France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

December 27, 2008

Sabotage a la liberté: … the rest of the story

What’s in a headline? Certainly not the presumption of innocence, if one’s to judge by this one in last night’s editions of Le Monde: “Sabotage à la SNCF: Julien Coupat maintenu en détention.” The facts: After a year of misfunctions along the lines of the national train system, rather than look at ineptitude of the franchise itself, the French interior minister announced November 15 the arrestation of a group of nine alleged anarcho-lefto-terrorists from the Correze region after the latest incident. By last week all but two had been released, the supposed leader, Julien Coupat, and his companion. Then a judge ordered Coupat released, the parquet or state appealed, and yesterday the court of appeals acceded; Julien Coupat won’t see the light of day until at least 2009. “It’s clear,” Coupat’s father Gerard told the Agence France Presse as quoted by Le Monde, “they want to break my son and his companion Yidune, there’s a desire to humiliate them…. They want to use these two young people to intimidate all young people in dissuading them from demonstrating, at the risk of the same thing happening to them.” Sound familiar? It should.

We know that Coupat’s arrest followed two months of state surveillance of his allegedly anarchist-oriented group, but you had to read to the end of the latest story in Sud-Ouest (neither Le Monde nor the radio news has mentioned it) that it was the New York police who tipped the French off to Coupat’s alleged subversive activities, which consisted of attending an anarchist meeting in the States, and which thus decided the French to tail him for two months. If you’ve been following the evolution of U.S. police tactics in dealing with demonstrations over the past decade, you know that they include preventive detention, often in miserable conditions, of those *who would simply demonstrate* (and often bystanders who were in the ‘wrong place’ at the wrong time) before they can even do so, particularly at presidential conventions — tactics often later condemned by the courts, particularly those involving the 2004 Republican presidential convention in New York. You’d also know that they sometimes include infiltrating *even peaceful activist groups* — in defiance of the U.S. Constitutions protections of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. That the French justice system would take a cue from an American system that has been so roundly denounced over the past few years is regrettable.


December 24, 2008

France 1, Pope 0

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So the Pope, who in an extreme example of Christian charity recently implicitly gave a green light to gay bashers by once again declaring homosexuality outside the norm, is apparently perturbed because for the first time in 40 years, TFI, the leading private French television chain, will not be broadcasting the midnight mass, opting instead for a 2005 concert by Michel Sardou. “This is not a positive sign for France,” says the Vatican, as reported France Culture radio this morning, deriding the choice as ‘superficial.’ For a country that celebrates separation of church and state but doesn’t always walk the talk, I find this decision a cause to sing Hallelujah.

December 15, 2008

If the shoe fits, or, dog insult bites president

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 9:23 am
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Even if the NY Times has not done so bad in reporting the tale of the Iraqi journalist who threw two shoes at President Bush yesterday in Baghdad in denouncing what Bush has wraught in his country — the paper in effect recounting how Bush’s hackneyed retort “Democracy comes with freedom of speech” was punctuated by the screams of the young man being beaten by Iraqi security agents — the fact is that as is often the case when it comes to news that reflects negatively on the Bush administration, you have to go abroad for the kind of front page coverage the incident deserves. (European papers lead with it; the Times relegated it to the inside pages.)  For balance, try, for instance, this report on Rue89, the Web-based journal founded by former journalists at the national daily Liberation. For starters, check the sub-title: “Mountazer al-Zaïdi, correspondant de la télé irakienne Al-Baghdadia, est en passe de devenir un héros dans le monde arabe.”

December 12, 2008

Democracy a la Brussels

In most places, Democracy dictates that when a people oppose a proposition, their opinion is respected. In Brussels, at  least as concerns the European Consti — er, Treaty — it means that when a country rejects having its independence fettered by Brussels, you either bypass their no vote with a ‘treaty,’ as was done in France and the Netherlands, or you make them vote again, as has just been decided for Ireland. Supposedly there are some concessions — a European commissar, non-obligation to participate in joint military actions, non-interference in banning abortions, and fiscal independence —  but reportedly it’s the same duck. And the ‘fiscal independence ‘ guarantee is baffling; France has been repeatedly shackled by, among other things, limitations on running a deficit, although that has been temporarily lifted in view of the crise. But in fact,  the European Union is nothing if not an arsenal of Brussels-imposed regulations which shackle national independance and thus maneuverability in all manner of spheres.

