Once Upon A Time In France: Daft Punk, David Versus Musk, and Sarkozy Sentenced

Dreaming of Antibes.

We escaped the confines of our apartment last week for several little mini-trips, vacations such as they are in the time of pandemic. These getaways included a stop at Giverny along the Seine, where painter Claude Monet constructed his famous gardens and spent decades painting his water lilies.

Naturally, we picked the worst possible time to visit Giverny. First, it was late February and so nothing was blooming. And second, there is a global pandemic. So all Monet-related gardens and museums and whatnots were closed. No matter. We left behind the little village and walked into the hills where we had a lovely view facing the Seine over some vineyards.

Today, we remember Monet as one of the great impressionists and the man who is responsible for almost half of all college dorm room posters in the U.S. It’s one of those subtle but important ways that such artistic masters continue to be ambassadors for French culture, laying a foundation for young minds to become lifelong Francophiles who dream of seeing the water lilies and later frolicking in fields of lavender.

While France has had tremendous success exporting its culture via literary and artistic lions, it has had less luck when it comes to pop music. Since we arrived in France, I’ve tried to explore French pop or rock music, but the bench is not deep and I have yet to really find anything modern that excites me. Attempts to make anglophone-style rock or pop often feel more like parodies. I’m thinking of course about Johnny Hallyday, the “French Elvis.” Netflix subscribers can watch the biopic Cloclo about the cheesy French popstar Claude who was big in the 60s and 70s and recorded the original version of My Way. Yes, there’s Celine Dion (Canadian, though), but then what?

At times, our daughter has been a fan of Louane (who is truly outstanding in the movie La Famille Bélier). Fans of Call My Agent will recognize the dreamy Julien Doré. I’ve found Gaël Faure to be listenable at times. Zaz is outstanding, but more for her folksy jazz stuff that mines the musical legacy where France really excels. Indeed, when people here talk about the greats, they’re still likely to mention Edith Piaf, Claude Nougaro, or Serge Gainsbourg.

Whatever happened in the U.K. during the 50s and 60s to make it a cornerstone of pop and rock never made it across the Channel. Which is perhaps why the news that Daft Punk had called it quits last week was such a big news story.

Formed in 1993, the electronic duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter had been that all-too-rare international pop sensation to come out of France. Though given their penchant for wearing robotic helmets and attempting to cloak their identities, they were not exactly the Johnny Appleseeds of modern French culture. It’s a good bet the vast majority of people bopping away to “Get Lucky” have no idea the group is French.

Still, a win is a win. And so, there was an outpouring of praise for several days for the group.

The tributes included an official French diplomatic account that called Daft Punk “mythic” and thanking them for making France “shine around the world.”

And I’m willing to be almost everyone in France re-watched this video from the 2017 July 14th (Bastille Day) celebration when a military marching band played a medley of Daft Punk songs.

Most likely, this is just a pause before the inevitable reunion and comeback album. But the mourning was real. RIP Daft Punk. For now.

Normandy Vs Elon Musk

Elon Musk can seem like an unstoppable force at times. So it’s not likely that a revolt by a small French village in Normandy is going to derail his plans for Starlink, a satellite-based broadband internet service.

Still, the decision by locals in Saint-Senier-de-Beuvron to reject plans to place a Starlink antenna in their town of 368 souls has put them in the international spotlight. This was supposed to be one of four sites in France for stations that would carry the signals.

“We were approached in October, by a company that wants to use the land. We still lack a lot of information. We are opposed to this project because we do not know the health risks,” said Benoit Hamard, mayor of Saint-Senier-de-Beuvron, to one newspaper.

There have been similar issues in France over the past year related to the rollout of 5G mobile networks, with antennas being burned by those who fear the health effects. In Saint-Senier-de-Beuvron, there is a mix of worries about the lack of details as well as the health implications. One local even cited Musk’s attempts to build a high-speed connection between human brains and computers as a reason to fear this Starlink plan.

The village was able to temporarily block the antenna on a technicality. But it’s likely to lose in the end because a national agency has already certified it as safe. Still, a small village taking on the world’s richest man (depending on the day of the week) is an irresistible David vs Goliath tale.

Sarkozy Guilty

There are also sorts of small, wacky details that made the trial of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy so captivating and amusing for an American who arrived in France after his 5-year tenure that ended in 2012.

My favorite was that Sarkozy communicated with his lawyers using a fake name “Paul Bismuth” whenever they talked on burner phones. In court last December, Sarkozy defended this as a way to ensure privacy and that he wouldn’t have had to take such measures if WhatsApp had existed.

Of course, WhatsApp already existed.

That, and other excuses didn’t work. And on Monday a court found Sarkozy guilty of working with his lawyer to offer a sweet job to a magistrate in an attempt to gain insider information into an ongoing investigation about possible illegal campaign donations Sarkozy had received. The former president received a 3-year sentence with 2 suspended and the other likely to be served from his home.

He’ll appeal and that will drag on for years. But whatever long-shot hopes Sarkozy had of returning to national politics and running for president next year are probably dashed.

Dreaming Of France

Tucked between Cannes and Nice along the Mediterranean coast, the Cap d’Antibes peninsula has a spectacular coastline that connects the neighboring resort towns of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins.

Antibes is known for its old town center that is surrounded by ramparts and a marina, and is overseen by Fort Carré. Juan-les-Pins is famous for its nightlife and an international jazz festival. Both have a variety of beaches that make it easy to find a stretch of coast to suit any taste.

Great Reads

A grabbag of grim stories this week. French actor Gerard Depardieu was charged with rape. Covid has turned Paris into a city of fear. On a lighter note, the French government is trying to raise money to permanently buy the Marquis de Sade’s infamous The 120 Days of Sodom.

The Guardian sums up the plot: “Telling of four libertines who, in their search for extreme sexual gratification commit a series of increasingly depraved tortures on abducted teenage boys and girls…”

The newspaper adds:

Referred to as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began” by De Sade, Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’École du Libertinage was composed in minute handwriting in 1785 on a 12-metre long and 11cm wide scroll. The aristocrat concealed the manuscript in the wall of his cell in the Bastille, where he was serving time after a series of sexual scandals…

I’m guessing the U.S. government will not be bidding on this one.

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France

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