France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 30, 2010

Tra la la

April 10, 2010

Jazz is Paris, Paris is Malcolm McLaren

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy. Tous les garçons et les filles.
Juliette Greco, Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve
And I’m walking with Eric Satie
Along the boulevards of Paris in the springtime.
Un orchestre d’oiseaux every so often breaks
This map of feelings
Drifting through these landscapes of love
Watching strays from Pere Lachaise.”

— “Walking with Satie,” from Malcolm McLaren’s 1997 “Paris.”

“The Velvet Underground meets
The Velvet Gentleman.
Running down the Boulevard Saint-Germain
Happy in the spring sunshine
Into the rue Vermeuil
And the house of Serge Gainsbourg.
On his piano sits a portrait of Sid.
Sid Viscious. I sing to you
For all the things that you do
Because I love you like a girl.”

— Rue Dauphine, from “Paris.”

“Meeting Juliette Greco in bed in the afternoon with Miles Davis
In a cheap hotel in Saint-Germain
Seeing them later in love at the Club Taboo
A ghost of New Orleans.
Juliette dances with Miles’s trumpet
Miles and miles and miles of Miles Davis
echoes around the room
With Juliette sobbing and moaning the verses
A funeral of sublime passion
‘I didn’t know he was black,’ she said.
‘I don’t know why, I just didn’t.
And when I discovered he was black
i just cried and cried.’
Jazz is Paris and Paris is Jazz.”

— “Miles and Miles and Miles of Miles Davis,” from “Paris.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that none of the obseques to Malcolm McLaren yesterday on French radio mentioned his landmark ode to Paris — and everything it has represented for romantics around the world for nigh on 200 years — in the concept album of the same name. Thanks to Malcolm, I was already dreaming of Paris for years before I’d ever seen it, having made a nightly ritual of taking my apero in my W. 8th Street Greenwich (Hint to Frenchies: Don’t pronounce the ‘w’) Village flat accompanied by his landscapes of love. But when I first played it for a bunch of French people, at a Thanksgiving dinner shortly after I moved there in 2001, the only reaction I got was from a young intello who called Malcolm’s version of Gainsbourg/Bardot’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (with Blanca Li taking the Bardot part) blasphemous. It’s almost as if Parisians resent that a non-Frenchy could have a more profound attachment and appreciation — or at least a more eloquent expression of it — than them, as if by doing so he was usurping their right to interpret it. Consequently, all (all too brief) obits of him yesterday preferred instead to segregate McLaren into foreign territory, that of the punk rock – fashion impresario, for instance.

To me, though, Malcolm McLaren simply followed his passion, and it’s in that fashion that he linked himself to the passionate, those who have found the perfect expression of passion — albeit often melancholy and nostalgic passion — in Paris, or at least the dream of Paris.

Paris’s rich past, and its lingering expression, can pull one like a sort of luxuriant quicksand. When I did my own running down the rue Caulaincourt on the butte (Montmartre) last Spring, I was almost overwhelmed and overcome by that passion, as earlier in the month I’d been subsumed in nostalgic passion for Boris Vian, then the subject of numerous exhibitions and concerts on the 50th anniversary of his death at 39. (Dommage that McLaren didn’t have room for Vian on his tribute, which featured Catherine Deneuve talk-singing, Françoise Hardy singing, Amina in a dance track mixing up audio from a James Bond film, and tributes to Greco and Sonia Rykiel; if Paris is Jazz, Vian was Jazz in Paris.) The ghosts there in Montmartre are particularly strong; in that late afternoon alone I’d run past the demeures of Satie (high up on the butte), Pissarro, Steinlin, Lautrec, finishing by dashing across the bridge over the Montmartre Cemetery which shows up in three of the five films in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, and where Truffaut himself was finally interred in 1984, like McLaren a victim of cancer.

But the question for me, still, is whether the romantic power and pull of that past — evoked in the Truffaut films, Pissarro and Lautrec canvasses, Steinlin sculptures, Satie and Greco music, and Deneuve films — can manifest itself in a romantic present. Or is the pull of these emotional landscapes so strong that it’s hard to find their match in present, living reality?

