Allô Maman bobo

Invasion of the electric scooter in Paris

When my kids were young, back in the late 90s, scooters came into vogue. La trottinette, as they’re called in French, was suddenly all the rage. Of course, it wasn’t the first time, as this photo from 1927 shows.

Unlike the pogs, the Tamagotchis and Tuggles of the day, I approved of the trottinette. It got the kids outside, tooling around the neighourhood, and seemed a lot less dangerous than skateboards or bikes. Besides, they seemed like fun.

Until I had to carry one home from the park one day and banged my shin on it a bunch of times. Bugger, those things were heavy. I had the bruises to prove it.

A few years later the trend hit the adult segment. By then the kids had finished with them and their scooters were gathering dust in the garage.

Suddenly, business people in suits, satchels and briefcases slung over their backs, were riding them all over the city streets. They thought they were cool; I couldn’t help but think they looked ridiculous. Absurd even. Yet the trottinette became the very ‘bobo’ (short for Bourgeois bohemian, the French forerunner of today’s hipster) thing to do in Paris and Lyon.

Lo and behold, in the era of new forms of transport like Uber, along comes the electric scooter. Now the streets of Paris have been invaded by the contraptions. Needless to say, it is causing all kinds of havoc. Not to mention a great many ‘bobos’, of a completely different kind.

A bit of vocabulary:

‘Trottinette’ comes from the word ‘trottiner’ which means to scurry or trot along like a child. Presumably this is where we get the name for sidewalk: trottoir.

‘Bobo’ is a French baby talk for what we in North America sometimes call a booboo or the kind of hurt finger that children run to Mum about.

As one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Alain Souchon, captured in this song, sometimes even as grown ups we feel like crying to our mums. It’s a terrible recording, featuring the French penchant of the day for lip-synching on live performances. But watch for a surprise appearance at the end of the clip.

Yes, that’s France Gall. The singer who won the Eurovision song contest in 1965, inspired Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Berger and, sadly, died of breast cancer early this year.

Back to the trottinette. With the advent of companies like Lime and Bird, who offer electric scooter rentals that you can pick up, ride and leave anywhere, she age of ‘free floating’ has arrived in Paris. And it’s a mess. French sidewalks are busy places, the streets filled with wobbly cobblestones and other dangers; there are not enough bicycle lanes and the roads are not places for anyone without a helmet.

The French authorities are currently reworking the law for motorized scooters and hover boards, to decide whether they belong on the street or elsewhere, and what rules should be set for their use. Theoretically, such devices have a maximum speed limit of 25 km, but I hear there are those that go much faster.

In my opinion, anyone on wheels should not share space on a sidewalk with pedestrians (except for tykes in strollers). Clearly defined rules of the road for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, skateboarders and cars – need to be rethought, and each of us from the age of adulthood should be made to demonstrate that we understand and respect them. That is the way of the future for all of our cities, as we become more aware of the need for exercise and non-polluting modes of transport. In old-world cities like Paris, it is becoming urgent.

In the meantime, beware of bobos on trottinettes!

What’s your favourite mode of transport?

Mai 68

This month marks 50 years since the events of May 1968 brought the winds of social change to France.

It started out with the students. Their protests against capitalism and consumer society soon led to general strikes, demonstrations, occupations and violent clashes with police.

President de Gaulle fled for fear of seeing the Elysée Palace overrun; despite rumours that he would resign he held on. Still, at the end of may, with half a million protesters in the streets of Paris and in order to avoid a civil war, he dissolved the government and called for an election in the following month.

Talkin’ about a revolution.

The following year, 1969, those same winds continued to blow on the other side of the Atlantic. It had started in 1967 with the protests against the draft and the war in Vietnam but the unrest picked up speed that year. My parents had just moved our family from Canada to the U.S. At twelve years old, I was too young to fully appreciate what was going on in Woodstock, but I remember being riveted by the songs of revolution. And living state-side in Minneapolis as I saw first hand what it meant to be American. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag at school. I placed my hand on my heart but never bothered to learn all the words.

