France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 9, 2009

Of these, hope: The EU Parliamentary elections

News item: The big story of Sunday’s European Parliamentary elections here in France is that Europe Ecology, a.k.a. the Greens, did just about as well as the Socialists, garnering 15 percent of the vote as compared to the Socialists’ 16, and 14 Parliamentary seats to the Socialists 15. (Coming in first was French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, electing 28 deputies.) In Paris, Europe Ecology beat the Socialists, with a whopping 21 percent of the vote.

Two weeks ago here in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, Danny the Red, a.k.a. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 student protests and, 40 years later, leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, sat on the podium of a local theater listening as a fellow parliamentary candidate from his new Europe Ecology party, this one from ‘France Outre-Mer,’ tried to explain to the audience the unique situation of the ‘former’ colonies in Europe. A baby intermittently bawled. But rather than being annoyed by the baby, Cohn-Bendit gazed at it with a big ol’ smile of wonder on his face.

If nearly 60 percent of the overall voting-age populace stayed home during Sunday’s parliamentary elections in France (across Europe, 57 percent abstained), 80 percent — 80 percent — of young people decided not to vote. But as a young commentator explained yesterday on France Culture radio, it isn’t the European Project young people don’t believe in, it’s the European institutions.

Cohn-Bendit, I think, knows the difference, as does his party. But rather than simply complaining about Europe in confounding ‘Europe’ with Brussels, a.k.a. institutional Europe — as other lefties like me do — he persists in believing in the European Project.

And in convincing others.

So whereas the Socialists continue to be divided between those who voted for the European Constitution, with its lack of adequate social protections, and those who voted against it because it seemed primarily designed to favor the multi-nationals, Cohn-Bendit, who voted for, recruited for Europe Ecology José Bové, the farmer leader who voted against it and the famous opponent of genetically modified produce who risked prison by ramming his tractor into a McDonald’s, as the head of Europe Ecology’s list in Southwest France (where I live when I’m not in Paris).

Et voila Bové, a new member of parliament who proves that the ‘Euro-skeptics’ are quite ready to say yes to a Europe that’s not just there to grease the wheels of pan-European capitalism but to make life easier for everybody else:

“Today, 60 percent of those who die of hunger are farmers,” Bové pointed out in the campaign journal Vert. “In other words, farmers can no longer feed themselves with their own agriculture, let alone nourish their neighbors and the surrounding villages. It’s for this reason that we’ve been fighting for years for the recognition of alimentary sovereignty as a fundamental right on the same level as the right to food. I think that Europe can play an important role in getting alimentary sovereignty inscribed in the Declaration of Human Rights.”

At present, he went on, “in lieu of organizing alimentary sovereignty, in lieu of mandating products of quality for consumers and of preserving the environment, the agricultural politics of the European Union (emphasizes and strengthens) agricultural conglomerates. A farm disappears in Europe every three minutes! We need to radically re-assess this agricultural politics, and this will be the object of the Greens in the European Parliament for this next five-year mandate, because the next European agricultural policy must be put in place in 2013.”

More broadly: The main reason so many citizens stayed home Sunday is that they don’t see the EU parliament as having any influence on or relevance to their lives. In fact, this particular parliament is, at present, more of a demi-parliament because it lacks one fundamental power attributed to most parliaments: It cannot introduce laws. That power belongs to the European Commission — a governing body able to impose its will on a populace which can’t vote for its members directly. (The parliament can only modify laws the EU commission proposes.) Rather than trying to make silk out of a pig’s ear, as much of the mainstream French media does in trying to convince people otherwise, Bové and Europe Ecology promise to actually try to change the balance.

“We have to build a European politics that permits citizens to agitate concretely,” he argues. “We have to return power — or more precisely, give power — to the E.U. Parliament so that there’s a genuine democratic articulation between an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch.”

