Bread & Butter

by Nidra Poller, PJM Paris Editor
[Paris Lights] New York and southward May 19-29, 2007

France is off the U.S. radar screen. Following the exciting Sarkozy victory, there was a flutter of uncertainty, most likely provoked by American media reports of a tough fight ahead for the June 10th and 17th legislative elections. The question has been raised repeatedly as I travel from city to city on a tightly scheduled speaking tour. Inevitably I am asked, or more exactly reminded, that the newly elected president has another hurdle to jump: “If he doesn’t get a legislative majority he won’t be able to implement his program.” Right, but there’s nothing iffy about that majority.


Socialist party chief Fran√ßois Hollande, who has a 9% approval rating within his own party and what looks like a zero approval rating from S√©gol√®ne Royal, is still huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the house down. He is trying to mobilize Socialist voters to throw a monkey wrench into president Sarkozy’s operation by saddling him with a Socialist majority in the Assembl√©e. “We aren’t trying to keep him from being president,” says Hollande, “but we want to prevent him from implementing his program.” I don’t think this knock off of the “anything but Sarkozy” argument will be any more appealing to voters than the original version.

The new president, who enjoys a 65% approval rating, is busy on all fronts with an unprecedented-for France– hands on governing method. He’s calling for stronger sanctions on Iran, working with Uribe to free French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt (informers say she had a close personal relationship with Villepin), cooperating with European colleagues to get the EU institutions working again… The president and his PM are present and involved in the day-to-day operations of cabinet ministers; they are moving ahead vigorously and simultaneously on all of the promised reforms.

To prevent transportation and teacher’s unions from bringing the country to a standstill with crippling strikes, the minimum service that has been promised by one government after another for twenty-five years will finally be imposed this fall…unless public sector unions can voluntarily reach an agreement with management before September. Educational reform is already under way at all levels from kindergarten to university; an open-border school district policy will give parents a broad choice of primary and secondary schools, universities will be encouraged to compete and improve. Stiff laws will be enacted to punish repeat offenders, immigration restrictions will be formulated and applied, the new one-size- fits-all job contract will introduce flexibility… The disgruntled gruntle but cannot stop the show.


Signs of the times…or more exactly of Le Monde-the newspaper of record has dropped its emblematic editorial director, Jean-Marie Colombani. I don’t know if the paper will improve or deteriorate, but the disavowal of Colombani reads like a side effect of Sarkozy’s victory. The suave, hollow, pretentious elegantly handsome Colombani is the very image of media arrogance. He speaks sophisticated nonsense in a seductive velvet voice and dismisses the entire United States and all its think tanks with a flick of his intellectual wrist. Readers accuse him of having secretly or openly supported Sarkozy, Bayrou, and/or Royal in the recent elections.

While France is going through these transformations, I am city-hopping in the U.S. and getting an eyeful of American enterprise. Our little French revolution dims by comparison with the limitless creation of wealth in this country. Once benighted southern cities are booming with business, industry, housing developments, museums and concert halls…and integration. Sleepy towns have become centers of international banking. The steel industry is reborn from its ashes. Fabulous wealth blooms in the Tropics. I saw entire housing developments filled with millionaires, synagogues rich as stately palaces, men in talit [prayer shawls] fit for kings, a bar mitzvah bocher [boy] who sings like a nightingale, a congregation whose fervor could be heard in Jerusalem… What did that provincial journalist write? “…the mandatory symbols of success.” So you’d prefer Cuba?

This extra large country with its incredible capacity for materializing ideas uplifts the heart and plunges it into despair all at the same time. How do they do it? How do they build these homes, landscape these gardens, fill these gigantic supermarkets? How do they provide so much comfort, luxury, convenience, and opportunity for so many people? How do they mobilize all of this human energy? So many people working so hard, commuting to work in the early morning hours, by car, by train, lugging computers, badges around their necks. So many military men and women…volunteers shouldering an awesome life and death responsibility. So much of everything…


…and virtually no bread and butter. The names are there in the gourmet bread section of the upscale supermarkets. Sourdough bread, focaccio, baguette, and other labels on natural looking bread bags but there is no bread in the bread and virtually no taste to the butter…if you’re lucky enough to find butter. What’s wrong with butter? Something about saturated or is it unsaturated fats? Hear me, beloved countrymen, you can eat all the butter you want if you just cut your portions by 75%! While the overall quality and variety of foods in stores and restaurants has improved over the decades since I left, some foods that used to be exceptionally good have been downgraded and no one seems to notice. Bagels, rye bread, delicatessen, smoked fish are there in abundance but most often they are lopsided, forlorn, and half tasteless. Restaurants can be marvelous, mediocre, or hopeless but there is no way of knowing what to expect from dish to dish, from place to place, despite the price or the reputation.

After a few weeks, no matter what I eat I’m starving for bread and butter. What could be more simple than bread? Flour, water, oil, salt, yeast, and air. So what’s missing here? Is it the yeast that makes all the difference? Or the air?

