Saturday, July 30, 2005

Pardon my French

This one's too good to pass up. It's from yesterday's Chicago Tribune:

Beach stabbing suspect's French throws judge

Tribune staff reports
Published July 29, 2005, 3:12 PM CDT

A bond hearing today for a man charged with stabbing a woman at Oak Street Beach was delayed after the suspect walked into a Chicago courtroom and spoke to a judge in French, CLTV reported.

Taken aback, Criminal Court Judge Colleen Ann Hyland rescheduled the hearing for Monday and ordered Herbert Haraburd, 45, to undergo a mental health evaluation this weekend at Cermak Health Services at Cook County Jail.


Really, now. French. Sheesh.


Friday, July 29, 2005

Summer camp for adults

In every couple or family, it seems, there is one partner or parent who prefers vacationing in the mountains and the other who prefers the seashore. Ours is no exception. S. prefers the seashore, whereas I never really learned to swim. I absolutely love the mountains; S. gets acrophobia. Recipe for disaster?

Last summer we did a week of each. We spent a week at Arcachon on the Atlantic coast of France, then a week on the French side of the Pyrenees. Arcachon is perched at the mouth of a virtually-enclosed bay famous for oyster farming/fishing. The beaches there, and especially the ocean beaches on the other side of the Cap Ferret peninsula, reconciled me with the seashore in the summer. They were uncrowded, and on the ocean side, the waves were wonderful. At low tide, B. and D. spent their time looking for crabs and seashells and building elaborate castles. That is, when they weren’t playing on Europe’s largest sand dune, the dune du Pyla. Since then, it seems we’re always meeting people who have some connection to the bassin d’Arcachon.

The week in the Pyrenees was very different, but equally spectacular, and everyone acquired a taste for hiking.

Earlier this month, we spent a week in the Vercors, a mountain range southwest of Grenoble, sort of the foothills of the Alps. The Vercors is a plateau, with steep cliffs all around it and a series of parallel valleys running down its length. A natural fortress, it was used by French resistance fighters during World War II until the Nazis’ overpowering force rooted them out in July 1944.

We stayed in a family resort, run by an organization called “Cap France”. The main building was a converted sanatorium that used to cater to children believed to be at risk of developing tuberculosis. So there are lots of high-ceilinged, institutional-looking corridors, and small rooms. And I mean small! But, OK, we didn’t spend much time in the room anyway. Instead, we were participating in the hikes organized by the resort, bicycling, visiting a nearby market or farm, having meals in the dining room, watching the basketball camp that also shared facilities with us or dancing. We had a full meal plan, and meals were fun. Tables were for eight and we were seated as we arrived, so, therefore, with people we didn’t know. We met people from all over the country, from Strasbourg, Nancy and Lille. We met people from Paris and people from a small village in Auvergne. And everything was arranged for us: meals, daytime activities and evening activities. All we had to do was make our beds, which we didn’t. Summer camp for adults! No wait, in summer camp you have to make your bed ….

We went on five hikes during the week, including one full-day hike I did with B., and B. and D. were clamoring for more. Each hike was led by one of the staff, who stopped every so often to talk about some nearby flowers or point out a faraway marmot. They explained how to tell which animals had been where we were, and how the forest exists thanks to the ants (they eat certain insects that damage trees) and their waist-high ant hills.

The food was the only aspect of the week that came in for near-universal criticism. Complaints were both quantity- and quality-oriented. It was generally agreed that the price of the week was attractive because the food was … well, cafeteria fare, but, mind you, French cafeteria fare. And because of the size of the rooms. In a more expensive resort, the difference would probably be in those two parameters rather than in more extensive facilities. Maybe we’ll find out next year. Rendez-vous here in July, 2006.

On several occasions, we have looked for this sort of resort in the States. On the East Coast, the only comparable thing we found was the Smuggler's Notch Family Resort in Vermont, which looks like a lot of fun, but also looks huge and expensive. Peak summer rates are in the $2,500 - $3,000 range for a family of four, and I don't think this includes meals. We have also looked into dude ranches in various parts of the country. Many of them looked exquisite, but even more expensive, in the region of $1,500 per person per week. By way of comparison, the week in the Vercors cost the four of us a total of €1,400 ($1,680), all meals included. Even with the internet, however, it's hard to do this sort of research from afar. Suggestions, anyone, either mountains, seashore or that vast expanse in between?


