ISSUES NETWORK - REPORTS FROM PARIS
An American Speaks Out Against the War
Paris - Howard Zinn began his recent talk at the University of Paris with a confession. During World War II, he had been a bomber pilot with the U.S. Air Force. He had bombed French villages.
"I was an enthusiastic bombardier," he admitted.
Now, the Boston University professor was back in France at another critical point in French/U.S. relations. He had returned as a man of peace to condemn not only the war in Iraq, but all war - because, as he put it: "There will not only be this war; there will be other wars."
Zinn, who has written several books including, "The 20th Century: A People's History" and "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal," told his audience he had been eager to fight in the Second World War. He had wanted to defeat fascism and, therefore, when he dropped the bombs, there was "a simple jump" in his thinking.
"I thought: 'If they were the bad ones, we must be good.' Of course, we weren't good."
As a young veteran after the war, he read a book about the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
"For the first time, the human consequence of my bombing was clear to me."
From a height of several thousand feet, he explained, "you don't hear the screams; you don't see kids with mangled limbs." Instead, "you come back smiling, thinking everything is fine."
And that's what it is like for the young U.S. bombers in Iraq. "They don't know what they've done. As you kill from a distance, human beings are somehow not involved."
Now, Zinn is trying to get across to Americans what really happened in Iraq, because, "It is being concealed by the government and the media."
Those who oppose war must move people from "an abstract idea of war and bombing to an understanding of what exactly is being done to children and adults."
Also, he told his mainly French audience - with a smattering of Americans - people must realize that even wars fought by democracies or liberal states are never as good or as pure as they are portrayed.
"Just because a war is fought for a good cause doesn't make it a good war," he argued. "In fact, it might even make things worse." Again, after fighting in WW II, he concluded that war is never a simple matter of a good side vs a bad side.
"War corrupts everybody who engages in it."
What could have been more just than getting rid of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese war machine, he asked. But was the world really a better place after that?
"I looked around the world after WW II and saw war after war after war," he recalled. "We had defeated these specific evils," but fascism and racism still existed.
In fact, the world actually got worse, he stated, noting that the killing potential of the world's nuclear weapons would make Hitler's holocaust look small.
In spite of this, Zinn pointed out, WW II with its strong moral element has been used to justify war ever since.
The historian pointed out that the U.S. has a history of finding excuses to expand its territory or influence by military means. It captured half of Mexico in 1846; it "liberated" Cuba, a Spanish colony, in 1898 ("We did liberate Cuba from Spain, but not from us."); it left 800,000 dead after fighting in the Philippines under President Theodore Roosevelt, and two million dead in Vietnam.
Somehow, Zinn said, those who oppose war must help the American people overcome their "ferocious nationalism" and their belief that the U.S. is better than other countries.
"We have to create a new global morality," he argued, based on the concept that everyone - not just Americans - has an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
"If people can begin to think that all children have an equal right to life, they could not make war, because all wars are against children," he said.
It is also important to demonstrate that wars waged against a foreign enemy are always waged against the people at home as well.
Zinn pointed out that Bush's budget has allocated $400 billion for the military, but nothing for education or health. It has also cut funding for the free school lunch program.
"When Americans see that the wealth of the country is being squandered on war, we will see a change."
Hope, he concluded, lies in a worldwide movement against war.
French Resist Government Efforts to Emulate Canada
Paris - Perhaps the French will succeed where others have failed.
Perhaps they will force their conservative government to withdraw its plans to whittle away the country's relatively-generous social programs.
Certainly, most of France's powerful unions and many non-unionized citizens are doing their best to make that happen - in Paris, at the G-8 summit in Evian, around the country.
Strikes have become the order of the day. A couple of weeks ago, more than one million people walked off the job affecting air travel, trains, schools, and more.
An enormous demonstration in Paris on Sunday, May 25, attracted up to 600,000 public-sector employees - teachers, healthcare, postal and railway workers, even police officers - from across the country, as well as private sector workers.
First on everyone's minds was the government's effort to modify pensions. Essentially, it wants its employees to work for 40 years before retiring (42 years by 2020 and more after that), instead of the present 37.5.
Needless to say, this isn't popular. In fact, the last government to try such a thing in 1995 backed down because of labour unrest and was later thrown out of office.
Indeed, the demonstration was an impressive show of commitment and solidarity as people poured through eastern Paris along three separate routes from Place de la Nation to Place d'Italie.
Even two unions which have signed on to the government's plan were there!
I was walking with the striking teachers leading the demonstration as they headed up Avenue des Gobelins. They are opposing the government's push to decentralize the national education system and cut staff. Just before they reached Place d'Italie, they split into two groups and lined both sides of the avenue allowing the rest of the marchers - not on strike - to pass between them.
Cries (in French, of course) of: "Together, together, strike, strike!" rang through the air - and filled my head for days. It was a moving sight. In fact, I was almost brought to tears as I looked down the slight incline of the avenue at the sea of people moving toward us.
Adding to the atmosphere was the view of the beautiful, domed Pantheon in the background. Built as an abbey church, the elegant building was converted into a mausoleum after the revolution of 1789, and dedicated to the "great men of the era of French liberty." (Women as well now. Marie Curie was moved there in the nineties.)
Indeed, the French are very aware of their history, punctuated as it is by major and minor revolutions - 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1968. (I saw one placard with "Vive 1789.") They know that their relatively privileged way of life - they have a 35-hour week and six, yes, six weeks of vacation - is the result of hard-fought battles, and they are not willing to give it up without a fight.
However, they are now being governed by politicians who want to tailor France to fit into the globalized world. That means, they say, reducing the deficit and watering down social programs.
As he made clear, this is one reason why French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited Canada recently - to pay hommage to and get advice from the slashers in Ottawa.
It seems that Canada - after the cost-cutting activities of the Mulroney and Chretien governments - embodies the 21st Century.
(I am not sure this is a compliment judging by the century so far - pre-emptive war, the destruction of centuries-old history and art, environmental devastation. At the same time, according to Michael Moore in his book "Stupid White Men," the profits of the world's 200 richest companies have risen by more than 360 per cent since 1883. Isn't that just about the time governments started slashing social programs?)
When I tell the French about Canada's high average student debt (university is virtually free here), the decline of our healthcare system (the World Health Organization has declared France's to be the best), and the growing gap between rich and poor, they stare wide-eyed at me. Is this what their government wants to emulate?
When I point out that Canadian workers get only two weeks vacation during the first five or more years on the job, they are left shaking their heads in disbelief.
Certainly, it is difficult to protect cultural and lifestyle differences on this increasingly small planet. Many of the unique details and much of the fascinating variety once found around the world are being replaced by mass-produced and -distributed products and attitudes. Now, for example, main streets look more or less the same no matter where you are.
But the French workers are determined to protect what they have created over the centuries in spite of the fact that the odds are against them.
I can't help but cheer them on.
"Altogether, altogether, strike, strike!"
A Very Concerned American in Paris
Paris - My pal Al is an American in Paris - most of the time.
He also lives in Manhattan where he has had an apartment on the Upper East Side since 1968.
In other words, he divides his time between two countries which were once on fairly friendly terms, but are now barely civil toward each other.
This has changed Al's life.
"When I mentioned I live in Paris, people in the U.S. used to say, 'Wow. That sounds exciting!' Now it's, 'How can you live with those lowlifes?'"
Al, who is 60, recently received an email from Patty, one of his classmates in the Brooklyn high school he attended. According to Al, Patty has rarely been outside the community she grew up in. Her email included a nasty and off-colour joke about the French along with an announcement that she had thrown away all her French wine and perfume - and now sings "God Bless America" while doing the dishes.
Patty scares Al. Most of his former classmates do.
Originally, my pal - who still doesn't speak French - moved to Paris six years ago because he liked the lifestyle. He claims that, because he is wealthy and doesn't have to work, he could live almost anywhere he wants. He has chosen the City of Light.
"The French aren't really pleasant or easy to get along with, but they do know how to live well," he explains. (I must admit I can understand why many Parisians might scorn this loud, opinionated American. As a relatively modest Canadian, I, too, find him a little much.)
Al points out that certain things are important to the French: good food, ambiance, flowers, architecture, long lunches, beautiful parks, and elegant women. "Their lifestyle is very appealing."
Sadly, my pal likes New York less and less. When he thinks of that city, he says, he thinks of over-weight people, over-consumption generally, chewing gum, garish behaviour, boom boxes on buses. "It's do your own thing to the max."
There is also the tension and sense of foreboding that has existed since September 11. At a meeting he attended in Manhattan recently, one woman pointed out that she had started wearing sneakers because she realized she might have to run someday - and she can't run in high heels.
But his problems with his own country go well beyond lifestyle and attitude. Increasingly, he is becoming worried about his rights as a citizen.
Even as a young man, Al was out-of-step with the status quo. He strongly opposed the war in Vietnam and the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, and General Westmoreland.
"I remember looking at a Life Magazine photo essay with page after page of young men who were going off to war," he recalls, adding that more than 58,000 never came home again.
Not surprisingly, he has also been against the war on Iraq. He doesn't believe Saddam Hussein posed a credible threat to the world. "It was a camouflage."
In fact, Al wanted to take part in the huge demonstration which took place here before the war, but he was frightened away by an email sent out by the U.S. embassy warning Americans not to attend. They might, cautioned the email, be the victims of anti-American violence. No such thing occurred.
So, Al was part of the American contingent in another such demonstration held just days ago in Paris. Among other things, he and his fellow Americans called for a "regime change" in the U.S.
"America is moving toward McCarthyism II," he states. "Civil liberties are being traded in for security concerns. The Supreme Court is being filled with right-wing ideologues. In Bush's America, it's 'love it or leave it.'"
He notes that libraries are being asked about the books people are taking out; airlines often report on how passengers are paying for plane tickets, where they are going and how they are dressed.
