Tag Archives: France

French Election

In 1987, Klaus Barbie was being tried in France for crimes against humanity, crimes committed while he was in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, between 1942 and 1944. That same year, I was living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and working as an au pair. I looked after a three-year-old girl named Raphaelle, whose parents were physics teachers at a Parisian lycee. They were about as warm as one might expect physics teachers to be, but at least they left me to my own devices most of the time. They considered me debrouillarde, meaning they believed I could figure things out on my own. They complained to me a good deal about their previous jeune fille, who was British and not so debrouillarde. She cried a lot, they said with a snort of derision. I cried a lot too, but not in front of them.

When not in class I was ironing (while watching either the Barbie trial or Charlie’s Angels in French), or vacuuming or picking Raphaelle up from school and giving her her goutee, an after school snack. It usually consisted of baguette and nutella. Yum. And to think – French people were forever trashing Americans for eating too much junk.

When not studying French poetry or grammar, or doing my jeune fille au pair duties – I had never ironed so much in my life, but at least I had learned how to make a decent vinaigrette (indeed, I learned what a vinaigrette was) — I was enjoying my flat near the rue Mouffetard and the surrounding pleasures. I lucked out with Raphaelle’s family; they owned a small apartment in a trendy area in Paris’ fifth arrondissement which they used for their foreign nannies. They themselves lived a few streets and a couple of metro stops away.

Previously, I had worked for a family who had stuck me in the more traditional chambre de bonne, or maid’s room. Chambres de bonnes in Parisian apartment buildings are usually on the 6th of 7th floor and can’t be reached by elevator, meaning your thighs and glutes get a great workout, off-setting (up to a point) all the brie, baguette, wine and Lindt bars you are taking in your first time in Paris. They are also small — only a chambre, not a flat — often cockroach-ridden and their inhabitants have to share a bathroom with others on the same floor. Not all inhabitants of these rooms are foreign girls eager to fall in love in France. Some are men going through a divorce, immigrant workers, derelicts or the general down-and-outers in Paris. When you are 20 or so and sharing a bathroom with an underpaid Tunisian or an alcoholic Brit, it can be frightening.

So life near the rue Mouffetard was a joy, a respite amidst my Parisian heartaches and the horrors of history. And speaking of, by mid-June of 1987, I was fixated on the Klaus Barbie trial. It was being televised – a rarity for French television – and it was not only the talk of all media, but the talk of the town. Few French failed to have an opinion on the matter, usually as passionately held as their views on wine, cheese or the moral, cultural and intellectual inferiority of Americans. Every French school child could (and can still, I imagine) recite General de Gaulle’s Appel a la Resistance of June 18, 1940, and Barbie was responsible, after all, for the death of France’s resistance hero, Jean Moulin.

But he represented something more than that – a schism from way back. I knew a bit, at that point in my life, about laffaire Dreyfus, about the great divide it had caused (or perhaps revealed and entrenched) in French society, and about how that schism had never truly healed, manifesting itself again under Vichy. France was a country where the respected documentary about the Nazi occupation of France, The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie), was not permitted to be shown on French television until the 1980s (it had been made in 1969). To say the topic was “touchy” among the French was one of life’s great understatements; to say that French memories of the era seemed to be either creative or selective (or both) was to state the obvious.

This is near as true now as it was two decades ago. In her 2011 book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, Elaine Sciolino writes, “An example of France’s amnesia is a plaque affixed to the wall of the Hotel Lutetia, an Art Deco landmark on the Left Bank in Paris. It identifies the hotel as the reception center for returning deportees and prisoners of war in 1945; it says nothing about its sinister role between 1940 and 1944 as the Paris headquarters of the German Army’s intelligence operations during the Occupation.”

