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French Notebook  -  Cahier Français

 

FRENCH NOTEBOOK
French Media on Chirac's Hubris:
"Nous parlerons des autres choses..."
February 22, 2003
Uzès, France

      George Bush has had a pretty bad time of it lately, but nobody performed more miserably last week than France’s President Jacques Chirac. Of course, you can’t read much about Chirac’s week in France, and you can’t hear about it on French television, either. But back to the news.

      Bush had an awful week. The chief UN weapons inspectors, co-chairmen along with France of the intense international campaign for full and permanent employment of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, duly reported to their UN employers that they had no idea whether or not Sadaam has weapons of mass destruction. Further, they had no idea how much longer it might take them to find out whether Iraq has such weapons. Nor do they know how many more UN weapons inspectors, requiring how much more time, it may take to discover if, indeed, Sadaam has such nasty things or not; maybe, but they can’t say for sure.

      Following this presentation, the headline in our regional daily was: “De Villepin, Blix et ElBaradei ont fait reculer la guerre!”  That is, “our French UN Minister, deVillepin, and the two permanent heads of the permanent UN weapons inspectors, have staved off the war.” An excellent lunch followed, de Villepin hosting.

      De Villepin, paragon of universal human rights, peace, and UN supremacy over all nations (except, possibly, France) did his heritage proud. He is a member of France’s ruling class, les énarques. (Those well-heeled, well-schooled graduates of France’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration – ENA—thus énarques). The enarques rule France administratively, because they know best. This is not widely disputed in France. They just know best. Now de Villepin his boss and fellow enarque, Chirac, have set about bringing this uniquely French system of rule to Europe, to the UN Security Council, and, ultimately, to all the citizens of the world. It would be fun to see a photo of de Villepin’s Joan-of-Arc-like raptures as he lectures the world on French values from his seat on the Security Council. But you’ll see no such thing in the French media: not a dignified thing to do to an enarque, you see. Meanwhile, back in the country where deVillepin and Chirac actually live, mosques and synagogues burn while the local firemen take two hours to get their hoses sorted out…so sorry…we tried our best…but, you see, we experienced technical difficulties...

     As he was headed toward the end of a potentially triumphant week, Chirac suddenly self-destructed. In a fit of pique, after toute l’Europe refused to acceed to France’s Iraq position at the EU summit, swept-back Jack bared his teeth to the dozen eastern European countries scheduled for EU admission this year. It seems that these nations, not long ago enslaved by the Soviet Union (and by Germany, before that), signed a letter endorsing the US position on Iraq. Already furious that the 14 other nations of the current EU would not bend to his position, Chirac exploded at a news conference and singled out the dozen soon-to-be EU nations for his bile. “Dangerous!” “Irrational!”  “Badly brought-up!” So said Chirac. Then, melting down like a slice of raclette on the grill, Chirac threatened the twelve with a French veto of their admission to the EU. Basically: “France is my country and Europe is my continent. Do as I say or I won’t let you in!”

      Ah, hubris. Just as France…and Germany, and Belgium, and Russia, and China, and …well, maybe 150 other nations…had come round to the position primarily espoused by France, Chirac pulled this stunt. Chagrin in “old Europe.” Fury in Eastern Europe. Glee in perfidious Albion. Said the Latvian ambassador in Brussels:  “Well, there’s this sense that if we in the former Soviet-bloc had a problem (with Russia? Germany again?) France just might not be the first to rush to defend us…”

      French media reaction?  “Chirac put the East Europeans in their place and now we’re going to talk about other things…”

      The next thing the French media had to talk about was the economic “summit” for African nations hosted in Paris by France. Defying all the other EU nations, Chirac specifically invited the murderous dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is refused entry to every other country in Europe. This grotesquely cynical act allowed Chirac to bare his ass to England while giving Mugabe the opportunity to do the same to the rest of the West.