"Authors and creative people are being blacklisted," he says, mentioning Susan Sarandon and the Dixie Chicks in particular. What's next, he wonders, a loyalty oath?
"At this point, I'm even considering looking for an alternative to my U.S. citizenship. There's no sense waiting until it's too late."
Invitation to Paris Parties
Paris - You are cordially invited to a party in Paris.
Actually, not one, but several!
However, these lively, weekly, or biweekly soirees are generally not free. In most cases, they are pay-as-you-go - up to 20 euros.
But, judging by the large numbers who attend - expatriates, tourists, and even the French themselves, they are worth it. And, for new residents or those just passing through town, they provide an instant entry into one aspect of the rich social whirl that is the City of Light.
Perhaps the mother of all commercial parties is the one established three decades ago by Louisiana-born, ex-pat, Jim Haynes.
Every Sunday night between 8 and 11, up to 80 people crowd into Jim's two-storey atelier for dinner - and as much bad wine as they can tolerate. At this time of year, they also pour out into his lovely garden. It's a noisy, international feast overseen by Jim who sits on a stool collecting envelopes of money and directing people to converse.
"Kathleen talk to Pierre."
"James talk to Mary."
Over 100,000 guests have gladly submitted themselves to Jim's very "southern" hospitality.
Another mainstay of the entry-fee party circuit is Michel's "Teatime is Talktime." Like the host - who is also known as Michael - the teas are bilingual, even multi-lingual. Every Saturday from 5 - 8 pm, guests are urged to speak anything but French for the first half of the party, and French only for the second.
Few among the chattering crowd adhere to the guidelines, as they spread through Michel's office, living room, and kitchen, and smokers gather on the timeworn staircase outside his apartment. It's crowded and free-wheeling.
"I organized the kind of party I wanted to be invited to," Michel explained. When I asked him why his and similar parties are so popular in Paris, he answered simply that people are lonely.
"In spite of its apparently open look - cafes, lively sidewalks, Paris is a closed city. This is a very structured society." Because the French don't readily open their doors to strangers, the strangers have opened theirs to each other - and the French., he adds.
There is another, more positive, reason why these parties have proliferated in Paris, according to long-time organizer, Patricia Laplante-Collins: security.
"You can open your home to people you don't know and they don't take anything," she points out. In the eight years she has held literary and artistic cocktail parties and, now, dinners, she has had one pair of eyeglasses stolen. Patricia, from Atlanta, can't imagine doing the same thing in the U.S.
Like Michel, she sees herself offering a place - every Sunday evening - where people can meet people they would like to be friends with, but she also invites speakers who lead discussions on subjects, ranging from the history of Paris to erotic literature.
Earlier on Sunday, Hissa de Urkiola - a relative newcomer to the business - opens her home, wonderfully situated on Ile St.-Louis, and offers live theatre, music, coffee, and Brazilian snacks.
Hissa is an actress born in Sao Paulo, married to a Parisian. Like Patricia, she prefers to refer to her event as a "salon" in the French tradition. Unlike Patricia or Michel, she doesn't place ads in local English-language magazines, such as "Paris Voice" and "FUSAC." She prefers to entertain "friends or friends of friends."
Also new to the scene are Patrick's relatively-elegant dinners held in a bourgeois neighbourhood on the Right Bank. A long-time regular at both Jim's and Michel's, Patrick, originally from Quebec, decided to launch his own Friday night fests just months ago.
Another recent addition is the twice-monthly Sunday afternoon, "Melting Pot," whose organizers are, unusually enough, French. According to one observer, this is very evident in the "a la francaise" style of the gathering: someone taking coats, name tags, and structured games.
But money isn't always involved in Parisian get-togethers. In fact, perhaps the longest-running weekly event is the Sunday afternoon tea held at George Whitman's well-known bookstore Shakespeare & Company across from Notre Dame.
From 4 - 6, locals and tourists sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the small fourth-floor apartment which George keeps as a free home-away-from-home for visiting writers and other artists. (The tea, prepared in a large pot, is barely drinkable.) Because of the longevity of the store, its owner who is almost 90, and the tea parties, many guests are second generation Whitman fans.
Finally, there are the free Thursday summer evening picnics on the lovely pedestrian bridge of Pont des Arts which crosses the Seine in the heart of the city. Picnickers bring wine - or champagne - and food to share with 70 to 80 fellow revelers and watch the sun set. It is one of the most beautiful locations for a party in the world.
And, it is here that I recommend tourists wanting to acquaint themselves with the soiree circuit should head, because, as I said, you are invited.
France: Friend or Foe?
Paris - Greetings from behind enemy lines.
When I moved here two years ago, I certainly didn't expect that anti-French feelings would be running as high in certain countries as they are now. Of course, as a Canadian, I was used to anti-Quebec sentiments, but France - one of the great nations of the world - seemed untouchable. How things change!
From my vantage point, the present division between France and the U.S., in particular, illustrates clearly that in this smaller, globalized world of 2003 there are still language, religious, cultural, and historic barriers to overcome - even among Western societies.
The French, for example, can't even pronounce Bush's name - they say something like "Boosh" - so they certainly find it difficult to understand the mentality of a wealthy, ultra-conservative oilman from Texas.
However, the present showdown also demonstrates how crucial it is to appreciate and learn from the differences which truly exist - rather than falling prey to those who prefer to exploit them or blow them out of proportion.
Not surprisingly, rumours and reports have been flying around here about American retaliation. Just days ago, a friend called to tell me that someone in the U.S. had dumped French wine in the gutter. "It was probably Beaujolais Nouveau and had gone bad anyway!" my informant joked.
A Parisian housewife told me - her eyes wide with sadness, even fear - that she had heard that some Americans were putting yellow stars on French products.
Needless to say, this reference to the stars, which Jews in Paris and elsewhere were forced to wear under the Nazi regime, is very potent. When I passed this news to a French man, he insisted it couldn't possibly be true - such a thing would be too extreme and hateful - and I shouldn't write about it.
Nevertheless, the rumour - if it is just that - exists.
In spite of the French-bashing going on in the U.S., I find that Americans here seem more upset about the present contretemps than the French. It is my American friends who are sending me anti-Bush emails and complaining at parties about how ignorant their fellow countrymen and women are.
Over the past week, they have pointed out that a majority of Americans, including members of Congress, don't hold a passport (in other words, they know little about the rest of the planet), and that most children can't point to the U.S. on an unmarked map of the world.
One American sent me an article which noted that many of his countrymen and women think at least some of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqi and that Saddam Hussein was involved. (Something even the Bush administration doesn't claim.)
The French, for their part, seem to be taking the whole episode with admirable equanimity. If the Americans seem ashamed and angry, the French are more dismayed.
In fact, I was both relieved and impressed during the recent anti-Iraq-war demonstration here. As I marched down the boulevards with tens of thousands of others, I noticed that supporters lining the route began to clap as our section passed by. I turned to find out why and saw two large banners: "Americans Against the War on Iraq" and "Americans Against the Bush War." It was very moving.
Sadly, one of my anti-war American friends refused to attend the demonstration because he didn't want to be ""the token American hanged in protest." I, too, wondered as we walked past McDonald's if there would be any acts of violence against this American symbol, but, even though there wasn't a police officer in sight, nothing happened.
It appears that most French believe that the U.S. has been hijacked by a band of dangerous extremists and, in this case especially, they are not going to blame the entire nation. In fact, one of the more touching placards held in the demonstration said: "U.S. we love you, but listen to us."
(I am certainly not going to deny that there is a definite attraction/repulsion relationship between the French and America. They adore its frontier spirit, enthusiasm, and relative newness; they are appalled by its aggression, violence, and high obesity rates.)
However, it was my Gaullist friend who put the present U.S.-French standoff into perspective. First of all, he pointed out that a war against Iraq would be easy to win, but it was also unnecessary. "We have to destroy the bombs, not the people."
As well, France, he noted that because of its proximity to Africa (the Maghreb) and its colonial history, understands "the Arab world" much better than the U.S. "The U.S. has the power, but we have the experience."
In effect, he argued, the French government is "saving the Americans from themselves" because - based on France's war with Algeria, which led to bombs in the streets and subways of Paris - America will suffer increased terrorism, not less, if it attacks Iraq.
He is right. France has been a loyal ally for the U.S. in the past, but this time the Americans' demands just aren't credible or reasonable. Therefore, they endanger us all. It takes a real friend to say "Non!"
Minister Copps Discusses "Cultural Diversity"
Paris - There has been a lot of talk about "cultural diversity" here recently.
Of course, we have all heard of "bio-diversity" and the need to protect plant and animal species, but this is something new - or newer.
It reflects the fact that, in this age of globalization and the increasing influence of one culture - American, other cultures are threatened or disappearing. According to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, the world is losing two languages - or dialects - a month!
Because of this, the Second International Meeting of Cultural Professional Organizations - groups representing artists - was held at the Carrousel du Louvre, symbolically the cultural heart of France.
The participants came together in part because the U.S. has made it clear that it wants culture on the table during the present trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Basically, the American government and cultural industries believe artistic products are commodities to be bought and sold like anything else - and they don't want policy barriers preventing them from spreading American music, books, movies, and so on around the world.
The final declaration of the cultural organizations' meeting revealed that their position is pretty much the opposite.
To begin with, they believe that "works of the human spirit cannot be reduced solely to their market value" and that "Countries have the right and the duty to pursue the cultural policies of their choice free from external constraints."
Therefore, the cultural groups want countries to "oppose liberalization of any kind relating to goods and services in all fields of culture." This means they don't want institutions, such as the CBC, privatized, commercialized, or thrown to the free-trade wolves. They also don't want culture regulated by the very commercially-oriented WTO.
Perhaps, French President Jacques Chirac, who opened the Louvre meeting, put it best. "Mark well today that there are boundaries which globalization has no right to abolish. They are the frontiers which enable us to go from one culture to another, which teach us that ... human universality takes singular shapes and that we must hold on to this treasure as one of humanity's most precious belongings."
