Tuesday, July 16, 2019

HEAT WAVE; WOMEN'S WORLD CUP; BURKINI FIGHT; BASTILLE DAY

HEATWAVE

French town of Gallargues beats European record
As I sit here writing this blog in sweltering heat, it is dawning on me that this is a new pattern and that heatwaves are becoming a regular part of our summers. Apart from a certain amount of discomfort for those of us without air-conditioning (which we cope with in various ways), this year we reached extreme temperatures in June, earlier than usual, which gives us reason to worry about future summers. 

Air-conditioned houses and public buildings are still the exception rather than the rule in much of France, which calls for special measures when temperatures soar to the levels of 40 to 45°C (104 to114.6°F) that we have been experiencing, such as: 
-    End-of-year school exams had to be postponed for lack of air-conditioning
-    Many nursery and kindergarten schools closed earlier for the summer
-    Numerous trains were delayed or canceled due to dilating rails or overhead lines that lose their tension when overheated... 

and we, city dwellers without air-conditioning, go into summer mode, which may include daily matinee movies in air-conditioned theatres and visits to the deep-freeze section at the closest Monoprix. For retirees like us it’s a temporary adjustment in our lifestyle, but American visitors will miss their omni-present air-conditioning and heaps of ice in their drinks. 

I suspect that some of the American speakers at the economic forum in Aix-en-Provence this past week had a hard time in the non-airconditioned setting of the Economics faculty of the University of Aix-Marseille, where many in the audience used their program to fan themselves and Nadia Calviño, Spanish Minister of Economics, whipped out her very own fan on the speakers’ dais of the packed auditorium. Assuming their bodies are no different from ours, there likely was not a dry shirt among them. 

Summer festivals in the south have always faced weather-related challenges, but most of them are managing the heatwave rather well. The opera festival in Aix is a full house event as usual, but the theatre festival in Avignon may experience a slight drop in attendance at its daytime OFF program for want of air-conditioning. This year is another record-breaker with more than 1500 OFF (daytime) plays all over town in sometimes makeshift and usually hot theatres. 


Yet, these OFF productions, often try-outs for young actors and playwrights and lasting no more than one hour each, find their own faithful public that will let no heatwave keep them away from this shrine of the theatre arts. It’s all jolly good fun and a counterweight to the more serious tenor of the IN plays in the evening, which can last as long as eight hours and always take place in air-conditioned theatres, except for the large open-air Cour d'Honneur at the Popes' Palace. [Note: The Obama family who vacationed in Avignon this year, left just before the heatwave hit.]

WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
A High

Congratulations USA!
The heatwave did not interfere with the month-long Women’s World Cup soccer matches in France, which saw an admirable American team take home their fourth World Cup trophy after beating the Dutch team in the finals in Lyon. These matches have been played to sell-out crowds and proved every bit as exciting as men’s soccer. They were extensively covered in the press (not only sports journals) and the televised matches broke records for audience ratings. Suddenly women’s football (as it is called in Europe) has won legitimacy in the male-dominated sport, and is bound to result in improved or equal pay for women players compared with their male colleagues. Strike one for the girls! 

BURKINI FIGHT
A Low

Every heatwave seems to bring out the best and worst behaviors. This year, my prize for worst behavior goes to the City of Grenoble which decided at the height of the current heatwave to close the two municipal pools in town because some women had come to swim in a burkini, the one-piece neck to ankle swimsuit used by Muslim women when in public. Similar incidents had occurred on several public beaches in 2016 after police in Cannes forced an Arab woman to take off her burkini or leave the beach because she “scared” the locals. Granted, these incidents happened after the terrible carnage in Nice when an Islamist terrorist ran his heavy truck through a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and wounding more than 200. But even then, the arguments against burkinis on public beaches were mostly driven by discrimination and political opportunism. 
(see blog August 2016)   

After three Muslim women in Grenoble found themselves barred from the municipal swimming pool, they returned days later to challenge the local rule and claim the right to use municipal services like their fellow citizens. This time they were ten – seven Muslim women accompanied by three activists from Alliance Citoyenne – to “invade” the two pools wearing their burkinis. 

They were fined €35 each for breaking the local ordinance, but their gesture gained notoriety and many supporters.

The rule, as it turns out, is based on the mayor’s interpretation of what’s best for his citizens from the standpoint of security, hygiene, and laïcité (secularism)It is hard to argue that a full-body bathing outfit would endanger fellow bathers, or that a burkini would be less hygienic than, say, swim trunks for men, and bikinis or the barely-there string for women.

