Once Upon A Time In France: Submarine Subterfuge, Vaccine Validation, And Frenchifying Names

Dreaming of Loudenvielle

Earlier this year I watched Le Chant Du Loup (Cry of the Wolf), a French thriller about the country’s fleet of nuclear submarines. The film had a high-profile cast, including Omar Sy (Lupin) and Mathieu Kassovitz (the main dude in the spy series Le Bureau des légendes). The film stars François Civil who Americans may recognize from Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) as Hippolyte, the young actor who only very narrowly avoids a comically incestuous relationship with his sister, Camille. Ah, those zany French!

The film is a Hunt For Red October-type tale in which Hippolyte plays a guy who works the sonar because he has super-duper hearing. He makes a big goof which endangers the crew and he spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what went wrong. This being a French blockbuster movie (it was nominated for 2 Césars), everything ends badly for everyone.

Watching such a film is a strange sensation as an American, and in much the same way as Bureau. To buy into the dramas, one has to imagine France as being at the heart of world dramas such as facing Russian submarines and affecting the chaos spreading across the Middle East. Certainly, it is how the French see their role in the world: As influential powerbrokers both diplomatically and militarily.

But I have admittedly not been able to entirely shed that deeply ingrained American arrogance that sees the United States as the primordial actor on the world stage. It would seem the United States government also overlooked France’s military aspirations, though with far more dramatic consequences.

Of course, I’m referring to the diplomatic kerfuffle over France’s submarine contract with Australia that was scuttled when the U.S. signed a submarine deal with the U.K. and the Aussies. It would be impossible to understate the attention and outrage the deal has generated in France, at least at the government and media pundit level.

The language surrounding the diplomatic breach has been unusually blunt and theatrical. French leaders have pronounced it a “knife in the back.” UK PM Boris Johnson has retorted with some schoolyard franglais: “Donnez-moi un break.” Later, when France took the extraordinary step of recalling its US and Australian ambassadors, leaders explained it didn’t do the same for the UK because that country was a 5th-wheel to the deal.

The details of the rift are far more complex and nuanced than most of this diplomatic wailing would suggest. The deal for France to build conventional submarines for Australia had apparently not gone well, and yet France insists that it was under the impression that things were going along well enough until learning of the new deal for nuclear submarines just a few hours before it was announced.

France and Australia will now face a long legal struggle over who owes what for breaking the submarine contract. But the rift with the U.S. may run deeper. It still remains inexplicable how the U.S. could have negotiated such a deal and not included France, which has made clear its interests in the Pacific region. President Biden and President Macron subsequently spoke by phone and issued a rather bland statement.

But France is feeling humiliated and mad, and suspicious that Biden doesn’t seem all the different than Trump when it comes to foreign policy. It may be hard for Americans to remember, or perhaps even believe, but following WWII General Charles De Gaulle was deeply suspicious of U.S. foreign policy based on his experience during the war that had left him feeling slighted by the U.S. and U.K. There have been whispers by some in recent weeks that France should return to a De Gaullist policy of more independence, and trying to revive the idea of fostering more separation from the U.S.

Whatever course this dispute takes, it seems at the very least that Biden has been guilty of some remarkably clumsy diplomacy that needlessly alienated an ally.

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Vaccination Validation

Back when I visited the U.S. in April and May, it felt like I had stumbled into a magical world where vaccination rates were soaring and restaurants were open and people were talking about ending mask mandates. I had left behind a France where the vaccination rollout had been messy and concerns were still strong over the anti-vax sentiment.

Those roles are now almost completely reversed. The U.S. hit a plateau and has never really figured out how to muster the will or the policy measures to overcome these sputtering vaccination efforts. Meanwhile, the country is averaging more than 2,000 Covid deaths per day, or roughly 1 out of 4 all worldwide deaths.

In sharp contrast, France’s 7-day average for deaths is 62, down from 114 last month when the Delta variant had been running wild. The big difference has undoubtedly been Macron’s Pass Sanitaire. The requirement to either be vaccinated or have a recent Covid test has inspired millions to get vaccinated. There is now talk of ending some mask mandates later this year, though I am personally still wary of that.

