Thursday, 31 January 2013

Musings on teaching English to French adults

And speak it you shall, dammit!!!
A substantial number of native English speakers who come to live in France teach English to French people to earn money at one time or another. Teaching work is easy to find in the private sector, so depending on one's circumstances it can be a tempting option, despite the relatively low pay.

And that's why back in the early 90's I used to teach English full-time to all kinds of company staff, from salespeople to CEO's, although I teach much less these days as I decided in the mid-Nineties that freelance translating would be much more profitable. I was right about the profitability aspect of my work but I still enjoy the few hours of teaching I do each week.

As time went by I became aware of two things.

Firstly, trainees with a relatively low level often came up with the same three reasons to explain why they found it difficult to learn English. In fact these reasons were evoked so often and expressed using such similar vocabulary that it was almost uncanny. It was as if they had all been taught to repeat them in the same mantric manner, by some language god in French heaven.

It soon became obvious that these obstacles had to be addressed in order for progress to be made, and so the second thing I realised was that the only way to overcome them was not just by using 'teaching' methods, but also by using humour and reasoned argument in tandem with a tiny hint of provocation.

The issues were the following.
'Je bloque' - which, in this context, means 'I freeze' or 'I have a mental block', when it comes to speaking English.
'Les Français sont nuls en langues' or 'the French are bad at learning languages'.
'Mon accent est nul' - 'I have a lousy accent.'

So, let's take a look at them, one by one. (Oh, and I'd like to stress that what follows does not pretend to be pedagogically proven or viable, it's just an informal look at my way of doing things, which trainees would often tell me had helped them.)

In comes a low-intermediate level trainee for her first session. Lets call her Nicole. Nicole explains before we begin that she can write and read English much better than she can speak it. 'And why is that do you think?' I ask. 'Je bloque.' And she, like everyone else, says it in French, before going on to say that this is because she is afraid of making mistakes and making herself look ridiculous.

Now I happen to think that the best way to get round this is to dig a little deeper into why she is afraid and deal with it. So I go for the jugular and bluntly say that it's because of the French education system, which is notorious for sanctioning errors quickly and being parcimonious with praise. She probably got told she was 'nul' - 'useless' at school more times than I've downed a beer in my life. So I tell her that this is not school and we're adults who are here to achieve an objective and to be objective in doing so. There's no-one to laugh at her here, and no-one to criticise her either. Mistakes are not only permitted, they are inevitable and welcome because they indicate to me what areas we should be working on. I tell her that there are only two kinds of French people who make no mistakes in English, and they are perfectly bilingual people - and there are no more than a few thousand of them in the whole country - and those who refuse to say a single word. Trainees need to feel at ease whilst using English and learn to be confident that they will eventually - and almost certainly - speak much better English if they use it as much as possible and enjoy doing so. That's how I deal with this issue. It's not only about using books and pedagogical methods in my view, it also has to do with gaining people's confidence and working not within a trainer/trainee context, but as a team who are trying to reach the same objectives together.

Here's Laurent. He's just turned up for his first lesson. He has the same level as Nicole. He says that he finds English grammar to be very difficult, adding that he's not surprised because 'everybody knows' that 'les Français sont nul en langues.' This too I have heard countless times over the years, not just said by trainees, but friends and acquaintances too. There are so many reasons why Laurent is wrong that if those reasons were goals in a football match, the result would be 10-0. I tend to find a little humour mixed in with a hint of gentle provocation to be very useful in this situation.

'Ah', I say, 'I didn't know that the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and just about everybody else on the planet is more intelligent than the French.' And Laurent, like most other peple, says that no, the French are just as intelligent, but it's not that, it's because English is badly taught in French schools. Ah, NOW we're getting somewhere. So I explain that I agree, but that this isn't school. Then I explain that English isn't just about grammar and structures, as the education system still believes, it's also - and mainly - about expressing oneself happy in the knowledge that by doing so one will become more confident and using grammar correctly comes naturally if people use the language instead of merely 'studying' it. Besides, I add, the fact that the French way of teaching languages, and that includes French itself, implies a heavy accent on grammar, whereas that's not the case in many other countries. This ironically means that French people's theoretical knowledge of grammar and structures and how they work is more extensive than that of others, so for the French to say that they are naturally bad at languages and grammar doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, because they have an advantage over other learners in these areas.

Laurent's real problem, as was the case for Nicole, isn't the language, but fear of failure. So he needs to relax and have fun using English and I tell him that we will be speaking English in lessons much more than 'studying' it. Work, football, politics, women, food, I don't care what we talk about, but talk we shall, and it's my job to make it fun so he will look forward to his lessons. And he will mechanically improve his level if he uses this approach.

New trainee Danielle has a different problem. She says that her 'accent is awful.' She adds that 'everyone knows' that the French have an atrocious accent when they speak English. Now let me tell you that if I had been given €10 for every time I have heard that I'd be a millionaire! Again, a little goading and humour can do wonders.

'I see' I say, straight-faced and mock-surprised. 'So if you're saying that you must know a lot about the English accent. You must have lived in an English-speaking country for years to know that, or taught English to a lot of French people. I wasn't told that. I was told you had a relatively low level.' Danielle says that she has a low level, that she has never lived abroad, that she has never taught English and that she has hardly ever heard other French people using English. 'Oh', I say, fun-maliciously, 'so you don't in fact know much about English accents then? Fine. But - and luckily for you - I do, so how about if I give you my humble take on that?' And I tell her that I'm English, I have spoken it with thousands of French people, and like most English people, I adore the French accent. Danielle is surprised. And she's even more surprised when I tell her that - and this is at least partially if not entirely true - every time I hear a French woman speaking English I fall instantly in love with her, although I switch that button off when I'm teaching, don't worry. Besides, look at it the other way round. I may be pretty much bilingual but there are still traces of my English accent. Do I do anything to improve that? No, because people often tell me that my accent is 'charmant', and seeing as I appreciate a little flattery now and again just as much as the next person I see no reason why I should bust a gut to have a perfect accent.

This 'bad accent' thing is strange. I have no idea why so many French people say that. Trainees need to work on their accent, of course, but as long as their accent is good enough for them to be understood it's not a big issue. And, yet again, the best way to improve is to speak English as much as possible and listen to as much English as possible. Technical lessons on accent help, sure, but they're not everything, and confidence is, as usual, just as important.

Anyway, those are my ideas about the three most common reasons that I was given by trainees to explain whay they had, or believed they had, difficulties learning English. As I said above, I'm no expert in pure pedagogical subjects but it does seen to me that many of the 'problems' people say they have with learning English aren't really problems at all in a linguistic sense. The sheer number of times that I have heard people say this kind of thing about English, and saying it in an almost identical way, makes me suspect that they may be more akin to popular myths that people have heard so many times that they end up believing them.

So the best way to tackle them is head-on with the help of a little chiding and teasing, analysis and humour, and a LOT of encouragement, all of it designed to break these unfounded ideas down to nothing and start again by instilling the kind of confidence in English learners that persuades them that they can be just as good at English as anyone else.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Gay marriage will be legalised and it's all over bar the shouting

Christiane Taubira, French Minister of Justice
After seven months of noisy for-or-against demonstrations, impassioned speeches, angry slanging matches and media stunts, the bitter debate on gay marriage entered its last phase yesterday with the opening of the official parliamentary debate, which will last for four weeks and culminate in a vote.

The opening speech, in support of the bill, was made by Justice minister Christiane Taubira, and what a speech it was. Taubira's reputation as a turbulent free-thinker within the government may have had some Socialists fearing a tirade of non-party-line personal views before she stood up to begin her speech, but their fears were instantly allayed by what turned out to be an eloquent discourse of very high quality which she delivered without notes. It lasted 35 minutes and she fully deserved the standing ovation which followed her closing remarks. It was more than a hard act to follow and sure enough, the opposition's subsequent speeches sounded lame and hackneyed in comparison.