I mentioned Minister Copps because she, too, made an appearance at this meeting and attended several others as well. As the founder, five years ago, of the International Network on Cultural Policy, made up of like-minded ministers of culture, she was in Paris to promote "cultural diversity" and speak with the Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura.
In a speech to the Canada-France Chamber of Commerce, she pointed out that many international vehicles created so far - the OECD, the WTO - were concerned solely with buying and selling. Now, however, the world needed an international or supranational approach to the protection of culture.
Indeed, Copps met with Matsuura to discuss the introduction of an "international instrument" - to protect "cultural diversity" - within UNESCO and announced afterward that she was pleased with the progress made on the issue.
But, in spite of the nice words and good intentions, I find all of this a little disconcerting. For one thing, many of those wanting to protect "cultural diversity" seem to have a frighteningly narrow view of culture. It is not, I would argue, simply books, pictures, films, and such. It is also our values and the way we live our lives.
France is a good example of what I mean, not only because of the richness of its culture in the strict sense of the word, but also because it has a certain attitude toward being human.
For example, the French work a 35-hour week and have six weeks vacation a year. That is a reflection and, indeed, an aspect of their culture. If the French way of life continues to be destroyed because globalization dictates that they become more "competitive" with the U.S., then everything will change accordingly.
Unfortunately, culture does not exist in a vacuum. You can't change a society, its structures, its values, and not affect its artists. So, too, you can't support unfettered trade in everything from education to legal services and not affect culture.
It seems, however, that many of those involved with the arts don't appreciate this. Certainly, Copps' own record as a minister in a government supporting NAFTA and free trade generally would lead one to believe she has not made the connection either.
Coincidentally, just after I heard Copps speak, I met with Todd Swift, a Canadian poet living in Paris, who recently helped produce the largest ebook in history: "100 Poets Against the War" - artists opposing a U.S. attack on Iraq.
Our conversation made me feel rather bleak about the prospect of UNESCO safeguarding "cultural diversity" in today's uneasy world. It hasn't been able to prevent culturally-significant towns from being bombed during recent wars, and I doubt if it can protect countries from being overwhelmed by American culture, once the trade doors are wide open.
Before we talk about protecting "cultural diversity," we have to be clearer about what is really behind "cultural adversity."
Romance?Paris - I'm falling in love all over again!
As we approach what is reputedly the most romantic day of the year - Valentine's Day, I have been immersed in a recently-published book by historian, Thirza Vallois, appropriately entitled: "Romantic Paris."
Her marvelous descriptions of the cosiest hotels, restaurants, and museums, the most intimate gardens, parks, and cafes, along with excellent advice on where to find the best of everything from chocolate to lingerie has renewed my own passion for this city.
Vallois begins her lovely, photo-filled study of the City of Light - and Love - with two anecdotes which reveal why she decided to write about this very particular area of human experience.
First of all, she fell in love in Paris as a young student from England studying at the Sorbonne many years ago. She and her future French husband, Michel, would skip classes to wile away the hours sitting in their favourite cafe, the Pre Aux Clercs (where Hemingway used to dine with his first wife, Hadley, in 1921) or strolling along the Seine.
(In fact, I interviewed Vallois in the Pre not far from Boulevard St. Germain. Once a typical Parisian cafe, it is now a funky spot filled with hanging grape vines - but she still seemed very much at home in the place.)
Vallois also explains that she wrote "Romantic Paris" because media interviews about her previous, more serious, books - a series called "Around and About Paris" - invariably ended with the question: "Why is Paris the most romantic city?"
Strangely enough, the author states that she doesn't have the definitive answer, but anyone reading her informative prose will have no doubts. Indeed, with Vallois' help, I have concluded that Paris is romantic because it bears the mark of people who, over the centuries, have truly appreciated life and love - often to excess!
Certainly, one of Vallois' strengths is her knowledge of the city's colourful past.
In fact, she begins her book with a "Love History of Paris," which tells of the tragic 12th century love affair between 17-year-old Heloise and her brilliant tutor, Pierre Abelard; the 16th century coupling of the future Henry IV of France with the young Mother Superior of a Montmartre abbey; the duels held in what is now called Place des Vosges, and the antics of Louis XV with his extravagant mistresses, the Marquise de Pompadour and the Comptesse du Barry.
She also introduces us to the Paris of the 1830s, which was becoming "the world capital of hedonism". "Energy," she writes, "surged along the grands boulevards ... which sizzled with sensual and often depraved delight ..." - and an expensive mistress was a must.
More recently, she describes the life of singer Edith Piaf, whose L'hymne a l'amour was dedicated to her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, killed in a plane crash in 1953, and is now the most popular love song in France.
After inspiring even the most hesitant couples, Vallois offers a detailed description of a three-day "Fantasy Trip," complete with suggested tours of her favourite areas, maps, and preferred eateries - including, in some cases, the best table to book.
The first "fantasy" morning begins with these tantalizing words: "You have slept off your jetlag and have woken up in one of the exquisite hotels of the Left Bank. Hmm ... To have breakfast in your room or dash into the city?" (Fortunately, she also has suggestions for lovers on a more restricted budget.)
This chapter is followed by a list of hotels, which, typically, is full of the most delightful details, such as an introduction to the owners, a list of flowers growing in the garden, and the best room to reserve. Like anyone happily immersed in a subject, Vallois has done her research with enthusiasm.
The same energy can be seen in the chapters: "Lovers' Restaurants and Salons de The," "Shopping for the Heart & Senses," and "Sentimental Trails," (more tours with maps). She concludes the book with what she considers ideal outings for "Romantic Nights."
It is obvious with every cafe, shop, and secluded spot mentioned that Vallois has put her knowledge and experience, as well as her heart, into this very pretty book. Little wonder she quotes French poet Louis Aragon in the simple epilogue:
"It's out of Paris, that Paris, that I have carved my poems ..."
"I have written more about you Paris, than about myself: ..."
Yes, I am now ready for February 14. Are you?
The Euro One Year Later
Paris - I would like to wish the euro a belated and somewhat hesitant Happy Birthday.
After much preparation and publicity, this revolutionary new currency was introduced into the lives of 304 million Europeans in 12 countries on January 1, 2002 - like a kind of monetary "big bang."
So, one year later, what are the results?
Well, they are varied to say the least!
For one thing, there is no doubt that here in France - and elsewhere - prices have gone up considerably, in spite of official statistics to the contrary. Consumer groups are claiming that, after a broad survey of goods and services, hikes range from eight to as high as 35 per cent.
A good quality baguette, for example, which might have cost about five francs is now simply one euro. Since the euro is worth about 6.50 francs, that represents a clear jump in the price of one of the most important staples in this country.
The same applies to even the most basic services. My daughter noticed that the price for a pay toilet at the Gare du Nord is now one euro. When I first came to Paris two years ago, the cost was generally a franc (think of our quarter or less). That is a huge leap - more than 600 per cent - even considering the modern station facilities.
Not surprisingly, even the street beggars have picked up on the inflationary new mood. Instead of asking for "une piece," which invariably meant a franc, many just plead for a euro. I suppose with the higher cost of living this makes sense!
I asked the man at my local newsstand why the French, who are not known for their complacency, have accepted such dramatic increases in prices. He said simply that they just aren't paying attention. Instead, they are rounding things out to the euro for the sake of convenience without thinking of the consequences - and running out of money at the end of the month.
Another theory offered by an acquaintance is that when an apartment formerly selling for, say, a million-plus francs is now being offered for 200,000 euros it seems like a great drop in the price - even though it is an increase.
Nevertheless, surveys have found that more than 80 per cent of French consumers continue to think in francs, especially for larger purchases. That is why so many still run around with tiny calculators in their pockets or purses. It is also why gas and telephone bills, and bank balances are often in both euros and francs.
As the newspaper, Liberation, put it, "France spends euros, but thinks francs."
From reports of friends travelling elsewhere, France's rate of adjustment to the euro seems to be midway between The Netherlands, which has all but forgotten its former currency, and Spain, which often still has prices in pesetas as well as euros on its menus.
But there are those who definitely think the benefits of one European currency outweigh the obvious costs and inconveniences.
A salesman I know who travels throughout Europe regularly is very keen on the euro. He was once used to changing currency at every airport and now resents doing this when he goes to England or Switzerland (although he says certain places in these countries are already accepting the new money). He is also delighted that he no longer returns from his trips with pockets full of unwanted foreign change.
Another traveller notes that it is easier to compare prices now. A cafe glass of orange juice is one euro cheaper in Venice than in Paris, according to his informal research.
And then, there are those who think beyond the daily routine to the philosophical and political realms.
One thoughtful French man told me he hasn't adjusted to the euro because it doesn't mean anything for him. The franc represented his country, his society, his history, he says, but the euro represents a community that doesn't really exist - a vision of the future only.
A former civil servant said he doesn't relate to the new Europe - and, therefore, its currency - because it seems to be sacrificing social goals of fairness and equality for economic ones.
And then there are the radicals.
An older, right-wing French man I know is thrilled with the new strong euro because it is the best way to (expletive deleted) the dollar. He loves to see the euro take on the almighty dollar and win! He says the next step will be tossing the American military out of Europe.
Unfortunately, there are similar aggressive sentiments on the other side. When I asked one American for his thoughts on the euro, he seemed quite offended by the fact that the dollar is not always on top - and began ranting about how strong it will be once the U.S. had control of Iraq's oil.
I think he was kidding.
Happy Birthday anyway.
OECD Praise for Canada's Regulatory Reform Not Necessarily Good News
Paris - Canada has recently been praised by the OECD, based here in Paris.
This influential organization - the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development - representing the major industrialized nations of the world has just released a review of Canada's efforts to reform its regulatory system.
The conclusion: Keep up the good work!
