Showing posts with label French politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French politics. Show all posts

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Naive politician, stupider than usual

Normally, here in France, I live in a warm aura of admiration of the overall intelligence, culture, worldliness, common sense and (last but not least) altruism of elected citizens. The truth of the matter is that French voters have invented and installed an amazing array of bullshit detectors, which means that a political candidate has to be very smart to get through them. Well, I have the impression that a certain politician named Eric Rouault has just got through them.

Here's the story, which lies right in the middle of the time-honored realms of French culture and literature, not to mention politics.

Marie NDiaye [don't ask me how you pronounce that surname] is a brilliant 42-year-old French lady of letters who grew up in Paris (like my children, of the same generation as Marie). Well, she has just been awarded the prestigious Goncourt literary prize for her latest novel.

Background information. In a July interview, Marie NDiaye aired her personal views about the nation of Nicolas Sarkozy. "I find that France monstrous." After evoking the fact that she, her writer husband and their children have preferred to reside in Berlin, Marie explains: "We left just after the [presidential] elections, mainly because of Sarkozy. I'm aware that this might appear to be snobbish. For me, the atmosphere of police surveillance and vulgarity is detestable. As for Besson and Hortefeux and all these individuals, they're monstrous." And Marie added subtle explanations that might be expected from a great writer, culminating in a political quote signed Marguerite Duras: "The right wing is death."

Enter our brave politician Eric Raoult... who's not exactly about to be awarded any kind of literary prize. In fact, he seems to be about as dumb as cows that used to have their rumps caressed, at agricultural fairs, by Jacques Chirac. Raoult doesn't give milk, but he was overcome by an urge to moo madly about Marie because of her supposedly offensive words concerning Sarko. He sent a crazy letter to the minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand (who surely had more than enough in his work basket), suggesting that individuals who win the Goncourt Prize for French literature should be obliged by law to respect the president and the republic.

Eric Raoult should wake up to reality. Censorship went out of fashion long ago in the French Republic. And there's no way in the world that censorship might be revived in the exemplary context of liberty of a prize-winning novelist.

New dimension of news

Keenly-awaited revelations are being made at present (which means right now) by 82-year-old Charles Pasqua, former French minister of the Interior under both Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand. A few days ago, Pasqua was condemned to a year's jail for his role in the sale of arms to Angola.

While writing, I'm tuned in to the website of the Le Monde newspaper which is providing me with a live textual transcription—minute by minute, almost sentence by sentence, accompanied by short comments from journalists—of Pasqua's press conference. The latest time indicated on the website clock is a mere minute less than the time displayed by my Macintosh, which means that I'm truly obtaining live information. And every time that the website is displaying a textual update, it warns me by producing a weird woodpecker noise. In other words, I'm obtaining a textual account of the Pasqua press conference in real time. It's certainly an impressive Internet achievement. This sort of technology would be fabulous if the entire planet were awaiting the words of a prophet or a savior... but it's surely a little too overkill in the case of the lukewarm revelations promised by Pasqua.

At the instant I'm writing (15 h 55), somebody has just asked Pasqua whether Sarkozy was aware of these illegal arms transactions. Good question. Alas, Pasqua's reply is hardly world-shaking.

As you can see from my words, I'm not yet totally convinced that naive observers such as myself can benefit greatly from this kind of super-live Internet display of press conferences. But I might very well end up changing my opinions on that question. So, be patient. After all, don't forget that you're listening to me live! I need time to reflect...

BREAKING NEWS: I'm amazed to realize that I've already published a blog article on Pasqua's press conference before it's even finished! It's 5 minutes past 4 o'clock, and a journalist has just described Pasqua's revelations as a damp firecracker. I won't be offended if anybody uses similar criticism for the present blog.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Not exactly good friends

As of today, the first volume of the memoirs of Jacques Chirac is in the bookshops... but the media have been giving us snippets for the last few days. It's title is rather soccerish: Every step must be a goal.

