Moi, président de la République

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France was all aflutter this week, and it was not with snow. Word came down the wire that President Hollande would address the nation on Thursday evening at 8:00 pm. An unscheduled presidential address? This was breaking news!

Given our president’s historically unparalleled unpopularity, and the fact that the centre-right has now chosen François Fillon as its candidate for next spring’s presidential election, we did have a wee hint that it might have something to do with politics. That we might finally get an answer to the question: Would he or wouldn’t he?

Hollande hemmed and he hawed and took several long minutes to reflect upon the many successes of his administration, from same-sex marriage to lower unemployment, as viewers across the nation cried: “Accouche!” Quite literally to give birth, in this context it means – spit it out!

Then he finally uttered the words we had all been waiting for: “J’ai décidé de ne pas être candidat à l’élection présidentielle.” He would not stand for re-election.

Enfin! We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

FlanbyFlanby, as the Guignols de l’info fondly baptized Hollande years ago, has lived up to his name. The popular brand of crème caramel always seemed to fit the man: wet, wobbly, bland. If only his politics had not lived up so well to his image. If only during his campaign in 2012 he had not uttered those famous first words:

“Moi, président de la République…”

He would be the people’s president, he promised, and his behaviour would be exemplary at all times. This just months before his not-so-secret dalliance with actress Julie Gayet was revealed on the cover of Closer, followed by a painfully public breakup with journalist Valérie Trierveiler, for whom he had previously left his long-time companion and the mother of his four children, fellow politician Ségolène Royal. Et oui, French politics are not for the faint of heart.

By choosing not to run, Hollande has demonstrated the dignity to acknowledge his failures and, in doing so, possibly save his party from total ruin. Will a worthy candidate emerge from the rubble? I doubt it. Prime Minister Manuel Valls is looking like the most likely contender, and if ever there was an unlikeable politician, it is he. The last thing we need is another petit nerveux, his deep-voice and close-set eyes sternly reminding us of how wrongly we have all behaved.

It’s easy to criticize, I hear you say. What would you do if you were president?

Moi, présidente…

I would get rid of party politics. Emmanuel Macron, who resigned from his position as an economy minister in Hollande’s government in August to run as an independent candidate in the presidential election, has taken a step in this direction. While I don’t think he is quite ready for the presidency, at the tender age of thirty-six years or practically in his infancy in French politics, I do think he has the right idea.

I would advocate for a 6th Republic. While I’m not for the Marxist revolution sought by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and those on the far left, there are just too many institutions to change in France without starting afresh. We need to rewrite the constitution to redistribute power in a more democratic way.

Last but surely not least, I would conduct my own personal French revolution by making public toilets clean, free and readily available on every corner.

What would you do if you were president?

 

 

Outrés

Hand-pressing wine

Here in France it is traditional to celebrate the arrival of les vins primeurs – the most famous of which is the ‘Beaujolais nouveau‘ – on the third Thursday of November. It seems that this year our attention has been on politics and past terrorist acts rather than festivities around the young wines. There’s been barely a ripple in the news and even in the shops I’ve seen little noise around les vins nouveaux.

To be fair, the French are not crazy about young wines, believing that they give you a headache, and tend to view the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze as a marketing scheme to attract foreigners. It has certainly been more successful overseas.

I happen to enjoy the young wines of the Beaujolais and the Rhône valley and over the years have been an avid consumer of our local produce.

A few kilometres away from our former hometown in the Monts du Lyonnais was the village of Taluyers. The road to that town had but one attraction for us, but one that kept us coming back regularly for years: Le Domaine de Prapin, a grower of the wine called Coteaux du Lyonnais. The Chardonnay whites were truly magical, the still hand-pressed Gamay reds pleasantly fruity. Best of all, we discovered that you could buy directly from the producer. Our car beat a path to their door on many weekends.

wine-skinWe were delighted to learn that you could buy the wine in bulk, en vrac, in a box container with a vacuum-packed bag inside, to keep the wine from spoiling (chance would be a fine thing), and a handy spout for serving. What the English pragmatically referred to as a bag-in-a-box, they simply called une outre, the term loosely referring to a traditional wine skin.

