France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 30, 2010

Tra la la


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.

October 17, 2009

The lights are on but nobody’s home, or, le lumiere est la mais tous les etages ne sont pas illuminé or reason #1,677 why I hate Brussels

What if you woke up one morning and none of your light-bulbs fit? And on top of that, they were all fluorescent. You would either a) be having a nightmare or b)be living in Europe in 2010.

Indeed, when I looked for light-bulbs at the supermarket in the village today to replace a couple that had gone out, both in small snug fixtures, I looked and looked where the manager had told me to and saw nothing. Then he came over and explained that those ugly oblong white things — they look kind of like miniature sky-scrapers — were light-bulbs, and I remembered that a handful of bureaucrats in Brussels had decided that what was good enough for Edison and has been good enough for the rest of us the last hundred plus years was no longer good enough for the 450 million citizens they supposedly represented, and decreed that as of October 1, the luminescent round bulbs would be replaced by ugly, white, rectangular fluorescent bulbs. And when I say replaced, I don’t mean that we would be able to choose them, I mean that all the old bulbs would be removed from the shelves and we would have no choice. The supposed reason is that they are more efficient. In energy, maybe, but in cost, no; first, where the old lighbulbs cost 1.20 Euros for two, this new thing costs 2.02 for one. Second, because they are so big — long — with a new base added on top of the screw base to boot, they won’t fit into the narrow lighting chambers of just about any spot — and spots are big here in Europe — nor under any lighting globe. So hundreds of millions of Europeans will have to spend money to replace their lighting fixtures, and more money on their light-bulbs, in a time when, thanks partly to lack of foresight by Brussels, most of us have less of it, but Brussels doesn’t care because someone had a cool idea. The rest of us, as unusual, pay the consequences. And for those of us that get headaches from fluorescent lighting? No one asked us, we don’t count. And if we complain, they call us ‘anti-European.’ No, I’m not anti-European. I just say that what the EU about is not what was promised — making it easier for its citizens — but strictly about making it easier for the big capitalists. No matter if Brussels’s decisions create complications for the rest of us — the EU bureaucrats couldn’t care less. And if we vote down a constitution they’re trying to shove down or throats that does nothing to rectify this and whose soul goal is to make it even easier for big business, no problem; they’ll re-name it a treaty and say they don’t need to have a vote. Or, if we insist on a vote on the treaty and vote it down — as Ireland did — they’ll just make us vote again after scaring us a little.

July 17, 2009

Taking liberties

Okay, so let me get this straight: Factory workers at an auto plant faced with lay-offs threaten to blow up their workplace unless the patron forges over 30,000 Euros to each employee (if this isn’t extortion, what is?), and the government sends in… the industry minister, to re-assure the workers. Meanwhile, in Montreul, a working-class suburb of Paris, citizens hold a peaceful demonstration to protest the police taking out the eye of another demonstrator at an earlier demonstration by firing a paintball gun into it, and the police charge them, firing paintball guns at four more demonstrators… while the interior minister remains silent. Meanwhile, until today (when the Green deputy Noel Maniere introduced a law that would ban police using tasers and paintball guns), the parliament is talking about neither of these abuses of liberty but appears to think the greatest threat to French society is women covering themselves with long dresses. (I’m much more worried by the attack on separation of church and state wielded every night on public television, where the weather broadcaster ends his forecast by exhorting everyone — Catholics, Muslims, Jews and atheists — to not forget to kiss the day’s patron saint.)

June 9, 2009

Of these, hope: The EU Parliamentary elections

News item: The big story of Sunday’s European Parliamentary elections here in France is that Europe Ecology, a.k.a. the Greens, did just about as well as the Socialists, garnering 15 percent of the vote as compared to the Socialists’ 16, and 14 Parliamentary seats to the Socialists 15. (Coming in first was French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, electing 28 deputies.) In Paris, Europe Ecology beat the Socialists, with a whopping 21 percent of the vote.

Two weeks ago here in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, Danny the Red, a.k.a. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 student protests and, 40 years later, leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, sat on the podium of a local theater listening as a fellow parliamentary candidate from his new Europe Ecology party, this one from ‘France Outre-Mer,’ tried to explain to the audience the unique situation of the ‘former’ colonies in Europe. A baby intermittently bawled. But rather than being annoyed by the baby, Cohn-Bendit gazed at it with a big ol’ smile of wonder on his face.

If nearly 60 percent of the overall voting-age populace stayed home during Sunday’s parliamentary elections in France (across Europe, 57 percent abstained), 80 percent — 80 percent — of young people decided not to vote. But as a young commentator explained yesterday on France Culture radio, it isn’t the European Project young people don’t believe in, it’s the European institutions.

Cohn-Bendit, I think, knows the difference, as does his party. But rather than simply complaining about Europe in confounding ‘Europe’ with Brussels, a.k.a. institutional Europe — as other lefties like me do — he persists in believing in the European Project.

And in convincing others.

So whereas the Socialists continue to be divided between those who voted for the European Constitution, with its lack of adequate social protections, and those who voted against it because it seemed primarily designed to favor the multi-nationals, Cohn-Bendit, who voted for, recruited for Europe Ecology José Bové, the farmer leader who voted against it and the famous opponent of genetically modified produce who risked prison by ramming his tractor into a McDonald’s, as the head of Europe Ecology’s list in Southwest France (where I live when I’m not in Paris).

Et voila Bové, a new member of parliament who proves that the ‘Euro-skeptics’ are quite ready to say yes to a Europe that’s not just there to grease the wheels of pan-European capitalism but to make life easier for everybody else:

“Today, 60 percent of those who die of hunger are farmers,” Bové pointed out in the campaign journal Vert. “In other words, farmers can no longer feed themselves with their own agriculture, let alone nourish their neighbors and the surrounding villages. It’s for this reason that we’ve been fighting for years for the recognition of alimentary sovereignty as a fundamental right on the same level as the right to food. I think that Europe can play an important role in getting alimentary sovereignty inscribed in the Declaration of Human Rights.”

At present, he went on, “in lieu of organizing alimentary sovereignty, in lieu of mandating products of quality for consumers and of preserving the environment, the agricultural politics of the European Union (emphasizes and strengthens) agricultural conglomerates. A farm disappears in Europe every three minutes! We need to radically re-assess this agricultural politics, and this will be the object of the Greens in the European Parliament for this next five-year mandate, because the next European agricultural policy must be put in place in 2013.”

More broadly: The main reason so many citizens stayed home Sunday is that they don’t see the EU parliament as having any influence on or relevance to their lives. In fact, this particular parliament is, at present, more of a demi-parliament because it lacks one fundamental power attributed to most parliaments: It cannot introduce laws. That power belongs to the European Commission — a governing body able to impose its will on a populace which can’t vote for its members directly. (The parliament can only modify laws the EU commission proposes.) Rather than trying to make silk out of a pig’s ear, as much of the mainstream French media does in trying to convince people otherwise, Bové and Europe Ecology promise to actually try to change the balance.

“We have to build a European politics that permits citizens to agitate concretely,” he argues. “We have to return power — or more precisely, give power — to the E.U. Parliament so that there’s a genuine democratic articulation between an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch.”

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

May 26, 2009

Danny le Rouge ne rougé pas

As I was wandering along the rue Belgrand off the rue de Pyrenees Saturday, lost in the world’s longest outdoor market, a flyer pasted to a telephone pole caught my eye: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. Danny le Rouge, leader of the May ’68 student riots in Paris, and lead candidate for Europe Ecology a.k.a. the Greens for the Ile de France in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections (what does that parliament actually DO, by the way? It doesn’t seem to be able to impeach the betises of Brussels, nor permitted to propose new laws.) would be speaking in my neighborhood that afternoon, in a ‘debate’ on the topic “L’outre-mer c’est aussi l’Europe.”

L’outre mer or outer Ocean isn’t actually in Europe, being constituted by French domaines and territories like Martinique, Guadalupe, the Ile of Reunion and Guyane. It’s also sometimes referred to as the DOM-TOM, which I think stands for domaines outre mere and territories outre-mer. They’re former slave colonies in which, in the eyes of some — notably many of those who struck for two months earlier this year to protest high prices — the lighter-skinned descendants of slave-owners now own most of what’s ownable even if they constitute a minority of the population, and the darker-skinned descendants of slaves work for them and have to buy their over-priced goods at stores owned by the descendants of their ancestors’ slave-masters. In other words, the DOM-TOM’s are a relic of colonialism.