      Part of Jack’s hubris, of course, leads him to believe that he has been appointed the leader of Europe. (In fairness, he’s certainly not the first French head of state to engage in such self-anointed fantasies.)  Outside the meeting hall, French riot police beat the stuffing out of anti-Mugabe/anti-Chirac protestors.  Mugabe suddenly felt more at home, and relaxed. The leaders then moved to their brief agenda. It included no discussions of human rights, AIDS, or the many wars raging on the continent.  Chirac made wildly cynical and unbelievable promises about French farm price subsidies and agricultural policy toward Africa. And since he’s deluded himself that he’s in charge of Europe, he promised the same from all the other European countries. Then he tossed in the big eight countries of the world economy. What the hell. As long as you’re going to lie, you might as well go with the big lie…

      After two days of sumptuous repasts accompanied by the absolutely empty French promises of economic help, the gathered throng decided to “unanimously” back Chirac and de Villepin’s Iraq position.  Or so the French say. And so the French press reported. 

      Uh, not so fast, Jack.  Among the confused heads of state contacted about the “unanimous” document, the President of Rwanda, among others, said that he had neither signed any such document nor had he engaged in any discussions about it.  Show up in Paris at a diplomatic exercise and there’s no telling what the French may claim you’ve agreed to do.  For example, there’s poor old Gbagbo…

      Notably absent from these farcical goings on was the President of Ivory Coast. You might recall that President Gbagbo was in Paris a few weeks ago, seeking France’s diplomatic and economic help in staving off the attacks of malicious rebel forces in his home country. Well he won’t be back to France any time soon. When Gbagbo woke up on the floor of his Paris hotel suite, stunned from his last armagnac-laced digestif, it seems he’d negotiated away to the rebels the cabinet posts of Minister of Defense (that’d be control of the army, navy and air force) and Minister of Interior (that’d be the police, FBI and security services). When the groggy Gbagbo arrived home in Ivory Coast his fellow Ivorians had a hot welcome waiting for him which soon reawakened in him vague recollections of a recent late night in a Paris hotel room where he, deVillepin, Chirac and various rebel leaders spun an empty Cognac bottle in a hilarious game of “who gets which ministry”. Needless to say, Ivorians have since repudiated the asinine Paris “accords”, burned down any French institutions they could find, kicked most of the French out of their former colony, and told the rebels to go screw. De Villepin, Chirac and the French media, meanwhile, insist that Gbagbo’s strict adherence to the “diplomatic triumph” negotiated in Paris is Ivory Coast’s one and only hope for peace-not-war.

     Which reminds one of another French diplomatic position. Happily for most citizens of Africa, the large group of leaders present in Paris, mindful of poor Gbagbo’s recent experience, either signed or did not sign Chirac’s meaningless paper, refused de Villepin’s offer of a late-night armagnac, and went to bed early before catching the first flight home. Most of them left too early in the morning to read in the French papers about Chirac’s latest diplomatic triumph. “Whew,” they seemed to collectively say as their flights headed south. “Got out of Paris without having had to accept any more ‘benefits’ of French international diplomacy…”

 

FRENCH NOTEBOOK
Spectators at France’s Favorite Sport:
The International Politics of Lunch
January 31, 2003
Uzès, France

          It’s infuriating more than amusing, yet you can hardly take your eyes off it. Day after day, world event after world event, France sings the same little tune, dances the same few steps. France is justly scorned by the rest of the world for the banality of its popular music and dance, and its diplomatic performance is no prettier to the eye or ear. “No,” the lyric begins, “we don’t agree.” Two sharp toe taps to the heads of the Americans begins the choreography, followed by a coy and awkward swirl in the direction of the befuddled dance partner, often Germany. “No action may be taken,” continues the silly song, “discussion and compromise is the only way!” Happily, the blowsy tune can’t go on too long because, given the grave international situation at hand, France needs to continue deliberations…over lunch…preferably a good, long lunch…paid for by someone else…

          France won’t do, France will talk. France reflexively abhors taking decisive action. She will compromise anything that doesn’t belong to her. Two recent examples of the cynicism and futility of France’s diplomatic style wrap ominously around a better known example currently in the news:  France’s insistence that UN arms inspectors in Iraq be given more time…and still more time…before the Security Council takes any against the world-criminal Sadaam Hussein. Here are the examples:

          Last year, after Zimbabwe’s murderous dictator Robert Mugabe stole his country’s presidential election, brutalized, imprisoned and killed political opponents, kicked out the European Union’s election observers, and called for the eviction of any remaining white Zimbabwean farmers, the British and Portuguese brought a move for sanctions against Mugabe to the European Union. Under intense pressure from France, meaningful sanctions were sidetracked. The official sanctions limited themselves to a laughable series of travel restrictions within Europe for Mugabe’s family and the families of his cabinet. Mugabe just sneered, thumbed his nose at the Europeans, and resumed his vicious governance.

