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 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.

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 24, 2010

Mache it up or, tonight I picked my dinner

I used to worry how I would ever adjust to the food downgrade if I had to move back to the United States from France, especially to New York. (California does a little bit better on healthy food that’s also affordable, especially vegetables.) The New York super-markets especially are, well, just gross. And the most reliable vegetables I found, apart from the Union Square and occasionally Tompkins Square farmer’s markets, were from a Balkan immigrant guy with a great sense of humor who sold fruits and vegetables on the corner of 14th and Fifth.

But now that I live here in the country, in the Dordogne department of SW France, and for social and work reasons am looking to move back to Paris. I’m starting to ponder how I’ll ever make the adjustment from the French country-side to the French city-side. There’s just no comparison. Sure, you can find beautiful vegetables and fancy meat in the markets, but not often at popular (or people’s) prices, particularly when it comes to ‘gourmet’ vegetables and meat. (The French Arab market at Barbes, and others, have cheap prices, but it sometimes reflects the quality.)

This reflection is all brought on by not just the pissenlit (dandelion and its crispy leaves, great in salads and cooked like spinach for omelets and pasta, yum!) being in bloom, but being joined by its more delicate and refined and easier to pick mache. This late afternoon as I headed to the path behind the horse and donkey farm to gather some pissenlit for tonight (the period in which pissenlit is good is very short, so you eat a lot of it while you can), I crossed Mr. Marty, my retired farmer neighbor, and Madeline, Bernard’s mother in law, at Mr. Marty’s vines, where Madeline was already at work picking some. I joined them and shortly she picked up something else, which she said was also delicious: mache. I’d had this in Paris but it looked nothing like this. In Paris, where it’s not always cheap unless it’s on sale, it’s usually dark green, hard, and in cellophane-enveloped little cartons. This stuff, though, is light green and feather-light and unlike pissenlit, you don’t need a knife to cut it at its fierce roots. I made my way down the vines and found several little patches, picking it with the lightest of tugs of the hand. It kind of looks like baby spinach — little bunches, dense at the middle as if about to flower. I also picked a ton of pissenlit. Yesterday I washed my pissenlit at the source (or spring) across the train tracks up the field from the house and man — what a difference in taste (from washing it in tap water). But tonight I looked at the clock and it was perilously close to train time, so instead I walked back to the other source (yes, we have two, since Bernard unearthed the old source at the tracks where he used to gather water as a kid 40-some years ago) and filled up a few bottles with the stuff to wash the pissenlit here, scattering a reunion of frogs along the way.

Speaking of which, better start washing the pissenlit now (7 p.m.) if I’m to have the mache and spinach all washed for salad and pasta in time for Plus Belle la Vie, my (and 6 million French people’s) nightly Marseille-based soap opera.

C’est plus belle le cuisine en province, n’est pas? — surtout quand c’est gratuit!

January 4, 2010

The Stranger

50 years ago today, Albert Camus, 46, journalist, novelist, playwright, and Resistance hero, died — or, as the French say, ‘disappeared’ — in what Paris Match called “a banal highway accident.” And yet Camus, a bi-cultural symbol of hope and unity in fractious times that pitted the country of his birth, Algeria, against that of his blood, France, is more present than ever in today’s France and Europe. Not because president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to move him to the Pantheon, where repose the great men (and one great woman, Marie Curie) of France, but because, in an apparent attempt to change the subject, ahead of regional elections, from fear of daily survival to fear of the Other, Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, has launched a nationwide ‘debate’ on ‘national identity.’ At a time when neighboring Switzerland has just voted to ban the Muslim minaret, perhaps we should be thinking not of where Camus’s remains rest but of what remains of his personal example, that of someone whose final battle was to reconcile his two cultures. Coming from the United States and growing up in San Francisco, I see not the danger of the Other, but the beauty of the mosaic; how the base culture — which I treasure, it’s why I’m here — is not threatened, but enhanced by the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ cultures it assimilates. (In the French original, Camus’s novel “The Stranger” — in which the protagonist is ostracized not for killing an Arab but for not crying at his mother’s funeral — is called “L’etranger,” which also means “the foreigner.”) Take the example of the pumpkin flan I served my French guests for Thanksgiving-Christmas-Chanuka dinner the other night.

After eight+ years in France, I’ve given up on having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving. The first year was fine. Taking advantage of the fact that the butcher on the corner of my street in the 13eme district of Paris always displayed birds complete with their feathers in his window, I decided to buy a turkey with feathers for the first time in my life. “Can you pluck him?” I asked, or rather mimed — I hadn’t been here long, and my French was feeble — “But then give me the feathers afterwards?” I wanted to use them as a centerpiece. After burning one pecan pie in the strange French oven, before I started the turkey I returned to the butcher’s with a napkin on which I’d drawn pictures of the two dials on my oven, one with weird symbols, the others with numbers, and asked him to indicate the proper settings for the turkey. The turkey came out great, as did the second pecan pie, but of all the items I served, the hit of the party was the candied yams covered with pineapples and roasted marshmellows, a recipe of my late dear friend, Annette Clark. (Ironically, I had trouble getting around the concept this time, as the only marshmellows I could find were muti-colored. Melted green glop on top of your sweet potatoes, or yams, does not exactly make them appetizing.)

