France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 16, 2010

Lifting the veil on the burka law

So the French Senate has voted, 276-1, to essentially outlaw the burka in public places, cracking down on the biggest threat to the Republic and Republican values, 2,000 women who cover themselves because of their religious beliefs. Let’s cut to the chase here: This is not about preserving Republican values, or protecting women of Arab origin from their radical Islamist spouses. This is about the French discomfort — be they Gaulists, Socialists, or Communists — with anything different. When I moved to Paris in 2001, people having their morning coffee used to look at me funny as I ran by on my morning jog — and I was barely covered at all in my shorts and sleeveless tee-shirt. One of the only two times I got asked for my papers was when I decided to have a picnic on the top of some stairs over a street and overlooking a tres Parisian park on the rue Lafayette (I am here!). No doubt a busy-body neighbor saw this unusual sight and called the police. I repeat: I was having a picnic. (Okay, the picnic included homemade sangria, but as the police didn’t ask to inspect that, I assume that was not the issue.) The issue here is not so much the police — indeed, they were incredibly polite — but the *mefiance* of the typical French person, one of whom had obviously called them because she saw something she considered out of the ordinary.

French television news no doubt featured all last week saturation coverage of the Koran burning that never happened, affirming American contempt for Muslims. But at the end of the day, it never happened, and was more about American stuntsmanship than intolerance. The French, on the other hand, overwhelmingly passed a law which clearly impinges on the religious freedom of some of France’s Muslim population. And here’s the key difference between us: For all our faults, Americans, starting with the president, realize that we have a problem with tolerance, *and we are working on it.* The French, by contrast, by a vast majority, not only have a problem with tolerance of difference, they don’t admit it. They hide it under the facade of protecting their holy trinity of values, liberty, fraternity, and equality, when in fact laws like that outlawing the burka defile all three.


March 31, 2010

When the saints go marching out

Finally — finally — an official government body, the Counsel d’Etat, has stepped in and said what I’ve been thinking for years:

The law governing the secular applies to the service public — autrement dit, government-funded services and agencies — and not to individuals.

The counsel was responding to the current debate over banning the burka. Essentially, among the reasons it found such a law would be legally contestable is that the principal of secularism could not be applied. to individuals’ right of expression.

However, following the logic of this opinion, the governning principal of the separation of church and state *can* be applied to public service.

This would presumably include broadcasts on the publicly funded television networks.

This would presumably include the nightly weather forecasts on France 3.

This would presuably put a stop to the weathermen/women telling us — telling us — at the end of the broadcast to hug the saint being celebrated the next day.


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.

March 15, 2010

Elections Regional: ‘Identité Nationale’ and the burka re-launch the Front National

In the 2007 presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy successfully co-opted the Front National’s anti-illegal immigrant strain to ensure his election and diminish the FN vote. Battered on other fronts this time around — above all unemployment, loss of purchase power, and the crise de logement — Sarkozy’s governing UMP party tried that gambit again for yesterday’s regional elections, launching a false debate on ‘identité nationale,’ lead by minister of immigration and identité national Luc Besson, and another on the burka, steered by UMP assembly leader Jonathan Cope. This time around, it backfired; people are pre-occupied with pocket-book issues and, if anything, were frustrated that the UMP seemed more concerned about the (maximum) 3,000 women who cover themselves than covering citizens from financial insecurity. Result #1: The winning party in yesterday’s first round was the party of abstention, with 53.5 percent of voters staying home — the highest percentage ever in the regionals. Result #2: The fear of the Other fired up by the false debate on identité national combined with economic insecurity to revive the faltering FN, which came in fourth with 11.7 percent of the vote, behind the Socialists (29 percent), UMP (26), and Europe Ecology or Greens (12.5 percent). “Le debat sur l’identité national a relaunché le Front National,” Communist party leader Marie-George Buffet said this morning on radio France Enter. Or, as Europe-Ecology leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it last night on France 2, “Monsieur Besson is content tonight. He’s succeeded in his effort and made the the FN re-mount.” Cecile de Flot, Europe Ecology’s candidate in the Ile de France, blamed the FN’s resurgence on “those who opened Pandora’s Box.”

