Once Upon A Time In France: Coddling Cads, Rwanda Regrets, And Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Dreaming Of Albi

France’s past, both recent and distant, dominated the news last week. Every country and culture struggles to reconcile its present with its history, especially when the latter is plagued with dark episodes. Untangling the two can be messy, and imperfect, but nonetheless necessary to move forward.

Perhaps this statue by Ugo Shiavi captures it best. I stumbled across it in the town of Le Pecq while going to pick up a rental car one morning. It suggests a “dialogue between the past and the present,” according to a sign next to the statue. Though to my eyes, it seems like the past is getting its ass kicked.

The past caught up with Canal+ soccer commentator Pierre Ménès last week following the broadcast by the pay TV channel of a documentary called Je ne suis pas une salope, je suis une journaliste. (The word salope translates as “slut.”)

Featuring sports journalist Marie Portolano, the documentary explores how women are treated and harassed in the hyper-masculine world of sports journalism. From sexist remarks to physical harassment, numerous women shared their stories with Portolano about their treatment. The broadcast would seem to be a feather in the cap of Canal+., except…

It turned out officials at Canal+ had asked for about 20 minutes to be cut that focused on Ménès. Not being a soccer obsessive, I haven’t become a regular viewer of the obscene number of sports shows that are aired across the cable spectrum in France. And therefore, I had never heard of Ménès. But it seems he’s an offish soccer commentator who has increasingly turned into a caricature of himself over the years. He is what in gentile circles one would have once labeled a “cad” for his offhand sexist remarks and overall behavior toward women. A label designed to deflect and dismiss actions that should have never been permissible in the first place.

Canal+ officials apparently have never heard the old journalism adage: It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up. Sure enough, the cut footage eventually leaked and was broadcast on another show, Touche Pas À Mon Poste. In part of it, Portolano confronts Ménès about several incidents, reminding him of the time he lifted her skirt in public. This led to viewers dredging up other incidents and sharing them on Twitter, including the time he kissed on the mouth fellow journalist Isabelle Moreau and another incident where he kissed co-host Francesca Antoniotti.

Scandalous, of course, but also hidden in plain sight. Many of these incidents took place on live TV. They were hardly secret. But they were tolerated and laughed off by officials because, well, boys will be boys. Especially in France, where the grappling with the #MeToo movement has met with more pushback than one would expect, including from some women. Two years ago, there was famously a letter signed by a number of notable French women such as actress Catherine Deneuve, saying the #MeToo movement had turned into a kind of “puritanism” that infringed on sexual liberty.

Meanwhile, Ménès hasn’t helped his cause. He’s offered some half-hearted recognition that times have changed and that such behavior is no longer okay. And at the same time, he’s suggested that he’s a victim of changing social norms.

So far, he’s lost a deal with the FIFA 22 video game, but at the moment is still officially a commentator for Canal+. Still, he continues to feel some heat. After the documentary, Camille Chaize, the spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, tweeted: "To kiss someone by force, by surprise, to 'grab their buttocks' ... on a TV set is a sexual assault punishable by law.”

It remains to be seen whether the times really are a changin’ in France when it comes to such things.

Rwanda Regrets

In another chapter from France’s past, more than 25 years ago, French troops arrived in Rwanda as part of Opération Turquoise.

Ostensibly, the goal was to provide a safe haven for the Tutsi who were the victims of a genocide campaign by the ruling Hutu party. But in practice, the Rwandan government has long charged that French troops aided the genocide campaign, in part by providing arms and training to some of the genocide squads.

President Macron, who has made attempts to reset France’s relationship with Africa, had ordered a commission to study the nation’s role in Rwanda. Last week, the commission presented its report which said France was not complicit in the genocide, but still bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the wave of violence that left 800,000 dead, according to The Guardian:

“The Rwandan crisis ended in disaster for Rwanda and in defeat for France,” the report states. “But is France complicit in the genocide of the Tutsis? If this means a willingness to be associated with the genocidal enterprise, nothing in the archives consulted proves it.”

The commission concluded: “Nevertheless, for a long time France was involved with a regime that encouraged racist massacres. It remained blind to the preparation of a genocide by the most radical elements of this regime.”

