All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Sarkozy's justice.

Grand27chambre 707Image via Wikipedia

Reforms of the French legal system are taking place.....our local court is to be closed, but not, alas, before I can be sued there by a local politician. The decision is inevitable...I will lose because he is who he is and I am but dust beneath the chariot wheels, so I am already resigned to the cost of going to appeal where whatever vast sum he has been awarded will be reduced to something less draconian. However, the local court is not being closed on grounds of bias, corruption and incompetence, but on grounds of cost - the vast sums it takes to keep bias, corruption and incompetence running.
Mine is a civil matter, but were it to be a criminal affair, then the facts would be investigated by a 'juge d'instruction', once the appropriate 'procureur' has decided that a case might be worth investigating. The former is a magistrate, independent of government, whose activities are controlled by a national commission composed of other magistrates who will understand. The procureur, a magistrate of the Parquet, is the public prosecutor, who answers to the Ministry of Justice - thus to the government.

Now to someone brought up in a Common Law environment...England, the Commonwealth, the U.S....the idea of an investigating magistrate is strange. All the state has to do is prepare its' case and let the defendent prepare his, then let the court decide, but in France the court is held to need guidance, so the investigating magistrate gets to work, sending out police and gendarmes to collect evidence which is assembled into a report which generally decides that the prosecutor was right to prosecute and that the court will be right to proceed to judgement. You get the same idea with the European Court of Justice - modelled on France as is so much of EU administrative practice - where the Avocat General's report is generally followed by the court. So often that lawyers start to consult his reports without even waiting for the actual rubber stamp decision to emerge.
Down here, where not much troubles the still waters, the investigating magistrates are usually young things sent down to 'la France profonde' to learn about incest, or total no hopers and weirdos that have to be parked somewhere unobtrusive as there is no chance of the national commission allowing them to be sacked. They're independent, after all. Nomatter into which category they fall, they are generally hopeless at investigation as one would understand it coming from a Common Law system and there is no incentive in the system to make them improve. They have absolutely no idea of proportionality - in a case of alleged defamation a journalist found himself being repeatedly searched. It didn't go down too well in his newspaper, but I tend to think he was not an isolated case, just that most people don't have a newspaper to publicise their woes.
A few years' ago there was public outrage at the conduct of the investigating magistrate in the Outreau case, where allegations of child abuse led to a whole community being dragged through the courts and into prison because an inexperienced investigative magistrate lost his head and started believing in his own omnipotence. He had thirteen people jugged in preventive detention, all of whom were found to be innocent. What action did the national commission which oversees investigating magistrates take? They reprimanded him. The case highlighted the weaknesses of the sytem, where, although relatively inexperienced, he had no back up or effective supervision and there were calls for urgent reform. Well, urgent in the legal sense....the committee appointed to investigate is reporting to Sarkozy next week and it looks as though they will propose to abolish the investigating magistrate, independant of all effective control, and leave all decisions as to whether or not to prosecute with the procureur, the Ministry of Justice's man.
I did a double take when I saw that they also proposed to reinforce the neutrality of the President, the presiding judge in the group of three who hear criminal cases. What did they mean..reinforce the neutrality....they were admitting he wasn't, or what? Then it occurred to me that we are in France...we are thinking French. All it means is that it is proposed that in future, rather than participating in the decisions of his colleagues, he will only have a casting vote. So that's all right then.
Needless to say, investigating magistrates are not wonderfully happy, even if it is proposed to give them a new role overseeing the investigations to see that they are properly carried out - pause for boggling mind to return to equilibrium - and to supervise requests for 'phone tapping, etc. Considering what they are capable of doing currently, it doesn't seem much of a guarantee of public liberty to me.

However, I don't think Sarkozy is too worried about unjust accusations and incompetent casework. I think he is worried about the role of the investigating magistrate in high profile affairs involving politics and high level business. An independent magistrate can undertake investigations into the financing of political parties, can enquire into the strange Spanish practices of the mairie of Paris when Chirac was in charge and can handcuff the head of Elf, the petroleum company, when investigating international corruption. He can make public any amount of dirty work behind the screens, as in the case of the submarines sold to Pakistan and the bombing of the workers' coach. He is independent, and, once launched, there is little the government can do to deflect him.
The procureur, however, is not independent, by the very nature of his appointment, and the European Court of Human Rights has declared that the Parquet, wherein he lives, works and has his being, can not be regarded as an independent judicial authority. While currently Sarkozy's old rival, the ex Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, is suffering the attentions of the investigative magistrate in the Clearstream affair - a blatant attempt to smear Sarkozy with allegations of improper financial dealings - at least Sarkozy is suffering - at a distance - the attentions of another judge in the Karachi coach bombing case.
In future, with decisions in the hands of people anxious not to blot their copybooks, there's more than a slight risk that the French state will have its carpets in full use, harbouring the muck that will be swept under them.
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Thursday, 27 August 2009

