France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

March 29, 2010

Why Françoise Hardy won’t shake your hand

Just about every pundit capable of independent analysis agrees that the reason the Front National mounted in last week’s regional elections was the governing UMP party’s focus on false security issues (immigrants or if you prefer, illegal immigrants, a subset of which is the burka) as opposed to the real insecurity issues actually pre-occupying the electorate, e.g. unemployment, lodging, and the loss of purchase power. (Never mind that the UMP’s leader in parliament, like a parrot who only knows a few words, was still chirping “Burka!” election night, signalling his intention to pursue some form of interdiction of the full-body veil.) Yet there was another government campaign which also tapped into (even if it didn’t intentionalliy exploit) insecurity: the super-hyped campaign to get people vaccinated and to take other measures to protect themselves against swine flu. The campaign had hardly begun winding down when government critics started saying the real threat had been over-amped. There were even hints that enabing the pharmas to profit from the crisis by the government’s purchase of (too much vaccine had been a factor. I don’t subsscribe to this theory. If anything, in the wake of the ancient debacle involving HIV-contaminated blood supplies and the more recent one involving the government’s lack of preparation for the deadly heat wave of 2003, this government would have been crucified if it hadn’t been circumspect about this latest health menace. And it was certainly not alone among the world’s governments in panicking.

Nevertheless, even if, in my view, the amplitude of the government’s swine flu protection campagin was justified, it’s had at least one consequence which to my mind is just as alarming as the resurgence of the Front National.

Françoise Hardy, the lithesome and archetypal French singer-actress of the free-loving and carefree ’60s, is no longer shaking hands.

“Its because of” the government’s swine flu campaign, the self-described ‘grand sentimental’ explained to an interviewer from radio France Inter who observed that in lieu of shaking hands, she was now greeting people in what he called the ‘Japanese or Asiatique” fashion, of folding her hands and bowing. “It’s more beautiful, and it’s more ‘safe,'” she said, using the English word.

Welcome to France version 2010, a country in which fear of the other has become such a virus, at least among some French, that the Front National is mountting in strength and Françoise Hardy is retreating her hand. I’ll hold out for the return of a France where Muslim women can protect their bodies if they want to and Françoise Hardy doesn’t feel she needs to protect hers to the degree of not extending her hand to be touched and held.

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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!

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