France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 5, 2010

Faites entrer l’accusé; Jean Gabin can wait

I swear it’s not the grisly details that make Faites entrer l’accusé (on France 2 public television) one of my addictions, but rather that the weekly reconstructions of some of France’s more infamous faits divers also serve as tours de France, the crimes often taking place in obscure villages or cities I’ve never been to. Plus there are certain characteristics of the program itself that might give it cult status: The music for one, the charisma of the fascinated host Christophe Hondelet, and the way the camera zooms in on the often blemished faces of his subjects — not the culpable himself but attorneys, relatives and friends of the victim, policemen and gendarmes, juges d’instruction….Last week-end’s episode came a little too close to (my former) home. The subject was the butcher of the marché Saint-Martin, in both the professional and criminal senses of that word. “Hey, I know that guy!” I exclaimed to the stuffed Northern Exposure moose who is now my sole companion snce Sonia passed. While it was not my regular marché for the six years that we lived on the rue de Paradis in Paris, the marché Saint-Martin had a cheap cheese store with great selection and, indeed, there it was on television, right across from the Italian butcher’s stand of Italian products.

Now, you might think that a television show about a butcher who cuts his lover up into little pieces would be about the latest program broadcast at night, after the kids have gone to bed, but if you thought so you’d be wrong. After midnight is reserved for the French film patrimoinie. And if I often fall asleep before the verdict in Faites entre l’accusé, I usually don’t make it past the first five minutes of the cinema de minuit feature film, no matter how much I want to watch it. Last night’s film — which rolled around at about 12:30, a half hour after the update that the doctor who slowly poisoned to death the military husband of his lover after she’d conned him into believing he was beating her had been released on parole after 6 years rolled across the closing credits in Faites Entrer — was “Remorques,” starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, and Michelle Morgan. Jean Gabin, who has also played Maigret, is just about Mr. French Cinema for me — you might also know him from “The Grand Illusion.” Just the film poster itself — with Gabin in parka battling winds and rain at the wheel of his tugboat — is enough to thrill you. Helas, this was not the best film to watch at 12:30 in the morning with waning attention powers complicating an early but essential rescue scene, with the action going back and forth between the rescue boat and the boat in distress, the dialogue already garbled by the age of the 70-year-old film. Because it was Jean Gabin I weathered the storm and made it longer than usual, but finally had to bow from faitgue, leaving Gabin and Renaud walking along a beach in Brest, before he even had a chance to get involved with Morgan.

I had debated whether to watch the film at all after an intro which explained filming started in 1939 then resumed in 1941 during the Occupation. It’s hard for me to watch French people continuing with life as normal when I know life was getting progressively worse and worse for their Jewish countrymen. But then I noted the scenario was by Jacques Prevert, who also wrote “Barbara,” an ode to a vanished Brest decimated at the end of the war (“It’s raining on Brest”), so to see a film written by him set in Brest before it was bombed out seemed an important chapter in my running history of France.

But here’s my point: Why are these films — France’s heritage — broadcast after midnight on a school night, no less, when the prime-time movie slot is so often occupied by BAD mass-market American garbage. (Though not always: Last night’s prime-time movie on France 2 was, exceptionally, an older and classic, “Les Tontons Flingueurs,” starring Lino Ventura. I’d been wanting to see this one for so long that I overlooked yesterday’s news that a town in France had rescinded a decision to name a street after the author of the novel on which it was based, Albert Simonin, after allegations that he’d collaborated.) There are some good new films produced for the France Television networks, but it seems like half of them are about the war and most of those are about French who helped Jews or fought in the Resistance. Why not replace some of the crappy American films and a few of the probably skewed portrayals of war-time France that take up prime-time movie time with more films like “Remorques” that were actually made before, during, and after the Occupation — at an hour where people are actually awake. If national identity is not just about excluding those who don’t conform to it but actually confirming the MANY parts of that identity about which French citizens can be proud — showing these old films at a time people can actually see them would seem a great way to buttress that identity and legitimate national pride.

