France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 28, 2010

The burka that covers the wheat-fields

Yesterday thousands of farmers from all over the country descended on the Place de Nation in Paris in a desperate call to save their profession, in particular that of wheat cultivators, who spend more to produce than they earn. In general, agriculture minister Bruno le Mer said, farmers earn 15 percent of what most workers make. Considering the essential and enduring place of farmers in the life of the country, you’d think that the government might have stopped everything to listen to them. But no, the cabinet had been convened by prime minister Francois Fillon to discuss a more pressing problem, a law to ban the burka, which afffects at most 2,000 women (as opposed to wife beating, which affects 250,000), and which became a priority for the right-wing government after it lost the recent regional elections, in large part because extreme right voters abandoned it for the National Front. (Whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now saying he doesn’t necessarily favor a law banning the burka, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.) So obsessed is the government with distracting the French from their ‘end of the month’ problems with this red herring, the interior minister jumped on the case of a woman who filed a complaint after she was stopped for driving with a burka by threatening to take away her husband’s citizenship because, he says, the man has four wives. (The husband says that like any good Frenchman, he has one wife and three mistresses. “Since when do we take away someone’s citizenship because they have mistresses?”)

As is often the case, my retired farmer neighbor, Mr. Malraux, has a simple explanation for the disparity between earnings and costs today’s farmers face: the tractors, and the gas they consume. While he used them in the latter part of his career, for most of it he propelled his farm machines — antique devices now lined up in front of his shed presiding over the path below — with cows or horses.

PS: Meanwhile, out in the cornfield — that of Mr. Malraux — it’s Day III and the one remaining live chicken is still there, as is the dead one lashed to the stake to trap the fox. We’re expecting 90 degrees today, Farenheit — ca va commence a pu.

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April 25, 2010

Cock-a-doodle done

When we last left Mr. Malraux, my neighbor the retired farmer, he was planning to set a trap for the fox that had killed one of his two roosters and absconded with two of his three chickens, probably to nourish his fox puppies, using the carcass of the late rooster as bait. He abandoned that plan because, he told me, “I might accidentally trap a cat.” As the remaining coq-au-vin loitered on his porch last evening seeking morsels — even trying to enter the house — we considered whether maybe it was better to kill this one while we could still cook ‘im up as coq-au-vin a la vin blanc (better, according to M. Malraux), because if the fox came back, it would be too late. Coq-au-vin — the remaining rooster, I mean — had avoided his usual meandering around the ‘hood all day, until, unusually late for him — after 8 p.m. — his cry alerted me that he’d strayed over to my side of the path. I menaced him lightly with the bamboo cane to keep him away, and he went down the road in the other direction.

M. Malraux had told me to yell if the fox came back; the death cry of the other rooster had woken me up at 1 the previous night, while M. Malraux had slept through it. (The cry had been followed by what seemed to me more than one chicken clucking, which is why I’d been surprised that that the next morning only one chicken and rooster remained.)

I did better; as this was Saturday night, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching Law & Order Special Victims Unit (maybe they should start a new one for roosters?) and Law & Order. No rooster cry or fox prowling could be heard. I even opened the window before going to bed; nothing.

And nothing to wake me up the next morning. The remaining rooster hadn’t got going until 7:30 the previous morning, so when I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 I wasn’t alarmed. But as time went on, it was pretty clear that the fox had returned and killed the remaining rooster and chicken. Also a bad sign was that the carcass of the dead rooster M. Malraux had left at the opening to his shed was gone. Sure enough, around 9 a.m. I spotted M. Malraux from the window — looking very pissed and evidently looking for the fox, with his rifle strapped to his shoulder.