Sounds like good news, doesn't it? I'm not so sure.
"The OECD Review of Regulatory Reform in Canada" is one of a series of thoroughly-researched reports on member countries begun in 1997. So far, 16 countries - out of 30 - have been investigated, told what they have or have not done well, and given detailed advice on future reforms needed to reduce "barriers to competition."
The report on Canada pays special attention to our telecommunications industry, stating contendedly that reform of this sector " has evolved steadily and successfully."
It points out that this industry accounts for 2.7 per cent of Canada's GDP - noting also that the telecommunications market is the seventh largest in the OECD. (In order to understand the thinking behind this report, one must realize that almost everything is seen in terms of potential market value and, therefore, an unfettered marketplace is preferable.)
In their report, the OECD researchers recognize the important role the telecommunications industry has played in Canada's development, pointing out that, in spite of Canada's "huge landmass and relatively small population," there has been an "emphasis on ensuring that remote and rural areas have good services which keep up with the latest technological developments."
As well, they admit that telecommunications "is considered to play an essential role in the maintenance of Canada's identity."
But, in spite of these non-market factors and achievements - which most of us would consider crucial I am sure - nothing has stood in the way of sweeping regulatory change.
The OECD reports notes that: "Nearly all the monopolies have now been eliminated (with a few exceptions)." It then outlines the changes over the past 20-plus years which have shaken up (my words) the telecommunications industry, including the opening up of long-distance voice services to competition in 1992, and the CRTC's "announced regulatory framework for competition in local services in 1997."
It then offers some very detailed - some might call it instrusive - advice on further reforms needed, such as a transfer of certain powers from Industry Canada to the CRTC (which would "ensure that industry policy obligations are not included in licences") and a call for the complete removal of foreign ownership restrictions.
I don't know about you, but I simply can't accept the OECD's cheery conclusions concerning this particular sector of our economy, our society. How many of us look back rather fondly to the days before deregulation when dear old Ma Bell - or some other highly-regulated monopoly - provided us with solid, professional service whether it was the repair man knocking at the door, free directory assistance, or efficient operators.
The OECD states that long-distance charges have dropped - but for some reason monthly phone bills seem to have soared. And just wait until there is local competition and you have to pay every time you call your neighbour - as we do here in Paris!
Is all this an improvement? The OECD thinks so.
The report reaches the same conclusions in relation to the trucking industry, deregulating since 1987. But again, on a purely practical level, it seems to me that there are a lot more sleepy truck drivers racing dangerously along Canada's highways in bigger, more threatening trucks.
It is also happy with changes to the airline industry, which began the deregulating process in the same year. However, I used to have a choice of four airlines - two of them fairly inexpensive charters - to return to Canada and, the last time I flew, there was one - Air Canada.
(Of course, now that the damage has been done to our airline industry, the deregulators say competition from the U.S. or elsewhere is the solution - but why has this become necessary?)
One thing is sure: The OECD certainly doesn't hide its agenda or its almost-purely commercial mindset. Although it pays lip service to social and national needs and concerns, it unashamedly promotes privatization and free market competition, even in an age when rail disasters in England (after privatization) and the energy and financial scandals in the U.S. might have made others reassess their capitalist fundamentalism.
So, is this report relevant to you the reader? Definitely. For one thing, both Tory and Liberal Canadian governments and most provincial governments have consistently followed the OECD agenda. Hence, the praise.
To read this report is to peer into Canada's future.
We can't say we weren't warned.
Pro-Canadianism in the Age of Anti-Americanism
Paris - My mother will be there, and possibly Karen Kain. I wish I could be there, too.?Yes, at age 72, Mum will soon be boarding a bus for a three-hour ride to Toronto where she will attend The Canadian Conference on Unity, Sovereignty and Prosperity (CUSP), being held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre November 30 and December 1.
After becoming disheartened, even frightened, about the future of Canada - and the world, she wants to do something. So, she will listen to nationalists Mel Hurtig and the Hon. Paul Hellyer, journalist Linda McQuaig, and environmentalist Elizabeth May - among others - in the hope that she will learn not only about today's problems, but also a few solutions.
She will certainly be in good company. The list of CUSP sponsors cuts across party and professional lines and includes several high-profile Canadians: Kain, Norman Jewison, Patrick Watson, and the Rt. Hon. John Turner. In other words, from artists and communicators to a former Liberal prime minister.
The conference will cover a range of issues, including the future of our water supply (threatened under NAFTA) and military integration with the U.S. Mum's head should be spinning by the time she boards the bus home!
However, I am sure she won't regret the trip. She wants to do her part to protect Canada and the kind of society she has enjoyed all her life. And she doesn't like the prospect of moving steadily closer to the influences of Washington and New York.
She isn't anti-American; she simply appreciates the less individualistic values we Canadians have developed and encouraged.
From across the ocean, I am delighted to hear that Canadians - known and unknown - are coming together to save what they have. For, if ever there was a time to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours, this is it.
People are beginning to react more strongly to this war-plagued, U.S.-dominated age of globalization we live in and, here in France, I have the distinct feeling that anti-Americanism is growing. In fact, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable when people mistake me for a U.S. citizen - and am thinking seriously of sporting one of those Canadian-flag pins on my lapel.
A recent book, "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World" by Mark Hertsgaard, deals with this problem. During an interview, the author pointed out that it is difficult for people not to react negatively when, for example, the U.S. refuses to attend the Kyoto conference on greenhouse gas emissions - even though one American is responsible for 45 times the emissions of a person living in China.
Hertsgaard also noted that Bush's ultimatums have not made friends. Ten days after the attacks of September 11 and an international outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, Bush stated: "You're with us or you're with the terrorists." That quote, Hertsgaard said, was printed three times on the front page of France's Le Monde. The French didn't appreciate it.
More recently, in his speech to the United Nations, Bush warned that countries which didn't back U.S. plans for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq would be "irrelevant." Again, it came as no surprise that the French were proud when their president, Jacques Chirac, scored a victory against U.S. unilateralism, demanding that Bush and company respect the UN and wait for a decision by the Security Council.
Small wonder, too, that a recent book (yes, writers are not avoiding the subject), entitled: "The American Enemy" by Philippe Roger is a big seller here.
The author examines the history of anti-Americanism in France going back to the years 1750 - 1770 when the U.S. was just a frontier dream. It appears that French support for the New World rebels against the British wasn't necessarily an act of love - and they soon felt they had helped create a monster. There were even theories during the Enlightenment that American plants and animals were inferior and so were their children.
It has been a fascinating monster nevertheless - with everything from its cowboy culture (Buffalo Bill had a Wild West show under the Eiffel Tower for months; a re-make has been playing outside Paris for the past ten years) to its modern stars (Woody Allen was a hit here recently with his mediocre clarinet playing!).
The dangerous thing is that although many people argue that you shouldn't condemn ordinary Americans for what their government is doing, some claim the opposite. In their anger and frustration with recent developments, they state that ordinary Americans are responsible for Bush coming to and retaining power, and should, therefore, be held accountable.
I must admit I have not decided how to respond. All I do know is that I have never been so appreciative of my Canadian roots. We may not be as fascinating, but we aren't hated. So thank you Mum and Karen Kain for "standing on guard."
Comparing Empires Can Be Helpful
Paris - Comparisons may be odious, but they can also be downright helpful.
For the past few days, I have been reading the book, "The History of Knowledge," written about 10 years ago by Charles Van Doren, then an associate director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago.
In his formidable work, he describes the rise, 600-plus-year existence, and fall of the Roman Empire. As I followed the tale, I couldn't help thinking of today's world - dominated as it is by the United States of America.
I'll admit that the words, "American Empire," don't role off the tongue as easily as the names of past empires, which we all studied in school. Remember the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, of course, the British Empire.
And we mustn't forget the "Evil Empire," as the former Soviet Union was labeled by the U.S.
Not many have had the audacity of Quebec film director, Denys Arcand, whose most famous work about the ways of his province's intellectual set was entitled, "The Decline of the American Empire."
In fact, I am sure that most people, if asked, would claim that empires are a thing of the past - they lie on the garbage heap of history.
My dictionary/thesaurus defines "empire" as "a group of states under supreme leader" and offers these synonyms for "supreme" - chief, first, foremost, head, highest ... top, ultimate, utmost." Sound familiar?
The U.S. has been described as the mightiest nation in history. Certainly, its military arsenal, its economic clout, and its cultural dominance make the Romans with their primitive weaponry and relatively limited strength in all fields look like amateurs.
After ten years of watching American planes (backed by loyal allies) obliterate buildings, people, and history, we know its military might and it is supreme. (And now the world waits fearfully to see if this power will once again be applied.)
Europeans still struggling to adjust to the euro (this continent's defensive response to the U.S. dollar) and stockbrokers here who wait every morning for the New York Stock Exchange to open know the financial strength of the U.S. and it is supreme.
Parents around the world constantly bombarded by American films, music, books, and magazines whose children are being raised by Walt Disney, Nike, and McDonald's know the cultural pervasiveness of the U.S. and it is supreme.
I suggest that real power - even imperial power - doesn't come from the barrel of a gun. It is subtler than that.
Recently, while flying back to Paris from North America, I saw the film, "About a Boy," with Hugh Grant, which focused on a young boy whose suicidal mother wouldn't allow him to wear running shoes, listen to rap music, or go to McDonald's.
By the end of the film, thanks to the influence of Grant's character, the now-happy mother had realized the error of her ways and was suggesting that she and her son enjoy a Big Mac together!
I was appalled. This wasn't art or culture. This was propaganda.
And I am sure it was effective - given the winning smile of Mr. Grant!
So, how do the Roman and American Empires compare? At its height, Roman influence was widespread and compelling. Its territory stretched from Britain and Spain in the west to Egypt and the Black Sea in the east.
