France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

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.”

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May 11, 2009

Behind Harlem’s Désir: ‘Une gauche bo-bo qui n’a rien compris’

Traversing the packed marché along the rue Convention on my way to re-live one of my favorite multi-sensual Paris experiences at the parc Georges Brassens Sunday (the park’s old book market for the brain, its greenery and fountain for the eye, and the end of market 5-smelly-cheeses for 10 Euro platter for the palette, not to mention the imagined strains of Brassens for the ear), I ran smack up against Harlem Désir. And by Harlem Désir I don’t mean a sudden yearning for chicken and waffles at Wells in uptown Manhattan, but the member of the French Socialist party directorate who goes by that name. “Behind, Harlem Désir,” said a middle-class looking 40ish lady inclining her head towards the guy behind her, who nodded bonjour as he squeezed past me. Unfortunately, it’s the Socialist party whose list Désir is leading in the European elections which is fast being left behind by events.

The Socialists seem to think that if they keep repeating ‘pour une Europe social’ the electorate will forget about all the problems the E.U. directorate in Brussels has wrought, chiefly in depriving many French people of control over their ability to make a living. It might be a rancher in Burgundy who kills himself because he doesn’t have the 100,000 Euros Brussels wants him to spend to ensure his cows don’t poop in the creek, it might be a fisherman in the North who would like to sell all the cod he’s caught so he can pay for the gas he used for the boat but who has to throw much of the fish back because he’s surpassed the quota set by the suits in Brussels, or it might be the rosé producer in Bergerac or Provence who sees all his efforts to elevate rosé-making into a real art wasted because the E.U. commission now says anyone can mix red and white and sell it as rosé.

To these producers, who might be called the heart of the bread-basket of France, the Socialist Party pledge to work to guarantee the SMIC or minimum monthly income means nothing. To these custodians of a once-treasured and now vanishing rural way of life — in my village of 997 in the Dordogne department of Southwest France, just four farmers remain — the Socialists’ desire to create 10 million new jobs as part of a European strategy for ecologic growth is irrelevant. And what does the fisherman who Europe forces to throw cod he’s caught and could sure use back in the ocean care if Europe develops a plan to re-launch the economy in favor of consummation and investment?

Speaking on France Culture radio tonight, the politico-social activist Nicolas Dupont complained that as regards views on Europe there is nothing between a French Socilaist party which is largely “a Left Bo-bo (bourgeoisie-Bohemian; Montmartre in particular has been over-run by them) which has not understood anything” and, on the Right, the UMP of President Sarkozy which places the Market before everything.

Even more amazing, there’s nothing on the so-called Far Left. In the screed an activist from Olivier Besancenot’s New Party Anti-capitalist handed me at the marché yesterday, there are lots of fightin’ words, but not one addresses the crises faced by the farmers and the fishermen. In Besancenot’s world-view, there are only workers and their Capitalist bosses; no one else counts.

Enter François Bayrou.

Liberal wags like to sneer that Bayrou has his head in the clouds, but once again it is only Bayrou’s Movement Democratic which seems to have its ear to the ground when it comes to being aware of real problems the E.U. is causing for real people in France, in its campaign literature promising to work “in favor of a maritime politics that maintains a durable economic activity, at the same time preserving this resource.”

November 26, 2008

François Bayrou versus the media

Boy, I tell you: If there’s one factor that would determine me to become a French citizen it would be the chance to campaign and vote for François Bayrou. It might only be one small pinky finker in the dyke trying to stem the Left-wing media tide against him, but maybe if my friends on the French Left saw a Lefty American vote for the man ill-defined as ‘centrist’ they might start to question the pidgeon-hole the French Lefty media has tried to box him into. One need only to have listened to the Left-leaning crew of my favorite radio program, the morning show on France Culture, to be reminded of how a determined effort by this same media during the 2007 presidential election succeeded in convincing enough French that the man from Pau was ‘flou’ or mushy to beat him down from a second-place 19 percent in pre-first tour polls and prevent him from reaching the second and final round, thus paving the way for Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory against the hopelessly entrenched Socialists.

The lowest moment came during the final 30 minutes, when commentator Olivier Duhamel refused to accept that Bayrou was not rejoicing at the squabble between Segolene Royal and Martin Aubry for premiere secretary which threatened to engulf the Socialist party over the last week. (Royal, who lost by 102 votes, finally conceded last night.) Allowing that he might reap a benefit here or there, Bayrou explained simply that for this battle to consume so much time and energy and attention at this particular time was not good because it detracted focus from the real world at a time when we needed it most. This was not good enough for Duhamel, who proceeded to waste five prescious minutes trying to get Bayrou to admit he was dancing for joy. Et voila, these were five minutes that the president of the Mouvement Democratic could have used to answer the morning’s final question, from the only commentator who was not piling on (and who indeed was chastising the others for doing so), Catherine Clement. She’d asked what he’d do for Culture. Bayrou, who had earlier pointed out that, contrary to what Socialist propaganda would have us believe of him, it’s not capitalism but humanism that he exalts as a mode of life, began by noting that the tenets of this humanism were three non-merchandisable elements of society: Education, Research, and Culture. Clement pressed him to expand on Culture; when he said he wasn’t sure in what sense she meant, she elaborated, trés presicely, that the State has been pushing responsibility for cultural expenditure to the regions and even localities — a crucial question for the artistic sector, in which I count myself, across France. Bayrou had barely time to begin, “Pour le spectacle vivant…” when host Ali Badou cut him off because there was no more time left — which would not have been the case if Duhamel, unrestrained by the host, had not wasted five minutes trying to get Bayrou to act like HE expected a politician to act. Bayrou had already alienated, or at least riled, his host by saying he should go hide himself for not opposing the government’s proposed changes in the audio-visuel regime on the grounds that they would enable the president to appoint the heads of France Television and Radio, thus robbing journalists of their independence. (Once again proving the abrogation of the Socialists on crucial issues where a firm stance from the supposed Opposition is called for — who’s flou now? — the Socialist leader in Parliament yesterday flatly refused Bayrou’s call to censure the government on the audio-visuel law.)

If I have one constructive suggestion for Bayrou — offered from one who has the same tempting but sometimes self-defeating tendency — it would be that he should guard himself from the urge to personalise his polemics in this fashion. (He also likes to employ Pinochio’s nose to evoke politicians who in his view are being hypocritical. “They wouldn’t even fit in a stadium!” he once said of one group.) Take it from one who knows from personal experience, Monsieur Bayrou: Just because you have the gift of a rapier wit doesn’t mean it’s always the best weapon to employ. Or to use an old American aphorism (thank you, Mark Dendy!): You can catch more flies with honey than vinager. (Tr, approximatif: “On a plus de chance a tiré des mouches avec le miele que le vinaigre.”)

November 17, 2008

François Bayrou, off-center candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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