Big bud authors

Paris - Musée d'Orsay - Manet's Le déjeuner su...Image by wallyg via Flickr

I was looking for something else but with my usual keyboard incompetence arrived on the Saga site perusing an article downloaded from another website about how to behave if invited to a French house. I really don't know where these articles come from...there must a be a factory somewhere....but they all seem the same. First they tell you that you won't be invited to a French house anyway - so why, I ask, continue further? Undeterred, they then tell you what to do when you are.....don't take chrysanthemums or foreign hooch - causes offence....don't expect a tour of the house....and all you'll get is booze and biscuits, 'les aperos', which you will be expected to hang out for hours before you can make your escape.
Why do the media buy such derivative stuff? I call it big bud theory from the range of old gardening magazines describing the problem that assails blackcurrant bushes, all of which inevitably stated that the bud was as big as a sixpence, as indeed they would as their authors all diligently copied earlier authors and so the legend began. Have any of these big bud authors visited French houses, and if so, what sort? Which French invite you out to a restaurant in lieu of dinner at home and why?
We have been invited to a great many French houses in our time, but only three times for 'les aperos'. The first time it was my tax inspector who invited us, and we had a whale of a time, the second was an antique arms' collector whose wife sent the champagne round pretty briskly and we ended up taking a startled look at his private arsenal before being invited to try it out in the garden, the third one was the ex politician who wished to impress me with my own insignificence by offering as an aperitif the remains of the Bordeaux he had been drinking at lunchtime. We are in court with the ex politician shortly. This is probably because I turned up my nose at his leavings and joined his wife in a bottle of Pouilly fume. Don't know their place, these foreigners. All three of these encounters were the nearest I have come to the sort of inspection visit described in these articles, and only the third was actually that, so I must assume that the big bud authors are dealing with a stratum of society that does not come my way out here in the sticks.
I consulted Madeleine about the French who invite you to restaurants rather than to their homes and she immediately demanded to have the articles translated, then roared uninhibitedly. In her view, this was all about business in the good old days when anything could be charged to expenses, and if Monsieur invited you to meet him and his wife in a restaurant all it meant was that his wife didn't have to cook and they both ate on the firm, as it were, thus saving the household budget for more important things like buying Madame a nice little car. The mere idea that the French were ashamed of their homes and so avoided allowing outsiders to see them - as suggested in the articles - struck her as hilarious, and she had lived in Paris for years before coming down to retire to the country. They weren't ashamed of their homes at all, she explained, it was just that you weren't important enough for Madame to put herself out - especially as thanks to you she had a good night out as well. This explanation rather miffed Mr Fly who had constructed for himself an alternative theory which was that if, presumably, every businessman and politician in Paris was sexually rampant between the hours of five and seven in the evening - the 'cinq a sept' - then he had to be SR with a female equivalent,which meant that none of the ladies involved would have had time to cook. Thus dining out. After seven o'clock.
Big bud authors, feel free to take up and develop this idea.

Looking back after so many years it is difficult to remember how things started up. People would invite us in for a drink, we would do likewise, things would slide into a lunch, to be returned, you'd be invited to a Sunday lunch to meet the family - a bit like entering the village of Asterix given the size of some of those dining tables - you would invite the family, and buy another table or two for the occasion, and then it settled into a sort of routine as if you were an extension of the family. Cousins would invite you with the rest of the horde. You would invite cousins when the rest of the horde came to dine. I liked it very much. I still do.

No one brought flowers, plants or chocolates. They brought something to put on the table - usually their speciality, awaited by everyone - or something only available in their area. A mate of Didier since they did their national service together always brought his neighbour's brioche Vendeen...which meant that lunch had to be held up as the brioche wasn't baked before nine o'clock and then he had to drive hundreds of kilometres to get to Didier's place. I don't greatly like these sweet breads, but this was unforgettable. Feather light, delicately flavoured with rum and orange flower water it was simple but a masterpiece of the baker's art. Worth putting back lunch, especially given the range of Didier's aperitifs.

I suspect that the big bud authors are not thinking of country folk, but I can assure them that what might be called higher up the social scale it is not so very different. A lady whose acquaintance we made through a friend invited us - without the friend - as she wished to enlarge her circle. We arrived at a most imposing mansion to find that Madame was butler, wine waiter, cook and bottle washer and had not the least objection to handing over some part of her duties. We had an uproarious lunch, repeated several times before her untimely death, and she always insisted on a treacle tart being produced. While the men drooped over an aged eau de vie I would wash up with her the priceless china which she produced carelessly from a cupboard, luckily having just enough drink taken to be confident but not over confident handing these relics of the ancien regime.
She washed up at our place likewise....but our china was never of the same quality.
Those of you who live in France, or are expatriates elsewhere, you must be equally fed up with the big bud syndrome in people writing about your area. What about sharing your experiences so people can see what it is really like?

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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Three old ladies...well, one young one...

Das alte Rathaus (Hotel de Ville) von Marseill...Image via Wikipedia

Returning from the hospital to have supper with friends, it was great to find the whole house awash with laughter. The assembled horde were chortling over the fate of an unwary British tourist who had found herself locked up overnight in a town hall somewhere in Alsace, having nipped into the loo at the very moment that the staff were leaving. When she emerged, there was no one about and she was locked in the building. She apparently tried turning all the lights on and off, but no one noticed - they probably did but goings on at the town hall are best left well alone in popular view - and she stuck a note to the window, but no one saw that either.

What had convulsed the them was that the young lady had mistaken the town hall for a hotel, as the building proudly proclaimed
'Hotel de Ville'
on its' facade, and finding no one on reception she had gone to check out the loos before asking for a room. It appeared from the content of her note that her French was pretty rudimentary and there was much comment on how only the English could get themselves into a mess like this, with their ignorance of the language and culture of France.
'What about Australians?' I asked.
'No, not the same thing. They would have found that there wasn't a bar in two seconds and if they'd been locked in they would have broken the door down to get out.
'But they still might have thought it was a hotel.'
'Well, they're Anglo Saxons too.'
Tell that to the current population of Australia. The French do not move with the times, and neither does their language. In English there can be no confusion between the town hall and the local hotel so when the English speakers come to France, anything called a hotel is considered likely to be a place to spend the night. It's not that rare, either. Friends with a B and B business told me that they had the occasional recommendation from the secretary at the local town hall when faced with tourists seeking a bed for the night. And they're weren't all English. There are a couple of other Hotels that come to the case of the Hotel de Police, at least she would have had a bed in the cells, while in the case of a Hotel des Ventes, the auction house, she might have been sold with the bed as a job lot if she risked sleeping late.

Over drinks, discussion turned to why she had decided to check out the loo. Only the British. Obsessed with the plumbing. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that she just needed to use it...they are as few and far between in France as in the U.K. and are for the most part deeply unappealing. Mark you, the company was predominantly male and French males have their own solutions to these problems.

On the streets of major towns there are things that look like grey versions of Dr. Who's enter, wondering if you will ever see blue sky again or whether you will be sucked away by the undertow when it flushes itself. The first one I met was at Bergerac, years ago, near the main church, where an elderly lady in black was shepherding a line of more elderly ladies in black in and out of its' portals. Eventually the company formed up, mission accomplished and the whole lot set off for the church just as the hearse arrived to start the funeral service.
The supervisor peered kindly at our party, among whom was my mother, the person responsible for having to hunt for a loo in the streets of Bergerac as she had refused that on offer in the cafe, entering, only to leap out like an exocet declaiming
and refusing to drink the rest of her coffee as she now viewed the sanitation rating of the whole place as being on a level with old Tangiers in the grip of the plague.
'You shouldn't let the elderly lady go in there without supervision.' said the supervisor. 'She might have a heart attack.'
Mother might not have understood much French, but her well honed sense of self preservation alerted her to possible danger. Someone else would have to go first. Quickly. She designated the victim who announced
'I may be some little time...' and was swallowed up by the edifice. After a while, our jokes about Captain Oates and the Antarctic began to sound inappropriate. People couldn't really have heart attacks in there, could they? Mother began to wriggle, just slightly, but wriggle all the same. As the doors opened again after the sounds of rushing water and turbulence she plunged in. We eyed the victim.
'Confess, you deliberately sat in there to annoy her, didn't you? You hadn't finished your coffee when she got us all to move on.'
'Well, no, not really. I couldn't work out what to press.'
Mother had had no such problems. Beaming, she emerged. The behemoth had enchanted her.
'It must be designed specially for the French. You wouldn't need so much water to make sure that it is properly clean in England. And they know the French never pull the chain so there isn't one.'
I hate the things, but there isn't always much alternative.
What are called turkish loos...the hole in the ground with stands for your feet either side thereof... are bad enough, but coupled with the light bulb programmed to go out while you are using the thing and the automatic flush that takes your handbag out under the door if you haven't hung it round your neck, and it is all too acrobatic for me. So I sincerely sympathise with the young English tourist who made a bolt for the loo when she reached what she thought was her hotel for the night.

There is only one thing that puzzles me, but I didn't think of it while I was there so I couldn't ask. All this took place in Alsace. I haven't been there for years but I think I remember that everything in the line of public signage is in both French and German, including public buildings.
So, assuming her German was as rudimentary as her French, why wasn't she put off by the German version of 'Hotel de Ville'.
Or perhaps that was on another facade.

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Monday, 24 August 2009

You know who your friends are....and your fiends

Male Muscovy DuckImage via Wikipedia
We have been having problems on the health front, still unresolved, but it has been very comforting to have support from the kind people who left comments on the blog, the family worldwide and local friends.
I have noticed once again that, in terms of people actually within physical reach, it is those with their own worries, health problems and/or lack of dosh who are the people on the telephone asking what they can do and then doing it. The expat crowd, so busy gossiping about any and everyone, are, as always, evident by their absence.
It's all too close to write about current happenings, but the last time the man in my life had a bad attack the reactions of those around were decidedly interesting.
His Turkish builder, who had not worked for him for years, was on the scene at the hospital with his crew nearly every day once he got past the nurses by slipping up the backstairs to the ward. Amazingly enough, they checked their patients so irregularly that they had no idea that he even had visitors, let alone how many! It was thanks to him that I discovered that TMIML had not been eating. Paralysed, with the resulting problems in swallowing, pureed food was served, but there was no one to help him eat it, so the cartons came and went untouched for days until the Turks discovered what was going on and not only told me, but brought home made soup made by their wives and helped him drink it. Why didn't I know? Because we live miles from the hospital, and visiting hours were rigid...afternoons I was not there at feeding time. Lucky the Turks were resourceful. They were there at all hours. Undetected by the staff.
Friends offered help with transport, even Didier who is so nervous in modern road conditions that he drives at about 30 kilometres an hour and then only on local roads.
A young cousin from Belgium dropped everything and came down to help at a moment's notice, staying until we managed to spring TMIML from hospital as soon as he was fit to move. Looking back on it, the wheelchair dash with five doctors in pursuit was funny, but not at the time!

