Once Upon A Time In France: Foreign Follies, Drug Dens, And Church Crimes

Dreaming Of Gaillac

France’s foreign policy has been doing its best to prove the old adage that bad news comes in threes. The submarine brouhaha with Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. continues to rattle nerves revealing France as a nation whose pride has been deeply wounded.

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to Paris with his hat in hand to try to make nice. Blinken was supposed to be the perfect symbol of a new era of post-Trump relations with Europe and France. He attended school in France and is fluent in the language, which is always the best way to melt French hearts. Listen to him get his French on in this interview with journalist Anne-Sophie Lapix.

During that same interview, Blinken acknowledged that the U.S. should have done a better job communicating with its French allies, adding: "We sometimes tend to take for granted a relationship as important, as deep as the one between France and the United States.”

That didn’t stop Lapix from giving him a verbal spanking: "You speak French. You are a francophile. We expected a better dialogue … especially with the change of administration, and especially with you.”

Meanwhile, France was caught in a dustup with Algeria. As The Guardian reported:

According to French and Algerian media reports, Macron told descendants of figures in Algeria’s 1954-62 war for independence that the country was ruled by a “political-military system” that had “totally rewritten” its history.

“You can see that the Algerian system is tired, it has been weakened by the Hirak,” he added, referring to the pro-democracy movement that forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019 after two decades at the helm.

Macron’s office did not deny the reported comments, but said the president had been discussing the war in Algeria with French youths and answering questions, not giving an official interview.

This stoked long-running tensions with the former French colony which recalled its ambassador (there’s a lot of that going around these days!) and banned French planes from its airspace.

And finally, to the north, relations between France and the U.K. continue to unravel across a number of post-Brexit fronts. With the U.K. facing a variety of shortages, the British government has attempted to shift the blame to Europe and France for putting in place onerous shipping rules (which are generally just the shipping rules that exist for anyone outside the EU).

France believes the British government is retaliating by issuing far fewer fishing licenses to French fishing boats than had been agreed as part of the Brexit settlement. The French fishing industry has threatened to blockade goods arriving from the U.K. The U.K. Daily Mail reported (and it was confirmed by some French media) that President Macron would like to toughen some administrative obligations such as inspections to inflict a bit more suffering on the Brits.

France has also hinted that it may cut off electricity to “the British crown dependencies of the Channel Islands like Jersey which rely on nearby France for their energy,” according to the AFP. Europe Minister Clement Beaune added:

“Stop telling us you do not need us anymore, stop being obsessed with us, stop believing that we will solve your problems…They made a mess of Brexit. It’s their choice and their failure, not ours. It was a bad choice, we see that today. It is not by creating problems for our fishermen… that you will solve the problems of shortages of Christmas turkey.”

Resolving all of this as the presidential campaign heats up should make for some fun theater.

Drug Dens

In Season 3 of The Wire, police attempt to address the city’s rampant drug problems by rounding up dealers and addicts and moving them into a free zone where they can sell and consume with impunity. Nicknamed “Hamsterdam,” the experiment seems to almost work before it completely falls apart.

Paris has been gradually replicating this strategy and now wants to expand on it. Not surprisingly, many locals living near the proposed zones are none too pleased.

Under a 2016 law, governments can create salles de consommation à moindre risque or SCMR. Nicknamed “shooting galleries,” Paris has 2 and Mayor Anne Hidalgo last month proposed adding more to deal with the city’s crack problem. This has led to protests and outcries.

The fighting over this strategy intensified recently when police cleared out a crack camp which sent the drug crowd scurrying under the highway and into a neighboring suburb of Pantin. The government then built a brick wall to close off the passage so they couldn’t come back to Paris, which unsurprisingly infuriated the local government and police of Pantin. Dubbed “mur de la honte” (wall of embarrassment), it has now come to symbolize more than 3 decades of drug-fighting futility.

Church Crimes

The pedophilia scandal surrounding the Catholic Church has been unfolding for so long that one might think it has lost its power to shock. But shock it did this week when a French government commission released a report claiming that Catholic priests had molested more than 216,000 minors (and probably more) between 1950 to 2020.

As The Washington Post summarized:

Commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé said his team had identified only a small percentage of victims, but academic research and other sources meant that the real number is probably around 216,000, or even around 330,000 if one includes sexual abuse by lay members. The vast majority of the victims were male, according to the report. The authors cautioned that the margin of error could be several tens of thousands.

Before moving to France 7 years ago, I didn’t realize how deeply Catholic the country is (despite having been raised Catholic and even having briefly been an altar boy). I associated Catholicism more with Ireland and Italy. But the Catholic church remains highly influential here, and that’s reflected in a large number of Catholic schools sprinkled across the country.

Despite the outrage, church leaders managed to put their foot in even deeper by suggesting the church was somehow above pesky mortal laws:

The French government on Thursday summoned for explanation a top archbishop who said priests should not go to the police after hearing about child sexual abuse during confession.

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort made the remark after a government inquiry lifted the lid on “massive” sexual assault in the French Catholic Church, estimating 216,000 victims over 70 years in systemic abuse covered up by a “veil of secrecy.”

A reminder that sometimes you just stop talking after you say “sorry.”

Dreaming Of France

Gaillac is in the Tarn Department in the Occitanie Region. Located less than an hour to the northeast from Toulouse, this medieval city sits along the Tarn River. The town makes for a great day trip to explore sites such as St. Michel Abbey, the Church of St Pierre, the Place du Griffoul, the private mansions of Yversen and Pierre de Brens, and the Château-Musée des Beaux-Arts in the Foucaud park.

But of course, it’s also the perfect jumping-off point to explore the region’s famed vineyards. With 7 types of wine under the Gaillac label, this corner of France offers a wide range to suit a variety of tastes.

Great Reads

A story about the “chaos” being caused by Paris’ rapid adoption of biking had tongues wagging on Twitter. Penned by NY Times biz correspondent Liz Alderman, the story depicted the city as being overrun by inconsiderate and dangerous bike riders:

“It’s chaos!” exclaimed Ms. Famery, shaking a fist at the swarm of bikes that have displaced cars on the Rue de Rivoli ever since it was remade into a multilane highway for cyclists last year. “Politicians want to make Paris a cycling city, but no one is following any rules,” she said. “It’s becoming risky just to cross the street!”

For one thing, the story lacked any meaningful context and data to make its point. As numerous people noted on Twitter, most residents are glad to see the change and a move away from cars that have choked the streets and made Paris one of the world’s most polluted cities. It’s fair to say there are some growing pains for the Paris bike culture (IE, more separation needed between bikes and pedestrians along the banks of the Seine) but nothing that won’t get sorted out over time.

Every now and then, France needs a good baguette scandal. Tunisian-born Makram Akrout recently won the “Best Baguette in Paris’ award” but became the center of controversy after someone dug up some “extremist” social media posts. Normally the winner gets to provide baguettes to the presidential palace for a year, but the Élysée apparently said, “Non, merci.”

In travel, The Washington Post visited the southeastern French village where Marc Chagall found inspiration. Mont Blanc is shrinking. And it’s worth reading this obit by Kim Willsher of The Guardian for Bernard Tapie, one of the more colorful businessmen in France in recent decades.

And while this is a few weeks old, I’m personally excited to see there is a massive two-part film being made of The Three Musketeers, which I just finished reading. It will take 7 months to film and cost $85 million, but stars some big-name Frenchies. Hopefully, it will be more faithful to the story than the long list of half-baked adaptations over the years.

Chris O’Brien

Le Pecq, France