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.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Why don't I want to be French?

A debate is taking place on what it means to be French, inspired by the minister dealing, or not, with immigration, Eric Besson.....whose ex wife's book details his refusal to vow fidelity at their wedding ceremony, a refusal validated by what she has to say about his serial infidelities during the marriage. Perish the thought that a politician could be inconsistent, so one can only suppose that he thinks marital infidelity is one component of the French identity he wishes to promote among native French and immigrants alike. I knew that he opposed women wearing the burqua, but his wife's revelations now lead me to suppose that it might not be a cultural question as such, but more of an objection to an obstacle to his ability to size up the talent.

Wanting to have your cake and eating it might well figure as a more general French characteristic.....contestants in the Koh Lanta television 'reality' show - a designation which has always puzzled me given the nature of these programmes - have claimed that they were not participants, but, get this, employees! Furthermore, a court agrees with them, and they have been awarded their entitlement - a few days paid at the minimum wage, the SMIC, and their social security payments made for the period. The television company concerned has, following the logic of the ruling, decided that as the winner was in fact an employee they don't have to pay him the prize he won by eating beetles and suffering the humiliations inseparable from reality shows, just a few days' pay on the SMIC. Not quite what he bargained for, but then, anything to do with eating cake in France has been a bit risky ever since the days of Marie Antoinette.

As part of Monsieur Besson's campaign to emphasise French identity, it has been proposed that children should sing the national anthem, 'La Marseillaise', at least once a year in their schools. A brief perusal of the words reveals a certain lack of warmth toward those other than the native French.....are the French to support the presence in their country of foreign cohorts who would impose their own laws upon the French? Well, bang goes the European Union then. Impure blood shall flow in the furrows of the fields.....we get the message, thanks. France is for the French.

Which brings us full circle. What is it that makes someone French? Born in France...perhaps, in terms of nationality, in formal terms, but what makes someone shout for the French team in the Six Nations rugby tournament, or for 'les bleus' - the national football team? I don't qualify, that's for sure. In the last rugby world cup, held in France, France beat England in the preliminary rounds.....all around us, deep in the country, the night air resounded to 'La Marseillaise' bawled from every farm - impure blood had appropriately been made to flow, no doubt. When England beat France in the semi finals, no sound whatever rent the firmament, except for 'Rule Britannia' blasting out from the speakers on our terrace. If I'd had 'Hearts of Oak' I'd have played that too. I'd never pass the Tebbit test, any more than would the north african immigrants and their families who whistled down 'La Marseillaise' at a football match between France and Algeria in Paris.

Perhaps we should be posing a different question. Why is it that people who come to France to live and work don't want to identify with the country? Let's start with why I was playing 'Rule Britannia' during the rugby world cup as I am more at ease and, shall we say authoritative, in the examination of my own reactions than in pontificating about others.
I cannot say that I ever thought of myself in terms of my nationality...I had a culture and the associated assumptions and I thought that these were common to Europe....our shared christian, post Roman heritage. Then I moved to France.
I cannot claim either that I swiftly became aware that it was not just a question of language...I was living out in the sticks among ordinary people, learning to communicate, imbibing their customs and adjusting to their mentality. Except that I could not adjust. Why should decent, upright people feel that
'Nous sommes pour rien'........'We count for nothing'?

I began to learn. The French Revolution of 1789 mght have overturned royal power, but it was instigated and shaped by the French middle class, much more adept than the 'aristos' in exacting the last sou from the peasants living on the land these lawyers and merchants bought at the auctions of the property of those who had emigrated from France as the old order crumbled. Nothing much changed in the countryside until the German occupation in the 1940s when the farmers found that they could sell their produce at top prices both to the occupying power and to the starving people from the towns, so that at the end of the second world war, the farmers could afford to buy out the leases from their bourgeois landlords, impoverished by the war, and could become independent. Post war food policy and the Common Agricultural Policy further strengthened their position to the point where their interests began to mesh with those of the bourgeoisie proper, with whom they began to assimilate and to inherit the fruits of 1789. If you're not part of that group then, truly, you count for nothing.

I think that it is this fruit from a rotten tree that sets on edge the teeth of immigrants...the fanatical nationalism, the sense of superiority, the wish to impose, born of an era when the new France was surrounded on all sides by enemies......the vision of the state as embodying the will of the people - and woe betide any sector of the people who disagree........the obscene lust for money and the pursuit of the last brass farthing, the actual religion of the bourgeoisie who came to power at the fall of the monarchy.

As an immigrant, all goes well while you play the game. While you accept that someone incompetent will be appointed because they are French even though your qualifications are superior.....while you see your daughter, with a gift for languages, being directed to a career as a secretary rather than as a graduate level translator, because you were not born in France....while your children learn from newly qualified teachers, sent to the sink schools in the largely immigrant suburbs by an administration that doesn't consider it worthwhile to send in experienced staff to improve the life chances of children of non French parents.....while you accept the third world standards of service.....while you accept the rip offs from French artisans because you bear a foreign name....

When an immigrant doesn't accept his or her lot, the solids hit the fan.
I remember the employee of France Telecom, when upbraided for total incompetence, telling me that if I didn't like it, I could go home - not just to my house, but to my country of origin.
The railway clerk who refused to issue me with my prepaid and prebooked ticket responding to my request as to what I was supposed to do to get home with the lapid statement
'Vous etes foutue, Madame.' 'You're f.......ed, lady.'
The plumber who came in with an estimate for putting in a stop cock that would have paid for a last minute holiday in Turkey who became a red as a Turkey cock when it was queried, announcing that he had had enough of British clients....they shouldn't ask for estimates when they couldn't pay.

I have and have had a number of French friends, ordinary people, just trying to keep their heads above water. I have a few immigrant friends, not all of them British, either working or retired in France. The common denominator is that we all try to see things as they are, not as they are presented, and, in my case, that means playing 'Rule Britannia' when the England fifteen hammer France because I don't appreciate being treated as a second class citizen in a third rate society.

Now........let's just have cricket in the Olympics and I'll have to go looking for a recording of
'Advance, Australia fair.'