Then, of course, there were the others.
Mother, who has never liked him, heard the news and decided to have palpitations, thus swinging attention to herself and, with luck, loading me with guilt for upsetting her. No chance on the latter, I've known her too long, and as to the former, I firmly believe that her success in reaching her late nineties is solely due to her resolute egoism.
An expat estate agent rang to ask would the house be going on the market when he died. The reply was not encouraging to her ambitions. I am still astonished in hindsight that someone could do such a thing.
The plumber who had not finished the work and so had not been fully paid decided to come and claim the outstanding amount to avoid complications.
'What complications?'
'When he dies.'
Another flea in the ear.
Then there was the expat couple who were going up to town and offered a lift to the hospital. If I paid for the petrol...which gave them a free trip to the DIY store and the status of benefactors! People who could have done with the money were the most difficult to persuade to take any for their expenses. I had to resort to shoving notes into the glove compartment.
People I rarely saw appeared on my return from hospital in the evenings, to take a glass of wine and enquire about progress. Two of them managed to articulate what seemed to be on the general expat mind.
'If he dies, you'll be quite well placed, won't you?'
'How much tax exemption will you get on the estate?'
Luckily after a few days the Belgian cousin arrived and firmly disposed of any further callers.

However, the icing on the cake was the duck stealer. Coming home one evening, I discovered that I had a number of ducks missing. Fed up and furious, I went straight to his lair, found them and let them out, waddling down the road after me back to home and safety.
I saw him the next morning, looking for the ducks in his yard and told him not to worry, they were with me.
'Well,' he said 'I didn't think you would be needing so many in the circumstances.'
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Saturday, 22 August 2009

There is a great deal that I wish to say......

Adequate ventilation has also been regarded as...Image via Wikipedia
but the man in my life has been carted off to hospital, so life is turned upside down again. He is bearing up under treatment so far, so that's a positive. I just wish that after various experiences with French hospitals I did not feel that ever after I have to check and double check that he is actually being treated and not just left lying in a coma......thank goodness for the family in Belgium for whom nothing is too much trouble in troubled times.
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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Window shopping

French window shuttersImage via Wikipedia

We had to paint the window frames and shutters this year. We should have done it last year, but having done it the year before, we thought we were due a holiday. Fools. French paint is the definition of built in obsolescence.
It is not my idea of bliss to stand on a very high ladder, grabbing the curtain rail hoping it was the competent workman who attached that one and swinging half one's not inconsiderable bulk out into the void several floors up to reach the bit that the unutterable fool in the garden has just pointed out as the bit you missed that morning when you started the hellish process. You suspected that you had missed it as it was the bit you could not see. You just hoped no one would notice. I should learn to hide the field glasses.
Don't mention scaffolding.
Painting the blessed things is bad enough, but fitting them in the first place was another nightmare...bring back the window tax and brick them all up.

When buying the house, it became evident that the windows on one side of the house would need to be replaced, so I asked for quotes. Blown backwards bow legged by the results of that bright idea, it was decided to buy and fit them ourselves and we made the tour of the builders' merchants. It soon became evident that this idea was not going to run either....the house was not in the had windows of a different size to those currently in vogue. It was not possible to be flexible, either and change the size of the windows because of
a) planning permission
and, more importantly
b) the window surrounds were very solid granite.
The windows would have to be made to order and, surprise, surprise, that would cost even more than having them fitted by a professional firm. This is France.

As the winter wind whistled through the perished frames, the man in my life decided on one last throw of the dice. We would try the DIY stores which were then a new phenomenon on the French scene.

We duly visited our local outlet - all of an hour's drive away - and found nothing in our size in the racks of ready made windows, but then M. Supplice, who had begun to recognise us from our earlier visits, pointed us to an area in the back. The misshapes.
He explained all. At that time, the DIY store would make windows to measure, at prices well under those quoted by the regular builders' merchants. The client would measure and the DIY store would make. Unfortunately, there was a problem. For reasons best known to the French mind, if you have a hole 100 cms wide and high, you will order a window to fit this and get a window which measures 105 cms high and wide. The client, not being an artisan francais window measurer, did not know this, which accounted for the number of misshapes on offer. Our luck even improved on that. Because only windows which were within the modern norms were stocked by builders' merchants, people were ordering odd shapes made to measure. And were mismeasuring, thanks to the professional secret of the 5 cms, so we actually found windows which would fit most of our gaps. M. Supplice, wary from his experience with the misshapes, made us draw and label our gaps before he would sell us anything.
'I'm not having this lot coming back.'

Scaffolding was already in place to deal with the render on the walls, which was cracked and letting water by, so fitting the windows was not too much of a problem as long as no once started to quote Gerard Hoffnung's address to the Oxford Union once the pulleys were set up. Weight I can cope with, but not when in hysterics. One sepulchral voice intoning
'And then I met the barrel coming up...' was enough to finish me off.
It was all looking good, but we were two windows short of our full complement and, at some point, the scaffolding would have to come down to attack the rendering on the other walls. The quotes from the builders' merchants had gone up, as we only now needed two. M. Supplice had no more windows, but he did have a suggestion.
There was a chain of discount stockists who held all sorts of end of line stuff like paint, fittings, sanitary ware, barbed wire - but also, windows and doors. They got theirs from the builders' merchants when the experts mismeasured the hole for the window and were said to be reasonable. They only opened at the weekends, thus anticipating Sarkozy's measures to free up French trade by some fifteen years. The force of the wind decided us that there was no alternative, so we hitched on the trailer the next Sunday and wended our way through the bleak winter countryside to the nearest outlet, some two hours' drive from us.
We arrived at opening time - ten o'clock - which gave us only two hours until it closed at noon, so it was a relief to find that the window and door section seemed to be well organised, with everything in size marked racks. Inspection and a tape measure quickly showed that these markings bore no correspondence to the contents, so we had to resort to hauling out and measuring anything that looked likely - not forgetting the 5 cm. It was going to be a long job and I began to think that we would never be able to find what we wanted before closing time unless we could have some help.
The lady on the till apologised that she could not leave her post, but indicated the boss who was in the materials yard and suggested I ask him. I found him, well wrapped up in fur lined jacket and leather gloves, sporting dark glasses in the winter gloom, and asked if he could help.
'The workman does all that sort of thing.'
'Where is the workman?'
'He doesn't work on Sundays.'
'Can you help me, then?'
'No, I'm the boss.'
Well, there may have been windows in the size we wanted, but there was no way we could find them before we were thrown out on the dot of noon. The boss was still standing in the yard as his cashier closed the heavy gates behind us.

