They have painstakingly restored the towers of Notre Dame, sandblasted grime off the Arc de Triomphe, helped build the new transparent entryway pyramid to the Louvre. In 1984, they even crossed the Atlantic to restore the badly corroded torch on the Statue of Liberty to its former glory. Who are these craftsmen, of such valuable and impeccable skills? They are les compagnons (the companions), members of French craft guilds that can trace their lineage to traditions dating back to the Middle Ages.
In a country where unemployment runs close to 25% among the young, these stonemasons, metalworkers, carpenters and chocolatemakers (among dozens of other trades) have no difficulty finding work. Says one guild official, "They're snapped up by employers as fast as we can train them."
Starting their training as early as age 15, aspiring Compagnons study for two years under the auspices of a local firm, after which they embark on the ultimate adventure: the Tour de France. Described by novelist George Sand as a "poetic phase, an adventuresome pilgrimage, the artisan's period of errant knighthood," the Tour is a 6- to 8-year trek across France. Working one-on-one with master craftsmen, the young aspirants develop their moral character as they refine their trade skills. According to medieval tradition, aspiring Compagnons are supposed to stay celibate during their tour, and women are still prohibited from being initiated into the compagnonnage.