  This isn’t widely known, nor is it noted with signs on the way there.  You just drive along until you meet a barrier, without any suggested deviation.  Then you follow a line of similarly blocked cars into another barrier.  There’s nowhere for you to go, and no instructions out of the labyrinth.  You’ve just been Hidalgoed!

Every day of every month, the three kilometers of lanes along the river, known as voies sur berge de la Seine, have been converted to pedestrian-only.  While that now makes it a bit wider to stroll along the banks of the river, it’s still visually concrete, asphalt and block walls.  Inland from the river, along sidewalk cafés and street benches, is now a maelstrom of motor noise (+125%), honking and exhaust.  These major arteries were shut off without thought as to where all the cars would go, 43 000 per day.  The result is that in six months, there’s been an enormous shift of traffic going by the streets of the interior, taking up to 73% longer to cross.  This shift included an overnight 88% increase in traffic on the street passing right in front of City Hall.  Maybe the mayor appreciates a close-up view of the mayhem she causes?

How effective are Ms. Hidalgo’s measures?  Well, for one, reducing the speed limit on all 35 kilometers of the Péripherique from 80km/h to 70km/h has only made things worse.  Traffic became bunched up and less fluid, more fuel is consumed, pollution has increased and there are more accidents.  There are more tickets issued, so the government’s revenues go up, but drivers are unnecessarily penalized and residents receive zero benefit.

A similar measure in the city of Rennes, France was finally scrapped when a study proved no benefit to reducing the speed limit to 70km/h.  No bother, Ms. Hidalgo persists, insisting there have been unproven improvements.

Ms. Hidalgo’s fellow PS partisan, former environment minister Ségolene Royale, introduced new emissions tagging legislation with the same confusion and lack of preparation.  Initially, Paris reacted to pollution peaks by a system called circulation alternée, restricting or penalizing cars.  Odd license plates were allowed into the city on odd-numbered days of the month.  Even on even.  But what constitutes odd and even on a French license plate?  If it’s the last number on a plate, well, entire ‘départements’ could be restricted.  This is because a large number of license plates in France end with the two numbers which commence their postal code.  Folks from the Val-d’Oise (95) must keep their cars out of Paris on even days; folks from the Yvelines (78) must stay out on odd days.  And what about those who live in Paris (75)?  Must they drive out of the city to park on even days?  Isn’t the whole idea to get LESS people using cars?

What replaced ‘alternate circulation’ was a series of five color-coded stickers, called Crit’Air.  You go online and type in your car’s details, and pay €4.18, then you receive the sticker corresponding to your vehicle’s propensity to pollute.  You must display the sticker on your car or risk getting fined when you enter Paris.  While having very little impact on the quality of the air, Crit’Air does substantially grow the State’s coffers.  Only five days after its introduction, €4 Million in new funds were collected from drivers.

If you think to yourself, “Crit’Air doesn’t affect me because I don’t live in the Paris region,” think again.  It applies to any car which drives into Paris, or other major French cities, even once.  If you’re from Dijon and you drive to Grenoble once a year, they expect you to have the sticker.  If you’re from the UK, or Belgium or the Netherlands, it applies to your trip to Lyon, too.  German cities thought this was such a good idea, they adopted a similar system for Berlin… with a different sticker, of course.  Soon European delivery drivers won’t be able to see out of their windshield with all the stickers they’ll need for every municipality.

An anti-car bombshell was announced in July by Madame Royale’s replacement, Nicolas Hulot.  By 2040, France plans to outright ban diesel cars, AND all gasoline-powered cars as well.  The sale of fuel for these cars will also be prohibited.  They expect that in 23 years, 99% of all cars currently on the roads will be replaced by electric, or clean-fuel alternatives. Mayor Hidalgo upped the ante by expressing her goal of banning all gasoline cars in 13 years, and diesel vehicles in 3 years.  More than half of all cars on the road today in the Paris region run on diesel.

These officials have too much faith in technology.  The internet is around 23 years old.  Yet many, many organizations today are still dependent on legacy systems, notably government agencies.  They know there’s no way they can reach their goal, nor are they putting alternative measures in place to make it even remotely achievable.

Security cameras installed on streetlamps can now be used to dole out tickets, without warning.  These ones have actual humans behind the screens looking for one false move.  In Paris alone, 1 200 cameras have enabled watchful authorities to dole out more than 150 000 tickets for such infractions as not wearing a seatbelt or eating while driving.  It’s not just suspect streets like la rue de la Grande-Truanderie (Great Gangsterism road) or la rue des Mauvais-Garçons (Bad Boy road).  The Parisian police suspect we’re ALL criminals.  More cameras will be installed near the Charles De Gaulle airport.  Big Brother is now Grand Frère Jacques, and he’s never sleeping.