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.

November 16, 2009

Identité Nationale: Déja vu

C’est typique. Quand les choses vas pas bien, voila que les diregeants veut qu’on change le sujet. It’s typical: When things aren’t going well, political leaders try to change the subject. And too often, this amounts to trying to re-direct our attention from themselves to ‘them’ — the foreigner. Voila que three major figures from the governing UMP party find themselves either sentenced to prison (Charles Pasqua, senator and former interior minister), awaiting a verdict (former prime minister Dominique Villepin) or soon to be tried (former president Jacques Chirac) — and just four months before regional elections in which the UMP would like to take at least some of the regions (20 of 22 of which are currently controlled by the Socialists) — and President Sarkozy… tries to change the subject. And the national, government-run media more or less complies, notwithstanding a few commentators who question his motives. Of course, we have learned some things since 1940, so we no longer say, “Look at them, they’re different” (well, except in the case of the bourka), but frame the question as “What does it mean to be French?” or “Identité national,” the implication being that some of us foreigners identify more with the countries we came from than the one that — graciously, it needs to be said — has welcomed us.

I’m not against valuing French traditions and values — indeed they are the main reason I’m here. Even the main reason I stay here. And I’m not just talking about the French cultural icons in film, music, literature and art many of whom I’ve worshipped all my life, but basic political, social, and moral values and practices.
Just to give you one example: In the last major elections here, for the European Parliament, 26 parties contested for the French vote. 26! And they all had more or less equal access to the public. For each election, metal panels go up before schools and other public places, each of which features a poster from from a party. So in the European Parliamentary elections, the anti-Zionist party was placed on equal footing with the UMP. Olivier Besancenot, leader of the New Anti-capitalist Party, is regularly included in televised debates. (It’s no accident that in the last presidential election, disputed among 11 parties — 11 parties! — Besancenot got 5 percent of the vote. In the U.S., by contrast, the two main parties, and their allies in the corporate controlled media, do everything they can to exclude other parties from the debate. Some television networks even exclude too liberal Democratic candidates from presidential and senatorial debates. So in contrast to Besancenot, U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader — hardly a radical by even U.S. standards — got 1 percent after effectively being blocked from the national corporate-controlled media.

So I absolutely agree that those who come here should prize French tradition, language, culture, lifestyle, and values. I don’t even disagree that a reasoned debate on what it means to be French, and to live in France, and French values, would be useful. That’s not the question. I return to motive, timing, and historical context. When political leaders start talking about national identity — a conversation a subset of which is usually ‘they’re not like us’ — during a time when things aren’t going well, we need to be alarmed. And in France, there’s an additional particularity: I would argue that a knowledge of French history includes awareness of the chapter of that history in which the Vichy government, in the name of France, did what no other occupied country did in not just allowing the Germans to round up Jews and deport them to the death camp, but in many times taking the initiative in IDENTIFYING who was Jewish and having the French police do the rounding up. What made this easier for them to do was the idea that, “Well, they’re not French anyway. They are the other. They act different. They look different.”

This past Saturday in Perigueux, the highlight of the second Salon régional Memoire Résistance et Deportation was a projection and debate, featuring the live participation of Holocaust survivor Marie-José Chambart de Lauwe, who was deported to Ravensbruck, and the film “La deportation des Femmes.” Most of the stories were horrible: Chambart de Lauwe recalled that sometimes new arrivals were marched directly from the train to the gas chambers, without any ‘selection,’ and that each morning, the women had to race from their sleeping quarters outside the camp to the gates of the camp. Any that fell were bludgeoned to death immediately. Newborns were simply thrown against the wall until they were dead. But at least one of the stories was inspirational — and, in the current context, instructive. One of the markers of national identity suggested by some has been the obligatory daily singing of the Marseillaise in schools. In the film shown Saturday, one of the deported women recalled that when her group arrived at Auschwitz — after, no doubt, being localised by French Vichy authorities and rounded up by French policemen, many of whom no doubt justified their actions because ‘they’re not French, anyway’ — as they were entering the camp the women spontaneously broke out in the Marseillaise. France had sent them to their deaths, but they still sang for France — and as Frenchwomen.