December 9, 2008

Duck-killing without the stress

Where I come from — the San Francisco Bay Area –‘foie gras’ is a four-letter word. It’s not that we have anything against haute cuisine — au contraire! — but rather the requisite cruelty to animals that cultivating this delicacy entails. Autrement dit: Force feeding. (Sounds more elegant in French: Gavage.) (A couple of years ago, at a vide grenier or community-wide garage sale (vide grenier = empty the attic)  in Le Bugue, I came across a funnel-like object. “Is that for what I think it’s for?” I asked the vender. “Yes, but, it’s not cruel at all. The animals don’t feel any pain!” Ah oui.)

Frequenting the southwest of France since 2003, and living here in the Dordogne department since August 2007, it’s been hard for me to avoid eating duck, which is kind of like the soul food of the region. If pure foie gras ‘mi-cuit’ is expensive, buying it stuffed in figs is relatively cheap (1.50 Euros at the stand at the twice-weekly Perigueux marché manned by the captain of the marché, and if they’re small, he usually throws in an extra.) And other duck products are downright bon marché: Confit de manchons de canard — drumsticks to you, bub, ‘confit’ meaning they’ve been preserved in their own fat — can be had directly from a producer for as little as six for 3 Euros, enough for two meals. Get a a small tub of duck fat for .50 cents, some potatoes for the same, et voila, pommes sarladois to accompany your fatty duck legs. (Tip: boil the potatoes first for about 10-15 minutes before slicing them into rondelles and fryin’ ’em up in the duck fat, parsley, and if you like fresh garlic.) Duck hearts cost about 1.50 for a meal’s worth, and are better than they sound. Duck necks are .40 cents and over-priced. And the best deal is duck carcasse, which is what’s left after all the other parts, except for the neck, are extracted. Basically for soup, but with enough meat left on it quand meme for a sandwich with some remaining to cast into the soup. The only distasteful part of the task is wondering whether that plastic-like tube channel was in the front or the back of the duck. And just when I thought I’d tried everything, last week at the marche de gras (Fat market to you bub) I discovered duck blood patties. Look like pancake shaped boudins, but are ultimately tasteless and, yes, rubbery.

As you may have divined by now, bon perigourdin, the duck plays a starring role in my diet — en effet, c’est la vedette.  As a conscienteous carnivore, I’ve avoided thinking about the process that gets these various delicacies to my table. Until now.

“L’abattage au top” trumpeted the headline on the front page of the Dordogne supplement to Saturday’s editions of Sud-Ouest. Dateline: Saint-Laurent-sur-Manoire, where, on November 17,  the duck company Espinet SA opened an abattoir able to, er, abatt ‘palmipèdes’ at a rhythm of 8,000 per week, with a target of 500,000 canards annually. Among other reasons behind the new plant, Guillaume Espinet explained to reporter Pierre-Manuel Réault, “the Bergerac factory is saturated. We had to find a better solution.” And quelle solution! In addition to high volume, the new unit has been designed with ergonomy in mind. When I first saw that, I of course thought, “Well, yes, G-d forbid that the ducks suffer from repetitive stress injury on top of everything else.” But in fact — je me suis trompè! Au lieu of being designed to make the *ducks* more comfortable, the ergonomic measures have been taken “with the goal of reducing the ‘pénibilité of work for  the employees,” explained production director Rémy Banon. “For example, they can adjust the height or depth of their podiums.” When killing ducks (so that I can eat them, it must be admitted), surtout il faut etre confortable!

December 8, 2008

Secret Origins

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 9:08 am
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It’s not that the French media are so obsessed with race that bothers me — because hey, so is the United States — it’s the contradiction of, on the one hand, maintaining that France is a race-blind country, and, on the other hand, never losing an opportunity to describe any non-white American firstly by his or her ‘origin’ — *even if the person was born in the United States*, and thus has only one origin, American.

When a colleague from the States wrote me yesterday to report that President-elect Obama had appointed retired general Eric Shinseki as his secretary of veteran affairs, it was because Shinseki had been a sort of dissident within the Bush military machine. (Maybe dissident is too strong a word; he’d simply said it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq, countering the Bush chicken-hawks view that 100,000 would do it.) It wasn’t until today, when the appointment topped the French news, that I learned Shinseki was a Japanese-American. (Or, as the French newscasters put it, ‘d’origine Japanese.’   Never mind that he was born in Hawaii.) But it got worse. France Culture radio’s Washington correspondent strongly implied that the ‘unspoken’ significance of Obama’s announcing the appointment on December 7, the annivesary of that day of infamy in which the Japanese (the ones originating from Japan) attacked Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii) was that Shinseki was Japanese. In fact, non. I hate to disappoint the race-obsessed French media, but, were I to hazard a guess, the signficance of Obama’s announcing his nominee to head the department of veteran affairs (autrement dit, des anciennes combatants) on this particular day was that it was our soliders who gave so much of their young lives on December 7, 1941, when nearly 3,000 of them were killed, many in their barracks.