Half a century later, you have to wonder: have we learned anything at all? The world has surely undergone many a revolution in the past 50 years, perhaps the biggest of all being our entry into the information age. So much has changed, and yet so little. Social injustice, the waves of migrants displaced by war, the violence of governments against their people…

Perhaps one thing that has changed is that communication technology is making it harder for any one group to own the information. The change has been slower to come here in France but, as explained in this report from the BBC, it has taken the wind from the sails of the strikes this year. People are able to see which trains are running and adapt accordingly. They are increasingly allowed to work from home. The government has been able to monitor, and surely influence, the news flow.

Of course, the other side of information is misinformation. The attention economy. Fake news. A new battle is being waged, and our minds are the battle field. Sadly, many wander into the war entirely unprepared. Media literacy is all too scarce. Manipulation of naïve souls is all too easy.

There is a tendency in France to think of the events of ‘68 as a purely French phenomenon. It was a time of profound change that brought the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and workers’ rights. But the times, they were a-changing around the world. And the impact of those changes is still being felt today.

Where were you in May 1968?

Les pieds dans l’eau

Le zouave is not happy. Not only are his feet getting wet, he’s up to his culotte in the Seine, whose levels have risen to dangerously high levels this week after torrential rains causing flooding in Paris and nearby communities.

‘Le zouave’ is the statue of a North African soldier, erected by Napoleon in 1856 in commemoration of the victory at the battle of the Alma in Crimea. It seems the zouave holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Parisians. Located at base of the Pont de l’Alma, this brave fellow acts as a warning: when water levels rise high enough that his feet get wet, it does not bode well.

The Alma bridge gets a lot of attention. It is near the famous tunnel where Princess Diana died in 1997. Here it is, along with some other famous Paris bridges, in drone images of the flooding.

And here’s a graphic that shows various dates and water levels of the zouave for the history buffs and technical types. (Of which I am neither. I like the story part. The rest flows in and out of my brain like the Seine.)

‘Crues’ means floods; ‘pics’ are peaks. Note that the bridge was reconstructed in 1974, placing the zouave 80 cm higher.

If all goes well, water levels should go start going down in a few days. Unless we get more rain, that is. And it’s pouring this morning.

Those who live in Villeneuve St. Georges and other suburbs near Paris have entire neighbourhoods underwater. Many have been evacuated and those who are sticking it out are braving it with no electricity.

It’s also a problem for les péniches, the iconic houseboats and restaurants along the Seine. I would have thought that during a flood a boat was the safest place to be but it seems that when the river is too high, they can break their moorings and end up crashing into a bridge. Like the Alma.

Attention, Monsieur le zouave!

La manif

Farmers demonstrate in Paris

“Tu vas à la manif?”

The first time someone asked me this, I remember thinking: it sounds like fun. Somehow the formality and seriousness of publicly demonstrating for a cause is lost in the cute short form: La manif’. And the reality is that it’s a bit of a party.

The French have raised the demonstration to something of an art form. This comprises a range of behaviours, from going out on strike to peaceably demonstrating in the streets, or resisting in more subversive ways. When it escalates, you end up with public disobedience, armed protests and violence against various police forces.

It always seemed strange to me that la Fête du Travail, held each year on the 1st of May, inevitably features a massive demonstration of labour unions. In North America, we celebrate our Labo(u)r Day on the first Monday in September with a barbeque and a few beers. The French take to the streets to remind their bosses that they are ready to strike at any time.

Of course, not everyone goes. I remember my Belle-mère telling me years ago that she agreed with her colleagues at Air France for going out on strike, rhyming off an entire list of rights and wrongs worth fighting for. When I asked if she was going to join them at the manif, however, she said no, she didn’t want to be seen at such an event. Besides, she hated crowds and was looking forward to a quiet day off.

When the company I was working for in Lyon was bought out by a German group, then merged with another Swiss company, our site held a bit of a manif. The pharma industry is not notorious for strike action; it’s a fairly conservative field of well-paid scientists and sales reps. But when any group of employees is threatened with potential job loss in France, you can be sure that the unions will get people out on the street. As I recall, there was a gathering of people waving signs, mostly dressed in while lab coats for effect. There were speeches and air horn blasts. I don’t remember if we processed anywhere. Most likely I took a page out of my mother-in-law’s book and went home early.

