No longer is the daily score of burned cars and destroyed buildings being trumpeted in the media - and deplored by everyone. At the same time as the media report the number of prison sentences handed down, the latest criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy (the "hard-line" Interior Minister) from whatever quarter and the jockeying for position by potential candidates in the 2007 Presidential election, its news programs have also reverted to the usual late November fare: Beaujolais Nouveau, the wine auctions on behalf of the Hospices de Beaune, the first snows, emergency shelters for street people and other homeless, the first outdoor Christmas markets of the season, the Fete de Sainte Catherine and the traditional catherinettes, and President Jacques Chirac's birthday.
This year the Socialist Party conference in Le Mans was heavily covered and took up quite a bit of space. The Party, which had recommended - and worked actively for - a "yes" vote on the European Constitution earlier this year, had to reinvent and remake itself to some extent, since the winning "no" on the Constitutional Referendum had proved just how out of touch the Party is with the French people. The divergent positions ("les courants") were reconciled, the leadership shaken up slightly, the pithy quotes attributed, the soundbytes recorded, and the strange-bedfellow handshakes and smiles filmed. The Socialists now must build a platform to convince the people that they remain relevant: according to a survey published in Le Monde just before the conference began and quoted in Le Parisien, 60% of the French think that the Socialists are "unable to win the Presidency in 2007", 58% feel that the Socialists' proposals are "unrealistic", 57% say that the Socialists are "not listening to the French people", and 55% agree that the party is "not adapted to the modern world".
Of course, if one makes the effort to look away from the mainstream news, one can indeed find programs about the riots and their aftermath - the TV screens are filled with talking heads and the radios filled with sonorous voices. Belonging to almost all political persuasions and ethnic groups, the opinions range from angry to smug, from appallingly pessimistic to cheerfully optimistic. What began as simple damage control and as a search for the reasons for violence ("Why are youths in the projects rioting ?") has now evolved into a hunt for answers to two basic questions: "How can we prevent this from happening again ?" and "How can French society fully integrate its immigrant populations ?".
Insofar as the first - immediate prevention - is concerned, the government has decided to maintain the current state of emergency, including selective curfews. It is stationing selected CRS antiriot police units permanently in some "hot" neighborhoods ... while at the same time financing several new volunteer programs for disadvantaged youths, including apprentice schemes from the age of fourteen, rather than the current sixteen. It has chosen to restore financing to many associative "big brother", community mediation and sports programs in the projects; some subsidies for these had been cut from the budget several years ago. It has also announced public housing construction and renovation programs worth hundreds of millions of euros. It has decreed a year-end financial bonus for police mobilized to deal with the riots. Finally, special strike teams composed of investigators, police, gendarmes, tax officers, and customs officials have been hitting hard at organized criminal gangs, which the government is convinced were directly behind some of the riots in the projects. By arresting and charging dozens of individuals, and in some cases requesting deportation from the country, the government is sending a message: the laws of the French Republic shall be upheld in the projects.
The second issue - full integration of immigrant populations - is, of course, complex and one that will not be solved tomorrow by sending in a squad of cops. Suggested courses of action abound, running the gamut from affirmative action through more racial diversity on TV to "anonymous" resumes when jobseeking. The "American model" and the "British model" are being closely studied, diagnosed and discussed in public. One thing is clear: at all costs the government wants to avoid an upsurge of communautairisme, groupings based on ethnic and/or racial identity, which it feels would be counterproductive and not keeping with the French model. Moving to a kind of discrimination positive ("affirmative action") not by race but by neighborhood and income seems to be the current government's position.
The international press has dropped France from the front pages: no more spectacular photos of burning cars are there for the taking ! That doesn't mean the attacks on France and its way of life have been held in abeyance, of course. Amerloque cringed as he read the pontificating Brian Knowlton in the increasingly disconnected International Herald Tribune, offering American "lessons" (sic) to the French for stopping riots and developing integration. Does he think the cultures are the same ? More appositely, given the condescension in his prose, does he think the French are stupid ?
Back in the real world, never has Amerloque seen and heard the question of immigration, the counterpoint to full integration, more discussed in the mainstream media and around the lunch and dinner tables - and not just by those who are alleged to have "far right" opinions. One element recently injected into the debate by the government Minister of Labor, Gérard Larcher, was "polygamy": something like 10,000 to 20,000 immigrant families, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, are apparently polygamous and collecting entitlements. Questions have been asked as to the upbringing of the children, their nationality, and their education. Though tolerated after a fashion up to now, polygamy has been discouraged by the government in recent years. The riots have now focused attention on it - and a lot of non-immigrant French people, heretofore unaware of its existence in France, don't like what they are seeing.
