Is it 1789 all over again?

When in 1789 Louis XVI, King of France, was obliged to revive the old consultative body of France, the Etats Generaux, which had been in abeyance since 1614, the representatives of the three orders which were held to compose society – clergy, nobility, bourgeoisie – arrived at Versailles with their ‘cahiers de doleances´, which contained the views of those who elected them on how the country should be governed.

The current ‘monarch’ of France, the Eclipse of the Sun King Emmanuel Macron, alarmed by the possibility of his party losing heavily in the forthcoming elections to the parliament of the European Union, has in his turn decided to consult the nation, but, warned by the example of Louis XVI, has decided to do it his way…by having maires and ‘appropriate bodies’ hold meetings in which the populace can express their views and their wishes. They can even write them in books kept open in public buildings for that purpose.

What they can’t do is pop up to Paris to tell him in person.

He doesn’t like that.

Last week the people who are trying to tell him something broke into the building housing his official spokesman – the person trying to tell them something they are fed up with hearing.

He legged it before they could deliver their message.

Macron does not fancy being defenestrated from the windows of the Elysee Palace….and, unlike poor Louis, he doesn’t have the Swiss Guard to protect him. The poor bugger doesn’t even have his security guard extraordinaire behind him any more.

Monsieur Benalla would have come in useful now, with his experience of beating up protesters while dressed as a policeman but, alas, these days he is confined to confidential missions to African dictators bearing not one but two diplomatic passports…passports he said that he left in his desk when he resigned his post at the Elysee.

So Macron has to rely on the real police….where, once again, he has made a faux pas. To encourage the men on the ground to maintain the energy with which they employ tear gas, batons and something called flash ball which is capable of inflciting severe injury he has given them a pay rise.

Unfortunately he forgot the maxim of the French public service…if the man at the bottom of the heap gets a rise, his superiors get one too, to preserve the necessary distance between them.

So the Police Commissaires, Divisionnaires and other panjamdrums did not get a rise and they are not happy bunnies.

Already they have to try to maintain the morale of their forces in the suburbs of the major cities which are effectively no go areas for them. Where a gang can surround a police car and hold the doors firmly shut as they try to burn alive the three occupants, shouting ‘we want roast chicken’ the while.

There might be a knee jerk reaction from central and local government, but the no go areas remain no go for all that and the police are hung out to dry by local and national politicians if they attempt to maintain order.

But Macron’s government does not have to worry about the yobs from the suburbs or the people upon whom they prey…its members live elsewhere, well protected.

It is worrying instead about the rise of a popular movement, the ‘gilets jaunes’, named after the high vis yellow jacket one is obliged to carry in the car in France which those in the movement have adopted.

It is composed of people who work, pay their taxes and find that there is not sufficient money to go round to provide them with a decent standard of living.

Starting out as a protest against the rise in fuel tax it has become a movement demanding that Macron resign and his policies which favour the rich be overturned. Every weekend there are protest marches in Paris and the big cities….out in the sticks they blockade motorway toll booths and roundabouts.

Inevitably violent incidents have occurred…cars have been set alight, shops looted… in the wake of the marches but the police do not seem to be unduly worried by this. They are intent on ensuring that the marchers do not reach the Elysee and these wreckers make it easy for the government to accuse the demonstrators of violence.

Macron is gambling all on being able to beat the protesters into submission. The media report government spokesmen labelling them as fascists, communists, delinquents….people who wish to overthrow the state…

The police attack with – so far- impunity.

But the Commissaires, Divisionaires and associated panjandrums must be aware of something which seems to have eluded Macron.

People, generally, deplore the lawlessness which has overtaken their society.

They contrast the lack of effort to master the problem with the resources employed to silence decent people with genuine grievances.

They begin to view the police as being more focused on collecting motoring fines than on the protection of law abiding citizens.

Accordingly, they withdraw their consent from the government…just as have those who have had to suffer the lawlessness of the suburbs.