[“Dear Nidra, Two suggestions: Acme bakery in Berkeley and Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery. And that’s only for starters. – Ed” ]

At least there’s still corn on the cob.

Since the elections the euro has remained stable at $1.34 to the euro. Hopefully the newly reinvigorated EU will put pressure on the European bank to bring it down a notch. With a free afternoon to spare in New York one day last week I wandered through Bergdorf Goodman’s looking at expensive clothes and shoes for the fun of it. Impeccable good taste costs a fortune and most of it still comes from Europe. Shoes at $550 and upwards a pair. No one can make shoes like the Italians, the Spanish, and the French and yet, one by one, our famous French shoe manufacturers have gone out of business. The economy is stifled by outmoded practices; France has been squeezed out of high tech industries and couldn’t even foster the fine craftsmanship that was a European hallmark. Great fashion designers emerge from a wide variety of countries and cultures but no one has ever equaled Italian and, to a lesser degree, French and Spanish shoes. It’s intriguing. People can learn to design and make so many beautiful objects but the genius for shoemaking is not transferable.


As for our boulangeries, we could deliver bread & butter to the whole world. For the greater good of humanity.

The French are wary of what they call “ultralib√©ralisme,” meaning free market economy, for many foolish reasons and one valid one: its implacable logic could wipe out bread & butter…as we know it. I have passed through more than a dozen bustling airports this week, torn out of sleep in the middle of the night, thrust out of giant size beds in sumptuous hotels I didn’t have time to enjoy, following diabolical itineraries through hub cities, waiting for hours in airports cold enough to preserve carcasses of dead animals before taking off for my final destination… halfway back to my starting point.

And yet it is all so step lively efficient! Wherever there is a line-at check-in counters or checkpoints-there is someone to pull you out of your daydreams and expedite matters. Right this way, madame. Just slip your credit card into the machine and retrieve your boarding pass, over here for the luggage tags. No sooner does a checkpoint clog than an agent steps up to open another path and someone pops up to direct you there. If someone fumbles with his jacket or belt, an agent whistles you past, another is collecting the plastic bins and bringing them back to be filled with shoes, handbags, laptops, and cuddly toys.

Whatever can be done by man or woman to get things going, is accomplished with lively dexterity. Then there are the things that can’t be mastered. Floods in Texas, wildfires on the Florida-Georgia border. The smoke was thick and stinging in Birmingham Alabama one morning last week as I left for the airport at dawn. Immigration. Traffic jams on endless eight-lane highways.

The Pew study reports that 26% of American Muslims justify shahid operations (misnamed suicide bombings) “in defense of Islam.” Diana West in a Washington Times op-ed does the math. Given that 30% of the 2.35 million Muslims reportedly living in the United States are between the ages of 18-29, 26% of that age group would be equal to 183,000 young adults. And nothing proves that the remaining 74% would vigorously, heroically, forcefully oppose such martyrdom operations (in which one of their martyrs makes dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of our victims).


And yet wherever I go people tell me that we have got to get out of Iraq. The war was based on a lie, it was badly planned, miserably executed. It is a costly disaster. It has turned the world against us. We cannot win and we should loose sooner rather than later. The military deaths are unacceptable to the American public, the Iraqi civilian deaths are a disgrace, the president of the United States is stupid, incompetent, or downright evil. The US does not have the manpower or the financial means to continue this absurdly costly war.

When I ask what is the cost of defeat in Iraq, there is no reply. That isn’t being covered in the NY Times! People believe that they are looking at a messy situation that can be blamed on the current president of the US and his close advisors, and the solution is to bring an end to it. It’s like a bad TV program. You turn it off, it’s over, and you go back to the good life.

That’s what used to be called isolationism. And the isolationists are sure of their logic. Pull up the ladders, close the hatches, and the problem goes away. Which is why we must be blamed for causing it in the first place; Israel created Hamas by occupying the territories, the United States created al Qaeda by responding unwisely to the first massive al Qaeda attack on our soil. The response to the smaller al Qaeda attacks during the Clinton and Bush Sr. years is not blamed for leading us to the current situation, because 9/11 is treated as an isolated ex nihilo incident rather than the culmination of policies followed since the Khomeinist takeover of Iran in 1979. And the very policies that led to 9/11 are proposed as the solution to our current predicament.

How strange to observe this fatalism grip the US, just when France seems to be waking up. Not that Sarkozy will send battalions into the fray, he won’t. But he has a sharp awareness the foreign and domestic jihad threats. And his victory is a triumph over the fallacy of inevitability that is now prevailing here in the U.S. I’m hearing it from people on the left and on the right. Hillary and/or Obama will win in 2008. Nothing to be done about it. Bush made such a mess of things. No Republican can overcome the handicap.


How many presidential hopefuls took the opportunity, on Memorial Day, to plead for defeat on the battlefield…convinced that it was a winning argument?


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