Nouvelobs political commentator Thierry de Cabarrys summed up her performance rather well by writing that she "...left the opposition, which was quick to heckle her at the start, with no way of challenging her arguments, which, one after the other, referred to the bill in historical and legal, but also republican, human and poetic terms."

The run up to this debate had led us to believe that it would be the four-week political equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo and a Custer's Last Stand for the opposition, who promised to throw everything into the fight. French parliamentary rules allow for amendments to a bill to be proposed by its opponents and debated, and the opposition had made it clear that they would adopt a filibustering tactic consisting of the submission of 5000 mostly spurious so-called amendments in an effort to try to drag the debate out at worst, or, better still, force the government to abandon their plans.

But two sets of circumstances seem to have taken the wind out of their sails. Firstly, there was a massive, almost surprising, show of solidarity by the Socialists, who were almost all present. This is a rare sight in Socialist circles, the party being notorious for its internal divisions and squabbling, so any hopes the opposition may have had of putting them off their stride were dashed from the start.

The second factor is that it became evident yesterday that the last few months of bitter in-fighting between various opposition factions, due mainly to the suicidal party leadership spat between Jean-François Copé and François Fillon, has left rank-and-file députés disoriented by the lack of a clear party line on Gay marriage. This explains the conspicuous absence of a good number of opposition députés in parliament yesterday, and the bedraggled ranks of those who did turn up must have been disappointed by their leaders' speeches, which were uncoordinated, unoriginal and lacking in substance.

It was almost as if they knew in advance that their cause was lost, and this sentiment was transposed into petulant ill-will by leading UMP figure Christian Jacob, who explained away the poor attendance of the opposition with the hissy-fit declaration that they saw no reason why they should listen to Taubira's speech, which was "arrogant" and "talentless".

The Socialists have already announced their intention to address all the filibustering amendments - although similar ones will be regrouped for debate, as allowed by the rules - and refuse the temptation to push the bill through by shortening the debate via the use of emergency parliamentary measures. This is a wise move for it will ensure that the opposition will not be able to claim that they are being treated unfairly, and this may well lead to even more frustration within their ranks.

Chritiane Taubira's speech has probably sounded the death-knell for opponents of gay marriage, whose arguments have consisted of stale and outdated ideas of what modern society and marriage should be. And that's the up side, as there has also been a torrent of abusive and flagrantly homophobic bile with more than a hint of Catholic Integrism to it.

The debate will inevitably see some high drama moments and spectacular gestures such as, maybe, a parliamentary walk out by the opposition in protest, but when all the huffing and puffing is over it would appear that the government has already won the day and all it has to do to get the law put through to the Senate for ratification is hold its nerve in the face of what is sure to be an onslaught of provocation by the opposition.

The fact is that the gay marriage law was an election promise which was and still is supported by a majority of French citizens. This alone ensures that the government has right on its side. Add to that a discredited anti campaign and a leaderless, directionless and dispirited opposition party, and it's hard not to believe that it's all over bar the shouting and that the gay marriage bill shall be duly voted into law.

Monday, 28 January 2013

When my local Mayor gets annoyed, he gets VERY ANNOYED INDEED!!

Tut tut, please watch your language. Children may be reading...
Lyon, the wonderful city in which I live, la douce Lyon with its renowned genteel manner and discreet ways, is up in arms at the moment. Up in arms I tell thee! Saperlipopette! Nom d'une pipe!

This city has a fine culinary tradition, which is why it had deservedly high hopes of being selected as France's official 'City of Gastronomy', a distinction which, as one may well imagine, has been much coveted by other cities in France. It's billed as the 'World' capital actually, but that's meaningless, as it's just a one of those grandiloquent self-titled Franco-French distinctions which France likes to invent to keep the morale of the troops up.

The implications of being selected are enormous. Tourism, economy, prestige, there are many tangible benifits to be had, and this was not lost on Lyon's Mayor, the Socialist Gérard Collomb. He is a good mayor in my opinion, and he was naturally disappointed, as were the good citizens of Lyon, including myself, when the EU decided that Marseille, and not Lyon, would be the European Capital of Culture this year.

So one may well imagine his bitter deception upon learning recently that Lyon was not to be chosen as the Gastronomy Capital because the city's proposals and project were deemed by the adjudging powers that be to respond "too partially to the ambitions which the first 'World Capital of Gastronomy' could have inspired."

Two humiliating defeats in a row for our hero! Gadzooks!

But Gérard being Gérard, he is not backwards when it comes to going forwards so he made his views on the decision, which he obviously considers to be tainted by political considerations, crystal-clear to his long-suffering secretary, to whom he is alleged to have said...


Attaboy!! Fighting stuff Gérard! Hooo, Kitty's got claws!

The story was originally posted as a short rolling news piece on local news website Lyon Capital, and I didn't see it at the time, but some sharp-eyed reader at Le Lab did, and screensaved it. He or she was quite right to do so because after a search on Lyon Capital's site it seems to me to have disappeared. Why?

Yup, when our Gérard gets angry, he doesn't do half-rations.

The John McEnroe of French politics?

Have a good evenin' y'all, as they say they say in Texas...

Britain's 'in-out' EU bluster and France's point-scoring riposte

Ah, you can always count on the French and Brits to cut their noses off to spite their faces when it comes to national differences, and that is exactly what is happening at the moment in the imbroglio which has followed David Cameron's recent announcement of an 'in or out' referendum for EU membership by 2017.

If David Cameron's proposed referendum were to be held today the verdict would be an unequivocal 'DEHORS!' As for the French, a BVA poll for Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui en France suggests that 52% of French voters would like to see Britain out of Europe, although another poll gives a slight advantage to those who would like les Rosbifs to remain.

French politicians have added to the negative view of Cameron's demands for changes in EU rules which he says are too constraining, with François 'Normal Flamby' Hollande insisting that the EU must be accepted as it is and Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius saying that Europe was not a self-service canteen where people pick and chose what, and how much, they want to eat, and that if Britain wanted to leave he'd roll out the red carpet.

Now all this kerfuffle might suit Cameron, whose arm-twisting of Europe may succeed in holding off the rabid dogs of his anti-EU right wing backbenchers, and it is certainly right up Hollande's rue to see his government Bashing the Brits at a time when he desperately needs to improve his popularity ratings with French voters, but at the end of the day it's all bluster and posture.

After all, who but the most cynical of British Europhobes seriously believes that Britain would have anything to gain by leaving Europe? Access to the Single Market would be severely curtailed and Britain's efforts to create an EU economic powerhouse capable of offering at least limited resistance to the threat posed by up and coming economies around the world would come to naught. And if there is anyone out there who is naive enough to believe that Britain's 'Special Relationship' with the USA could help it overcome the major trade difficulties which would inevitably follow a 'Brexit' they need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act as terminally deluded individuals who are hell-bent on self-harm. America's strategic prioritising eyes began swivelling eastwards of Europe and towards the Far East years ago, as it is there that future planetary battles for economic and military superiority are destined to be fought.

