PARIS BLUES: Homes for the Homeless French and the Woman Who Would Be President
No matter how diligently you follow a story, there's always a luscious bit of information that appears right after you've filed your article. Is it possible to combine journalism and a novelist's propensity for following the thread on and on and on to some dazzling conclusion? Let's try.
The Don Quixote Kids (AKA The French Effort to "Cure" Homelessness):
This whole operation was so packaged, so media-savvy, so utterly artificial behind its built-in humanitarian protection. How could one question the motives of these fine young men who rose up single-handed to battle one of the worst social problems of our times-the homeless? It is always hard in France to tell the difference between a "dashing grass roots initiative" -- that succeeds where dogged charity and plodding bureaucracy had failed - and "a phony PR happening." Either way, it was probably a flash in the pan. The homeless stew will keep on simmering, the media will find other smoke screens and pseudo-news to throw into the pan and, unless someone gets the French economy going again, there will be more homeless than any Don Quixote Kid could coddle.
Still, I was intrigued by the bottom line of Operation Don Quixote Kids, reported in a low-key Figaro article claiming, with malice aforethought, that the operation had produced maximum results with minimum financial investment.
The results? As presented by French media and officialdom the Don Quixote Kids drama achieved nothing less than a miraculous solution to the problem of the homeless. The homeless of France are now or soon will be homeful. The proof is that some people who were living in tents on the banks of Canal St. Martin are now living in apartments or hotel rooms.
Every few days one of these happy few - but no, they must be "the happy many" - appears in a set piece on primetime news.
Scene 1: We see the homeless person leave the tent with his or her modest baggage, a big smile, and a house key.
Scene 2: Then we see the previously homeless one enter a building, then we see him enter an apartment. It's clean, it's bright, it's big, it's empty, it is the homeless one's new home..
Scene 3: She chokes up as she tells you that now she'll be able to take a hot bath, prepare her own meals, retrieve her dignity.
In these soulful stories, the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of homeless have been miraculously reduced to a couple hundred up and down the Canal. When the campaign was getting started, someone declared with semi-official certainty that two thirds of French people would qualify for public housing; now the two hundred or so tent dwellers have gone from symbol to totality.
And how much did it cost to bring off the miracle? A mere 13,000 euros [$17,000], according to Le Figaro. Prime mover Augustin LeGrand, with the help of his friends, shelled out 3,000 euros for the tents. This initial investment attracted contributions of 10,000 euros, allocated for the purchase of "woolen caps, medicines, and defrayment of Augustin's travel expenses in the Provinces." Try getting the IRS to accept that kind of lump-sum accounting. Was it 8,000 for the warm hats and 2,000 for train fare and medicine? Or vice versa? So much for the charity business. On the upside of the scale, we get some interesting figures on the personal fortune of the Socialist candidate.
S√©gol√®ne Royal's presidential campaign has hit a zone of turbulence. Some factions of the French Socialist party are voicing strong reservations about her technique of holding "people's gabfests," where Royal goes here and there around the country and listens to the common people voice their grievances. Strong-willed Royal is determined to continue these listening junkets for another few weeks. "The people" will tell her what they want, what they don't like, where they want their country to go. Then and only then will Royal will formulate her program. Remember, the first round of voting will take place on April 22nd.
Parallel to this listening-to-the-people campaign Royal made two high profile acting-like-a-president trips abroad. The Middle East visit in the first week of December was rocky, but the trek to the Far East was an even greater embarrassment.
It's easy to get lost in China. Photo-ops at the Great Wall are a centime a dozen. There are endless opportunities for faux pas which Royal was not at a loss to take.
The worst, to my trained cross-cultural eye, was hugging and kissing √† la fran√ßaise a Chinese woman who offered her a gift. There was something to shock everyone in Royal's expedition to the ancient kingdom: her simple-minded idea of prattling off of Chinese proverbs, including one that turns out to be a citation from a Confucian named Hegel; her propensity for dressing in white, which is European for purity but Chinese for mourning; her awkward invention of the word "bravitude," which adds nothing to the French language or to her own stature. To crown her dubious achievements, she concluded her goodbye press conference with words of praise for the Chinese judicial system, which is quicker to judge than the French.
In a glittering ceremony on the 14th of January, the The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) officially nominated Nicolas Sarkozy as its presidential candidate. S√©gol√®ne Royal ostentatiously spent the day on a farm in her circumscription; she visited real folks and posed with an adorable white lamb in her arms. This bucolic image was slightly undermined by blogosphere revelations about the real estate holding corporation set up by Royal and her companion (or ex-companion) Socialist party leader Fran√ßois Hollande to protect their substantial estate from undue taxation. Despite this good management, Royal-Hollande remain in such a high bracket that they are required to pay the ISF, a sort of millionaire's surtax initiated, if I am not mistaken, by the Socialists to take from the rich and give to the poor.
Hollande, whose public announcement last summer that he doesn't like rich people provoked the blogger's investigation into Hollande's financial standing, had recently announced that if the Socialist candidate is elected, he/she/they will raise income taxes for the wealthy. His example of "wealthy" was a single person earning 4,000 euros [$5,200] per month before taxes.
The French blogs are also blabbing about the least well-kept secret in France: Royal and Holland are not really truly together anymore. But the more the blogs separate them the more the mainstream media put them together, attaching the epithet "her companion" every time they mention Fran√ßois Hollande. When S√©gol√®ne let it be known that she is the candidate (= the boss) and has no intention of raising taxes and discouraging people from working hard and earning in kind, the media dressed it up as a domestic quarrel with political undertones.
To make matters worse, Arnaud Montebourg, that cute young muckraking d√©put√© and faithful political companion of the smiling presidential candidate, jokingly opined in the course of a TV debate: "S√©gol√®ne's greatest drawback is her companion."
Ooo la la! Fireworks. Ms. Royal put Arnaud on the bench for one month. He will not speak for her and probably shouldn't open his mouth at all. Fran√ßois, in turn, is going to sue a bunch of people for outing his real estate holdings and daring to suggest that the purpose of his corporation was to avoid paying the "millionaire's tax," which in fact they pay anyway.... That doesn't seem to ring any adding machines in France. No questions from the French media like, how much would they pay if they didn't have that corporation?
What is the net result of all this fancy footwork? The latest polls for the French Presidency show S√©gol√®ne Royal 48%, Nicolas Sarkozy 52% if the runoff were held today. I don't put too much faith in polls, but a dip like this, three months from the first round, is dangerous for Royal. My prediction is that Royal's campaign will keep on dipping. How can she even dream of coffee klatching for another month? It comes through like dead silence in the campaign. By the time she finishes taking all those pulses of the people, and starts making promises to the people, it might be too late.
When will I tell you about Nicolas Sarkozy? Very soon, I promise.