France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

July 23, 2009

Military fire-starters in Marseille

Okay, so it seems pretty basic: If it’s 36 degrees (100 Farenheit) in the shade and the wind is blowing at Force 7, and you’re in a miliatary camp in the woods outside of Marseille, it’s probably not the ideal moment to start practicing your tracer firing. Yet this is exactly what happened yesterday at 2 in the afternoon at the military camp in Carpiagne, next to the Mount Latin, with the result that 1100 hectares were burned and it took 500 firemen/women to contain the fire, which is still being monitored this morning. Meanwhile, the soot is in the air in Marseille. The regional prefect, the appropriately named Michel Sappin (sapin = Christmas tree, sapinière = forest), speaking to Le Monde, deplored ‘the imbecilité of this act,” adding that “soldiers must abstain in these types of conditions. Last year, the same thing happened close to the Canjuers camp; it was the biggest fire of the summer. Today, it’s at Carpiagne. I have telephoned the military governor to tell him that it is inadmissable and scandalous that the soldiers, as if nothing had happened, continue their activities when there’s wind and the conditions are dangerous.” The good news is that there were no civilian victims, and just one sailor-fireman lightly burned, two more ligthtly intoxicated by the fumes as well as two police officers, Le Monde reported. Five houses burned down. The quartiers of Trois-Ponts and la Barasse were evacuated because of the noxious fumes.

For the errant soldiers, Marseille is also headquarters for the Foreign Legion; I suggest, send ’em there! For next summer, well, it’s just for this reason — stupid humans — that parts of the Calanques, the rocky terrain on the outskirts of Marseille, are off-limits to people during certain periods of the year. If the military can’t exercise some common scents, I suggest the same rules for them.


July 21, 2009

Leçon raté or, one 40-year leap backwards for mankind

Until these last few days, the July 20/21 moon landing remained a local event for me. I watched it from Miami Beach, where after much pleading my grandparents had let my brother Aaron and I stay up late. I even remember the room we were in, their bedroom, the specific images of the astronauts on the moon, and the hour flashing across the bottom of the screen. It was local because Florida was also the home of Cape Canaveral. And of course I remember the planting of the American flag.

What’s striking about remembering the event from another country, France, is how, while giving the Americans their due, the achievement is regarded as all mankind’s, an accomplishment without borders. (That makes three American moonwalkers in three weeks who have received unprecedented French media attention.) Usually the French, or at least the French media, are quick to claim primacy, and even to exaggerate France’s role in a particular historical event. But here’s a feat which is not particularly theirs to claim, and yet the French media has been lavish in the media time accorded to Apollo’s acheivement. (Although I just couldn’t watch a docu-drama recreating the lives of Armstrong, Aldren, and Collins around that time in which their typically suburban circa 1960s American families all spoke French.) Radio and television has been saturated with coverage, to the point where I’ve got ‘magnificent desolation’ imprinted on the brain.

The most striking — and tragic — juxtaposition is that of the observation by one of the astronauts, Collins I think, of how tranquil the Earth seemed from up there with the turbulent reality we returned to shortly after that parenthetical instant of unity embraced in ‘mankind’ — too many small steps in reverse which added up to a giant leap backward for mankind. Vietnam was not the last war fueled by territorialism, by nations believing themselves more individual bands who need to protect what’s theirs because the other guy wants to take it than one ‘mankind.’ If today’s newscast began on the moon, it ended by reporting that British and Spanish boats are still squabbling over who owns Gibraltor. And that’s the way it is.

It’s enough to make a man resort to the sentiment expressed by another local hero from Miami, Jacky Gleason: To the moon, Alice, to the moon!

July 17, 2009

Taking liberties

Okay, so let me get this straight: Factory workers at an auto plant faced with lay-offs threaten to blow up their workplace unless the patron forges over 30,000 Euros to each employee (if this isn’t extortion, what is?), and the government sends in… the industry minister, to re-assure the workers. Meanwhile, in Montreul, a working-class suburb of Paris, citizens hold a peaceful demonstration to protest the police taking out the eye of another demonstrator at an earlier demonstration by firing a paintball gun into it, and the police charge them, firing paintball guns at four more demonstrators… while the interior minister remains silent. Meanwhile, until today (when the Green deputy Noel Maniere introduced a law that would ban police using tasers and paintball guns), the parliament is talking about neither of these abuses of liberty but appears to think the greatest threat to French society is women covering themselves with long dresses. (I’m much more worried by the attack on separation of church and state wielded every night on public television, where the weather broadcaster ends his forecast by exhorting everyone — Catholics, Muslims, Jews and atheists — to not forget to kiss the day’s patron saint.)

July 6, 2009

Man asks for dog’s papers

Filed under: Paris,racism,Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:54 am

For my French readers, I should explain the headline: In American journalism, the phrase “Man bites dog” is applied to news stories which aren’t (news), a sort of inversion of “Dog bites man,” an event which would not be news. Or to put it another way: I was shocked!, shocked! to learn, on France Culture radio this morning, about a new study which confirms that if you’re Black or of Maghrebian (Arab) descent, you’re 6.8 or 7.8 times more likely, respectively, to find yourself asked for your papers here in France than if you’re white.

When one thinks about the actual term, “control (or check) d’identitie,” the implications are profound. Taking the commission literally, what’s being questioned — or if you want to be neutrel about it, verified — is whether you’re part of the national identity (although technically speaking, you could also be a foreigner in which case your papers just need to be in order). So theoretically, the implication is that if you’re not white your 7 to 8 times less likely to be French. (Even if in fact the presumption is that you’re more likely to have committed or be about to commit a crime.)

The study was conducted by researchers from the CNRS attached to the Centre des Recherches Sociologiques sur le Droit et les Institutions Penale. It was commissioned by George Soros’s Open Society Institute, based in the United States, where race-based criteria is known simply as ‘profiling.’ The French study was conducted between October 2007 and February 2008 in two Paris locations, the Gare du Nord and Chatelet. And there’s the first flaw in the study, in at least two respects; 1) People of color are more represented in these two places than they are elsewhere; 2) In the Gare du Nord, which has in fact been a magnet for, if not ‘gangs,’ at least rival youth groups from the suburbs more likely to be constituted by people of African or Maghrebian origin, the police scrutiny may actually be justified.

The uber-conclusion from the study — which clocked 525 controls out of 37,000 which traversed the two places during the periods of observation — is that, ‘the police read the signs of the person more attentively than his comportment.” (The two guests appearing on France Culture, Fabien Joburd and Rene Levy, were not always clearly identified, which is why I’m not attributing the remark to one or the other.) Those indicators were not confined to skin color; the researchers also looked at the sex, age, type of sack and, most intriguingly, clothing, in particular paying attention to whether someone attired a la hip-hop was more likely to be questioned. And indeed, the study found that a white person in hip-hop attire was more likely to be stopped than a black person with no particular wardrobe signifier.

Profiling is not a scourge particular to France. But here’s where the French exception comes in: Elsewhere in Europe (and, I can confirm, the States as well), “Circulate!” (or “Disperse!”) is the premiere contact the police are likely to have with the populace. In France, it’s “Your papers!”

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