In 2004 France banned the wearing of headscarves as part of a law against “ostentatious religious symbols in public schools” and in 2011 a new law prohibited all forms of face covering, such as veils and masks, in public places. Obviously, these do not apply to the Grenoble incident. 

The Alliance Citoyenne (a citizens’ group that comes to the aid of fellow citizens in cases of discrimination or denial of rights) maintains that the burkini issue is not one of religion but of culture, and is protected by the freedom of speech and choice of dress, while the Observatoire de la Laïcité, in its guidelines to sports clubs, points out that club managers can only ban the burkini for security and health reasons, not on the basis of religion. Furthermore, one may well ask why in secular France nuns’ habits worn in public should be more acceptable than burkinis? And how seriously do we take French laïcité when this country celebrates at least five Catholic events (outside Christmas) with a national holiday? 

And yet, many local and national politicians still object to the burkini for self-serving reasons, so to put an end to the controversy the mayor of Grenoble has reopened the pools but referred the matter to President Macron for a clear definition of the law on burkinis. “All politics are local” as the late Tip O’Neill said. Look no further than small French towns where those who are “not from here” are eyed with suspicion, whether French or foreign. This is also true for picturesque villages where affluent outsiders have bought second homes but where we found that the old locals seem to reserve their strongest distaste for Parisians over all others. In their mind, Parisians are “the worst foreigners”.


FRANCE AND IMMIGRATION

Finally, the Grenoble incident is just one more example of how divided France remains on the issue of immigration, even when most of its immigrants come from former French colonies in Africa, especially the Muslim countries of the Maghreb, and speak French. Many of these people are herded into purpose-built cités of high-rise towers on the outskirts of Paris where high unemployment, poverty and petty crime thrive. This is fertile territory for Islamist extremists who prey on the jobless young men as potential recruits for their jihad. Several of the 2015 terrorist attacks in France were committed by French-born young men who were radicalized in these immigrant ghettos or in jail. But even today, the French government is doing little or nothing to integrate this immigrant population into the wider French society and facilitate its access to the job market, as countries like the UK, Germany, The Netherlands and others have done. (see blog February 2017)   

BASTILLE DAY 


Bastille Day Parade
And then it was Bastille Day, France’s national holiday on the 14th of July which, malgré moi, fills me with pride for my adopted country. The meticulously choreographed parade down the Champs Elysées is always impressive for its show of military might but especially for the incredible setting. From the Arc de Triomphe, dedicated to Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, to the Luxor obelisk, gift from Egypt to France in 1829, the march down the wide Champs Elysées to the Place de la Concorde has no equal in the world for conveying a sense of grandeur. 

This year President Macron made a point of showcasing European military defense cooperation, with vehicles, aircraft and forces from nine European countries in addition to France. It was a mighty display of joint power on land, at sea and in the air, witnessed by key European leaders, including Angela Merkel. As Macron explained, a joint European defense force is more important than ever at this time of high tension in the Gulf and deteriorating relations with the US, and would give Europe greater autonomy in case of war. 

Military planes fly over the Arc de Triomphe du Caroussel

Another benefit of all this show of strength is the effect it has on those who are still struggling to come to terms with France’s decline on the world stage. Since its heyday of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and its dominant role as a cultural, political and military power, when the French language was spoken at all European courts and it brought refinement to the world, the decline has been steady and painful. This airbrushed view of their past grandeur is at the heart of a certain French arrogance that, even today, gives them a sense of superiority that views other people, and especially immigrants, with a certain disdain. 

Clearly, this Bastille Day parade is a boost to their morale and reminds them of France’s importance. It is also one of the rare moments of shared French pride, when they stop complaining – at least for a day.



Monday, June 3, 2019

EUROPEAN ELECTIONS; EXIT BREXIT?; LYON TERRORIST ATTACK


On Sunday May 26th France voted for the election of its representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. As European citizens domiciled in France, my husband and I participated in this election, which brought nearly 52 percent of voters to the polls, 10 percent more than in 2014.

But things have changed since the last EU Parliament elections five years ago, when Brexit was still unheard of, when nationalism and Euroscepticism were timid yet, when Angela Merkel was still France’s strongest European ally; and when Marine Le Pen still worked in the shadow of her controversial father, founder of the far-right Front National party, before she managed to expel him, renamed the party Rassemblement National (RN) and ran for the presidency against Emmanuel Macron in 2017 on an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic platform. She was soundly defeated in her presidential bid, but she got her revenge when she narrowly beat Macron’s party in these European elections, where after Brexit each will have 23 deputies in the new European Parliament. 


