Monday, February 12, 2007


Amerloque is a bit tired of hearing the same tired tales being propagated as gospel truth – and being swallowed by the gullible or intellectually slothful. One of the more lasting fables, slightly disconnected from reality, is: 'There has never been a war between the Americans and the French.'

Amerloque was reminded of this recently when he once again watched the wonderful old (1971) French film Les Mariés de l'An II, a somewhat free and easy evocation of various aspects of life during the French Revolution and its aftermath. Granted, it's a comedy – nevertheless the director and scriptwriters gave enormous thought to each scene and the accompanying dialogues, as well as to the music lyrics. In Amerloque's view, one must have seen and understood this film completely in order to begin one's comprehension of current France and the French people. "Flying Fish" was the name of the vessel on which Nicolas Philibert (played by the inimitable Jean-Paul Belmondo) returned to France to divorce his wife - and former dulcinea – Charlotte (Marlene Jobert).

Of course "Flying Fish" might today just sound like the name of a ship in a movie, or of a child's model schooner, or of a seafood restaurant, or of a company. It could, though, also be a reminder of Rudyard Kipling's immortal verses ("On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin'-fishes play, An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay! "). To those aware of the history of the relations between France and the USA, however, "Flying Fish" takes on another meaning entirely.

It was the name of a Danish vessel seized during the Quasi War between France and the USA in from 1798 to 1800. "The what war, Amerloque ?" The Quasi War – it is called the Quasi War simply because there was no formal declaration of war - but it was a genuine war, nonetheless, with shots being fired, people being killed and ships being captured and sunk.

The French had interpreted the Jay Treaty of 1795 as evidence of an Anglo-American alliance against her. Increasing post-Revolutionary radicalism in France led to France's seizure of nearly 300 (!) American ships headed for British ports in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean. At the same time the young United States was seeking to forge a Navy to protect American vessels from such depredations, and it was hard going indeed. In April, 1798, the infamous XYZ affair was made public by President John Adams: in 1797, US representatives had travelled to France to negotiate an end to the troubles … and were asked to pay a bribe in order to meet with the French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. They flatly refused, and their refusal was metamorphosed by the American newspapers into that famous statement once learned by every American schoolchild: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute !"

Wikipedia sums it up neatly:

The Quasi-War started July 7, 1798, when Congress rescinded treaties with France. United States Naval squadrons then sought out and attacked the French privateers. Deeply infuriated with the U.S. for their actions against France, the French Naval Commander Jean de Baune counterattacked with the destruction of the USS Virginia. This ultimately led to a rise of national pride in the U.S. as they sought to avenge those who had died in that battle. The U.S. then retaliated with the killing of 25 French sailors aboard one of the French frigates that ran in between Quebec and the Country of France which led to the belief that it was the work of a Pirate Crew by the name of Genive"
In total, the US Navy captured 85 French ships.
By October 1800, the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the French toward America, produced a reduction in the activity of the French privateers and warships. In mid-December 1800, news reached Washington, D.C., that a peace treaty with France (the Treaty of Mortefontaine, September 30, 1800, had ended the Quasi-War.

It should be noted that this war saw the first major victory by an American-designed and -built warship, the USS Constellation, one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. In February, 1799, Constellation fought and captured the frigate L'Insurgente of 36 guns, the fastest ship in the French Navy. From being friends almost two decades earlier, the French had become the enemy, but only for a brief time: since the conclusion of the Quasi War, the French and the USA have been firm friends and allies, and rightly so, in Amerloque's view. He feels that a lucid look at history can frequently be a salutary activity: it is always necessary to dispell myths when they might threaten friendship, especially if they are not dispassionately presented.

The "Flying Fish" ? Ah, yes: at a time when Americans are asking themselves about Presidential powers, Congress and military actions in Iraq, "Flying Fish" takes on particular resonance. Ca tombe à point nommé, as the French say.