Chirac is not tender (to say the least) with former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, for whom he was a prime minister from 1974 to 1976. For a naive observer such as me, capable of imagining for an instant that leaders belonging to the same political party surely get along more or less well together, it's quite a rude shock to learn that a president and his prime minister can actually hate each other's guts.

Talking about Giscard, I find that, these days, he's looking more and more like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

In my recent article entitled French presidents are funny fellows, I mentioned Giscard's fluffy tale about a romantic affair between a French president and a young English princess [display]. In a quite different domain, Giscard has been getting most angry about the proliferation of electricity-generating windmills throughout the French countryside. That evokes the behavior of another famous opponent of windmills, Don Quixote, seen here in artwork from Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker (in the role of Sancho Panza):

It looks like Giscard taking Sarko on a hunting excursion.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dish towel on fire

When a merciless conflict is about to erupt between two individuals, there's a saying in French: Between the protagonists, the dish towel is on fire. Well, today, we can smell a burning dish towel between French prime minister François Fillon and his beautiful 32-year-old state secretary in charge of sport, Rama Yade.

The young lady disagrees with a government plan to deprive professional sportsmen and women of a certain big tax cut. This morning, the prime minister stated explicitly and publicly that Rama Yade's behavior was not in harmony with governmental solidarity, and that she would have to face up to the "consequences" of her lack of discipline. This surely means that, sooner or later, France's most popular political personality will be kicked out of Fillon's government... which, to put it mildly, would be a great pity.

Incidentally, I should explain that the above-mentioned saying—le torchon brûle—only seems to evoke a burning dish towel, when you take the words at their face value. Although the word torchon does in fact designate a dish towel, it also evokes a potential disaster that might be "torched": that is, transformed into a blaze. Besides, when French kids play a kind of hide-and-seek game, a seeker is said to "burn" if he approaches the hidden player. So, saying that the torchon is burning simply means that a conflict is imminent.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jacques Chirac to stand trial

For the first time ever in the history of the Fifth French Republic, a former president will be put on trial. It's alleged that, when he was the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac used public funds to pay the salaries of 21 alleged municipal employees who were in fact his political agents.

Shortly after learning that Chirac would be brought to trial, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal provided a surprising demonstration of the unusual state of current political feelings in France by saying publicly on radio that Chirac should be left in peace. One has the impression that the regal behavior of Nicolas Sarkozy—including above all his recent legal pursuit of Chirac's former prime minister Dominique de Villepin—is causing a lot of people to look back upon Chirac's presidency with fond nostalgia.

On 30 December 1941 in Ottawa, Winston Churchill evoked defeatist French generals who had expressed their belief that, within three weeks, England would have her neck wrung, by the Nazis, like a chicken. He pronounced simple words that drew applause from members of the Canadian parliament: "Some chicken, some neck."

In the context of the Clearstream affair, Sarkozy recently blurted out that the individual who tried to smear him through falsified computer listings would be "hung up on a butcher's hook".

Seeing the popularity of Dominique de Villepin, who's starting to look like a presidential candidate for 2012, I'm tempted to paraphrase Churchill: "Some carcass, some cut of meat."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cheap website

These days, if leaders of political movements want to influence people, their Internet presence must be impeccable. Here's the web page of Ségolène Royal, which hit the world yesterday:

The thick black frame around the video is not particularly aesthetic, and the presentation of a dozen buttons is boring. Furthermore, this allegedly professional website is based visually upon a free Microsoft background image:

It's the sort of basic website that could have been assembled by an average schoolkid. A single adjective springs into the minds of connoisseurs: cheap. Is Ségolène Royal no longer in contact with talented photographers, web designers and media experts? Today, would-be leaders can no longer get away with cheap stuff like this. There are simply too many brights kids around. And they're going to vote for tomorrow's leaders.