Friday 23 October 2009

A change is as good as a rest

Visiting friends for a prolonged period has been a pleasure. Not only have I been housed, fed and watered, I have been entertained and, best of all, included in their lives. There has been a lot of catching up to do.....their family news, the work on the house, the garden....but also a different society to observe. It's still French, but it does different things, sells different items in the bakery and speaks a different patois.

One thing never changes, however - the British colony. My friends have one too although why I should be surprised with the number of British immigrants to France I don't know. I suppose the presence of a large, self contained group of foreigners on French soil still surprises me as much as it must the French. My friends are not recluses, but they do try to keep out of the maelstrom of anglophone Christmas fairs, book clubs and quiz nights which abound in their region, just, as they say, to be able to do what they came to France to do, live quietly in a rural area. The presence of guests did not pass unobserved so they have had a number of Brits dropping in for a coffee to eye up the new arrivals and see what they could learn about my friends from a brisk examination in chief of the unwary guest. From the drift of the questions, there seems to be great interest in what my friends did for a living before moving to France and what they are living on now....I hope and trust that the enquirers went away as ignorant of both elements as when they arrived as my friends have managed to keep this information to themselves for all of the fifteen years that they have lived in the area, not seeing it as anyone's business except that of the taxman. Paul says that he has long had an urge to let it be known, by nods and becks here and there, that he lives on the profits of immoral earnings, which would, given the nature of his local colony, no doubt earn him great respect and an elevated place in the pecking order, but Jenny is not in favour of this course as she would inevitably thus figure either as a retired madame or as the 'fille de joie' who managed to hook the brothel owner. We all agree that, given the age of all concerned, she would not, at least, figure as a pole dancer as this was an unknown phenomenon in those faroff days.

It has been, in a perverse sort of way, interesting to compare their colony to mine....mine is a bit subfusc, really. Even the well known anonymous letter writer has been fairly quiet recently, apart from accusing a friend of being the author of this blog and threatening her with 'consequences' should she name or make mention of the activities of the said anonymous letter writer. Am I alone in finding this somewhat bizarre? You don't put your name to the letter but you assume the recipient to know who you are and thus to avoid offending you. As it happens, a fair swathe of the British immigrants could easily name the person concerned, who has been responsible for a great deal of pain and hurt in her time, but, as always, people are too frightened of the consequences to take her to task.

Round here, though, my friends have a different sort of set, arrived later than most of my lot, a bit louder, more keen to compete for pole position in the pecking order and thanks to their visits of inspection I have been able to appreciate the difference.

There are several 'self made men', a phrase which always conjures up visions of people with bolts through their necks and a certain lack of flexibility in the joints, proud of their achievements and keen to share their pride with others. By way of their monologues, I have learnt a great deal about running transport businesses, property empires and waste disposal enterprises, all of which leads me to wonder why, having had so much success, they have been content to downsize to the extent thay have in moving to France. Their wives are all running 'little businesses' to keep themselves from boredom, none, to my knowledge, declared to the authorities and there has been a great deal of indignation about a recently arrived couple who set up an IT business, all duly declared and in order, which is held to have usurped the position of the established IT person....who is not duly declared and in order. Clearly, a couple who do not know their place.

I don't get too hot and bothered about people working is, after all, a French habit....but I find it a bit rich that those doing so complain of those who don't.

This part of the group pride themselves on their knowledge of food and wine, or at least on what certain items cost and, although I have not been invited anywhere for a meal, Paul and Jenny tell me that an entire evening can be spent describing how their hosts used only to drink Chrystal champagne until discovering Krug, all the while being served a sparkling wine made by passing gas through a tank of ordinary white. They can't make up their minds whether their hosts have come down in the world, or whether they, Paul and Jenny, are held to be unworthy of the Krug.

Others, lower down the pecking order, know their place....the people who do gardens, run the fish and chip van, look after holiday houses and suchlike. They provide a good source of gossip for the and so is drinking again, so and so's wife has left him, so and so hasn't been seen for weeks.....who in turn provide a good source of gossip for the lower and so is drinking again, so and so's wife has left him, so and so hasn't been seen for weeks.....each group gossips about the other and keeps its' own affairs to itself, unlike my local colony, where everyone gossips about everyone else regardless of percieved status.

Still, the two colonies share one characteristic...solidarity in the face of threats to the group vision. My friends know a couple who have lived in the area for quite a few years, retired teachers who bought a ruin, spent their holidays renovating it and kept themselves to themselves when they made a definitive move to France. They had to return to the U.K. last year when the mother of one of them started to have health problems and for various reasons found that they needed to stay longer than initially envisaged. Accordingly the wife came back for a few days, engaged one of the houseminders, showed her what was what and asked her to do a few designated jobs for which she was paid in advance.

They have just returned. Their radiators were not drained down in the sub zero temperatures of last winter and have burst.....the ceilings are green from the resulting and white goods are missing....there are telephone bills for the period of their absence.....the electricity bills are surprisingly high for an unoccupied house.......and their garden, their pride and joy, is a wasteland.

Their first visit was to their houseminder, who got her retaliation in first by showing them a print out of her work sheets and demanding extra money for all the extra work she had had to do mopping up after the burst radiators. Not altogether surprisingly, they refused to pay. The houseminder is now waxing indignant throughout the colony...her reputation has been put in question......she did her best for ungrateful people whose work she only took on as a favour because they were in trouble....the storm is gaining in volume as it makes the rounds. Interestingly, there are few voices raised in support of the teachers and the general opinion is that they should have made 'proper arrangements'. I asked one of the visiting women what might be more proper than employing someone at an agreed wage to do an agreed job and received the reply that the teachers should be ashamed of themselves, taking advantage of poor X when they had comfortable pensions, etc... If there is a logic here, it escapes me.

However, the solidarity reminds me of situations in my colony.....caretakers taking anything but care of properties, even renting them out as gites on occasion, and the owners stigmatised as ungrateful whiners! The power of the group and the sanctions handed out to those who marr the group vision are phenomena which I wish I had the academic background to study as it deserves.