PS: Giving credit where it’s due, as is often the case, commentator Mark Kravitz, who understands American society better than most, was the exception to the rule on France Culture this morning, noting that the principle of diversity in the U.S. is not what the French think it is.

Unveiled: The Rights of Men, except for Muslim girls

Like the U.S. media, the French counterpart has the tendency to overdo it on anniversaries, applying blanket coverage that often has the reverse of the desired effect by actually numbing us to the importance of the organism being feted. This month it’s been the 60th of the convention of the universal rights of men. Presumably this applies to women too, but not, apparently, to the two women who brought suit in the European Court of the Rights of Men in 1999 when, still teenagers of 13 and 14, respectively, they were expelled from their middle school in Flers, in the Orne department, for refusing to take off their head scarves as required by a new French law ostensively prohibiting sporting ‘ostentatious’ symbols of religion but which in fact was seen by many as targeting ostentatious symbols of Islamism (not to be confused with ‘Islam’).  The young women seemed to think that Article 9 of the aforementioned convention, which defends the liberty of thought, conscience, and religion, might apply to their case. (Hey, just had a thought: If the young ladies sought recourse to such an august European institution, do they still count as communitarianists — i.e. segregationists? Just wondering.) Well, surprise surprise, the Strasbourg-based court told them last week that they had no case. The story was buried in the media — my local paper Sud-Ouest ran two paragraphs in Friday’s editions — as were the young ladies’ rights. Because here’s the deal: Acknowledging that, if I recall correctly the debate at the time the law was passed, even French Muslim authorities are not unanimous on whether the wearing of the head scarf is a dictate of the religion or a choice, the fact is that for these young women, and countless others, covering their heads constitutes part of how they practice their religion. (Is it imposed by men in their circles? It seems there should be other ways to handle that scenario.) So as long as they don’t proselytize in school, who is the State to proscribe how they practice their faith?

December 4, 2008

Everything but the News is on strike; Europeana, meet Qantara; Catherine Deneuve is in Lebanon; French News workers out of work

For the second consecutive week, France Culture was more or less on strike today. Last week, my morning began — because it starts for the last year with the 7-9 morning program hosted by Ali Badou with a stable of commentators, newscasters, and one or two special guests — with a program with just Badou and commentators but no news. So when the top or bottom of the hour arrived, we were mistreated to bad mix tapes. Or rather ‘tape,’ as the same one played throughout the day. This morning it was the reverse; just news, with Ali and allies AWOL. Why? BECAUSE THEY DON’T GET PAID ENOUGH. That’s right folks. Journalists being laid off all over the planet, independent pubs like our own Dance Insider feeling the knock-off effect, and these guys (because they’re mostly guys), WHO HAVE JOBS where their colleagues are losing or fear losing theirs, go on strike because they’re not getting paid enough. This week in my department of France, the entire 22-person staff of French News, a 21-year-old vigorous English-language monthly whose offices are based in Perigueux, find themselves without work as the publication is going under because of financial difficulties exacerbated by the crisis.  And their confreres are striking because it’s not enough to have secure jobs, they want to be paid more. Oh-lah-lah.

Not wanting to listen to the same old music — literally — again, I switched to France Entiere, and there got some useful cultural news that seems to have — you’ll divine why in a minute — eluded the U.S. cultural gatekeepers’ radar. Apparently Catherine Deneuve took a little trip to Lebanon in 2006, not long after the Israelis bombed large swathes of it to rubble, and rode around with a Lebanese actor and film crew encountering people and, well, bearing witness. The film, Deneuve  acknowledged on France Entiere today, is not expressly political nor engaged, but…how could it not not show Israel in a negative light, from the footage of devastation and from episodes like the one in which we hear aircraft suddenly flying low over-head, prompting the alarmed matinee idol to ask worriedly, “Qu’est que c’est?” When her interloper explains it’s Israeli planes taking photos, she let’s out an almost angry sigh… Hmm, wonder why we haven’t heard more about this film — called, btw, “Je veux voir” or “I want to see” — from the U..S. press? If you happen to be reading this in NY, you can see it at the Museum of Modern Art (whose website refers to the Israeli invasion by the more gentile nomenclature ‘incursion” ((‘Pardon me, Madame, if I incur you by bombing your homes and when you listen to our instructions and try to flee them, your cars with you in them.’)).) I also learned, in another segment, that while Brussels has been bogged down in a 2 million digitial Euro library that doesn’t work, a group of Mediterranean nations, including this one and Algeria, and the afore-devastated Lebanon, coordinated by the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arab, has launched the much simpler — and effective, it actually works! — ‘Qantara’ — whose goal is to demonstrate, through, among other things, images of artifacts you can actually find on its website, the traditions that have united these sometimes disparate-seeming cultures over 2,000 years.