BREAKING NEWS: The website's getting worse. Yesterday, we saw a typical specimen of amateur web creativity at a junior college level. Today, we're informed by a big banner that the creation of Ségolène's website will be a "participative" affair, with various Socialist Party committees throughout France taking turns in contributing various backgrounds. This morning, to start the ball rolling, they've moved down to an infants' school level.

[Click the image to see what happens.
Maybe the website has been hacked, and this is a hoax.]

If this process continues, Ségolène will soon be demonstrating that even a year-old baby can participate in the creation of a website. Maybe, for background: a dirty diaper.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Memorial window

We might soon have to start thinking about a lovely memorial window that would be installed in the great pagan temple of French politics. [Click the image to display the logo of the French Socialist party, which inspired the design of my memorial window.] Following the latest bout between the stern school-mistress Martine Aubry and a boisterous Spanish-born pupil named Manuel Valls, I fear that we're facing a bloody showdown, and that this imminent day of reckoning is likely to leave no survivors. The only remaining question (to paraphrase the poet T S Eliot) is: Will it all end with a bang or a whimper? In any case, the window would be placed above a vast graveyard... of elephants.

ADDENDUM: I hesitated for a moment, yesterday, before talking about the French Socialistes as if their party were moribund, because I thought I might be exaggerating.

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has expressed himself on this question in harsh explicit terms. "I've rarely seen politicians spending so much energy on self-destruction. Is the Parti Socialiste going to die? No, it's dead already. But practically nobody dares to say so. It's like the cyclist in the Alfred Jarry novel who carries on pedaling even though he's dead. Or the knight in the Italo Calvino novel whose suit of armor was empty, for he'd been killed." As for the party secretary Martine Aubry, BHL (as he's often called) said: "She's surely a fine person who has become the guardian of a house of the dead, and she can do nothing about it." BHL says that the present party, described as "a big sick body", should be "dissolved".

Friday, March 13, 2009

Suppressing a right might be wrong

In an attempt to eliminate the illegal downloading of multimedia products, French minister Christine Albanel is introducing a law that might make it possible to punish a culprit by depriving him/her of the right to use the Internet. That eye-for-an-eye vision of justice brings to mind the suggestion, not so long ago, that delinquents who burn automobiles shouldn't be allowed to obtain a driver's license.

Now, Europeans have the privilege of being protected by a Charter of Fundamental Rights.

[Click the banner to visit a website concerning this charter.]

Here's Article 11 of this charter, concerning the freedom of expression and information:

In the case of a delinquent condemned, say, for vandalizing mailboxes, would it be possible in France to prohibit him from sending or receiving letters? If a man were caught urinating into a river that supplied water to a township, would it be possible to prohibit him from drinking tap water? As Marie-Antoinette might exclaim: "The fellow's unable to drink tap water? Then let him quench his thirst with champagne!"

BREAKING NEWS: The above-mentioned law, aiming to protect the rights of multimedia creators, entails the constitution of a so-called supreme authority in this domain, to be known by an ugly acronym: Hadopi. Members of the parliamentary opposition criticized, for diverse more or less sound reasons, the existence of such a body. Reacting to this perfectly normal criticism, Christine Albanel made an astonishing declaration: "It's particularly ridiculous to use a nasty caricature, which presents that body, composed of magistrates, as a kind of branch of the Gestapo." Opposition parliamentarians were flabbergasted. There's one thing that serious individuals never do in France, particularly when they happen to be elected representatives of the people. People never make superficial allusions to things that characterized the terrible Nazi epoch. You never compare anybody, today, to Hitler or his henchmen. And you never say that a respectable organization brings to mind the SS or the Gestapo. Back in the boisterous environment of May 1968, it's true that the intense animosity between demonstrators and riot police was expressed in the following poster, which plastered the walls of Paris:

But today, in serious circles, people don't usually evoke the Gestapo in a light-hearted fashion. No French parliamentarian in his right mind would ever liken an organization, of which Nicolas Sarkozy is a member, to a branch of the Gestapo.