Other questions Amerloque has seen and heard during the past few weeks: Why is it that Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Polish, and Russians were able to integrate so easily ? With all the money spent in the housing projects to date with such little apparent success at integration, should even more money be spent ? What guarantees does French society have that if more money is spent, the troubles won't break out anew ? Should immigration, including family groupings, be stopped ? Should it be based on a quota/point system, like Canada's and Australia's ? What about dual nationality ? Should French nationality be revoked for immigrants who refuse to integrate ? Just what are the "touchstones" for integration and how can they be determined ? Should female excision, a practice sometimes carried out by immigrants from Africa, be more severely dealt with in France than at present ? Should immigrants who practice it be deported ? What about arranged marriages ? Are they acceptable in the eyes of the Republic ? What about a man's refusing to allow his wife to be treated by a male doctor in the emergency room in the local public hospital ? What about closing a taxpayer-financed city/community swimming pool for a hour every day so that women can swim without men ? Should taxpayer money be used to finance mosques ? Buddhist temples ?
Yes, the separation of church and state has again become another hot topic, especially since this year is the centennial year of the Law of July 1st 1905, establishing French laicité and also because Nicolas Sarkozy has stated that the law should be "reworked". With more or less success, the French people have spent over two hundred years, since the Revolution, moving religion to the private sphere and divorcing it from public life - and now have seen community religious leaders in the projects - sometimes in spite of and other times at the behest of government - exercising what might be considered to be undue influence in the commonweal.
Three weeks of nightly riots on TV have thrust quite a few issues into the limelight for the French. Some of the questions raised were studiously ignored for twenty-four years, while some were deemed irrelevant; others were hastily swept under the carpet, and still others were condemned as simply being politically incorrect. After the May, 2002 elections when Jacques Chirac won the presidential runoff against Jean-Marie Le Pen, Amerloque felt that the convulsion to French society was subsequently blunted, blurred and muted in a kind of collective dismissal of the possible ramifications … and the conclusions to be drawn and acted upon. Relatively quickly, a sort of "back to business as usual" sentiment that augured ill for the future permeated the media and the people.
To a certain extent, Amerloque has that same feeling now, after the riots, and it is not pleasant.
With immense respect and affection for his adopted country, Amerloque wonders just what the politicos – of whatever stripe – are doing and just what they want to achieve. For example, the French people voted against the European Constitution earlier in the year … and they have now seen their politicians approving the European Union as it opens negotiations with Turkey concerning admittance to the Union. They have seen negotiations opened with Bosnia. They have seen their public services opened to "competition" … and these same public services, once the envy of Europe and examples to be held up for imitation and emulation, eviscerated. They have seen their overall quality of life decline, not increase. Now they see their projects (les cités) burning, the result of policies put into place and badly implemented by the same people and parties now clamoring for their approval and votes. It is said that reform is impossible in France. Amerloque said in a previous entry:
Amerloque's experience in France has taught him that it would be impolitic to underestimate or misunderstand the French people: they do not practice reform when the situation becomes catastrophic. Rather, they sweep away the existing structure and set up a new one.
"The French are not fools" (dupes), as the old French saying goes ... and in Amerloque's humble view, very difficult times lie ahead.
* * * * *
At no time during the year is the life of an American expatriate in France so contrapuntal to surrounding French life as it is at Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays. Some American expats celebrate on the preceding weekend, while others, Amerloque among them, wait for the day. As a matter of fact, it is one of the high points of Amerloque's year, since he feels that Thanksgiving is a part of him, forever. He clears the decks for the entire four-day weekend … even going so far some years as to prepare a few videocassettes of college football games gleaned and saved carefully since the beginning of the current season.
Choosing the recipes for the meal begins several weeks in advance – Amerloque and Madame A. have several hundred cookbooks and take pleasure every year in reading and shortlisting dishes, carefully checking ingredients and cooking times. With bird flu a possible threat this year, Amerloque and Madame A. decided to add a new dish to the traditional family dinner - a ham – in the event that turkey turned out to be risky. Deciding on what type of ham took quite a bit of time and finding a proper purveyor took even more. Amerloque and Madame A. finally settled on a jambon de Prague (Prazska sunka in Czech) and cooked it up in one of the traditional American ways: baked, with pineapple !
This year's menu finally turned out to be a time-honored one, with the exception of the ham:
Thanksgiving - November 24, 2005
New England Shrimp and Oyster Cocktail
Maryland Style Fried Oysters
Baked Prague Ham with Pineapple
Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes with Gravy
Benedictin de Jumiège Applesauce
Traditional Pumpkin Pie
A lot of trouble ? No, not really. The New England Cocktail required a few special ingredients, as did the baked ham, of course, while the applesauce was made from scratch from Benedictin de Jumiège apples (only !) from Normandy. Thanksgiving is a family affair chez L'Amerloque: everyone pitches in and it is always a lot of fun, from finding obscure ingredients to choosing the wines, printing up the menu in color ... and rereading together Art Buchwald's as yet unequalled prose concerning Le Jour de Merci Donnant.