If that wasn’t enough, even though they’re not in Europe, the DOM-TOM countries, or at least the DOM, are also strapped by Brussels, a.k.a. the European Commission. So, as one representative explained at the debate Saturday, a DOM country can find itself bound by, say, different rules of the Ocean than the island right next door.

Danny le Rouge showed up an hour late for the debate in a small club here in the trés cosmopolitan 20th arrondisement of Paris, in time to hear some of this and to deliver a rather pat polemic (“Europe needs to take a look at the ex-colonies.” Duh!) which began by his admitting that he’d actually never been to any DOM or TOM countries. It was also a bit bizarre to hear the most famous student leader of the 1960s this side of Mario Savio and Tom Hayden excuse a memory lapse by a reference to Alzheimer’s.

I’d have been curious to learn what Danny the Rouge thinks of his putative descendants, the students who for four months this Spring were not content to just boycott school themselves, in a vague protest of new policies proposed by the government including autonomy for the universities (uh, what’s wrong with that?), no, they had to BLOCK access to classes by any other students — many of whose parents had paid dearly for the privilege of an education for their children — even those not in accord with them. (Whatever happened to Democracy?) This so-called movement seems a perversion of May ’68, with, from what I’ve seen on t.v. and heard on the radio of the manifs, the students seeing it as just one big protest party.

December 3, 2008


This was the word chosen by the newscaster on France Culture this morning to encompass the government’s backing down on three major cause celebrés in recent days: 1)Facing opposition within its own center-right majority in Parliament, the government agreed to a compromise on whether to open stores on Sundays: Yes for the already open, in grand metropoles, and in zones touristique, no everywhere else, although there are exceptions to the exceptions; even though it qualifies as both a grand metropole and a zone touristique, the Lyonnaise area will rest closed on Sundays, apparently due to strong opposition from area deputies. 2) Facing the fact that the Socialist mayors who run most of the big cities were refusing to enforce it anyway, education minister Xavier Darcos said he would not take them to court for not guaranteeing ‘minimum service.’ This was a regime the government tried to set in place whereby in cases of teacher strikes, city hall was obligated to provide baby-sitting. 3) After blaming sabotage of the national train network (the rails, not the trains) on a cell of alleged anarcho-leftists, the government has been forced to release all but two of the alleged coupables. The only evidence remaining against the ‘cell leader’ appears to be a ladder and a book on anarchist phllosophy.

I have no truck with anarchists. In reality, what this often means is not simpy a void — a passive non-belief in and non-allegiance to governed society — but concrete and rephrehensible violent action. Incredibly, the hosts of my favorite Lefty Yank radio program, Democracy Now, recently let stand a statement by the domestic terrorist — yes, terrorist — William Ayers that he bombed police stations in the ’60s because, well, those were different times, and anyway, they never hurt a single person. Anarchists, at least those who resort to violence, as well as so-called ‘revolutionaries’ like Ayers, like to say that in targeting government buildings they aren’t hurting anyone, they are going after power. Well guess what? Notwithstanding that it hasn’t always played out this way, police stations are, in theory — and often in practice — not symbols of ‘repression,’ but guarantors of security in the *good sense* of that word. So when a so-called anarchist or ‘revolutionary’ attacks a police station, their real goal is to make the rest of us feel *less secure* and *more vulnerable* and thus create nihilistic chaos. (And while we’re defending the police: Much has been made here the past few days — mostly by other journalists — of the supposedly excessive manner in which police picked up a former editor of the Left-leaning daily Liberation, whose only alleged infraction was alleged libel against an Internet company, Free. Okay, maybe they shouldn’t have handcuffed the guy. But maybe, also, more of the journalists should be reporting (as I’ve only heard two do so far) that the reason police had to go to the journalist’s house to get him was that he’d allegedly failed to appear three times at court dates.)

But returning to the alleged anarcho-leftist saboteurs. It looks like the government rushed to judgment too fast. Not to me to judge them but, easy as it is to identify single culpables for one or two derailing incidents, anyone who’s tried to travel between Paris and anywhere else, not to mention in the regions, knows that the SNCF train network has a real infrastructure problem, to say the least. (And don’t even try using its website; easier to walk 2 miles to a train station and ask the clerk.) That’s what’s got to be seriously acknowledged, looked at, and repaired.