June 7, 2009

L’Algerie au coeur

With his long gray hair, Marc Garanger looks like an ex-hippy. But in fact, at the beginning of the 1960s — 1960 to be precise — he found himself at war in Algeria, assigned to photograph thousands of Algerian women who the French authorities had decided should have ID cards, the better to control them. So the women in his book, “Femmes d’Algerie 1960,” mostly regard him with defiance, if not outright contempt. Photographed again 45 years later, when he returned to Algeria to find his memories and them, some of the same women have joyous expressions as they regard their younger selves and share the photos and another time and ambiance with their grandchildren.

Garanger and photos from both of these books were on display at the Cafe Social de Belleville — a sort of cafe for senior citizens — for the commencement of “L’Algerie au Coeur,” the first of an evening of events that terminated tres tard with the local premiere by Belleville’s own Lyes Salem of his “Mascarades,” itself a light-hearted tale of changing family values in an Algeria where native tradition often confronts the modernity of a shrinking world. (“Mascarades” was selected best film in the 2008 Dubai Film Festival awards and is Algeria’s nomination for best foreign film for the 2009 Oscars.)

Giving a soundtrack to the whole evening was Said Aichel-Fi and his Groupe Idebbal-en playing traditional Berber (?) party music. (The band is available for marriages, circumcisions, and concerts: 01-43-49-32-94.) The taste that I retain comes from the carrots in harisa and spicy chestnuts served at and outside the cafe social (7, rue Pali Kao in Paris’s 20eme arrondisement; the photos will be there for another three weeks.) in a real street party. But also, in a world — and a France — whose very shrinking has sometimes made for inter-community fractures, there were some simple signs of hope: Hearing the music, the residents in the social housing above the cafe opening their windows included a young black woman and a Hasidic Jewish gentleman who could not resist smiling. Later, when the party moved up the street to the Place Alphonse Alias for the screening of Salem’s film and a sort of travelogue by Claire and Reno Marca that traverses all Algeria, it proved a challenge to deplace the teenagers — evidently residents of the social housing that surrounds the square — batting a soccer ball around the square. Tant mieux, I thought; wasn’t this the youth of the greatest French Algerian of them all, Albert Camus? Looking up at the well-kept housing project, I transformed the trees into lemon groves and imagined myself in Oran.

June 3, 2009

The new king of the Luxembourg Garden

If France is a nation of rules, the Luxembourg Garden is where rules rule. I once made the mistake of moving one of those handy green metal chairs a few feet so that I could sit right next to the central fountain that faces the Senate building. Within 20 seconds a long shadow loomed over me; when I looked up, a tall guardian was wagging his finger at me — interdit! (Forbidden.) And then there was the time my brother Aaron, visiting with his family, refused to believe it was interdit to picnic on the little patch of grass near the Medici Fountain. “But look, everyone else is!” Wistfully shaking my head, I conceded. We’d barely had time to crack the hard-boiled eggs and pour the drinks when the whistle blew.

Why do I keep going back to this Forbidden Planet, you ask? I who hate rigid rules? For the rigid statues. So having written Saturday that life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Garden, Tuesday, despite some heat + pollution produced minor heart pains that counseled me to rest indoors, I took the subway and a very crowded RER to the garden. But boy did my heart jump a few when I saw the monstrosity the guardians have let be introduced among the circle of limestone former queens of France statues that form a demi-circle around and hover above the fountain.