Although it is not marching its legions everywhere, the U.S. influence, I would argue, is now global. Even holdouts such as North Korea and Cuba are slowly falling in line. (Cuba uses the American dollar!)
The Romans ruled, in part, by controlling trade and commerce. So does the U.S. through the use of free-trade agreements, which give its corporations access to markets around the world.
The Romans built roads and aqueducts; American corporations buy and make a profit from transportation, energy, and water supplies, as well as schools, hospitals, and health-care systems in many countries. (The last time I checked, our former nationally-owned CN Rail was majority-American owned.)
The Romans consolidated their hold on far-away lands by imposing their laws, education and even their language - Latin - on their "citizens." Through institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the U.S. is pushing for international laws based on private property and privatized social services - and the English language is now the unofficial language of the globe. (I witness its encroachment in Paris every day.)
But, you might be saying, the U.S. is a democracy, unlike Rome.
It is important to note that most of the expansion of Roman territory took place while Rome was still a republic, like the U.S., doing everything in the name of the Senate and the People of Rome. However, the pressures of power soon destroyed whatever democracy there was, leading to decadence and the rule of emperors whose names still engender shivers - Tiberius, Caligula, Nero.
In the U.S. of post-September 11, many are concerned that the pressures of power - and empire - are quickly eroding any semblance of democracy.
I am not arguing that Bush is Nero or Washington is Rome. Nevertheless, we are well-served by the lessons of history.
Communism isn't dead in France. If fact, it hosts wonderful events!
Paris - For many people here, September was a very Communist month.
Picture, first of all, a huge, three-day festival in a park north of any large Canadian city. Crowded commuter trains from the city are met by shuttle buses which transport festival-goers through bumper-to-bumper traffic to the site. There, cars are chaotically crammed together wherever parking is possible; colourful tickets, and a thick, tabloid-style program are sold to eager families, couples, and groups of friends young and old; red flags fly in the breeze.
Yes, red flags, because this is no ordinary party. This is a French Communist party - a more sophisticated and much redder version of the CNE with everything from candy apples and bumper cars to hammers and sickles. More than 500,000 people regularly attend this event near Paris, the biggest political shindig in France.
It may come as a surprise - even a shock - to many Canadians, but the French Communist Party is still a relatively credible social force in this country. Last year, membership was about 150,000; twenty-one Communist deputies sit in the National Assembly, even after a swing to the right during elections earlier this year. (Their block officially numbers 22 because of an ally from another party.)
In fact, the Communists' festival, officially sponsored last week-end by their magazine l'Humanite - or l'Huma as it is known - has become "more popular than ever," according to Time Out Paris, a weekly English-language events listing. That is quite an impressive accomplishment considering this historic bash was launched in 1930 and has been held every year since - with the obvious exception of the Nazi Occupation period
The Party's ability to throw its party this year was greatly helped by support from the arts community. Their talent line-up included Yann Tiersen, famous for the soundtrack of the wildly-popular film "Amelie," and Yannick Noah, former tennis pro turned pop star. Actor Jean-Claude Drouot performed excerpts from the works of Victor Hugo in this the bicentenary of the great writer's birth.
Imagine a Canadian Communist gathering with our top artists!
Clearly, "la Fete de l'Humanite" is far from marginal or underground in spite of its anti-establishment tenor. The 96-page festival program was full of corporate advertising -Perrier, Kronenbourg, Orangina, Renault - bringing to mind Comrade Lenin's observation that a true capitalist is so greedy he would sell you the rope to hang him. There was also a government presence both in the program - Air France and post office ads - and around the site with Radio France, this country's version of the CBC.
Make no mistake, however. There was an unequivocally anti-capitalist message rising from the various tents where the often-passionate debates on everything from the Middle East to the role of the artist seemed endless. (The French do like to discuss.) La Fete was also an opportunity to rally the troops for future demonstrations against the right-wing government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, now that it has revealed its conservative agenda, including the privatization of certain services.
And, of course, there was Jose Bove, the high-profile, farmers' union leader who helped dismantle a McDonald's under construction near his home. The calm, pipe-smoker spoke to an adoring audience about his recent prison term, urging them to become more aware of their democratic rights and get politically involved. His near-celebrity status was evident by the number of autograph- seekers following him wherever he went.
But that wasn't the only Red event. During the week-end-long Heritage Days here during which government and private buildings open their doors to the public, the well-known Communist Party headquarters, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, was on display. Parisians turned out in impressive numbers to admire this unusual structure with its undulating walls and floors, enjoy the magnificent view from its top floor, and listen to a lecture on the history of this very Communist piece of real estate.
I must admit that when I first emerged from the Metro nearby and stared up at this elegant building, I couldn't believe that this was the centre of Communism in France. I expected something more modest, less "world class" - even more forbidding.
Of course, I was thinking in North American, anti-communist terms, not European.
After all, Picasso, a friend of Niemeyer, was a member of the Communist Party. So, too, was Jean-Paul Sartre. The Reds here certainly didn't - and don't - have to hide under the beds! Many of their leaders and members are still considered WW II Resistance heroes.
However, now that the public has been successfully feted and entertained this year, the Communists are wondering what lies in their future - how they can stay relevant in this era of hyper-capitalism and globalization.
Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the Communist events of next September in Paris for two reasons. It will be interesting to assess the health of this political force in one year's time - and it will be fun to be a Communist Party partier again.
An Inuit in Paris
Paris - Newfoundland has made it here. Sort of.
In this city of colourful, cultural posters promoting everything from Bach concerts to questionable magazines, the enormous words "Terre Neuve" stand out on many street corners. They have also been emblazoned on the cover of the ubiquitous events calendar, "Pariscope," for the past week.
Yes, the film, known as "The Shipping News" in English, about our unique eastern isle, has clearly hit town.
However, the national pride I felt when I first encountered this advertising campaign diminished immediately when I took a closer look. For there, representing a piece of my country, were photos of Kevin Spacey, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore - who probably don't know the difference between a Newfoundland outport and the Australian outback. Or they didn't before making the film!
Therefore, this very public display of Canadianism isn't winning many points with me. Instead of admiring the posters and "Pariscope" with pride, I have felt somehow cheated - as if my heritage had been hijacked by others.
Fortunately, there has been better news for long-distance patriots - which can be summed up in the words, "Atanarjuat, the fast runner."
Yes, the people of Nunavut have done us proud. Not only has their film won Genie Awards, the Cannes Camera d'Or for Best First Feature Film, and other tributes, but it was also the clear victor in the battle of the street posters recently.
Just weeks ago, the faces of Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky) and Johnny Depp (From Hell) were pushed aside for that of an unknown Inuit in a fur hood wearing hand-carved, cariboo-antler sun goggles.
Now, that's indigenous. That's Canadian.
What is more, the Canadian Cultural Centre here, realizing the significance of the film, dedicated an entire week to books, films, and discussions about things Inuit. It is now featuring an exhibit on "The World of Atanarjuat, yesterday and today" with sculptures and engravings, as well as costumes and props from the film.
The most fascinating aspect of Atanarjuat Week for me, however, was the modest presence of the man who played "the fast runner" - Natar Ungalaaq.
In fact, I had an opportunity to give him a personal tour of Paris which turned out to be one of the most fascinating cross-cultural and superbly-Canadian experiences I have had. It also inspired me to suggest a sequel to "Atanarjuat," which - I am sure you will agree - could only be titled: "An Inuit in Paris."
Ungalaaq and I left the Canadian Cultural Centre and headed north to the Quay d'Orsay and east along the Seine to the Assemblee Nationale, once a Bourbon Palace. We then crossed the Pont du Carrousel and entered the enormous courtyard of the Louvre. Here, I.M. Pei's igloo-like (come to think of it) glass pyramid caught my new friend's eye and he posed for a photo.
While strolling through one of the huge, arched walkways of the Louvre, we looked down into an incredible sculpture garden. On seeing this, Ungalaaq , who has had international success with his sculptures, described his own culture as "fading away, drifting away."
He told me that his people "are trying to hold it with two hands ... We need help to get our culture back."
Indeed, "Atanarjuat", which documents and celebrates traditional Inuit ways and beliefs, is an attempt to do just that.
As we crossed the lovely Pont Neuf and wound our way along the narrow streets of the 6th Arrondissement, I noticed Ungalaaq limping slightly, and he explained that the dress shoes he was wearing weren't very comfortable.
(When I later saw the film and the bloody state of Atanarjuat's feet after his famous shoeless dash across the ice, I felt I had done almost as much damage as his evil pursuers!)
Ungalaaq seemed quite unphased about the prospect of attending the Academy Awards where the film has been nominated in the Foreign Film category. The new Canadian star had more important things on his mind: "Before Hollywood, I want to show my people" the film.
I remember thinking that this unpretentious man who had found himself in Paris, a city known for its arrogance and individualism, was probably the most humble and community-rooted person I had ever met. His life was truly focussed on his people, his settlement, his family, his elders, his history.
When we returned to the Canadian Cultural Centre, there were several messages waiting for "the fast man." It was the beginning of a hectic week of interviews, film openings, speeches, and receptions - all part of the life of "An Inuit in Paris."
After this very Canadian experience, I can only say that the next time a film on Newfoundland comes to town I hope it, too, is something we ex-pats can relate to - because I am sure Kevin Spacey won't be coming anywhere near the Canadian Cultural Centre.
Too Many Tourists Ignore Real Paris
Paris - I know a Canadian - a bookseller from Toronto - who has probably hiked the entire circumference of Paris. Yes, he has walked hundreds of kilometres across cornfields, past chateaux, over quaint bridges, through villages right around this great city.
He is Brian Spence, owner of the Abbey Bookshop and organizer of the Canadian Club, which sponsors ambitious hikes on many week-ends during the year. Certainly, he is adding to Canadians' image as hearty outdoor-lovers in this more sedentary, cafe-lounging culture.