He was actually looking for a rat (a real rat I mean), he explained to me when I hurried across the road to get the latest. As for the rooster and chicken, he pointed to the shed, where two fresh carcasses were stacked up next to one of the tractors; apparently the fox had taken the one he’d left the day before and left two new chicken cadavres. “Now I have nothing!” the farmer said, more perturbed than usual, as I made sure to stay on the good side of his rifle. (The deaths of the other rooster and two chickens, while upsetting, had not crashed the threshold of the “what can you do?” shrug.)

When the fox trapper, who we’ll call Pierre, arrived in his small blue ’60s compact station wagon, he immediately set to work figuring out the best terrain to set the trap. Putting it right before the tractor shed — where the chickens and roosters actually lived — was out of the question because of all the people that pass by with their dogs, let alone the cats. So he decided to put it in the middle of M. Malraux’s corn field, which is on my side of the path and by the Vezere river. M. Malraux found a stake, which Pierre cracked was “certainly large enough!,” then they drove down to the river, me following on foot. The dead rooster or chicken (I can no longer tell them apart) he posted there looks like those corpses that you see bound to stakes in bad Cowboy and Indian or war movies as a warning to others. (“Roosters! Show your ass ’round these parts and you’ll meet the same fate!”) Around the stake Pierre placed five rusted traps, panting heavily as he opened and braced the jaws. Then he gently placed dead corn stalk morsels on each one, then covered them with dirt. Basically, there’s no way that fox can get to that dead rooster without getting trapped. For my part, I reminded Mr. Malraux that if he wanted the fox to bite, he should probably hide the other dead chicken.

While they were finishing, Mr. Malraux’s best pote Jacques showed up for his morning visit and eau de vie session. I hailed him. This probably makes me sound more important than I was, which was just a by-stander or witness with occasional wisecracks… But around here, it’s understood that any event — my tearing and burning down the dead walnut tree with my bare hands to open up the view and stop the annual bee sejour, for instance — is open to spectators.

And maybe that’s all I am here; when we all got back to the path, Mr. Malraux, Pierre, and Jacques went into Mr. Malraux’s to boire un coupe; I did not feel like I was in the coupe; one more threshold I can’t cross.

But my role as witness wasn’t terminated. Back home, out the bathroom window I saw what looked very much like the silhouette of a chicken on the path right across from Mr. Malraux’s. I ran over. “Mr. Malraux, Mr. Malraux! Vient voir!” It turned out I was not mistaken in believing I heard more than one chicken clucking after the first night’s carnage. One of the two chickens we’d assumed the fox had carted away to feed to his/her little ones that night had apparently just been hiding for two days. “Now at least you can have eggs,” I told M. Malraux, who was clearly happy all his remaining animal stock was not lost. “One a day!” said Pierre. “That’s all you need.”

I was relieved for M. Malraux. Earlier I’d told him, “You’ll be without an animal for the first time in your life!” A farmer with no animals; how’s that for an existential crisis? Later today, France Enter radio interviewed a man (in the Dordogne, as it happened) whose farmer father had committed suicide after 40 years in the metier because he just couldn’t keep up with the bank bills. Apparently, in the Dordogne (my department) more people die every day from suicide than traffic accidents. M. Malraux is retired so supposedly has a pension or social security, but still, I was worried. Indeed, given that he like me complained about one of the roosters always trying to attack him from behind, and pointed out that they weren’t really good for anything (you don’t need them to make eggs), I think if he held on to those roosters, it was because they have always been a fundamental part of his identity, even if he doesn’t need to be woken up before dawn any more.

As for me, it makes me feel guilty to give in too much to feeling relieved that I’ll no longer have to put up with that horrible rooster cry. And I can’t help wonder if the explanation for coq-au-vin’s crossing the path last evening at such an unusually late hour to my side was that it was his way of saying goodbye.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

October 31, 2009

Journalist has heart attack while turning turn-of-the-century wine press

When we last left our hero, he’d just finished the vendange, filling four of Mr. Marty’s colorful plastic barrels with grapes, most red, with a few exceptionally sweet green grapes he’d found high up in Mr. Marty’s vines thrown in, plus a few drunk bees and scattered weeds. That was Thursday, October 22. The next steps, Mr. Marty said, were to turn the grapes in the press and then leave them to ferment in the big square blue bath-tub in the barn.

