Saturday, November 29, 2008

Testicles of gold

In French slang, which is often particularly rich and colorful, people refer to a fellow who's good at creating money-making business affairs, with a lot of luck thrown in, by saying that his testicles are made of gold. Why not? The idea, in a metaphorical sense, is that his genitals are capable of procreating wealth. Well, I reckon that the guy who invented the Sarkozy voodoo doll [click here to see my previous article on this subject, entitled Nails and pins] has balls of stainless steel... which is the same metal used to produce the needles supplied with his best-selling book.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who doesn't really have a huge sense of humor, took this fellow to court in an attempt to prohibit sales of the doll... which, as almost everybody agrees, is in poor taste. I'm sure that the manufacturer himself hides his personal doll in his briefcase, out of shame, whenever he's on his way to the bank to deposit his latest sales checks. After the president's first case against the doll manufacturer was rejected, Sarkozy invoked an appeals court. Yesterday, in Paris, this second court declared that the way in which the user guide to the voodoo doll encourages readers to prick the president's effigy with needles is an attack upon his personal dignity. Fair enough. The president should be happy with that decision. But did the appeals court go on to prohibit sales of the voodoo doll and its user guide? Not at all! The court merely stipulated that every copy of the book must henceforth carry a label indicating the court ruling that has just been handed down. In other words, the guy with balls of gold now has the right, indeed the obligation, to use the outcome of the president's court action as fabulous publicity on every one of his dolls! For the moment, the Sarkozy voodoo doll and its accompanying manual are at the top of the Amazon charts in France. With Xmas just around the corner, the judgment of the appeals court is an unexpected godsend.

And what must we think of the president's character in the light of this court case? There's a quaint old saying in French: "Tell me how you react to voodoo dolls, and I'll tell you what your balls are made of." Soft clay? Cheap bling-bling chromium-plated metal that makes a hollow clinky-clanky sound when the balls bang together? Maybe glass? Expensive but fragile crystal?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crossed destinies

This evening, the Socialist party is electing a new leader. Of the three candidates, the two favorites are females: Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry.

Even though their political principles are much of a muchness, the two women have very different personalities, but their destinies are crossed in this evening's challenge, where there will be one winner and two losers. To use a far-fetched comparison, Ségolène can be likened to Obama, and Martine to McCain. That's to say, Madame Royal wants to change the old-fashioned style of the time-honored leftist party, whereas the mayoress of Lille, daughter of the French statesman Jacques Delors, would prefer to leave the party more or less as it has always been. The result of this evening's election will be known in an hour or so's time.

Another outstanding French personality—a woman on the opposite side of the political arena—was honored today in France.

In 1944, 16-year-old Simone Veil was deported to Auschwitz. Today, she became a member of the prestigious French Academy.

BREAKING NEWS: Yesterday evening's vote among Socialists did not produce a winner, in that neither of the three candidates obtained the majority of 50%. But Ségolène Royal came quite close, with a score of over 42%. So, there'll be a second electoral round tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Exemplary neutrality

In a recent article entitled Fait divers [display], I evoked a terrible happening in the nearby city of Grenoble. A patient wandered out of a mental asylum, took a bus into the city, went into a hardware store to purchase a knife, then walked out and stabbed mortally the first pedestrian he encountered on the sidewalk.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Nicolas Sarkozy reacted—rightly or wrongly—in his usual excitable style, promising all kinds of reforms. Not surprisingly, the bewildered director of the psychiatric hospital was relieved of his duties. Meanwhile, specialists appear to have determined that the alleged murderer is fit to stand trial for his act.

Now, as long as a legal affair is pending, the accused must not be "judged" beforehand by the media. In France, this is both a moral principle and an article of law.

From this point of view, the distinguished and time-honored weekly L'Express behaves admirably. Like all the other media, they might be tempted to display startling images of one kind or another... just as I myself did, a moment ago, in borrowing a photo of the crime scene. Well, in cases such as this, instead of striking photos, L'Express displays the following image:

This dull formal representation of the spirit of justice is an excellent reminder of the humanistic ethical principles that are necessarily involved whenever a powerful press organ expresses itself concerning what I referred to, in my previous post, as a fait divers.