The relationship with the Rwanda government, now controlled by the Tutsis, has been tense for almost 2 decades. Whether this report marks the start of some healing between the two countries may depend on the findings of Rwanda’s own ongoing inquiry.

Mistakes Weren’t Made

Finally, in more recent history, there has been much debate over how the French government has handled the pandemic since the third wave of cases began. That involves both the slow vaccine rollout (which is gathering steam). But much of it revolves around the government’s unwillingness to impose a third national lockdown.

Cases are rising rapidly and Paris hospitals are again overwhelmed. The strategy has been to gradually tighten the screws to combat the variants. But it’s clearly not working. There is growing anticipation of a 3rd national lockdown. Critics have been asking: Should one have been imposed several weeks ago?

At a European summit, Macron said he made the right call (which contradicted the advice of his scientific committee). According to the AP:

“We were right not to implement a lockdown in France at the end of January because we didn’t have the explosion of cases that every model predicted,” Macron said late Thursday at the end of a European Union summit. “There won’t be a mea culpa from me. I don’t have remorse and won’t acknowledge failure.”

The refusal to apologize seemed to get as much attention as the debate over the strategy. German leaders, for instance, apologized for their recent strategy to restrict Easter visits. Now that the numbers are clearly heading in the wrong direction, shouldn’t Macron offer up an, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know what I was thinking” statement?

Apparently, admitting mistakes is not part of the French political culture and Macron isn’t looking to start any new trends here. However, since Macron is a big fan of startups, should he ever change his mind bout the mea culpa thing, I can recommend he check out the Estonian startup Sorry As A Service.

Dreaming Of France

The city of Albi is located in the Tarn Department in the Occitanie Region. Its omnipresent red brick buildings make it a kind of architectural kissing cousin of Toulouse. The cities also share a bloody history thanks to the Albigeois Crusade that saw northern Frenchmen swoop into the South in the early 1200s to put down the heretical movement known as the Cathars.

Albi’s historic city center was formerly a fortified town and parts of the ramparts can still be seen. This Medieval city center is like a village within the city with its period houses made partially from timber. The neighborhood also hosts the Toulouse Lautrec museum, a grand artistic tribute to the region’s famous native son.

But the most stupefying treasure of Albi is the Sainte-Cécile cathedral.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest brick cathedral in the world. It’s also notable because it was built in the Gothic style, rather than the Roman style that is typical of most brick cathedrals in the Southwest of France. Why? Construction began after the war against the Cathars. Albi had been one of the headquarters of the inquisition that followed to weed out the rest of the heretics. The Catholic Church wanted to build a giant Cathedral to remind locals who was boss. Construction took 200 years, so you know they were serious about making their point.

Saint Cecilia was a Catholic martyr best remembered for insisting on remaining a virgin after getting married and for living several days after a local legal official tried to have her head chopped off. Despite three whacks with a sword, she lived three more days. Inside, the altar is surrounded by a terrifying mural called “The Last Judgment” which depicts sinners being boiled in oil and skinned alive.

Great Reads

Writing in The Atlantic, Mira Kamdar sums up what many of us Americans abroad are feeling right now. Last summer, we were smug about how France handled the initial stages of the pandemic compared to the U.S. Now? Not so much:

“Up until a few months ago, I’d felt sorry for my American friends and family, stuck in a Trumpian nightmare of science denial and a warped fealty to personal liberty so extreme that, even as pandemic casualties soared, some people took to screaming, even spitting, at anyone who told them to put on a face mask. The situation in France, where I live, was more under control. Today, however, as the greater Paris region suffers through a third lockdown in response to the new viral wave sweeping the country, the tables have turned.”

Kim Willsher profiles the rape victim who is helping to shape new French law around sexual assault. Lindsey Tramuta explores how French cultural institutions are embracing the American phenomenon of selling merch. And The Guardian tells the story of Yseult, the singer whose success is shaking up the French music establishment:

“With critical acclaim and millions of YouTube views, she joins a wave of artists changing the face of pop in France. She follows Lous and the Yakuza and Aya Nakamura, two dark-skinned Black Francophone artists, and a dominant French rap scene – all hugely popular despite institutional attempts to minimise and discredit their success.”

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France