Saturday, July 23, 2005

Plame yogurt

The big news story here over the past week has been a story that is not yet a story: PepsiCo is about to launch a takeover bid on Danone.

Have they? Where have you seen that story, Steve? I haven’t, because it isn’t a story. It’s a rumor. About two weeks ago it was mentioned in Challenges, a French business magazine somewhat akin to Fortune, that PepsiCo had bought up around 3% of Danone’s stock. Since then, the rumor mill has been working more than 35 hours a week. The specter of an American company taking over one of France’s sacred cows – literally – has been raised and it won’t go away. On TV, the news programs have been interviewing dairy farmers who earn up to half their income selling milk to Danone. They’re sure that an American behemoth like PepsiCo will decide to source all of Danone’s milk for yogurt production in Poland or Morocco or China. They’re already talking of their current business in the past tense. Soon they’ll be nothing but numbers … in the unemployment line. In the meantime, the CEO of Danone gave an interview to Les Echos (subscription required, I think) in which he said no contact of any kind has been made with PepsiCo.

Act II: politicians of all stripes, from tie-dyes to pin-stripes are now up in arms. The hodgepodge, shuffle-and-deal government cobbled together after the no-vote fiasco have finally found something they can all agree on. Nicolas Sarkozy, back in the government as interior minister, after being forced to leave the government as economy minister to take on the position of president of the UMP political party, a post he still holds, said the government should “do everything it can” (“tout mettre en oeuvre”) to prevent a hostile takeover of Danone in an interview in Le Monde. Thierry Breton, the economy minister, said the government “will make very sure” (“veillera très scrupuleusement”) that Danone’s rights are protected. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, said the government plans to “defend the interests of France” (“défendre les intérêts de la France”). Last and some would say least (Sarkozy), President Jacques Chirac, while on a State visit to Madagascar, said that he was “particularly vigilant and ready to act” (“particulièrement vigilant et mobilisé”). One journalist I read said that as market interference goes, it’s been no worse that the current uproar in the US about a Chinese company wanting to take over Unocal. Not sure I agree with putting the USA and China on the same footing, but I’m digressing again.

Act III: If PepsiCo does try something, it’ll be fun to watch, especially as France has a nasty habit of getting what it wants in the EU.

One story that has not received much coverage here is the Valerie Plame outing. Who knows, after seeing pictures of her in this week’s Time magazine, Paris Match might someday write a story about “an outing with Valerie Plame”, but I doubt the news media will publish any pithy analysis of the situation unless it leads to an impeachment of the president (I’d be rubbing my hands together if I weren’t typing), in which case they wouldn’t be able to avoid it.

You see, I wonder how many people really understand it. Or could explain it to the French public in fewer words than it would take to explain the reasoning behind the infield fly rule to a non-baseball fan. But when you look into it, you can see that it has given rise to some of the most bizarre twists of fate in recent memory. Firstly, you have three journalists involved. The seat of the one who originally published the story “outing” CIA agent Valerie Plame, Robert Novak, is not the least bit warm (see Frank Rich’s recent column in the New York Times for some scathing comments about him). Conversely, the one who never published anything after having a conversation with her confidential source is the one now in prison.

Ego, I think, has got the better of the New York Times and its journalistic brethren. When you read the Times' reporting on the subject, you get the feeling that Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper are defending some noble, timeless cause, an immutable, inalienable right, that they're some sort of latter-day Nathan Hale or Patrick Henry.

The Times has institutionalized civil disobedience. The Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the land, refused to hear the case, meaning that the judges preferred to let the lower court’s ruling, that the journalists must reveal their sources, stand. But still the Times didn’t budge. It apparently answers to a higher authority.