Many people know
the first Supreme Court decision to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional (It's 'Marbury v Madison', of course), but few people could identify the Court's first decision declaring Executive Branch action to be unconstitutional. Little v Barreme (1804), called the 'Flying Fish case', involved an order by President John Adams, issued in 1799 during our brief war with France, authorizing the Navy to seize ships bound for French ports. The president's order was inconsistent with an act of Congress declaring the government to have no such authorization. After a Navy Captain in December 1799 seized the Danish vessel, the Flying Fish, pursuant to Adams's order, the owners of the ship sued the captain for trespass in U. S. maritime court. On appeal, C. J. Marshall rejected the captain's argument that he could not be sued because he was just following presidential orders. The Court noted that commanders "act at their own peril" when they obey invalid orders--and the president's order was outside of his powers, given the congressional action.

Amerloque remembers learning about all this during middle school history classes in the USA, and he wonders if it is still being taught … or has it been replaced by something allegedly "more relevant"? The "Flying Fish" case is certainly not irrelevant if one is observing - with some puzzlement, Amerloque must confess, on his part - the hesitant actions of the Washington politicos. Amerloque also recalls hearing about the "Flying Fish" during the Vietnam War, when soldiers and civilians were ordered to do all sorts of things by Presidents uncaring of legality and morality. He was enormously pleased to see an op-ed reference to it recently in the International Herald Tribune. (Update: what Amerloque feels is an excellently researched article about the Quasi War can be found in the Naval War College Review.)

Of course, no one in France is looking at the "Flying Fish": the entire country is focused on the upcoming presidential elections here.

Last week, Amerloque noticed that the buzz around the coffee machine and over lunch and en ville concerning the French elections didn't really reflect the range of issues that the media and the international press were headlining. Certainly the Muslim caricature lawsuit, housing problems (la crise de logement), José Bové, and taxes were at the media forefront, but one issue seems to have fallen below the radar.

Amerloque is referring, naturally, to the French justice system and its perceived and genuine inadequacies. After the huge outcry caused by the "Outreau Affair" in 2004 and 2005 and the ensuing Parliamentary inquiry (alleged pedophiles, including parents, had been held in preventive detention for several years before finally being acquitted on appeal, when it was discovered that the accuser and the reportedly abused victims … had simply lied outright to investigators), one might have thought that the whole issue of responsive and responsible justice in France would have figured prominently in the media on a daily basis. It hasn't.

It certainly has, though, around the coffee machines at companies and in the lunchrooms.

The trigger this week was an incident which took place at approximately 10h30 at the Verbeau elementary school in Châlons-en-Champagne, located near Rheims. All the press and TV reports agree: at recess time, a 10-year old fifth grade student had been talking to his brother and a friend through the school fence. At the end of recess, though the other children returned to the classroom without a fuss, the 32-year old female teacher had to come over to the kid and request him to go back to class. The child simply ignored her and continued talking to his brother. She then took the child by the elbow and moved him along gently.

This was not to the liking of the brother (aged 23) and his friend (aged 18, the legal majority in France), so they simply entered the school and beat up, i.e., physically attacked, the teacher, who apparently ended up prostrate on the playground receiving kicks to the head. A female school colleague (aged 45) who attempted to intervene was also attacked and injured. The police were called and the two perpetrators arrested promptly and taken down to the local police station.

French law provides that those who commit crimes in such circumstances can be judged in what is termed an "immediate appearance" (comparution immédiate): they are held without bail until they are arraigned before a judge in criminal court. They have charges read to them and can then enter a plea; they are allowed counsel, naturally. The trial takes place immediately and the criminal (s) sentenced, if found guilty. Americans might think of this French system as an extended "police court" or "night court", depending on the state one is from, where one is judged after being caught in the act (in flagrante delicto).

The buzz at the coffee machines and the cafés on the day after the assault on the teachers was basically divided into two parts, while waiting for the court appearance which was scheduled for two days hence.