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.

September 4, 2009

The Big Prune

When I tried to get my Parisian bouquiniste (Seine bookseller) pote Luc to come down here this summer, one of the excuses he gave me was, “Ah, you know, down there, in the country, they eat mostly meat.” (Sounds better in French: “Ah, tu sais, la-bas, c’est que le viande qu’on mange.”) Luc is a vegetarian. (Though definitely not a vegan, judging by his predilection for the camembert Le Petit; he even saves the red cartons.) (Camembert secret: Open the box — yes, in the supermarket — and press down on the cheese. If it bounces back, don’t buy it. Unless of course you’re planning on using it for the eight-day Simenon diet.) Okay, c’est vrais que the great southwest of France, surtout the Dordogne, is known as the capital of foie gras. And, yes, my neighbor Mr. Marty did just knock on my door this morning with a big bloody chunk of raw sanglier (wild boar) meat. And I’m certainly not complaining. Nor did I say no when Bernard and Stephan came by one night and asked, “Are you in the mood to eat sanglier?,” and we cooked up the meat Stephan had brought from the sanglier he caught the day before on the converted half water heater Bernard made into a grill, after gathering wood by the river. (The succulent flavor was no doubt helped by the sarmant or dead wine branches from Mr. Marty’s vines.) So what if the morsel that lodged in the ruins that are my teeth is still there two weeks and a couple of dozen ibuprofen tablets later? I will still cook up Mr. Marty’s sanglier with relish. I will cook it up for ten hours and pulverize it, but I will still cook and eat it with relish.

If Luc is still reading after that little eloge to viande, I want to tell him that I have never eaten as much fruit in my life as I have eaten the last two months — peaches (from Mr. Marty’s grove), apples (mostly from the tree in the backyard, near the river). And above all plums. It started with Mr. Marty inviting me to bring a basket over and pick some of the tiny red plums from the tree behind the chicken coop — “Otherwise they’ll be wasted and that would be dommage!” — then progressed down the route to Le Bugue, the village where I do my marketing, and along which I scored green, red, and a whole lotta yellow or mirabelle plums. (The rule here is that if the branch is hanging over the road you have the right to pick the fruit. And for fruit on the ground, it’s safe if it’s not punctured.) There’s even a bush of mirabelles right before you turn into the train station. In Le Buisson, where I go to get the medicine for Sonia, my 20-something part-wolf Alaskan Siamese, I took a different route to get to the river after picking up the meds and trampled upon a field of prune plums — probably the best I’ve found. And in the cute medieval vllage of Belves a couple of weeks ago, finding myself stranded at the train station for two hours (the wine festival I was there for was over by the time I arrived), I was reduced to picking very hot, almost prunified plums below a little red-leafed tree next to the abandoned gare.

But The Big Prune Show — that’s what it’s called — took place last weekend in Agen, after California the largest producer of prunes in the world.

If there’s one great food divide between Americans and the French, it may be our different perspectives on the noble prune.

In the States — even in California, the world’s largest producer of prunes — prunes and above all prune juice are something for very old people. And they are diaretics, which is exactly the reason I avoided them for 40 years. I actually like the taste, so it was more a protective measure. (Even in the popular culture, prunes get a bad rap, e.g. the villain character of Pruneface in the Dick Tracy comic.)

France has totally changed my perspective on prunes.

First, they don’t give me diarrhea here.

That out of the way, I’ve been able to indulge.