Now does this apply to all journalists? For instance, let’s suppose I became privy to some "confidential" information, and that I published it here on my blog, keeping my source anonymous. Then some (smart!) news organization picked it up and syndicated it across the country (yeah, dream on!). Would the New York Times then be claiming that the whole Constitution of the United States would be in tatters were I forced to reveal my source?

Many professions have enshrined secrecy in their principles: banking, law and medicine to name a few. Let's take banking. Banks have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their clients. But if a court of law, say, the Supreme Court, requests information in connection with a money-laundering operation or terrorist organization, for example, the bank hands over the information. End of case. I don't recall any recent cases of bank civil disobedience. I think the same is true of medicine and law. As industries, surely these are as important as the press, no? Correct me if I’m wrong. Yell at me. ‘Splain to me!

A faithful reader of this blog sent me a link to the brief the news organizations filed with the DC Court of Appeals. Before it gets to the heart of the matter, it waxes poetic about the historical role of the press in American democracy. Quoting former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, it suggests that the press is an unofficial fourth-branch check on the federal government. Un-elected and self-appointed, but they forgot to mention that. Last time I checked, which was five minutes ago, the First Amendment to the US Constitution did not go quite so far. It said:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Fourth branch of government? A bit over the top. In fact, down the rabbit hole and through the looking-glass, too. You can’t take those Supreme Court justices too seriously, especially when they’re speaking at a law school sesquicentennial.

The brief then claims that a hearing should be held to determine whether a crime had been committed under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the reasoning being that this Act intended to carve out an exception to the press’ right to keep sources confidential, but only under very narrowly defined circumstances.

Now maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it seems there’s a Catch-22 here. It must first be proven that a crime was committed under this Act before a news organization should be required to turn over its confidential sources, yet logic would seem to dictate that the news organizations must first turn over their confidential sources before it can be proven whether or not a crime was committed.

But here’s the most ironic part: to prove their case, all the news media, liberal and conservative alike, must take the side of the conservative media, who of course maintain that no crime was committed! That’s their whole point! The brief even quotes, as supporting evidence, an article from the pages of the Washington Times, that beacon of independent reporting, to the effect that Plame’s identity had already been revealed to the Russians and the Cubans, ergo Karl Rove did nothing wrong, get it? So if the media get their way and win the right to keep their sources secret, then the case disappears, which is just what the conservatives want. If sources weren’t an issue, the Times and other liberal media would be having a Rove-bashing party. But in their brief to the court, they have to protect him and disparage his critics to further their case.

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Friday, July 22, 2005

From London to Musayyib

I realised the other day that I, like many people, had expressed solidarity with Londoners after the terrorist attacks there (the first ones), but I had said nothing about the fuel tanker bombing in Iraq a few days ago, which caused an even higher death toll. An attack in London is reported widely throughout the Western world and is considered the serious, horrible event that it is. It raises anxiety in those countries that the next attack might be closer to home, wherever home may be. An attack in Iraq is reported, too, but is quickly treated as just another installment in the never-ending cycle of violence in that country. Sorry for perpetuating this sad state of affairs. In truth, I am terribly saddened by both events, even if London is closer to me geographically and culturally and, therefore, emotionally.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Same world, different news?

Despite the ease and economy of reading news on line, I often find that I read it better, or at least more thoroughly, when I read it on paper. So yesterday I bought the print edition of Le Monde.

Pages 1 and 2 had a series of headlines and articles about Iraq. The headlines included the following (all translations are mine):

1. “L’Irak au bord de la guerre civile entre chiites et sunnites” (“Iraq on the verge of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis”). This article explains that several members of the Iraqi parliament have these fears, and one, a Shiite MP, said that if the principal Sunni party “refuses to form a common front with the Shiites, I am sorry to say that a civil war is fast approaching. I solemnly ask all Sunni organizations to be in the same trench as we are. Those who keep quiet are accomplices to the crimes, and we cannot limit ourselves to simply issuing press releases denouncing them.” Indeed, them’s fightin’ words.