July 21, 2009

Leçon raté or, one 40-year leap backwards for mankind

Until these last few days, the July 20/21 moon landing remained a local event for me. I watched it from Miami Beach, where after much pleading my grandparents had let my brother Aaron and I stay up late. I even remember the room we were in, their bedroom, the specific images of the astronauts on the moon, and the hour flashing across the bottom of the screen. It was local because Florida was also the home of Cape Canaveral. And of course I remember the planting of the American flag.

What’s striking about remembering the event from another country, France, is how, while giving the Americans their due, the achievement is regarded as all mankind’s, an accomplishment without borders. (That makes three American moonwalkers in three weeks who have received unprecedented French media attention.) Usually the French, or at least the French media, are quick to claim primacy, and even to exaggerate France’s role in a particular historical event. But here’s a feat which is not particularly theirs to claim, and yet the French media has been lavish in the media time accorded to Apollo’s acheivement. (Although I just couldn’t watch a docu-drama recreating the lives of Armstrong, Aldren, and Collins around that time in which their typically suburban circa 1960s American families all spoke French.) Radio and television has been saturated with coverage, to the point where I’ve got ‘magnificent desolation’ imprinted on the brain.

The most striking — and tragic — juxtaposition is that of the observation by one of the astronauts, Collins I think, of how tranquil the Earth seemed from up there with the turbulent reality we returned to shortly after that parenthetical instant of unity embraced in ‘mankind’ — too many small steps in reverse which added up to a giant leap backward for mankind. Vietnam was not the last war fueled by territorialism, by nations believing themselves more individual bands who need to protect what’s theirs because the other guy wants to take it than one ‘mankind.’ If today’s newscast began on the moon, it ended by reporting that British and Spanish boats are still squabbling over who owns Gibraltor. And that’s the way it is.

It’s enough to make a man resort to the sentiment expressed by another local hero from Miami, Jacky Gleason: To the moon, Alice, to the moon!

January 30, 2009

Laurent Joffrin’s Media Condescension

Here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: Even if at the end of the day they’re proven to have little factual basis, they don’t come out of nowhere but often start with a suspicion based in reason. Let’s take, for example, one of the most apparently extreme of recent times: The so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. If you look at it from the factual perspective, the idea that the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were not the work of terrorist fanatics but the government is ludicrous. *But*, if you look at how the Bush-Cheney administration immediately went to work to exploit these attacks for own agenda of hegemony and abuse of human rights abroad and suppression of civil rights at home, well then, it becomes at least more understandable that some citizens might think that they went so far as to create the incident that created the opportunity. In effect, by simply dismissing the conspiracy theorists as lunies and not probing further into their motivations, one misses an opportunity to look at the genuine concerns that might have lead them to this improbable place.

But let’s apply this lesson closer to home.

Across the world, the public doubts the mainstream media, whether it be corporate- or state-owned. And they have reason. At least in the U.S., if not Europe, the corp. and state media went along, for the most part, with the Bush lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that justified an offensive attack. (Because for anyone who read or listened to alternative media or the rare lonely voice in corp. medfia, it was no surprise that the weapons weren’t there.) But let’s look at a more recent event, here in France. Listening to France Culture radio this morning, we’re supposed to believe that the same reporters and anchors who joined yesterday’s general strike — regular radio emissions were replaced with canned music — can report credibly and objectively on that same event. Surprise surprise, we’re told that the strike was a grand success. Sure, passing glance is given to the lower police estimates of march participants, but no one — no one — poses the question of whether the strike was justified. Of whether in a time where unemployment is mounting — even here in France — workers who at least have jobs aren’t being a little bit offensive to complain about their work conditions. Of whether the unions’ claim that they were also protesting the loss in purchase power wasn’t a cynical attempt to engage more of the public than the meager eight percent who actually belong to unions.