The French would not fare any better in the event of a British exit, again for mainly economic reasons. The City, for all of France's efforts to depict it as the Devil incarnate of Evil Capitalism, is absolutely essential to France's economic survival as a major world nation. The City is the world's leading financial centre, and it's role in facilitating French and European exports to the rest of the world is pivotal, as is its role in attracting foreign investment to Europe from every single sizeable country or alliance of countries around the world. All the major French industries are present there for this reason, and Britain's isolation from Europe would seriously jeopardise France's trading position with America, Asia and others and further isolate it from the world's investment tissue. There is no EU equivalent of The City, mainly because all past efforts to create one have been stymied by......France itself, for reasons of national rivalry, notably with Germany. Then there's defence, and any EU without Britain would be a paper tiger in terms of its capacity to react militarily to threats from outside Europe. That is currently being cruelly and ironically demonstrated in France's ongoing Mali campaign by the fact that without British, American and Spanish military transport and refueling planes, France's limited number of old and ageing aircraft would not have been able to take the 3,700 and counting French troops to the theatre of operations.

This pseudo-spat is typical of how Europe is run. All serious issues within the EU which demand the presence of realism and clear-headed thinking are obfuscated by narrow national interests, be they electoral or other. Britain has a list of perceived griefs that it would like the EU to address, and common sense demands that a compromise be thrashed out around the table. It's as simple as that.

So Mesdames et Messieurs our political leaders, it's high time you stopped playing to the gallery with your empty threats of a referendum and invitations to the British to leave and started doing what we, your taxpayers, expect of you, which is to find solutions to problems.

Is that really too much to ask?

Friday, 25 January 2013

'France and the French have changed for the worse' - what do the French think?

Bloggers who choose to include email contact details in their profiles are quite likely to be contacted by some of their readers, and that has been the case for me too. Emails I receive are mostly from people outside of France who read blogs to keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening here. Some are French, some aren't, but most of them have lived in France at some point in their lives and all of them appreciate certain aspects of French life and French culture.

There are also one or two who are considering or have considered coming here/coming back here to live, and I have been struck by the fact that one of the doubts they express most about the idea is that France and the French may have "changed for the worse". I have my own opinions on that of course, and they are expressed elsewhere in this blog's content, but I thought that today I'd post the results of a survey by the Ipsos Institute with the aid of other institutions called 'France: the new fractures'.

Here they are, and I'm not going to comment them in any way, apart from saying that they have been published in almost all of the French online press outlets and are resulting in a lot of debate. So, have France and the French changed for the worse over the years?


France and its place in the world
Over 50% of those surveyed think that 'the decline of France is inevitable' in both economic and cultural terms. Even more - 3 out of 5 - consider globalisation to be 'a threat to France', that 'France should do more to protect itself from the rest of the world', and, concerning Europe, that France should 'reinforce its decision-making powers, even if that means limiting those of Europe'.

French politics
Over 70% think that 'the democratic system in France functions rather badly', over 80% say that 'both male and female politicians act principally in their own personal interests' and 62% consider that 'most politicians' are corrupt.

'From distrust to rejection, withdrawal to fear of others, resentment to hostility and pessimism to catastrophism'
The survey's authors consider that the results indicate that 'the sentiment of fear is now profound' and that Poujadism (the defence of the common man against the elites, the rejection of modernism, and anti-intellectualism) has taken hold in the country over the last 30 years. They add that there is another, complementary, sentiment which pits identitarianism against authoritarianism..

86% of people think that 'authority is a value which is criticised too often', and 87% believe that 'France needs a real boss who can restore order' in the country'.

Foreigners, Muslims and increasing tensions
The study found that 70% of people think that 'there are too many foreigners in France' and just over 60% consider that French people 'don't feel at home in their own country like they did before'. There is much negative feeling vis-à-vis Muslims, with 74% of people saying that they tend to 'take over the jobs of French people'. Muslims are often associated with 'integrists' and the Muslim religion is said by 3 out of 4 people to be 'intolerant and incompatible with French society.'


Those are the results, and I would be interested to read what you think of them.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Florence Cassez is freed...and the witch-hunt begins

Florence Cassez in Mexico
Florence Cassez is a 37-year-old French woman who was arrested in Mexico in 2005 on charges of organised crime, kidnapping and the illegal possession of firearms. Found guilty on all counts in 2008, she was jailed for 90 years, although her sentence was reduced to 60 years in 2009. The Mexican Supreme Court finally threw out all the charges during a hearing yesterday, and she was freed. She arrived back in France this afternoon.

Cassez had gone to Mexico in 2003 to live near her brother, find work and start a new life. One year later she met Israel Vallarta, a Mexican, and they began a relationship which continued until her arrest, at Vallarta's home. Vallerta was arrested at the same time and charged with the the same offences and many more.

She insisted all along that she was innocent, and Vallarta corroborated her story by stating that she had not been present at any of the kidnappings or other crimes which he was accused of and that she knew nothing about them. Vallarta is still awaiting trial. President Sarkozy made several high-profile attempts to obtain her extradition to France to serve out her sentence, demand Mexican President Calderon's clemency in the matter, or have a retrial, but all his efforts and those of others failed.

However, it became obvious early on that her conviction was a farce, and the truth began to emerge when it was revealed that her arrest at Vallerta's home had been staged. They had in fact been arrested on a highway the previous day, but the police and authorities decided that as no press reporters and photographers were present they would keep them in Vallerta's home overnight and invite the press the next day to film the bogus arrests, during which Cassez and Vallarta were paraded in front of the cameras before the police declared that the operation had been a triumph against cartels and drove their prisoners away. Once the truth came out, the police and authorities admitted what they had done, and the Mexican media apologised for falling for the story.

Many other details of police misdoing emerged, including that they had misled the courts on a number of occasions and fabricated evidence.

The judge at yesterday's hearing, which had become inevitable given the flood of suspicions that the investigation had been botched and illegal from the start, freed Cassez after accepting that her civil and human rights had been abused, that there had been police misconduct and fabricated evidence and that her trial had been truncated.

Her plane touched down at Roissy airport at 13:45 Paris time and she was home. A happy ending? Far from it, and Florence Cassez is about to become the victim of another inquisition - a witch-hunt by the French public.

I followed live comment threads on the story today in the French press, and the venemous, hateful cynicism to be read in the majority of the comments made my blood curdle. Here are a few examples, which I have copied and translated from the comment thread of this live article.

"Not all of France is for Florence Cassez, far from it, as she is probably guilty of kidnapping..."
"Nothing proves that she is innocent or the victim of an error of justice, but she's French and that seems somehow sufficient to absolve her."
"Excuse me, but she's a liar. She was a liar yesterday, she is a liar today and she will be a liar tomorrow."
"Not only is she guilty, she's an idiot."
"Some countries heap praise upon their scientists, but we heap praise upon our criminals."
"Florence Casses is a French citizen who committed serious crimes in a foreign country."

Just how is it possible that people can be so gratuitously and offensively vindictive? These and other comments like them are a nausous cesspit of abhorrent malevolence, and they represent just the very beginning of what shall prove to be a long-running witch-hunt.

Does the treatment of Cassez remind you of that meted out to another woman in similar circumstances a few years ago? Her name is Amanda Knox. She was the American exchange student who was found guilty in Italy in 2009 along with two other men, one of whom was her boyfriend, of the 2008 sexual assault and murder of Knox's flatmate, English student Meredith Kercher. She was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Her boyfriend was sentenced to 25 years and the other man to 30 years.

Both Knox and her boyfriend were released in 2011 after their convictions were quashed by a panel of judges and jurors who found that that there was a "material non-existence" of evidence to support the charges, that DNA testing and other investigative procedures had not been followed, that they had been mistreated by the police and that the trial procedure was highly flawed. The other man is still serving his sentence, although it has been reduced on appeal.

Knox too (but not her boyfriend, which is significant) was 'welcomed' home by a torrent of abuse and accusations that she was a liar, guilty, a temptress, the face of evil (yes) and the press joined in with a series of salacious articles which attempted to smear her reputation.

So what is it about these cases that results in this kind of sick campaign?