Stil, there are plenty of other things to engage my attention.....I shall be returning home soon and once recovered from the journey will have to see how many plants have survived the unexpected cold snap....I wasn't expecting frost for a while yet. Still, at least I haven't paid someone else to neglect them.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

And while we're on the subject......

The train journey has made me think of all those years ago when I was a the days when students had grants, not debts. With a bit of management, a student could find a shared, if grotty, flat, could eat, go to the pub, buy books and....go on holiday.

I used to put a bit aside for the annual visit to France by train, booked in those days at the French Railways office off Piccadilly - long before 'online' was even thought of, when it was necessary to buy things with cash or by cheque. It used to be possible to book all inclusive tickets covering a week or a fortnight, in first or second class, covering the whole of the French network and I could just about afford a week in second class if I planned to use the night trains to avoid booking a hotel. It was necessary to check the French national holidays and buy the relevant number of Thomas Cook's international railway timetable to make sure of making the best use of the ticket and it was also necessary to budget for the return fare from London to Paris as, in France, everything starts and ends in the capital, including trains which then departed at 00.01 on the first day of the ticket.

The pervasive smell of drains as the ferry docked at Calais announced the arrival in a foreign land, closely followed by the shuffle over the cobbles to the dock sidings where the train to Paris awaited - in that period, postwar rolling stock with hard plastic seats and space to hang your rifle while being shipped to the front should Germany take it into its mind to invade again during the August lull. It stopped just about everywhere when it finally got going, struggling up to Boulogne and relaxing later, rolling through the long chalk hills down to the Seine and Paris. In those days, I was not hampered with much luggage.... a bag was enough, with a couple of changes, toothbrush and comb, knife, spoon and bottle opener, so once put down at the Gare du Nord I would assemble a picnic and a bottle of wine in a grocer's shop nearby, stash it away and head for whichever station offered the best just post midnight train, resolutely turning my back on the neon lit sign beside the station advertising the 'Hotel Kuntz'.

Over the years, the offerings year it was Brest, on the Brittany coast, in the company of a train full of inebriated sailors returning to the naval base, another year it was down to the Pyrenees....always somewhere new when I woke up and descended to the platform, already washed and brushed up in loo on the train and, in those pre terrorist scare days, leaving my bag in the left luggage lockers before wandering out for the day to see what was on offer. The only constraint was checking which night train to take, the only peril, the French railways going on strike.

My mother, in the ATS during the war, described being on a platform at a London station during an air raid with the crowd jostling and, finally, when the platform gates opened, the fear of being trampled underfoot as everyone rushed for the train. Well, when French railways went on strike, I was at Lyon, and only international trains were running which meant, in this case, the train to Paris from might even have been the Talgo, the one where they lifted the carriages up to change from Spanish broad gauge to French narrow gauge, but I no longer remember. We had neither German bombers nor doodlebugs, but the rush for the train must have been similar to that experienced by my mother, as I remember being quite frightened about what would happen if I lost my footing. I made the train, but thanked my stars that I only had light luggage as one man struggled to load his cat in its travelling box and his suitcase, afraid to let go of the cat in case he himself could not board. Eventually, standing all the way, we made it to Paris, only to find that, due to the strike, I had to return to the U.K. via Belgium - and pay extra for the ticket!

Strikes apart, it was a wonderful way to see France, whether from the train window, or on foot in the towns, but only when I came to live in France did I truly appreciate the difference between visiting and living in a country. As a tourist, my only interaction with French commerce was buying my picnic, or, if the dibs were in tune, having lunch in a cafe. Living in France I had to learn to deal with shop assistants who closed the doors if they saw you coming at ten minutes to twelve, so that they could close down on the dot to go to lunch, ladies on the charcuterie counter who, after patiently serving several ladies with two slices of this, three of that and perhaps a piece of garlic sausage, met my request that they slice half a kilo of smoked belly pork with a counter request that I telephone ahead next time for such a difficult order, and key cutters who seemed to think that I was going to pay twice when I returned the keys they had miscut the first time. But I digress.

I visited some chateaux, but on the whole I liked to stroll in the towns, retaining many fond memories of Nevers, with the black swans in the castle moat, of St. Jean Pied de Port, the railway line bordered with crocosmia all the way up from the Atlantic coast, majestic Bordeaux, quiet little Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before becoming the power behind the throne of France and so many others...Annecy, where I managed to fish up enough francs to take a boat out onto the lake, Perpignan, whence I took the train to Villefranche, fortified by Vauban and then the seat of the Casals music festival. The little yellow electric train with its' toastrack seats ran from Villefranche along the Pyrenees, leaving the almond trees behind as it climbed to its precarious viaducts, clicking its way round the Spanish enclave and back into French territory at La Tour de Carol where the night train for Paris awaited, vast in the tiny station perched high in the mountains.

I was too late for the steam trains, but I did travel on the first of the TGVs, from Lyon to Paris, and remember thinking how cramped they were and how disappointing it was not to be able to see the countryside, just a blur beyond the windows, but they were designed for speed, not for sightseeing, unlike the slow, all stops cross country trains, now all but disappeared or replaced by infrequent buses, where people straightened up from their work to wave to the driver and the guard loaded and unloaded little parcels at every stop.

I enjoyed those trips....later, with a bit more money and a car I drove over to France, but it was never quite the same. I suppose it was never to be the same again. I had swapped mass transport for the individual cocoon of the car, with its' differing imperatives, and now I moan when I have to clamber up into the carriages of the few, if high tech, trains which are left.
And the drains at Calais no longer smell.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

This is the age of the train.....