The pen of this intelligent and sympathetic woman, who happens to be a ministerial successor to the great André Malraux, was austerely elegant and moving when she wrote the words of Jacques Chirac's speech in 1995, recognizing France's responsibility in the deportation of the Jews. A year later, once again, she worked splendidly as a speechwriter for Chirac when he pronounced a homage to François Mitterrand. Today, stupidly and uncharacteristically, Christine Albanel has put her foot in her mouth. And I believe that the best thing she could possibly do would be to apologize.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

French expecting

Everybody in France is familiar with the egg-head image and highly-strung behavior of Bernard Laporte, who was the telegenic trainer of France's rugby team before Nicolas Sarkozy appointed him state secretary for sport.

Last July, at a garden party at the president's Élysée Palace in Paris, onlookers were delighted by explicit manifestations of affinity (for want of a more pertinent word) between Laporte and another political celebrity in the Sarkozy universe: Rachida Dati, minister of justice.

Recently, glamorous Rachida—a splendid emblem of achievement in modern France, liberated from sexism and racism—has started to get rounder and rounder, like a rugby ball.

No doubt about it. Officially, the unmarried lady is expecting. It's none of our business, of course, but everybody has been wondering: Who's the father? Rachida doesn't want to reveal his identity to the avid French public. Not surprisingly, a rumor has arisen: Maybe it's Bernard Laporte! Today, in a surrealist anti-coming-out at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Laporte declared publicly that he's not the future Dati dad.

This news disappointed me... like missing out on the World Cup.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Black is tricolor

There's no doubt about the fact that France supports Obama. The blue, white and red colors of the French tricolor are designated in French as bleu, blanc, rouge. But, in the joyous days of France's soccer victory in 1998, a new color system emerged, designated as black, blanc, beur. What's this new color, beur? It's inverted slang for "Arabe". Effectively, French society today is a mixture of dyed-in-the-wool oldtimers named Dupont or Martin, or something like that, and all kinds of exotic newcomers from diverse backgrounds. A new melting pot has come into existence.

France is unlikely to retain fond memories of George W Bush and his old pal Donald Rumsfeld, searching for illusive weapons of mass destruction in their Axis of Evil. What stupidity, shared by Blair in the UK and Howard in Australia. The less said, the better...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Splendid role model for French youth

As everywhere, far too many adolescents get into a rut these days, here in France, for one reason or another, or often for multiple reasons, before they've got around to organizing seriously, if at all, their future existence. They get bogged down in all kinds of swamps, caught up in all sorts of traps. Maybe their studies have turned out to be useless, in that they don't enable them to get a good job. Some are led astray by the false paradises of alcohol and drugs, which can easily lead to crime. Others are soon ensnarled in vacuous relationships based solely upon sex, with no thought for marriage and the founding of a family. In the most tragic cases, adolescent losers grow up aimlessly in dull but violent environments where unemployment and strife are the rule, and social harmony and happiness an exception. In the context of all these unfortunate situations, we can meditate fruitfully and joyously upon the case of this young man who has steered clear of all the above-mentioned obstacles, while organizing his future existence in a style that can only be described as brilliant, exemplary.

His name is Jean: the French form of the Christian name of the fourth evangelist, John. Don't be misled by the long hair. Jean is neither a beatnik nor a rugby man. Although he's merely 21 years old, Jean has already set out upon a political career in the suburbs of Paris, and he has just got engaged to a girl from an excellent family with home-appliance stores. So it's more than likely that, straight after their marriage, Jean and his wife will have the pleasure of stepping into a cozy little flat with all the basic modern necessities: stove, fridge, dish-washer, etc.