For this year’s Thanksgiving-Chanuka-Noel party, I’d initially been planning to serve raclettes. This is kind of like fondue, but better. Instead of sitting around a fondue pot in which the fondue gradually turns into glop over the course of a long evening, with raclettes, you make your individual serving whenever you’re ready for it: Each person has a little pan, which fits neatly into a slot under the burning coil, on top of which is a hot surface to keep the potatoes warm. (The raclette apparatus has slots for 6 – 8 pans, so the dining is communal and convivial.)Onto the pan you place your slice of raclette cheese, ideally over a thin slice of raw ham or other meat, until it melts, then you pour it over your potatoes. Raclette describes both the cheese and the device with which, back in the day, and perhaps still today up in the Alps or Savoie where the dish originated, you peeled off the slices after melting a big wedge of cheese over a fire. For raclette to be good, though, it really has to come from the mountains — and not from the shelves of a super-market, where the concept ‘raclette’ is usually taken to mean simply ‘it melts’ and does not promise the cheese in question will taste like anything, let alone its crust. (The first time I bought raclette at my favorite Parisian fromagerie — on the rue Montorgueil, where it came in three flavors, smoked, natural, and pepper — when I asked the cheeseman if it was okay to eat the crust, he cheesily answered, “As long as you have a toilet nearby.” In fact, with raclette as with rebluchon — another melting mountain cheese, the basis for tartiflette — it’s the crust that gives the taste.)

But getting back to my Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Noel party: My plans to make use of my raclette set were foiled by my inability to find any kind of really authentic raclette cheese throughout my county of the Dordogne here in southwest France, which is more known for pre-historical caves and cave paintings and for duck products than cow cheese. (Goat and sheep’s cheese are another story.)

This is the point at which the Thanksgiving party melded into the annual Chanuka-Noel party, as I still had half of a sack of potatoes left and voila, latkes!

For the aperitif I served fresh pissenlit which I’d picked that morning — dandelion leaves to you, bub — and made up like a spinach dip, as well as tartines of fresh walnuts (the paths are paved with them here) and melted blue next-to-Savoy/Alpes cheese. (I mentioned real raclette is impossible to find here. In fact, up to about three weeks ago the Savoy cheese market around here was a bit of a racket. The stands that popped up at area outdoor markets sold the cow cheese for up to 50 Euros a kilogram. Well, apparently this was such a scandal that the t.v. news did a segment on it, which was seen by a big cow cheese maker in the Savoy, who sent his brother here to sell his specialty at reasonable prices. The blue was on sale for 4.90 a kilo. The tome de Savoy injected with penicillin was also cheap, at 8.90. Unfortunately, the one exception was the… raclette! Fairly priced at $10/kilo but with a taste just like monterey jack. “It’s from Italy,” the brother told me.)

Getting back to my aperitifs: Amazingly enough, even though it was the one thing I thought my guests wouldn’t like, as it came out tasting bitter — I told them it was an experiment and I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t like it — the pissenlit dip was a hit. (Later, one of the guests, learning that I’d picked the pissenlit from the hill between his house and the road, said his dog droopy loved pissenlit and that’s probably the reason it was bitter.) For the apero part of the apero — the drink — I made vin chaud or mulled wine. (A couple of cloves, peel of tangerines and then their juice, lots of sugar, cinnamon, and wine — which can be cheap wine, in my case 1.50 a bottle plus some leftover cheap beaujolais nouveau.) To keep it hot — as I was serving in the upstairs bedroom/salon, where the fire is, and not the cold kitchen/dining room downstairs — I hit upon the idea of plugging in the raclette set and using it effectively as a hot plate, putting the pot of wine where the potatoes usually were. (When my guests said they smelled something burning, I explained that it was just old embedded raclette cheese.)

Before serving the latkes — we’d moved downstairs to the kitchen — I explained why the Jews cooked them on Chanuka: Besieged in their temple, the Jews only had a bit of oil with which they had to keep their lamps going for eight days while they waited for re-enforcements. Miraculously, the bit of oil lasted for eight days. Then I ladled the batter into much more than a bit of oil.

While my neighbors from the north Marie-Jeanne and Christian — young retirees from Lille — had promised to bring a cake for desert, in the market that morning a few freshly cut slices of potiron — like pumpkin — caught my eye. Then I spotted the condensed milk prominently displayed across from the check-out aisle. Pumpkin pie! As my oven isn’t deep enough for pies, I instead poured the filling (to the pumpkin and condensed milk — I used a medium-sized can, with enough left over for my 20-something Siamese — I added two eggs and some freshly grated nutmeg) into individual ceramic custard pots with birds on the bottom, that neatly fit into their own rack that neatly fits into the oven. Towards the end I gave each a freshly cracked walnut morsel.

