Monday, July 25, 2005

Lazy Days

It's quite relaxing to take a month off in rural France, in the countryside - away from the stress and noise and air pollution so prevalent in Paris and its region. Neither cable, nor satellite TV, nor high-speed internet connection, alas - but more usefully no instant traffic jams, no unexpected parking tickets, no raucous unattended car alarms, no insistent street beggars clamoring for spare change. Pleasant experiences included short lines at the checkout counters and at La Poste, and less aggression, both physical and mental.

Amerloque's days, generally spent in pursuits such as observing, reading, cooking, gardening, writing and sharing quality time with the family, were punctuated by the French media only. With a less and less relevant International Herald Tribune thrown in daily for good measure, the papers, radio and TV were quite enough to enable Amerloque to keep abreast of events – those that the media felt worth reporting or emphasizing, that is. Amerloque was once again struck by the virtually identical sentences appearing in the French papers and on French radio/TV broadcasts. The influence and presence of Agence France Presse, which supplies the vast majority of the reported news items, should not be underemphasized – nor should the sheer sloth of the average French newsie, especially in the summer. It's obviously far easier to read a depeche word for word than it is to dig for news, or for a fresh perspective. It's also easier to stay within the ceaselessly changing and sometimes evanescent boundaries of politically correct discourse, that most modern of curses.

As usual the early summer holiday began on Saint Jean, June 24th. Known also as Saint-Jean d'Eté (Saint John of the Summer), it is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Saint John the Baptist. (Note that it is also a special day for French-Canadians). In many French villages, huge bonfires are prepared during the preceding week and on the evening of Saint Jean d'Eté, they are lit to much acclaim and applause. The crowds oohh and aahh as the wooden faggots are consumed. When the ashes and charcoal remains are cool enough, the crowd collects bits of charred wood and takes them home, for they are thought to bring good luck during the coming year.

The break straddled July 4th, American Independence Day, and July 14th, the French National Day (Bastille Day). It was an ideal time to take stock, to examine what seems to be right and wrong in each country, what is going well and what appears to be failing. The traditional July 4th outdoor barbecue – hamburgers and hotdogs, with baked beans and chili - was welcomed by all the family, as were the equally traditional bals des pompiers and fireworks on July 13th and 14th, depending on the village.

Naturally the designation on July 6th of London as the host city for the 2012 Olympics became cause for deep and anguished soul-searching by the French – at least by the intellectuals, the media and the politicians. Among the reasons generally given for the Parisian loss was rampant corruption at the International Olympic Committee coupled with highly efficient English lobbying. Outright betrayal (ah, perfide Albion !), President Jacques Chirac's lackadaisical attitude, and unwarranted payback for the French vote against the European Constitution were also among the frontrunning reasons mentioned. Rubbing his eyes in disbelief, Amerloque even saw a portion of the French press attribute the loss, in all seriousness, to "actions undertaken by the British Secret Service", including a "strangely fortuitous software bug in the Parisian public transport system on the day preceding the ICO vote". Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe particularly distinguished himself by stating that the French had been more "fair play" than the English - and then proceeded to state in plain words on TV that the English had repeatedly broken the rules. Poor Delanoe, who had hoped to use the Paris 2012 win as a springboard in his upcoming re-election campaign, lost quite bit of personal credibility by "missing an opportunity to shut up", as the French location has it (manquer une occasion de se taire). The International Herald Tribune, of course, demonstrated its habitual anti-French bias, adding a strong dose of schadenfreude.

Out in what passes for the boonies, Amerloque's neighbors couldn't have cared less about Paris 2012, believing it to be quintessentially Parisian. They don't care much about the Samaritaine department store, either. There is a severe drought in most parts of France, and the farmers are suffering. Milk prices have been negotiated downward. The hypermarkets and distributors are wiping out the profit margins, and foreign produce is flooding the market. In the towns and villages, businessmen are morose, unemployment is hurting, companies are offshoring, and few people believe that the Villepin government will be able to turn things around. This year President Chirac's Bastille Day interview was condemned almost universally for containing nothing new and being fin de regne. For the moment there are fewer tourists - both French and foreign.

To the French, the terrorist threat is nothing new: in the 1950s, there were numerous terrorist incidents in Paris and elsewhere in France, sparked by the anticolonial fighting in Algeria and in North Africa generally. Over the past thirty years there have been Flemish, Occitanian, and Breton terrorist incidents, ongoing Basque ETA robberies and attacks, repeated Corsican shootings and bombings, Action Directe assassinations of prominent citizens, and, just 10 years ago, rucksack bombs placed by Muslim fundamentalists in the Paris Metro, killing many passengers. To be sure, the attacks in London are being followed closely by the general public in France, but "it can and will happen here" seems to be accepted as a given. The excellent countrywide Vigipirate system has been reinforced. French security services are studying the British police investigations to learn and adapt, if necessary; cooperation is the word.

Paris is still Paris, bien sûr. Fewer French people, more tourists. Some things never change, between July 14th and August 15th.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque