Friday, April 29, 2005

The French government's mistake (one of them)

I’ve just come up for air after a week or two of non-stop translation of a company’s sustainable development report, in which the company explains what a good corporate citizen it has been. Even if this is true, to reassure myself that all was not yet quite right with the world, I asked S. what she thought of the EU Constitution.

As usual, her answer was enlightening and went right to the core of the issue. She knows instinctively how to access and give voice to unconscious thoughts. She said that people who want to vote against the constitution feel that they’ve watched Europe grow by leaps and bounds. They’ve watched European “laws” and “directives” govern more and more of life in France without anyone asking them about it. They understand very little of how “Europe” functions, how the powers of the Commission compare or interact with those of the European parliament or the Council of Ministers. I would add that they’re vaguely aware there’s a rotating six-month presidency, but they haven’t a clue as to what the EU president actually does. So now, for once, someone’s asking their opinion, and they’re not going to miss the opportunity to say a resounding “no”.

I would also add that it’s especially because the government in power is asking them to vote yes. The French government has been in the doghouse lately. It can’t seem to get anything right. Voting yes would be very uncool.

Curiously, when the people’s vote is requested, such as at European parliament elections, participation is the lowest of any type of election. Maybe it’s because people believe the EU parliament has no power, but I suspect it’s because no one really knows what the EU parliament does. Also the candidates seem to be a sort of second-tier group of politicians whose real ambition is to land a prestigious post on their domestic political scene.

Many people view the constitution as written by and for Eurocrats, and what Eurocrats want, according to this view, is for Europe to continue down its current path, only faster. They view the Constitution as facilitating the entry of Turkey, for example. Yet it seems to me the Constitution’s declaration of values, including for example, equality between men and women, would set a tougher standard than exists today, tending more to forestall the entry of a country like Turkey until certain standards were met.

The French government’s error in this campaign has been to think it can reverse 30 or more years of pent-up frustration in a two-month campaign.


Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Don't be afraid" (of the big, bad constitution)

Last Thursday evening there was a debate on TF1 about the EU Constitution. It was President Jacques Chirac going up against a hundred or so young people. I was at my singing rehearsal, so unfortunately I didn’t see it, but the next morning on every radio station I tuned in to – one at home, one in the car, and one in my office – they were talking about it. From what I heard, the hundred weren’t convinced. So the likelihood is the millions watching weren’t either. Meanwhile, the survey machine has churned out more indications that the “no” vote is solidifying. It’s now at about 56% of voting intentions, and the referendum is only a month and a half away.

Both on an off the TF1 show, people opposed to the constitution seem to be opposed to it because they don’t like the direction Europe is taking. They don’t like what they view as the EU’s leanings towards a deregulated, unfettered, free market (libéralisme). Chirac maintains that the constitution, by virtue of the values written into it, is a bulwark against the unfettered “Anglo-Saxon” style free market. They’re against current trends such as globalization and delocalisation. A young lawyer brought up an interesting example, saying that her law degree and qualifications are not recognized in other European countries yet many other services are freely available here in France. So Europe remains a barrier for her. The president was apparently caught unawares on this and other issues raised.

I’m afraid my reading of the constitution hasn’t progressed much since my previous post on the subject, so I can’t really give you an informed opinion on that one. But the debate does seem to confirm what a French politician (sorry, can’t remember who it was!) recently said on France Info, that people who vote “no” on the constitution because they don’t like the direction the EU is taking will get the EU in its current state, with all its faults.

One thing I do know, from reading the daily series of articles appearing in Les Echos on the subject (subscription required), is that the constitution has a declaration of values including for example, “equality between men and women”. Rather than facilitating the entry of countries having trouble accepting such arcane principles, clauses such as these would seem to raise the bar on them (I’m thinking of a hypothetical example of a country straddling Europe and Asia that is demographically and culturally very different from the current European Union members).

President Chirac chalked it all up to pessimism. His message was “Don’t be afraid” (“N’ayez pas peur”). He even said that in the US young people are fundamentally optimistic whereas in France they are fundamentally pessimistic. Any comments on that one?

Anyway, nice message, but a wee bit late. He should have started putting it out, say a year ago. If the Bush administration’s tactics are anything to go by, if you drumbeat a message for long enough, people will believe it.

The French government would be having an easier time of it if there were less infighting. The strutting Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the right-wing UMP party currently in power (Chirac’s) is already jockeying for position in the 2007 presidential election. He didn’t watch Thursday’s debate because he was at some party meeting denouncing the current direction of French society. But he says he taped it and promises to watch it. Maybe I should give him a call so we can watch it together.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

The pope is dead. The prince is dead. The prince got married. The prince got sick.

It was a busy week over at Paris Match. The pope and Prince Rainier of Monaco were bedpost to bedpost. Meanwhile Prince Charles was supposed to get married and had to postpone it a day (luckily the hall wasn’t rented out for a bar mitzvah). To top it all off Prince Ernst-August of Hanover, husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, was taken to the hospital with acute pancreatitis and put in intensive care. I’m sure Paris Match would have preferred these events to be spaced out, say, one per month.

The pope seemed to grab most of the press coverage. Amid all the comments I heard, the one that stuck in my mind came from French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. He said on France Info, the radio news station I listen to every morning, that we have just witnessed, not the end of the pope’s life, but the end of his death. For the past several years, thanks to endless media coverage of his activities, we have watched the pope grow progressively weaker. We’ve witnessed his agony, his passion. In Mr. Finkielkraut’s view, all this fed into a sort of idolatry that has built up around the pope.

Like Alain Finkielkraut, I’m not Catholic, but unlike him, I hadn’t had the courage to say what he did. With all due respect for the greatness of the man and of his 26-year pontificate, this will be my memory of Pope John Paul II: a frail man, once great, aging before my very eyes, his voice shaking a little more each time I heard it.

In France there was a bit of a flap about the fact that the government ordered flags be flown at half mast. The justification was that an acting head of State had died. Others countered that many heads of state have died in office without France flying flags at half mast. This is a sensitive topic here, in a country where any kind of official recognition of a given religion coming from the officially secular State is frowned upon. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin also wrote a column in the Catholic newspaper La Croix, paying homage to the pope, but did not sign it as the prime minister.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Food Glorious Food II

A few weeks ago, after a review of a book called French Women Don’t Get Fat appeared in the New York Times, I wrote a long piece about obesity, French and American eating habits and how, despite what the author of the book says, obesity is gaining ground in France. Last week an article was published in Les Echos (subscription required) with the following title: Jean-Marie Le Guen (PS) dépose une proposition de loi pour endiguer l'obésité (“Jean-Marie Le Guen (Socialist party MP) sponsors a bill to counter obesity”). The bill suggests the creation of a high-level commission that would establish a code of good conduct for agri-food companies, restrict advertising and require health warnings on certain products. The bill’s sponsor also called obesity “the number one public health problem of the 21st century.”

Personally I would have put cigarette smoking, malaria and AIDS higher on the list of the world’s health problems, but everyone’s entitled to his opinion. It is interesting to note, however, the virulence of the reaction against weight upcreep in this country. An anti-smoking mentality is gaining ground too, but the need not to smoke doesn’t seem nearly as ingrained – if at all – as the need not to be fat. Indeed, a follow-up article in the Times to the French Women Don’t Get Fat book review pointed out that they don’t because they smoke. I think the article reflected France 10 or 20 years ago more than France today, but it still had a lot of truth to it.

Last month I attended the annual presentation of cancer research grants given out by the Ligue contre le cancer in the Rhône département. One of the officials presenting the awards mentioned the following statistics: over the past 30 years mortality from cancer has remained flat in France. If you remove lung cancer alone, however, the death rate from all other cancers has declined by 30% over the same period. In other words, lung cancer deaths, particularly among women, have risen dramatically. He also said that it is estimated one billion people worldwide will die from tobacco-related illnesses in the 21st century.