Not only was it more economical to buy the wine this way, it was a relief to have fewer bottles to dispose of. Glass is recycled in collective containers on street corners in France, and there were times when I was tempted to take out our recycling by cover of night – if it weren’t for the noise. Our empties made a satisfying smash as they landed in the container but it was impossible to get rid of them discreetly. I felt as if I should wear a sign that said ‘I am not an alcoholic, I support the local produce’.

In a comedic quirk of the French language, the word ‘outrer’ means to push to the limits of the acceptable, to the outrageous or outlandish. When we ran out of wine, my husband would joke that we were ‘outrés’ and make a quick run over to Prapin.

Outrageous.

Have you enjoyed any of this year’s vins nouveaux? Do you care whether your wine comes from a bottle or a box?

La mort

nana

What is it about November that always makes me think of death?

It comes in on the ghoulish, cold breath of Halloween, with La Toussaint – All Saints’ Day – and la Fête des Morts. On November 11th, we honour the soldiers who lost their lives defending our freedom. We set the clocks back and suddenly the light that lingered in our afternoons disappears, just as the rain sets in with the cold and damp.

Perhaps it’s only normal and right that in the final throes of autumn, as winter creeps in, we think about our own mortality.

The problem is that death – la mort – is the ultimate taboo. People in our society will talk about politics, sex, religion, money – anything at all with greater ease than they do this ultimate and inevitable stage of life.

We fear it. We deny it. We live our lives pretending that it will never happen. And then one day there it is: the end of the story. And we weep. We feel sadness for the loss of a loved one, for our own impending death. We grieve and remember and then, we forget about it all over again.

We’ve all lost loved ones, some very close and all too recently. It’s normal to grieve. I still miss my mother, whose death came all too early, and my Belle-Mère, whose recent absence is deeply felt in our family.

In France this is not something that we talk about any more than it is in Canada or any other country in the west. Death is something tragic, a horrible fate that befalls us all too soon. It is best forgotten until it must be dealt with.

And yet, death is as natural as birth. Why can’t we embrace the end of life with the same courage and honesty as we do its beginning? Why do all the obituaries say that people pass ‘peacefully’? I don’t know when or where or how I’ll go but it’s unlikely to be without a bitter struggle, an argument or a complaint.

If the laws stay the way they are now, let’s be honest, it’s not likely to be a happy ending. Why can’t we choose our death, and die with dignity and love and perhaps a modicum of comfort and the human joy we had in life?

There is a lot of work to be done to change this state of affairs. The Swiss are way ahead of us with the association ‘Dignitas’ that enables a dignified end of life and doctor-assisted suicide. Terry Pratchett also has a few good thoughts on this.

I don’t want a funeral, (unless perhaps a ‘fun’-eral as Nana, in the unforgettable Royles, asked for). I don’t want to be buried but cremated, my ashes sprinkled somewhere in a place I loved. The spreading of ashes being illegal in France, if it happens here I’ll go out in law-breaking style.

And by the way, Royle family creator and comic genius Caroline Aherne’s death a few months ago left me gutted.

Do you think about death? What are your wishes?

Le mur

The wall

There was a lot of talk about walls yesterday. The ‘anti-fascist protection’ one that came down in 1989, the year my son was born. The one that Trump has promised to build – and get the Mexicans to pay for. The one that Canada may need to hold back the tide of fleeing Americans. When Canada’s immigration site crashed sometime in the wee hours yesterday, well before the results were in, the writing was surely on the wall.

Sitting in France, working in Switzerland and with roots in Canada, I was surprised at how deeply affected we all were by the news that there would be a – gulp – President Trump.

We are not American, even though the US president is thought to lead the so-called ‘free’ world. My Canadian family and friends can rightly quake, living in the shadow of the giant and sometimes feeling a little like its 51st state. Culturally, we are distinct; economically, less so.

Switzerland is home to many expats, some of whom are my friends and colleagues. As much as I wanted the polls to be right, I had spoken to people – articulate, smart people – who admitted they would vote for Trump. I’d witnessed the hatred for Hillary, and the refusal of Trump supporters to take seriously any charges against him. What would it take, I wondered? Explicit evidence of child pornography? My gut told me the polls were a reflection of what the influencers wanted to see.