What a pity that there aren't more young men in France today with the same drive and convictions as Jean. The same appetite for success.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Man at the wheel

Like many of my fellow citizens [that's the first time since my naturalization I've ever used explicitly such a phrase], I watched with interest the lengthy TV evening devoted to the French prime minister François Fillon, born 54 years ago in the city that hosts the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race... which was just won, incidentally, an hour or so ago, for the 8th time, by Audi and the Danish driver Tom Kristensen. In fact, François Fillon himself knows how to handle the wheel of a Le Mans racing car. Apparently, he once took Nicolas Sarkozy for a lap or two on a circuit, and the French president was green when he got out of the automobile.

As easy as it is to be annoyed by Sarko, if not sickened in extreme cases, it's difficult not to admire his friend Fillon, who has a totally different personality and style to the president. He's quiet and unassuming, with no apparent wish to have stories and pictures of himself, his Welsh wife and their five children appearing in people magazines. He's not flashy ("bling bling") in a nouveau riche style, and he speaks calmly but firmly, without twitches or gesticulations.

Although we must assume that Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon share identical viewpoints, and are working together with the same political goals in mind, they come through as quite different individuals. And I'll let you guess which of the two I prefer.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Today, the term "pirates" is often applied (both in English and French) to software thieves... who are more like the members of an elite international club, rather than old-time bandits.

The pirates who captured the French vessel Ponant were neither software nor Hollywood. They were pure specimens of the ancient international art of the Jolly Roger.

Fortunately, French military services were able to intervene efficiently. Some of the Somalian delinquents are likely to spend the rest of their lives in prison, and we might expect that others will be hunted down and eliminated in one way or another. Meanwhile, steps will surely be taken to eradicate this infamous phenomenon of ruthless bygone ages.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Attempt to knock the socks off democracy

Perpignan is a charming French city on the edge of the Pyrenees, not far from the Mediterranean. And it has a famous railway station.

You can buy a ticket from Perpignan to the Spanish border town of Portbou, just three quarters of an hour away. Then, from Portbou, you can set off on a wider railway gauge towards the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, two and a half hours further down the line. So, Perpignan is the hub of the Franco-Spanish Mediterranean world.

The Catalonian surrealist painter Salvador Dali [1904-1989] went one step further, in decreeing that the railway station at Perpignan was indeed the center of the world. His painting on this theme, three meters high and four meters wide, contains subtle symbols that can hardly be appreciated in a tiny reproduction, but they all get back to the idea that Perpignan's station is a Christian holy of holies, whose light spreads out towards the four corners of Christendom.

Holy city? Perpignan has just been thrown into the electoral limelight through a tale of holey socks. A local official was arrested on the evening of the second round of the municipal elections because he had stuffed his socks with voting bulletins, so that they wouldn't be counted.

Technically, this novel approach towards knocking the socks off democracy was a failure. Since then, local folk have been demonstrating in the streets of Perpignan, calling for a new election. Not surprisingly, as a symbol of their cohesion, the demonstrators brandish socks. Dali would have loved this affair. In his own words, the story of Perpignan's socks would have surely provided him with the stimulus for a huge "mental ejaculation".

Monday, February 11, 2008

Principality in turmoil

The geographical boundaries of France are shaped in such a way that French people often refer to their country as the Hexagon. Inside this six-sided territory, besides Monaco and Andorra, a new principality came into existence recently. It's a fuzzy fairy-tale region of a virtual kind, named Sarkozia, whose monarch is Prince Nicolas. Well, during the weekend, the principality was in a state of turmoil because of electoral maneuvering in the well-heeled Parisian suburb of Neuilly, of which Nicolas Sarkozy was the mayor for a couple of decades. The president recently nominated one of his men as a candidate for the forthcoming municipal elections in Neuilly. The individual in question, David Martinon, was a close friend of Sarkozy's former wife Cecilia, and he now occupies the role of presidential spokesman. The president's son, Jean Sarkozy, has been a prominent member of Martinon's operational cell.

