Tuesday, April 24, 2007

À voter ! Talking politics à la française

They tell you, before you leave for France on an extended stay, that you had better be interested in politics. The French talk politics as much as North Americans discuss the weather, and if one’s goal is to integrate into this country’s culture, it’s best to become acquainted with at least the main players in the left, right, extreme left, extreme right, left-of-center, right-of-center, green, pro hunting and fishing, and yes, even communist, movements.

This holds especially true over the last couple of months, as the nation’s 12 candidates took to the podium to announce, underline, reiterate and restate their campaign platforms for this year’s presidential election. To scale down the number of choices, French voters take to the polls twice: at the end of the first round, only two candidates remain in the race. Spooked by the 2002 election, where voter absenteeism in the first round left citizens with the unappealing option of voting for either Jacques Chirac or the blatantly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has referred to the Holocaust as a minor detail in history), this time voters flocked to the polling stations, carte electorale in hand. Attendance spiked to 85 percent; the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy (who represents the same Gaullist party as Chirac) and the Parti Socialiste’s Ségolène Royal (who if she wins, will be France’s first female president) will duke it out on May 6th.

Despite the hubbub (and endless discussion) leading up to it, Election Day, Part One (which took place this past Sunday) came and went peacefully. Voters, shaking off the remnants of the previous evening’s soirée, lined up outside the various bureaux de vote, patiently waiting their turn in the hot sun. There were no incidents, no calls for a recount, no disputes over what name a voter had really intended to check off.

This is largely due to the fact that in many regions, Paris included, neither voting machines, nor check-in-the-box ballots, are employed. Instead, voters receive 12 ballots, each bearing only one name, along with an envelope. In the privacy of the polling booth, voters place their ballot of choice in the envelope, discarding the remaining 11. Not the most environmentally friendly approach, but less costly than a herd of career-making lawyers battling out the results in a courtroom for weeks on end.

It’s tough to say what the final outcome will be; pundits declare that this is the most unpredictable election the country has seen. Power hungry, right-wing Sarkozy, who has been compared to both Napoleon and George W. Bush, won 30 percent of the vote – even though a considerable number of Frenchmen and women admit he scares them. The less alarming Ségolène Royal, however, came out behind at 25 percent. She may be less scary, but many are undecided as to whether she has what it takes to bring about the change of which France is so desperately in need. The runners up on the left have rallied behind her, but they represent only a tiny percentage of voters. The 10 percent that voted Le Pen will undoubtedly turn their attention to Sarko.

But it’s unclear what those who voted for underdog François Bayrou, who represents the center-right, will do the next time they are presented with an envelope. Bayrou, who up until just over a month ago wasn’t regarded as a serious contender, came away with 19 percent of the vote. This week, he is to announce which final candidate he is in support of, if any.

All of this means that there will be more election talk, and more political vocabulary for those who don’t count French as their mother tongue. The talk shows – of which there are many, all running between two and three hours long – will cover nothing but.

Those with only a mild interest in politics, however, must admit that the version française of this three-ring circus is more tolerable than it would be on the other side of the big pond. The French love to discuss, pontificate and debate; with a language that enables one to state the same idea in a hundred different ways, it’s hard not to. They can become quite heated, too: every talk show features at least one segment where everyone is yelling at the same time. What’s refreshing is that arguing here doesn’t take the same shape as it does in Anglo-Saxon culture, where when you disagree with someone, you risk losing a friendship.

“I have to tone it down when I go back to the States,” observed one Paris-based American photographer, “because people think I’m being hostile whenever I question their ideas.”

Here, one can argue all night with someone without it affecting your relationship. While it’s natural for those with common interests to run in the same circles, people don’t feel compelled to surround themselves with those who always share their opinions. The press – be it on the left or the right – harshly criticizes the representatives of the ideologies it openly supports. Friends remain friends even when they strongly disagree.

People joke that one of the reasons nothing ever changes in France is because the French spend so much time talking, they never get around to implementing any solutions. There may be some truth to this, but we are all aware of the disastrous outcome of quick change sans discussion. Inhabitants of an old country, whose violent history is visible at every turn, are conscious of this.

For now, in France, there is no respite for those who hate politics. The presidential race concludes May 6th, but that’s not the end of it. The country’s legislative elections are in June.