Le Pen beats Macron by less than 1%
The big surprise of these elections in France was the dismal score of the conservative parties of the right and the strong performance of the green parties, largely due to the increased participation of young voters and a heightened concern about climate change. Also worth noting was the absence of any effect of the Gilets Jaunes on these elections, who collected less than one percent of the votes. 

In fact, after six months of their noisy presence on the French streets and in the media, the Gilets Jaunes protest movement is dying a quiet death today and will soon be gone. The leaderless Yellow Vest demonstrators, unaligned with any political party, were surprisingly successful in their early days when a majority of the public supported their fight for social and fiscal justice, but the longer their weekly protests lasted the more destructive they became and the more muddled their message. Their ill-advised alliance with the dreaded Black Bloc anarchists finally did them in. Nevertheless, their protests were not in vain and resulted in the government giving a boost of purchasing power to the lower and middle classes with measures totalling 17 billion euros in total. 

Eurosceptic winners Salvini, Le Pen, Farage
The pre-election appearance of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on the European scene may have played some minor role in the gains of the far right to the detriment of the traditional center-right and center-left. On his dark, self-appointed mission to Europe, this sinister outsider huddled with Eurosceptic leaders in Eastern Europe, France and Italy, and created a Brussels-based foundation 
named The Movement in an attempt to spark a populist far-right revolt in the EU elections. When several French politicians accused him of “untimely meddling” in French politics, he replied “I wear that as a badge of honor.”  Duly noted, but no cause for real concern. To date, there has been no rush to Bannon’s foundation, and the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) retains a comfortable majority in the new European Parliament. 


EXIT BREXIT?

End of the road for Theresa May
Not quite yet. Following Theresa May’s resignation effective June 7 and an as-yet unknown successor as Prime Minister, the Brexit issue remains a major problem for the UK and a thorn in the side of the European Union. Unless the deadline will be extended again, the UK is set to leave the EU on October 31 of this year, yet as a full member until such leaving the Brits had to vote in these European elections which Nigel Farage’s Brexit party won decisively. This gave the Brexiters a significant part of the 73 UK seats in a EU Parliament that represents the interests of the more than 500 million citizens of its 28 member countries, where they will pad the ranks of the growing group of Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant MEPs. These new Brexit-party deputies, considered “temporary” until the effective Brexit date, will therefore be participating in voting for the EU budget before September.

The paradox is clear: if the UK were to choose a hard Brexit on October 31, the added weight of the new Farage deputies at a critical time (voting on the budget) may weaken an institution they do not support and intend to leave soon. Even though they occupy only a minority of seats in the Parliament and pose no threat to the EU agenda, they could slow down the decision-making process and potentially bloc legislation. 
  
The already complicated co-existence of 28 countries under the European Union has just become a bit more fractious. According to Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, the British pro-Farage vote has poisoned the election, and now will “import the Brexit mess into EU politics.” 


TERRORIST ATTACK IN LYON

Inspection of the bombing site in Lyon
On Friday afternoon, 24 May, a parcel bomb exploded in a crowded shopping street in Lyon, France's third largest city, injuring 13 people. The perpetrator got away but three days later was tracked down near his home in Lyon, where he lived with his Algerian parents. Identified as Algerian citizen Mohamed Hichem M., the 24-year old IT student had entered France in late August 2017 on a tourist visa. 

At his home police found traces of the same explosive used in the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as computer evidence of internet orders for some of the bomb’s components. His parents and another family member were arrested as well but released two days later. After initially denying any involvement, the suspect finally admitted that he had made the bomb and placed it in front of a bakery on a pedestrian street in the center of town. He has also admitted to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and has been formally charged with attempted murder and terrorist conspiracy. 

Suspect Mohamed Hichem M.
Eleven of the thirteen victims, including a 10-year-old girl, were hospitalized with shrapnel wounds from the parcel bomb that contained small nails, screws and ball bearings. None of the injuries were life-threatening due to the fact that the charge was relatively weak, according to city officials. 

