France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 27, 2008

Tonight in the News: The Government is Great

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 3:28 pm

I was one of those lefties who, prior to the presidential election, actually thought Nicolas Sarkozy had some refreshing ideas, and that he recognized problems which the calcified mainstraim Left was incapable of recognizing — e.g., the abundance of civil servants was strangling and even putting out of business many of the small-business holders 60 percent of whose taxes went to pay for them. Since then, I’ve learned that when Sarko is trying to  get you to look at the shiny ball in one hand, you should be looking at what he’s doing with the other.

At the president’s famous January press conference — the one where the candidate of purchase power  become the president who said he couldn’t do anything about the loss of purchase power when the cash box was empty — he quickly deterred press attention from that one by announcing he wanted to ban commecials from public television. Now, public television here in France is a bit different from public television in the United States, to the point that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two main public stations and the two private channels; TF1, the biggest private one, shows Law & Order, while public channel France 2 shows Cold Case and its confrere France 3 the nightly Marseille-based soap Plus Belle la Vie. Cutting out the commercials from the publics would definitley make a major distinction.

You’d think this might produce celebratory parades from the personnel involved, but instead it’s produced demonstrations because of fear of  how they’d replace the lost income and thus stay viable. (And of course, since the personnel involved are also in charge of reporting the news, we’ve not seen one report of a citizen saying “No commercials? Great!”) The president appointed a bi-partisan commission (from which the Socialists resigned after Sarkozy said raising the t.v. tax was not a possibility) and when earlier this week they came out with their proposals for replacing that income, the president tried to slip another idea in there: Henceforth, the president of France Televisions would be appointed by… Moi! (Euh, not moi Paul Ben-Itzak but moi the president.) Not to worry, his supporters assured; the appointment would be subject to parliamentary approval. Never mind that the parliament is dominated by the president’s party. As usual, and thankfully, my hero Francois Bayrou, head of the Movement Democratique, was there to call this what it is: “It’s a plan for a seizure of power of television by the (governmental) power. (Public) television will be susceptible to pressure from the political power and therefore strangled.”


June 25, 2008

New Math: Enough $ for propaganda but not for medicine

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 3:49 pm

A few months ago President Sarkozy, a.k.a. the president of the pouvoir d’achat (purchase power), asked at a news conference what steps he planned to take to battle the loss of purchase power, shrugged his shoulders and essentially said, What do you expect me to do when the cash box is empty? But apparently not so empty that the government couldn’t find 4 million Euros to launch an ad campaign this week in which it announces to the public that it’s winning the battle to arrest the loss in purchase power. Yesterday on the floor of the National Assembly, the government’s health minister responded to uproar — on the Right and on the Left — about a proposal to slash reimbursement for so-called ‘comfort’ medicine — medicine one takes to mitigate the effects (throwing up and other minor discomforts) of other medicine taken for chronic health problems (AIDS/SIDA, things like that)  from 100 to 35 percent by saying, essentially, the cash register was empty. (There’s a deficit.)  Not too empty, apparently, for the government to launch a high-priced ad compaign in which it tells itself, more or less, “Brownie you’re doing a heckuva job.” (Note to French readers: This was the phrase with which President Bush congratulated the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for doing a great job in New Orleans, even as people were going under.)

June 24, 2008

Each month, we’re winning!

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 6:41 am

It’s kind of hard to satirize this one; the latest tactic of the government to combat the loss in purchase power is an advertising campaign, financed by public money (hey — I thought the cash drawer was empty?), to tell the public that ‘each month, we’re winning’ the battle to combat the loss in purchase power. On France Culture radio this morning the budget minister responded to the suggestion that this is propaganda by claiming it’s no different from a recent ad campaign for road safety aimed to diminish the number of  highway fatalities. Well, let’s return the parallel: It’s as if the road safety ads added the claim, “Each month, less people are dying in traffic accidents!”

