Sunday, August 11, 2013

France through the eyes of the New York Times (and vice versa)

“To see ourselves  as others see us …”

I used to read Le Monde every day:  in the print edition, back when I lived in Paris, and later online.   It is oddly unsatisfactory as a primary news source:   they often would not straightforwardly report things, but rather allude to them, after the fact, in essays;  you often felt as though you’d come in at the second reel, even though you’d been reading it daily.
What tore it for me, though, were instances in which some large and revealing story  first came to my attention in The New York Times;  eagerly logging on to Le Monde for their doubtless fuller coverage, I would find … nothing.  They would simply ignore cetain stories until the whole world was talking about them, then weigh in later and tut-tut.  (Such was the case with the banlieue riots a few years back, dwarfing anything the U.S. had seen since Watts.)

In the past couple of days, The Times has again treated some culturally key, and to an American  non-obvious topics:  the town of Roubaix, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.   Both articles are interesting and informative;  but if you didn’t follow French politics, you would not realize to what extent they were rose-tinted.
(For our essay on the NYTimes’ idealization of the distant, click here.)

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
an ecclesiastical mystery:


The first concerns an economically-depressed town with many Muslim immigrants and (not unrelated) a very high crime-rate (“un taux très supérieur à la moyenne française” -- Wiki).   The New York Times coos and gushes over what a rainbow city it is, and, in a portrait that caused quite a stir in France itself, presents it as “a model for the future of France”.
That’s just what we’re afraid of, was a typical French comment.   “To put it into perspective for the Americans,” wrote another, “think of it as Detroit plus Salafism.”   The edulcorated approach of the Times  they dub bisounours -- French for ‘Care Bears’ (etymologically:  Kissy-bears), a term now in wide political use for liberal sentimentalists.

More bemused reaction here:

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,


Next we are treated to an overall flattering portrait of Taubira (“she cites poetry from memory”).    All well and good.  Yet it would be impossible to find a contemporary American equivalent for a figure as divisive as she.   Many in America call President Obama divisive;  but objectively, he has long bent over backwards to meet his antagonists more than halfway, and in politics he is a moderate (indeed a somewhat conservative one on some financial issues).   Similarly, the vituperation against Hillary Clinton, back in First-Lady days, seems strangely out of proportion to anything she actually did or said.   OK, so, race  and gender are a factor.   But in Taubira, we have the race of an Obama, the gender of a Hillary, a socially very left-of-center social politics, combined with an arrogance and feistiness that recall Tom Delay.

[Update May 2014:  For instance, at a public celebration of the abolition of slavery, she refused to join in the singing of the national anthem, later dismissing such observances as “karaoké d’estrade”.  

My lips are sealed

One is at a loss to recall any American political parallel.]

Again, the French themselves are bemused at the funhouse-mirror coverage in the Times:

Les choses sont dites. Dans un portrait que lui consacre le New York Times, daté du 10 août, la ministre de la Justice, Christiane Taubira, affirme ne pas "supporter d'avoir un patron". La garde des Sceaux - dont l'été a été secoué par plusieurs polémiques (remise en liberté de trois condamnés à Chartres et décret de la Cour de cassation en 2004, Ndlr) - explique dans la foulée son fonctionnement : "Ma conscience est mon patron. Et ma conscience me dicte des règles qui sont, je dirais, extrêmement grandes. Elles sont rudes, mais belles."

Readers reply wryly:

Si madame n'aime pas la hiérarchie ..elle peut toujours faire ses valises et retourner dans sa peau d'indépendantiste anti France..comme elle l'a toujours été elle ne devrait pas manquer a grand monde !!

Cette femme est d'une suffisance imbuvable. Mais les médias lui ont tressé des couronnes de laurier lors de ses shows pendant les "débats" sur le mariage gay . Depuis elle donne l'impression de pouvoir tout se permettre.........d'autant que personne, pour diverses raisons que nous ne dirons pas, ne peut oser la critiquer sans risques!

Inénarrable sinon dangereuse mégalomane que cette Ministre de la Justice dont le passé politique ne semblait pas justifier ce poste régalien !!!

Readers of the Times portrait did not have access to the original quotation:

In protest chants this year, opponents of the marriage bill initially identified themselves as “families” — “Taubira, you are beat, families are in the street!” — but later as “the French,” Ms. Taubira recalled, as if to cast her as a foreigner.