There between Marguerite of Angouleme, queen of Navarre (1492 – 1549) and Valentine of Milan, duchesse of Orleans, someone had inserted a giant, 6.5 meter tall, several meter wide bronze head. It’s called “The Prophete,” but it looks more like a bald, sleepy-eyed Tutankamen re-imagined by a mid-20th century modern artist. It’s apparently the culminating life’s work of one Louis Derbre. (You can see a picture of it here: http://www.derbre.com .) What I don’t understand is how, on the one hand, the guardians of the Luxembourg can get so upset if I disturb the equilibrium of the Senate by moving one metal chair next to their fountain for ten minutes, and on the other hand, allow this modern monstrosity to be inserted amongst the queens, instantly dwarfing Marguerite and Valentine and making them look like handmaidens to “The Prophet.” The pristine, limestone circle has now been broken. The head also now dominates the view from the fountain.

As you may have noticed, many of these queens have spikes where their crowns should be. That’s to prevent the pigeons from sitting on their heads and pooping on them. How the guardians can be so (rightly) concerned about pigeon poop and then let some modern artists plop a giant head down amongst the queens that instantly disrupts this classic and eternal picture and indeed the whole landscape of the Luxembourg at its center I just don’t get.

I have nothing against Mr. Derbre and his life-long dream. Maybe he could put it next to that giant bronze-colored flower pot in front of the Pompidou Museum, a haven for 20th century art and thus a more proper home for his achievement. But for God’s sake, save the queens, call the guardians and get that modern monstrosity out of the Luxembourg Garden.

PS: Ohp! Good news. In researching a link for an image of “The Prophete,” I see that he’s only supposed to be at the Luxembourg Garden through this month; after it’s off to the front of the Madeleine Church and then the United States. Bon voyage!

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 22, 2009

The Smokers Won

I left Paris in 2007, before the “smoking ban” went into effect in restaurants. On coming back earlier this month, I was looking forward to finally being able to hang out in cafes. Wrong! Because it’s not actually a ban in smoking at restaurants and bars, it’s a ban in smoking in the *interior* of restaurants and bars. The new development, thus, is not that Parisian cafes are no longer hazardous to the health of non-smokers but that cafe terraces have become *more dangerous* because they’ve become completely occupied by the smokers (who, after all, have nowhere else to go). I’ve been conducting an ongoing survey on both banks of the Seine and for the majority of cafes, ALL THE TABLES ARE OCCUPIED BY SMOKERS. It’s clear that a non-smoker who would dare to insert him or herself in this milieu would be risking lungs and life. So the net effect is that it’s less the cafes which have become off-limits to smokers than the true Parisian cafe experience — centered on the cafe terrace — which non-smokers and anyone who likes to breathe clean air has been excluded from. As has been the case with all French laws supposedly geared to protect non-smokers, there’s a central lie involved, which is that smoke on a terrace is somehow less likely to kill or less irritating for non-smokers than smoke inside, even if you’re surrounded by it.

If anything, Paris has actually become a more dangerous place for non-smokers, who no longer have the choice to avoid exposure to this toxic — and lethal — matter. Before the “non-smoking law,” one could at least choose to not enter a smokey restaurant. Now, just walking down any street with cafe terraces — in other words, just about any street in Paris — requires traversing a corridor of HAZARDOUS smoke.

March 20, 2009

All the non-Strike news that’s fit to print

Well, technically, journalists are back to work today, but most of their news is about the general strike in which they participated yesterday so I’m happy to provide an alternate source of news and commentary.

A rosé is a rosé is a rosé or, yet another reason I hate Brussels

The European Commission is reportedly considering allowing countries to mix white and red wine and call it rosé. Besides that this will probably be about as successful as mixing Flanders and Wallonie and calling them Belgium, French rosé producers are justifiably angry because it totally ignores that a rosé is a specific grape, or rather a grape fermented in a specific fashion, basically a red which is bottled after just a day of maceration. When France 3 public television reported on this the other night, before it went on strike, it interviewed a rosé producer in South*east* France, but those rosés are too pinko for me. I prefer the lush red roses — when I say red, I don’t mean red like red wine, I mean really red like the color — here in South*west* France. The best I’ve had came from further south in Gascony (which also makes my favorite white, Tariquet, a sprightly tart wine — goes great with raclette, tartiflette, and fondue — made from the same grape that constitutes armagnac, just not fermented so long), but the ones around these parts — the Bergerac — are also excellent, and those from the Lot are not half bad, and cheap, as is that from the Tarn, around mid-way between East and West. (Rosé in France is generally cheap — anwhere from 2 Euros on up for a good one. And it now out-ranks white in popularity here in France, Le Monde reports) The difference, besides the color, is that the pinko Eastern rosés just taste more watery and sugary, whereas the redder Western rosés have more body and a taste that is at the same time fruity but not too sweet. The best was the 2003, which matured during the canicule or heat wave, making it nice and dry.