          Just last week France brought democratically elected leaders of its former African colony, Ivory Coast, to Paris for a week of negotiations with representatives of an armed, violent group of Ivorian insurrectionists. The “rebels”, who have no political ideology and no program beyond the violent extortion of self-enrichment, came away with a chunk of the Ivory Coast’s government. The French-engineered “compromise” followed what one can only imagine as a series of elegant French lunches so intoxicating that they softened the heads, not just the stomachs, of the Ivorian leaders. When the French trumpeted their diplomatic triumph to the world, everyday Ivorians went nuts. They learned that France had just brokered a “solution” which hands over to a bunch of murderous brigands an “official” role in their country’s heretofore democratically elected government! Average Ivorians reacted by burning French diplomatic, cultural and economic buildings and appealing to the United States to somehow return reason to the situation. The French, limping home, have ordered the evacuation of all 16,000 French citizens from Ivory Coast.  French newspapers have expressed dismay…not at France’s diplomatic bungling, but at how unfortunate it is that France has gotten “stuck in the quagmire of the Ivory Coast.” And so we see French diplomacy at work.

          Yesterday came the news that the elected heads of eight European nations have repudiated France’s position with respect to Iraq’s non-compliance with UN resolutions.  That is to say, the French position of:  talk, talk, talk; lunch, lunch, lunch; compromise, compromise, compromise (as long as what’s compromised isn’t ours).  Almost unbelievably, French President Chirac’s immediate and slimy response was something to the effect that there really aren’t any differences between France’s position and that expressed by the eight.

          France’s failure of diplomatic backbone is, sad to say, its chronic disposition. Its positions relative to awful but relatively tinhorn brutes like Mugabe and whoever heads the Ivorian thugs have proven scandalous failures. How France can continue this bankrupt position in the face a world-class mega-killer like Sadaam is a study in self-deception and cynicism.

          Lots of French people are, with good reason, upset by many aspects of an American international posture that seems at times unilateral, excessively warlike and shrill. But there is certainly nothing to be gained from the alternative posture promulgated by France. Worse, at its core the French position is even more dangerous and more cynical. And now, on to the more important objectives of French foreign policy:  lunch!

 

FRENCH NOTEBOOK
Wanna bet?

November 2000
Uzès, France

            For American horse racing fans, including those of us stranded in France, the annual Breeders’ Cup races are the equivalent of the World Series to baseball nuts. There aren’t three people in our part of France who know or care what the World Series is about. But there are a considerable number of French horse racing aficionados who find the American Breeders’ Cup races an interesting betting proposition. A few such French bettors kept us company last week at the P.M.U. (off-track betting facility) at the Café du Midi on Boulevard Gambetta in Nimes. By the time the races ended, just around midnight here, we had torn up a lot of failed betting slips (Spain at 60-1 in the Distaff? Gaak!), been invited to dinner by the proprietor of an Algerian restaurant which is “only temporarily” closed, got an explanation of the “unfairness” of the American tax collection system on big payoffs from a gentle former South Vietnamese green beret, watched as the self-described “chief” of an African tribe attempted to collect the prettier of us as his fifth wife, and performed at least one act never before seen in the annals of the, admittedly somewhat seamy, Café du Midi.

The excitement of the Breeders’ Cup races reaches far, even to this side of the Atlantic, even to the French. (The land of 300 different cheeses sent half a dozen horses over to compete, and none ran with much interest.) The principal French horseracing paper, Paris Turf, had all the entries, lots of “color” stories focused on the historically bad performances of the English horses shipped over to America, and the usual French, infuriatingly-sketchy, past performance data.