I started to get worried when Bernard told me, a week later, that the grapes would rot if Mr. Marty left them in the barrels too long, so I’ve been bugging him since then to get them into the press, always adding that I’d do the heavy lifting. I felt a little guilty about practically harassing him, but didn’t want the sweat I’d put into the vendange to go to waste. (Plus, okay, I was looking forward to tasting the cru.)

So finally today, when I knocked on his door around one after returning from the village, he said to come by in an hour. I had a quick lunch of the butcher’s house-made pate mixed with some of my apples cooked up and walnuts toasted up, plus a little mustard, all blended with my ’60s-era ‘mixer-baby’ and served over country tourte bread from the Boulangerie Margot.

“I’m not sure if I have the cork,” Mr. Marty said doubtfully, looking at the broken cork that was stopping up the sky blue fermenting vat, when I came by after lunch. “I have some wine bottle corks,” I suggested, helpfully I thought, but he explained that for this he required a special, pointed cork. He went to look for it and emerged from his home a few minutes later.

“Une petite gout, pour remontre le morale?” he asked with a petite twinkle in his eye. Far be it from me to say no to a ‘petite gout’ of Mr. Marty’s eau de vie and it did indeed re-mount my morale. It also helped that he’d found a pointed cork.

Fortified by the eau de vie, I helped Mr. Marty wheel out the wooden press — which looked like it might date from the turn of the last century, at the latest — and put it on top of one of the barrels. It looks like a wheel-barrel, except that what would be the levers protrude from the bottom of the barrel. Inside it are two cylinders through which the grapes pass, and on the side is the wheel with lever which turns the cylinders. First we emptied one barrel into the press and, with Mr. Marty pressing its grapes down and me turning the wheel, squeezed the grapes. We repeated this three times. Some of the juice had already naturally come out of the raisins and that fell easily through the two cylinders. For the rest, the pressing was tough — a real workout. I had to take a pause after two, and couldn’t help seeing the headline, “Journalist has heart attack making wine in southwest France.”

After each barrel-full was passed through the press into another barrel, we lifted it and emptied it into the blue vat. When we finished, Mr. Marty urged me, “Get a glass and taste it!” I ran home across the path and got a couple of my ’50s-vintage Pastis 51 glasses, lifting them to show Mr. Marty, but he said, “No, just for you!” We waited for the grapes to settle in the last barrel before I dipped my glass in, scooping up some raisins with the juice. Here goes! It was dense and sour — reminding me of fermented plums I’d once tasted on a Mandarin class field-trip to a Chinese movie theater in junior high which surprised me with there salty sour taste.

“Kind of lemony,” I said, my lips puckered, to Mr. Marty. I had to ask if it would taste like that once it was done, but he said the taste would go away once the wine fermented. “Usually you leave it for 15 days, but because it’s so little, eight will do.” Afterwards, as we sat on the stone border of the garden in front of his house talking about the day when the neighborhood was full of vines and everyone made their own eau de vie before the government decided to tax it, I started feeling nauseous. N’impeche que I didn’t say no when he offered me to come in for another ‘petite gout.’ I also asked for some of the lemon soda he poured for himself, and that helped the stomach, but at the first trés petit gout I felt the wine coming up again. “Would it derange you if I saved this for later?” “Pas du tout!”

Tch-tch-tchin!

