France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 30, 2009

A Paris

Sous le ciel de Paris
S’envole une chanson
Elle est née d’aujourd’hui
Dans le coeur d’un garçon.

“Sous le ciel de Paris,” lyrics Jean Dréjac

I just looked up the word ‘accablement’ to be absolutely sure I understood the implications of host Ali Badou assigning that trait to the ‘patrimoine’ or heritage and history of Paris on today’s France Culture morning program, whose focus was the future of “Grande Paris,” a project for which the state has gathered 10 proposals from ten architects. Here’s what my Roberts-Collins says: “despondency, depression (oppression), exhaustion.” Mais je reve! Car pour moi, the patrimoine of Paris has the opposite effect. It lifts me every time.

I stroll the Grands Boulevards and suddenly their present grime, the garbage on the street is obscured by a vision of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning,” as he saw it from a window of the Hotel Russe at the turn of the 19th/20th century, accompanied by Montand singing their eloge in the piss-poor 1950s. I sit down on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis, facing Notre Dame and watching the Sun glint off the dappled Seine and suddenly I hear Greco or Francois singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” I gaze dreamily across the River at the Rive Gauche, and there I see Kelly courting Caron at the exact spot where they had their dance in “An American in Paris.” The airs of some of this music drifts over from the bridge joining the Ile St. Louis to the Ile de Cité and I make sure, when I leave, to drop a Euro in the case of the man playing the accordion — who seems more likely to be there in cold weather than hot. I’m deflated if, on the way to my nightly picnic on the Ile, my bouquiniste friend Luques’s stand is closed, because the bouqunistes, who struggle — man, do they struggle — they, too are the patrimoine. I climb up to Montmartre on the 14th of July and it’s not the pomp recalling the Revolution that stirs me, but the strains of Satie I hear coming from the single-etage on a winding backstreet where he composed that music.

But when I hear the host of the morning program on the national radio chain which in theory should be placing the most value on French culture describe his own patrimoine, his own heritage as imposing an ‘accablement’; when I hear the program give free reign to a snotty Belgian cartoonist to sniff that ‘history takes too much place’ in Paris, when I hear the program give space to one of the very same (self-interested) architects to proclaim that “that which interests me is the patrimoine of today”– ignoring that patrimoine is not something you buy like a fast-food hamburger and fast track, but something acquired with the richness of history and the events and people which animate it — when I hear all this I wonder if the cultural elite of Paris realize the jewel they have in their hands. They often like to describe Paris as “a museum.” Exactement. Mais c’est une musee vivant, avec, as Montant chants, tant de choses. Everyone wants to leave their mark, I know; but in doing so, do the architects, political and professional, of “Grande Paris” risk erasing their own history? (Roland Castro, the architect accabling his own tradition on France Culture this morning, also apparently has three philosophers on his team; do historians have their place in the equipe?)

Mais si! Il y a une patrimoine, et c’est ca qui fait de Paris une grande ville.

PS Another thing Mr. Castro tried to obscure this morning was that Paris’s eternal gift is its light. So the problem people have with the sky-scrapers whose potential virtue he was extolling is not just that they can be ugly to view or stifling to work and live in, but that they block the Sun and, in Paris, would cast serious shadows over the City of Light.

November 26, 2008

François Bayrou versus the media

Boy, I tell you: If there’s one factor that would determine me to become a French citizen it would be the chance to campaign and vote for François Bayrou. It might only be one small pinky finker in the dyke trying to stem the Left-wing media tide against him, but maybe if my friends on the French Left saw a Lefty American vote for the man ill-defined as ‘centrist’ they might start to question the pidgeon-hole the French Lefty media has tried to box him into. One need only to have listened to the Left-leaning crew of my favorite radio program, the morning show on France Culture, to be reminded of how a determined effort by this same media during the 2007 presidential election succeeded in convincing enough French that the man from Pau was ‘flou’ or mushy to beat him down from a second-place 19 percent in pre-first tour polls and prevent him from reaching the second and final round, thus paving the way for Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory against the hopelessly entrenched Socialists.