Horse racing has always been a gambling big-dil in France. In June of 1891 the French invented pari-mutuel betting to substitute science for the English/Irish system of on-track bookmakers. The French word for bet is pari, derived, some say, from the depraved behavior the rest of the French always expect of Parisians. In 1930 the French introduced the world to the off-track betting parlor (Pari Mutuel Urbaine, dit PMU), organized and run by the government. (Vive l’état! along with its maximum work week of 35 hours.) Today every little town in France has a PMU facility co-located at a small local bar, even here in our ville of 8,000 habitants.

Unfortunately for bettors, on the Saturday of Breeders’ Cup the vast majority of the PMUs in France accepted wagers on the event only until 1:30 European time, five hours before the start of the first race. This was rightly perceived as a major disadvantage to those of us who like to slam a little money into the windows on perfectly logical long shots. The reason for this apparent absurdity, naturally, made neat sense to the French.

In 1954, when the rest of the world was betting only the daily double and win-place-show, the French invented the Tiercé wager, whose objective is to try to pick the first three horses across the finish line, in order. In the U.S. this is known as the trifecta, and it’s been available for no more than twenty years. The daily Tiercé race was televised nationally in France (it still is, almost every day) and a betting tidal wave ensued. Finally spotting a good thing, they added the Quarté wager (first four horses across the line) in 1987 and then, in 1989, you guessed it, the Quinté. So far there is no “Sixté” bet available, but if the franc and the euro keep falling against the dollar, stay tuned.  Anyway, Breeders’ Cup day was just another Quinté day in France, and anything muddling the dreams of huge Quinté payouts in the minds of the betting public is anathema to the PMU. That day’s Quinté, a steeplechase at Auteuil with 19 horses entered, simply took a natural precedence over America’s championship racing day.

Several writers previous to this one have, over time, noted a certain rigidity in French bureaucratic behavior. A little experience in France teaches that with patience and guile, a way around almost any blocage bureaucratíque can usually be found. So it was on Breeders’ Cup day. About two hundred PMUs across France stayed open that evening, showing the races from Kentucky live on television and accepting wagers until five minutes before post time. Almost 12 million francs found their way into the PMU betting pools that night, a few thousand of them ours. But first we had to get to Nîmes to lay our money down.

Nîmes is an ancient city originally founded by the Phoenicians and beloved of the Roman Empire. Its citizens drank of the exceptionally pure water gushing from the Eure spring, here in Uzès. To move the water from Uzès to Nîmes, the Romans built a fifty kilometer aqueduct. The famous Pont du Gard, one of the most stunning and best preserved architectural achievements of Roman civilization, carried the water over the River Gard and along into Nîmes. By car Nîmes is only half an hour from here, so we called the PMU there to ascertain that they were really going to carry the Breeders’ Cup races. We booked a room at the lovely old Hotel Imperator, right in the heart of this city of 250,000, and were shown to our chamber by way of one of the two remaining Otis “birdcage” elevators in France. Installed in 1931, the fantastic elevator is still working perfectly and is a registered historic site. Ernest Hemmingway used to hang out at the hotel when he stopped in Nîmes, then as now a stop on the Spanish bullfight circuit. The hotel bar is named for him. Nîmes has a well-preserved Roman coliseum, still used today.  A temporary roof is raised over the coliseum each winter to more comfortably seat concertgoers, attendees of ice shows (a temporary rink on the floor of the stadium) and the like.  We walked around town, wandered through the Jardin des Plantes, stopped for a coffee at a café in the chic shopping area, and then headed over to the PMU to try our luck.

At a glance, the Café du Midi was clearly not the sort of place you’d make your first choice for a drink with the boss or with somebody else’s wife. “Chic” doesn’t come to mind, anyway. Smallish, grimy, with tiny tables and tinier chairs sitting on linoleum, decorated by cheap tile walls in the garish green-and-white PMU colors, the joint was moderately filled with characters –all male—whom you won’t be inviting home for dinner soon. Nonetheless, as veteran horse players, we didn’t feel particularly intimidated: we’ve been to Suffolk Downs, after all. Or, at least we didn’t until the bartender cried out “Voila! Les Américains!” Seems he’d remembered our earlier phone call. Now, publicly stamped and feeling a bit like walking Coca-Cola signs, we took seats, ordered a drink, and settled down to pour over the many pages of odd hieroglyphics that comprise the Daily Racing Form past performances. We’d gotten the data from the Internet and printed it. The friendly young barkeep, Damien, went out of his way to make us welcome, offering us each a small, cheap cigar. He explained that we should feel free to buy take-out food at the Pakistani restaurant next door and bring it to our PMU table.  Beyond peanuts and chips, the Bar du Midi serves no food.