Then, we must discuss whether or not any of these newly elected officials will actually make a difference.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Birds and the Bises: The Art of French Kissing

French photographer Robert Doisneau captured the hearts of hopeless romantics worldwide with ‘Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville’ (or, ‘Kiss at City Hall’) – an image that has become as synonymous with Paris as the Eiffel Tower, fine wine and baguettes. Taken in 1950, the photograph portrays a handsome young couple pausing for a spontaneous embrace in front of City Hall, the blurry images of harried passersby surrounding them. This picture of whimsical romance has helped to contribute to Paris not only being recognized as the City of Light, but also the City of Love.

The more sentimental among us, then, are disheartened to learn that Doisneau’s seemingly impromptu lip-lock was, in reality, premeditated. When Françoise Bornet, the female half of the couple, sued Doisneau for a percentage of the photograph’s sales (she lost), it was revealed that the photographer had asked she and her boyfriend to pose. Bornet may have never benefited from sales revenues, but she did manage to cash in when she sold her original print of the famous kiss for 155.000 euros ($259,000 U.S.) at an auction.

For some, kisses come at a price.

Doisneau is among hundreds of artists that have used embracing Parisians as inspiration. More sarcastically, rogue songwriter Georges Brassens criticized couples kissing on park benches for believing that the seating accommodations existed specifically for that purpose in ‘Les amoureux des bancs publics.’ Leo Ferré lamented in ‘Les amants de Paris’ that the city’s amorous couples remain blissfully unaware that they use his rhymes and music as the backdrop of their romance, without giving him any credit. The song was eventually interpreted by Edith Piaf.

Perhaps Paris’s reputation precedes it, or maybe it’s because the city’s aesthetic lends itself to heady romance, but it’s true that people here spend a lot of time kissing. Nowadays, even the stuffiest of politicos are generous with their affection: with the first round of France’s presidential elections less than a week away, candidates are doling out their most heartfelt bises to babies, old ladies, and the media’s collective derrière. In A Year in the Merde (Bloomsbury), Stephen Clarke’s semi-fictitious account of an Englishman’s first year living and working in Paris, the author opens by recounting his first day on the job. Everywhere he looked, he wrote, people were kissing. Hardly the stuff of Anglo-Saxon corporate culture, where complimenting someone on their attire could be perceived as sexual harassment.

French kissing over here is not just reserved for spit-swapping adolescents, nor is it exclusive to those doe-eyed Paris lovers that Ferré and Brassens complained about. As common as saying ‘bonjour,’ les bises, bisous (or bizzz…in text messages and emails) are how friends, family, familiar acquaintances, and even some colleagues greet each other, both at the beginning and conclusion of their rendez-vous. While generally a quick peck on each cheek, les bises are as subtle as the French language itself: down south or among more classic circles, the number of bisous can rise to four or even six; in other settings, people change it up by giving three. Upon initial introduction, cheek-kissing is generally conducted between women or women and men, however guys who know each other well substitute handshakes with les bises as well.

For newcomers hailing from a handshake culture, les bises is one of those adorable practices that takes some getting used to. In social settings, it’s customary to make the rounds at both the début and fin de la soirée, which calls for a lot of lip action. (In fact, it can be viewed as impolite to do otherwise.) When one visits home, something just doesn’t seem right: those first few seconds upon meeting someone seem awkward, and a handshake doesn’t really fill the void. Kissing everyone may be time-consuming, but something is missing when this custom isn’t employed. And hey, with all of that close contact, one becomes a whiz at identifying perfume.

Every now and then, some ambitious medical expert will attempt to put a damper on all of this love by addressing the health-related consequences associated with close contact: the more we kiss, the more chance we have of spreading germs. The French remain unfazed: les bises are one of life’s petits plaisirs, and in a frenzied society where pleasure is growing harder and harder to come by, sharing a bit of bacteria serves as an antidote to what can sometimes be an unfriendly world.

For now, it would seem, a kiss is still a kiss.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Space: The Final Frontière

It’s a Paris cliché that the city’s residents are most conscious of la merde while dodging the dog poop on the sidewalk. It was a New York-based Web site’s bathroom humor, however, that unwittingly drew the line between apartment living in North America and inhabiting a standard Parisian pied à terre.

DailyCandy – the hip Web site offering consumer product news to a readership primarily made up of women – recently ran a cheeky piece on the Brondell Breeza, a ‘deodorizing toilet seat’ that automatically eliminates embarrassing bathroom odors as the dirty deed is in progress. Women that spend the night with their boyfriends, the site cheered, will never have to cringe about doing their business while he’s in the apartment again.

