Once Upon A Time In France: Chaos Coping, Messi Messiah, And Doctor Dismissed

Dreaming of Étretat

The summer was total chaos for our family. By which I mean an additional layer of chaos on top of the foundational layer of chaos being experienced by the entire planet thanks to Covid and the middle layer of chaos that is life as an American in France during even the best of times.

Part of our chaos involved our oldest son leaving this month to attend college (for French readers, I mean ‘university’ but honestly it just feels good to say college which of course refers to middle school in France) in Washington, D.C. The latter gave us a taste of what planning must have been like for the D-Day invasion.

Meanwhile, we completed our family’s move from Toulouse to the suburbs of Paris which falls just sort of qualifying as a move to a new country. This allowed me to indulge in my new favorite pastime of complaining about the persistent cold and gloomy weather of the Paris region, though to be fair France has experienced an unusually moderate summer. In just over a month, I have spotted the sun at various moments, but it remains elusive as does my sense of summer. Apparently, 15 years of living in the seasonless San Francisco Bay Area didn’t sufficiently prepare me for this kind of summer.

One of the tougher aspects of this chaos is that across France summer is famously the time of long, languorous vacation. Among both friends and on social media, we see people shedding all aspects of work for two or more weeks while we go about our frenzied American lives. We just celebrated our 7th anniversary in France, but we have yet to truly experience that true French summer vacances that promises respite and rejuvenation.

We did manage to get away for a few short trips, but as is our habit, these tend to fall somewhere between the joy of exploration and a prisoners’ death march amid the last-minute scramble of planning and desperate organization of logistics. Most notably, these included a whirlwind trip to see the famous alabaster cliffs of Normandy (see more below), a weekend of tastings in the Champagne region, and a catastrophically bad 4-day bike trip from Paris to the English Channel.

We returned from the latter just in time for the first day of arguably the most important day on the French calendar: la rentrée. Technically, this refers to the start of the school year. On a larger scale, it is when business, politics, and life in general return to something resembling their normal patterns.

Meanwhile, I have been catching up on much of the news I did my best to ignore over the summer. In some ways, it seems the timing of our move was right. It meant that in mid-August we missed scorching temperatures in our former hometown of Toulouse where the thermometers in the region ranged from 113F to 120F.

And the South of France was on fire. Here’s hoping the nation doesn’t develop its own California-like fire season, but I suspect climate change is bringing that closer to reality.

As if that’s not enough chaos, we return to the nation’s anti-vaxx movement which remains a small but vocal minority. Ever since President Macron announced tougher measures this summer to combat Covid, a small group has been parading around each Saturday trying to equate the requirement to present a Health Pass (pass sanitaire) to Nazi Germany.

Personally, I find the Health Pass to be fantastic, though during our travels we found it only being sporadically used by hotels and restaurants. Still, rules that include needing a Health Pass to go to movies or restaurants have motivated millions to go out and get vaccinated this summer in France, making the nation one of the most vaccinated in the world. The policy is working, though the Delta Variant continues to make this a somewhat joyless summer tourism season marked by the notable absence of British tourists.

These marches, which attract around 200,000 people, are small compared to polls that show a larger majority of the French support the health pass. Still, there is a strange phenomenon in the international press that likes to depict France as a country in chaos. And as such, these protests have been getting widespread coverage that dwarfs the larger success of Macron’s policy. That includes a ridiculous op-ed in The New York Times by a French journalist (whose Twitter bio said she was “here to rant about Macron" when the column was published but has since changed it) that revived the claim that Macron is treating the French like children.

It’s nonsense, of course. Macron’s political future next year remains uncertain for lots of reasons, but not because of these people marching each weekend. They were never going to vote for him. More important is how much chaos remains from the health and economic threats posed by Covid. More than 1.5 years into the pandemic, it’s not clear that anyone has completely solved them.


Messi Messiah

Our new home town is Le Pecq, which is just adjacent to the better known Saint-Germain-en-Laye where our daughter is now attending lycée. If you live outside of France, it’s unlikely you have heard of Saint Germain, unless you are perhaps a soccer fanatic.

In which case, you will probably know of the Paris soccer club, PSG. The “SG” is Saint Germain because the city merged its club with Paris to create a powerhouse in the 1970s.

This past week, legendary player Lionel Messi made his debut for PSG which now counts wunderkind Mbappé and Neymar on their squad. I’m not the world’s leading soccer expert, but I know enough to understand that this a Murderers’ Row level of talent.

Messi was forced to leave his longtime home of Barcelona this summer due to some salary rules that are too obscure for me to understand. PSG nabbed him, and now the club is going to be under the spotlight for the coming year with expectations sky-high. Parisian fans are, of course, going bonkers.

France choked earlier this year in the Euro Cup. But the arrival of Messi has Paris fans looking to the future. Honestly, I couldn't even tell you what’s at stake. But now that we have moved from the rugby-loving Southwest of France to its soccer capital, I suppose it’s time to start learning these things.

Doctor Dismissed

The Covid era in France will be forever associated with Didier Raoult, the renowned virologist who became a lightning rod for controversy thanks to his promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment during the pandemic. With his flowing hair giving him a kind of mad scientist look, he became a media phenomenon and increasingly was embraced by Covid-conspiracy types.

When it comes to hydroxychloroquine, Raoult has stuck to his guns even as he has become the center of growing questions over his research. Part of his prestige came from his role as director of the Infectious Diseases Institute (IHU) at Marseille University Hospital. But now it seems he’s on the verge of having that title stripped away:

Professor Jean-Luc Jouve, head of the city's medical commission, told French daily Le Monde on Thursday that 69-year-old Raoult had requested to continue in his post at the hospital on a part-time basis, but that his proposal would not be accepted.

Francois Cremieux, the head of Marseille's hospital system, told the newspaper that it was not reasonable for the virologist to carry on at the IHU once he is no longer conducting university research.

He and other senior regional medical executives are to launch a procedure in September to find a successor to the 69-year-old scientist.

"There is a need to turn a page and organise the future of the IHU for the next 20 years," Cremieux said.

While he may be headed to official retirement, Raoult has become a frequent guest on conservative news shows and his YouTube videos have attracted millions of views. It’s hard to imagine he’s going to go gentle into that good night.

Dreaming Of France

Étretat is located in the Seine-Maritime department in the Normandy region. The town is historically known as a point of departure for seeing Normandy’s famed alabaster cliffs. Fans of Netflix’s Lupin series may also recognize it as the place where Assane Diop’s son is kidnapped off the beach at the end of Season 1. The episode was an homage of sorts to Maurice Leblanc, the author of the original Lupin novels who lived in Étretat.

We drove up from Paris for an overnight adventure that included the classic hike to see the famed Falaises d’Étretat and their spectacular stone arches. Arriving back into town, we encountered our first mask mandate for public spaces, a glimpse of what was to come with the Delta Variant. Still, we wandered the streets of the old city center before eating a wonderful dinner of steak, muscles, and frites at La Flotille. And then it was on to a night at Le Cosy De Sara, a wonderful new B&B just outside of town.

Great Reads

So much to catch up on from the summer. But a few recommendations:

Josephine Baker is being buried in France’s Pantheon, an honor typically bestowed on its greatest citizens. The new OSS 117 movie opened and tried to straddle its chauvinistic humor with the #MeToo era. Leïla Slimani, the author of the acclaimed Chanson Douce (The Perfect Nanny), released her new book: “In the Country of Others.” And Anne Swardson described the emptiness of Paris last month.

Chris O’Brien

Le Pecq, France