France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 11, 2009

Behind Harlem’s Désir: ‘Une gauche bo-bo qui n’a rien compris’

Traversing the packed marché along the rue Convention on my way to re-live one of my favorite multi-sensual Paris experiences at the parc Georges Brassens Sunday (the park’s old book market for the brain, its greenery and fountain for the eye, and the end of market 5-smelly-cheeses for 10 Euro platter for the palette, not to mention the imagined strains of Brassens for the ear), I ran smack up against Harlem Désir. And by Harlem Désir I don’t mean a sudden yearning for chicken and waffles at Wells in uptown Manhattan, but the member of the French Socialist party directorate who goes by that name. “Behind, Harlem Désir,” said a middle-class looking 40ish lady inclining her head towards the guy behind her, who nodded bonjour as he squeezed past me. Unfortunately, it’s the Socialist party whose list Désir is leading in the European elections which is fast being left behind by events.

The Socialists seem to think that if they keep repeating ‘pour une Europe social’ the electorate will forget about all the problems the E.U. directorate in Brussels has wrought, chiefly in depriving many French people of control over their ability to make a living. It might be a rancher in Burgundy who kills himself because he doesn’t have the 100,000 Euros Brussels wants him to spend to ensure his cows don’t poop in the creek, it might be a fisherman in the North who would like to sell all the cod he’s caught so he can pay for the gas he used for the boat but who has to throw much of the fish back because he’s surpassed the quota set by the suits in Brussels, or it might be the rosé producer in Bergerac or Provence who sees all his efforts to elevate rosé-making into a real art wasted because the E.U. commission now says anyone can mix red and white and sell it as rosé.

To these producers, who might be called the heart of the bread-basket of France, the Socialist Party pledge to work to guarantee the SMIC or minimum monthly income means nothing. To these custodians of a once-treasured and now vanishing rural way of life — in my village of 997 in the Dordogne department of Southwest France, just four farmers remain — the Socialists’ desire to create 10 million new jobs as part of a European strategy for ecologic growth is irrelevant. And what does the fisherman who Europe forces to throw cod he’s caught and could sure use back in the ocean care if Europe develops a plan to re-launch the economy in favor of consummation and investment?

Speaking on France Culture radio tonight, the politico-social activist Nicolas Dupont complained that as regards views on Europe there is nothing between a French Socilaist party which is largely “a Left Bo-bo (bourgeoisie-Bohemian; Montmartre in particular has been over-run by them) which has not understood anything” and, on the Right, the UMP of President Sarkozy which places the Market before everything.

Even more amazing, there’s nothing on the so-called Far Left. In the screed an activist from Olivier Besancenot’s New Party Anti-capitalist handed me at the marché yesterday, there are lots of fightin’ words, but not one addresses the crises faced by the farmers and the fishermen. In Besancenot’s world-view, there are only workers and their Capitalist bosses; no one else counts.

Enter François Bayrou.

Liberal wags like to sneer that Bayrou has his head in the clouds, but once again it is only Bayrou’s Movement Democratic which seems to have its ear to the ground when it comes to being aware of real problems the E.U. is causing for real people in France, in its campaign literature promising to work “in favor of a maritime politics that maintains a durable economic activity, at the same time preserving this resource.”

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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 22, 2008

Sour Grapes: Wine & Whining, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign and Campagne trail in France

It might well be all the free coffee I drank at the round-table, bring your culture and dish lunch, and thematic improvisation at the local event for the Month of Economie Social and Solidaire, but to quote Stevie Wonder terribly out of context, I’m in a real Mr. Know-it-all mood this early Saturday evening, ready to give my French hosts advice on wine and politics. Here goes:

I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I’m beginning to know more about local wine than even some locals. I’ve now met at least a couple in the region who’ve never heard of what I think is the perfect departmental specialty when it comes to wine, that being bourou, basically a first pressing of white Perigordian wine that comes out fizzy, with a particular taste (grape juice with something more, sweet but not too) and the best part, is both hardly alcoholized (2 – 7 percent) and yet at the same time can give you a pleasant buzz. (As Bernard says, “You get bourou’d with bourou!”) (I miss Bernard already.) This fall there was such a prolongued delay in its release — probably because the cold weather made the grapes take longer to sweeten — that I actually tried to make some myself. Toujours at the suggestion of Bernard, I asked Monsieur Marty, the theoretically retired farmer across the path from me in Les Eyzies, if I could harvest some of his grapes. He said yes but this was not as easy as it sounds.It was not so simple as just picking all the white grapes that looked ready. Going branch to branch, vine to vine, I tested first to make sure they were actually sweet. Only about a third, at most, were; the rest were sour. (That’s not a complaint — hey, these were a gift — just a report.) Eventually I picked enough sweeties to make about an ice bowl-full (which I did in the Lillet ice bowl I got for my Lillet-loving brother Aaron years ago for a Euro at a vide grenier on the Canal St. Martin… unfortunately, even if the prices on Lillet ice bowls were down, the Euro was up in comparison to the dollar, so Aaron has not been back since, boo-hoo.) Following what I thought was Bernard’s advice, I pressed the juice out of the grapes — vendange a la main! — but left the grape skins in the bowl to ferment over-night.