I was a bit disappointed when no one ate my dessert, instead preferring to go for seconds of the bakery-bought raspberry cake. I even thought I might have committed a faux pas, in making a second desert when Christian and Marie-Jeanne had said they would bring a cake. Mostly to mollify me, Christian asked if he could take one of the custard pots home with him to eat later.

When I went by their place up the hill this morning after picking fresh pissenlit (or, as the French joke, piss en lit/piss in bed), Marie-Jeanne handed me the pot and said she was glad I’d come by as the custard was fantastic and she had to have the recipe to serve tonight to guests. “We’re from the north, so this is all new to us,” she said, showing me various orange, yellow, and orange-green squashes and pumpkins a guy brings by for her once a week.

A native French person had not just complemented my cooking — of something from my culture — but asked for the recipe. I gave it to her, stranger no more — at least for a day.

August 20, 2009

Simenon’s Maigret: A world ‘without hope’?

Filed under: Paris,Simenon,Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 2:24 pm
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Well, I guess it’s no surprise that it took Georges Simenon to get me back to this journal; if he could write a book in nine days, I should be able to file one dispatch in one month. (When an interviewer asked if he ever took time out to relax, Simenon answered Mais oui; as it took him nine days to write a novel, if he wrote six in a year that left him with 311 days off.)

If I’ve been absorbed by France Culture radio’s ‘grand traversé’ dedicated to Simenon running every morning this week (click here to listen to the archived emissions), particularly the first hour, dedicated to archival interviews with the author, I’ve been disappointed by the relatively scant time devoted so far, in daily programming of 3.5 hours quand meme, to Simenon’s major creation, the Commissaire Maigret. And when Maigret does come up, as he did today in the discussion portion of the program, the ‘experts’ seem to fundamentally misunderstand his world.

According to this particular expert, the world of Maigret, or of the Maigret novels, is ‘sans esperance” or without hope. While this quality might apply to the other major part of Simenon’s oeuvre, the ‘romans dur,’ in which the criminal himself is the protagonist, typically perpetrating the crime at the beginning of the book and then degenerating before our eyes for the rest of it, the Maigret series, in which the detective is the hero, seems to me more an ongoing love affair with and portrayal of the principal character — his manners and his way to explore new worlds, his typical mode of access for solving the crime being to immerse himself in the milieu in which it took place. In effect, he’s our reliable old friend, the narrator we identify with as we encounter these worlds and communities with him. We feel that we’re with him when he enters a bistro and cries out, “Une demi!,” when he’s lost and morose and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere in his investigation, when he ‘bavards’ with his inspectors. The most minute details of how he interacts with the drama become more important than the mundane details of the crime itself — even the way he becomes involved. In one tale, Maigret is ready to turn away a man who’s fled a small coastal village, where he’s accused of murder, to come to Paris to ask for Maigret’s help — until, crossing the bridge St. Michel, he gets a whiff of air that evokes oysters and ‘petit blanc’ and decides to take the case. (When he gets there, he discovers that the oyster harvest has been held up because of tidal problems, so he has to content himself with the petit blanc for the duration of the investigation.)

It’s not that the crime is incidental, but that the center of the story is not its grisly details, not the violence of the culpable, but Maigret’s quest — as much a quest for the solution of the crime as for understanding the personages involved. And because his ‘method’ (in quotes because Maigret would vehemently deny he has one) is to infiltrate the world, the milieu where the crime took place — be it that encircling an ecluse or lock, a port, an upper-class household, a demi-monde, a boarding house — the stories become chants to these communities, in Maigret’s case a tour de France alternating with immersions in the neighborhoods and rhythm of Paris. (Even more fun for those who have lived there; Simenon often situates the crimes on specific streets or in specific places in the general area described by Montmartre and, below it, the 9th arrondisement, often Notre Dame de Lorette, a street I know well.)

The point is that where the ‘romans dur’ start from an already ‘black’ point — the crime, usually violent — and descend into an even darker universe as we get inside the mind of the culpable, the Maigret novels use the fait divers as a trigger for a search for understanding, and an excuse to return to the world of a sensitive hero, Maigret, whose encounters with Paris, France, and occasionally other places are elevated and rich, steeped in the culture of the particular place, as it was in the middle of the 20th century. (One of my favorite passages occurs when, sur place investigating a theft and murder in a suburb, Maigret ‘pique’s the lobster delivered to the local bar from the hapless Sgt. Lucas for his own dinner, and pauses to call HQ. “Stay there!” he says, then, “I’m talking to the lobster,” which is trying to escape.

Speaking of food, in one of the archival interviews Simenon offers a ‘how-to-survive when you have no money’ story that rivals Dolly Parton’s claims that when she first started out, she made ketchup soup to economize. The 20-year-old George Sims, just arrived in Paris (at the Gare du Nord in my old neighborhood, which still, 86 years later, fits Simenon’s description as ‘the endroit ‘le plus raid’ in Paris), had taken a chamber in a boarding house where it was forbidden to cook. Here’s his advice for surviving on very little: “You buy a round of camembert — not a good one but the cheapest you can find. You eat a little morsel, and then you put it in the cabinet. Every day it gets bigger.”

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 3, 2009

The new king of the Luxembourg Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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