In between the mostly glowing reports on yesterday’s strike, the France Culture morning program featured Laurent Joffrin, the editor in chief of the French daily Liberation, who’s been making the rounds (of various state-run radio stations) to hawk his new screed, “Media Paranoia.” According to Joffrin, apparently (haven’t read the book), for the most part, all that media mistrust and criticism cannot possibly have any basis in fact, but is a result of public paranoia about the media. To hear people talk, he says, you’d think he calls the (Liberation principal stock-holders) Rothschilds every day to find out what should be in the paper tomorrow.

It’s a nice try, Laurent, but it isn’t so much that we think that just because the Rothschilds own your paper that means you call them every day for marching orders. Rather, what concerns many in the public is that you all live, work, go to school with, party with, interact with and thus rarely question the basis of the thought and actions of your own rarified circle made up mostly of, if not government officials, at least politicians, commentators, and fellow journalists. *You rarely question establishment thinking.* In the United States that might mean that the New York Times is never going to really seriously question the official version, until it’s too late. (As the brilliant veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk once said, the Times might as well change its name to “Officials say.”) In France, for an historically traditional Left-leaning journal like Liberation, the Establishment is the unions and the Socialist party, and you’re never going to question whether they’re right to go call and support a strike. (And, when the Establishment Left and Right back the European Constitution, you’re going to distort and mock the legitimate fears of those who oppose it.)

Instead of roundly dismissing roundly held public concerns as ‘paranoia,’ Joffrin might have looked at his own and his colleagues’ responsibility: How did we get here? What have journalists been doing, or not doing, to provoke such widespread public mistrust — and belief that they’ve advocated their founding principle of true independence? Instead, he’s content to cynically dismiss their concerns; those who criticize the media, as he said on France Culure this morning, “Are often extremists who blame the media” for not paying attention to their ideas “when the problem is their ideas.” Then when the public reacts by buying less newspapers, he has the temerity to warn, “If there are less journalists, there are going to be less people to challenge power.” Ou ca?

January 27, 2009

Ralph Nader, meet Olivier Besancenot

Okay, so maybe the day has not yet arrived in France where a young black boy, or girl, can dream of growing up to be president of the republic, even if the Socialist Party’s most visible representative these days is a politician of African origin whose name really is Harlem Desir. But a young radical communist tyke faces no such obstacles, thanks to a political — and more important, media — French democracy that beats the American model hands down. Contrast, if you will, the fate of Ralph Nader, whose 50-year track record winning battles for a very mainstream constituency, namely consumers, hasn’t stopped the U.S. corporate media from excluding him from every presidential debate, with the result that he’s never tallied more than two percent of the vote, with that of Olivier Besancenot, a.k.a. the postman from Neuilly, the leader of the League of Communist Revolutionaries (soon to become the New Anti-capitalist Party) who got nearly 5 percent of the vote in the crowded first round of the 2007 presidential election here (where he was competing with four other candidates on the far left alone), more than the Communists and the party of Jose Bové combined.

What accounts for the disparity between Nader’s and Besancenot’s results? Especially when you consider that the latter’s agenda is far more radical — including, still, a redistribution of wealth — than the former’s? (Remember that where Besancenot advocates for the under-privileged and workers, Nader made his name championing the rights of… consumers.) Simply put, for all its vaunting of Democratic values, corporate-owned mainstream media and, essentially, money ensure that the U.S. remains more a duocracy than a plutocracy. Money guarantees that the campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans drown out any other voices, often with fatal results: Obama has yet to condemn Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, ludicrously maintaining an equivalence of suffering in the face of statistics that say otherwise. (At last count, 1300+ Palestinians killed by Israel, most of them civilians; 14 Israelis dead, including three civilians and four soldiers downed by ‘friendly fire’.) Nader, who has always firmly condemned Israeli excesses, in its recent invasion but also in its equally deadly 2006 invasion of Lebanon, was excluded from the official 2008 presidential debates (as were, by the way, the Green and Libertarian candidates, never mind that the latter, Bob Barr, made his name as the conservative Republican congressman who championed the impeachment of President Clinton).