Unfortunately, however, I managed to tarnish that image when I joined Brian and about 30 others on a hike along the Seine to the famous village of Giverny, once the home of impressionist painter, Claude Monet.
With Brian in the lead, we briskly made our way overland from a nearby train station until I found myself sitting happily on a rustic bench under a willow tree in Monet's former garden eating chocolates and staring at the water lilies he celebrated so beautifully in his art.
Indeed, it was magnificent until Brian had us up and marching again toward our final destination almost 20 kilometres away. Small wonder several of us soon deserted our fearless leader and hopped a train back to Paris.
But my desire to experience the hinterland of Paris by train and foot was whetted in spite of my inability to keep up with my compatriot. (The present French train system is quite efficient. It breaks my heart that it might be privatised and go the way of the British system.)
That is why a recently-released book, "An Hour From Paris," caught my attention immediately. Written by British ex-patriot, Annabel Simms, it combines Brian's energy and enthusiasm with a slower, more middle-aged pace. It's walking and exploring for softies.
Simms, who, like numerous relatively-new Parisians teaches English for a living, explained at the book's launch that "An Hour From Paris" was the guide she couldn't find when she began her own rambling near Paris 11 years ago.
She states in her introduction that, not surprisingly, she assumed the area beyond Paris was filled with characterless, concrete suburbs and industry. She was delighted to find that this is far from the case. So am I!
Instead, Simms points out that only 15 per cent of the 12,000 square-kilometre region surrounding and including Paris - known strangely enough as the Ile de France - is urbanized. The rest is agricultural land, forest, and open space. And, the author claims, it is also the most historic and interesting part of France, as well as being the most overlooked.
"The French," she told her audience about the Ile de France, "don't know what they've got, and they don't know how to get there. Neither does anyone else."
This, she argues, is because tourists are "obsessed" with Paris and Parisians usually head to the regions - Brittany, Provence, Normandy - for their vacations.
Because of this general ignorance and lack of appreciation, Simms includes a short history of the Ile de France noting that, because of its social and strategic importance over the centuries, it has more chateaux than any area of France (except the Loire Valley), and more ancient towers and fortifications.
But, she complains gently, in spite of the excellent commuter-train service, there is a dearth of clear, detailed information about how to make your way around. This is, in part, she observes, a reflection of the French attitude that: "If you have to ask where it is, you have no business going there."
So, five years ago, after getting lost in forests, knocking on locals' doors to ask for directions, accidentally coming across marvellous, all-but-ignored, family-run restaurants, she began taking copious notes - and drawing her own intricate maps.
The book has obviously filled a gap in the already-extensive, Parisian guide-book world. One bookstore reported that it had sold out its copies before the book launch.
Like me, people want to know what lies out there - beyond the highway that circles the actual departement of Paris, replacing the ancient walls. They also want easy, inexpensive week-end getaways, such as the ones Simms recommends, ranging from the chateau-museum of Chantilly to the ancient, cathedral town of Senlis to the Ile du Martin-Pecheur with its traditional French music and dancing.
(Not to be too off-beat, Simms includes a chapter, entitled "On the Tourist Trail," which pays homage to the old stand-bys, such as Versailles, Fontainebleau, and, of course, Giverny.)
Even as winter approaches, gentle as it usually is in Paris, I am impatient to test the accuracy of Simms' directions, as well as her taste. She claims to have chosen her destinations based on four criteria: interest, accessibility, lack of crowds, and added value (a good walk, a concert, a museum). It will be interesting to find out just exactly what spots meet her rigorous demands.
And, by the way, I have told Brian Spence that Paris needs another Canadian-led hiking club. This one will feature walks of less than 10 kilometres, frequent scenic stops, and champagne whenever possible. He agrees. You are all invited.
Confessions of an "Illegal Combatant"
Paris - Living fairly close to Geneva, home of those darned conventions now causing George Bush and Jean Chretien grief, I have been thinking about human rights - not simply for prisoners of war, but for us all - and worrying.
The problem is that most Canadians simply don't know what their basic rights (freedom of speech, of association, of the press to name a few) are; why they exist; how difficult they were to achieve - and what life would be like without them. Their ignorance is blissful - but dangerous.
For example, how many of us know what it is like to be thrown in jail arbitrarily, roughed up and held without access to a lawyer? Well, I do - and it's scary. You never get over it. You are, in one way or another, marked for life.
Let me tell you my story.
It all began on a warm, sunny afternoon about 30 years ago in front of Toronto's then-new city hall. I was 19, recently radicalized by the Viet-Nam war and a stimulating year at university.
Along with two friends, I was wandering through the Sunday crowd selling the latest issue of our small, communist paper. (Remember that "communist" then was the equivalent of "terrorist" today - a catch-all phrase often allowing human rights abuses in the name of freedom.)
Suddenly, a policeman on horseback parked himself beside me and ordered me to stop selling the paper. I replied that we were in a public place and it was my democratic right to do what I was doing.
However, it was obvious that he emphatically disagreed when he grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to a waiting paddy wagon, where several other policemen began to push me into the back. When I resisted, one of them twisted my thumb making me scream with pain.
I was taken to a basement somewhere in downtown Toronto. There two officers stood watch as a third grilled me. I gave him my name and address, but, when I refused to give more information (having watched U.S. television shows about the right to remain silent etc.), he slapped me across the face two or three times.
Finally, my interrogator threw me on the ground and told me to strip - he wanted to see if there were any identifying scars on my body. Sprawled on the floor in a blouse that was ripped from my rather brutal arrest, I told him he would have to remove my clothes himself.
Fortunately (or not), I was then hustled off to another unknown destination, which turned out to be the infamous Don Jail - once criticized, I believe, by the United Nations for its below-standard conditions.
There, I was finger-printed - in spite of my protests - and placed in solitary confinement because of my protests. For one week. Caged like an animal.
For those of you who haven't experienced it, solitary confinement - at least for me - consisted of passing my days in a small, windowless room with a cot and a toilet. Every morning and night, I was let out into an even smaller room to wash and brush my teeth. Three times a day, my food was silently shoved through the door.
No contact, no exercise - and no lawyer. (Perhaps, like the present U.S. prisoners of war, I had been classified as an "illegal combatant" - not deserving the niceties of democracy.)
One week and one day after my arrest, I was given a moment in court. The judge assigned me a trial date, and I was finally freed.
However, that was not the end of the story. In court a few days later, a second judge kept referring to me by another person's name. I pointed this out adding that, after being beaten and jailed, I could at least be called by my own name. He reacted instantly - sentencing me to thirty days in jail for contempt of court. (Twenty-three days in actuality.)
What was the outcome of this violence, isolation, and misery? I was acquitted.
A third judge agreed with my lawyer (hired by my family) that the original charges of causing a disturbance and resisting arrest didn't stand up - because, according to witnesses, I wasn't causing a disturbance until I was resisting arrest! Why then was I arrested?
Again, the judge was a thoughtful fellow, agreeing wholeheartedly that I had a democratic right to sell papers - quietly - at city hall. Sadly, however, this endorsement of my rights and beliefs came a little too late. I was no longer the same young woman who, until a few months before, had had full confidence in Canadian democracy.
The lesson I learned? Rights are a privilege - as we are seeing today.
New Foreign Minister's Actions Speak Loudly
Paris - What should the news that Bill Graham, M.P. for the federal riding of Toronto Centre-Rosedale, is now Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs mean to Canadians?
On the surface, most would probably think: "Not much! Bill Who?" But dig a little deeper and one can see that Graham's appointment is very telling.
For example, just before Jean Chretien promoted him to the privileged ministerial realm (where the oxygen is very thin I am certain), Graham was chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee - and was just about to pack his bags and head across the country.
His aim? To hold hearings into the further integration of Canada and our increasingly-militant southern neighbours.
On learning of Graham and his committee's plans, some observers cried foul. They claimed that the hearings were nothing more than a public relations exercise and that the fix was in - the outcome pre-determined. They were certain that the committee would invariably call for increased integration with the U.S. in the form of a customs union - and possibly even the adoption of the American dollar.
(This was all reminiscent of Liberal Donald Macdonald's 1982-1985 examination and recommendation of the concept of "free trade" with the States - and we know where that led. Now, sadly, Macdonald feels that we have gone too far because no country should lose control of its basic infrastructure. He is, therefore, particularly concerned about the sale of major Canadian energy companies to outside interests and the possibility that the foreign ownership restrictions on telecommunications companies will be lifted.)
Graham's critics, among them former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Paul Hellyer who ran against Graham in the last federal election, were sceptical about his neutrality on the issue of Canada/U.S. integration for several reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is his committee's track record.
In the early 1990s, the Foreign Affairs Committee under Graham recommended that Canada sign on to the highly-controversial Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) then being negotiated and promoted by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), based here in Paris.
This thumbs up from the committee came in spite of very vocal opposition from groups and individuals across Canada and around the world who found out - after much effort due to the secrecy surrounding the agreement - that Canada and other signatories would be locked into the principle of "national treatment" for 20 years. (In bureaucratic terms, the time was stated as 5 plus 15 years, but, no matter how you put it, Canada would have had its hands tied for too long!)
For those Canadians still unfamiliar with the term - and there are many, "national treatment" is a crucial element in the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement, as well as NAFTA. It gives huge corporations from the U.S. the right to act as if they are Canadian companies and compete on a so-called "level playing field" - even though they are usually much bigger and more powerful.
(Again, we have seen the results of this clause over the past decade-plus as large U.S. companies have been buying up key Canadian businesses, taking over markets, and winning government contracts.)
But Graham and his pro-MAI cohorts were stopped in their tracks when the French government finally saw the light - or felt the public pressure - and backed out of the OECD negotiations. At the time, it seemed to many that Canada was being saved from itself - or from its own government, if you will!