2. “Le retrait annoncé des troupes britanniques” (“Britain planning for troop withdrawal”) In this article, which contains lots of verbs in the conditional, a French tool for introducing doubt or uncertainty into the statement, even when there is no clear “condition”, the UK Minister of Defence is quoted as saying that his government is eagerly awaiting the day when Iraqi forces can take control of the country and UK forces can leave, but this cannot happen overnight and will begin only over the next 12 months. The article also cites a confidential ministry memo that allegedly says UK forces could be reduced by more than half between now and mid-2006. (Note that a “retrait annoncé” does not necessarily mean that Great Britain “announced a withdrawal”, which would be a much stronger statement.)

3. “Plus de 5 000 soldats américains accusés de désertion depuis 2003” (“More than 5,000 American soldiers accused of desertion since 2003”). When you click on the link, you’ll see that this provocative page-1 headline was actually not the title of the article itself on page 2. Anyway, the article recounts the misadventures of American soldiers, focusing especially on extreme cases, who, on leave in the States, do not want to return to Iraq. Apparently, some have gone so far as to mutilate or wound themselves so as to be unfit for service.

4. “Les manoeuvres de George Bush” (“George Bush’s maneuvers”). This article refers to the latest helping from Seymour Hersh over at the New Yorker and makes for fascinating reading in its own right. It’s about how the Bush administration tried – at least to influence, at worst to rig – the January 30 Iraqi election.

I didn’t see headlines with similar titles anywhere in the New York Times online edition of the same day (or today). Maybe it was buried somewhere, or maybe the stories appeared in other publications.

If not, this would be an example of why French people think the US media are cowed into a government-supporting position. Of course, it could also be an example of how French media are cowed into an anti-American position. Or it could be an isolated example taken from two isolated newspapers on a single, isolated day.

However, I think there’s more to it than that. I think there is a tendency in many of us to take a news report emanating from another country and generalize the point of view implicit in it to the point of view of all news reports emanating from that country. On the other hand I also think the range of public opinion that is evident when you are inside a given country appears to contract as you recede from it. Like the features of the Earth blurring into something relatively homogeneous when viewed from a spaceship receding from it, American journalism, in the mainstream media anyway, appears to have a common thread, if not a common base, when viewed from over here. There is a common set of assumptions and taboos. There is a common way of reporting an event. Again, the same is true of French media viewed from the USA.


Friday, July 08, 2005

Dead wrong

Well, it appears I was wrong on several counts. Madrid was not chosen for the 2012 Olympiad. And Madrid is no longer the latest martyred city. If I already had a twinge of guilt and insensitivity when I originally wrote that, the feeling was only heightened yesterday morning when I heard the terrible news from London. My feelings go out to all the people who are now suffering as a result of those attacks, as the circle of those touched by terrorism grows ever wider. When I put B. to bed tonight, I asked him if he had heard about the attacks and explained as best I could what I knew about them. He asked me who did it, and I said we don't know, but we have some theories as to who might have done it and why. He said, "Maybe they're jealous."

And I was wrong about the Egyptian ambassador, too. I have seen other articles about him since the other day, and no, we won't be hearing "Today is the __th day of captivity for Egyptian Ambassador Ihab al-Sharif."

If you'll allow me a little sarcasm even in the face of tragedy, I imagine many Britons were pleased to see PM Tony Blair return to London and to hear him speak, rather than wonder where he was all day, then find out later that he was jetting from one RAF base to another.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Media rant

The Egyptian ambassador to Iraq has recently been abducted in Baghdad. There have also been three other attempts to capture or kill ambassadors in Iraq in the past few days, but let’s focus on the kidnapping. It happened on Sunday (July 3), but to find an article about it two days later on Le Monde’s web site I had first to click on “International”, then page way down to the bottom of the list of top stories. The next day, today, it had fallen off the bottom of the list altogether. On, too, it was well into the peleton of articles on the “Monde” page. If this and my daily morning radio intake from France Info are anything to go by, there hasn’t been nearly the media blitz there was when Libération reporter Florence Aubenas was kidnapped. Sorry, media, but I can’t resist the temptation to note that when a journalist is abducted, that’s news, but when a diplomat is, it’s business as usual. Wait, let's be fair, now. Only time will tell if we'll soon be waking up to "And today is the 112th day of captivity for Ihab al-Chérif, the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq."