It doesn’t take long to shed one’s modesty when living in a Paris apartment. Like many world capitals (DailyCandy’s hometown included), lodging is expensive, comfort for the average working girl (or boy) is minimal, and space is at a premium. Rent prices may not be as through-the-roof as they are in London or the Big Apple, but the average Parisian – even those who hold relatively respectable positions professionally – are accustomed to living in 30 to 40 square meters (a whopping 300 to 400 square feet). Considering the exchange rate between the menacingly strong Euro and the weaker Canadian and American dollars, urban tenants here pay the same amount of rent as those who reside on the other side of the Atlantic in accommodations that are double or triple in size.

Cohabitation, then – even if it’s just a sleepover – becomes, as the French would say, chaud. The restricted amount of space redefines the meaning of intimacy. The Brondell Breeza may answer nature’s call with a touch of discretion, but aside from blasting the stereo, little can be done to mask how loudly nature may be calling. If it’s togetherness you’re after, a Paris flat is the perfect environment for you to experience everything ensemble.

One of the most significant paradoxes of Parisian living demonstrates itself where the French are renowned for spending a considerable amount of their time: la cuisine. A city reputed for its gastronomical delights, Paris boasts a mouthwatering number of restaurants, cafés, bistros and brasseries – all of which are jammed around mealtime. This can’t be solely attributed to the thriving tourist industry, or to the fact that Parisians don’t like to cook (it’s hard to find a Frenchman or Frenchwoman who doesn’t). But unless you’re a member of the bourgeoisie, or you own your own place and are in a position to finance a remodeling project, or, even rarer, if you rent and are just plain lucky, chances are your ‘kitchen’ will consist of little more than a glorified hot plate.

The majority of apartment-seekers in Paris are students or young professionals: those in the market for housing that costs below 1.000 Euros a month. The flats that fall under this category are usually studios (single room affairs measuring anywhere between 10 to 25 square meters, or 100 to just under 300 square feet); or two-room apartments measuring between 30 to 40 square meters, or 300 to 400 square feet. Crammed into these spaces are sleeping accommodations, a bathroom (though not all flats are outfitted with one), a washing machine (if possible), perhaps a space for a living room/office, and, of course, a kitchen. The kitchens in these spaces usually boast no more than a bar fridge, sink (though some apartment dwellers must wash their dishes in the bathroom sink, or conversely, brush their teeth in the kitchen because the bathroom is just big enough to fit a toilet and shower), two electric elements, and a tiny patch of stainless steel upon which one might chop onions or leave the dishes to dry. Preparing lunch is a juggling act; realising a conventional French meal – complete with entrée (starter), main dish, cheese and dessert – requires the organizational savvy of a seasoned war general.

This isn’t to say that the quaint, charming Parisian pied à terre we see in the movies doesn’t exist. With regular jaunts to the myriad of brocantes – or flea markets – in and around the city, a well-planned trip to IKEA, and a little flair, many a dank, dreary, poorly configured apartment can be rendered warm and cozy. The secret, Parisians will tell you, is not to accumulate too much stuff.

It’s hard to cloak one’s North American-ness when one first arrives in Paris: we pack too much into our gigantic suitcases for a three-day getaway, we can’t help ourselves from wistfully reminiscing about the spacious living conditions we left back home, and we buy stuff in quantities that our new digs are too tiny to house. In Paris, even the most anti-consumerist North American is capable of feeling like a freewheeling shop-aholic…at first.

It doesn’t take long, however, to understand why Frenchwomen have the reputation for being a tough sell: it’s possible that the reason they spend hours agonizing over whether or not they should purchase that sleek pair of Dolce and Gabbana’s has little to do with the shoes or their price and everything to do with where she will put them when she gets home. To live comfortably in Paris, one must develop the skills of an A-type closet organizer (for when you think about it, arranging a 25 square meter space isn’t all that different), and even the most expert closet organizer will eventually command you to quit buying so much junk and focus on only stocking up on what you need…when you need it. Buying in bulk is reserved for businesses and families living in the suburbs. And, stopping by Monoprix to buy a four-pack of pens when the immediate situation dictates the need for only one might be regarded as excessive.

The benefit of this mode de vie is that if you were the kind of person who never threw anything away, you are now. Aside from the bare necessities and a couple of frivolous luxuries that you granted yourself (because you expertly made the space for them), you spend less money on crap and more on actually interacting with the rest of society. Living in a small space, after all, can result in cabin fever- one of the reasons why Paris is such a social city. And who wants to spend their time accumulating stuff when they can be out and about, admiring one of the most beautiful cities in the world?