European states have started sharing data with each other in an attempt to catch radar speeders with out-of-country plates.  This move was covered in my previous post ‘Frontier Land.’  Employers are now obligated to denounce their employees for radar pictures of a company car speeding.

Private companies are being deployed to manage and increase the number of mobile radars, and use them aboard common cars to trap unsuspecting motorists.  In a 2016 test, these unmarked cars flashed 1,9 million times.  Now, all 383 cars will be deployed in September 2017, and should easily capture an additional 15 million infractions annually, on top of the 20 million already from the fixed radars.  France was already the most pecuniary country in the world for motorists.  Now, they stand poised to double the amount they collect from fines in a single year.

A backlash is inevitable.  It’s starting with an initiative by 40 millions d’automobilistes.  The association encourages all concerned citizens to massively telephone Anne Hidalgo at +33 1 42 76 48 11 and let her know how you feel.

The automobile used to be a symbol of freedom, of pleasure and shared sensations.  Today, it’s simply the quickest way between point A (the authorities) and point B (your wallet).


© Copyright Joe Start. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2017

Portions of this post were re-printed from the book French License.


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Ch. 7 teaser

On Labor Day, we cover a subject which is most associated with the American worker: the automotive sector.  Car Culture is the name of this French License entry, the longest chapter at nearly 4 000 words.  There’s a lot to say about car culture, past present and future.  US vs. France.  Traditions.  Viewpoints.  Usage.  Fun facts.  And my own personal arc of car appreciation and disillusion.

This chapter could be the start of a book all its own.  There’s no space in the book for images among all that good stuff, so I’m sharing them here.

US car culture

France car culture

La Défense self-driving people-mover:

US cars in France

France cars in US


You’ll want to check out the digital version of this chapter for all the cool links.  Since this is a teaser, I’ll share one of them with you.

If you want to know what you’re watching, read chapter eight!


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Jerry Louis

On the passing of Jerry Lewis, I thought I’d comment on the widespread belief that he was adored in France.  Americans who long ago turned away from his antics marvelled that the French continued to watch, appreciate and laugh at Jerry Lewis.  There was something that the French apparently understood about Jerry that the rest of us didn’t get.  His comedy supposedly worked on many levels that only the intellectuals saw.  Perhaps it was true that when his star faded in the ‘States in the late sixties, it continued to ride high in Europe in the ’70s.  I don’t know, I wasn’t around France until the ’90s.

But when anyone would ask me “Is it true the French love Jerry Lewis?”  I would tell them “No, it’s WORSE!  The French love Louis De Funès!”

It’s all there in the above clip, the exaggerated gestures, the overreactions, pantomiming frustration, supposedly wacky sounds.  Louis is the real French Lewis.  And really popular.  To this day, 34 years after his death, he’s still loved and imitated.  New generations are constantly being introduced to Louis de Funès on prime-time television, especially in summertime programming, when comedy runs rampant.

Yes, Jerry Lewis was honored by French dignitaries as late as 1984, but that doesn’t make him popular.  Popularity would come from showing his old movies on TV, inviting him to interview shows, maybe having him do his act at theatres around the country, appearing in commercials on TF1 or France 2, retrospectives on ARTE from fellow actors and movie-makers, releasing books about his life, etc.  I’ve seen none of these things in my 20 years of vacationing or living in France.

I’ve never heard older in-laws, neighbors or co-workers talk about him, you know, people who could’ve bought a ticket to one of his films in his heyday.  So, I believe the rumours to be largely a myth.  I’ll have a look at the French papers on Monday and update this post if I see any outpouring of emotion from the Gallic side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, a Canadian friend asks “is it really true that people from America find Jim Carrey funny?”

Other links on the subject:Straight Dope    Neatorama


Update Monday morning

Le Figaro- small cover picture.  Flattering obituary on 3/4 of page 11.

Libération- small cover picture.  Glowing review on pages 26-27.

Le Parisien- no cover pic.  Three paragraphs on page 30.

Mostly he’s remembered for his charity work.  The French press is very aware of the French love/ American indifference angle.  However, instead of citing the box office receipts in France, autograph sessions, polls or other ‘popular’ measures, they quote ’50s directors like Godard, or critics from the two popular movie mags of Jerry’s era, Les Cahiers du cinéma and Positif both calling him a ‘genius.’  There could be some element of thumbing their noses at the establishment, or using Jerry Lewis as a flag, reading into his act anti-capitalist messages which were never intended.

Oh, and one word about the ‘highest honor‘ in France.  It’s a political tool which can be purchased through influence, or possibly outright.  Mussolini and Ceausescu received the award before Jerry Lewis, and after Bachar Al-Assad became a grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur.

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