Record-breaking TGV V150 train on a barge on t...Image via Wikipedia
We are going to stay with friends and must gird our loins for the journey. I don't know why people are always going on about how wonderful public transport is in France...out here, out in the sticks, there isn't any. No street lights either, but I digress. We have had to reserve our ticket yonks in advance to get something we can afford. Not being an area frequented by holidaying politicians, etc, there are not many good offers either, and there is the small problem of booking online and having to retrieve the ticket at the station - always a dicey maneouvre when short of time, fifth in the queue and the woman at the head of it wants information on train times to Marseilles for a proposed holiday in three months' time. It might take us those three months to get to the head of the queue. To avoid having to leave the car in the station car park where it will be vandalised friends have to take us to catch the local train...a mere forty minutes' drive the ungodly hour ordained by French railways, SNCF, if we are to make a reasonable connection to Paris, rather than making endless changes and waiting about on passenger unfriendly platforms. I don't know what they think a terrorist might do with a bench, but they must think they'd do something, so the old benches are disappearing and you end up having to sit on a plastic bucket type of thing in the waiting area.

The train, to be fair, will be a comfortable push me pull you, well, it is after you haul yourself and suitcase up the steps into the carriage from the platform. You can feel like the daring young man on the flying trapeze as you reach backwards for the suitcase to be handed to you...the alternative being to practise tossing the caber and launching the thing ahead of you up the steps, a good recipe for a hernia, in my book. Why do the French think we invented platforms, for goodness' sake? None of this problem on a British train.

The mainline train will be a TGV, so fast that the countryside is a blur beyond the window, except when the catenaries are down or someone has left a few tons of straw bales on the line, in which case you repair to the buffet car so that the interior of the train becomes a blur instead. It has the same problem with steps, and an infuriating luggage rack just inside the vestibule, so that you can't see your luggage and get a crick in the neck from turning round every time there is some movement in the carriage in case some enterprising fellow traveller is making off with your smalls. It is comfortable, your seat is reserved and if you have forgotten to punch your ticket before getting on you will be fined by the conductor. SNCF also have a delightful wheeze if you buy a last minute ticket....they will sell you one at full price without a seat number, despite their policy that all seats must be reserved to ensure that no one stands! I have travelled down from Paris hopping from unoccupied seat to unoccupied seat as people came and left at various stations, but, having varied viewpoints, did not on this occasion get a crick in the neck watching my luggage.

Then, the horror. We will have to cross Paris. Always supposing that the trains and the busses are not on strike, which some of them inevitably will be. We were trained on the London tube with its' wonderful map and its' sensibly named lines and what will now face us is a journey in which we shall walk for miles looking for place names that mean nothing to determine that we are travelling in the right direction, have to change three times at least, so more walking miles looking for place names and then will probably get stuck in those alarming doors that clang as you leave a station. Worse, there will inevitably be an Irish band playing in our carriage...and probably in all the carriages we use.

We will eventually arrive at the Paris terminal for our friends' line, go through the ticket punching and caber tossing again, get a crick in the neck, and descend, exhausted, to be met by these kind people at the main line station. They are making the long drive to pick us up as their push me pull you won't be running by the time we arrive in their area, nor is it as good as our reminds me of the old British Rail poster at the station I used to use...'This is the age of the train'...under which someone had written 'Mine was one hundred and four.'

We are looking forward to seeing has been a long time...but we reckon we'll need the holiday to recover from the journey as we will feel as old as the train.

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Monday 12 October 2009

France's Profumo moment...

Frédéric MitterandImage by Feuillu via Flickr

In the early 1960s in the U.K., the right wing, the Conservative Party, were in power under the leadership of Harold MacMillan, nicknamed Supermac, famed for informing the British people that they had never had it so good. The left wing, the Labour Party, were torn apart by internal strife and provided no effective opposition. Everything seemed to be going MacMillan's way, and then, in times of growing discontent with the economy, a sex scandal hit the news. A cabinet minister, suspected of extra marital relations with a young woman who was also having the same sort of relations with an official at the Russian Embassy, denied to the House of Commons that this had taken place. As more details became available, he was forced to apologise to the House for lying to it...the one unpardonable crime that a minister could then commit...and was obliged to resign.
The establishment fell over itself in revenge on the minor actors in the drama, two somewhat lively young ladies and a society osteopath who acted as the go between. So virulent was the reaction of the authorities that the latter, Stephen Ward, committed suicide during his trial.
But the incident, almost banal in itself, marked a change of public attitude...the people at large lost any confidence in the establishment. Whatever sort of people were running the country? Supermac was no longer trusted...satirical programmes found a ready audience...Britain was ready for change and the Labour Party managed to pull itself together under Harold Wilson to take advantage of the moment.

Let us move forward to 2009 and to France. Sarkozy is well in the driving seat with no effective opposition. The left wing, the PS, is in disarray, its' leaders quarrelling over the disposition of the carcass of the party. What can go wrong for Sarkozy?
Mitterand. Frederic Mitterand, that's what could go wrong for Sarkozy.

Mitterand finds himself at the centre of controversy about his self proclaimed sexual proclivities and he, with the French establishment solidly behind him, is determined to brazen it out. Those who have attacked him have come under heavy fire for being everything from homophobes to racists via holier than thou...the sanctity of the private lives of politicans has been invoked, the media swinging into line with headlines screaming that 67 per cent of the French don't consider that Mitterand should resign while heavyweight pundits roar into action to attack his detractors. But the public don't appear to be impressed. The poll, taken for Canal+, I think, had only 1005 participants and the comment columns in the press don't accord with its' findings.

However, the interesting point is that Mitterand himself appears almost secondary. The controversy has brought into question everything about the way things are run in France....people are beginning to get indignant. Whatever sort of people are running the country?
Hard times always bring discontent, and times are certainly harder than they have been for years, but normally the French are supine...mostly because they know all too well what putting your head above the parapet brings you...victimisation. However, some things cannot be borne and that such a man can be made a government minister has roused a considerable sight more than discontent - it has roused disgust. Allied to the incredible stupidity of trying to appoint a 24 year old unsuccessful law student as head of a billion euro public enterprise and the massive waste of public money on the Clearstream trial, to settle the scores between rival politicans, the issue has brought people out of their trenches. People have had enough of Paris centred views, divorced from the reality of life in the country as a whole. People want an end to the old cry of
'Nous sommes pour rien' - we count for nothing.

Nothing happens very fast when a nation changes course, but change does happen and France needs change very badly.