They no longer see the police as the guarantors of order…but as a government militia.

And once you see the government not as the embodiment of the people but as its overlord then revolt becomes acceptable whereas before an attack on the institutions of the republic would have been unthinkable.

Henry of Navarre’s great finance minister, Sully, noted that the great rebellions were not motivated by the wish to overthrow the government but by the impression that one had suffered long enough and it is evident that a tranche of the French population feels just that while a further tranche sympathises with them.

Already Macron’s proposed national debate is in chaos. The head of the body charged with organising it has withdrawn from the task after criticism of her 14,700 euro per month pay cheque. Not that she is resigning, of course….just refraining from workng on the project.

If you wanted a better example of one rule for the elite and another for the rest you could not have wished for better.

No one seems to know what will be done with the results….Macron gives no promises, but one suspects they will simply be trawled for spin material, while enabling the government to condemn the protesters for continuing to protest while the process is underway.

In the meantime a Monsieur Dettinger, a former professional boxer, has been arrested for laying into riot police in Paris. He gave himself up, admitted that he should not have done it, but said that after eight weekends of demonstrating where he and his wife had been teargassed each time he had just had enough of police brutality.

A fund was set up to assist with his legal fees which drove the Justice Minister to demand that the company running the crowdfunding site give up the names of all those who contributed, on the grounds that they were accomplices in his alleged crime.

How you can be an accomplice after the alleged crime has been committed is beyond me, but don’t let mere legal principles rein in a Justice Minister.

But will we have 1789 all over again? The storming of the Bastille? The heads on pikes?

I doubt it. The Paris of that period housed people of all conditions…the Paris of today has driven any but the comfortably off to the surrounding dormitory towns and you have to be made of stern stuff to take the RER into Paris in order to demonstrate.

The gang bosses of the lawless suburbs, though capable of extreme violence, are taking no part in this. Their livelihood comes from benefits, drug dealing and theft….undisturbed by a handcuffed police force. They have no interest in disturbing the status quo.

Macron’s head is safe…though we should always remember Sellar and Yeatman’s observation that uneasy lies the head which wears a throne….as far as Paris is concerned.

Ironic that the man who proclaims that the French expect something for nothing should be saved from the shipwreck of his project by the very forces which reflect just that philosophy.

But in the provinces it may be a different story….

Advertisements

Skip ‘2theloo’ in Paris

the louvre

You’re in Paris. You’ve done the sights, you’ve done the shopping and your feet are asking why you didn’t wear more sensible shoes.

You’ve collapsed into a chair on the terrace of an establishment where you order coffee and a pastry.
Your order arrives: the pastry was clearly aptly named being strong on the paste and light on the filling.
The coffee appears to have been made from ground chicory roots seasoned with a suggestion of Robusta beans roast to a cinder.
You understand why the guidebooks recommend that you take a pastry with your coffee when in France….the unadulterated liquid would hit your stomach like a dose of nitric acid and have you convulsed on the floor in seconds, posing an obstacle to the safe passage of waiters.

To cap it all, the price is astronomical, but you console yourself with the notion that you are, after all, on holiday and can afford some of life’s little indulgences, while hoping to goodness that you’d packed the Alka Seltzer.

Then, inevitably, someone needs to go to the loo.
Usually mother.
She departs, only to return at speed to declare that the state of the conveniences resembles old Tangier in time of plague and, with a suspicious look at the crockery, that your cup seems to have a crack in it.
The bags are gathered and your party departs.

But mother still needs to skip to the loo.

You spot one of the Tardis installations on the corner. A sanisette.
self cleaning loos

These are self cleaning loos….and some, to gladden a Scots heart, are even free.
The paying ones gladden a Scots heart even further….yes, you have to pay, but when your sixteen mates slip in as you open the door to come out they get a free shower as the cabinet cleans itself. Thoroughly.
Just the thing after a celebration of victory on the rugby field…who am I trying to kid…

Mother has seen one of these before and regards it with deep suspicion but as the only other alternative is another high risk coffee she resigns herself to the worst and enters.