If the rosé of the West is redder than the rosé of the East, it’s not because the vintners around here put more red wine than white in their rosé. I’m not an expert, but it probably has to do with different conditions of landscape and climate; maybe it’s that a rosé grown near the banks of the Mediterranean is going to be more pink than a rosé cultivated in the Valley of the Dordogne. Maybe because it’s generally hotter there, maybe because of the proximity of the Sun; I don’t know. But the point is it’s because of regional particularities. Exactly what Brussels, time and time and again, ignores — even seems sometimes to want to wipe out. The European Union could have been about everyone benefiting from everyone else’s culture, including the various cuisines — about me being able to go into a supermarket in southwest France and get good Belgian beer for the same price, minus transport, as they pay in Antwerp, and a Flemmish guy being able to do the same buying REAL rosé or great French chevre cheese from the Charente in his neck of the woods. Instead it’s too often about making everything generic. A guy in Hamburg cannot produce a rosé just by mixing red and white; besides that bottling that and calling it rosé would be an insult to the French vintners who have taken generations to learn to make the real thing, that’s not a wine for people who appreciate rosé, it’s a wine for people who can’t decide between red and white — and for bureaucrats who don’t understand that a rosé is a rosé is a rosé, not a mushy melange of red and white.

Smelling like roses. Not.

Of course, man does not live by rose alone, and around these parts, we like to wash down our wine with a good chunk of beef. The blonde beef (the French usually call cows simply beef) of Aquitaine, my region, is reputed to be one of the best; I think it even won a prize at the recent Salon d’Agriculture in Paris.  To make beef, it takes corn, and to make corn, it apparently takes beef-dung, like the kind the farmer next door has been spreading around his cornfield the past week with a tractor attachment designed for the task, and that’s been wafting into the stone house here, helped by a Southeastern style mistral, and leaving the house, notwithstanding the bar of rose-scented savon de Marseille in my bathroom, smelling like anything but a rose.

Dandelions with wine

For about a year Bernard, my neighbor and best friend around these parts, has been trying to convince me that the long-leafy green plant growing in the ground everywhere is edible. Pissenlit, he says (I’ve not been able to figure out why another neighbor, a recent retiree from the North, calls it ‘pissing lait (milk)’ — is great in a salad. “You add salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, maybe a little mustard and garlic and” (here he pinches fingers together and kisses them with lips in the universal gesture that says ‘Magnifique!’). This year I finally decided to investigate and — magnifique! I like the bittersweet taste. The leaves can be a little tough; the best is to pick them before the flower has fully flowered. The flower! Ca alors! Its yellow-ness reminded me of something and I finally realized that — voila — it’s a dandelion. And indeed, I already knew about eating dandelion greens from the States, so was not surprised when, following Bernard’s and Monsieur Marty’s instructions, I also ate them in an omelette: First you immerse the leaves in boiling water for about ten minutes, then you cut them up, then you drop them into your cooking eggs, adding perhaps some lardons (fresh bacon bits) and even a slice of toast. Magnifique encore! I now have an extra incentive — besides the dog — to walk out to the path past the horse and donkey ranch, where the pissenlit is plentiful and where it’s not all yet flowered, although pausing occasionally to pick the pissenlit on the side of the path just now and watching the dog walking ahead of me pause occasionally to lay his piss, it occurred to me that maybe next time I should leave Boobah behind.

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.”)

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