June 7, 2009

La vie du passé en rose

It’s amazing how a past that’s not even my own, but rather a memory of how profoundly I felt another culture’s past when I lived in Paris from 2001 to 2007, pulled at me again early Friday evening as I dashed down the winding, chestnut-tree shaded rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, stopping only to pay tribute to that well-known cat designer and lover Theodore Steinlin as I passed his house and jet my eye at the atelier where Toulouse-Lautrec once drew Suzanne Valadon. This was after, further up the Butte, I’d paid my respects to Erik Satie outside the one-story apartment building where he’d lived from 1890 to 1898, to Valadon at the now-shuttered restaurant where a plaque reminds us that she and Utrillo dined there for some 20 years, and before I madly scurried across the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel and his pal had done in “The 400 Blows” with a typewriter they’d stolen from Antoine’s father’s office, setting Antoine off on a path of flight that would last 20 years, countless women, and four more Truffaut films.

I wasn’t the only one in Montmartre Friday night channeling ghosts. On the rue Rustique, down the street from the ancient chez Valadon-Utrillo outside the back entrance of a resto, a hyper-spirited pony-tailed young woman with an infectious smile that bared all her teeth was bouncing along in jeans and sky-blue blouse, accompanied Django-style by a guitar and bass player as she sang and snapped a jump version of Gainsbourg’s “Javanaise” and then a jazzy version of “La Vie en Rose” that totally changed its mood from melancholic to celebratory.

Saturday it was more Piaf — have I mentioned that I’m living up the street from where La Mome was born? — as my pal Luc suggested we RDV at noon at the Cafe Edith Piaf, so named because it faces the plaza at the exit of the Metro station Porte Bagnolet dominated by her statue. (On the front of which some connard has poured red paint.) The Resto is decorated with photos of Piaf and her performance posters of the epoch. She’s even playing on the juke. If this sounds like a set-up designed for tourists, it’s not; it’s a local cafe that’s somehow both a tribute to and an authentic living embodiment of an earlier era.

My adventure, though, started earlier, as I rushed (I rush a lot — I may be the fastest man in Paris; I moved here to stop rushing but it hasn’t worked) through the Saturday market stalls. Apparently it’s fete your market week-end in Paris, as I was reminded when I came upon a stand where a man with a mike and a smiley woman seemed to be giving away goody-stuffed sleek blue and white canvas bags inscribed in multi-color with “Les marchés de Paris.” I hovered, but they just kinda looked at me as if to say, “Et alors?” Then they stopped another guy and asked him a question about General de Gaulle; apparently you had to pass a quiz to get a goody sack. I cursed my luck, as Le General is one of my specialties. (I like to regal my Les Eyzies potes Bernard and Stephan with my recording of his greatest speeches when they stop by at night to regard the pre-historic cliffs, drink Panaché ((no, all French ‘paysans’ don’t sit around drinking marc)) and try to get me to adopt a mutton or convince me that the moon has disappeared.) But I persisted in hovering, and I guess they realized they’d have to give me the chance to win a bag to get rid of me. The guy stuck his mike in my face and pointed at my beret. At first I didn’t understand (my French is not that bad, really, but my level drops dramatically in high-pressure situations), but then I caught “Hergé,” and when he again indicated my hat, I realized he was referring to my Captain Haddock (tr.: Craddock) pin. He asked me if I was a Tintin fan, I nodded, and then, with an “Oh yeah?” look in his eye, he popped the question:

“How many volumes of Tintin did Hergé write?”

Merde. “Uh… 12?”

(I realized later that our little interview was being broadcast throughout the ten-block market.)

“That’s right!” he said, giving me a break and handing me a sack. Then he asked where I was from — is it *still* that evident that I’m not from around here? — and instead of f*cking with him as I’ve been doing with a lot of Parisians by answering, “Sud-ouest. Dordogne!” I answered “America.” “Yay Obama!” he said. This gave me confidence, so before I walked off with my loot I said, “Thank you for myself, and also on behalf of Captain Craddock,” which must have been understandable, because the smiley woman laughed.