As slogans go, that’s a little lame;  and I wondered what the actual slogan had been.  Le Journal du Dimanche supplies this:

Elle dénonce certains slogans entendus lors des manifestations contre ce projet de loi, à l'image de "Taubira, t'es foutue, les familles sont dans la rue".

Yes, that’s better.

[Update 18 Sept 2013]  L'affaire du braqueur, et le bijoutier de Nice:


[Update 20 October 2013]  This morning’s New York Times published an article, datelined Paris, which  from a European perspective  is astonishing in its candor:

Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?

In fact, even for America, the notion that any ethnicity, now matter how primitive, could be publically discribed as, err, “primitive” (of course with chaperoning quotes) is no longer widely accepted.
I monitor the French press daily (though not intensively), and have never encountered a depiction as unvarnished as this:

THE cluster of Roma, handcuffed and caged-in behind glass walls, listened in silence as prosecutors accused them in court of selling child brides for up to about $270,000 in cash, valuing them based on their ability to steal. In a case that has riveted France, the prosecutors accused three family clans from Croatia of grooming girls and boys as young as 11 to steal as part of a gang that committed 100 robberies in France, Belgium and Germany in 2011.
One 20-year-old witness told the court he had stolen about $600,000 in cash and jewels for his parents, or more than $7,000 a month, since age 13. Less skilled thieves could face punishment, including beatings by Roma elders.
All but one of the 27 accused were convicted on Oct. 11 in Nancy, in eastern France, of forcing the children to steal, and received sentences from two to eight years. At the top of the network was a 66-year-old grandmother.
The case highlighted an increasingly rancorous debate here and across Europe about what some politicians call, rather ominously, the “Roma question,” a reference to the nomadic people, also known as Gypsies, who came from India to Europe centuries ago. An estimated 11 million are scattered across Europe.

In Europe, you just don’t say that.   Or rather, you don’t print it;  meanwhile the murmur of vox populi grows louder and louder, and may produce surprises in the next French general elections.

For a typical example of how the French press -- even the relatively politically-incorrect right-of-center Le Figaro -- reports such matters, consider a much less sensitive case, involving the theft of agricultural equipment out in the fields:

Telle une nuée de criquets, une bande de pillards a fondu sur la récolte début octobre pour faire main basse sur pas moins d'une tonne de pommes de terre. Les auteurs de cette razzia pastorale ont sévi à la nuit tombée, s'immisçant entre deux parcelles de maïs avant de se volatiliser dans la nature avec leur encombrant butin.
Ni vu ni connu, sans aucune traçabilité de provenance. «Les empreintes de pas, plutôt de petites tailles, ont témoigné de la présence d'environ vingt pillards», note un gendarme qui estime la marchandise à une valeur de 10.000 euros. Et la facture s'envole avec les vols en série de tracteur. Bien que valant bien souvent le prix d'une Ferrari, ces engins ultrasophistiqués ont été volés avec une simplicité déroutante, comme de vulgaires scooters.

Here and in the rest of the article, there is no indication whatsoever of what group might be responsible for these noctural larcenies, nor even whether the thieves share any traits at all in common -- perhaps some slip in from the local nunneries, while others are physicians on a country vacation, who knows.   There is not so much as a code-phrase like “venus de l’Europe de l’est”, which every European has long learned to decipher.
But there is one clue, which those familiar with the hieroglyphics of European discourse about prickly matters  will understand:  that Sherlock-Holmesian detail concerning the “footprints in the flower-bed”, so to speak:  “rather on the small side.”

Instantly French readers know what is at stake.  The allusion is to the well-known practice of Gypsy Fagins of employing little Artful Dodgers in their schemes, since these, if caught, are usually simply released, to steal another day.   The French by now are hip to this, and in their comments they pull no punches and name names. (“Gens de voyage” -- ‘travelers’, as in Britain -- began as a euphemism, but simply means gypsies.)