We eventually found the windows at another branch of the chain where the staff were helpful and managed to beat the deadline for moving the scaffolding, but it was a salutary introduction to French commercial practice and an interesting introduction to the the French mode of measurement.

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Sunday, 9 August 2009

Public health and private profit

Taken from EPA website ( via Wikipedia

Once the world of our masters returns from its' holidays, the swine 'flu outbreak will be upgraded to full blown panic mode....Tamiflu going for a fortune on eBay, chemists booking world cruises and French employers taking the chance to sack their workers without the usual expensive consequences.

I am girding my loins....not a pretty sight.... to have to explain for the umpteenth time to medical professionals who have had the dossier on the man in my life for more years than I would care to think about that he cannot, under any circumstances, have a 'flu injection. We go through this every autumn. The proposition, the rejection, the disbelief, the contempt for mere unmedical mortals who happen to know that the proposition is potentially lethal....after all, if it happens, it isn't the doctors' lives which will be wrecked or ended. This all happens with the specialists..not with our GP, a gentle giant of foreign extraction. He actually takes the trouble to listen to his patients rather than doling out prescriptions with one hand while collecting his fee for the visit in the other and is universally adored by the said patients. Not by the other doctors in the area, nor by the local chemists as his first act is usually to wean his patients from the carrier bags of medication prescribed by his colleagues and his second is to suggest exercise instead. A lovely man. We bitch about specialists together.

I remember the avian 'flu scare. The vet had to come out and certify that our chickens, ducks and geese were healthy and confined. Since they were all out scratching about in the garden and in the case of the ducks and geese swimming on the river he concluded that they were all in fine fettle and that they were the garden. As he pointed out, it was all a load of nonsense as in his view the problem lay with factory farmed birds, but, since the government was paying, he had no objection to touring the roads of rural France to have a drink with his clients and fill out a few forms. Shortly after his visit, we had one from the gendarmerie. Someone had denounced us for having ducks and geese on the river. The gendarmes could see the said poultry flaunting themselves on the water before their very eyes, but the vet's forms were flourished and they went away. This is France. Form, not substance.

Some time before the scare, the chap down the road had had a disaster. Or rather his son had had, being in charge while the Dad was on holiday. As a sideline from raising cattle and stealing my ducks, he raises poultry for the table and just before his holiday, he had taken delivery of six thousand day old chicks. Within a week, all had died. The son was beside himself...he called in his own vet, then contacted the supplier of the chicks who sent his vet and then the feed merchant, who sent his vet....all to no avail. Six thousand dead chicks. His first thought was for the financial loss, so he contacted his insurer. The insurer contacted the feed merchant and the supplier of chicks and, no doubt, their insurers and then came back to the son. The proposition was as follows.
He would be paid out in full by an unholy combination of the various insurers on condition that he was not to make any official report of the incident and he was to make sure that his vet didn't either. He was to clean and fumigate the sheds where the chicks had been housed and keep no more poultry for a period of six months....he would be compensated for his consequential loss as well.
The carcasses were buried.....smoke draws attention.....and the sheds were duly cleaned out by the time his father returned from eyeing the prospects of stealing ducks in some other region of France. Considering that he was to be paid in full and not have to work to raise the chicks, he was not displeased with his son's negotiation with the insurers...a farmer's dream, paid for doing nothing except keep his mouth shut.
He did keep his mouth shut, but his neighbour had observed all the comings and goings and knew all the actors in the drama, as they were his own suppliers. He keeps ducks as everyone in a wide radius is aware as he spreads the shed cleanings on his land on the hottest day possible, preferably on a Sunday morning, so that everyone with guests to lunch can participate in the pleasures of rural life. He talked to the postlady, who talked to me and probably everyone else as well, which is how we all knew that the disaster had taken place and all the details of the settlement apart from the actual sums involved. I don't remember the quote exactly, but in one of his books Maurice Genevoix remarks that in the country, you are always being observed from under the visor of a cap, and he's right, nothing passes unnoticed.
The postlady came back with other the next village, the couple who raise factory farmed poultry had both come down with some sort of respiratory illness that they could not shake off and they, according to their doctor, were not the only ones. Over the river, the man who raises pheasants for the hunting fraternity became ill as well and stopped keeping birds for a while.
It was the gossip for a while and then it all died down as other topics took public attention....why was it with all the unemployed in the commune that the maire's daughter, already employed in the school canteen, was taken on to do the census returns? Easy answer, she's the maire's daughter.
However, when the avian 'flu scare started, I remembered the duck stealer's disaster and I wondered also just how many more outbreaks take place that are covered up. It is in no one's private and financial interest to declare problems, after all, and public health does not figure in a farm's balance sheet.