In the bag was a wide-brimmed straw hat, baseball hat, and tee-shirt, all plugging the marchés, plus a big ‘ol bag of potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I contributed two of the onions to the veggie feast Luc had prepared for his daughter and me, after we’d picked up two heaping boxes of old books a local bookstore owner, Jose, had given to Luc for his ‘boite’ on the Seine. — he’s a bouquiniste or bookseller along the Seine. Luc stacked them under a big empty box inside his doorway, but as soon as he’d disappeared into the kitchen I delved in, finding treasures like a complete set of the Dos Passos “U.S.A.” saga and a clothbound 1950s circa collection of Tennessee Williams, both in translation of course.

While we were eating, Jose, who’d turned down Luc’s invitation to join us, was digging out his Boris Vian books for me, “Elles ne rendent pas compte” (rough tr.: “These women don’t realize what they’re doing”) and “Les Fourmis,” (“The Ants”), a collection of novellas. Vian books besides “‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes” (“I’ll spit on your graves”) are hard to find, so I’m sure Jose’s 5 Euro apiece price was just, but a)I’m on a budget which I’ve already exceeded and b)the plain white covers and that these were recent additions didn’t do much for me. “I like the old pocket-book covers!” I explained to Luc. “It’s the title that matters, not the design!” At today’s vide grenier (neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) on the rue Marie and Louise near the canal, I scored both these books and a third, “Trouble dans les Andains” (completed in 1942-1943 but issued posthumously in 1966, thus both the first novel Vian wrote and the last published). The cover for “Les Fourmis” features Boris in kaleidescope, wearing a black shirt and four different expressions; ‘Andains’ has him pressing a fist to his chest and regarding the reader with wry menace; and the last has a full-color Vargas Girl kicking up her heels from a reclining position as she starts to remove her stockings. Total price: 3 Euros. Earlier, at a vide grenier nearer to my apartment, I’d picked up sealed DVDs of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” for 2.60 total. Bi-continental schizophrenic stuck in other people’s pasts: C’est moi.

L’Algerie au coeur

With his long gray hair, Marc Garanger looks like an ex-hippy. But in fact, at the beginning of the 1960s — 1960 to be precise — he found himself at war in Algeria, assigned to photograph thousands of Algerian women who the French authorities had decided should have ID cards, the better to control them. So the women in his book, “Femmes d’Algerie 1960,” mostly regard him with defiance, if not outright contempt. Photographed again 45 years later, when he returned to Algeria to find his memories and them, some of the same women have joyous expressions as they regard their younger selves and share the photos and another time and ambiance with their grandchildren.

Garanger and photos from both of these books were on display at the Cafe Social de Belleville — a sort of cafe for senior citizens — for the commencement of “L’Algerie au Coeur,” the first of an evening of events that terminated tres tard with the local premiere by Belleville’s own Lyes Salem of his “Mascarades,” itself a light-hearted tale of changing family values in an Algeria where native tradition often confronts the modernity of a shrinking world. (“Mascarades” was selected best film in the 2008 Dubai Film Festival awards and is Algeria’s nomination for best foreign film for the 2009 Oscars.)

Giving a soundtrack to the whole evening was Said Aichel-Fi and his Groupe Idebbal-en playing traditional Berber (?) party music. (The band is available for marriages, circumcisions, and concerts: 01-43-49-32-94.) The taste that I retain comes from the carrots in harisa and spicy chestnuts served at and outside the cafe social (7, rue Pali Kao in Paris’s 20eme arrondisement; the photos will be there for another three weeks.) in a real street party. But also, in a world — and a France — whose very shrinking has sometimes made for inter-community fractures, there were some simple signs of hope: Hearing the music, the residents in the social housing above the cafe opening their windows included a young black woman and a Hasidic Jewish gentleman who could not resist smiling. Later, when the party moved up the street to the Place Alphonse Alias for the screening of Salem’s film and a sort of travelogue by Claire and Reno Marca that traverses all Algeria, it proved a challenge to deplace the teenagers — evidently residents of the social housing that surrounds the square — batting a soccer ball around the square. Tant mieux, I thought; wasn’t this the youth of the greatest French Algerian of them all, Albert Camus? Looking up at the well-kept housing project, I transformed the trees into lemon groves and imagined myself in Oran.