What Amanda Knox went through - and what Florence Cassez shall wake up to tomorrow, if she isn't aware of it already - is the reflection of a deep-seated hatred of the female sex (misogyny) which originates in a fear of them which goes back to ancient times and is still present today, and not only amongst males. It is what has fueled many centuries of discrimination against, and abuse of, women, and it is what led to the terrifying kind of mass hysteria which resulted in the slaughter of millions of women between the hundreds of years BC until the Middle Ages. These events are what are called 'witch-hunts'.

Make no mistake. What we are witnessing here in France, and what Knox suffered too, is a modern-day witch-hunt. It might not involve killing women, but it is just as terrifying to behold, and it must also be a terrifying ordeal for those who are the victims of this barbaric, bestial and obscurantist infamy.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The ongoing fable of the wooing of Germany

Are you sitting comfortably children? Good. Then we'll begin.

Everybody's favourite girl
Imagine for a moment that countries are like people, and that just like people they may be friends or enemies, work colleagues or strangers, and some are even lovers or married couples. Then ask yourself this; if France, Germany and Great Britiain were people, what would their relationships be like?

People have various strong points and failings, and they are more or less attracted to each other by a combination of many factors such as their natural affinities, characters, views on the world, future prospects, money and influence.

Europe is a club which was formed by group of friends, all shopkeepers, who decided to kiss and make up after they got into a big fight with each other, a fight called World War Two. As wise friends do, they decided to stop the blame game over who started it and help each other in the future. Germany and France were the two friends who were most motivated by the idea, although there were a few hangers-on such as Belgium and Luxembourg. They didn't have any choice anyway, as they were not big enough to stand up to the big two's hectoring tactics.

Then, one day, in walked Britain. "Hey" he said, "I was in the fight too, so can I join?" But Germany and France, fearing that Britain would want to dominate and steal all the sweets, said no, so Britain stood outside, sulked, and kept asking to join for years. France in particular was against the idea because he had strong suspicions that Britain would try to woo Germany away from his best friend.

Germany and France finally decided to relent however, particularly as Britain was quite a large man with a lot of big friends, including the USA, who was the biggest guy on the block. So that's why Britain was allowed to join, although they weren't allowed into club meetings which decide things, which really meant that Germany and France decided things on their own and the rest usually followed suit, although there was a fair bit of arm-twisting and ear-tweaking doled out to recalcitrants.

Later on the big two fell in love and decided to announce their engagement, which they called their 'special relationship'. France was particularly proud of this because it was well known that Germany was the most sought-after girl in Europe. Germany was rather more discreet about it however because she didn't want to offend anyone. At the same time their circle of friends got bigger, their new friends joined the club - now called the 'EU' - and they decided to buy from each other's shops as much as possible. This plan worked well, and as is only normal, the fiancés bought more from each other than they did from anyone else.

Both the club and the couple had spats from time to time, as all people do, and the biggest spat began three years ago when Greece, Ireland and Spain got into trouble with the others for spending too much of the subscription money. They were told to pay it back or leave and are doing their best to do so and atone for their profligate behaviour.

It is now exactly 50 years since Germany and France announced their engagement and over the years it has almost seemed at times as if they were married. They were very close to each other and agreed on nearly everything. But things were not as they seemed, as is often the case with couples, and they began bickering seriously about six months ago, with Germany saying that France should go out and work more and spend less to reduce his large overdraft at the bank and that if he didn't mend his ways he'd end up like the Greeks "and we don't want that now do we!?" France was annoyed at this rebuke because he knew that Britain agreed with Germany and would try and exploit the situation.

And talking of Britain, what had he been up to all this time? Was he still sulking? Well, he was, but he had also hatched a dastardly plot to win back Germany's favours. Although not a full member of the club - he didn't even use the same Monopoly money as everyone else - he had placed his agents in all its committees and they ended up running its essential functions such as how to fight noisy neighbours like Serbia. He couldn't do it on his own however but he asked his own 'special friend', big boy USA, to help him and the club. Britain was becoming so influential that he had even been heard saying to a friend in the pub that 'I don't want to be a member of Europe, I want to run it.'

He then used strong-arm tactics to get things done his way and he recently threatened to leave the club altogether if he didn't.

And it was under this cloud that Germany and France put on as brave a face as they could yesterday and celebrated their 50th anniversary. It was a good party, but everyone knew that the old sparkle and fire of love had gone.

But very bad news was about to come for France, and come it did just after yesterday's party had ended when everybody found out that Germany had been, if not unfaithful to France, rather devious. Instead of helping France by buying even more from his shop he began to buy enormous quantities of sweets at Britain's shop instead. Worse, Britain had reciprocated and we now know that they have exchanged so much that Britain has replaced France as Germany's biggest trade partner!

Yes children, Germany has come clean and said that she and Britain bought a record 153 billion euros worth of goodies from each other in the first nine months of last year, that their exchanges are booming at double-digit rates and that their trade relationship is the fastest growing in the world. France was shocked to learn that he was no longer Germany's preferred shop. Not only that, Germany seems to have been spending less within the club in general. She used to buy 46% of her needs from the club in 1999, but that percentage has gone down to just 37% today because she has begun flirting with not only Britain, but young and ambitious Asia too.

France is now very angry indeed and, in an attempt to reduce Britain's increasing influence over Germany, said early today that if Britain wanted to leave Europe then he wasn't going to stop him and would even roll a red carpet out for him to leave on.

But that tactic backfired just a couple of hours later when Germany, a strong-willed woman, got annoyed when she heard about her partner's petulance and said that unlike France she wants to talk to Britain in order to smooth out all the problems, find a compromise and persuade him to stay because he is strong, and as such is a useful guy to have around.

Nobody knows how the story ends, because the end hasn't been written yet, but the last news was that France is fuming, Britain is as pleased as punch, and Germany is as pissed off as can be at her two childish and unruly suitors.

So I hope you enjoyed that story children, and the moral is twofold - you can never really trust your friends, and Europe is a shambles because it bickers even more than you do in class or in the playground. But at least you have the excuse of being children, whereas adults have none whatsoever.....

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

It's time we made an effort to save Traditional French restaurants from a gloomy and uncertain future

A dish at one of my favourite traditional restaurants in Lyon
No lover of traditional French cuisine will be happy with the results of a recent study which confirms the continuing downturn in the fortunes of the traditional French restaurant business and predicts that the bad news is set to continue.

The study, carried out by Xerfi, an economic studies institute specialising in market sector analysis, comes in the wake of poor performances by the restaurant business over the last few years which continued in 2012 with a drop in volume of 2% due to its vulnerability faced with consumers who are looking for ever more ways of reducing their non-essential spending.

Le Figaro has published some of the study's general conclusions, which point to a further retraction of 1% in 2013 for restaurants in general, but there's even worse news for traditional French restaurants (as opposed to Chinese, Italian and other kinds of restaurant), who are predicted to see another drop of 2% this year, resulting in a substantial total loss of 7% over 2012-2013. Figures are, however, set to pick up by less than 1% in 2014.

Those figures may not look too bad if taken in isolation, but they should be put into the wider context of the performance of food outlets in general. They include fast food restaurants, boulangeries (which have greatly increased their turnover in sandwiches and other lunchtime snacks over the last few years), and small, local supermarkets with their ranges of food designed to be eaten outside or at work.

Fast food outlets, after years of rapid growth, have seen their sales stabilise, but not drop, over the last two years, and they are predicted to bounce back more quickly over the next two years. In other words, they are continuing and will continue to eat into the market share of restaurants, and that of traditional French restaurants in particular. More competition will come in the form of an increase in the diversity of fast food fueled by boulangeries, sandwich shops and large restaurant chains.

