Now that the media storm over the Hollande/Gayet affair has died down, much to everyone’s chagrin in France and elsewhere, because it created such levels of excitement and speculation, the attention has turned to forecasting the future. It’s much less predictable, but injects a certain level of interest now that the media scene in France has gone back to boring normal.
First of all, an astonishing prediction from an unnamed Frenmch astrologer who gaily predicts that Hollande will marry Julie Gayet during the summer. She’s so confident of her prediction thyat she says it will happen on August 12th! So you never know! Then Bernadette Chirac, the long suffering wife of arch-philanderer and former president Jacques Chirac, has confidently predicted that come the 2017 presidential elections in France, Nicolas Sarkozy will make his big comeback attempt.
Meanwhile, as far as the immediate future is concerned, the results of the Swiss refereundum last Sunday have set the pattern for forthcoming elections. As the Spanish newspaper and website, El Pais, said, the Swiss referendum result, in which people voted by the narrowest of margins to restrict immigration into the country from the EU, reflects the populist and and xeonophobic agitation throughout the old continent, in other words, Europe. The continent is becoming more introspective, more agitated, and all this less than three months before the elections to the European parliament.
Not only the Swiss are looking inwards; the French are doing much the same and the municipal elections in France next month are likely to provide startling proof of this proposition, since it seems the Front Nationale is going to sweep the boards. Expect similar views to prevail in the European elections in May. In France itself, this right wing populist feeling finds fertile ground in the febrile state of the French economy, barely holding its own, with next to no growth and continuing rises in unemployment, making ideal conditions for the expected upsurge in the Front National.
Neither is the weather-related news from France helping the general mood. In the north-west, especially in Brittany and the Loire valley, the floods have been causing havoc, just as they have been in the south, south-east and west of Ireland and in southern and south-western England. The bad weather in the west of France has meant that on beaches all along the west coast, the sands are littered with the bodies of many thousands of seabirds killed by the storms.
Sometimes, the bad news becomes even more gruesome, with the news that yesterday afternoon, passers-by in St-Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris, discovered a human leg floating in the Seine. To whom it belongs, or how it got there, no-one as yet knows. Then there was the awful train crash in Provence, when the Saturday morning train from Nice to Digne-les-Bains was hit by a 10 tonne boulder that came hurtling down the mountain, dislodged by all the recent rain. Two people on the train were killed, a 49 year old Russian woman and an 82 year old local woman,and several other people were badly injured.
It was an accident that no-one could have foreseen or avoided. It brought back memories of a happier time on this particular train, the time when the old railway station for the line was still in place in Nice and the rolling stock was ancient, to be polite. The train bumped its way slowly higher and higher for three hours until it reached its final destination. The trip was full of atmosphere, even if the train wasn’t particularly comfortable. But the scenery was spectacular to say the least and we were fortified on our journey by the large bottle of red wine and some baguettes that we had bought at the station in Nice. In recent years, all the trains on the route have been upgraded to modern style carriages, while the old station itself in Nice was replaced by a characterless modern station. The line may have modernised and become more efficient but in its place, all the character of the line disappeared.
Then the other day, there was the bad fire in the nine storey apartment block in Val d’Isere in the French Alps. Some 200 people had top be rescued and one woman, aged 60, made the desperate decision to jump from a six storey window to avoid the fire and as a result, was severely injured.
At least, one friend of mine has something pleasant to look forward to in Paris in June. The city is staging a big international philatelic exhibition and this friend is one of the Irish team busy preparing its entries for the show. Stamp collecting is a harmless and interesting hobby, both for children and adults, and it has the side benefit that if you strike lucky with a particularly rare stamp, you’re likely to be substantially enriched. I always remember going to the post museum beside the Gare Montparnasse and seeing one of the prize exhibits, a very old green Irish post box.
Talking about envrichment brings me to the future of Liberation, the left-wing daily paper published in Paris. It’s a comparative newcomer, since its first edition,a four page affair, appeared on April 18, 1973. One of its five co-foundeers was none other than Jean-Paul Sartre. Over the subsequent 41 years, Libé, as it’s usually known, has found a distinct niche for itself in the often boring and very conservative French newspaper market. But now its main shareholders want to do all kinds of daft things to try and make some money from what they see as simply a brand. They want to turn the newspaper’s headquarters into a conference and cultural centre and distribute the paper’s content via social media. The journalists on the paper are far from impressed, since good quality investigative journalism seems to have no place in the investors’ “vision” for the paper. In a recent edition, the big headline on the front page said: ”Nous sommes un journal”, continuing that the paper is not a restaurant, not social media, not a TV studio, not a bar, not a start-up incubator. The management vision of recreating the paper as a kind of Flore of the 21st century, in a reference to the Café Flore where Jean-Paul Sartre spent much of his time,has brought on nothing except heaps of ridicule. It’ll be interesting to see where this particular story goes and how much clout the journalists of Liberation actually have.