The first concerned the insecurity into which French society has seems to have fallen. Ten or fifteen years ago such an incident would have been unheard of: now, alas, the increasing violence and vandalism have become an unpleasant and continuing part of life here in France. The Ministry of Education has even been counting incidents of "incivilities" for the past several years so as to analyze what can be done: (press reports state that the Ministry quotes an increase of 1 % in 2005/2006 over 2004/2005, but interpretations of these statistics differ).

Over coffee or lunch then, every time an incident like this takes place, anecdotal stories are invariably exchanged. It is the topic of the day in the workplace, the event which that day can color, for better or for worse, an individual's perception of the surrounding society. After beginning with this week's schoolyard beating incident itself, the discussions Amerloque observed quickly moved along to the criminal justice system – how it simply doesn't seem to have a grasp of the situation, how it appears to favor the criminal over the victim, and how it looks like violence is increasing day by day, in spite of the statistics trumpeted by the media and certain organizations. There never seemed to be any divergence of opinion on this, at all: everyone agreed that the justice system was on the ropes. (For some time now Amerloque has been hard-pressed to find anyone – not a tourist or a visitor, but a normal member of French society - who has not had a close member of her or his family attacked on the street, in the subway, in the bus, at the bus stop, or in the schools. Many indicate that they have been attacked themselves. This hold true for Amerloque's family, as well, by the way.)

The second part of the buzz was anticipation of the sentence that would be requested from and, more importantly, handed down by the court to the two schoolyard thugs . The general feeling over the next few days was that a) the prosecuting attorney would request a relatively severe sentence, since the perpetrators risked up to seven years in jail but that b) the court would once again hand down an almost incomprehensibly lenient decision. If the presidential candidates – of all stripes - were referred to at all this week at the coffee machines, it was in the light of this schoolyard incident, and not in reference to some media-imposed issue such as retirement benefits or unemployment or gay marriage or high taxes.

On Wednesday, February 7th, the incident having taken place two days previously, charges were brought against the two youths in the Chalons criminal court: "voluntary violence causing a temporary interruption of work exceeding one week on state personnel carrying out a mission of public service" ( violences volontaires" ayant entraîné une ITT supérieure à huit jours, sur des personnes chargées d'une mission de service public). The prosecutor, (at approximately the same hierarchical level as a county District Attorney in the USA) requested eight months for the first youth, (who had a previous criminal conviction for violence against a police officer … with a suspended sentence overall), and six months, with three suspended, for his sidekick.

The judge decided on seven months in jail for the first man. The other received six months in jail - with five suspended. They were also banned from approaching the school for two years. The victims' attorney called the sentences "fit for apple thieves" (des peines de voleurs de pommes). (Americans used to the American criminal justice system might be surprised, to say the least, at this sentence, it is far from being out of the ordinary, here. )

Needless to say, the buzz at the coffee machine and in cafés on Friday was exclusively devoted to the leniency of the sentences handed down and the "incompetence" of the justice system. People were expecting short sentences – but evidently not that short. Apparently the procureur général de la cour d'appel de Reims (at very approximately the same level as a State Attorney General in the USA) thought that there was perhaps a flaw in the system, too, since he filed an appeal the day following the judgment – such promptness is almost unheard of here. (See update below.)

Although the media spoke of all this, it evidently wasn't their main concern. Overall, the story was downplayed: to a great extent, they preferred to headline the "big" issues in the presidential campaigns, rather than this one. Of course that is their right – there is no denying that. Yet when Amerloque sees the ever-widening disconnect between the people around the coffee machines, on the one side, and the press and the politicians, on the other, he can't help but feel that that the results of first round of the upcoming presidential elections might be surprising, indeed - and not just to a few people.


(Update: on April 3, 2007 the Reims Appeals Court handed down revised sentences. The first youth received a ten-month jail sentence (instead of seven), while the second was sentenced to eight months in jail, with four months suspended (instead of the original six months in jail, with five suspended). The appeals prosecutor had requested sentences of eighteen and twelve months, respectively.)

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