Here in France, as I listened to talk about the election results yesterday, I found myself thinking about the invisible wall that exists between us and the US. While there is a strong, longstanding friendship between the two countries, that barrier is real on so many levels – cultural, linguistic, political.

Watching a French TV panel that included Christine Ockrent, a respected journalist who is married to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner, discussing Trump alongside a young blonde American member of the Republicans in France, that wall could not have been more evident. Although the American woman spoke French very well, the wall came down on the French faces as quickly and as surely as if a door had shut. Was it her very-American accent, her direct way of saying things or simply her open-faced support of the man who is perceived as a monster here in France?

Alongside her sat another woman, who had formerly worked for Hillary Clinton. Although these two women sat on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have more in common than they did with any of the French panelists. No matter what, Americans will proudly defend their country’s democratic process as being the expression of its popular will. The French, for all that they resist until death, will allow themselves to be led by their elected elites.

The wall is cultural, and it is also political. The French openly dislike anything so crass and populist and commercial as Trump. And although many will vote for Marine LePen and the far-right Front National, two things hold her back from ever becoming President: the first is class. She doesn’t have it. Nor does Sarkozy, which goes a long way to explaining why he was not re-elected and is unlikely to make a comeback. The second is that the political elites in this country, supported by the French people, will not allow it. The post-war fear of fascism is just too strong. So opposing political parties will band together in order to block what is seen as dangerous.

As much as this country has its problems, and you know that I have no hesitation in calling them out, the particular horror of a Trump in power would not happen here. Nor, with all due respect to my British friends, would a Brexit. But the two movements are not dissimilar, and that is another reason why it is frightening. Both seem to believe they can and should shut their borders, live as islands sufficient unto themselves. While this is harder to imagine in the UK, the potential economic fall-out from US trade restrictions is huge.

But whether or not they build any more walls, le mur is already there.

Mon beau pays

It’s been a great many years since I was last in Canada in the midst of the fall colours. Autumn has always been one of my favourite times of year, at least before the days get too short and the weather too miserable.

I enjoyed this past week’s solo trip visiting friends and family in Toronto, my old stomping ground. This time I could not help but notice that while the city still feels a little like home, I increasingly see it through the eyes of someone who lives in France.

I’ve posted before about how much the French love Canada. C’est un beau pays, they will say. Mon pays de rêve… I used to think they had an idealized view of my country but now I find myself experiencing it differently.

Here are some of things that struck me about my beautiful hometown of Toronto this time around.

Tree canopySo many trees, so little time… the fall colours were not quite at their peak, and they may never get there before winter comes calling.  But even so, a walk through Sunnybrook Park was stunning. There is so much nature to be enjoyed in the city.

The squirrels. These little urban rodents are as common as pigeons in Europe. They are everywhere at the moment, scurrying to gather nuts and squirrel them away for winter. We see a few squirrels in France but they are generally reddish brown, where their Toronto cousins are more often black.

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Toronto is booming. This was already the case when we left 25 years ago. Now, every neighbourhood has come into its own and has its image to maintain. In well-heeled North Toronto, even the sidewalks are branded.

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Halloween is everywhere. As sure as the leaves will fall, the craze of candy and macabre carryings-on will hit the great white north at the end of October. Yes it’s commercial and perhaps a little over the top, but it’s fun. Canadians are rather good at having fun. Halloween is our way of warding off the evil spirits as the days grow short. I eyeballed these cupcakes:

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Le shopping! Toronto is truly a shopper’s paradise. Aside from the sheer number of stores, open all hours, there are so many beautiful arcades. They are the visible part of the many underground passages that link the downtown core, enabling people to move from subway to subway station, restaurant to department store without setting foot outside in the winter.

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Alongside so many emporiums to wealth, the neighbourhood convenience store is a fixture of downtown Toronto neighbourhoods.

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You may wonder: so if you love it so much, why did you leave it? One of the reasons was the high price of Toronto real estate, which made it hard to buy a first house in a nice area. The housing boom is still on and despite all the new builds, bidding wars often erupt for homes in the best and most upcoming neighbourhoods.

The city has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable to anyone who has been away for a few years. I frequently found myself getting lost and wondering how it was that what used to be so familiar now feels foreign.

I don’t regret choosing France but I do love to go back for a visit.

Have you been to Toronto? Do you have a favourite city, home or away?