Faced with this prospect, the restaurant business seems to be gearing up to fight back with what could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In order to cut costs the business is beginning to interest itself in large food processing companies which, having recognised the beckoning opportunity, are working hard to increase the variety and quality of what is called 'cuisine d'assemblage' - literally, 'assembly cooking'. This relatively new range of products differs from those used by more traditional restaurants because of the use of semi or fully-prepared (although rarely frozen) products which are then 'put together' by kitchen staff. This kind of product is already being used by restaurant chains.

But cuisine d'assemblage presents a three-fold risk to the restaurant business, and traditional restaurants in particular. With much less food preparation involved there are likely to be redundancies among kitchen staff and even chefs. Also, and as all kitchen staff have to do is follow the instructions, creativity and variety are likely to take a back seat to standardised recipes. This is not good news for those who appreciate traditional restaurants which serve fresh and traditional produce and ingredients in an authentic manner, as those restaurants may well find it even harder to compete due to the relatively high cost of their meals.

Lastly, consumer belt-tightening and fierce competition from the increase in sales of fast food, restaurant chains and cuisine d'assemblage, all of which represent cheaper alternatives to traditional restaurants, resulted in the closure of around 6% of traditional restaurants between September 2011 and September 2012, and that figure is predicted to rise to even higher, record, levels in 2013.

I was saddened to read this news. As someone who eats regularly in traditional restaurants I have seen some of them close over the last few years (mainly, but not only, in urban areas), and others have chosen or been forced to cut corners and introduce some aspects of cuisine d'assemblage in order to survive.

Traditional French cuisine and restaurants still enjoy a well-deserved worldwide reputation for excellence despite the existential threat of cut-throat competition which thrives not on quality but on low prices.

The only way of reversing, or at least stabilising, this trend, is to make a conscious effort to eat in traditional restaurants despite their slightly higher prices and even if it means sacrificing one meal out a month in a Chinese or pizza joint.

I for one am not going to desert my favourite restaurants anytime soon and I hope that today's sobering news persuades others to do likewise, because if the restaurant-going public doesn't make an extra effort to support traditional restaurants, nobody else will.....

Monday, 21 January 2013

To let, Paris. Studio appt - size 1.56m², rent €330 per month

A mother and child's 4m² apartment. (Photo - Facebook-Fondation Abbé Pierre
Paris, like many other major world capitals, has long been known for its housing penury and the high rents for small apartments which result from the laws of supply and demand, but two recent news stories have brought to light just how serious the situation has become as well as just how little the authorities seem to be doing about it.

We learned a few days ago that 'Dominique', a 50-year-old man with a low income, lived in Paris for 15 years in an 'apartment' measuring 1.56m², which is about the floor area of a good-sized dog kennel. The miniscule room was under the roof so he could only stand upright within a narrow 20-centimetre strip. Dominique was charged €330 in rent per month.

That story was followed up yesterday with another, similar one, that of a mother in her thirties who paid €200 per month for a cubbyhole of 4m² in which she lived with her small child, again, in Paris.

That this kind of thing should be allowed to happen in the first place in a country which (erroneously as it happens) proudly proclaims itself to be 'the country of Human Rights' is scandalous enough, but worse still is what the authorities did, or rather didn't, do about it.

The degrading housing conditions of both of these people had been known for many months by the Abbé Pierre Foundation, which fights for improved housing rights for the disadvantaged, and both of their cases were brought to the attention of the relevant authorities by the Foundation. But the authorities did nothing for over six months, despite the obvious urgency of the victims' circumstances.

In Dominique's case the authorities only took action very recently to remove Dominique from his lodgings and have them padlocked, with the owner being barred from entering, and it also emerged that three different private flatsearch agencies had rented the 1.56m² space over a long period, thus flouting a law which fixes the legal minimum for a housing unit at 9m², without housing authorities being aware of it. Dominique has been rehoused.

The case of the woman and child was even worse. She had financial difficulties which had led her to fall three months behind with her rent, and as a result the owner changed the lock on the door while she was out and put her meager belongings into plastic bags which she left in a corridor in the building before sending a text message to her tenant to inform her of what she had done. This broke almost every rule in the book, which obliges owners to send warning letters and obtain court permission to evict tenants. Also, she is theoretically liable for 'endangering life' and renting lodgings which are 'incompatible with human dignity'. Not only that, she evicted the tenant just recently, which means that she has also fallen foul of a law which forbids evictions during the cold winter months.

Many people, including myself, lived for a while in Paris (London too, in my case) during their early adulthood because of these cities' bustling lifestyle and opportunities, which young people often crave. And, like most of the others, I didn't earn much money so I had to content myself with about 10 or 12m². It wasn't The Ritz, sure, but there was room for a bed, a table, a small hi-fi system and an armchair or two. It was all part of the  growing up game. Nevertheless, although I gladly accepted those conditions in exchange for a chance to live in these cities I just cannot imagine how degrading and soul-destroying it must be to live in 4m², never mind less than 2m².

And it's not only a question of size, it's also a question of extortionate rent. As a comparison, I live in a high-ceilinged apartment of about 90m² near Lyon's city centre. It has a marble fireplace, wooden parquet floors and all mod-cons. Price? In the upper €400s per month. In other words I pay a rate of just over €5 per square metre. The lady with her baby though, was paying €50 per square metre, Dominique was actually paying a staggering €200 per square meter, and it's probably safe to say that they both earn rather less than many people.

High rents and small apartments are an inevitable part of living in a much sought after capital city for many people, but the almost inhuman conditions in which these two people found themselves does no credit to the Paris authorities. They should be forced by law to react immediately in cases such as these and they should also be able to circumvent the long wait for court proceedings which are characteristic of courts not only in France but elsewhere, in order to bring offenders to justice quickly.

This legislation is needed urgently because each day spent waiting for it to be drawn up and enacted is a day on which the poor of Paris will continue to be subjected to this kind of abuse because, as Dominique says, they have no choice. After all;

"It's either that or the street."

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snow and Silence

Hi, I took a drive out to the country today to see how work is progressing on the two small houses on the same largish property in the country that a friend and I are having renovated (more here). Things are moving along relatively smoothly so all's well there.

Having checked the work there wasn't much else to do elsewhere and outside because it has snowed recently and the ground is frozen. So I took a few pictures because the snow looked pretty out there in the fields. Here are three of them.

 This was taken from the terrace of one of the houses. Garden in front of it, veggie garden next, behind the first fence, and there will probably be a couple of donkeys in the field beyond that. It all looked so peaceful and there wasn't a sound to be heard anywhere in the cold thin air....

Here's a view over to the left. The rather ramshackle outhouses (want of a better word?) were chicken coops in the past and there's a lot of clearing up to do both in and around them. One of them shall be welcoming new chickens and fresh eggs when the big move from Lyon comes, towards next summer. There's a field on the far side of the coops, its future use as yet undecided.

As I said earlier, it was quite cold although at -5C it was bearable but still, it was cold enough to freeze the water dripping down off a disused rain gutter. I took this photo because I liked the various shades and qualities of the blacks and whites and greys. The gutter, the bushes, the sky, the snow, the translucent icicle...

I know there are many more colours to be seen during spring, summer and autumn, much more life and energy too, but I appreciate the sort of solitary peace and calm that winter imposes and that nature must wait through patiently while winter does its cold, hard and lonely work of quietly preparing the land to receive each new year's plants and crops.....

Friday, 18 January 2013

France's lucrative market in imagined and artificially-created ilnesses and drugs

Very pretty, but do they work?
Those of you who may be interested in health issues might like to know of the existence of what looks like a very informative book by well-known French doctor and author of health-related books Sauver Boukris.

Titled 'La fabrique des malades', the book denounces "drugs marketing", a worldwide phenomenon which has found lucrative profits in France in recent years. Marketing drugs is by no means a novelty of course, but Boukris offers an insight into some of the more aggressive and abusive marketing strategies that have been developed by pharmaceutical companies in recent years which play on patients' fears.

