Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween in France

Halloween in France

We are in holiday mode again with schools being closed the last week of October. Having just come back from their long summer breaks in early September, French children next get a week off for la Toussaint, All Saints Day. Many city dwellers pack up their family and leave for the countryside or the coast for a week "away." And, let's face it, with a starting level of 30 days vacation, the French have enough time off to do this several times a year. Traditionally, this is a time for family gatherings and for going to the cemetery to put flowers on family graves -- usually potted chrysanthemums which, by the way, are considered cemetery flowers here and are never to be given as gifts, especially not on hospital visits. Lately, however, Halloween has become part of this Fall holiday which, considering its Celtic origins, should be no surprise. Even though it still resembles more an at-home dress-up party with scary masks and costumes than the street event where American children go out ringing doorbells and trick-or-treating, French commercials are increasingly featuring Halloween themes, pastry shops are offering special desserts and candies, and pumpkin growers produce extra crops for jack-o'-lanterns. Yet, many French remain weary of commercialism and of the introduction of "American" celebrations. Is Halloween here to stay? The jury is still out...

Halloween in Paris

Strauss-Kahn in hot water again

A rather sordid scandal in Lille, involving organized prostitution in the luxury Carlton Hotel, has claimed its first victims. Police are investigating a prostitution ring that catered to high-flying businessmen and local officials and even supplied prostitutes for encounters in nearby Belgium. The hotel's PR manager and a French businessman are being held for questioning, and the local police commissioner has been reassigned to a lesser post in Paris, which gave him the opportunity to resign and take early retirement. But as the investigation continues, a new big-name client has surfaced:  Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It is claimed that DSK was offered prostitutes from the Carlton Hotel to join him, including most recently at the Sofitel hotel in New York City on the Friday preceding his Saturday assault on a maid in that hotel. DSK has requested to be heard by police as soon as possible "to put an end to the insinuations."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bullfights and Sodas

October 23, 2011


In front of the Roman arena of Nîmes stands a bronze statue of Nimeño II, the brilliant local torero (and brother of Nimeño I) who was severely injured by a Miura bull in 1989 which left him partly paralyzed. Two years after the accident he committed suicide. It is one of the dramatic stories that punctuate the history of tauromachy in France and in Spain, where an anti-corrida movement has been brewing for some time and has now come home to France.
When Catalonia recently outlawed bullfights on its territory and 20,000 aficionados packed the arena of Barcelona for a final corrida, supporters of tauromachy - in danger of losing other territories - began to organize demonstrations to safeguard corridas wherever strong interest still exists. Nîmes is one such place, and during its harvest Feria on September 18th the first clashes broke out between pro- and anti-bullfighting demonstrators. Taken by surprise, the pro forces could not prevent the opposition from "desecrating" the statue of Nimeño II which to many was going too far. So two days ago the pro-corrida fans gathered, three thousand strong, in front of the statue of Nimeño II and placed carnations at his feet. It was noted that many local politicians were present, which illustrates the importance of listening to the significant block of voters in this country represented by a political party called le Parti de la Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Traditions (CPNT). Tradition is not trifled with and change comes slowly here. I suspect that the huge Roman arenas in Arles and Nîmes, as well as the numerous smaller arenas throughout the southwest of France, won't go silent anytime soon.(*)
Homage to Nimeño II
Elected officials demonstrating in Nîmes

Sodas and Soft Drinks

In preparing its 2012 Budget, the French Ministry of Finance has announced that it will double the planned tax on sodas and sugar-enhanced soft drinks from 0.01 to 0.02 euro per can. The measure was accepted by the General Assembly and will be up for a global vote on October 25th. It is expected to be passed. This price hike would result in increased tax revenues of 240 million euros a year. These additional revenues will go toward filling the gap in the national health insurance coffers, the government explained.

Rugby Finals

France lost the World Cup Rugby by one point (7-8) against New Zealand in a well-fought match which, some say, the French dominated. It's at times like these that big guys cry, but when a few days later "Les Bleus" were welcomed back at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where 10,000 fans shouted their support and appreciation for the captain and his players, spirits were restored and it almost seemed that they had brought back the World Cup themselves.

Winning rugby team: New Zealand's All Blacks

(*) To read about the Easter bullfights in Arles in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Elections, Rugby, Pétanque, and Carlos Fuentes

Primary Elections

The Socialist party in France has decided to hold primary elections this year in order to choose among six candidates the one who will oppose incumbent President Sarkozy in April 2012. The first round on October 9th was won by François Hollande, followed by Martine Aubry. In the second round a week later, Hollande increased his lead and became the official Socialist candidate. Note that this was the first primary election ever in France, based on the American primaries which are cited as an example of voter participation in choosing a presidential candidate who was heretofore always appointed by the Party.

Primary debate Aubry-Hollande


In the world of sports, France is currently in the ban of the World Cup Rugby that is taking place in New Zealand, where France will be facing the host country’s feared All Blacks in the finals on October 23rd. French fans are collectively holding their breath and won’t exhale until it’s all over. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, Marseilles has just announced that the next world championship Pétanque (also called Boules) will be held in Marseilles in October 2012. Little did I know that there was such a thing as a “world" championship for this sport, which resembles horseshoe throwing or the Italian bocce ball and is very popular in southern France. But in 2004 the French Ministry of Health and Sports declared Pétanque a “sport de haut niveau” which qualifies it for government subsidies, and since then the Fédératon Française de Pétanque has been working hard at changing the image of Boules as an old man’s hobby into one of a serious sport for all ages. No mention so far who the other contestants will be.

Pétanque championship Marseilles

Fête du Livre 2011

October is also the month for the Fête du Livre in Aix-en-Provence, where the municipal library organizes a four-day annual event that has brought numerous Nobel prize winners and other literary greats(*) to this book-loving city. This year, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was the guest of honor, who at age 83 continues to write and add to his considerable body of work. An engaging speaker and tireless participant in three days of conferences, he was joined by about a dozen younger Latin-American writers who acknowledged a debt to Fuentes’s work. Together with Colombian Garcia Marquez and Peruvian Vargas Llosa, Fuentes was declared one of the living monuments of Latin-American literature today. How lucky we are in Aix!

(*) To read about earlier guests at the Fête du Livre, including Philip Roth and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, described in Taking Root in Provence, click here.