France has been on high alert since the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 that killed 130 people, and the attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg last December 11 that killed six. Islamic terrorism remains a latent threat in France, where some of the terrorists were French-born immigrants of North African origin who became radicalized in French prisons or mosques. 
Lyon will host the women’s World Cup soccer semifinal on June 7 and the final on July 7 – no doubt under heightened security. 


After a dip in tourism towards the end of last year, caused by the violence during the Gilets Jaunes demonsrations, official figures released recently show that overall tourism in 2019 was higher than the year before, and that today France is again the most-visited country of all. Considering the state of the world and its various degrees of risk to tourists (gun violence, political unrest) perhaps the French response is still the best: a Gallic shrug and another glass of wine.


Correction: While the Women's World Cup soccer matches will take place between June 7 and July 7, the city of Lyon will host the two semifinals on July 2 and 3, and the final match on July 7.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

MACRON MID-WAY; FIRST PRESS CONFERENCE


HERE WE GO AGAIN...

Workers' Day parade in Paris
President Macron’s long-awaited response to the Yellow-Vest weekly demonstrations was set for April 15th but was cancelled at the last minute when Notre Dame Cathedral burst into flames and took center stage. The postponed televised presidential address finally took place ten days later. In the meantime, on Easter Saturday, the Gilets Jaunes (GJ) returned to the streets, breaking the brief spell of national unity around the near-fatal fire of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It was back to the business of demonstrating and disrupting.


Well before April 15 the GJ had already announced that they considered the president’s upcoming message, following three months of Grand Debates and analysis of the citizens’ Books of Grievances, totally irrelevant to their cause. Not only has the movement hardened – egged on by a core of radicalized agitators – but it has taken on a nastier tone as well. What else to call their cruel placards and police taunts of “Go Kill Yourselves!” after the number of police suicides had just climbed to 28 for this year alone? And why sneer at the generous donations for the restoration of Notre Dame, which they loudly denounce as further proof that the rich have too much money and that the government cares more about old stones than about people?

Boarded-up restaurant La Rotonde
It’s a far cry from the game-changing Gilets Jaunes movement that began in November 2018 and created a groundswell of public support for their demands of relief for the overtaxed working and middle class who feel disproportionately squeezed by Macron’s tax policies, and for reinstatement of the wealth tax which the newly elected president Macron had eliminated, earning him the sobriquet of President of the Rich. Today’s GJ movement has lost much of its moderate base and its civility, and its surviving hardcore of brawlers has welcomed the dreaded Black Bloc anarchists (who call themselves anti-capitalists) in its demonstrations “because their violence draws attention to our cause.” One example: in mid-March the Black Bloc, cheered on by the GJ, had set fire to the famous Fouquet's "capitalist" restaurant on the Champs Elysées because former president Nicolas Sarkozy had celebrated his election there, so on May 1st they targeted La Rotonde restaurant on the Boulevard du Montparnasse because that is where Macron had celebrated his win. This time, however, the restaurant had been boarded up in anticipation and sustained no damage

We can only hope that this unholy alliance with the Black Bloc will spell the beginning of the end of the newly radicalized Gilets Jaunes movement that has lost its way.  


SPEECH AND PRESS CONFERENCE

Macron press conference at Elysée Palace
As for President Macron’s postponed televised speech, it finally took place on April 25th. After a one-hour introduction wherein he said he had learned a lot from the Debates with mayors and from the Gilets Jaunes and their “understandable” concerns, he outlined a series of measures that included another €5 billion of tax cuts (in addition to the €10 billion allocated in December), and a more equitable income tax distribution with a new tranche at the low end and two new higher tranches at the upper end. It also included a guaranteed pension of €1000/month to those retirees who currently receive less than that; financial help for single mothers; smaller classes (maximum 24 pupils); a more decentralized government and some other accommodations that are meant, in his words, to put the “human” back into the center of his policies. No details on how this would be paid for, other than “by eliminating some of the fiscal niches for certain businesses” and other solutions yet to be determined. More specific on what he did NOT want, he refused again to reinstate the ISF wealth tax, arguing that he scrapped this tax for a period of two years to stimulate the economy and then measure the results at the end of 2019. If these results are disappointing, the ISF will be reinstated in 2020. On immigration: France is following the EU rules of fair distribution of refugees across the EU Schengen space (‘free movement of people and goods’) and will not take on more. The GJ demand for a Citizens’ Referendum (RIC) was rejected in favor of an RIP (Referendum in Participation with Parliament). He also urged French people to “work more” in order to improve their pension at the retirement age of 62 – or work longer since we live longer.