This isn't just France....look at the disgraceful conditions of the pig rearing industry in Mexico where the swine 'flu first appeared. I've visited one of the pig factories in Brittany...animals in the dark, so close together that a pig urinates on the face of the pig behind, the air pulled out by the giant ventilators so foul that the land behind the pig housing is scorched and blighted. And this passes industry standards in Europe! Look at the disgraceful conditions of factory farming generally and consider the danger to public health from the over use of antibiotics to enable poultry and animals to withstand those conditions long enough to make profit for their owners.

Private profit before public health, on the small scale and the large, from the duck stealer to the drug companies. And where do doctors stand on all this? With a few exceptions they pull the visor of their caps over their eyes and prescribe Tamiflu.

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Saturday, 8 August 2009


{{Potd/2005-02-28 (en)}}Image via Wikipedia

You know how it come back from your holiday, the hall is full of ominous envelopes and the cat has been sick somewhere it shouldn't.
Well, a few local maires know how you feel. They have returned from their rainy July holidays to find that things have got out of hand in their absence from their communes and that they need to take up the burden of government again in double quick time. It's probably worse in that the sun is now shining, just to reinforce the misery.

One has travelling people problems. The obligatory camping ground designated for their use was clearly held not to be adequate for the twenty two cars and trailers which descended on the area in his absence, so they rammed open the gates of the football ground and installed themselves on the pitch. The state of play will not be improved this season by all the maneovering on sodden ground while the party set up their encampment. The travelling people obviously felt that the football ground was destined for their has electricity - illegally attached to the twenty two trailers to operate the satellite dishes and associated technology which enliven the wandering life of the traveller - and water, hot water, loos and showers. Clearly much more satisfactory than the camping ground.
Now, best not to enquire what the maire's deputies - the adjoints - did about it because whatever it was it did not work. I suspect that they decided to look the other way or to go on holiday themselves, but I do not know.
What alarmed the maire was the magnitude of the electricity and water bill facing the commune as a consquence of the occupation and the likely bill for damage. He knows what they can do on the camping ground, remember and visions of replacement sanitary ware must have been haunting his dreams. He went to interview the chief and received the clear message that the camping ground would not be receiving a visit. The band were very well where they were. The maire went on a tour of his commune and eventually persuaded someone to let them use his field....conveniently far from the village. He returned to the football ground and described the attractions on offer.
'No.' The chief shook his head regretfully. They would like to be accomodating, but they had already reconnoitred the field in question...and it was out of the question. There were snakes. Further, they had taken the precaution of getting permission from the Prefecture to stay where they were for a further week in the absence of appropriate accommodation elsewhere.
I suspect that this maire knows when he is beaten and will be going round the village urging people to check their locks and bolts and nail everything to the ground until the travellers deign to move on. He will probably also be inspecting his slush fund to see how he is going to pay the utility bills and reinstate the loos.

Far down in the south of the department, where the sun has been shining, another maire has returned to a problem. In his case, he went out to take a stroll round the village and found that the pretty stone bridge in the centre no longer had a function. The river running under it had dried up.
This isn't the first time in recent years, in fact it is becoming more likely than not that the river will run dry in summer, and the maire has had enough. He has made an official complaint that someone - 'x' - has made improper use of water.
Now, we all know who 'x' is, or, rather, are. X is all the farmers irrigating their crops in the dry weather....the maize, and the sunflowers so beloved of the people advertising their holiday homes in rural France. For some reason which escapes me, like the rest of the claptrap involved with the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers are encouraged - paid - to grow these crops on ground and in conditions totally unsuited to their culture, which means that they need to irrigate. Which means in turn that the rivers dry up.
In recent years, a certain caution has entered the world of irrigation. While on one hand the European Union is encouraging the practice of growing unsuitable crops, on the other the European Union is about to enforce the cleaning up of rivers, and ensuring their survival. France has already had a delay accorded, but doomsday approaches...2015 is not that far off and at that point, rivers have to be flowing and have to be clean.
Prefectures have been more and more cautious in issuing licences to irrigate, but, considering that they started at 'do as you please', they haven't restricted irrigation to any great extent. We, ordinary people, can be told not to water our gardens and can and will be denounced to the authorities for so doing, businesses operating car washes can be shut down for the duration, but the farmer carries on regardless, spurting water over his profitable crop.
Further, the rivers have to be cleaned end to the delights of raw sewage poured straight into the stream and thus the attempt to inspect every septic tank in France.....another lost war in my view. An end too, to the nitrates leaching from farmland into the watercourses. This in particular causes much sucking of teeth, as it means asking farmers to change their habits, and it draws attention to the damage they are doing not only to the countryside in which they operate but also to the water needed by the towns for their populations.

The air is changing slowly in France....people are beginning to question the privileged position of the farmers and growers in a way which would have been unthinkable even a few years' ago. The only people who ever attacked the farmers were the ecologists, while everyone else stood by, disapproving of these wild extremists. Now that it is beginning to dawn on people that their water supply is in danger, there is more vocal support for the need of reform. Especially if the European Union impose fines on France - yet again - for its failure to provide ample and clean water in the beds of its rivers.

So, if you're just off on holiday, rather than returning, make the most of your won't be seeing so many in the future.
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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The English don't pay

DufferPlumberImage via Wikipedia

A friend has just had a scary experience.