The weekly L'Express was founded, half a century ago, by two extraordinary individuals: Françoise Giroud, in charge of the magazine Elle, and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, former editorialist of Le Monde. In founding L'Express, they hoped to promote the political ascension of a man whom History regards as one of France's greatest statesmen: Pierre Mendès France. Later, L'Express opened its columns to writers named Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, François Mauriac and Françoise Sagan.

Truly, L'Express (like Le Monde, Le Canard enchaîné, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Point, Télérama, etc...) is French journalism of an excellent kind.

As a Martian visitor might say: "Show me your journalism, and I'll tell you what kind of a nation you are." To maintain such a belief, however, the Martian in question would nevertheless need to steer clear of the two vast but decrepit French principalities, oozing with pestilential vapors, named Sarkozia and Socialistica.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sacré Sarko!

It's not easy to translate the title of this post. Placing the adjective sacré before the president's nickname doesn't mean that I consider Nicolas Sarkozy as a sacred individual. On the contrary, it's a way of reacting to his latest surprise act by exclaiming: What a cunning stunt! I'm referring to the masterly way in which Sarko, this afternoon at Nice, succeeded in cornering the young lad from Moscow, Dmitri Medvedev, and persuading him to drop his recent hawkish talk about anti-missile protection systems on the edge of Europe.

During this morning's encounter between Russia and the 27 nations of Europe, Sarkozy was acting, of course, in his role as the current president of the European Union. He succeeded in calming the situation by stating that there would be time enough next year to define a new security architecture for Europe. But the only hitch in Sarko's pragmatic behavior was that, normally, it's not exactly the job of Europe's president to talk to Russia about the deployment of missiles! One has the impression that the French president, while advancing simultaneously in several different directions, has a knack of making up the rules of the game as he goes. As I said: Sacré Sarko!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fait divers

English-speaking people use the French term "faux pas" to evoke an erroneous action, a slip-up. But I'm not sure they're equally familiar with the similarly convenient expression "fait divers", designating an everyday item of local current affairs, such as a village cat getting run over by an automobile. For example, apprentice journalists in rural newspapers often spend the first few years of their professional career handling the anecdotal "fait divers" columns.

In many metropolises, a blunt placename designates the local mental asylum. During my youth in Australia, this bogeyman place was a building, Broughton Hall, in a beautiful Sydney riverside estate, Callan Park.

When I arrived in France, in the 1960s, people still used the bogeyman term Charenton to designate the repository for crazy Parisians, but the true mental asylum was Ste-Anne.

Since arriving here in the Dauphiné, I've always heard that the local bogeyman place for crazy folk was Saint-Egrève, on the outskirts of Grenoble, not far from Sassenage. Later, I learned that my female neighbor M (now deceased) actually spent some time there. But I still ignored the exact location of this psychiatric hospital, in a territory located between the Chartreuse and Vercors mountain ranges, just to the north of Grenoble, behind the Vicat cement works. This morning, I finally used Google Maps to locate exactly this psychiatric complex. It lies right in the middle of the Grenoble area, but it's a bit off the beaten track, concealed by trees, between a mountain and the railway lines. You can drive nearby, or go past in a train, without glimpsing the mental asylum.

But this psychiatric hospital is not as remote as all that. Local media are giving front-page coverage to a shocking fait divers based upon this asylum. An inmate, this morning, strolled out of the park at St-Egrève, took a bus to Grenoble, purchased a knife, and mortally wounded the first innocent passerby whom he met on the footpath. There's shit in the administrative fan, because the schizophrenic inmate in question has a criminal dossier of stabbings. For ordinary citizens, it's disturbing to learn that crazy bogeymen do in fact emerge effectively in our midst from time to time...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Leftist lady

Following her unsuccessful presidential bid against Nicolas Sarkozy, many observers were inclined to believe that Ségolène Royal was a personality of the past, a political has-been, ground into the dust by the superior style and energy of Monsieur Bling-Bling. Well, we're forced to admit, as they say in French—allusion to a comic sketch in which a guy spends an entire day trying vainly to catch a backyard duck for dinner—that the duck is still alive. Very much alive. Quacking elegantly and convincingly, as usual. [Ségolène's accent and manner of speaking have always irritated me. It's silly to say so, but I've never liked the way she walks and talks.]