During the subsequent press conference with 200 journalists that ran for an hour and a half, little of substance was added. Most notably, it showed Macron’s talent for public speaking and for poetic phrases such as “the art of being French,” which means… what exactly? 
A same-day interactive Harris poll following the press conference indicated that 63 percent of the French were “not convinced” by Macron’s arguments. Later polls confirmed this finding, adding that the lack of confidence in president Macron is not limited to his tax policies (the GJ's principal issue) but shows a general mistrust that his current roadmap can lead to the reforms he promised.     

On May 1, international Workers’ Day and a national holiday in France, all French unions traditionally gather in Paris for a big joint march that tends to be more festive than combative. This year, the Gilets Jaunes and their new Black Bloc friends decided to join this Workers’ march which, inevitably, resulted in burning garbage cans, smashed windows, police clashes with clouds of teargas, and the unions’ message getting lost in the general mayhem. 


A LOOK BACK 
Brief Recap of a novel Movement

What started last November as a Facebook-driven popular revolt against a 23 percent increase in fuel tax (quickly rescinded) and the demand for fiscal and social justice, has evolved into a set of non-negotiable demands expressed in increasingly violent protest marches. The problem is that the resignation of President Macron is one of those demands and that the original protest movement has morphed into a total rejection of authority and the status quo. Nothing less than a complete makeover will satisfy the Gilets Jaunes today.

Never before, however, have French street demonstrations been so violent and so costly to the State and individuals, so last month President Macron announced a Loi anti-casseurs, a set of strong measures against the black-clad thugs whose destructive rampages have marked these demonstrations. Mayors of targeted cities ordered the Saturday shutdown of their city centers to prevent vandalism, but it was not enough to protect people and property from the violence and blind destruction of these protests. Marchers managed to overrun the police to get into the prohibited historic centers of old Avignon, Bordeaux, and Toulouse where nine people were injured recently, eight of them police. 

Much of this violence, however, has been perpetrated against the poor, such as those minimum-wage earners who sold newspapers at the kiosks on the Champs Elysées and were torched out of their workplace and their jobs, or small-business owners who can barely survive when forced to close shop repeatedly on Saturdays. Yet, little is said about this in the press, while in private the usual comment is a Gallic shrug or Ah, Madame, c’est compliqué. 

To foreign eyes, it may not look all that complicated until we realize that street protests are a protected right in France and considered a form of free speech. Hence, part of Macron’s recent Loi anti-casseurs that specifically aimed at barring those known to have perpetrated violence against persons or property was voted down by the Constitutional Court because it was considered a denial of free speech and of the right to demonstrate. Only a judge (and not a police prefect) can bar a person who has already been convicted of such violence, the Court ruled, not those who were not convicted or are awaiting trial. It is up to the police to keep troublemakers under control, and not for the courts to prevent protesters from demonstrating. 


A spokesman for the police union saw this decision as a validation for the hooligans and an endangerment of the riot police. The sharp increase in suicides among law enforcement officers -26 police and two gendarmes since January of this year testifies to the extreme stress they are under and their frustration at the lack of means to respond effectively. With police at the breaking point after five months of weekend riot duty, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner could do no better than promise more suicide-prevention programs and long-term psychological support for stressed officers, and ask for greater vigilance on the part of their superiors. 

While the latest polls raised Macron's approval rating by five points (back to 32%, where it was before the December riots), his disappointing speech and press conference may well be reflected in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament where his worst enemy, the eurosceptic Marine Le Pen and her extreme-right party are expected to make big gains to the detriment of Macron's LREM party. 

In the meantime, French riot police grit their teeth, the government tries desperately to keep the lid on while zigzagging on the narrow path between democracy and suppression, and we all keep our fingers crossed every Saturday.


ERRATUM: An error has crept into this blog. The number of police suicides for 2019 is 28, not 38 as previously reported.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NOTRE DAME ON FIRE !


In the early evening of April 15th, when we were all waiting for President Macron’s televised address to the nation in response to the Gilets Jaunes crisis, a picture of Notre Dame de Paris in flames suddenly flashed onto our screens. Within minutes, the Elysée Palace announced the cancellation of Macron’s speech and his hastily arranged visit to the site of the devastating fire that nearly destroyed the 850-year old Gothic cathedral. The image of this ultimate symbol of Paris engulfed in flames will be forever etched in our minds, like the pictures of the twin towers burning in New York. When the tall spire collapsed and fell through the roof an audible gasp went through the crowds, while those of us who stared at our television screens still hoped this was just a movie scene. Sadly, it was not, and Notre Dame, which survived the French revolution and two world wars, was surely dealt its greatest blow ever right in front of us. 