A few days ago, a confidential poll revealed that the people of Neuilly did not appear to appreciate this candidate who was "parachuted" upon them by their former mayor. For the president, whose popularity is currently at an all-time low, it would be an additional catastrophe if his Neuilly nomination were to turn out to be a loser. So, it was safer to remove Martinon immediately through the method referred to in French as an assassination politique. The president's son Jean [whose voice and personality, but not his physical appearance, resemble eerily those of his dad] was called upon to be the golden bullet, to do the dirty work. On Sunday, he simply announced publicly that he and his tiny band of close associates would no longer be supporting David Martinon.

Few observers believe that, as a consequence of this act, the principality will revert overnight to being a quiet and nicely-organized family affair. On the contrary, there are other signs that something is rotten in the state of Sarkozia. A prominent weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, dared to reveal recently that the president once left a phone message with his ex-wife Cecilia stating that, if she were to return home, he would instantly drop his plans for marrying Carla Bruni. Now, this alleged information may or may not have been valid, and it's not easy to verify such a claim. Normally, the president should have shrugged his shoulders and allowed this would-be revelation to be either confirmed or rejected by facts, or simply forgotten. Instead of that, Sarkozy lost his self-control and dragged the weekly and their journalist into a criminal court of law.

Regardless of predictions for March's electoral results in Neuilly, or the outcome of the court case against Le Nouvel Observateur, one has the impression that little Prince Nicolas is piling more and more straw onto the unfortunate camel named Sarkozia, whose back is starting to sag like the results of the president's popularity polls.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Change of attitudes and words

Not so long ago, many people in France were intrigued by the dynamism, exuberance and energetic determination of the newly-elected president... without necessarily admiring his actions and operations, or taking the man seriously. Nicolas Sarkozy was new; he was young; he was different... Political observers accustomed to the time-honored and relatively austere traditions of French politics of the Fifth Republic—from de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand through to Chirac—were initially astounded by this Speedy Gonzales with a finger in every pie. He seemed to be operating almost everywhere, simultaneously, and people soon understood that he would not be calling upon the services of his submissive prime minister... or any other minister, for that matter. Why should he? Sarkozy's wife Cécilia turned out to be more efficient than even a French minister of Foreign Affairs in liberating the female hostages in Kadhafi Land. But she ended up running away.

I have the impression, though, that the dashing French prince, presently enamored of an Italian fashion-model princess, might be moving into the treacherous midnight zone of Cinderella, when the champagne bubbles can burst, and beautiful people can turn into toads. What I'm trying to say is that I sense that more and more French people are irritated by the Sarkozy style, and that the fairly tale could end rudely at the drop of a magician's hat. [I'm aware that I might have mixed up a few images and metaphors in this paragraph.]

Sarkozy's new-year message to the French nation was disappointing. For inexplicable last-minute reasons, instead of having his message video-recorded in a professional style, Sarkozy decided to deliver his speech live, in a stilted formal fashion, prompted by means of an idiot board. Then he threw in a weird allusion to a personal vision designated as a "politique de civilization", which left people startled and confused, primarily because nobody seems capable of grasping what this expression might mean.

Certain popular young Frenchmen are frankly angry.

France's favorite personality, the celebrated tennis player and singer Yannick Noah, is scandalized by Sarkozy: "Everything shocks me. His attitude, his tone and his arrogance shock me. The display of wealth and his cynicism shock me. The disinformation shocks me." Noah ends up borrowing the image of Louis XIV at Versailles: "He's the king with his court, and the sycophants are down on their knees before him."

In a slightly different register, another outspoken young Frenchman, the leftist politician Arnaud Montebourg, has decided to attack Sarkozy in an indirect manner.

He has aimed his fire at his former Socialist colleague Bernard Kouchner, enticed by the siren song of Sarkozy into becoming his minister of Foreign Affairs. Montebourg has declared vigorusly that it's high time for Kouchner to simply resign from a presidential context that brings to mind "the Ancient Romans of the decadence". For those who need more than a metaphor to understand his criticism, Montebourg accuses Sarkozy of "moral bankruptcy", and throws in nasty expressions such as "betrayal of electoral promises", "fiscal injustice" and "diplomatic fiasco".