June 18, 2008

Striking Journalists, Ignorant Journalists, and Three Famous Belgians

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 10:20 am

Well I guess it was inevitable. Following in the footsteps of the weather and the train-workers, France Culture, on which I rely for my morning radio program and jolt, went on strike today. (When the radio goes on strike, the air doesn’t go silent, it’s just filled with randomly selected pop tunes.) So I was forced to resort to the BBC World Today, the worse of that channel’s news programs because its hosts are the least-well informed and typically parrot establishment assumptions. Today I didn’t last one sentence, as the host began an item with (I paraphrase), “As the old joke goes, there are no famous Belgians….” Quoi? Without even putting on my thinking cap I came up right away with Jacques Brel, Hergé, and Georges Simenon, all widely read or listened to on an international level for more than half a century.

June 17, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 4:57 pm

You might not guess it from my occasional hackneyed use of the language in this column, but I’ve actually taken two French classes. The most inspiring was a night-school course offered by the city of Paris at an elementary school on the Street of the Dry Tree, a block from the wet Seine. (How one might expect knowledge to flower on a dry tree is another story.) It was inspiring because not just as an adult going back to school, but going back to school at a seven-year-old’s desk — great potential for nightmares there — I needed extra motivation besides the desire that my French friends would stop twisting their faces in an exasperated ‘Quoi?” whenever I said anything besides “Ca va?” (Ca va? Comment ca va quand tu ne me comprendre pas du tout? Et — comme dit Gainsbourg — moi non plus?”) Patrick, my teacher at the Night School of the Dry Tree, provided this by basically adding a high entertainment quotient to the pedagogic content.

One of Patrick’s best motivational routines would be when, talking about the origins of a word, he would go into a mock aged-person’s slump and intone, “l’Academie Française.” Among other things, the wise ones of the Academie Française are the protectors of the French language. (Although it seems that television, or at least my nightly Marseille-based soap opera Plus Belle la Vie, is not subject to the Academie’s dictums, judging by the abundant infusion of American terms. I’m not talking about American terms whose usage might seem inevitable, faut d’alternatif français, but words like ‘job’; I mean come on, there are at least two French words for ‘job.’)

Where was I? Oh yes: It seems that now the Academie has come out against a proposed law that would officially recognize regional languages as being part of the country’s patrimonie or heritage. To me, living here in Occitan land — actually, a grand portion of the south of France, stretching all the way up to the Auvergne — this makes total sense, indeed, opposing it would seem to run counter to the preservation part of the Academie’s mission. Remember, here we’re not talking about new-fangled words like Web, Loft, or telecharge, but languages which go way back — which indeed, are part of the nation’s roots, regionalized as they may be. What I saw when I attended an Occitan evening here in Les Eyzies last winter was not a threat to the French language, but a people who appreciated their roots and *traditions*, pure and simple — and, above all — here’s something the Academie should appreciate — *language.* A book table was full of various books about the Occitan language. In Perigueux, the departmental seat, there’s even an Occitan language institute and at the Adult School, you can take a course in Occitan.

Well, I’d love to stay and chat — or as the French say, tchat (hey Academie — how did *that* slip by?), but, you guessed it, it’s almost time for Plus Belle la Vie. (Hey, it’s my boulot.) (Tr.: Hé, c’est mon job.)

It’s a black thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 4:15 pm
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Is Michael Kimmelman, a culture writer for the New York Times who now dabbles in understanding France, reading the same French newspapers I am? For that matter, is he even reading the same Le Monde I am? In an otherwise okay article in today’s Times looking at how the nomination of Barack Obama has inspired blacks in France, Kimmelman writes, incredibly, “Even seeing the word ‘noir’ (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.” Uh, sorry Mike but — I think not! Where it concerns an American — artist, politician, soldier — if he or she is black or for that matter, anything but white, that racial qualifier is required before “American” during any citation in any media. I first remarked on this habit — remarked on it because of the hypocrisy in a country that officially professes to be race-blind — about five years ago in a Le Monde dispatch from Iraq in which American soldiers gave their view. ONLY the one who was black was identfied as such, i.e., ‘Une Sgt. noir.’ And I continued to see it elsewhere. Carlos Santana was not simply a rock musician but a rock musician ‘d’origine Mexicain.’ Now, what would be an interesting topic for Mike to pursue is the difference between the regard many French people d’origine blanc have towards blacks from the United States — who are revered — and blacks of African origine, whether they’re French citizens or not, who are often disdained. (Although I should note that this has improved over recent years.) My own theory for this is that, in addition to genuine appreciation for aspects of American culture d’origine black — notably Jazz — they’re also attracted to the oppression part of the Black American story because it’s yet another opportunity to criticize American society or better, to one-up it because of course in France, everyone’s created equal. The still larger context is that 60 years after — I hate to keep bringing it up, but it persists — France is still processing its own role (or if you prefer, the role of the Vichy government in the name of France) in actively identifying its Jews and ‘foreign Jews’ so the Germans could cart ’em away. To compensate for its lingering guilt, official France and many French insist that except for of course illegal aliens, we’re all French. It’s a noble goal but if it serves to paper over a nagging racial hyper-awareness, does it really have the traction to heal the wound? What I — and many Americans as well as French — loved about Obama’s race speech is that *he acknowledged* our racial problems. We know we’re not there yet. If France wants to get there too — and I believe it genuinely does — the first step is to recognize that it has not yet arrived.