The scene was unreal and unbearable. Not our Notre Dame! – this essential part of French history, its culture and its literature, which the French hold dearer than any other monument. Please, not this place where kings were anointed and Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804; where Joan of Ark was sanctified and her rehabilitation process was held; where the Crown of Thorns that sainted king Louis IX purchased in 1239 after one of his crusades is kept; where funeral masses for French presidents and the end of two world wars were celebrated, and where sorrows were soothed in the aftermath of national tragedies, most recently after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. For French Catholics it is the mother church where the great and the humble have come to kneel in prayer for centuries; for the non-religious a Gothic jewel and architectural masterpiece; for tourists a must-see and photo opportunity. For all, the heart and soul of Paris.

Notre Dame before the fire
With 14 million visitors per year, Notre Dame is the most-visited monument in France, age-old star of books and films, and literally the center from which all national roads emanating from Paris are measured, as a plaque in the pavement in front of Notre Dame indicates. The intricate wooden structure of its roof support consists of hundreds of 850-year-old oak beams which measures 110 meters long, 13 meters wide and 10 meters high, and is called “the forest” because of its size and the fact that it took a whole forest to produce the wood. Ironically, no electricity was ever installed in this upper structure of very dry wood so as to minimize the fire danger. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, the cathedral has undergone a number of restorations and expansions, but never knew a major fire. 

As groups of shocked onlookers huddled together in the streets of Paris that night, cell phones held aloft to register what their eyes could not believe, the first donations began to pour in, topped by the generous gift of 100 million euros from French billionaire Henri-François Pinault. Before the night was over, his rival and fellow billionaire Bernard Arnault had pledged 200 million euros from his family and the LVMH conglomerate to the rebuilding fund. And the next day it was reported that French company L’Oréal added another 200 million euros to the fund. For once, there was no grumbling about the super rich in France. President Macron confirmed in the morning that thanks to the heroic all-night efforts of 400 firemen, the severely damaged building was saved and that Notre Dame will be rebuilt with funds from the State, as well as corporate and individual donors. At last count, the corporate and private donations have grown to 880 million euros in 48 hours and continue to flow in from all over the world.  

Crown of Thorns
Early reports say that some of the Notre Dame treasures (including the Crown of Thorns and the hair shirt of devout king Louis IX) were saved before the fire spread and that the three large stained-glass rosette windows, dating from the mid-13th century and each measuring 13 meters in diameter, have survived, partly thanks to the intelligent spraying of the windows with enough cooling water to keep the lead joints from melting, but not enough to break them. They are covered with soot and will need restoring but they are largely intact, while many other windows have exploded in the heat. Less is known about the condition of the three organs, especially the Great Organ which was begun in a smaller version in the 15th century and after a number of additions attained its current size in the 18th century with 8000 pipes, 119 stops and five keyboards. Today it is listed as a classified monument. If a quick first inspection is confirmed in the coming days, it was damaged but can probably be repaired, which would be a second narrow escape for this exceptional organ that survived the Revolution in extremis when the then organist began playing the Marseillaise as the insurgents entered the cathedral. 

The cause of the fire is still under investigation but it is believed to have started on the roof, probably around the spire. The priest who was celebrating the 6PM mass, one of five daily masses at Notre Dame, has said that he smelled smoke but saw no fire and that after mass, around 6:45PM, he went outside and saw flames on the roof around the base of the spire. An alarm had sounded earlier but nothing was found. A second alarm pinpointed the location of the flames which by then were shooting upward from the roof.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this largest of French cathedrals which extends far beyond religion and national borders. The French have always had a strong emotional, almost visceral, attachment to Notre Dame. In this lay country where only 4 percent of the Catholic population observes Sunday mass, it was a bit of a surprise to see people standing in silent clusters, mesmerized and teary-eyed, only to suddenly join in spontaneous prayer or in singing Christian hymns. Overcome by sadness, they lost their reserve and sought comfort in each other, sharing what one of the newspaper headlines called: Notre Drame de Paris. 