On an anecdotal level, I know that virtually every adult I met in Paris claimed to have a parent or grandparent who hid Jews from June 1940 to August 1944, or claimed to have done so themselves. It made me wonder how any French Jew of the time managed to get deported, since apparently, virtually the entire population was engaged in helping them escape persecution. How on earth did the Vel D’Hiv round-up ever happen? Where on earth did the French police find the Jews they rounded up that day, since the latter were all hidden, tucked away safely under the wing of French courage?

Still, I could not have imagined that some people, after nodding sagely and agreeing that Barbie was a bad man, would add that, “mais les Juifs ne sont pas comme nous.” But Jews are not like us. This was also what French people often said to me about the many Muslims who lived in France. Whether that were true or not, what on earth had that to do with anything? I was also astonished at the number of people who felt the intervening years and Barbie’s age somehow mitigated if not the crimes themselves then the need to prosecute. (In the late 1990s, French collaborator Maurice Papon was allowed out of prison due to his age and ill health, a kindness Papon did not allow his victims.)

During this time I also became aware of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who referred to the Holocaust as a “detail” of history; who wanted to put AIDS patients in sidatoriums. (The French acronym for AIDS is SIDA; sidatorium sounds creepily like crematorium, something that did not escape notice at the time.) When his daughter came onto the political scene she cut her father off from the National Front, making many wonder if she was doing it for reasons of political expediency or because she really disagreed with him about sensitive issues. Well, one didn’t need long to suss things out: during this campaign, she has denied France’s role in the war-time deportation of Jews. She has denied facts of history.

This is my winding way of saying that I hope that Macron wins today — I suspect he will, but one must never be too sure. People are saying that he will be a bit of a Chirac, which would be ok, I guess. Chirac was the first French president to state in so many words that France was guilty in the fate of its Jews. This was not a position that was going to get him many votes, so while there is much I didn’t like about him — the oiliness, the reflexive anti-Americanism — I will always credit him for that.

Of Macron I know little, but I like that he appears to be free-market friendly (by French standards) and also that he has ruled out unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. 

My thoughts, of course, are of no import to the French. They will do as they wish and I wish them well. I lived in Paris for nearly five years and I have visited France several times since. I have an uncle buried in a Canadian War Cemetery there. For me, France will always be a slice of home, of family.

Remembrance Day

I posted earlier about the quakes and such going on here, and it occurred to me that I really need to put things in perspective. I was talking to a couple of classmates here in Italy who are from the Ukraine, and they basically said they felt safer taking their chances with quakes than going back home to deal with war. And then I remembered my uncle’s letter about nearly being killed in a buzz-bomb attack (two months before he was killed by a German shell). Please read that letter and spare a thought for those who serve and those who served. Remember all those young men and women.

Mustapha Dupont

Years ago, I lived in France on Boulevard Voltaire, not far from the Bataclan. I never went to the Bataclan because I was never groovy. I did go to see Etienne Daho at Bercy Stadium one time. My apartment was near Place Leon Blum, named after the French politician who, prior to World War II had been the Prime Minister of France and then during the war had been deported (he was Jewish) to Buchenwald and Dachau and Tyrol and then after the war became Prime Minister again. Seriously. Only in France. (I believe his brother died in Auschwitz.)

In 2005, on a trip to Israel, I visited a kibbutz named after Blum – Kfar Blum, it was called. I was with a group of journalists and I shocked them all by knowing who Blum was. I also shocked the lady from the kibbutz who was tasked with taking us around the place — she told me that no one other than French visitors ever knew who Leon Blum was. (I shocked her even more the next morning when I took a whole mess of fish from our breakfast buffet and fed it to Kfar Blum’s many stray cats.)

A few doors down from my apartment on Boulevard Voltaire there was a convenience store run by a Moroccan family. The father had come to France from North Africa but his sons were all born and raised Frenchmen. They were terribly nice and used to help us (my roommates and me) with our bags and suitcases and such when we returned home from trips. I remember that they loved wearing muscle shirts and showing off their good looks. (Why should youth not be so?) They were terribly sweet and I was grateful for their store because, at the time, it was very difficult to find a grocery store open after 7 p.m. in Paris (not the case now). So I had somewhere to go to buy bottles of wine and Lindt bars.