She and her husband are converting their barn into a house for their daughter and grandchildren who are, God help them, moving to France for a better life, and had engaged professionals - les artisans francais - to do the bulk of the work. You are almost obliged to engage what is laughingly called a professional these days if ever you think you might want to sell your project as otherwise you will have to buy insurance to provide a ten year guarantee of work done by your good self, which costs another arm and a leg. You can soon become financially tetraplegic in France. Apart from which, there are the 'norms'...which change with alarming regularity...and then there is French plumbing, which is incredibly primitive in its conception. Tubes and fittings are labelled as 10/12, or 14/16, whatever that might mean....and every piece you want is sold separately, so you spend hours in the DIY store matching it all up and then find they have run out of one of the parts vital to your project. Also, although this did not apply in their case, if you are installing electricity for the first time in a building, you need to have an inspection and you can bet your boots that if the inspector doesn't see the name of an electrician on the request, your installation will be turned down, meaning that you have to pay for a further inspection. If he does see the name of an electrician on the request, it is also a fair bet that there will be no inspection at all, as the body responsible permits itself to pass installations performed by 'reputable' firms without its' inspector ever setting foot on the premises. You still pay.

For reasons which now escape me...I think I dozed off during the original description of the project...a waterpipe had to run across the premises, which meant it would be under the new floor....under the plastic sheet, the wire mesh and the concrete. This had been explained to the plumber, with emphasis on the importance of the pipe not leaking, and he had made no demur, which in itself was unusual as they normally insist on everything being visible for 'when' whatever they have installed springs a leak. That pipe and all the others having been installed, they called the builder to get on with the floor and the other work necessary before the plumber could return to connect up the sinks, baths and showers. The builder took a bit longer than they had anticipated, by which time the plumber was agitating, so they paid him half of the estimated sum, as the bulk of the work was done, and this kept him quiet until they were ready to proceed.

He duly arrived, connected everything that needed connecting, turned on the water and everything worked. They took a glass of wine together and he left, saying that his wife would send out the bill during the week.

During that week, they did not do much in the barn, but one day the husband went in and discovered a damp patch on the concrete. His first thought was a leak in the roof, as the patch was under the cathedral ceiling section of the conversion and there had been heavy rain. He went up, could see nothing, but put a bowl down to catch the drips, just in case. Well, the next day the bowl was empty and the patch was don't need me to tell you that the underfloor pipe was leaking.

They called the plumber. His wife said he would call them back. He didn't. He was incommunicado for days, so they called the builder, who said it wasn't his problem. The plumber's bill arrived. They called again, asking him to come out and see to the problem. The patch was now definitely wet. Their neighbour dropped by with some veg and they showed him the mess.....something had to be done, but no one seemed to want to do it. He called his son, who works for the water company. The son came round in his works van with his colleague and said that if they could take up the portion of floor affected he and his mate would mend the leak - just tell the Dad when they were ready. They tried the plumber again, but the wife replied that he could do nothing until his bill was paid. The builder, who had been paid - his wife being a bit smarter with the billing - reiterated that it was nothing to do with him, so there was nothing for it but to take up the floor. They were lucky in that English friends had family visiting and a couple of young men volunteered to do the work. The picks went at it, the wire cutters were employed, and the leaking pipe was exposed. What was not exposed, however, was the anti-damp plastic sheeting specified in the builder's estimate and paid for. It had not been laid.

The Dad was alerted, his son and colleague came round in the works van and the pipe was repaired. As always in France, it had been brazed, not soldered, and there had been an incomplete seal. The water went on again, and the pipe held. Son and colleague refused payment, as the couple were friends of Dad, and went off again in the works van to continue their legitimate employment, having had a frolic of their own on the company's time. There was still the problem of the plastic sheet and the hole in the floor.

They called the builder. They called several times before he came to the 'phone and blithely announced that it was, as it happened, a good thing that he had not laid the sheet as otherwise they would not have discovered the problem for a long time by which time they would have had an enormous water bill. But they had paid for the plastic sheet to be laid. Well, that was all in the past...they had paid the bill and that was that. End of conversation.

Taking up the whole floor was out of the question...who would do it and how would they pay for it? Their budget was tight enough as it was. The young men filled in the hole with concrete, levelled it off, and that was the floor problem solved. Not ideal, but the best they could do in the circumstances.

That left the plumber. They had paid half the bill in advance, but surely he would make a small allowance for the extra work caused by his incompetence? They called and the wife said he wouldn't. They called again, and said that they would make a deduction for the cost of the repairs. She said that they could not do that. They went round to the neighbour to see what he thought could be done and he suggested that they make the deduction and send a cheque for the rest, accompanied by a registered letter making it clear why a deduction had been made. They discussed what it would be reasonable to deduct and did as he suggested. He helped them write the letter so that there would be no misunderstanding due to language. The letter was sent.

Three days later, my friend had her scary experience.