While Florence Aubenas was a hostage, the media attention here was relentless. It was media nombrilism at its best, with radio, TV, print and on-line media all focusing on an issue that was of paramount importance to ... them. True, a journalist taken hostage threatens the very core of the media’s existence and affects us all, because it restricts our ability to obtain real, objective, primary-source information about world events. But as troubled as I was by the event, I was no more troubled than I was by the fate of any other hostage. It was not the world’s most important event. Living in France during the first few months of 2005, however, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was. Human beings can’t deal with the notion that there are millions of equally if not more deserving victims. We need a symbol, we need to be able to put a face and a name to the sufferer. Only then can we feel compassion. This is how I felt I was treated by the media.

The French government’s reaction was, in my view, equally reprehensible. You know what I think the French government should have done about Florence Aubenas’ abduction? Absolutely nothing. It’s heartless, but I think there’s no other way to short-circuit the vicious cycle of hostage-taking, ransom and more hostage-taking. You know what the French government did? It virtually ordered journalists to leave the country, while conducting a flurry of negotiations, culminating in a release under circumstances that have still not been elucidated. Or not widely reported, anyway. A search today (July 6) on “Florence Aubenas” on Le Monde’s site turned up seven pages of articles but only two more recent than June 16, a few days after she was freed. None offered any specific information about what “convinced” the hostage takers to make their “humanitarian” gesture. I’m very pleased that Florence Aubenas was ultimately released, but now a month after her release, I’m still as curious as I was pleased to know how much was paid in ransom. I suppose we should keep an eye on Le Canard Enchaîné.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Do I still have time for some last minute predictions?

I’ll bet you all know which one is first on my mind. The new president of the Medef, the Mouvement des entreprises de France, of course. This is France’s employer’s federation. Whenever the government wants to change rules or laws affecting companies, particularly regarding employment, the Medef is consulted, as are labor unions. The current president, Baron Ernest-Antoine Seillière de Laborde, who, by his own words has endeavored to make the organization more “democratic”, is stepping down. Three candidates are in the running: Yvon Jacob, chairman of the Supervisory Board of Legris Industries (construction equipment), Hugues-Arnaud Mayer, head of the Abeil group (pillows & comforters) and Laurence Parisot, CEO of IFOP (market surveys). Yvon Jacob has received the blessing of the UIMM, the Union des industries et métiers de la métallurgie (which calls itself the succinct “Union of Metal Manufacturing, Mining, Engineering, Electrical and Metal Equipment and Allied Industries” in English), a large trade federation under the Medef umbrella. In the past, its candidates have often acceded to the top post in the Medef. But that was before the advent of the latest political twist. For those of you unfamiliar with French given names, Laurence Parisot is a woman, and the idea that appointing a woman to the post would be a symbol of the organization’s modernity has been launched and gained momentum. Once a symbol idea has been launched and gained momentum, it’s hard to get it back onto the pad. My vote is with the lady.

On to more important predictions. Where will the 2012 Olympic Games be held? My instinct is that, like Academy Awards, Olympic Games selections are largely political. Wasn’t the choice of Beijing for 2008 just a wee bit political? But first the purely practical. I’m surprised New York still thinks it has even a glimmer of a hope of a prayer of a chance. Not only hasn’t the intended venue for most Olympic events been built or ground even been broken, but there has been more bickering over it than over working hours at a French labor negotiating session. And Mayor Bloomberg has got to feel outgunned. The UK and France have sent their prime minister and president, respectively, to Singapore. I’m going with an outsider on this one: Madrid. The Summer Olympics have never been held there, whereas they’ve been held in all three other cities – Paris (2x), London (2x) and Moscow. Also, Madrid is the latest martyred city, and I’m hoping that’ll work in its favor.

Last but far from least: will Lance Armstrong win a seventh Tour de France? I haven't a clue, and there's more time, so I leave it to you ....

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