June 3, 2009

The new king of the Luxembourg Garden

If France is a nation of rules, the Luxembourg Garden is where rules rule. I once made the mistake of moving one of those handy green metal chairs a few feet so that I could sit right next to the central fountain that faces the Senate building. Within 20 seconds a long shadow loomed over me; when I looked up, a tall guardian was wagging his finger at me — interdit! (Forbidden.) And then there was the time my brother Aaron, visiting with his family, refused to believe it was interdit to picnic on the little patch of grass near the Medici Fountain. “But look, everyone else is!” Wistfully shaking my head, I conceded. We’d barely had time to crack the hard-boiled eggs and pour the drinks when the whistle blew.

Why do I keep going back to this Forbidden Planet, you ask? I who hate rigid rules? For the rigid statues. So having written Saturday that life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Garden, Tuesday, despite some heat + pollution produced minor heart pains that counseled me to rest indoors, I took the subway and a very crowded RER to the garden. But boy did my heart jump a few when I saw the monstrosity the guardians have let be introduced among the circle of limestone former queens of France statues that form a demi-circle around and hover above the fountain.

There between Marguerite of Angouleme, queen of Navarre (1492 – 1549) and Valentine of Milan, duchesse of Orleans, someone had inserted a giant, 6.5 meter tall, several meter wide bronze head. It’s called “The Prophete,” but it looks more like a bald, sleepy-eyed Tutankamen re-imagined by a mid-20th century modern artist. It’s apparently the culminating life’s work of one Louis Derbre. (You can see a picture of it here: http://www.derbre.com .) What I don’t understand is how, on the one hand, the guardians of the Luxembourg can get so upset if I disturb the equilibrium of the Senate by moving one metal chair next to their fountain for ten minutes, and on the other hand, allow this modern monstrosity to be inserted amongst the queens, instantly dwarfing Marguerite and Valentine and making them look like handmaidens to “The Prophet.” The pristine, limestone circle has now been broken. The head also now dominates the view from the fountain.

As you may have noticed, many of these queens have spikes where their crowns should be. That’s to prevent the pigeons from sitting on their heads and pooping on them. How the guardians can be so (rightly) concerned about pigeon poop and then let some modern artists plop a giant head down amongst the queens that instantly disrupts this classic and eternal picture and indeed the whole landscape of the Luxembourg at its center I just don’t get.

I have nothing against Mr. Derbre and his life-long dream. Maybe he could put it next to that giant bronze-colored flower pot in front of the Pompidou Museum, a haven for 20th century art and thus a more proper home for his achievement. But for God’s sake, save the queens, call the guardians and get that modern monstrosity out of the Luxembourg Garden.

PS: Ohp! Good news. In researching a link for an image of “The Prophete,” I see that he’s only supposed to be at the Luxembourg Garden through this month; after it’s off to the front of the Madeleine Church and then the United States. Bon voyage!

June 1, 2009

The Chevalier de la Barre: La suite

It’s amazing how certain traits of a society never change. About 230 years ago, a young man refused to take off his hat for and hurled impudent ditties at a passing parade of nobles and notables in Paris; for this they cut off the hands that refused to to take of the hat and the tongue that sang the ditties, and then they burned him at the stake. Later they put up a statue of and monument to the young man who became known as the Chevalier de la Barre in a park in the shadow of Sacre Coeur and named the street that encircles this church — itself a symbol of repentance imposed on the losers of the Paris Commune by the federal authorities — after him.