She was in the garden when the plumber arrived, bursting out of his van like a rocket, shouting and waving their letter. Her French is not bad, but not up to situations like that, though even if it had been perfect, she could not have slipped a word in edgeways. He wanted the rest of his money....she and her husband were cheating foreigners, taking advantage of poor working wonder they could not pay their bills, just look at the luxury in which they lived....coming over, taking advantage of France.....couldn't even be bothered to learn the language.... Suffice it to say that the stream seemed endless, well laced with words she either knew or guessed to be extremely impolite, but the gist of it was that he wanted his money and he wasn't going until he got it. She was frightened but eventually managed to tell him that he wasn't getting a penny more than they had already paid and at that point the solids really hit the fan. He grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her against the wall, aiming a kick at her as she went down, then, perhaps realising that he had gone a little too far in the art of gentle persuasion, he left, still shouting as the van drove away.
Where, you might ask, was the husband during all this? Every woman knows the answer to this. Whenever you need a man, he is in the lavatory. Apart from which, it had all happened so fast that there would have been very little he could have done. Shocked, they made tea and wondered what to do. The neighbour was out. They telephoned the gendarmerie to make a complaint.
'Are you injured?'
'No, not really, just shocked.'
'Well, why don't you pay your bills if you don't want problems?'
That was the limit of official intervention.
When the neighbour came back, they went round to see him. He suggested seeing a lawyer, and made an appointment for them.
The lawyer listened to their tale and then told them to pay the rest of the bill.
'But we explained why we were making a deduction. We sent it by registered letter.'
'What difference does that make? He's just going to lose the enclosure and say that you sent the cheque and bill by registered post. It's more trouble than it's worth. Pay him.'
'What about the floor?'
'Did you get a bailiff to certify the state of the floor?'
'Well, how are you going to prove anything? Forget it...put it down to experience.'
They went back to the neighbour. They drank a glass of wine. They put it down to experience.

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Monday, 3 August 2009

Eating five a day on the fourth

Tennis Court OathImage via Wikipedia

The producers of fruit and veg are not having a good start to their holidays. Neither am I.
Apparently, France has been dishing out grants to this sector over about ten years from 1992 onwards which the European Union thinks were unjustified. Money was available for extraordinary problems...drought, etc....but France treated it as an annual dole to producers and the EU now wants it repaid.
The sum involved is some 330 million Euros, but with interest it comes to about 500 million and France is contesting the amount in the European Court of Justice. However, whatever the amount, Brussels wants it back.

The producers' organisations have already announced that their members won't be coughing up....they have
a) spent it
b) gone out of business
c) died
or a combination of any of the above, but, more importantly, the money isn't coming from them.

The Regional elections will soon be upon us, the next Presidential election is heaving in sight over the horizon, and, despite the proposed gerrymandering of constituencies, the governing party still needs to nurse the votes of its' traditional supporters......the farmers and growers. Not a good moment to disturb them in the pocket. Not that there ever is a good moment to do same...if it's not elections, then it's fear of them blocking the petrol pumps and attacking lorries carrying foreign produce....or just fear.

So guess who will be paying? Me......and the other three or four taxpayers in France. You know, the ones who don't have three kids and wallow in allowances.

It's about time for another 4th of August in France.
Everyone remembers Bastille Day, 14th of July, when the Paris mob over ran an undermanned fortress containing a few lunatics and debtors, but 4th August of the same year is considerably more significant....though, like Magna Carta, it has acquired a false glamour over the years.
In French thinking, the session of the Constituent Assembly on the 4th of August 1789 was the moment when everyone in the nation achieved equality.......of taxation.

When I was a child, I had one of those picture books of history....for the most part, photographs of Victorian historical paintings. The Bruce rallying his troops at Bannockburn....Piers Gaveston reclining languidly under the disgusted gaze of assorted barons....Sir John Moore dying at Corunna....but among them, several subjects from the Revolutionary period including the trial of Marie Antoinette, which differs little, I assure you, from a modern trial in France....trumped up charges, shifty looking judges who have already made up their minds, gloomy prisoners who know it and rabid prosecutors waving their arms about and foaming. The evening of the 4th August was included - a candlelit scene with aristocratic men in wigs and churchmen in long robes renouncing their privilege of being exempt from taxation.

Things are never so simple as a Victorian historical painting would indicate. The Constituent Assembly, men of property all, met when the starving country people were ransacking abbeys and feudal manors, intent on loot and freedom from the old shackles. How to control them? The army was mostly still loyal to Louis XVI, and to call them in was to risk the balance of power returning to the King.
What was the answer? Throw the ravenous dogs the bone of freedom from the onerous services demanded by their feudal overlords, the forced labour, including, notoriously, in Brittany, the duty to patrol the lake at night to ensure that the croaking of frogs did not disturb the repose of the local squire. This, the practical bit...then, being France, the idealistic bit......the abolition of freedom from taxation of the nobility and clergy. These are the elements of the French myth of the 4th of August.
Something passes under the radar, however. The feudal dues renounced by their holders were not to be abolished, they were to be bought out. How French. Under the smokescreen of philosophy and high ideals lurks the hand ever open for money.

In France today, the inequality of taxation arguments concentrate on the earnings - or, more accurately, income - of the business leaders, rewarded whether they succeed or fail, whether their firm outsources to the third world or not. The 'fiscal shield' promoted by Sarkozy to keep the rich rich also comes under fire.
What doesn't raise its' head is the unfairness of the fiscal arrangements for farmers and growers which allows them to keep their income relatively tax free and gives their children access to grants that are intended for the children of the poor. Why not? Because the leaders of French opinion live, work and breathe in Paris, where you only see a farmer at the annual agricultural fair. The country is where these types spend August. Country people are the 'ploucs'....the great unwashed.....they don't count in the great scheme of things that is France, which takes place in Paris.
So, on the 4th of August, while you are eating your five different items of fruit and vegetables to conserve your health, consider how they get to your table and who, in the end, pays to keep the farmers rich. And eating cake is no solution.

Apologies that the image is that of the Tennis Court Oath....still, it gives you the idea.

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