Thursday, October 21, 2010

The riots that never were

I'm being constantly reminded these past few days of the immense gulf that separates the media from reality. I'm being asked regularly (by people far away from the City of Light) how I'm dealing with the “riots” in Paris that people are seeing reported by the ever-reliable news media. And I reply, as always, that I've only seen riots on the news, just as they have. In the real world, I don't see anything.

Right now, Parisians are mostly irritated by recent strikes, not by any kind of riots or violence. Transport strikes are the most irritating. However, in reality, they haven't been that bad, at least not over the past two or three days. It depends on where you are going, though. For those of us who live and work inside the city, transit strikes hardly matter at all, since we can walk to work. I walk to work every day, so I don't see strikes much. I did ride the Métro and RER on Monday, and while the Métro was fine, the RER was slightly slower than usual (about half the normal number of trains). So I had to wait ten minutes or so for a train, but it wasn't too crowded. In France, a strike usually means a significant work slowdown, but not a total stop.

As for the “riots,” I haven't seen any of those. And while the media reports on various and sundry disturbances in Paris, I haven't actually witnessed these disturbances, even though, in some cases, I've supposedly walked right through them. It's as if the news media live in another dimension.

Nothing has made me more wary of the news media than living in Paris. When you live in a city that is the center of so much world news, you very rapidly come to see just how hopelessly distorted news reporting is. There's just no connection between what the media say and what's actually happening. The constant sensationalism of the media with respect to Paris has led me to be extremely suspicious of anything the media says about any topic. I take all news reports with an enormous grain (or rather boulder) of salt these days.

I've seen some non-Parisian news items that clearly illustrate the media's total cluelessness. For example, a few days ago, at Fleet Week in San Francisco—an event that includes many impressive airshows—a Boeing 747 was invited to make a flyover during one of the shows. These flyovers are heavily regulated by the FAA, which defines very specific areas in which they are allowed to take place, with very specific restrictions and very precise waivers of certain regulations so that they may be carried out safely and legally. Anyway, someone made a video recording of the 747 flyover, and somehow CNN got hold of this video, and CNN presenters (with absolutely no clue concerning aviation, photography, Fleet Week, or anything else) apparently interpreted the flyover as some sort of neo-9/11 attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. Supposedly one of the presenters (I didn't see the initial newscast, as I don't watch TV) even said to the other “don't look at it!” apparently because he thought the 747 was going to hit the bridge.

Now, I watched the video, and it was abundantly, blatantly obvious that the 747 wasn't anywhere near the bridge. It passed well in front of one of the towers, which it could not do if it were actually flying towards it. And the relative size of the airplane in comparison to the tower in the background made it equally obvious that the 747 was thousands of feet away from the bridge. I don't understand how anyone could think otherwise. But CNN pounced on it, broadcasting sensationalistic claptrap without even trying to verify anything. (Other news services seemingly missed this news, thank goodness.) The FAA felt compelled to issue a statement, just the same, reassuring all that there was absolutely no conflict between the 747 and the bridge. People who were actually at the show weren't especially bothered by the flyover, without the polluting influence of CNN news.

Anyway, that's not the first time that CNN has blown it. I recall it posting a scary story about an asteroid headed for the Earth a few years ago, and another story about a solar flare threatening our planet. Both posted without any background research at all, and more or less retracted shortly therafter.

I mention all this to illustrate just how unreliable the media are. You can take anything they say and just throw it away.

Back to Paris, then. All is well here. The weather is slightly chillier than normal, but it's sunny outside, and I rather like chilly weather, anyway. There are still scattered protests and strikes, but there are always protests and strikes in Paris. That's one reason why Paris lost its bid for the Olympics—the threat of strikes was just too great to make the Olympic committee comfortable.

The strikers and demonstrators this time are from the extreme low end of the curve, I'm afraid, although strikers in general are often not very gifted intellectually. Apparently they cannot do simple math. The government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (oh my!), which would still make it one of the earliest retirement ages in Europe. There isn't much choice, since money is running out, as the population ages. You cannot pay people retirement for half their lives. There's no other option … but some people are still whining about it. It just amazes me. It makes French people look extremely selfish and stupid to the rest of the world.

And, as with all demonstrations of this sort, there are always some looters who infiltrate the demonstrators and use demonstrations as an opportunity to steal TV sets from stores and what-not. It's hard to track them down and arrest them in such large crowds, although more than a thousand have been intercepted and charged. They don't care about the purpose of the demonstrations, they only care about how much loot they can collect in the confusion.

And then you have the totally clueless teenagers from high schools who demonstrate only to escape class and to have an excuse to rant and rave. It is somewhat revealing that they especially like to demonstrate during school hours—weekends, on the other hand, are for other occupations.