The criticism of both Noah and Montebourg can be described as fighting words. What will Sarko try to invent, to defend himself? Maybe, like Forrest Gump, he should run like hell.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sounds of silence

The new president is ubiquitous. That's a highfalutin way of saying that he's everywhere, simultaneously, 24 hours a day, prepared to intervene, like Zorro or Superman. Nicolas Sarkozy is an earthmoving machine in overdrive, but many critics are not sure what he's shoveling. Meanwhile, his prime minister, François Fillon, is more like the Invisible Man.

In the political aftermath of Sarkozy's victory, it has become fashionable to evoke the silence of the Socialists, and to joke about the fact that the once-great leftist party has imploded, with a few former members even being lured to the president's camp. They still have a nominal chief, François Hollande, who used to be the companion of Ségolène Royal.

In the near future, when Hollande steps down as party chief, there's a good possibility that he might be replaced by the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. This openly gay gentleman has worked well in his job in Paris, and become highly respected and indeed popular. It's premature to envisage such questions, but Delanoë has supporters who see him as a future presidential candidate.

On the far left of the political spectrum, the youthful postman Olivier Besancenot carries on believing naively in his eternal Robin Hood convictions. In society, there are two classes: the lazy rich and the poor workers. To make things hunky-dory, all that's required is a political system that takes wealth away from the rich and distributes it to the needy. But don't waste your time asking Olivier how a society generates new prosperity. He's good at delivering letters and packages, but it's not his business to know what's inside them.

Meanwhile, the socialist madonna Ségolène Royal is going about things in a calm and determined manner, convinced more than ever that the nation will need her one of these days. She has just written a book that analyzes her recent electoral defeat, and she's currently doing the media rounds to publicize it... but drawing less attention than she might have expected. For the moment, nobody knows whether she might try to conquer the leadership of the socialist party when her former partner François Hollande vacates the post. So it's a little too early to evoke, or even imagine, a hypothetical leadership battle between Ségolène Royal and Bertrand Delanoë. Today, a journalist asked Ségolène a pertinent question: "Could a future presidential contender win the election without being the official candidate of a major political party?" Ségolène said yes. Then she added: "At one and the same time, I'm enrolled inside the socialist party, and outside the socialist party." In French, that kind of situation is described as sitting on a fence. Maybe, though, it's a fence with metallic spikes and barbed wire.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rugby trainer turned to politics

French TV viewers are so accustomed to images of Bernard Laporte, former trainer of the national rugby team, either observing a match or delivering a fiery sermon to his players that it's funny to see him attired in a suit and seated on the red-upholstered front bench of the French parliament.

I hope we'll be able to see Laporte in all kinds of future political settings. To be frank, though, there's a chance that this might not be the case. Some observers imagined that the aura of popularity concerning Laporte might be dulled by the poor performance of France in the recent world cup, and that even his mate Sarkozy might end up having second thoughts about the wisdom of having offered Laporte—on a silver platter—a top political post in the sporting domain. But Laporte's image has been darkened recently by business and financial affairs that have nothing to do with rugby. Since most of these imbroglios have already found their way into courtrooms, it would be out of place to attempt to say too much about them, even if we disposed of firm facts (which does not appear to be the case). All I can say is that a referee might well jump into the picture, one of these days, and pull out a card whose color matches the upholstery of those elegant ministerial benches.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Keepers of French treasures

Concerning state-owned buildings in which people either work or reside, or both [as in the case of a foreign embassy, for example], the French language draws a top-level distinction between assets of a mobile nature, such as the furniture, and the building itself, associated with the land on which it is located, which are obviously of an immobile nature. The former objects are referred to as mobilier (goods and chattels), whereas the latter are called immobilier (real estate).