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Sunday 11 October 2009

Son of Sarkozy scoots to the top

La DefenceImage by Niklas Jakobsen via Flickr

Nepotism has a long history and a great future ahead of it, so Sarkozy junior canot be blamed for going with the flow and allowing himself to be put forward as the next head of the body which administers La Defence, the modern business centre of Paris. Sarkozy senior cannot be blamed for pushing forward his progeny...after all, he thinks that in the aftermath of the banking crisis he can make Paris, not London, the business centre of Europe, so what better than to have someone reliable in place to carry on the good work he did himself in the period when he ran EPAD, as the body is known.

There are a few problems with public opinion as Sarkozy junior, Jean, is only in his early twenties, is still studying law while his only political experience has been two years as a councillor in well heeled Neuilly, where his father was mayor before him. There is further depth to the agenda, in that Sarkozy is trying to bring about electoral change by developing a 'Greater Paris' region in which his party, the UMP, would have the advantage, thus breaking the hegemony of the left wing, the PS, in Paris and the Ile de France, and the proposed appointment of his son is seen as part of the scheme.

As young Sarkozy turns aside criticism by asking to be judged on his acts, I have decided to do just that and I find him wanting. In 2005, someone riding his scooter ran into the back of a car in Paris. The driver had nothing but problems in pursuing what was, after all, a banal traffic case, simply because the owner of the scooter was Jean Sarkozy, son of the then interior minister and, oddly enough was a law student as far back as that. I know French higher education goes on a bit, but is there a chance he is a bit dense? Or preoccupied? Or something?
The driver, Monsieur Bellouti, was the victim of threatening telephone calls and dirty tricks, notably by the Sarkozy family lawyer, Maitre Herzog, who impersonated Monsieur Bellouti's lawyer to get information from Monsieur Bellouti's insurance company. This is the same Maitre Herzog who is representing President Sarkozy in the Clearstream affair, so I hope de Villepin has warned his advisors to keep a close eye on the telephone calls.
When the case came to court, Jean Sarkozy said he was at a lecture at the time and that he had not lent his scooter to anyone, upon which resounding declaration of innocence, the court awarded Sarkozy junior damages of 2,000 Euros, and announced that Monsieur Belloutti had brought a malicious prosecution.

If Sarkozy junior will go to these lengths to avoid a trivial insurance claim, then for my money he is not the man to have in charge of a vital public enterprise where there is potentially a lot more at stake. Potential investors beware! Make a claim against EPAD on the grounds that their water features caused your window frames to rust and don't be surprised if you have the goons at the door.......and Maitre Herzog on the telephone.

There was a sort of happier ending for Monsieur Bellouti which you can see here.
or if the link doesn't work, it is a post from shortly after the blog began.

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Thursday 8 October 2009

Cometh the post. cometh the news.....

The PostmanImage by Tobyotter via Flickr

The postlady has been bringing me up to date on what has been happening during her week's holiday. Her replacement, poor harassed soul, has had no time to gossip as she, unlike the regular lady, does not have the status of a government job for life, only a normal contract and thus is much more under the thumb of the new boss at the post office. He can't sack her, this being France, after all, but he can nag about the time she takes to do the round.

Life at La Poste is not what it was. When it was a proper public service, the postmen and women would go out of their way to check on elderly people, letters or no letters, and my first postman was trustee for several who were held to be incapable of managing their own affairs. Now La Poste is to be privatised, despite the vast 'referendum' campaign mounted to keep it in the public sector and there are worries that it will go the same way as EDF, which has been in the news after staff have been comitting suicide, such is the pressure to achieve targets. My postlady is unimpressed. She has the guarentee of a job for life, if not with La Poste then with some other state organisation and in the meantime she does her round as she sees fit, calling on all the elderly at least once a week.

Apart from the health bulletin on all the unwell of the area, the startling news that Madame Lebon had been baring her breast in the chemist's shop and the latest mistake made by the local notaire - he had managed to sell a house to an American together with two fields which did not belong to it - most of the news concerned the farming fraternity.
There have been ructions for some time about the price farmers are paid for their milk by the distributors, and there have been all sorts of protests ranging from ransacking the shelves of the supermarkets so there is no milk to buy, blockading the distribution plants, pouring milk on the fields and, finally, giving it away, either on market day or at the farm gate. Needless to say, the government is taking action both in Brussels and in France, and there is an offer of an improved price in the air. At this point, the milk producers are divided. Some want to accept the offer, others are holding out for a price which they claim more fairly reflects their cost of production. The divisions are acrimonious and last week the local farms giving away milk were targeted...their notices torn down and in one case, both notice and the straw bale on which it was sitting being set alight, damaging the hedge alongside. No one thinks that it is anyone other than a milk producer who wants to accept the offer......the question is, which one? Someone is bound to have seen him, or his car, but will that someone talk? If they do, I shall hear all about it from the postlady.

Another bright spark has been in trouble with the courts as he was untidy enough to leave over twenty rotting sheep carcases along the watercourse on his land - where they could be seen. Majority opinion is that they were so weak when they arrived that they died trying to get something to drink, as his speciality is buying sheep that are going to the knacker's yard, then fattening them up for sale! No enquiry into the welfare of the animals, but a fine for polluting the watercourse. This is the same bright spark who made a living for years selling 'local' lamb...his name and his farm proudly displayed on the supermarket counter. Now, the French will always buy French produce rather than foreign and local rather than national, so he was on to a winner. I have seen New Zealand lamb - chilled, not frozen - French lamb and his lamb all on sale concurrently, and his stuff was flying off the shelves at top dollar. It did look nice lamb, not all long shanked like the normal French stuff, but, for the price, I stuck with the New Zealand. Then came mad cow disease when not only beef but also lamb imports from the U.K. were banned in France and, suddenly, his lamb no longer appeared on the shelves. Monsieur had been buying live sheep in Wales, shipping them over to spend a week on his land, and had then sold them on as local produce! No wonder it had looked so good.