Oh well … never a dull moment in the City of Light!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Weather as it should be!

The weather was completely seasonal for October today … which is to say that the weather was excellent. Clear skies, cool temperatures, and a nice breeze, and clean air.

April in Paris is justifiably famous, as spring weather in the city is generally excellent. But what is less known is that fall weather is just as nice. When the city is not being blasted by heat waves, it's wonderful to be outside. And the temperate climate of the city means that spring and fall last for a long time, whereas summer and winter are relatively short. For the same reason, summer traditionally isn't very hot, and winter isn't very cold, although the past 15 years or so have seen a general and significant increase in temperatures, especially in summer.

For the moment, however, the weather is seasonal, which is the kind of weather I like, and the kind I encountered when I first moved to Paris.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a big strike day, with many major unions scheduling yet another round of useless strikes in various domains. Transportation is always affected, because that's what gets the most air time on the news. Sometimes utility companies are affected, or government services. When a standard strike doesn't get enough attention, unions will occasionally resort to sabotage, such as greasing rails to prevent trains from safely passing over them, or deliberately turning off electricity to neighborhoods to emphasize a utility strike. This all seems exceedingly puerile to me, but what can you do?

The unions and their constituents are still protesting retirement reforms. They might as well protest cloudy days, since there is simply no alternative to reform for the future.

Anyway, I'm unaffected by most strikes, since strikes usually affect transportation, and I walk to and from school each day. It's 45 minutes each way, but it's my only exercise, and I can't really afford to take the Métro or bus, anyway (my income is so low that even Métro tickets are a bit of a luxury, which I ration carefully). I think I've mentioned this before, but since money matters preoccupy me, I'm mentioning it again.

I noticed that Christmas lights on the Champs were being put up in mid-September this year. It seems to get earlier every year. Eventually I suppose they'll be on year-round. I cynically suspect that the reason for this is to encourage consumers to spend money, rather than to encourage spiritual reflection in visitors to the avenue. Given that side streets along the Champs are increasingly populated by seedy entraineuse bars, and that the avenue is afflicted during the night with scum from the suburbs looking for trouble, the general trend seems to be very much away from spiritual enlightenment.

Halloween is just three weeks away, but since the death several years ago of the person who single-handedly promoted the event in France (and whom I've talked about in previous posts), there is no significant interest in it that I can see. Cultures are not easily changed.

The day after Halloween is a holiday in France, on which families traditionally visit their dead relatives in cemeteries, but there isn't any celebration or commercial activity associated with that—even though you'd think that a cemetery would be a great place to dress up as a vampire or ghost. Actually, cemeteries in Paris are spooky enough even without costumes, with Père Lachaise being at the top of the spooky and interesting lists.

In other news … I am amused by the lines I see waiting outside Louis Vuitton on the Champs these days. I can't imagine why anyone would wait in line for the dubious privilege of spending too much money on things of too little value, but people do it. Asian tourists are especially enchanted by Louis Vuitton—my experience is that tourists from the Far East in general have extremely gauzy dreams about Paris that are only very tenuously connected to reality. It makes me wonder how media portray the city in that part of the world. Anyway, I guess most of the people waiting in line don't realize that there's another Louis Vuitton store on the avenue Montaigne, just off the Champs, and there's no line and no waiting there.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Danger, danger!

Well, not really. A lot of people have been asking me if France is safe lately (except for my parents, who now know better, after years of experience with sensationalist media reports). The answer is yes.

Just today, the government gave final approval to a new law that prohibits people from hiding their faces in public (with a few exceptions, such as upcoming Halloween parties, if any). The main purpose of the law is to prohibit Muslim and/or Arab women from hiding their faces in public. The public and government perception of this practice is that it represents an unacceptable form of oppression of women, and so the hope is that by outlawing it, men who attempt to restrict the freedoms of their female relatives will be forced to relent, at least a little bit, and at least in public.

The reality is that almost nobody in France hides her face. Even though about six percent of the population is Muslim, most Muslims are no more religious than most Christians or Jews, and don't observe elaborate restrictions on attire. Not only that, but the practice of hiding the face is only common in certain Muslim countries, and isn't actually required by Islam itself (which only counsels modesty, not specific items of attire). What this means is that there are perhaps 1000-2000 women in France who conceal their faces out of Muslim or Arab tradition, while the rest do not. This also means that the law will have very little practical effect, since hardly any women hide their faces, anyway. But it is an important symbolic gesture, for better or for worse.