Another reason people are suspicious of Graham and his committee is because of Graham's own activities. He is a member of the little-known and very elitist Trilateral Commission, founded in the 1970s. This organization has members representing business, politics, and academia, mainly from the three most powerful regions in the world - North American, Europe, and Japan. Hence, its name.
Among those who follow such shadowy, but powerful organizations, the Trilateral Commission is most often criticized for a report it produced which claimed in no uncertain terms that one of the problems facing the world was too much democracy. Enough said.
The Commission also stands squarely behind globalization and a world without borders - where giant corporations can glide from region to region looking for the lowest wages, the weakest environmental laws, and so on.
Perhaps Graham belongs to such a notorious group because he wants to present a more balanced viewpoint to its mighty members, but this seems unlikely considering his own actions and statements.
Recently, the new Foreign Minister made it clear that he is personally in favour of expanding North American integration beyond trade and tariffs into social policy. NAFTA, he said, should be expanded to cover social, environmental, justice, and other issues.
One wonders what would be left of the country and society we have worked so hard to create once the kind of integration he envisions has come to pass!
Could you tell us, Mr. Graham?
What is the Cost of Our Colonial Mentality?
Paris - "So, Canada is still a colony?"
That's what a handsome, French businessman asked me in a cosy cafe recently.
I had just informed him that our money and certain stamps still bear the face of Queen Elizabeth II, and our head of state is none other than the Queen's representative.
Being a true republican from the land of the guillotine, he was astonished. Horrified!
We are not a colony, I replied quickly, noting with pride that, since 1981, we have had direct control over our own constitution - thanks largely to the efforts of Pierre Trudeau, a Jesuit-trained intellectual, not unlike himself.
Of course, I didn't have the courage to tell him that, just eight years after that historic, national event, another prime minister, Brian Mulroney, signed a free trade agreement with the United States placing Canada in a compromised position once again.
I also didn't mention the present debate over the future of our dollar.
"No," I would have had to admit, "we are not making our dollar more Canadian by removing the Queen's head - so to speak. Instead, there is pressure to adopt the American dollar."
This would have made my Gaullist friend turn blue! Adopt the money of another country, he would have cried throwing up his hands (he has a tendancy to knock over glasses as he talks). How could any self-respecting nation even contemplate such a thing?
An odd reaction, you might be thinking, considering his own country is now in the process of saying good-bye to its beloved franc and adopting the euro.
However, those who support the euro say it is designed to preserve French and European values and culture, not destroy them and, they are quick to point out, European nations are not adopting the currency of one dominant country. Instead, they are sharing the pain equally.
As well, Euro fans - not everyone by any means - insist the change is necessary in the face of the aggressive U.S. dollar. Europe must be united. It must be able to compete!
(I have argued that the U.S. has already won a victory over Europe by making its nations give up centuries of monetary history and adopt a common currency - on January 1, 2002, although there will be a short grace period - that is ominously like the dollar in style and value. Needless to say, this observation is rarely well received.)
Indeed, it has been an interesting process to watch as the euro slowly makes its way into French lives. Just this morning, my French partner came charging into the kitchen with the new bank cheques he had received in the mail. To his disgust, they were entirely in euros! For the first time, he had become aware of the fact that, very soon, he would no longer have a choice between franc and euro, as he does now.
All of this makes me imagine what it would be like in Canada, if we adopted the American dollar. How would it be done? Would there be a well-orchestrated transition as there has been in France?
For a long while, stores and restaurants here have been displaying prices in francs with the euro value listed discreetly in smaller print beside or below - just to get people acclimatized. And then, over the past couple of months, as if by magic, the order has switched and the franc is taking second place - soon to disappear entirely.
Now, that bizarre euro symbol, like a rounded capital "E" with tiny wings, is everywhere!
How would Canadians feel, I wonder, as they watched a similar slow, but steady intrusion from south of the border - with the accompanying loss of control over their money system? Or would it all be much quicker because we would simply be moving from our dollar to theirs?
During that process, I am sure there would be the usual cheerleading, as in Europe. Canadians would be told the change was necessary for our future economic security and growth. We have to build a dynamic and aggressive North American - and eventually, North, Central, and South American - trade block to take on the world! We have to be able to compete, to win! I can hear it now.
But is Canada's adoption of the U.S. dollar inevitable?
I am beginning to fear that it is.
Until recently, we have carved our own path; we have built a society less rigid than the European motherlands of many of our citizens, yet less reckless than our southern neighbours.
Sadly, this is disappearing. Too many of us seem to feel that the courageous Canadian experiment is over. As the world divides into dangerous new power blocks, we appear ready to accept our "fate" - and become a large, under-populated, northern American state with marvellous resources (forests, oil, minerals, water) to be plundered at will.
Blame the colonial mentality.
NDP Convention Could Make History
Paris - November could be an interesting month for Canada. Quite groundbreaking.
On the other hand, it could be the "same old same old."
What am I talking about?
The New Democratic Party will be meeting in Winnipeg at the end of the month to decide - after much discussion and soul-searching - its future, and, quite possibly, the future of Canada.
"Balderdash," you might be muttering to yourself, "how could that ragtag bunch possibly have that much influence?"
I realize my statement sounds a little extreme, given the NDP's lack of prominence, but let me explain.
Right now, Canada has what many commentators - historian Michael Bliss, journalists Richard Gwyn and Jeffrey Simpson - have described as a "one-party state." The governing Liberals have no real opposition.
To address this problem, powerful people on the right-side of the political spectrum have been scheming frantically to establish another party, even more conservative and pro-corporate than the Liberals, which could step in when voters begin to demand change.
But, sadly, there is no alternative on the centre-to-left part of the spectrum. Indeed, this particular political landscape is a wasteland scattered with several uninspiring parties ranging from the forlorn NDP and the well-meaning Green Party to the Marxists-Leninists.
What does this mean? Simply that many of us who consider ourselves progressive and nationalist, concerned about such things as the weakening of government, the growth of corporate power, the future of our social programs and resources, even the future of Canada itself, have no credible political force representing us. We have been disenfranchised. And it hurts.
That is why the NDP gathering in Winnipeg could be important. Even historic. It could begin the necessary process of filling in that gap. It could be the spark that could light the proverbial prairie fire. A real inspiration!
The fact is that many people are saying what I have just said - including labour, environmental and other leaders, and even NDPers. They are tired of being divided and ineffectual; they know that a minor adjustment, even a name change, for the NDP is not going to be enough to impress voters; they want to see progressive Canadians - Buzz Hargrove, Judy Rebick, Maude Barlow, David Orchard, Paul Hellyer, Mel Hurtig, and others - come together and build a party worth supporting. A party - dare I say it - that could actually win.
If you are like me, you are fed up with political manoeuvring and game-playing. Life and the world are getting too serious for that. The U.S. has just passed frighteningly-undemocratic, anti-terrorist legislation at the same time as it is proposing a kind of Fortress North America - which would pull Canada completely into its orbit - so it can control the entire perimeter of this continent.
Are we really ready to become a client state of the U.S. and give up our Canadian laws, identity, and values without a struggle? Or, are progressive nationalists finally willing to come together, after years of disunity and doing their "own thing" to create something vibrant and credible? In other words, are they ready to grow up?
What kind of party am I talking about? Well, some are picturing a huge coalition of liberals from the Liberal Party, progressives from the PCs, the NDP, the Green Party, the Canadian Action Party, even some alienated Alliance members, as well as the thousands of Canadians who have more or less dropped out of the system in frustration and disgust.
The first indication that there is some new thinking on the horizon will have to be demonstrated at the NDP convention. There, party leaders and members will have to show a real willingness to welcome new allies and create an entirely new political entity, using the NDP structure as a kind of springboard. If they don't, I am afraid the drifting will continue.
In the 1960s, the CCF, a product of the Great Depression, was transformed into the NDP which has played, at various times over the years, an important role as the conscience of Canada. Now, because times and political demands have changed greatly and more is at stake than ever before, members of the NDP must accept an even greater metamorphosis. As I said, they must be willing to break some very new ground - ground which is, as much as possible, untainted and uncompromised by the past.
I don't know about you, but the thought of a new political party supported by many of the people who have been consistently standing up and speaking out for everything from Medicare to sovereignty over the past few years, even decades, is quite a thrilling one. Such a national body has been conspicuous in its absence for too long.
Indeed, November may be a very interesting month.
The Writer Forgets Politics and Celebrates Paris Spring
Paris - April in Paris was certainly nothing to sing about.
But May and June are a different story - or song!
Why, I wonder as I sip my orange pressee on a terrasse just steps away from the Arc de Triomphe, is spring, the season of rebirth, so special in this great city? Why has it, for example, inspired songs - however inaccurate at times?
Perhaps, it is because of the greyness - of the buildings, the rooftops, the cobblestones. For, during the colder months, the place takes on such a monochromatic gloominess it seems impossible that vibrancy and colour could ever return.
As the winter passes, one begins to fear that the beautiful facades, the wide sidewalks, the glorious monuments, and the sweet statues will never again witness the wild, joyous human activity inspired by heat and sun. The chilly rain seems to weep daily because it knows something we busy humans can't even contemplate - that the ancient City of Light has finally faded after centuries of valiant struggle.
All seems lost.
And then one day, the rain stops; the sky is blue, and - almost overnight - the streets are lined with leafy, quivering trees - chestnuts, acacias, planes. Life and growth are victorious once again!
Perhaps, that is why spring is special here. It seems so unlikely.
Or is it the cafes overflowing with humanity, spilling onto the streets, crammed around tiny, impossible tables, shoulder to shoulder, thrilled to just sit, watch and talk. Sun-worshippers who, more often than not, are hiding under rows of colourful umbrellas.
Or does spring have added charm because Parisians can now carry their baguettes boldly under their arms without fearing a downpour, or because of the renewed craving I have for crepe fromage sold on the streets, or the return of the sidewalk artists who try to outdo each other in the originality category
Could this season be more of a thrill here than elsewhere simply because of the lovely red and blue awnings over my neighbours' windows across the street? Or the dainty pink flowers that pour over the balconies? Or the white shutters, closed during the day to block the blazing sunlight?