He isn't unique. I think it was last year - because this year there has been some sort of oyster plague - oyster producers down the Atlantic coast were the object of legal action, for importing oysters from Ireland, keeping them in their tanks for a while and selling them on as local produce. The courts finally decided that they were entitled to do so. It makes a nonsense of all the fuss about unique local habitats which is used to push up the prices, but the oyster producers were happy.
French purchasing habits never cease to astonish me. Take tomatoes. In the winter, there are the anaemic, tasteless products of the Nantes glasshouses sitting alongside ripe fruits from Morocco...they buy French! I once saw an offer of T bone steaks from Ireland - wonderful, marbled objects - at half the price of the miserable French offerings.....guess which product was shifting! You really do start to wonder if all this propaganda about the French really knowing about food is just that...propaganda.

Still, back on the farming front, there is a project to install a windfarm, paying undisclosed sums to the farmers who own the land. There is a lotissement - a housing estate - just under the site proposed and the inhabitants are, not surprisingly, kicking up. They don't want it. The two farmers involved have been 'visiting' the protesters, to make it clear that they do not want formal remains to be seen whether some forty families weigh more than two farmers in the French system. One thing is for sure, it wouldn't be any good complaining about harassment to the gendarmerie.
Personally I think that windfarms are a con...I have deep suspicions about the green lobby and the commerce which lies behind it...and to contaminate the landscape with these horrors is to me an aesthetic crime.

The postlady goes on her way with the addition of my contribution to the speaking newspaper. I have at last found a lawyer to sue the hospital that nearly killed my husband last year.

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Thank you again, Ayak

Thank you, Ayak.
I have been trying to do something clever and put all the awards on one side of my blog, but, head boiling, bad language and throwing of heavy items notwithstanding, I couldn't do it, so, apologies for the delay in putting this up.
I'm working on links...water is boiling on the hob as I write....and what about links to my own past posts?
You know, you're going to regret giving me awards...I always come back with a demand for a tutorial! It's not your fault I am so dense!
I'm missing your blog while you prepare for your trip, but you will be forgiven if you return with a few more pics of Billy.

I would like to suggest three blogs which I enjoy very much.

And I still think so

This is always varied but unvaryingly well written. Addictive.

France and the unknown

A lovely honest blog about settling down in France, with a special resonance for anyone who loves and cares about animals.

Pearl, why you little

The title says it all! I laugh and learn...especially new words like 'exit wound' to describe the intensity of a chilli......

I hope you visit these sites and enjoy them as much as I do.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Sarkozy's idea of culture

Où sont leurs Droits ?Image by Romain [ ] via Flickr

I shall have to go to the public library in the nearest big town, and have telephoned the chief librarian, for this is how things are done in France, to find, reserve and sit upon a copy of a book published by Frederic Mitterand, nephew of the late President Mitterand and currently Minister for Culture and outdated treatment of domestic staff. Under no circumstances will I be buying it, but I want to read, not only the excerpt about which so much fuss is being made, but the whole book. My one fear is that, from the style of the excerpt so far quoted, it will be one of those ghastly inch by inch inspections of the navel indulged in by the well connected nonentities who so often crawl to the heights in our society, and I shall be obliged to return the book earlier than planned, thus mucking up my economy shopping schedule.

Now, in French politics it is a given that anything proposed or done by the 'Front National' has to be either ignored or treated as if one had accidentally trodden in something unmentionable. Given this clue, you will have realised that the FN is a right wing party whose policy is that France is for the French. Speaking as an outsider, I think that is the policy of all French political parties, it's just that the rest don't make it so obvious. Whiffs of anti semitism used to emanate from the party, but as they seem also to be against everyone else outside France and anyone inside France who can't show they were descended from Joan of Arc's granny, I don't get too worried about it. I don't know if anyone remembers seeing the First World War cartoon of 'the morning hate', with the Prussian junker family sitting around the breakfast table in glowering unity, but that seems to sum up the attitude of the FN. Whatever it is, they're agin it. However so widespread are their targets that you can't take it to heart.
Except that one of their targets has.

Frederic Mitterand.

When the film director Roman Polanski was copped in Switzerland on a warrant from the Americans concerning sex with an underage girl, Mitterand blew his top. Polanski, after all, had French citizenship. Polanski was an artist. Polanski had suffered enough. He had lost family in the Nazi death camps. His wife had been murdered by the Manson gang. As Minister for Culture, Mitterand aligned himself firmly with all the artists and celebrities who seem to think that one's talent exempts one from punishment for unlawful acts.
It didn't go down too well in the country at large, and in the supporters of the ruling right wing UMP party in particular. You could see them thinking
'Well, the next time someone comes to court for touching up little girls in the swimming baths, he'll be claiming that he has been punished enough....his grandfather did forced labour in Germany....and he paints pictures that the council, with no sense of artistic discrimination, wash off the walls.'
The UMP is against touching up little girls, let alone what Polanski is supposed to have done to one. I think most people anywhere are against it and want it stopped. As they do the child sex trade in Thailand. France has in fact prosecuted people guilty of participating in this filthy business on their return to France.

Now we return to the book, 'La Mauvaise Vie'. Published in 2005, part of it deals, apparently, with Mitterand's sexual preferences and practices, including his experiences in Thailand, and would appear to make him as guilty as those whom France has already punished for such activities. They are punished, but he is in power.

The leader of the FN, Marine Le Pen, read an excerpt from the book on national television and called for Mitterand's dismissal. I shouldn't think most people even knew that the book existed up until that moment and, casting my mind back, I can't say that I recall reading any reviews, either, but I do tend to cut out whole areas of stuff that doesn't appeal to me when I go through the papers. It might have made a stir in 'precious' circles, but clearly not in the nation at large, although ignorance of the literary reviews is no excuse for appointing such a person a minister.

The first reaction in high circles? Well, as always, where the FN is concerned, ignore will go away. No reporting in the Figaro.
Questioned by journalists, Mitterand shrugged it off

'It's an honour to have your name dragged through the mud by the FN.'