Contrast this insularity with French presidential campaigns:

Any candidate who gets 500 elected officials to support him or her gets a place in the first presidential round; last time, that made for 11 candidates, ranging from Besancenot on the far left to Le Pen on the far right. (My favorite: the representative of the party of hunting, fishing, and nature.) Each candidate got 90 minutes of free television time, to be dispersed as he or she liked. There’s even a rule decreeing that the news can’t give more time to one or the other. Each also has his or her own placard among the 11 displayed in front of voting places (like schools) before the election. Result: Almost five percent for the then 33-year-old postman from Neuilly. Continuing result: In a poll conducted this fall, only the mayor of Paris ranked higher as the most visible opponent of President Sarkozy; more than 50 percent of those polled gave Besancenot that designation. Never mind that compared to Olivier Besancenot Ralph Nader is Hilary Clinton, a parallel result could never happen in the United States. Not because Americans are inherently opposed to his views — remember, having made his name as a champion of consumers, Ralph Nader is hardly a flaming radical — but because the corporate-owned and establishment-inclined media would never expose his ideas to the general public on a regular basis. To them, Nader’s become a clown. They use their mockery of him as the perennial fringe candidate to try to drown out his ideas.

Contrast the treatment accorded Besancenot. During the last municipal elections, all the main television chains included him in their round-table of commentators.

This morning on France Culture, Besancenot and party philosopher Daniel Ben-Said were the featured guests and — a real change — neither the host nor any of the regular commentators mocked him. They may not agree with his ideas, they may even be skeptical of his motives, but in France, they — we (tear, tear) — understand that real freedom means freedom of ideas, that freedom to decide *requires* exposure to all ideas, that true Democracy also means Democracy on the table of thought.

This is why I want to raise my children in France where, no matter what their ideas, they can be heard.

PS: To read more about Olivier Besancenot — I realize I’ve left out many of the details on his platform — check this NY Times article, a bit less condescending than is the norm for the Times, even if the treatment is more along the lines of ‘those-wacky-Frenchies’ than my own focus of ‘why this couldn’t happen here,’ which of course would inherently criticize the reporter’s own journal.

PPS: I take it back about ‘less condescending.’ Note the Times headline (emphasis added): “Light on the Left Guides His *Comrades* Toward France’s Mainstream.” Notwithstanding the overall fair treatment his story gives to his subject, the reporter, or maybe it was the editor, attempts to set off reader bias with the use of the word ‘comrades.’

December 8, 2008

Secret Origins

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It’s not that the French media are so obsessed with race that bothers me — because hey, so is the United States — it’s the contradiction of, on the one hand, maintaining that France is a race-blind country, and, on the other hand, never losing an opportunity to describe any non-white American firstly by his or her ‘origin’ — *even if the person was born in the United States*, and thus has only one origin, American.

When a colleague from the States wrote me yesterday to report that President-elect Obama had appointed retired general Eric Shinseki as his secretary of veteran affairs, it was because Shinseki had been a sort of dissident within the Bush military machine. (Maybe dissident is too strong a word; he’d simply said it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq, countering the Bush chicken-hawks view that 100,000 would do it.) It wasn’t until today, when the appointment topped the French news, that I learned Shinseki was a Japanese-American. (Or, as the French newscasters put it, ‘d’origine Japanese.’   Never mind that he was born in Hawaii.) But it got worse. France Culture radio’s Washington correspondent strongly implied that the ‘unspoken’ significance of Obama’s announcing the appointment on December 7, the annivesary of that day of infamy in which the Japanese (the ones originating from Japan) attacked Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii) was that Shinseki was Japanese. In fact, non. I hate to disappoint the race-obsessed French media, but, were I to hazard a guess, the signficance of Obama’s announcing his nominee to head the department of veteran affairs (autrement dit, des anciennes combatants) on this particular day was that it was our soliders who gave so much of their young lives on December 7, 1941, when nearly 3,000 of them were killed, many in their barracks.

PS: Giving credit where it’s due, as is often the case, commentator Mark Kravitz, who understands American society better than most, was the exception to the rule on France Culture this morning, noting that the principle of diversity in the U.S. is not what the French think it is.

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 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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