The law provides that women (or actually anyone) hiding their faces in public will have to pay a fine. It also provides, however, that men who compel their female spouses or relatives to conceal themselves in this way can be sentenced to pay a huge fine and even serve jail time. Here again, the idea is to prevent a general oppression of women from taking hold in France.

I can't agree with a law that dictates how people should dress in public, although I understand the motivation behind the law. The great majority of people in France favor it, although quite a few have the same reservations that I do. We'll see how it works out—it will take effect next year. Since so few women conceal their faces, anyway, there probably won't be many prosecutions … although a few women have been deliberately flaunting the future law to get media attention (such as one who was thrown out of the audience of a courtroom recently because she refused to reveal her face).

Anyway, this new law has angered a very small number of chronically angry males who believe that women are property, not human beings, and this has led to various acts of rebellion, the most visible of which being several phoned-in bomb scares at places around the city. In September, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice after someone phoned in bomb threats (no bombs were found). The government feels that the risk of protest actions, violent or otherwise, is elevated right now because of these angry young males. I'm sure in time the kiddies will settle down—people like them are always fuming about something, for anger is their nature.

As for actual “terrorist” actions, well, there have been none. Life goes on as usual. This does not prevent media outlets from making mountains out of molehills, nor does it prevent the band of cowards at the U. S. State Department from issuing travel advisories for Europe. But even the State Department merely said that travelers should be vigilant … not that they should stay at home and hide under their beds, although there are probably a few who will do that.

My parents know better now, as I've said, so they no longer send urgent e-mails or telephone messages asking if I'm still alive. And I have to admit that living in a big city that is so often in the news, and seeing the gigantic gulf that separates media reports from reality, has taught me to be extremely wary of anything the news media say about anything in the world. In fact, I simply don't watch the news; I long ago learned that you don't really miss anything by skipping the news, and life seems a lot more pleasant when you aren't constantly hearing doom and gloom reports from “around the world in thirty minutes.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

The natives are restless

Yes, the natives are restless, which is not an unusual state for the French, who are among the world's most dedicated whiners.

The target of their complaints these days is retirement reform. The French have some of the longest life expectancies in the world—in fact, French women have the second-longest lifespans in the world, after the Japanese—and so naturally the population is gradually aging. The problem is that the country has long had generous retirement policies that allow people to retire from some jobs as early as 50 years of age. But the way things are going, 50 years of age is closely approaching the midpoint of life, meaning that a person retiring at that age is going to live for just as long after retirement as he did before. And that's a problem, because the working portion of the population has to support the retired portion of the population, and the former is shrinking, while the latter is growing.

For years, the French government has tried to address this problem, but the French descend into the streets at the slightest provocation, and interminable strikes by major labor unions have caused the government to constantly pull back on its plans to reform the retirement system. Still, reform is a mathematical inevitability, so it's only a question of time. The longer the government waffles over it, the worse it's going to be. You'd think that labor unions would understand this, but they don't, and since their primary concern is actually to show how powerful they are, rather than to work in the best interests of their constituencies, they constantly oppose every hint of reform.

Anyway, this means that there are lots of demonstrations in Paris. Anyone who lives in this city is used to those, but they are still a nuisance. Some of them have been taking place on my standard route to school, which means that for days at a time I run into CRS agents (riot police) who are blocking one of the streets I usually take, forcing me to detour down a side street. The CRS is there to prevent any demonstration from getting out of hand, since there are always angry males in any demonstration who can easily get carried away. Usually everyone behaves, but no chances are taken. Chanting is one thing; throwing rocks at the windows of government buildings is quite another. The CRS aren't always friendly when working in this capacity, but they are generally civil, and actually I usually prefer to be on their side than on the side of the demonstrators, who tend to be very self-centered and aggressive sometimes.

So I thread my way between demonstrations. Sometimes I'm unlucky and I stumble right into one, with people chanting and carrying banners and what-not. They always want the same things: either special privileges or money. They even use the same tune for their chants, although the words change. Sometimes high-school and college students demonstrate, but only because it gives them a day off from school—typically they have even less of a clue as to the purpose of the demonstration than their elders.

My neighborhood has a higher than normal proportion of government buildings and ministries, so it gets a lot of demonstrations. Usually the CRS are good at figuring out who is part of the demonstration and who isn't, and those who are obviously just local residents going about their business are allowed to move unimpeded past the barricades. Sometimes they are mistaken, especially in my case, because, with my hiking boots and shorts and my fly-fishing vest, I suppose I look like a militant. But eventually I get to where I'm going. Sometimes I find myself on the CRS side of the barricades (as in my picture here). I find all demonstrations tiring so I just avoid them; there is no novelty in them for me.