As dangerous and insidious as obesity may be, the tobacco problem sounds a lot more alarming.

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Monday, April 04, 2005


I did it. And I survived. I sang solo for the first time in my life on stage. What’s more, nothing terrible happened. Actually, as I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn’t a complete solo; it was a duet. But we each sang certain parts individually.

Let me explain how all this came about. For the past five years or so, ever since the chorus in my son B.’s primary school issed a call for adult male voices to “fill the bottom in”, I have been doing choral singing, the past three years with a bona fide adult chorus, singing mostly popular French songs from the 1960s to the present.

This year I decided to supplement that with some individual voice training. There are about ten of us in the workshop, ranging in age from 17 to mid-50s. The range of experience is equally broad (the 17-year-old has had the most voice training). In the first class we each sang a song individually. That was difficult. Stripping naked in front of nine other people would not have been more difficult. But our instructor, J.B., said something very interesting – and encouraging. He said he has almost never met anyone who “can’t sing”, but that in France, people are very self-conscious about singing. He said that in Ireland, for example, singing is a natural part of life. (An Irishman living in France, who reads this blog from time to time, says he almost got kicked out of a concert in Corsica for singing along, so I guess that counts as confirmation.)

Once we got over the hurdle of that first strip scene, momentum began to build. We started concentrating on how to improve our techinque, how to be convincing, how to detach ourselves from the singer who made our chosen song famous (the songs are not our original compositions), how to sing with feeling, how to control our abdominal muscles, etc. J.B. pointed out other little problems along the way, in a way that makes us realize that every budding singer experiences them. He helped us to understand that the problems are not an indication that we “don’t know how to sing”, just that we haven’t learned a particular technique as well as we need to if we are to improve.

Then J.B. gave us the opportunity, together with the participants in three other workshops he leads, to sing individually on stage for an audience of around 100 people (the house capacity). I was hesitant at first, but his description of the event, plus my theater experience convinced me it was possible.

Last Friday, we arrived at 6pm for an 8:30 concert so that we could rehearse with the musicians accompanying us. This was the only rehearsal we had with them. The first thing my duet partner, F. and I noticed was the (high!) quality of the other singers. Here is a brief succession of thoughts: These people are all virtually professionals. I’m out of my depth after all. I’m going to get up there and my voice will crack or I’ll sing flat or I’ll forget lyrics or I’ll come in too soon, or too late.

Most of this happened during our allotted five minutes of dress rehearsal time. So we went off into a corner to rehearse some more. Among other things, we decided to modify the first and second voices, look at each other and forget about counting beats or measures. We would come in whenever we felt was the right moment, and let the (professional) musicians adapt to us. M., one of the other participants in our workshop, came with us into our corner, which was a big help.

Then the concert started. Every person who climbed onto the stage received a thunderous round of applause, largely from the other singers. Our nervous energy was finding an outlet. This was incredibly morale building and frightening at the same time. I’ve had stage fright before, but it was nothing like this. In the theater, if you’re not singing or dancing, you have leeway. So long as you stay in character, you can improvise. Even if someone you’re supposed to talk to misses an entrance, there’s usually some recourse if you think hard enough. In music, though, you haven’t even got the time to think. You’ve just got to just keep on going.

As I usually do in these situations, I started to feel time as an unstoppable force, like a freight train hurtling towards me. In the minutes that remained before our turn, I tried as hard as I could to supplant the feelings of inferiority with the will to put everything I had into my song, to sing as if my life depended on it. I think F. was doing the same thing.

When our time came, we went up there and sang Un Homme Heureux, by William Sheller, as if we had been doing it for years. Afterwards people spontaneously complemented us, saying they liked the interplay of our voices, they felt moved by the song and lots of other nice things.

Now I want more!