Post-script:

It was hard for me to write about this at the time because I was too busy sobbing in the wine I’d never have, but here’s the sequel: When Mr. Marty checked the wine a little later, he swiggled it in his mouth, then shook his head and said, “It’s no good.” Apparently Bernard was right; he’d let the grapes sit in the barrels too long before running them through the press, and they had soured. At the time I was disappointed and deflated; all that work for nothing! But in fact it yielded a lot more. Born and bred in Northern California, and having spent the past nine years in France, I have always considered myself something of a wine expert. At this point I can just about tell you what wine — or digestif or aperitif — goes with anything. But now thanks to Mr. Marty I had finally had the experience of making wine from scratch. I had learned how to make it. I had done so in a veritable crucible of wine-making; Mr Marty’s vineyards were not well-maintained, so I had had to sit on my knees among thistles and sometimes wade through weeds to get to the vines. I had pulled the grapes with my own hands. And I had turned a 100-year-old mill to make the wine. How many wine connoisseurs — even in France — can make that claim?

October 22, 2009

Sour Grapes: Time to stop my whining and start making wine

Much as I’m hankering to be back in a city and resume my search (I almost wrote ‘cherche’; thinking in French, translating into English) for la femme de ma vie, I’m at least conscience that for many Americans (and even some French city denizens) the idea of a guy living in a medieval stone house in the south of France surrounded by green pastures, 100 yards from a river, and looking up at magnificent limestone cliffs dotted with pre-historic caves trying to get out of there might seem a bit *fou.* And I hate not living in the present. So, where I can, I try to take advantage of what’s unique and and typique in my experience, be it that of living in the country, living in the country in France, living among (to a degree) paysans, living in duck country, or other unique aspects of this milieu. (Never been much on pre-history, so that I’m writing you 300 yards from the first cro-mag discoveries, made back in 1860 when they were building the railroad bridge that crosses the river, is wasted on me.)

Saturday night, it was the hunting. Not me hunting — I cringe even hearing the rifle fire resound off the cliffs, or, worse, seeing a hunter toting a rifle over his shoulders in my backyard — but the booty of my pal Stephan’s hunting. The crisp autumnal day was already heading towards perfect. I’d been bugging Bernard to bring his electric saw over and cut up the long branch I’d extracted from the petit woods in the ‘yard.’ (More than a yard, really a field, and which used to house a roof tile factory, ergo the terra cotta fragments that encrust the soil, and the name of my ‘hood, le Tuilerie, not to be confused with one of my favorite endroits in Paris, le jardin des Tuileries.) Of course, being Bernard, after he’d swiftly disposed of the branch on the terrace, he insisted we tramp down to the woods and cut up some more wood. After Bernard had reduced about a dozen branches into logs, he commanded me, “Now clear them out!” In the process, I spotted what looked like a sort of lever peering out of the ground. Removing some of the dirt around it, I found a small semi-oval steering wheel. When I yanked at the lever, they separated. Feeling around the ground, I discerned what seemed like the rusted carcass of some sort of metal apparatus — perhaps a mill for grinding up corn? It turned out to be what looked like a child’s car, complete with pedals and engine.

“Vient voir!” I urged Mr. Marty, the retired farmer who lives across the path. “I think I found Bernard’s first car!” He was impressed. “C’est un vraie antiquité! Tu peut le vendre!” I couldn’t wait to show Bernard, who’d said he’d return in the evening to see how I’d progressed on the wood. I was lying around listening to “Our Miss Brooks” when he drove up at around 7 with Stephan. “I have a surprise for you!” I announced. “I found your first car.” “Mais oui, c’est ca,” he confirmed, but all it provoked was a smile, no marvel, and he was not interested in taking it with him; he only laughed when I proposed he show it to his daughter Mathilde. Bernard and Stephan had other business; they’d brought over deer liver and heart from a deer Stephan had shot that morning.

I hadn’t had venison since we lived in the country in Northern California in the late ’60s, and the taste lingered still; I was salivating already. Mr. Marty rushed over to see Stephan, whose matrimonial future he continues to worry over. (“Mais, quand est-ce que il vas se marrier?!”)

“Got garlic?!” asked Bernard.

“Mais oui!”

“Chop it up and let it cook first before you add the meat.”

