France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

October 1, 2010

My French crisis

Okay, I miss it. I really thought I was French at heart. How can you love so much of a culture and not find your place?

September 30, 2010

Tra la la

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.

May 3, 2010

Les Eyzies Law and Order

Well, after a week in which the dead chicken sat on a stake in Mr. Malraux’s cornfield waiting for the fox that had killed it and its sister chicken and two roosters to return and get snapped up by one of the five traps that encircled it, the long arm of the Law finally caught up with it.

On returning today from the little Monday market in the village, where I’d scored six bottles of Bergerac from the last millenium for 15 Euros, directly from the producer Marie-Rose, to impress my Parisian potes with, I saw Mr. Malraux’s mobilette not at his house but above the house at the other end of the path, and him standing below in the garden doing nothing. Approaching our end of the road, I waved at what looked by the tell-tale walking stick like a tourist emerging from the plain leading to the cornfield. Two minutes later he startled me by appearing at my door, whereupon I saw the “police’ insignia on his tan uniform.

“Ca va?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if something wasn’t. “Do you know who put the chicken there?” “Mr. Malraux put it there to trap the fox that killed most of his chickens.” “Is that his house?” the officer asked, pointing across the path. “Does he ride a mobilette?” “Oui!” “Si non, ca va?” I made mundane comments about our six-month winter of discontent here in the south of France, which does not seem to want to end, and this or perhaps my stumbling French (my level depends on who I’m talking to; Mr. Malraux, tres bien; a beautiful fille or the long arm of the law, barely understandable).

I quickly divined that Mr. Malraux must have spotted the policeman as he drove up to his house, figured out it was about the dead chicken that had been sitting in his dead cornfield for a week, and kept on driving, and was now hiding out.

The officer patiently waited, emerging from his yellow four-wheel-drive occasionally to take photos with a camera on a tri-pod, and not just in the direction of the dead chicken.

After about an hour, Mr. Malraux surfaced, in the company of another officer — they were neither gendarmes nor the police national, but forest rangers.

All three quickly marched down the path by our house to the cornfield, where, after one fetched a stick from the riverside, they sprung all five traps, gathering them up but leaving the chicken.

From my post behind the curtained bathroom window, Mr. Malraux did not seem unduly alarmed, but continued to bavard with the rangers, until he bid them, “Allez au revoir!”

I quickly ran over and knocked on his door to get the scoop, above all to find out if he was in trouble. “Not me, because I didn’t put the traps there! The guy who put the traps may be.” Essentially, it wasn’t leaving a dead chicken to roast in a cornfield for a week that was interdit, nor even using it to set a trap for the fox, but the type of traps (which to me had seemed antiques), which is why they had confiscated them. Above all, Mr. Malraux was upset that he’d lost two good traps, which he uses mostly for rats. “It seems to me that you’re the victim here,” I told him. “And they said they’re not going to help me trap the fox!” he added. Yet another way in which France version 2010, with its infinite interdictions, doesn’t seem to be working for the little guy, above all the beleaguered farmer which just last week, the fish and agriculture minister was giving lip service to sympathizing with. A fox had killed four of the five fowl that were all that remained to Mr. Malraux after a lifetime of farming, and which help supplement his social security by providing a few eggs he can sell. Before he gets any more chickens to supplement the one that’s left, he needs to trap that fox. And yet the long arm of the Law is more concerned with the form of trap than with Mr. Malraux’s livelihood.

I thought maybe the fox trap man Michel might feel betrayed that Mr. Malraux had apparently ratted on him, but no, he was back at 6 this evening, rushing down the larger cornfield next door where one of the four remaining farmers in Les Eyzies was turning the earth with his tractor. He held a little bucket and Mr. Malraux trailed him. Thinking it must have some rapport with the fox — the fox traps prohibited, were they now looking for smaller bait? — I braved the wind and rushed out and over the wet turned soil to ask what it was about.

“We’re looking for worms!” Michel said. “Large ones!” The fox trapper was going fishing. I joined in as they continued to traipse down the edge of every new gully Frank the farmer unearthed. “You’re the only one that’s working!” Michel thanked me as I tossed a palm-full of wet creatures into the bucket. “Oui,” said I, “mais c’est degoutant (disgusting)!”

April 28, 2010

The burka that covers the wheat-fields

Yesterday thousands of farmers from all over the country descended on the Place de Nation in Paris in a desperate call to save their profession, in particular that of wheat cultivators, who spend more to produce than they earn. In general, agriculture minister Bruno le Mer said, farmers earn 15 percent of what most workers make. Considering the essential and enduring place of farmers in the life of the country, you’d think that the government might have stopped everything to listen to them. But no, the cabinet had been convened by prime minister Francois Fillon to discuss a more pressing problem, a law to ban the burka, which afffects at most 2,000 women (as opposed to wife beating, which affects 250,000), and which became a priority for the right-wing government after it lost the recent regional elections, in large part because extreme right voters abandoned it for the National Front. (Whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now saying he doesn’t necessarily favor a law banning the burka, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.) So obsessed is the government with distracting the French from their ‘end of the month’ problems with this red herring, the interior minister jumped on the case of a woman who filed a complaint after she was stopped for driving with a burka by threatening to take away her husband’s citizenship because, he says, the man has four wives. (The husband says that like any good Frenchman, he has one wife and three mistresses. “Since when do we take away someone’s citizenship because they have mistresses?”)

As is often the case, my retired farmer neighbor, Mr. Malraux, has a simple explanation for the disparity between earnings and costs today’s farmers face: the tractors, and the gas they consume. While he used them in the latter part of his career, for most of it he propelled his farm machines — antique devices now lined up in front of his shed presiding over the path below — with cows or horses.

PS: Meanwhile, out in the cornfield — that of Mr. Malraux — it’s Day III and the one remaining live chicken is still there, as is the dead one lashed to the stake to trap the fox. We’re expecting 90 degrees today, Farenheit — ca va commence a pu.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

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?

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 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.

Hallelujah!

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.

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