December 3, 2008


This was the word chosen by the newscaster on France Culture this morning to encompass the government’s backing down on three major cause celebrés in recent days: 1)Facing opposition within its own center-right majority in Parliament, the government agreed to a compromise on whether to open stores on Sundays: Yes for the already open, in grand metropoles, and in zones touristique, no everywhere else, although there are exceptions to the exceptions; even though it qualifies as both a grand metropole and a zone touristique, the Lyonnaise area will rest closed on Sundays, apparently due to strong opposition from area deputies. 2) Facing the fact that the Socialist mayors who run most of the big cities were refusing to enforce it anyway, education minister Xavier Darcos said he would not take them to court for not guaranteeing ‘minimum service.’ This was a regime the government tried to set in place whereby in cases of teacher strikes, city hall was obligated to provide baby-sitting. 3) After blaming sabotage of the national train network (the rails, not the trains) on a cell of alleged anarcho-leftists, the government has been forced to release all but two of the alleged coupables. The only evidence remaining against the ‘cell leader’ appears to be a ladder and a book on anarchist phllosophy.

I have no truck with anarchists. In reality, what this often means is not simpy a void — a passive non-belief in and non-allegiance to governed society — but concrete and rephrehensible violent action. Incredibly, the hosts of my favorite Lefty Yank radio program, Democracy Now, recently let stand a statement by the domestic terrorist — yes, terrorist — William Ayers that he bombed police stations in the ’60s because, well, those were different times, and anyway, they never hurt a single person. Anarchists, at least those who resort to violence, as well as so-called ‘revolutionaries’ like Ayers, like to say that in targeting government buildings they aren’t hurting anyone, they are going after power. Well guess what? Notwithstanding that it hasn’t always played out this way, police stations are, in theory — and often in practice — not symbols of ‘repression,’ but guarantors of security in the *good sense* of that word. So when a so-called anarchist or ‘revolutionary’ attacks a police station, their real goal is to make the rest of us feel *less secure* and *more vulnerable* and thus create nihilistic chaos. (And while we’re defending the police: Much has been made here the past few days — mostly by other journalists — of the supposedly excessive manner in which police picked up a former editor of the Left-leaning daily Liberation, whose only alleged infraction was alleged libel against an Internet company, Free. Okay, maybe they shouldn’t have handcuffed the guy. But maybe, also, more of the journalists should be reporting (as I’ve only heard two do so far) that the reason police had to go to the journalist’s house to get him was that he’d allegedly failed to appear three times at court dates.)

But returning to the alleged anarcho-leftist saboteurs. It looks like the government rushed to judgment too fast. Not to me to judge them but, easy as it is to identify single culpables for one or two derailing incidents, anyone who’s tried to travel between Paris and anywhere else, not to mention in the regions, knows that the SNCF train network has a real infrastructure problem, to say the least. (And don’t even try using its website; easier to walk 2 miles to a train station and ask the clerk.) That’s what’s got to be seriously acknowledged, looked at, and repaired.

While we’re on the subject of schools, and of alleged feats:

The much-vaunted European digital library, Europeana, continues to be down. (When I contacted a publicist for the institution to complain that I couldn’t even find the site’s supposed greatest virtue, its search engine, he said gleefully, “Well, we have a great video!!”) Unfortunately, this didn’t stop one of the library experts appearing on France Culture this morning from singing the praises of this 2 million Euro (annually) boondoggle. (Demi-traduction: Bidondoggle.) On the same program, one of the guests also pointed out that when he recently presented himself at a local police post to report a minor robbery, he had to rewrite the desk sergeant’s report, so full of ‘faults’ was it. Similarly, he claimed, the reason metro station agents often can’t help him find a given street is that they don’t know what letter it starts with. (Moi, ce n’etes pas les lettres de commencement qui me trouble, c’est ceux qui suive! Ou plutot leur son.)

There’s a connection here! Or rather a disconnect.

Europe is spending 2 million Euros per year on a boondoggle of a bibliotheque (hey, can I get sued and shackled for this?) that so far, DOES NOT WORK. (They claim it’s because there are too many of us that want to use it.) Meanwhile, this year the government eliminated 11,000 teacher positions, including — this is crucial — 3,000 of the 11,000 special education teachers, or RASE. Meanwhile — skipping to another connection here, I know — it’s considering a law which (if I understood correctly) would make it easier to send young people to prison.

In California, my home state, where school funding has suffered ever since, 30 years ago, the state voted to eliminated the property tax, teachers are now thinking of paying for supplies by placing ads on test papers.

Does France know what it’s in train of losing?

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