Besides being succulent tout seule as a fruit (generally speaking they’re not so dried up here), they’re fantastic in yogurt. I’ve also had them wrapped with bacon and have made my own aperitif recipe involving spreading creme de canard (or foie gras if you’re rich enough) and a single (pitted) prune on a grainy bread, preferably toasted. Soaked and stewed with lamb, tajine-style, they’re sublime and make the lamb sublime. Then there are prune tarts. This region is also known for ‘prune,’ which doesn’t actually mean ‘prune’ but eau de vie a la prune. (The eau de vie Mr. Marty supplies me with is actually made from his grapes. Not that he makes it; he no longer has the right. The problem when he, and other paysans, made it on their own is the government couldn’t tax it. Now, if he wants to have eau de vie from his own grapes he has to pay a man who comes around once per year to collect the harvest and turn it into ‘fin.’ It costs him as much as if he were to buy a bottle in a liquor store. The best way to consume eau de vie, btw, is a la ‘canard.’ which does not mean getting a duck drunk with the liquor and then killing it for the barbecue, but rather dipping a sugar cube into the eau de vie and then sucking on it. The best eau de vie I ever tasted was fig, which is illegal, perhaps because the alcohol content is too high.)

So last weekend I decided to take the Perigeux-Agen regional train to the end of the line in Agen, a 90-minute to two-hour ride depending on how many stops you make. Later I learned, watching a television documentary on French concentration camps, that if I were taking that same train in about 1944 I probably would have had to get off in Penn, where I’d have been interned before being shipped off to Auschwitz.

Fortunately, this being 2009, my French hosts permitted me to stay on the train until the terminus (of the train), where San Francisco pals Renee and Alvin were waiting for me. I know Alvin peripherally, because he used to run a jazz cafe across the street from me in San Francisco’s Mission District, Cafe Babar. They were installed having a glass of blanc and tea at the buffet I was a bit impatient. “Where’s the prune giveaway?” I pressed them. We started with a walk through an alley where local producers were selling regional wine and liquor specialties. Here I had a great reunion with an aperitif called the floc of Gascon. The red variety kind of tastes like bitter strawberries, and goes well with chocolate. I also discovered that I was not quite as finished with rosé as I thought I was after a summer of going through three three-litre cartons (of a very red and dry Lot variety) and one 5-litre box (from St. Emillion). The one I tried in Agen was fruity and actually had a nose, rare for a rosé. (With a nose like that, it probably also would have found itself type-cast and sent to Penn by France, er, Vichy, during the Occupaton. ‘Free Zone’ mon oeil.)

After the tastings, Renee and Alvin lead me to a tour of the old city, starting with the Street of Jews. (Talk about making it easy for the French, er, Vichy police. “Eh les flics! Nous-sommes la!”) (If I keep digressing to this subject, it’s because this week, finally, after years of films in which everyone in France seemed to be resisting the Nazis and/or hiding the Jews, the public television is finally focusing on the collabos. On Tuesday, France 2 broadcast a fictional film in which Marthe Keller discovers that the granddaughter she thought was shipped to the camps and her death was actually kidnapped by one of the French militians who arrested her family, and is now a pupil in her class. This was followed by a documentary on Drancy and the other French camps that focused on the role of the French police and gendarmes in rounding up the Jews, and reminded us that it was the French, er, Vichy government that volunteered to do so before the Germans, er, Nazis could ask them to — the only country where this happened. Then the last two nights, a documentary on Jacques Chirac replayed — twice — the landmark speech he made, shortly after being elected in 1995, in which 50 years after the fact, a French chief of state finally acknowledged the culpability of the state of France in the deportations and deaths of the Jews.)

But where were we? Oh yes: In the old city of Agen. Which is pretty breathtaking, with the buildings a sort of melange of the sandstone found around these parts and Spanish-Toulousian red brick. (Agen is an hour away from Toulouse by train and, in the other direction, the same from Bordeaux. It has a real Mediterranean, luminous feel, not surprising, I guess, as it also hosts the canal deux mers, which runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, more or less.) Later, when Alvin and Renee decided to take a pause for lunch, I left them at the resto and took my picnic kit and lunch to the white-stony banks of the broad and vast Garonne. This is fast becoming one of my favorite French rivers, after the Seine. (In the moving van that brought me here two years ago, trying to make conversation, I asked the French girl who was doing the driving what her favorite dream was. I guess I must have said ‘rive’ instead of ‘riviere’ and she must have heard it as ‘reve’ because she answered, “A fragment of Roland Barthes.” Even when I do manage to connect with a French woman on a serious topic it’s by accident.) It may be just my imagination, because I’m aware that the Garonne feeds into the Atlantic, but I could swear it was almost blue and that my lunch was accompanied by a briny aroma.