One tactic consists of developing and testing new molecules before going on to analyse the results and redefine the characteristics and seriousness of pathologies accordingly to suit the molecules' levels of efficiency and adaptability. In other words, instead of developing drugs to combat illnesses, they are doing the complete opposite and inventing new illnesses in order to sell drugs they have already invested in and developed.

Mental illness and depression are the two prime targets of this practice due to the relative lack of knowledge and agreement by specialists on which symptoms constitute which pathology, or even if some of them exist. Hence the myriad definitions of various types of mental illness and depression which have sprung up over the last 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry but which are not defined as such by either medical authorities or researchers. There are drugs for all kinds of 'new' states of anxiety, hyperactivity, stress and other disorders.

Another bankable market is long-term illnesses such as diabetes, various chronic illnesses, sexual dysfunction, metabolic conditions (chloresterol etc), hypertension, arthrosis and the menopause.

These conditions and others all offer the possibility of inventing sub-conditions, and thus we have a market which has invented a whole subset of 'pre' drugs for pre-diabetes, pre-sexual dysfunction and pre hypertension, arthrosis and menopause. Then there are the 'high' and 'low' risk categories as well as others for 'mild', 'severe' and similar level of illness or pathology. It's a bit like all these shampoos for a zillion types of hair. Daft really and I just use P'tit Dop vanilla flavour, or banana, to wash not only my body, which it ws designed to do, but also my hair. Pfffttt...

It doesn't finish there though because it is estimated that the constant bombardment of new illnesses and drugs has led to patients becoming more anxious or even depressed about the seriousness of their condition and which drugs to take, making them more likely to turn to anxiolytics and other mood-altering drugs. In other words, the patient may find himself in a vicious circle of real or imagined conditions being treated by drugs which may or may not be efficient.

France, as a country that takes more drugs and medicines pro rata than any other country in the world, is naturally more vulnerable to these tactics than most, and indeed, the French didn't even need to wait to have 'new' illnesses and drugs thrust upon them because they have been inventing them for years. One well-known example is the 'crise de foie' ('liver crisis'), which is really no more than a hangover, having eaten too much for too long, or a combination of both. There are perfectly adequate treatments for both but doctors still accept to see people who make appointments for a 'crise de foie.' Needless to say, and to get them off their backs, many doctors prescribe packets of products with 'crise de foie' printed across them. Whatever happened to aspirin or paacetamol, alka-seltzer, drinking lots of water, resting and promising never to drink so much again?

Much more serious though is the ever more prevalent 'mal d'être'. It's difficult to translate but I'll try, with 'anxiety about one's life and future'. This pseudo-'condition' is trotted out my millions of people every year who are sent away by doctors with a prescription for some weak drug to treat the real problem, which is depression. But depression being a taboo subject in France........

As if that wasn't bad enough, the French healthcare system also pays part of the costly bills of those millions of people who are prescribed thalassotherapy in an attempt to cure everything from acne to arthritis and sterility. Thalassotherapy is an enormous business based on principles of treatment which have absolutely no evidence to prove their efficiency, but so strong is the belief in its effectiveness (and, perhaps, the prospect of a week's free holiday in a nice part of France) that it's not going to disappear anytime soon.

Although some of the more flagrant abuses of drug denomination have been made illegal, as has the sale of some drugs which have been found to be ineffective, France still represents a massive market for pharmaceutical companies. And as not everyone believes in modern medicine, France is also a major market for quack remedies and treatments, all kinds of bogus psychologists, and a host of herbal and homeopathic cures.

In other words, it looks like France's status as a seriously ill drug addict is not likely to change anytime soon.

(I wrote this because my right ear was blocked with wax a week ago. That happens every ten years or so, no big deal. Anyway, I went to the chemist's and asked, as usual, for ear drops and a balloon syringe for warm water. That works every time. She said "we've got this new product. It's an ear spray, you use it just two times a day, and it dissolves the wax, which disappears on its own." That sounded like a good idea (no more messy water and towel etc), so I tried it. It was totally ineffective and my ear was still blocked four days later. I mentioned this to a lady I know, who recommended ear candles. They sounded suspicious so I checked them out on Wikipedia and found that they can cause damage to your ears, burning and other problems. So I went back to the pharmacy and ordered my good old time-proven remedy of drops and warm water. My ear was unblocked two days later.........)

I mean, who needs all this gunk junk medicine? Sheesshhhh.....

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Hollande's lonely war in Mali - Iraq revisited?

Al Qaida fighters in Gao, Mali. (Photo Issaf Sanogi AFP/Getty Images)
After two years of terrorism and territorial conquest in Mali by Al Qaida and its affiliates, France has decided to act to put a stop to it. The principal reasons and objectives are threefold;

To eliminate Islamist terrorists, regain control of the country and secure its borders.
To stop Islamic fundamentalists taking over Northern Africa and thus putting themselves within easy reach of Europe.
To foster a climate which would favour the creation, after many years of anarchy, of a democratic government in Mali.

All that looks great on paper, but then again so did George W. Bush's plans to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, install democracy in Iraq and rid it of terrorists, and we all know how that ended.

Mali is twice as big as France, and the insurgents are largely battle-trained for having served in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world. Many of them are foreigners (Libyans, Yemenites etc) and they see Mali as a vulnerable and thus primary target in their efforts to gain a foothold in Africa.

France began its intervention at the end of last week, and it began it alone. The idea was that it would consist of a few weeks of bombing from a safe height and then everyone goes home and opens a bottle of beer, the enemy defeated. But that's not how things have turned out.

The effort got off to a bad start with a botched attempt to save a French hostage which ended with the death of two soldiers as well as the hostage, and a helicopter pilot was killed in another mission at about the same time. The French government acknowledged that they had underestimated the enemy's military capabilities.

Since France's initial attacks the rebels have managed to reorganise themselves to the extent that they have made further advances in the west of the country. And so it was announced yesterday that France would send 2000 ground troops to help the overwhelmed Malian army to stop the rebels' progress and push them back. Troops on the ground then, and thus further casualties.

And as if things weren't bad enough already, today's events have changed the whole face of this conflict. Hundreds of people were taken hostage today by Islamic militants acting in the name of the Malian war at an oil refinery in Algeria. The hostages include an undetermined number of Americans, Brits, French citizens and others. Some were taken hostage and driven away, some - including a French national - were shot dead during the initial engagement, the Algerian workers were allowed to go free, and this evening sees the hostage-takers surrounded by Algerian troops and demanding to be allowed to take the rest of their hostages back to Mali. The French war cabinet is to meet this evening.

In other words, this war is spreading its tentacles into another country. Many countries in this part of Africa have sizeable French expat populations and there is every reason to believe that the rebels will try to drag other nations into the war.

All of which explains why Hollande felt obliged to issue a statement this evening in which he affirmed that he would, in accordance with the Constitution, consult parliament if this war is still ongoing after four months.

Four months!!!??

Yes, four months, at least.

Two, or even three, four, five or ten thousand men on the ground, even with decisive air support, cannot hope to control a country as large as Mali, or hope to keep tabs on what their enemy is doing, and where. There are several porous borders with Mali, and all of them are used as refuges by the insurgents.

France seems to have forgotten the lessons it learned during its disastrous campaigns in Indochina and Algeria, both of which were doomed from the start. The objectives that France has set for itself in Mali cannot possibly be achieved by France alone, and France is only alone because Hollande has made a hasty decision which has taken its allies, including those African countries who are trying to put together a peacekeeping plan, by surprise.