60 years ago, in “The Stranger,” Albert Camus wrote of a nondescript civil servant who is persecuted not because he kills an Arab (to stick with Camus’s nomenclature), but because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral — in other words, not for the criminal act he actually committed against society, but for not conforming to societal norms.

Six months ago, frustrated by her department’s inability to capture those responsible for a series of rail sabotages and threats of sabotage, the French interior minister ordered the arrestation of an anarchist activist, Julien Coupat, his girlfriend, and a few members of their coterie, all of whom lived in a collective in rural southwest France reading and writing about anarchist theory. Absent sufficient proof linking them to the rail sabotage (Coupat and his girlfriend, Yiddune Levy, had allegedly been seen in the vicinity of one of the rail targets) the interior minister accused them of belonging to an ultra-left organization with links to terrorism.

The thinness of the evidentiary trail became clear to me when French authorities said they’d started tailing Coupat on the basis of a tip from the FBI, which consisted of saying he’d been seen at a meeting of alleged anarchists in the States.

In other words, for the past six months, Julien Coupat has been kept in prison not for any crime which, at this point anyway, is provable, but for what he thinks, writes, and reads — and, to be fair, for being at two meetings and taking part in two demonstrations. And, by implication, for being and thinking different.

On Thursday, the French parquet finally realized they had no choice but to release Coupat, albeit keeping him under ‘control judiciary,’ meaning he has to report in every day, post a 16,000 Euro bond, has to stay in the Paris area where his parents live and can’t associate with any other members of the supposed cell (all of whom had been previously released).

As for the not so extreme Left, it has been typically slow to respond to the government’s extreme treatment of Coupat; only now, after the damage has been done — and, conveniently, a week before the European parliamentary elections — are prominent leaders coming forth and denouncing a ‘judicial fiasco,’ with one, Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, going so far as to demand the resignation of interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie, and the Greens, meanwhile (finally), demanding a parliamentary investigation. The French daily Liberation, which reported these belated gestures in its Friday editions, appropriately made Coupat’s liberation its cover, with the fitting headlines: ‘Coupat freed; Investigation into a fiasco.’ “One has the right, in a Democracy,” the paper’s editor Laurent Joffrin wrote, “to deliver a radical critique of democratic society, to denounce the State, to lambast a system of power that one judges oppressive. It’s even one of the conditions of the existence of a democratic society.”

The question, then, isn’t whether one supports anarchy — I don’t, because under the guise of threatening just the government, it ultimately attacks the security of us all, a contempt for civil society underlying all the fancy rhetoric — but whether one supports plurality of thought. (Where anarchy moves beyond thought into acts of violence, there’s a solution: You prosecute for the criminal acts, adding ‘conspiracy’ to the charges where that applies.) One of the many things I love about France is that it ultimately does encourage multiplicity of political thought, much more than my own country. At the primary school down the street from me — as at the schools throughout Paris which will also serve as voting places next Sunday — 27 metal panels with messages from 27 different political parties with candidates for the European parliamentary elections are on display, the Socialists falling about in the middle. (When I was the student member of the San Francisco Board of Education 30 years ago, supposedly apolitical school system authorities accused me of being a ‘radical Socialist’ just for denouncing planned program cuts.) In the last French presidential election, 11 parties presented candidates in the first of two rounds. In the last U.S. presidential election and in U.S. elections in general, there are essentially two parties, one marginally to the Left and one extremely to the Right of the political center. Yes, there’s a Green Party and there’s even now a Socialist member of the Senate, but unlike in France, there aren’t any rules assuring equal advertising time for and thus equal exposure to the Greens and other ‘minor’ party candidates — indeed, the Democrats, Republicans, and major television networks have repeatedly colluded to exclude candidates from any other parties from the presidential debates. So the question isn’t whether, absent actual proof of illegal acts, one agrees with anarchists like Julien Coupat, the question is whether one wants a society that prizes freedom of ideas.

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