On the way back to find Renee and Alvin, I crossed a long, green esplanade, with the requisite skate park and petanque players. I stopped to watch the petanque players, just so I could write that. Then finally, at about 3 p.m., we reached the prune give- away, where there was already a long line. Renee and Alvin left me there, with their sac, which gave me two. First I scored a big sac of wet, just prunified fruit — what looked like a prunifying machine was just behind the tables where the young men and women were handing out the sacs of prunes — and then, cleverly stuffing it into my bag, I moved to the next table and was handed a bag of the dried variety. Before leaving I found a Shopi in the covered market, where I scored a jar of brandade (great in crepes — thank you, Joe Liebling) and a bottle of Tariquet at an affordable price (4.20); then a second at an even more affordable price 3.70) at a food and wine boutique. (Tariquet is a white made from the same grape as armagnac. It’s kind of like Colombard, which one can find in the States, but better — fruity and with a bite. Goes great with fondue, tartiflette, and raclette, and can even be served as an aperitif.)

While my train was still in the station, a friendly-looking older man with a hearing aide sat down across from me. Noticing his umbrella, I said amiably, “Fortunately it didn’t rain today!” He explained that he’d just been getting the umbrella repaired for his grandchildren. I asked if he’d checked out the prune festival; he’d been busy visiting the church. “They were giving out free prunes!” I said, and invited him to try the wet ones. “Delicious!” he remarked, his whole face lighting up. As soon as I found out he was from Toulouse, I asked him if he found it polluted. Toulouse had been one of my candidate villes until I visited it last summer and discovered that on some streets you can actually see the pollution in front of you.. But for social reasons, I keep coming back to it. “No no,” he said, he didn’t find it polluted. As, doing the math, I figured he must have been close to 80, I thought this was a good sign. He added that public transport is FREE for those over 60. This is another thing I like about Toulouse, on paper anyway; it isn’t just that it offers a lot of cultural events, but that they’re free or close to. (For 80 Euros, you can see everything at the Cinematheque — a good one, with a strong Russian collection — for one year, which beats Paris (120) and Lyon (183, and you still have to pay for the special seances). He also said, brightening up even more, that in the park across from his home there’s lots of pissenlit (dandelion leaves) to pick, so we swapped recipes, mine for salad and his for a casserole with potatoes (the key is to cut the pissenlit up into tiny morsels). I guess I was friendly enough that the man, whose name was Marcel, asked me if I wanted a gold or a silver Virgin medal. I asked for the silver but he ended up giving me both. All I need to do to get benedicted is show it to a priest. (According to the documentary on the deportation camps, it was the albeit belated protests by the priests — notably the archbishop of Toulouse — that finally slowed the French, er, Vichy government down in its zeal to collect the Jews and deliver them to the Germans, er, Nazis.) On the trip, Marcel, a retired telecommunications specialist for the train company, explained to me how fragile the telecommunications lines for the train company used to be, made of glass.

Just before we passed the stone house where I live, from the train window I caught Bernard and Stephan harvesting Bernard’s potatoes. During the Occupation, according to Bernard, whose father lived those years here, the maquis used to sabotage the train tracks just above the stone house. They hid in the pre-historic caves I look up at when I take my apero on the terrace. The Germans once shot at Bernard’s father — for nothing. There were also collabos who told the Germans where to find the resistants and, not far from here, a whole village that was killed in reprisal by the Germans.

After dropping the prunes and Tariquet at the house, I walked down up to the potato fields. Bernard handed me a heart-shaped pair of Siamese potato twins and said, “You know what these are? Balls!” I unearthed a potato tinier than a prune. Holding up the one Bernard had given me I said, “These are American balls.” Then showing him the tiny one I added, “And these are French balls.”

For the prunes: The more aged ones are so hard — almost like hard candy — I decided to stew a few in a glass filled with Mr. Marty’s eau de vie. Perhaps I will have them for desert today if there’s any room left in my teeth after the sanglier gets through with them.

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 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 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.

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