At such events there is often a festive air. It’s a bit like skipping off school.

There are sing-songs, usually led loudly off-key by some fellow with absolutely no musical ear. There are balloons, the burning of effigies of leaders. Stands with hot chestnuts and sausage vendors on the sidelines. There is a lot of creativity, even ingenuity among French demonstrators. Of course, there are also massive traffic jams and police everywhere. Water trucks and even tanks.

This past week, hundreds of farmers dumped truckloads of straw on the Champs Elysées in protest of the government’s proposed law to illegalize agricultural use of the chemical glyphosate. They camped out on the straw and managed to block access to the capital’s most famous avenue.

It’s a complex issue which tends to inflame public opinion on both sides. The use of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup which is already banned from private use in France, has been shown to be carcinogenic. At least according to some; others maintain there is no definitive scientific evidence of its danger to man. Certainly there are insufficient widespread studies, over sufficiently long periods, but it is surely not good for the environment or anyone who lives in it. I read one set of studies that found the chemical altered the ability of honeybees to fly and forage for nourishment. It has been so widely used since 1975 that traces of glyphosate can be found in virtually everything we eat.

The problem is that without it, commercial agriculture is doomed to lose money. And in France, that means many hard-working farmers who already struggle to make a living will suffer at least in the short term, until new methods and practices can be introduced. That is why Macron has appointed renowned tree-hugger Nicolas Hulot as minister of the ‘transition’ écologique. What is needed is a profound change in the way we grow our food to more sustainable methods. Such methods exist, and they work, but it will take time and money. In the meantime, there will be demonstrations.

The fact is, resistance is part of the French culture. It’s a bit like free speech to Americans or the monarchy to the Brits.

So next time someone asks, I’m going to the manif.

Et toi?

 

Blindé

blindé Titus

Something has changed for me since the latest terror attacks. Something subtle, yet disturbing. It’s as if the shock and horror of so many innocent lives lost has diminished a notch, as if somehow this has become the new normal.

Paris. Brussels. Nice. Orlando. Manchester. London.

Yet how can we accept terrorism as the status quo?

The same way the world has grown immune to stories about the migrants drowned at sea. Just as America accepts the hundreds of lives lost each day to guns – ten of which are children. And not so different from our increasing immunity to the latest lunacy of its president. It is becoming harder to separate the tragic from the comic.

Perhaps we have become blindé.

Like the armoured vehicle shown here, known in French as ‘un blindé’, we have toughened our exterior. I read that this model, called Titus, was being tested in Paris to transport security forces following the attacks at the Bataclan. It is tough but moves quickly, and can safely carry 13 men and wounded under fire.

It is not uncommon to see heavy artillery on the streets of Paris.

When I first came to France in 1986, Paris was the midst of a wave of terrorism. A bomb went off in a popular store called Tati on Rue de Rennes, killing seven people and injuring 50. Suddenly there were machine gun-toting military and army tanks on the streets. I was frightened and perplexed. Were we at war?

I learned that for the French it is vital to have a show of force at such times, to see that the government is doing something to maintain order — whether to control student riots, to bring an end to massive strikes and demonstrations, or to protect the people from acts of terror. While I was terrified to see so much visible weaponry, most people found the police presence reassuring.

Yet, how can you protect anyone on the street from a maniac behind the wheel of a van? From someone with a hammer or a knife who takes another by surprise? You can’t, of course, and that is why we must grow tougher. Learn to live with the threat. Keep calm and carry on.

Not immune. Not blasé. But tougher none the less.

‘Se blinder’ means to become used to a threat, to toughen up, thicken one’s skin. It also means to go on a bender, to get rip-roaring drunk.

In a weird way that makes sense. Either way, we are feeling less pain.

So what will it be: get tougher or get drunk?

Do you feel you have become ‘blindé’?