Talking about new venues in Paris, I’m indebted to the BBC website for its listing of some of the exciting existing new arts places in Paris and those that are being planned. One of the biggest new gallery openings of the past decade was that of the Gagosian, in the northern suburbs of Paris. The place is huge, the size of a vast warehouse, but it’s ideal for displays of large scale contemporary works of art. A dynamic new Louis Vuitton centre in the Bois de Boulogne should open this year to show the vast contemporary art collection of Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France. Also due to open this year is the new concert hall in the Parc de Villette for the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra.
An art centre that reopened in 2012 after much refurbishment is also worth mentioning, the Palais de Tokyo, near the Trocadéro. It’s the largest contemporary art museum in Europe without a permanent collection. All these news cultural places in Paris continue the edgy tradition of the city’s approach to the arts. At the same time, it’s well worth while remembering and visiting older contemporasry venues such as the Institut du Monde Arabe in the 5th.
Elsewhere on the international scene, the prime source of angst and anguish this week seems to have been Copenhagen, where the decision of the zoo there to kill an 18 month old giraffe because its DNA didn’t come up to scratch, and its subsequent butchering in front of an audience of children, has raised many concerns of outrage around the world. After all, from what happened to that poor unfortunate giraffe to what happened to the millions of victims of the Nazis because they didn’t have the right DNA is only a few small steps. The Copenhagen Zoo, with its crass handling of the giraffe incident, has given zoos around the world a bad name and left a very bad taste indeed.
Also internationally, I see the BBC has made yet another gaffe. On a television news programme the other night, it highlighted the return of India to the Olympic fold, and managed to illustrate the story with footage of the Irish team, complete with tricolour, at the 2012 Olympics in London. Someone in the BBC evidently didn’t know the difference between India and Ireland!
Also in Ireland, three recent examples came to light of the sheer lack of commonsense and practicality that so often characterises public services here. A fatal traffic accident happened the other day only about 1.5 km from the hospital in the midlands town of Portlaoise. No local ambulance was available so one had to travel from about 40km away - absolute nonsense! In Drogheda recently, after a murder in the town, almost within sight of the town hospital, no ambulance was available, so the victim had to be taken to hospital in a police car.
Drogheda provides another daft story. Some years ago, a new motorway was opened near the town, but it is tolled. Heavy goods vehicles stopped using it, to avoid the tolls, and instead continued using the narrow streets of Drogheda. Recently, when they did a toll free month on the motorway for trucks, there was a dramatic falling off of goods traffic using the town centre. Now, why didn’t someone think of that before!
At the recent Sinn Féin ard-fheis (annual conference) in Wexford, one delegate stated an absolute truth about present day Ireland: the top-up payments and the huge salartes continue for those at the top, while for those at the bottom of the social pile, all they have to look forward to is cut after cut. This is certainly not a good recipe for social cohesion and calm! Maybe we need a few more characters like Sammy the seal, who lives in the waters of the harbour at Wicklow Town. He lines up everyday to be fed by passers-by and quite often, clambers up on to the harbour road. The other day, he really excelled himself. A fishmonger in the town feeds the seal regularly, but Sammy got hungry and made his own way, across various roads, to get to the fishmonger’s shop all by himself to get his feed! That’s what I call smart thinking!
At least, to end, spare a thought for people with unfortunate names. The other day in Ireland, a sister in a religious order died; she had the most unfortunate surname of Cunney. Which reminds me of a really perverted story that’s emerged this week from the enquiury into historical abuses in religious and other institutions in Northern Ireland that’s hearing evidence at the moment. This week, one woman gave evidence to the effect that when she was about five years of age, resident in a convent in Derry during the 1960s,she was made to lie on the floor,while one of nuns squatted above her, lifted her skirts and forced the child to perform a sex act. All really disgusting and just shows, many religious can no more claim the moral high ground than many perfectly ordinancy citizens.The institutional cleanup still has a long way to go!