June 16, 2008

United States of Europe*

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 12:27 pm

In the final half-hour free-for-all on this morning’s program, France Culture host Ali Baddou remarked at how, no matter that they all came from different political perspectives, the four regular commentators plus the guest, a Socialist senator, shared essentially the same reading of the Irish vote rejecting the new European Consti-er, treaty: (According to Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a godfather of the constitution, the treaty is 98 percent the same.) Basically, the Irish voted it down because it’s too complicated. I would argue that the reason they shared the same view is that they are indeed all from the same movement, the class political, which, with the exception of the extreme left and extreme right and a few Socialists vagabonds, has never understood the disconnect normal people feel with this product of liberal (European sense of the word) Euro-crats, nor the fact-based fear they have of “Brussels” — faceless bureaucrats who now have veto power over many government actions in vital matters in countries they have little knowledge of. Viscerally, the Irish voters understood this very well.

But instead of looking at the Irish vote for what in the minds of many Irish it really represents — when they’re given the chance to vote on it, the people say no to the treaty — a segment of the Euro-crats are now proposing to change the rules: rather than scrap the treaty because a member country didn’t ratify it, have an Irish exception, letting Ireland opt-out of the treaty if the other 26 countries approve it.

*Except Ireland

June 13, 2008

Irish yes, but I like it too

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 9:52 pm

When the French voted down the European constitution prepared by Euro-crats, their government responded by making some cosmetic changes and renaming it a treaty which, as such, they said didn’t need to be voted on by the people in a referendum; a vote by their representatives would do it. On Thursday, the one country out of 27 whose people were actually allowed to vote on the consti-er, treaty — said no. While the Eurocrats immediately took to the air to explain this by saying it was just that the people didn’t understand the treaty — i.e., they’re stupid — one French politician, the usual one, got it right. “We wanted to ignore the people,” said François Bayrou, leader of the Modem party, “and now their voices have become stronger.”

A couple of years ago there was a wave — okay, about four — of suicides among farmers, whose metiers were becoming more and more difficult. The one that really touched me involved a farmer in, I believe, the Loire valley who killed himself after two suits from Brussels showed up one day and told him he had to spend 100,000 Eruos on ecological improvements because fecal matter from his cows was infiltrating the water. The man killed the cows and himself. More recently, Brussels threatened to veto a French government plan to come to the aid of their dwindling number of fisherman, hit by astronomical gas price increases. And of course, because of European Union rules that no country can exceed a deficit of 3 percent, sectors across France are being cut back — notably arts allocations to regional governments, and also notably audio-visual centers.

Bac Philo: Learning how to think independently, by rote

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:54 am

One of the advantages of waiting until nearly seven years after I arrived in France to start my French journal is I don’t write a lot of ‘those wacky French’ or ‘that wacky American in France’ stories. Thus I hope to interest not just Americans with histoires that confirm the French are wacky, but French people as well, with a point of view that is both independent and informed or at least not totally ignorant about French modes. With the bac philo, however, I have to disclose right away that the following treatise is based on only the slimmest understanding of this French rite of Spring. Hopefully my French readers will forgive my audacity in the interests of having a new perspective.

If I understand correctly, the various bacs — French, History, Philo — are end of high school tests. There’s even a ‘bac blanc,’ taken the year before the end of high school to get you ready.