Last Thursday evening, French Socialists amazed the nation by their top vote for the motion of Madame Royal, facing two tough contenders: Bertrand Delanoë (mayor of Paris), the favorite, and Martine Aubry (mayor of Lille), the outsider.

Clearly, recent events have brought Ségolène back to life... and so much the better. The problem, alas, is that it's all very well for doubters to be able to stick their fingers in the holes of a resuscitated political personage. [That metaphor wasn't exactly as nice as I might have hoped.] The real problem is that everybody is still waiting for Ségolène to speak intelligently and convincingly in many tongues, with a view to reassembling the moribund French Left. Did I just say "moribund"? That could well be a euphemism. Many of us fear greatly that the French Socialist duck is indeed dead.

Jules Verne and cancer treatment

[This post is based upon an article by Camille Guillemois in Ouest-France.]

In the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, there's a character known as Professor Aronnax. Since the celebrated author was born in Nantes in 1828, it's not surprising that a slightly altered spelling of the name of this science-fiction professor, Arronax, has been chosen to designate a technological masterpiece that has recently come into existence in the great coastal city in southern Brittany.

[Click the photo to visit the Arronax website.]

Arronax is a cyclotron that will be used to produce particles for nuclear medicine. It will also be used as a state-of-the-art research tool in this domain. This 140-ton device is not exactly cheap: 37 million euros, of which half came from the local Loire-Atlantique region.

The 70 MeV energy rating of Arronax makes it the most powerful cyclotron in Europe in the domain of nuclear medicine. In fact, it is three or four times more powerful than the vast majority of medical cyclotrons in service throughout the world.

An obvious question that enters the mind concerns the possible dangers of building such a device in a residential zone. Well, medical cyclotrons must not be confused with nuclear reactors. A medical cyclotron produces radiation only when it is operational, but it ceases to do so as soon as it is switched off.

In a national context where nuclear energy is exploited considerably, notably in the electricity domain, this new high-tech device fits nicely into France's rich nuclear culture.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Hot off the Latin press

This post won't necessarily be meaningful unless you happen to read French and/or you're interested in medieval Latin. In general, I have no idea whatsoever of the identity of the individuals who read this blog... except for friends who have identified themselves explicitly in their comments, and others with whom I communicate regularly by email. So I don't know whether or not there are many potential readers—or even any potential readers—of the present post.

Here's a rapid résumé of the story. My ten-acre property, Gamone, is located in the commune of Choranche, in a region known as the Royans, which was a principality back in the Middle Ages. That's to say, the inhabitants were under the allegiance of a feudal lord whose troops protected constantly the land and the people... in return, of course, for a proportion of their annual produce. Here in the Royans, the incumbent lord was the Baron de Sassenage, who resided in a splendid castle named La Bâtie... of which all that remains today is a grassy mound and a few small blocks of limestone.

Well, during the period from 1351 to 1356, the lord hired a notary to produce a written survey of the lands he controlled here in the Royans. Now, that was a long time ago. In the middle of the 14th century, the Plantagenet monarch Edward III was still ruling over England. The execution of Joan of Arc was three-quarters of a century in the future. America would not be discovered for another 130 years.

The lord's survey concerned six communes: Choranche, Pont-en-Royans, Châtelus, Echevis, Rencurel and Saint-Laurent-en-Royans. [Click here to see a modern map showing the six villages.]

The notary penned the results of his surveys in Latin, on rolls of sheep-skin parchment. Amazingly, those documents still exist today, in a readable state. Moreover, they've been scanned, and I have a copy of the image files of the 59 "pages" (folios) of the survey... referred to in French as terriers. In other words, on the screen of my computer, I can observe the way in which my property at Gamone was described six and a half centuries ago. Not surprisingly, though, only a handful of talented and experienced medieval scholars are capable of reading these ancient documents, and translating them into modern language.

With this translation and publication goal in mind, I'm in the process of creating an association to take up this challenge. The first concrete step is the development of a French-language web site [display] that presents the parchments. For the moment, with a few friends, I'm meeting up with various individuals (politicians, scholars, etc) who might be prepared to participate in this interesting project. Naturally, I'll keep my blog readers informed of progress in this domain.