Could it be exceptional because the dogs and their walkers seem more arrogant than ever, demanding as much asphalt territory as they can get for their regular outings? Or because the handsome, linen-dressed men in their fabulously-sporty cars look as if they have never experienced winter in their lives - bronzed and shining as they are?
Perhaps, it is the roller-bladers, appearing not alone or in couples, but by the thousands as Paris streets are cleared and hoards of humans on small wheels go screaming across the city - an ambulance behind them ready to pick up the pieces. Or the equally-noisy tourists sliding up and down the Seine on the low, wide Bateaux Mouches, yelling in unison as they pass under the elegant Pont Neuf and its graceful counterparts.
Paris might be special in the spring because you can sit on the Pont des Arts and sip wine in the middle of town while watching the sun set and the broad vista of sky burst into oranges and reds. And because of the many refuges from the long-awaited, but all-too-demanding sun - the dark walkways of the Palais Royale and Place des Vosges, the shade of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the narrow streets of Le Marais, the cool churches, quiet and comtemplative by day, brimming with music at night.
Or is this city exceptional right now because of the prospect of leaving for other magical sites, such as Trouville and Deauville on the Normandy Coast where you can dine on oysters, mussels, Normandy cream, followed by Calvados, the local liqueur or Burgundy, land of wines, pork, hills, rivers, abandonned chateaux and picturesque villages?
I asked George Whitman, 89, owner of the well-known bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, why he thinks spring is extra marvellous in Paris. After all, he has been here since 1951 and this must be his 50th "printemps." But perhaps my question was unnecessary. When I arrived for my regular shift in the store, he was dressed in a blue and pink shirt, a large red and yellow tie, and a short, culotte-style girls' slip, which he had found in the garbage. Obviously, he was enjoying the weather - and his bohemian freedom!
He told me he loves this season in Paris because of the young girls who come from around the world to sit in the sun on the benches in front of his bookstore and read. There would be nothing better on earth than to be a 17-year-old girl in Paris in the spring, he added.
I am sure he is right - but those of any age can enjoy the glories of the warm weather here.
I know I am!
Yes, There is a Plot Against Democracy
Paris - Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. Isn't that the way the song goes?
The lyrics are about demonstrating and police and state violence.
I remember all too clearly those frightening days during the Viet Nam war when many people took to the streets to protest against something they thought was both wrong and dangerous. Others either supported the war - or remained indifferent.
At the time, activists didn't have the reams of information we have today to show definitively how evil and unnecessary the war was. Hence the words of the song. (They didn't have books like Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, which exposed much of the corruption and manipulation behind the scenes in Washington and Nam.)
But, people who cared enough put together the few facts and figures available to them and realized almost instinctively that whatever the something was - it wasn't good. So, they went into the streets to make themselves heard - since their own elected representatives (the politicians) were largely responsible for the problem.
I remember protesting against the secret bombing of Cambodia during that time. Thousands of us gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue in Toronto. It was all quite innocent until police on horseback charged at us - for whatever reason. People were bleeding; mothers were grabbing their children in horror; many were arrested. No one had expected such a reaction.
Of course, with time and knowledge, we beleaguered anti-war protestors have been vindicated. Our instincts were good; our cause just.
And now - with Seattle, Quebec City, and others - we have more demonstrations, more complaints of unruliness, more injuries, and arrests. Again, all of this is largely because people suspect that "something's happening here." Again, they are not sure exactly what it is, but their instinct and the little information they manage to glean tells them it's not good - and must be stopped.
But there is a difference between the late sixties/early seventies and now. A big difference. At that time, we were resisting a war against communism in a far-away country. Today, we are countering a big war against democracy right under our noses. Then, it was a case of opposing the U.S. government's foreign policy; this time the Chretien government's policies directly affect us - our health care, education, lifestyle (since "free trade," our quality of living has dropped), and, most importantly, our political rights.
For - now that communism is no longer a threat - those who find even weak versions of democracy an obstacle to their own needs and greed are becoming ever more arrogant and aggressive. Again, examine history for evidence.
In 1975, the Trilateral Commission - a fairly secretive organization with high-level business, government, even media, representatives from various countries - issued a report which concluded that democracy was a major obstacle to investors. In 1988 and again in 1994, trade agreements were signed (the FTA and NAFTA) which weakened governments and gave corporations powers they never had before - such as the increasingly-controversial Chapter 11 of NAFTA which allows corporations with their teams of high-priced lawyers to sue governments if they think certain laws are hurting or will hurt profits.
And now, the plot thickens. As most Canadians know, there is a push to expand NAFTA (and U.S. corporate power) throughout Central and South America. Also, earlier this year, the World Trade Organization (WTO) secretariat - a very secretive organization supported by governments, large corporations, and most media - issued a confidential memo that, as Gregory Palast wrote in "The Observer" (London, England), contains "a plan to create an international agency with veto power over parliamentary and regulatory decisions."
The plan hinges on Article VI.4 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) - now being re-negotiated behind closed doors - which introduces something called "The Necessity Test" designed to find a balance between public and commercial interests.
If Article VI.4 becomes reality, as Palast points out: "Final authority will rest with the GATS Disputes Panel to determine whether a law or regulation is ... 'more burdensome than necessary'. And GATS, not Parliament, will decide what is necessary."
No wonder Palast feels that the secret WTO memo may one day be seen as the post-democratic Magna Carta!
Do Palast and I exaggerate? Are we conspiracy theorists out of control? Not in the least. We are simply "telling it like it is." Of course, it is not something most people want to hear. But ignorance is rarely bliss.
Again, look at history. Could fascism have grown without the general acquiescence of ordinary people? And, do you think anyone in Europe in the years leading up to World War II would have or could have expected the horrors and terrors that were to come? Of course they didn't - and those who did were few in number, their voices largely unheard.
We humans seem to find it very difficult to envision the worst - to believe others capable of certain acts. It is far easier and more convenient to ignore or diminish our concerns. So, when activists take to the streets or offer controversial analyses like those above, the majority prefer to shake their heads and try to go about their business.
But, as in the thirties, there is no sand deep enough to hide our heads.
French Naive Re: Global Threats to Lifestyle
Paris - It was sad to watch. Even tragic.
Recently, prominent American economist and thinker, Jeremy Rifkin, spoke to a reasonably-influential French audience at a UNESCO-sponsored event. For almost an hour, the author of well-known books, such as "The End of Work" and "The Age of Access," lectured the gathering on the drastic changes affecting humankind.
Rifkin didn't pull his punches. He began by pointing out that we are going through nothing less than a revolution - and it was time to acknowledge and define it. In fact, he said, when business leaders ask him whether we are living in a new economy, he tells them that the shift is much greater than that - we are living in a whole new economic system.
This post-post-modern, technology-inspired system is replacing the centuries-old, property-based system of capitalism, Rifkin stated. We are moving from geography to cyberspace, from markets to networks, from seller/buyer to supplier/user relationships - and everything is being performed at the speed of light.
This is one reason why the NASDAQ, for example, is having major problems, he explained. It is trying to "graft" new technology onto an old economic system - and it isn't working!
But the revolution affects more than our economic structures, the insightful author argued. As with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the new system is altering our very notion of human behaviour, relationships, community, and the social contract.
Rifkin pointed out that people's lives increasingly consist of paying big companies for access to information, entertainment, transportation (car leasing), health care, even their own identity (Nike), and emotional well-being (Internet romances?). There is, he stated, a business concept known as 24/7 - twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. They want to commodify every moment of your life, he warned, you will be paying for the experience of living.
At the same time, Rifkin stated, large corporations are aggressively harmonizing the world's various social and cultural experiences - including those of France - because they want to deliver the same product to as many consumers as possible.
He stated that the 20th Century will be remembered for the disastrous diminishment of biological diversity on the planet; the 21st will see the destruction of cultural diversity - as the lives of people around the world become dominated by the same products and programmes and communities have little time, inclination, or inspiration to create or sustain their own culture.
Take the average child in the U.S., Rifkin said. Every day after school, most children go home to one screen or another. They rarely produce their own stories, experiences, identity, culture, or memories, because they don't engage in the kind of non-commercial "deep play" required to create anything new or original.
Indeed, the U.S. analyst told his French audience that he had had the opportunity to survey informally the corporate executives of the various companies responsible for this new way of life. He had asked them if they felt that their products were improving people's day to day existence. Interestingly enough, they all admitted that the quality of life for them and their families - to say nothing of the rest of the world - was declining.
Rifkin concluded by pleading with his audience. He told them that the only hope for humanity lay with the people and governments of France and Italy - because they were the only two countries of any stature which still placed culture before business and commerce, which still maintained their traditional values.
He stated that the European Union could use its economic and intellectual powers to stimulate discussion about the kind of world we really want to create - a world where technology augments our lives, rather than being a substitute for existence.
He then sat down and waited for the reaction.
Sadly, the official response was disappointing. It came from the well-respected author, professor, and futurologist, Michel Serres. In a dramatic voice, Serres announced that, in spite of Rifkin's presentation, he was not afraid. The world was always changing and human beings were adaptable. And, as far as threats to culture were concerned, it was obvious that you couldn't build a dominant culture based on "Titanic" and "Vertical Limit."
I spoke with Rifkin after the discussion and told him I thought Serres and the audience members who applauded him so loudly were naive. They simply had no appreciation of the powerful forces which were about to cross the Atlantic to threaten their way of life. He told me that, if he had had the time, he would have informed them that Wal-Mart, Business Depot, and other giant companies would be all over Europe in two or three years - and corporate culture would be more dominant than ever.
Sad. Very sad.
I can only hope that the French wake up before they have lost what makes this country so rich and unique. Thank you, Mr. Rifkin. At least, you tried.