While we’re on the subject of schools, and of alleged feats:

The much-vaunted European digital library, Europeana, continues to be down. (When I contacted a publicist for the institution to complain that I couldn’t even find the site’s supposed greatest virtue, its search engine, he said gleefully, “Well, we have a great video!!”) Unfortunately, this didn’t stop one of the library experts appearing on France Culture this morning from singing the praises of this 2 million Euro (annually) boondoggle. (Demi-traduction: Bidondoggle.) On the same program, one of the guests also pointed out that when he recently presented himself at a local police post to report a minor robbery, he had to rewrite the desk sergeant’s report, so full of ‘faults’ was it. Similarly, he claimed, the reason metro station agents often can’t help him find a given street is that they don’t know what letter it starts with. (Moi, ce n’etes pas les lettres de commencement qui me trouble, c’est ceux qui suive! Ou plutot leur son.)

There’s a connection here! Or rather a disconnect.

Europe is spending 2 million Euros per year on a boondoggle of a bibliotheque (hey, can I get sued and shackled for this?) that so far, DOES NOT WORK. (They claim it’s because there are too many of us that want to use it.) Meanwhile, this year the government eliminated 11,000 teacher positions, including — this is crucial — 3,000 of the 11,000 special education teachers, or RASE. Meanwhile — skipping to another connection here, I know — it’s considering a law which (if I understood correctly) would make it easier to send young people to prison.

In California, my home state, where school funding has suffered ever since, 30 years ago, the state voted to eliminated the property tax, teachers are now thinking of paying for supplies by placing ads on test papers.

Does France know what it’s in train of losing?

March 12, 2008

Monsieur Mou, a.k.a. Professor Tournesol, a.k.a. François Bayrou, mon heros

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 11:33 am
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Like Anne Frank, France is a little bundle of contradictions. Thus on the one hand, on Sunday night one could see a black turtle-necked Olivier Besancenot, the 33-year-old leader of the League Communist Revolutionaire, sitting around the roundtable with the mainstream political suits on TF1 television’s coverage of the municipal election returns, something one would never see in the United States, where even the Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was sometimes excluded from televised debates and other candidates are routinely excluded because they haven’t collected enough money. On the other hand, if the French understand political extremes, they don’t know quite what to do with the so-called Center.

When the Bearnais François Bayrou claimed this mantle in last year’s presidential election, despite initial enthusiasm he was eventually shouted down by politicians from the Right and the Left who easily convinced the public that he was ‘mou,’ or soft — neither on the Left nor the Right, therefore wishy-washy. Yet in fact, if one studied his positions, what Bayrou offered and offers is not mushyness but freedom from ideology; rather than consult an ideological compas before rendering an opinion, he looks at the situation based on the facts. Thus, when youths rioted at the Gare du Nord after police tried to arrest a man without papers, the Right-wing candidate instinctively blamed the youths, the Socialist candidate hesitated for fear of being labeled soft on crime, and only Bayrou talked common sense: “This is what happens when young people don’t trust the police.”

More recently, the number one issue in France these days is the diminished pouvoir d’achat or purchase power. (Milk at my local grocery store has gone from 63 cents a liter to 96 in seven months.) After candidate Nicolas Sarkozy promised to be the president of the pouvoir d’achat, President Nicolas Sarkozy flippantly announced, “The cash box is empty — what do you expect me to do?” Worse, his own motto in campaigning for the effective reversal of the 35-hour-work week in the form of supplemental hours — ‘travail plus pour gagne plus’ or work more to earn more — has effectively been subverted by his finance minister to ‘if prices are up, you just need to work more.’ Enter Mr. Bayrou, who revealed how direly existential the situation is when, grimacing as a t.v. interviewer asked him about the pouvoir d’achat, he corrected the interviewer, “It’s not really the pouvoir d’achat, it’s the fin de mois,’ meaning there are households who arrive at the end of the month unable to pay their bills.

Now the commentators are confused because in the wake of Sunday’s elections and ahead of this Sunday’s final round, Bayrou’s Modem party is allying itself with the Right in some towns, the Left in others, and no one in still others, including Pau, where Bayrou, who finished second to the Socialist candidate in the first round, has refused to combine forces with the third place right-wing UMP for the final. Analyzing this approach in short-hand, one commentator said Bayrou is either Professor Tournesol or a visionary. Tournesol — English-speakers know him as Professor Calculus — is of course the hard of hearing character from the Tintin series. I would reverse the analogy.

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