Considering this was my first try, my bourou was pretty close to the real thing. The taste was right, but it was not so gazeuze and I did not get bourou’d.

So today I had a chance to taste what’s bascially the red grape version, a bio variety of just pressed wine. I had a couple glasses just because the experience was so unique but , at the risk of seeming ungracious — I couldn’t drink much more as a)I remembered Martin (my landlord in Les Eyzies) telling me about the time he got sick to the stomach tasting Monsieur Marty’s variety one year just after it had been wined, and b)it was too sour. I thought this was just how it’s supposed to taste, but then I remembered my experience hand-picking grapes from M. Marty’s vineyard — and *not* picking the sours — and I think it’s probably that with this red, there were just too many sour grapes in the mix.

Unless you’ve been reading me for a while, you probably thought that Segolene Royal was going to be the target of this clever segue, for refusing to accept Martine Aubry’s victory this morning by just 42 votes in the Socialist premiere secretary election. But in fact it’s the reverse. Listening to Aubry’s rabid refusal to accept Royal’s call for a re-vote — wich Royal wants not just because the count was close, but because there may have been voting irregularities — you’d think that she won by 42,000 votes. (I use the word ‘rabid’ express; Aubry’s behavior (not her, her behavior) right now reminds me of a dog trying to hold on to a bone; unfortunately, if she succeeds in hanging on to this particular bone — the Socialist Party — she may actually bury it, fulfilling Comrade Kruschev’s warning in reverse, without Nicolas Sarkozy having to lift a ring-whited out* finger.) Instead, she’s acting like she has a mandate! (We’re talking like, 50.02 percent to 49.98 percent.) Tonight Aubry — the retrenching Socialist compared to Royal’s modernizer — used the word ‘barrage’ to say that this is what the Left has to put up to actions from Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservative government. Oh-lah-lah. THiS IS EXACTLY WHAT ALLOWED SARKOZY TO BEAT ROYAL IN THE FIRST PLACE. Besides fear of immigrants, the big reason the Socialists lost and Sarkozy won is that the former failed to recognize the real concerns of normal, middle-class people, particularly merchants. (My local news vendor in Paris told me, not long before he closed up shop, that he resented paying 60 percent of his income to support an over-abundance of functionaries or civil servants.) Now, you might say that, well, it was Segolene who carried the party banner and platform last time, so what makes you think she’d be different? Segolene *also* reached out to my hero the Mouvement Democratic’s François Bayrou (see also the link within that link if you don’t know who Bayrou is) — even saying she might make him her prime minister if elected. And Bayrou is someone who both recognizes the concerns of small businesspeople but is not going to give the farm away to big corporations, and who also is able to look at just about every important issue with fresh eyes, unshackled by ideological dictums. (Or is that ‘dictates’?)

So whether she is concsious of this or not, the barrage that Aubry will erect will actually be the one between the Socialists and ordinary French people outside of their calcifying movement. Might win her the Socailist primary in 2012; will lose the Socialists the seonc and final round of that year’s presidential election — if they get that far.

My solution? Here’s where I get cheeky: I think Segolene should leave the Socialist party, take her 50 percent of it with her, and add them to Bayrou’s 13 percent or so of the total electorate. To Aubry’s exclusionary barrage, she — and Bayrou — can then answer with an opening.