“I have even better!,” I said, pulling out the grater.

“Pepper?!”

“Bien sur!”

If you’ve seen the kitchen/dining room, most of which is taken up by a mahogany picnic table and benches, the rest by a large armoire set on cinder blocks (to protect its contents from the annual flood), a long counter, an over-stuffed easy chair, a range, a bicycle, and half of a huge two-piece late ’50s era rose and off-white formica cabinet-armoire (40 Euros at the Emaus ((or Salvation Army)) in Perigueux, later spotted in the identical model for 400 Euros at a Menilmontant brocante), you’d know that adding four people to this space, running excitedly around, two cooking, two commenting on the cooking, makes for a bit of an obstacle course, but to me it felt festive).

After the liver had started already started cooking, Bernard, taking in the dozens of apples strewn over the picnic table (more local booty, along with the walnuts strewn in even more quantity) and the 1/2 of the ’50s cabinet suddenly said, “Ah, I should have said, add apples!”

“I’ll add them now!”

“And if you have panaché…” Bernard said hopefully, referring to the beer lemonade which is the only liquor he can drink… Unfortunately I’d drunk up my last bottles. “Mais…offer Stephan something!” I offered wine all around but none of the (French) men were into it.

Usually, the French undercook (by my standards) meat. In the case of the liver, though, whenever I’d ask Stephan if it was time to take it out, he answered, “Pas encore. Laisse!”

Finally, when the meat — and, as important, the garlic and the apples — was nice and crispy and dark brown, it was ready, and Bernard, Stephan, and Mr. Marty stood around watching me eat. (None wanted to join me.) It was succulent — perfect. And it was as much the apples taking in the juice of the liver that made it as opposed to the other way around. (Of course, I had to ask if they’d mind if I added ketchup, and Bernard grimaced.) A perfect cap to a perfect day.

Before Mr. Marty left, I’d wrassled him into accepting that I’d do the vendange Monday. I’ve been pestering him about this for weeks, always with the proviso that I’d do the work, he’d just need to direct me. Mr. Marty — as is his right; he is, after all, retired — has sort of let the vines in back of and next to his house go. While he did clear out the sarmantine — dead branches — from last year, he only half cleared the weeds. But as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me — yes I know, there’s supposedly a vineyard in the Belleville neighborhood of somewhere, but I’ve never found it, nor that in Montmartre — I’ve permitted myself to insist. (I also think it will make me feel less guilty when I ask for a third bottle of his famous eau de vie, made from previous harvests, this winter.)

The moment finally arrived Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Marty found four barrels, and his sharp clipper, and I set to working my way through the seven rows, clipping the grapes and tossing them into a red plastic basket. It was harder going that I’d anticipated. Because the branches were lower than me, with many bunches of the fruit close to the ground, I did a lot of bending and, then, sitting, and I wasn’t starting out with a back in full form. I’d also assumed — remembering a previous experience with sour new wine — that I should pick only the sweet grapes, so I did a lot of taste-testing. After four hours without pause (and without getting stung; my desire to make wine in the Bordeaux region tromped even my phobia of bees) (contrary to what you may have heard, the bees are not disappearing, they’ve all become grape tasters in the southwest of France), I’d amassed close to three (medium) barrels full, in each of which swarmed about half a dozen bees. Physically tired as I was, I was ready to continue to get it all done in one coupe (I had three rows left), but Mr. Marty appeared at the base of the fields and said, “Time to stop for today Paul.” As tired as my dogs were, the physical work had also left me exhilarated, so, rather than turn in chez moi, and taking courage from Boo-bah, the Belgium shepherd — collie followiing me, I decided to walk to the railroad bridge, stopping to collect walnuts from Bernard’s trees. The stark grey autumn evening sky and the magnificent setting of the valley surrounding me, the crisp air made for another perfect ending to another perfect day. Until the night anxiety of the solitaire set in, anyway.