Golden cross on main altar at night
On the night of the fire President Macron returned several times to the site, where he got a progress report directly from the commander of the fire brigade and was allowed, shortly after midnight, to step a few meters inside the cathedral for a first glimpse at the interior damage (roof two-thirds gone, spire crashed into pieces right in front of the main altar which was heavily damaged except for the large golden cross that curiously seemed to shine brightly in the darkness).




Among the mass of the roof’s rubble, the copper rooster that had perched proudly on top of the spire with three relics inside it, was found miraculously in one piece though dented and in need of repair. It is not known at this time if the relics were still inside.




The next day on the evening news, Emmanuel Macron praised the firemen and the French people’s strong sense of solidarity in hardship. In France we have always built cathedrals, he said, and we will rebuild this one as well with our rich source of artisans of old—stone cutters, master carpenters, artists and restorers of all kinds—these noble trades that have never died in France. And he promised to see this done in five years, in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Overly optimistic? Perhaps, but we all want to believe it. 


When I look again at our beloved Notre Dame, corseted in her scaffold, bloodied but standing, I see the ultimate survivor and I know she is here to stay.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

GILETS JAUNES ON THE WANE; GUN CONTROVERSY; UN SPEAKS OUT; ANTISEMITISM; CLIMATE CHANGE


GILETS JAUNES LOSING SUPPORT


If you are getting fed up with the weekly Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) demonstrations in France, you are not alone. Even some of the GJ themselves are dropping out, with the number of active protesters down from an early nationwide high of 287,000 to 32,300 this past weekend (10,000 in Paris alone). For the first time since the start of the GJ movement in mid-November 2018, polls are now indicating that a majority of the French (56% according to a February Elabe poll) want the Saturday protest marches to stop, even though they still support the GJ agenda. They approve of the grassroots group of widely varying ages and backgrounds that succeeded in forcing the government to cancel a planned fuel tax hike, but seem less convinced of the usefulness of continuing demonstrations now that the GJ's initial demands have been met and their new claims are less clear. 

Fouquet's vandalized and set on fire
Saturday, March 16, saw the 18th consecutive weekly GJ protest turning into one of the most destructive ones since the start of the movement four months ago. Numerous videos taken on the Champs Elysées in Paris attest to the extreme violence against the police who were pelted with paving stones and assaulted even inside their police vans, while the notorious casseurs (Black Bloc hooligansunleashed their fury against property along the way as they vandalized and set fire to the famous Fouquet’s restaurant, burned down three newsstands, vandalized and pillaged a number of luxury shops, set fire to cars and to a ground-floor bank in an apartment building where police managed to extricate in extremis a young woman and her child from the fire that completely destroyed the bank offices below her. A tragedy had been narrowly avoided, but the murderous hatred that has infected these demonstrations has begun to overshadow the initial call of the Gilets Jaunes for social justice, and switch public sympathy to the merchants and business owners who have been vandalized (sometimes more than once) or forced to close shop on Saturdays. 

Shops vandalized and looted
The incidents showed once again the difficulty of a government that must allow demonstrations, as guaranteed by the Constitution, but is unable to maintain order with an under-equipped and over-extended police force that is nearing exhaustion after 18 consecutive weekends of battle. Police reported that 42 protesters, 17 police officers, and one fireman were injured in this latest demonstration, while 237 people were arrested and 200 held in custody—later reduced to 87 held in custody, all others released.  

President Macron cut short a ski weekend in the Pyrenees to return to Paris for a crisis meeting with his Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, and subsequently promised strong measures, to be announced soon, to ensure safe and peaceful demonstrations in the future. We are waiting. 


GUN CONTROVERSY

In addition to the material cost of the widespread destruction, there has been concern for some time over the high number of injuries suffered in the GJ protests. According to Le Monde of January 21st, they then numbered 1700 protesters and 1000 police officers and included light injuries as well as those requiring hospitalization. They did not include the permanent injuries caused by alleged police brutality for which 157 complaints have been filed and 71 referred to the IGNP (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale) for further investigation. Among these are the loss of fingers or an eye caused by a rubber bullet fired from an “LBD” gun (lanceur à balles de défense) during heated confrontations. These flashball guns are used by riot police in the frontlines—those charged with pushing back demonstrators and therefore most exposed to the angry mob. After the first serious injuries, these police officers were ordered to wear body cameras, which, together with videos and live reports, serve to help the IGPN to distinguish between legitimate defense and undue force. For instance, a flashball is supposed to be aimed below the shoulder, but when a demonstrator ducks to pick up a paving stone or a teargas cannister and gets hit in the face, is this police brutality or legitimate defense? The continued use of the controversial LBD gun was recently approved by the French Constitutional Council which found this gun to be the best defensive weapon for the riot police when faced with Molotov cocktails, fire bombs, and all manner of heavy projectiles in up-close violent confrontations. 