Then, it seems, the Socialist Party - PS - decided to break ranks. Their spokesperson, while uttering the phrases of revulsion obligatory when mentioning the FN, concurred with them that Mitterand should be held to account for his activities. Now, the PS has always claimed some intellectuals in its' ranks, and certainly has plenty of campaigners against exploitation of children, so why is it that Mitterand's proclivities and activities passed them by?

Only the cynical would observe that he was a member of the PS.
Only the cynical would observe that he broke ranks with the PS when he accepted Sarkozy's offer of a job in government.
Only the cynical would observe that the PS suddenly wakes up to all this when it has a chance of a bit of political infighting.

I don't care for the witch hunt which will surely start up. Mitterand's proclivities were known when he was appointed, but he will inevitably be thrown to the wolves.
The responsibility lies with the main political parties, the PS and the UMP. The former should never have allowed him to come to his somewhat limited prominence and the latter should never have allowed him to be appointed to government. Weasel words about the law not having been in effect when he was enjoying himself in Thailand excuse nothing.

The worrying thing is that it has to be left to the 'outcast' party, the FN, to bring the matter to public attention. They have been agitating since he was appointed, and while one cannot exclude political infighting from their motivation either, at least they did something while main stream politics sat on its' hands.
I would be happier with the state of our society and government if the newspapers would turn their attention to just how divorced the ruling caste have become from the people they rule, as evidenced by this man's rise to prominence, rather than turning the spotlight on the man himself, but, as always, uncomfortable questions are never addressed. If it were the child of one of our rulers being abused, no stone would be left unturned to find and punish the perpetrator...but if it is one of their own abusing a child of the caste they rule, then it can be passed off with a shrug. A child is a child, wherever or whoever they are, but our rulers don't appear to understand this.

So why am I ordering the book from the library? Well, to see whether there is any basis at all for the claim that he is describing what took place in his imagination, though from the excerpts I've seen in the press that would be a very long shot indeed, but also rather in the same spirit that, as a child in my aunt's house, I used to read the sheets of 'The News of the World' spread over the floor when it had been washed. Horrified fascination with the unknown. However, I have a feeling that the book will produce the same effect as that of the lurid revelations of activity in turkish bath houses used to do... distaste followed by boredom. I shall probably be echoing the words of that immortal journal's investigators
'I made an excuse and left.....'

Pity Mitterand didn't.

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Saturday 3 October 2009

Po faced in Poitou and Tits up in Touraine

The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown.Image via Wikipedia

The books about expat life in France, left me by my summer visitors, have been found a new home with a friend as there are none which I will want to read again. I was never even a fan of Peter Mayle, so I suppose the only one which I ever really enjoyed was the period piece by Lady Fortescue, 'Perfume from Provence'. Nothing in the last batch matches up to it. If you really want a book to tell you what life in France is like, then you need to read 'Clochemerle'. Nothing has changed, but then, that was written by an insider...a Frenchman.Friend is having a super time finding out, like me, that she lives in a different country from the one being described but, being generally a more sociable soul, she is able to relate the books and their message to the expat community in her area...she goes to meetings, walks, book clubs, lunches, BBQs and quiz nights catered by the fish and chip van, although she does admit that doing so is good PR for her business, otherwise she might not be so tempted - except by the fish and chip van.

Apparently, there really are people who religiously go down to the bakery to buy croissants for breakfast every day,visit cafes when they do not even have visitors to drag them there and go to the local market. There are even people who go out to restaurants in the evenings...even when it's just the two of them.....travelling miles to do so. One of the biggest howls from the expats tightening their belts in the wake of the drop in the value of the pound against the euro was that it would not be possible to eat out so often....not a high priority for survival in my book. It is one of the reasons that I don't take too seriously the tales of penniless British expats heading for the Chunnel for the safety of England, home and beauty, eager to unload their property at bargain prices at the sight of folding money. Yet another estate agents' tale to make a commission, any commission, at any price, by pushing down prices with scare stories. There are always people who move to France, find it is not to their liking and move back or on...and I wonder if, rather than regarding them as the 'failures', as seems to be the case on the gin and tonic circuit, they might not be better regarded as the 'realists'.

When something isn't working, in business, politics or life in general, it's best to cut your losses and get out of it, but that generally isn't what happens. Egos are involved...loss of worthless projects run on into the sand, swallowing money and enthusiasm as they go. It's true for government....look at all the 'czars' and 'initiatives' which end up not, as they deserve, being terminated but carrying on in truncated form to no good end. Business is no better, shareholder control being but an unsavoury joke, since the major shareholders are other institutions with a similar mindset to that of the board of the directors. Why people spent decades worrying about workers' wage demands I do not know...what we have today is employees awarding themselves pay rates and bonuses out of all proportion to the value of their work to the company, but it seems to be all right if these employees are called chief executives, chief finance officers and all the rest of the bloodsucking gallimaufry. It took hordes of trade unionists to bring companies to their it only takes a corrrupt and greedy duo or trio at the top to achieve the same end.
If a move to France works for you, that is great, but if it doesn't, for whatever reason, then why stick with it? There's no shame in having been wrong and a lot to respect about people who accept that an idea was a mistake and get on with the rest of their lives, so why is the gin and tonic circuit so scathing? I think it says more about the G and Ts than about the realists.

The worst day's work I ever did in France, far outweighing upsetting a local politician, was to be involved on the fringes of the G and Ts. It was for a short period and long in the past, but the unpleasantness of it lingers still.
French friends sold their house to an English couple and gave them my name for someone to turn to if they needed help. They were and are a nice pair and we met up from time to time when they were in France on holiday. Then things became complicated. The G and Ts in their area made themselves known and before they knew it they were in on the socialising scene...the British invasion of rural France being then in full swing, although at that time it was mostly people buying holiday houses, not people moving permanently. By accepting the couple's invitations, I began to meet this new crowd, among whom were some very pleasant people, though others, permanent residents, made me distinctly wary. Most were involved with local estate agents and were providing services to the holiday home owners....but the relation was not one of employer and worker, it was quite the reverse. When we studied classical Rome, we learned of the practice of clientism...the influential man, the patron, with his followers, the clients, rather like the workings of the Mafia - you have a problem, the big man sorts it out, you owe the big man - and what was going on resembled this to me.
In reality, the holiday home owners were keeping the service providers afloat, but in practice, the service providers ran the show and offending them put you out in the cold. You will need no telling who it was who managed to offend them. The whole thing runs on a recognition of the pecking order and a unified vision of what the group is about and the dissident is not wanted on voyage. Not having quite the power of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, however, the vision canot be reinforced by sending in the tanks, so the patrons have to resort to other means to discredit the dissident...gossip and lies. The exclusion has two functions - there is no threat to the unifying vision from within and the group members will distrust anything the dissident says from without, so the show can continue undisturbed. I got it in spades!
This, I think, is why the G and T circuit mocks and disparages those who leave France....their action threatens the group vision which supports the 'patrons' and their source of income.