A little before six o’clock, half an hour or so before the start of the first race, a substantial number of the guys you won’t be bringing home for dinner departed. We learned later that this PMU “Special Event” required a cover charge of twenty francs (a bit less than three bucks) and that sent ‘em scurrying for the exits, leaving only the choicest clientele, including us. We also learned that our new buddy Damien had waived the charge for us in honor of the first-ever visit of American horse players to his establishment. We wondered if the two groups playing an unfamiliar card game over in the corner, blind to horse racing, received a similar dispensation.

Horse players are horse players the world over. We’ve joined them in many parts of the world (how they scream them down the homestretch in Hong Kong!) and we’re all pretty much the same. That is, we all have big dreams, great ideas, and most of us have poor results.  But we keep right after it, sometimes furiously, sometimes sheepishly, and sometimes, like a heavy smoker, barely conscious that we’re doing it at all.  In “Dream Street Rose” in 1931, Damon Runyon summed it up for the hundredth time in literary history:  “But personally I consider all horse players more or less daffy anyway. In fact, the way I look at it, if a guy is not daffy he will not be playing the horses.” Well, French horse players are just as daffy as the rest, and so the night was punctuated more with groans and muttered curses than with joyous exclamation. Misery, we know, is genetically programmed to at least try sharing itself. And we did have many brief and consoling conversations with our PMU comrades over the unfairness of many things in life, and of the exceptionally unfair outcome of the previous race, in particular.

Toward the end of the program a race produced a very good result for one of us. (The other of us just kept quietly cashing her win and place bets, racking up a modest accumulation of francs.) We approached Damien with the proposition that we buy a drink for everyone in the house. There were about thirty punters still standing at this point.  “Eyes like saucers” is a favorite expression, but we’d never actually seen such a thing, except in cartoons, until we looked at the faces of Damien and his older colleague. A moment of worried hesitation, then “Mais, bien sur!” they ultimately ruled. And so the curious event unfolded. Damien went around and told everyone that the Americans were buying the house a boisson. No one believed it for a minute.

Every Frenchman is well schooled in the perpetual perfidy of Albion. And aren’t the Americans really just some sort of transatlantic cousins to the awful Brits? What if it’s a trick, how much will this cost me? Among we four, Damien and his colleague in front, everyone was ultimately persuaded that they were to be participants in an unprecedented cultural experiment:  a free drink for everyone. The devout Arabs took juice or soda; the Arabs-by-birth-only had beer; the Asians took tea; the African chieftain went for a beer; the other French split between red wine and beer. The decibel level tripled. Toasts to “Bonne chance!” rang the grimy green-and-white walls. And the races went on, with inevitable results to the horse players.

Some time after midnight, we sleepily turned down Damien’s offer for another drink on the house and took a cab back to the hotel. We were pleased to receive warm invitations to return anytime to the PMU to play the French horse races, as though they are the real races, which, indeed they are. Subsequently we’ve learned that the round of drinks was completely without precedent at the Café du Midi. Some learned French opinion wagers that it was unprecedented at any PMU anywhere in France, ever. Equally wise, other counsel reminds us that you shouldn’t go around pushing American cultural quirks onto a three thousand year old culture. The point is well taken and it is food for thought. 

The Pakistani food, by the way, was good, but we were puzzled by the lack of heat in the curry until we remembered:  We’re in France. The French won’t tolerate spicy heat in their food, and so the Pakistanis sell food to suit the French. Next Breeder’s Cup, if we’re at the Café du Midi, we’ll start right out with the same attitude as the folks next door, at the restaurant. It may help save some cultural puzzlement, though it probably won’t have any effect on the betting results.

 

 

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