PS: Which, unfortunately, is all this year’s beaujolais nouveau merits. A good indice — although actually, this is the first year this has happened — is when even the grand surface super-market issue is under-par. There was no price on the bin of such at the Netto ‘hard discount’ shop down the street by the canal (er, not St. Martin; I’m now in Perigueux here in Southwest France, in case you just arrived at the party), causing one wag of a lady customer to ask the check-out lady, “Does that mean it’s free today, because this is beaujolais nouveau day?” It was actually 1.66 Euro, and I guess that unlucky number at the tail should have been the tip-off: It tasted like most of your 1.66 wines taste. (You really have to cross the 2 Euro threshold to find some bargains that are actually drinkable bargains.) (I see you scoffing Mark; I challenge you to a blind tasting next time you’re in France, mano-a-mano, VDPs to burgundies or maybe even Languedocs. Rhones are ringers so we’ll leave those out.) Sure enough, as I moved up the scale (yes I know, Smarty, the whole beaujolais nouveau thing is just a marketing thing, but it’s exactly the mediocrity of the grape that makes it a challenge to find one good one; what’s the fun in trying to find a good Loire?) — as I was saying, as I moved up the scale, the standard moved down from previous years. Great boudin accompaniements and even an accordian band playing old-timey hits at the ‘house of a thousand beers’ across the rue President Wilson, but all three selections were about as good as last year’s 2 Euro supermarket edition, notwithstanding the Toulouse-Latrec-y labels (Jane Avril seemed to be trying to hide). Only at Julian of Savignac’s tasting up a ways towards the Cathedral St. Front (my bourou source — Julian, that is, not the cathedral) did I finally score: No music, no party, just one plate of dry (though quite good and gamey) salami, but a corse Beaujolais Villages for 6 Euros and change that had some complexity and — this year’s surprise, if not glorious find — a Nouveau from the same vintner — Chateau du Chatelard — which, almost in defiance of Julian’s presenting it as ‘light’ had something else going on.

*To save myself from being *too* France Insider: This is a reference to the incident last week in which the right-wing leaning daily Le Figaro actually erased a 13,000 Euro ring on the finger of Justice Minister Rachida Dati before publishing her photo, the theory for this breach of journalistic ethics being that standing in for President Sarkozy, they didn’t want one of his ministers to seem so out-of-touch with ordinary French people in these austere times that she walks around boasting a 13,000 Euro piece of jewelry.

November 17, 2008

François Bayrou, off-center candidate

Or maybe ‘off-spectrum’ is a better way to put it. I almost think that to traverse the media gauntlet and get his ideas a more open hearing with the French public, François Bayrou has to assert the same lingual precision he exerted last night on RTL radio when, before answering his host’s quesiton about the economy, he chided him (I’m paraphrasing), “But first, let’s return to your first line: I don’t appreciate the condescension.” His interlocutor had begun by positing “Since you’re an expert on the economy….” I’d missed the sarcasm, but Bayrou nailed it. I’d like to propose that he exercise a similar vigilance the next time an interviewer introduces him as being from ‘the center’ of the French political spectrum, somewhere between Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing UMP party and the putatively opposition Socialists. (Putatively because in recent months, its leaders have been too busy battling among themselves for the job of premiere secretary to consistenly oppose Sarkozy, ceding that responsibility to Bayrou, the League of Communist Revolutionaries’ Olivier Besancenot, and to some extent union leaders.)

If in the United States ‘centrist’ may still be a dirty word among militant Republicans and militant Democrats, in the media, at least, it’s a cause for respect. In the media world of France, however, which has lived with dramatic political cleavage since at least 1789, it’s an excuse for mockery. Thus during the 2007 presidential campaign, pundits who apparently hadn’t listened to the ideas of the man from Nay (a small village in the Aquitaine region just outside Pau, and whose other claim to fame is the Museum of the Beret) pegged him as being ‘mou,’ or soft. In other words, being from the center actually meant having no fixed positions.

In fact, in the case of Bayrou, being from the Mouvement Democratic (Modem for short) — the actual name of his party — means that he looks at issues from outside the traditonal Left-Right spectrum. Yet another example surfaced on last night’s radio interview when the subject of whether to open stores on Sundays came up.

On this issue, speaking generally, the Left or at least the Union movement has opposed it because its members would have to work an extra day. The Right has supported it because it means more work for people — thus more income — and, perhaps, to boost the economy.

Bayrou — showing yet again his native ability to transcend simple positioning and look at the broader, societal implications of policy — said that he opposed opening businesses on Sunday because of the message it would send to our children. “Dans la vie, c’est pas le consummation qui compte le plus,” in life, there are more important things than consummation.

Typically, Bayrou had no doubt been granted this bully pulpit not because the mainstream media is suddenly genuinely interested in independent perspectives like this — i.e. not in his own context — but because, as the Soclalists prepare to vote on a new premiere secretary Thursday, the leading candidate Segolene Royale’s support during the last presidential election for an alliance with Bayrou’s Modem has become a dviding issue, or at least is being exploited that way by the Left–most candidate. He explains his opposition by asking how Socialists can link up with a profound supporter of Capitalism. I would say that rather, this openness signifies Royale’s understanding that if the Socialists are going to win in 2012, they have to appeal to a broader sector than their own militants and, more important, respond to current problems not from their entrenched positions but by looking at them with open eyes and broadened minds, as does Bayrou.

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