Make no mistake, this war, like that of Bush, has been more or less unilaterally declared, and, like Bush's war, and for the same reasons, it shall drag on and on only to ultimately fail.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Richard Gotainer - a gifted musician who personified the fun spirit of the Eighties

Remember those happy-go-lucky days of the Eighties? Music was often more tongue-in-cheek then. Irreverent, fun, off-the-wall, quirky and upbeat were the music buzzwords then, and no French musician did it better than Richard Gotainer, a man whose work deserves to be much better known than it is.

Although his songs - an eclectic mix of electro dance beats with various musical styles layered intricately over them - seemed superficial on the surface, those who scratched the veneer a little recognised that they were in fact full of pertinent social commentary. This is because Gotainer was not only a musician, he was (and still is) also a successful humorist and comic.

Gotainer's lyrics at that time caricatured various kinds of French popular cultural sterotypes, sometimes cruelly, sometimes gently, but always with humour. His targets were ridiculed with sympathy, criticised with compassion, and torn apart with tender loving care. Women, perverts, dogs, old people, school, nothing and no-one he dealt with was spared his mercilessly acid yet ultimately benign sense of humour.

And there's more. Gotainer's musical arrangements also appeared to be corny, but they were anything but. Complex and exacting, they are perfectly executed with ne'er a note or a beat to be heard even a millisecond out of perfect timing, and the effect is hypnotising. He did use drum machines, but the technical ability of the musicians was second to none. And the voices! Although not a singer in the Freddy Mercury mould his playful voice perfectly suited his music and lyrics. As for his female backing singers, they were sublime. Again, perfect timing and they were given some draconianly demanding and rigorous parts to sing.

There's a cherry on the cake too, in the form of his official videos. They too are irreproachable. One of the reasons for this was that Gotainer began his working life in TV advertising, a world in which each frame of an ad is studied to be sure that every smile, grimace and word are perfectly delivered. His videos rely on their imaginative scenarios, which faithfully transpose the lyrics, and they are set in classy and kitchy 80s decor. So it will come as no surprise to those who recognise Gotainer's eye for accurate detail that his dancers were also of a very high quality.

Put all that together and you get music that, although it may not be to everyone's taste, is undeniably exceptional.

Richard Gotainer's 80s music is an accurate reflection of French society at that time. It's a mix of childish naivity and the fun side of life. His eye-winking cameos, zany videos and the fact that he was and remains inimitable put him in a class and category of his own. It's a bit like as if Frank Zappa had been French and, instead of using progressive rock as a platform for his alliterative and darkly funny humour, he had used electro dance music instead.

Anyway, enough of all that and here are a few of his songs and official videos. This one takes a look at people who treat their dogs like children and who, both husband and wife, claim that the dog loves them most, and, of course, when Youki poops on the floor........

Ah, kids today, they make a noise whilst us old 'uns are trying to get to sleep. Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Super dance beat this, the longer it lasts the more hypnotic it becomes..

This is a charming video about schooldays. The teacher's pet, the cheeky childish pranks kids get up to, the headmaster, the teacher, it's all there.

Lastly, and inevitably of course, given the reputation of French men for being particularly (how can I put it) appreciative of the female gent, here's a tongue-in-cheek view of them....
(Oh, and there are a couple of really neat 'n short guitar solos in there too.)

Have a good evening everyone!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Frigide Barjot: the strange figurehead of White Catholic Homophobic France

Have a nice trip Frigide? (screen shot)
She has been variously described as being a fun person, a freak, refreshingly honest, mentally unstable, inspirational, a MILF, a talented debater, dangerous, and she has a penchant for the sort of mini-skirt-fishnet-stockings-and-high-heels outfits that would not look out of place on one of those ladies of the night one sees in the dingy side streets near railway stations.

But call her what you will, Frigide Barjot - 'barjot' is French for 'crazy', or 'a nutcase' - certainly knows how to manipulate the media. That's normal however when you look at her Curriculum Vitae. Born as Virginie Merle, her mother was a music professor at the Conservatoire here in Lyon, her father was a senior administrator in a clinic, she studied law in a prestigious university, and she began her professional life in the communications section of the right-of-centre RPR party (now dissolved).

Her real vocation in life however was not to communicate the words and actions of others. She wanted to hit the headlines in her own right. And so it was that she became a journalist in mondain and socialite affairs, a humorist, a pop singer, a bit-part actress and a TV personality. It was in this context that she was famously filmed in 2008 tripping over something and falling down whilst on her way to a sumptuous dinner at the Paris Opera.

Then she discovered god and the Catholic church, and everything changed. Barjot was transformed from the bubbly life-and-soul-of-the-party airhead she was known as into a vociferous defender of the Pope's backward views on contraception, AIDS, homosexuality, gay marriage, and she signed a petition which aimed to combat the assimilation of priests with pedophilia during the pedophile priests scandal which rocked (and is still rocking) the Catholic church.

Next came an autobiography - 'Confessions of a Hip and Trendy Catholic' - in which she related her conversion to Catholicism and its values, but her real moment of glory had to wait until mid-2012, when President Hollande and his government announced their intention to legalise gay marriage.

She hasn't been out of the headlines since.

She has been present at almost all the large demonstrations against gay marriage that have taken place since, culminating in yesterday's demo in Paris which was attended by 350,000 or 800,000 people, depending on whether you believe the police figures or those of the organisers.

Camera-hungry and ever-willing to speak to journalists, she has embraced the diatribe of the more extremist end of the anti-gay spectrum and has a knack for providing juicy sound-bites which the press and TV have been lapping up greedily.

Barjot believes that gay marriage is a threat to humanity and her pernicious scare-mongering tactics include outright lying. She has falsely claimed that the government intends to replace the words 'mother' and 'father' with 'parent 1' and parent 2', she falsely claims that the interest of children is a legal argument against gay marriage (it isn't, because if it were, we'd be using the principles of Eugenics to legally prevent adults with criminal records, communists and extreme right-wingers, drinkers, and a host of others, from having children), and she denied recently, despite filmed evidence to the contrary, that she liaises with extremist and reactionary Catholic organisations.

The most disturbing aspect of her activities however is her fundamental role in the anti-gay movement, and evidence is emerging that she has reached an agreement with the Catholic church whereby she has been confided the status of unofficially declared spokeswoman for the church's views.

This arrangement suits both the church and Barjot seeing as the church can continue to claim that it is not behind or directly involved in the anti-gay movement's actions, thereby avoiding accusations of interfering in the state's affairs, and Barjot gets the publicity she craves. It's a very convenient deal.

Frigide Barjot has become a willing puppet in the hands of the Catholic church, a front for its obscurantist, medieval attitudes and a warrior in the fight against social progress and the democratic wishes of the French people, who voted Hollande into power knowing that he would legalise gay marriage. Moreover polls show that a large majority of people still support this legislation.

But does her mediagenic presence represent a real and long term threat to the gay marriage project? This question is being asked right now by many commentators but I do not believe that her star shall remain in the media firmament for long.

The first reason for this is that Hollande and his government have made firm statements since yesterday which make it clear that the government will not be swayed from implementing this democratically-founded measure by pressure from the street.

And the second is that, by its shameful behaviour, the Catholic church has driven yet another nail into the coffin of its power over French affairs. Congregations have fallen disastrously, half of those Catholics interviewed in polls do not approve of their church's stance, and the public is waking up to the danger represented by its fundamentalist views.

Just as Frigide Barjot's days in the limelight shall soon end, so shall those of the Catholic church, and so much the better.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

France should understand that there is a difference between culture and cultural heritage

Marseille, taken by me, probably whilst drinking a beer on a terrace in the Vieux Port
It would seem that the 'Marseille 2013' European Capital of Culture event and its organising committee are currently the object of bitter criticism. Not that anything could ever go smoothly in this volatile and cosmopolitan city of course.