I keep thinking about that time in my life and about Mustapha Dupont, a Gilbert Becaud song from 1984. I moved to France in the late ‘80s and stayed there nearly five years; long a Becaud fan, I enjoyed that song and its idealism regarding French Muslims, an idealism which one could be forgiven for now considering rather quaint. 

Some of the lyrics:

Mustapha Dupont
Il est né entre Constantine
Et Joinville-Le-Pont
Dupont Mustapha
C’est un bon Français
Comme toi et moi

Mohamed Durand
Il a vu le jour entre Fez
Et Clermont-Ferrand
Durand Mohamed Français cent pour cent
De A… à Z…

Abdou Mamadou
Son père est tombé en ’44
En plein mois d’août
Mamadou Abdou il est bien d’chez nous
Comme toi, comme nous

C’est ça la couleur d’ l’ équipe de France
Entre bleu d’outre-mer et d’ Provence
Tu prends un Lillois, Marseillais
Un Rital un peu polonais
C’est rouge orange, jaune, vert, bleu
Indigo, violet

If you don’t speak French, those lyrics talk about three French Muslims who are all ‘bon Francais’ (good Frenchmen), one of whose father died in World War II fighting (one presumes, given the date of the action and the point of the song) for France. The repeated lyric, at the end, is about the colours of “Team France.” Every colour, says Becaud. Team France is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

I bring this song up because I was at a dinner the other night where someone said that France was basically getting what it deserved – in regards terror attacks — for not having properly integrated Muslims. Um, wtf??? Apart from the victim-blaming of the comment, it simply isn’t true. While there is no question that European countries, in general, are not anywhere as good as we (meaning Canada and the United States) are at integration, the vast majority of French Muslims are just that, integrated and very well so. And while I have no doubt that many French Muslims have had to deal with stupid comments or other forms of ignorance, saying France is getting what it deserves is, well, stupid. As though a natural response to discrimination is to shoot up a restaurant, a magazine, a nightclub, a Kosher supermarket. Further, French Jews experience far more hate-based attacks than any other group (French Jews make up 1% of the population but are the victims of 51% of hate-based attacks in France) and I don’t seem them shooting up innocents.

In short, there is a deeper problem here, a sort of mass pathology, as Paul Berman wrote about so eloquently here.

A couple more useful links here and here, and my own observations when I returned to France in 2014 and 2015, regarding what I viewed as a clear improvement in just how well integrated the French Muslim population had become.

Of course, there are neighbourhoods that are a mess — Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots erupted, comes to mind. To some degree this is the result of a “hands-off” approach – a big mistake that comes from cultural relativism, moral equivalency, political correctness…and fear, I imagine. A bad idea by any other name is a bad idea. We in the West have become cowards (I blame Baby Boomers). We are unwilling to protect values that have been centuries in the making, values from which every group could benefit. This is currently playing out in Germany and other parts of Europe. When people won’t integrate or obey the law, there is nothing unreasonable or bigoted about jailing them or deporting them if they are not legal or talking honestly about the problem, rather than trying to hide it for fear of appearing intolerant. Islamism is not Islam and it shouldn’t be difficult to say as much.

I believe such an approach would make life better for those who want to assimilate (and by assimilate, I don’t mean giving up one’s religion or freedom of worship). There is also nothing unreasonable with making sure refugees/immigrants are carefully vetted.

I am an idealist. I see no reason that Becaud’s lyrics can’t reflect reality. And in many ways I think they do.

See here two pictures taken last March, when I was in Paris. The first is a plaque from inside the Grand Mosque of Paris, commemorating Muslim soldiers who died for France in World War II. The second is a plaque honouring a ‘spahi’ – regiments of the French army recruited primarily from the Maghred – who died during the liberation of Paris.

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