France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

November 22, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 17, 2008

François Bayrou, off-center candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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