The lowest moment came during the final 30 minutes, when commentator Olivier Duhamel refused to accept that Bayrou was not rejoicing at the squabble between Segolene Royal and Martin Aubry for premiere secretary which threatened to engulf the Socialist party over the last week. (Royal, who lost by 102 votes, finally conceded last night.) Allowing that he might reap a benefit here or there, Bayrou explained simply that for this battle to consume so much time and energy and attention at this particular time was not good because it detracted focus from the real world at a time when we needed it most. This was not good enough for Duhamel, who proceeded to waste five prescious minutes trying to get Bayrou to admit he was dancing for joy. Et voila, these were five minutes that the president of the Mouvement Democratic could have used to answer the morning’s final question, from the only commentator who was not piling on (and who indeed was chastising the others for doing so), Catherine Clement. She’d asked what he’d do for Culture. Bayrou, who had earlier pointed out that, contrary to what Socialist propaganda would have us believe of him, it’s not capitalism but humanism that he exalts as a mode of life, began by noting that the tenets of this humanism were three non-merchandisable elements of society: Education, Research, and Culture. Clement pressed him to expand on Culture; when he said he wasn’t sure in what sense she meant, she elaborated, trés presicely, that the State has been pushing responsibility for cultural expenditure to the regions and even localities — a crucial question for the artistic sector, in which I count myself, across France. Bayrou had barely time to begin, “Pour le spectacle vivant…” when host Ali Badou cut him off because there was no more time left — which would not have been the case if Duhamel, unrestrained by the host, had not wasted five minutes trying to get Bayrou to act like HE expected a politician to act. Bayrou had already alienated, or at least riled, his host by saying he should go hide himself for not opposing the government’s proposed changes in the audio-visuel regime on the grounds that they would enable the president to appoint the heads of France Television and Radio, thus robbing journalists of their independence. (Once again proving the abrogation of the Socialists on crucial issues where a firm stance from the supposed Opposition is called for — who’s flou now? — the Socialist leader in Parliament yesterday flatly refused Bayrou’s call to censure the government on the audio-visuel law.)

If I have one constructive suggestion for Bayrou — offered from one who has the same tempting but sometimes self-defeating tendency — it would be that he should guard himself from the urge to personalise his polemics in this fashion. (He also likes to employ Pinochio’s nose to evoke politicians who in his view are being hypocritical. “They wouldn’t even fit in a stadium!” he once said of one group.) Take it from one who knows from personal experience, Monsieur Bayrou: Just because you have the gift of a rapier wit doesn’t mean it’s always the best weapon to employ. Or to use an old American aphorism (thank you, Mark Dendy!): You can catch more flies with honey than vinager. (Tr, approximatif: “On a plus de chance a tiré des mouches avec le miele que le vinaigre.”)

November 25, 2008

Pirate Radio: The news is on strike to protest the elimination of commercials

I guess it’s no surprise that after reporting last night that the teachers, the students, the parents, the train workers, and the emergency hospital workers are on strike, the News decided to join the party this morning, presumably taking the weather with it. (There was only one mishap of mal-coordination; apparently the transport workers who decided to call a Flash strike in Bordeaux last week forgot to tell the teachers, delaying the start of the demonstration.) Thus the hourly 15 minute and half hourly ten minute newscasts on France Culture this morning were replaced by randomly mixed top 40 music, the news team calling in sick to protest a government proposition to eliminate commericals from the four public television stations after 8 p.m. . (As strikes in France often mean not that the employees don’t show up for work, but that they show up but just don’t work, my theory is that it’s the errant newscasters who are torturing us with the randomly mixed music.) Curiously enough, the theme on this morning’s France Culture program — host Ali Badou and the commentators apparently got notes excusing them from not showing up for work — is pirates. So maybe the News is actually being held hostage by Somalia-based corsaires. (Perhaps we can keep the commericals going long enough to collect ransom, anyway.)

The plan to strip commericals from public television, my two regular readers will recall, was launched by President Sarkozy at a press conference earlier this year, in a deft move to deflect reporters’ attention from the fact that the candidate for purchase power had turned into the president of the empty treasury. (Although I guess if we have no money with which to buy, maybe it’s best to eliminate commercials which tempt us with the cars, vacations, and sheepherd tended cheese beyond our reach.) Why is this cause for grievance among audio-visual workers? It’s not that they love commericials, apparently, but that they’re worried about how the State will replace that money and, worse, that the solution — more money directly from the State — will return public television to the days of old, when there was, as non-striking commentator Alain-Gerard Slama put it today, a general inside every television (De Gaulle, not Electric). And indeed, in addition to taking away commercials, President Sarkozy wants to give to himself the power to appoint the president of the France Television uber-network which supervises the public television stations. (Il faut dire que the president did have a good point when he said it’s hard to tell the difference between ‘public’ television and ‘private’; the one broadcasts Cold Case, the other Law & Order. There do seem to be more historical dramas on the public television France 2, most concerning an Occupied France peopled predominantly by heroes of the Resistance, the collaborators relegated to supporting roles. Recent history, from the Algerian War to the 2005 riots in the suburbs, are less frequently treated. As for France 3, the other main public television station, I love my nightly Marseille-set soap Plus Belle la Vie but it’s hardly something you’d find on Channel 13, the egg-heady NY public t.v. station.) Modem Party leader François Bayrou has piled on, saying he’d support a parliamentary resolution opposing the new audio -visual law, raising the question: How can he oppose opening stores on Sunday because we need to teach our children that there are more important things than consummation, on the one hand, and on the other oppose eliminating the commericals which install that ideology on a nightly basis? (The France Culture morning program has just terminated, seguaying into a rap song that begins with a word I can’t repeat without censoring: “N*****s are people.” Now it’s returning to the same mix played two hours ago. Evidently the newscasters just left an old mix tape, recorded off an AM top 40 broadcast.)

PS It seems that History is also on strike, Emmanuel Laurent’s daily France Culture program on that theme having been replaced this morning by afore-mentioned still-running mix tape.

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