UNITED NATIONS SPEAKS OUT

UN Human Rights boss Michelle Bachelet
As the flashball debate continued in France, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a full investigation into alleged excessive force by French police against Gilets Jaunes protesters. Her Commission has placed France on its police violence list as the only developed country alongside such wrongdoers as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Haiti. Ouch! In response, the French government reminded Mrs. Bachelet that it is the armed thugs at these demonstrations who are at the root of the extreme violence against persons and property, and not the embattled police who have been facing hostile crowds every weekend since mid-November and have suffered many injuries in that time. Even so, the French courts are again looking into claims of police violence and, unless convinced otherwise by the latest videos, may well end up banning the controversial LBD gun after all.


ANTISEMITISM

Alain Finkielkraut attacked by Gilets Jaunes
While the Gilets Jaunes appear to be running out of steam with dwindling numbers of marchers, the holdouts have hardened in their demands for a citizens’ referendum and a change in government. The discourse is more strident and hateful, and may have found its way into an outbreak of antisemitism that is never far from the surface in France. During one of the recent Saturday demonstrations, well known French-born philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was stopped near his home in Paris by a group of Yellow Vests who hurled insults at him like Dirty Jew, Go back to Tel Aviv, France is OURS!, and more. Shortly thereafter, antisemitic slogans appeared on some public buildings, posters of the widely admired Simone Veil were covered with swastikas, as were a large number of graves in a Jewish cemetery in Alsace while others were heavily damaged and headstones overturned. 

President Macron paid a visit to the desecrated cemetery and forcefully condemned this religious violence which has no place in a lay country such as France, but no government has been able to effectively eradicate the ever-simmering antisemitic sentiment in this country. 




CLIMATE CHANGE

Greta Thunberg's School Strike for Climate
March 15 was the closing date for President Macron's 2-month-long Grand Débât, but it also was the beginning of a new weekly protest when thousands of French high school students skipped class that Friday afternoon to take to the streets to demand government action on climate change. Following the example of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who gained worldwide attention by speaking out at the Davos Economic Forum where she accused irresponsible adults (including her audience of captains of industry) of ignoring global warming for too long and called on youth to take over. She had been demonstrating every Friday afternoon since last August with a sit-down strike in front of her school or the Swedish Parliament where her quiet determination soon inspired teenagers all over the world to do the same on Friday afternoons. In the first such protest tens of thousands of French students skipped classes on March 15 to demonstrate, followed the next day by some 45,000 people of all ages who marched peacefully in Paris for climate change action, while the Gilets Jaunes held their noisy and destructive protest in another part of town. The contrast between the quiet climate change march and the slash-and-burn Gilets Jaunes march could not have been greater.  



WHAT'S NEXT?

In an attempt at rapprochement with those who had accused him of being out of touch with ordinary citizens, Emmanuel Macron initiated a Grand Debate of weekly meetings with mayors throughout France between January 15 and March 15. He also proposed that mayors invite citizens to express their concerns in Books of Grievances made available at city halls until March 15. These Books have now been collected and, once digitalized and summarized, will be submitted to the government, which has promised to respond before the end of April. 

On Monday following the disastrous GJ demonstration, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced some of the "strong measures" President Macron had referred to earlier:  No more demonstrations on the Champs Elysées as well as two areas in Bordeaux and Toulouse that have been repeatedly vandalized; increased fines for those who participate in unauthorized demonstrations and jail time for the organizers; possible use of surveillance drones to pinpoint and identify outside hooligans; cancellation of the demonstration as soon as the presence of hooligans is detected. Oh, and the Paris police chief was fired for having given confusing instructions on the use of the LBD guns.

It is to be hoped that this will allow the government to take back control. Macron needs to win this one to regain the popularity he lost over claims of "arrogance" and being "the president of the rich" while overtaxing the poor, which was the spark that set off these Gilet Jaunes protests to begin with. Will it be enough to turn voters around? That may depend on his April response to the problems raised in the Debates and the Books of Grievances. In the meantime, he will be watched closely for his dealings with the Yellow Vest crisis and the missteps in his own government. 

Stay tuned...