I resumed the vendange yesterday. This time what threatened to do me in was the taste-testing. I must have tasted from at least one bunch of every little grape tree, and as about half seemed to be sour, I was starting to get nauseous. After close to three hours, I’d pushed it to three barrels and was, I thought, finished. But when I checked in with Mr. Marty an hour later, he indicated the heights of the rows and said, “There are still grapes to pick.” I explained that all those that were left were sour. “Mais, c’est rien! C’est l’eau!” (It had been raining more or less constantly since the previous night.) Just to be sure, I picked a bunch with some sour grapes, and asked him to taste one to verify. “Mais c’est bon!” In effect, I could pick all. Now that I also know that I don’t need to taste them, I’m all right with this.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marty had offered me some of his eggs after I finished working. These are farm eggs, of course, and are the yellowist eggs you’ve ever seen and fluffiest I’ve ever tasted. Yesterday, and for the first time in the two years we’ve been neighbors, after he’d straightened me out on the grapes he proposed, with a glint in his eyes, “Un petit Ricard?” “Avec plaisir!” said I. Later, when I noted that one of the things I liked about pastis was that, “It’s natural,” he reposted, without missing a beat, and indicating the bottle of cold water, “Except for the water!”

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.)

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 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.

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

May 26, 2009

Danny le Rouge ne rougé pas

As I was wandering along the rue Belgrand off the rue de Pyrenees Saturday, lost in the world’s longest outdoor market, a flyer pasted to a telephone pole caught my eye: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. Danny le Rouge, leader of the May ’68 student riots in Paris, and lead candidate for Europe Ecology a.k.a. the Greens for the Ile de France in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections (what does that parliament actually DO, by the way? It doesn’t seem to be able to impeach the betises of Brussels, nor permitted to propose new laws.) would be speaking in my neighborhood that afternoon, in a ‘debate’ on the topic “L’outre-mer c’est aussi l’Europe.”

L’outre mer or outer Ocean isn’t actually in Europe, being constituted by French domaines and territories like Martinique, Guadalupe, the Ile of Reunion and Guyane. It’s also sometimes referred to as the DOM-TOM, which I think stands for domaines outre mere and territories outre-mer. They’re former slave colonies in which, in the eyes of some — notably many of those who struck for two months earlier this year to protest high prices — the lighter-skinned descendants of slave-owners now own most of what’s ownable even if they constitute a minority of the population, and the darker-skinned descendants of slaves work for them and have to buy their over-priced goods at stores owned by the descendants of their ancestors’ slave-masters. In other words, the DOM-TOM’s are a relic of colonialism.

If that wasn’t enough, even though they’re not in Europe, the DOM-TOM countries, or at least the DOM, are also strapped by Brussels, a.k.a. the European Commission. So, as one representative explained at the debate Saturday, a DOM country can find itself bound by, say, different rules of the Ocean than the island right next door.

Danny le Rouge showed up an hour late for the debate in a small club here in the trés cosmopolitan 20th arrondisement of Paris, in time to hear some of this and to deliver a rather pat polemic (“Europe needs to take a look at the ex-colonies.” Duh!) which began by his admitting that he’d actually never been to any DOM or TOM countries. It was also a bit bizarre to hear the most famous student leader of the 1960s this side of Mario Savio and Tom Hayden excuse a memory lapse by a reference to Alzheimer’s.

I’d have been curious to learn what Danny the Rouge thinks of his putative descendants, the students who for four months this Spring were not content to just boycott school themselves, in a vague protest of new policies proposed by the government including autonomy for the universities (uh, what’s wrong with that?), no, they had to BLOCK access to classes by any other students — many of whose parents had paid dearly for the privilege of an education for their children — even those not in accord with them. (Whatever happened to Democracy?) This so-called movement seems a perversion of May ’68, with, from what I’ve seen on t.v. and heard on the radio of the manifs, the students seeing it as just one big protest party.

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