At first glance, the Bac Philo — to which 150,000 students will be subjected Monday and for which they’re now cramming (even the kids on my nightly soap opera, the Marseille-based Plus Belle la Vie, are seen turning their attention from their amorous misadventures to Kant and Kirkegard) (thank goodness the weather is still on strike) — would seem to fall under the French Exception, as France Culture’s morning host Ali Baddou noted on today’s program. But does it really?

As explained by Baddou’s guests, the students have six months to read various philosophers, all dead, and to develope an independent way of thinking which they must then demonstrate in a four-hour test. This will somehow be ‘corrected’ by the profs. I’m not sure how a teacher would go about correcting a student’s explanation of his/her independent system of thought. Seems contradictory.

But to get back to the question: Is this really a French exception? At first I thought, cool, we didn’t have to study and then take a test in philosophy at Mission High School in San Francisco…. But then I recalled trying to wade through Plato (didn’t make it), and discovering Camus in Ralph Saskie’s literature class in my junior (demi-final) year of high school. It seems to be that integrated into a literature class, and thus making part of a composite — studying ways of thought, and reading stories that depict thought in action — we have a better chance to understand the whole, and how it applies to life, then if we’d had to read exclusively Philosophy for six months *and* from what we read then come up with our own independent system of thought. And the pire — the worse — to have to do this at 17 years old. Moi, j’ai 47 and I still don’t have a system.

June 12, 2008

The weather is on strike

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:35 am

No seriously, it really is today, or at least the folks on whom all the national media rely for its reporting, Meteo France. And without the pros, the forecasts quickly deteriorated this morning on France Culture; at 7 the newscaster predicted ‘temps intemperate’; by 8, host Ali Baddou was announcing, “Il fait beau.’ (Notwithstanding that the guest of the morning, former foreign minister Hubert Védrine, pointed out rightly: “Why do the forecasters always say ‘il fait beau’ when it’s hot?’ and thus quite possibly insufferable. Je suis 100 percent d’accord! Here in southwest France by the way, at 10 a.m., il fait beau, et pas encore trop chaud ni lourd; mais ca va arrive.) In fact it wasn’t the only strike-enforced irruption to the morning routine; at 7:13, when he would usually sum up the front pages of the major newspapers, Baddou began, “Actually, no papers this morning as the delivery-persons are on strike”; thank G-d for Internet editions.

But before you start thinking this is going to degenerate into an American free-market capitalist’s mocking of the French penchant for striking, let me back up: At first — arriving here in France seven years ago — I thought it was amusing that single bus lines would go on strike; and that when the Poste went on strike, it didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t show up for work, but that if you showed up to mail something, they didn’t let you in. When the FNAC — a national record chain — went on strike, I thought it was heartening that compared to the States, where, no doubt against the Constitution, they often don’t even let picketers get within a block of of the targeted store, here the employees set up a table at the entrance which they blocked. But the best was a McDonald’s on the Grands Boulevards, which was not just struck but occupied by its employees for a year. In six years in Paris, the closest I came to being really inconvenienced by a strike was when I waited in vain for a subway to a show, not realizing it was one of the lines on strike; and when, checking out the Rodin Museum to find out whether it would be affected by the Museum guard stike and thus I’d be unable to bring visitors there, I discovered this understanding notice on the locked door: “Museum closed by strike. To those that are visiting Paris for the first time, sorry.”

However, here in the country, when the train workers decide to go on strike, as they seem to be doing every week, the consequences are grave for those of us without our own wheels.

Last month I wrote about how it’s hard for me to visit the neighboring village of Le Buisson because, as it’s also the village with the nearest veterinarians, I associate it with the death of my cat Hopey. Well, during the most severe time for her and trying time for me, the train workers made it harder for us by striking for several days because they’re peeved that President Sarkozy — implicitly supported by the French who voted for him — wants them to work 41 years instead of 40 to be eligible for full retirement pension. He’s not being capricious; the cash register is empty! I, on the other hand, thanks to the caprices of the spoiled me-me-me train workers, was left stranded with a dying cat and no way to get her to the vet. I don’t begrudge Hopey the money I had to spend to take cabs back and forth almost 20 kilometers, but for the train-workers — who once again struck yesterday and will again next week — I say give a thought to how others are affected by your crusade.

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