Still, the impact of the health passport has been astonishing. As Anne Swardson wrote last week on the pass sanitaire:

In other words, vaccinations weren’t made mandatory, but getting jabbed beat the alternative. The pace of shots jumped immediately after Macron’s announcement, even though the French were heading off for summer vacation. Since then, more than 14 million people in this country of 65 million have gotten a first shot. Macron also decreed that all health and care workers had to be vaccinated, something the government later enforced by suspending 3,000 unvaccinated health workers.

The suspension of those health workers was particularly illuminating. Media reports had been hyping the chaos that could descend on the health care system if the government went through with the suspensions. Instead, it appears health care workers (a surprisingly reluctant bunch when it comes to vaccines) got on board. Those 3,000 suspensions were out of a total of 2.7 million health care workers.

As the Guardian reported:

Currently just under 47 million French people aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated, representing 81.4% of the population; 86.1% have received at least one jab.

“A large number of these suspensions will be temporary,” [French Health Minister Olivier]Véran told RTL radio. “They involved mostly personnel in support service, like those working in laundry or food preparation.” He said very few doctors and nurses remained unvaccinated. “Many of them have decided to get vaccinated now the obligation to do so has become a reality,” he said.

As a result, I’ve attended 2 Paris conferences in person over the past month as live events are feeling safer. The winter will likely pose some new challenges, but it’s possible to imagine that France has reached a place where it can at least declare vindication, if not outright victory.

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Frenchifying Fun

While the French presidential election is still 7 months away, the campaign season is in full swing. The news now is a constant drumbeat, most of it is nonsense, and some of it terrifying. I’m determined not to turn this newsletter into a French Political diatribe, and yet sometimes it’s just impossible to ignore.

Last week, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Éric Zemmour, the respective bogeymen of the far-left and far-right, squared off in a national debate. Zemmour, the journalist and author who has risen steadily in polls, seemed to be set to get even more exposure.

To understand what a kook Zemmour is, among his various anti-immigrant statements he has made: He would propose a law that would require babies born in France to be given “French” names. Whatever that is.

Fortunately, some jokester created a website to help us do just that: Vite mon prenom. Just tap in your name and the website will Frenchify it.

We had the option to change our names to make them more French when applying for citizenship. In the end, we declined, opting to stick with our “American” names, which of course suggest I am from Ireland. And really, what’s more American than a name that reminds everyone that your family was once from somewhere else?

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Dreaming Of France

Loudenvielle is a town in the Hautes-Pyrénées department in the Occitanie Region. Shortly after moving to France in 2014, we were eager for a Fall getaway and somehow chose this spot randomly in the Pyrénées. You can read more about that trip here, but Loudenvielle remains one of our favorite places in the mountains.

Whether it was long hikes into the hills or a casual stroll around Lac de Genos-Loudenvielle, the region around Loudenvielle had a peaceful, remote quality along with the wonderful views down the valley.

It also helped that the town is home to Balnea, still the best thermal baths in the Pyrénées in our opinion. As the weather turns even chillier and the leaves start to fall, a return trip to Loudenvielle grows even more tempting.


Great Reads

The Picasso Museum in Paris is getting another 9 paintings by the Spanish master. Lindsey Tramuta visits the fancy-schmancy Cheval Blanc Paris hotel, LVMH’s “Newest Bauble.” Ski trains from London to the Alps are restarting.

Benjamin Chadwick pushes back against the non-sensical rantings of those who insist Paris is falling into chaos and ruin under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Harry Grabar writing in Slate looks at the ongoing campaign to rid the Paris city center of cars.

The French government issued warnings about a cyber-harassment campaign on social media that used the #anti2010 hashtag to target school students born in 2010 (now entering 6th grade).

And finally, a French farmer who became internet famous thanks to photos and videos of him chasing bird conservationists in his underwear was awarded €10,000 in damages from a French television station for violating his privacy.

Chris O’Brien

Le Pecq, France