The problem seems to be that in the run-up to the festival the city solicited proposals for cultural projects, some of which the city refused, and three refusals in particular have enraged those who submitted or supported them.

The first concerns Marseille native Marcel Petit, a famous ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of ther Marseille National Ballet who died in 2011 at the age of 87. A project in his honour was supported by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a member of the Resistance in World War Two, the daughter of a shipping magnate and the wife of Gaston Defferre, another member of the Resistance who went on to become Mayor of Marseille. He died in 1986.

Then there was the project elaborated by Marseille author and actor Philippe Caubère in honour of the poet and author André Saurès, another son of Marseille. He died in 1950. Caubère's project was also refused.

Lastly, photographer and historical photo-documentalist Antoine Agoudjian, a specialist on Armenia (he has Armenian origins) saw his idea for a project for the festival's Euro-Meditteranean workshops refused. He is bitterly angry at the decision.

I was of course sorry to read that these proposals had been refused - after all, nobody likes to see their proposals refused in any sphere of activity - but although the anger of those who worked so hard to develop their projects is understandable, I consider nevertheless that the festival committee made the right decision in each case, and here's why.

The European Capital of Culture's entry on Wikipedian sums up the event's raison d'être quite well;
Preparing a European Capital of Culture can be an opportunity for the city to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits and it can help foster urban regeneration, change the city's image and raise its visibility and profile on an international scale.
The key to that description is in the second half of the sentence, which puts the accent on the fact that the event can be a springboard to the future development of a city. This was put in more precise terms in a review of a 2011 book titled 'European Cultural Capital Report 3, edited by Robert Palmer, Greg Richars and Diane Dodd. The reviewer wrote that;
Bob Palmer looked back over the 25 years of ECOCs comparing it to a growing child which was conceived with a kiss between the late Greek Minister for Culture, Merlina Mercouri and French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang. The analogy proved to give a good overview of how the ambitions and demands of the ECOC have changed over the years.
In summary, the first five years saw capital cities being awarded recognition for their importance as already established cultural capitals. Whereas from 1990, when Glasgow won the title, there was already the idea that the title could help create cultural cities - and thus the award became a torch for cities to hold for one year in recognition of their aims. Later in the proceedings, Bob Scott suggested that receiving the ECOC title was like earning a ‘scholarship’ in order to go forth and do great things.
And it is precisely that forward-looking approach which has allowed the event to survive, as it was in danger of being ossified at the beginning by its backwards-looking stance.

Nobody would deny respect to Marcel Petit, a man who introduced the word 'ballet' into the vocabulary and culture of the people of Marseille. But he died many years ago and his work is now a legacy. André Suarès was also a great man, and his books and poems were full to the brim of mature reflections upon grandeur, the quest for one's inner self and an insatiable interest for the wider and more pragmatic issues of this world. But again, he too is a part of France's proud past and although he too deserves a place in France's collective memory his work would have been out of place here. Photographer Antoine Agoudjian, at 51 years of age, is thankfully still of this world, but should he really be surprised that the committee of a modern-minded celebration of culture would prefer a younger phototographer - Kathryn Cook - who has a more contemporary and possibly more objective approach to historical events, to deal with Armenia, the history of which which she knows well?

France has always had a tendency to conflate culture and cultural heritage, and this episode demonstrates that very well. As do French university literature faculties, which are only now waking up to the fact that the old rule which meant that 'if an author is still alive he cannot be a great author' is no longer applicable. And it was also this tendency to hark back to past glories which resulted in France submitting a disastrously poor video to support its candidature for the 2012 Olympic Games. That video, full as it was of dusty and pompous references to past glories and images of fine old buildings, contained relatively few images of younger people. London's submission was much more contemporary on the other hand, it centred upon the vitality of Britain and the world's youth, and that is why the French video was largely believed to have put the Olympics committee off the idea of choosing France.

'Culture' is a fairly vague term which, in terms of countries, encompasses the globality of a country's "socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought", whereas "cultural heritage' is its legacy, a legacy of its past.

France's cultural heritage is incalculable in its scope, and it has inspired literally billions of people over the years and all over the world. But that does not give it an automatic right to sit down at the table of a modern celebration of culture today. There are times when highlighting cultural heritage is appropriate and there are times when it should make way for the modern world.

It is a real shame that the French approach to culture seems to consist of clinging onto the outdated notion that pride of place should be given to the past at the very moment when its current cultural output is getting so little support from French cultural authorities and so few opportunities to showcase itself in major events.

These events are all too often hijacked by dinosaurs of the past and their present defenders who barge noisily in and throw their airy and grandiloquent weight around in an attempt to hog the limelight at the expense of those young creators who also need their opportunity to shine.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Lyon's mural art tribute to Mexican artist Diego Rivera

In May 2006 about 140 mural fresco and associated artists met up in Mexico City for their annual convention, and it was during this event that Guadalupe Rivera, widow of Diego Rivera, the celebrated historical, social and political artist and muralist, proposed in a speech that;

"..upon the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Diego Rivera, homage shall be paid to him in Europe by the mural painters of Cité Création."

The result can be seen below in a series of photos I took today here in Lyon of the spectacular mural paintings created in Rivera's honour by Lyon-based mural art specialist association Cité Création. The work consists of three mural paintings on the walls which enclose three sides of a public square, just next to a small park. The central element is this one, applied to the side wall of a building.

Next to this work and on a smaller wall at 90% to it is this rectangular mural.

And the building wall opposite the first one is host to the third and final element.

Each individual panel on the two building wall paintings, as well as the painting on the long rectangular wall, tells a story of a historical event era or phenomenon that Diego Rivera had adressed during his lifetime of painting. To help visitors, Cité Création also painted a pictorial and numbered guide for each wall, accompanied by explanatory text. Here is an example.

For those who don't read French however, I took a few close ups of individual panels and translated the descriptions of some of them. Here is a depiction of a major event in Mexican history. It is on the bottom left of the principal wall. 'Conquest and Christianisation. Scenes of religious conversions, forcible baptism or death for recalcitrants."

Next to it can be seen "The arrival of Hernan Cortés. The priest Pedro Alvarado, nicknamed 'the bloodthirsty redhead', gives back to Cortés the gold he has plundered..."

Over on the opposite, 'yellow' wall is a detail from this painting, bottom left, of "Workers. During the production phase of the Ford V8 engine at the Detroit factory."

On the bottom right of that same wall can be seen this almost Dantesque vision of "Carnival. Denounces the cupidity and corruption which reigns within Mexican politics. Diego Rivera caricatures certain governing figures as animals."

Finally, here's a detail from the rectangular wall. Unfortunately though, dear reader, I forgot to take a photo of the texts for that wall so I'm afraid we shall just have to wake up our neurones and use our imaginations to conjure up our own versions of what may be happening.

That homage to Rivera is situated less than a kilometre from where I am sitting, and it is just one of the dozens of other jumbo-sized mural paintings which are to be found all over Lyon and the surrounding areas (I took some photos of another one, and you can see them here). They were all painted by Cité Création. The association is an internationally-renowned organisation which employs dozens of painters in Lyon alone and it has painted or commissioned almost 600 mural paintings in countries all over the world.

But Cité Création doesn't just 'do paintings on walls', they fulfil a vital need here in Lyon and other major cities. City life can be exciting, but cities can also be soul-destroying at times, so these works - and it is difficult not to spot at least one during a random walk through the city - act as an effective antidote to some of the drab and depressing sights which are to be seen in any city. They are a colourful, inspiring, uplifting and informative mix of history and aesthetics. Every single mural tells a story of real people and events or imagines a better future.

They are the material of dreams.