This may be also why so many of the British expats are so po faced about fitting in in France - it is an article of faith that one has done the right thing in moving, so everything about the move must be right too. Suggest that a law or a policy is unfair, and the bricks start to fly...
'Moving to France means you respect the way the French do things...'
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Start asking which French are doing things and you end up with the same divide between ruling and subject castes that you find in any society. I can't see why a system should not be subject to criticism and analysis, either. French friends criticise endlessly and as I pay taxes, I think I have the same right to kick up about what is done with my money.
It's not even safe in some circles to say that you like baked beans from the U.K., while admitting to importing Marmite calls for the restoration of the guillotine! When these people start pontificating about French food, I feel like offering them my books of traditional recipes - scalding live lampreys, a thousand things to do with pigs' blood, duck gizzards and other tasty morsels - except that, not bothering to learn French, they could not appreciate the wonder of it all.
However, the expats are now facing a dilemma...or they would be if they could read the newspapers. President Chirac was given a dog, a bichon, by his grandson, while he was still at the Elysee Palace. Since leaving office, he has moved to a duplex in a good area of Paris where he lives rent free thanks to the generosity of foreign friends...but there is no garden! The bichon has allegedly become aggressive, and after a couple of incidents, managed to leap at Chirac and bite him in the stomach, drawing blood. The dog is being sent away.
Do the expats think that this is all right, that it is the French way to do things, or do they think the British way and think that someone should have a word with the Chiracs? How will the group vision react? One also wonders whatever is going on in the Chirac household, but that is by the by.

The summer books have had one positive effect. They have started friends on the search for suitable titles for future expat sagas....two of which lead this post. All that remains is to call for volunteers to write them.

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Thursday 1 October 2009

Dirty water wars

Revolution!Image by docman via Flickr

It's been a funny year again...the river didn't drop as low as a few years ago when I could cross almost dryshod, but it was possible to cut up and remove a lot of the dead trees brought down over the last winter which were blocking the river bed. Some readers may recall that there was a European Union grant to do just this, but, having paid for the 'study' and for the 'democratic participation', there wasn't much money left to do the work,so, as usual, we end up doing it ourselves.

With 2015 and an EU deadline on clean water coming up, there is a lot of activity about the great clean up, and a great deal of disgruntlement as well.

Let's revisit sewage wars. Local water authorities have taken over responsibility for the disposal of waste in a seemly manner, but problems have arisen about what to do about houses and installations which are miles from anywhere. We have all been paying a contribution on our water bills towards installing sewage stations, from which we have no benefit whatsoever, and the water board's proposal to inspect our individual disposal systems - at a price - and decide whether we are within the ever changing 'norms' are not going down too well. Quite apart from the time it is taking. Prospective purchasers are very wary of buying a house in a commune that has not been inspected in case they end up with a bill for putting the septic tank in order, while rumours - via the postlady's colleague - from a neighbouring commune that has been inspected indicate that French beaurocracy is excelling itself yet again. Two residents have been told that they do not have installations at all, even though they can lift the lids and point to the very real existence of same, so are slated to put in new septic tanks at vast expense, not to speak of the delays in getting the artisan francais to get off his backside and do the work before the deadline expires. What happens if they miss the deadline? Fines, that's least so the postlady's colleague says. Others, notably one whose entire waste runs into a ditch on the approaches to St. Ragondin, are declared to be in the 'norms' when everyone knows that they are not, and the lack of confidence in the whole operation is so palpable that an association is to be formed, to haul the water board chief down to explain himself.
The majority view is that the water board took on responsibility for sorting out the sewage, the water board has been taking our money to build sewage plants and it's down to the water board to sort things out for the rest of us without further charge. There wouldn't be so much opposition normally - the rural French are pretty spineless, after all - but times are hard, the taxe fonciere has just come in to startled intakes of breath, and the Green Tax is about to strike.
An association in another canton has just had the pleasure of interviewing the water board chief, and by the reports in the local rag it was an exciting evening. This being France, I am not convinced we will get anywhere, but it will be fun to have an evening of beaurocrat baiting.

Then we turn back to the rivers. We used to have a prefet - Paris's man in the department to see what local government is up to and tell it to stop it - who was quite clued up on the nature of rivers. He felt that they should have water in them and was quite strict about imposing bans on irrigation by farmers. The regional prefet - Paris's man in the region to etc. - sees rivers differently. He sees them as existing even when they don't have water in them and has been overturning the departmental prefet's bans. He has now managed to overturn the departmental prefet himself, who has departed for some cupboard in Limoges. The regional prefet has been explaining that the problem is one of drought, not competition for use, that next year will probably be wetter and that the problem will thus go away of its' own accord without the need to upset the farmers. One thing is for sure, a regional prefet with a farmers' revolt on his hands will soon also be in a cupboard in Limoges.

Meantime, there is a scheme to clean up the rivers without upsetting farmers. Most of the existing weirs are slated to be destroyed, thus giving much longer stretches to enable water to clean itself. At least, that is what the river technician said when he came round. We shall hear more at the public meeting - and a great deal as well from the outraged fishing lobby. No very enviable position for a French beaurocrat, caught between farmers and fishermen, so that's another evening of bloodsport.

And people ask what we find to do in the countryside in winter......
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