Tout ces vols, c'est archi connu, sont le fait de gens du voyage et de gens venus de pays de l'est qui mettent sur le terrain des mineurs qui se savent en totale sécurité face à la justice française !
A propos comment appelait-on ces gens qui faisaient des razzias sur les côtes de France pendant des siècles?
La France est pillée par les nomades des pays de l'est, merci Schengen et les frontières ouvertes, et que fait Monsieur Hollande et son gouvernement de d'abrutis ? Ils parlent de soit disant fascisme et marine Le Pen qui danse au bal de Vienne. Il ne voit pas notre Président Moi je, que la France est livrée à la criminalité.
Ce sont les mêmes qui volent des kilomètres de cables en cuivre, et rassurez vous il n'ont jamais souhaité travailler.
L'excuse de paupérisation ne passe pas, c'est clairement un choix de mode de vie.
Arrêtons la culture de l'excuse !
L'europe passoire que nous ont fabriqué nos élites, entre-autre pour soit-disant nous éviter une guerre, ne nous protègera de la guerre civile qui nous pend inéluctablement au nez.
"C'est le symptôme d'une paupérisation croissante de la population qui va se servir dans les champs pour survivre."
Heuuu, le vol d'engins de plus de centaines de milliers d'euros n'ont rien à voir avec la paupérisation.
Pas plus que le vol de tonnes de légumes ou de fruits.
Il faut une sacrée organisation et des réseaux, mafieux, pour écouler tout ça.

~ Recommendation posthume ~
“Si j’étais encore en vie, et que je  désirais un bon whodunnit,
que lirais-je?"
(Je suis Charles de Gaulle, et j’ai approuvé ce message)

[Update 9 Nov 2013]  A trenchant article by Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman:
So S&P has downgraded France. What does this tell us?
The answer is, not much about France. It can’t be overemphasized that the rating agencies have no, repeat no, special information about national solvency — especially for big countries like France. Does S&P have inside knowledge of the state of French finances? No. Does it have a better macroeconomic model than, say, the IMF — or for that matter just about any one of the men and women sitting in this IMF conference room with me? You have to be kidding.
I think that when S&P complains about lack of reform, it’s actually complaining that Hollande is raising, not cutting taxes on the wealthy, and in general isn’t free-market enough to satisfy the Davos set. Remember that a couple of months ago Olli Rehn dismissed France’s fiscal restraint — which has actually been exemplary — because the French, unacceptably, are raising taxes rather than slashing the safety net.
So just as the austerity drive isn’t really about fiscal responsibility, the push for “structural reform” isn’t really about growth; in both cases, it’s mainly about dismantling the welfare state.

Reaction to Krugman's blogpost in France:

[Update 6 January 2014]  A singularly uninsightful article by an American academic bisounours, which we reprint because he claims to be a philosopher:

[Update 8 janvier 2014]  So apparently "Newsweek" as well has wandered into the fray, and elicited a reaction in France:

L'hebdomadaire américain a réagi à la vague de protestations suscitée par un article sur «le déclin de la France» en accusant les Français d'être «dans le déni». Pierre Moscovici et Najat Vallaud-Belkacem ont critiqué la publication, qui se défend de faire du «French bashing».

A word to our French friends:  "Newsweek" ceased being a serious publication many years ago.  Ignore it.

[Update 11 January 2014] France has ever been full of awkward refugees, from Carlos the Jackal on.   And currently, masses of Hutus, who slaughtered the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, and whom France (see the article) may have armed and trained in the first place:

By bringing civil lawsuits against Hutus suspected of involvement in the genocide, Alain and Dafroza Gauthier have challenged France’s longstanding protection of Rwandan fugitives.”

(The imagistic rhetoric of that tableau is revealing; mais passons.)

[Update 19 January 2014]  A well-weighed article by Robert Zaretsky  in this morning’s New York Times, characterizes Hollande as a “weightless president” in an office of great gravity;  and says he continues “la peopolisation”  pioneered by Ségolène Royale (on which see further  Word of the Day:  “la pipolade”.)

Is the Fifth Republic Burning?

[Note:  The essay appears in the print edition of the Week in Review section, but is buried on the Website, and I couldn’t find the link.]

And it reminds us of something I’d forgotten: that the minx whom he ditched for Julie Gayet, Valérie Trierweiler, had herself been the bit of jam for whom Hollande (he of the twitchy Y-fronts) ditched his mistress floozy “partner” of the time -- none other than the ineffable Ségolène Royale !   And this is significant beyond the gossip-columns, for Royale is no thong-snapping starlet (though she does pose in bathing-suits for the tabloids), but the woman who came within spitting-distance of being elected President of France.

[Update 23 Jan 14] An excellent op-ed by Roger Cohen:

A consulter aussi:  Leçons de géometrie hexagonale

[15 mars 2014]  Update here:

 [1 avril 2014]  From a rather good article re Marine, on the occasion of the FN's recent good showings in the municipales:

Her answers may not go deep, but unlike many politicians, there is no fudge language.

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