On Wednesday evening, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the mobilier national: that's to say, the vast state-owned stocks of splendid furniture and miscellaneous objects that are distributed out to all kinds of official buildings such as the Château de Fontainebleau or the palatial French embassy in Rome. The documentary revealed, above all, the extraordinary amount of skilled restoration work that is being carried out non-stop behind the scenes, by the nation's finest craftsmen and women, in order to maintain all these goods and chattels in a perfect state, capable of representing the prestigious and elegant image of France.

Every outstanding item of furniture is referenced in such a way that a researcher can go along to the National Archives in Paris [just down the street from where I lived for a quarter of a century] in order to obtain a detailed description of the nature and background of the object.

The anecdote that most impressed me involved crockery at the French embassy in a foreign city: Switzerland, if I remember correctly. The lady from the Quai d'Orsay [the famous Parisian address of France's ministry of Foreign Affairs] who's in charge of this aspect of embassy mobilier dragged out all the crockery for a global inspection, and she found that four dinner plates had tiny chips on the edge. The damaged items were wrapped up and taken back to the national porcelain factory at Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris. [Click here to see an English version of their website.] There, an amazing process was set in motion, with the final goal of replacing the four plates. First, the chipped crockery was soaked in an acidic mixture enabling the etched gold to be recuperated. Next, the unique mold of the Swiss embassy plates had to be located in their vast reserves.

A potter then used a traditional wheel to produce four roughly-shaped plates, and his colleagues referred to the mold to attain the exact form and dimensions of the original crockery. An expert then demonstrated his technique for whisking each new plate through a cold bath of enameling liquid. He's maybe one of the only fellows in France with this manual skill, which involves balancing an item of crockery on the tips of three fingers as it swirls through the bath.

The gold-etching technique involves placing a set of mysterious gluey black stencils on the middle and circumference of each plate and then sprinkling gold dust over it. Somewhere along the line, the new plates were baked in an oven. It goes without saying that all the techniques employed at Sèvres are ancient and secret, so the documentary was in no way a do-it-yourself introduction to the manufacture of fine personalized crockery. In any case, by the time the sparkling new hand-crafted plates reached the embassy, the replacement operation had no doubt cost a small fortune: the price of prestige.

Extrapolating from what the TV documentary seemed to say, I'm led to believe that, every time an embassy guest uses a knife on the food in such a plate, an infinitesimal quantity of gold is consumed along with the foodstuffs. I wondered: Would that be the secret of the legendary excellence of French diplomacy? Whenever a foreign diplomat leaves the ambassador's dining table, after an exquisite taste of France, he has a warm glowing feeling in his stomach...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Two happy men

Last Friday, 58-year-old Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister, was elected to the position of managing director of the IMF [International Monetary Fund], whose headquarters are located in Washington. On Monday, he was received at the Elysées Palace in Paris for a 45-minute discussion with Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been instrumental in promoting the candidacy of the socialist Strauss-Kahn for this prestigious international job.

Normally, French people in big jobs prefer to avoid revealing their income, because it's considered bad taste in France to talk publicly about one's wealth. As a professor at the political science institute in Paris once put it: "In France, money only becomes respectable after it's a few generations old." Be that as it may, everybody now knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn's tax-free salary will be 495 000 US dollars. Besides, he'll get driven around gratis in a Lincoln. I hope he'll also receive free luncheon vouchers for the staff canteen.

In France, not surprisingly, people were interested above all in finding out whether Strauss-Kahn's acceptance of this job rules him out as a presidential candidate in 2012. Reading between the lines, I have the impression that this would not appear to be the case. First, Strauss-Kahn stated explicitly that he "remains socialist", which means that he hasn't abandoned the domain of French politics. Then, in diplomatic language concerning the elections of 2012, he pointed out that "the final words in such affairs always belong to the French people". That's a roundabout way of saying that, if the French people cry out for him loudly enough, he'll no doubt make himself available.