But these days are over for the highspots of Paris…and in the mainline stations.
There is an alternative to using a public loo….in fact, a whole new concept!

You can use a ‘2theloo’ restroom.

Rather like the old Marks and Spencer advert…this is not any loo, it is a ‘2theloo’!

According to the company’s blurb, these offer an entirely new concept of….going to the loo.

For a start, the usage is – almost – free.
You buy a ticket…and receive an immediate discount on the price of the goods in their online shop….which sells everything…. toilet.
You can buy this combined loo roll holder and magazine rack for only fifty five euros, though you’d need a serious bowel complaint for the ‘discount’ to be worth having there…:distributeur-papier-wc-et-porte-revue-trinium

Or – for those commuters who harbour unlovely thoughts of the ’emmerdant’ suburban Paris metro system – this:
abattant-wc-metro-parisien

And even this….don’t worry, you don’t have to take it away with you:
wastafel-flush-3-300x300

The service is claimed to be more like a home experience: for example you can pay a supplement to use a Japanese superloo.
Now, this might bear out the ‘home’ nature of the experience as I reckon I’d need an hour with the instruction book before approaching the thing without a suit of armour and a sharp stick.
In the somewhat hurried circumstances associated with using a public convenience I suspect that the thing would blow me sky high on a blast of hot air worthy of a politician at election time before I’d finished fiddling with my faulds.

Their loos are not only clean…but soundproof.
Perhaps this is to reassure those who run the taps while having a pee. but I’m not sure that that is an advantage. At least those trapped in a Tardis can bang on the walls and shout for rescue.
The fate of the three old ladies comes forcibly to mind.

But ‘2theloo’ have thought of that.

There are attendants.

Not the traditional gorgon with her saucer of small coins and barbed wire entanglements surrounding her stash of loo paper…no, someone who can speak a couple of languages – to explain the Japanese kamikaze machine perhaps; someone who can sell things like the items pictured above to desperate punters whose mind is on other more urgent matters.

And this is where I would urge you, should you be thinking of visiting Paris, to skip ‘2the loo’.
Skip…as in don’t use their facilities.

Because ‘2theloo’ has taken a contract to operate these restrooms with the Ville de Paris (City council).
It succeeds another private operator, which was delegated by the Ville de Paris to run the loos.
That operator continued to employ the ladies who were previously employed by the council – at equivalent, though hardly munificent, rates of pay.

2theloo, holding a straight contract rather than a delegation, has refused to take the ladies with the loos.
The company spokesman has said that the company would be willing to interview the ladies for any positions vacant – though without respect to their pay and seniority – but doubts that they would fulfill the company’s requirements.

The ladies would, it was felt, be too stuck in their ways to accept the company’s way of working…too independent…not experienced in sales techniques.

And anyway, claims the company, they are not running loos…they are offering a concept… so there is a clear break which justifies them in not continuing to employ the ladies.

They tried this when they opened restrooms in the mainline Paris stations, but without success. SNCF – French railways – insisted on continuity of employment and its ladies are still in place. From what I remember of those ladies in my time if they tell you that you want to buy a thousand euro Japanese toilet…then that’s what you’ll be buying if you want to escape with your life, so the company could be making a big mistake in trying to get rid of them.

But the Ville de Paris is doing nothing to support its loyal workforce who face a miserable future, even if they win their claim in the Prud’hommes (the labour claims court): no big union is marching in protest…they are just ordinary ladies whose security has been torn from them by some smart alek set up who intend to make a fortune from human necessity.

The Emperor Vespasian, who set up the first public loos in Rome in the first century A.D,.was reproached as having bad taste in taxing the collection of urine as a source of ammonia to be used in tanning leather.
His response?
Pecunia non olet. Money doesn’t stink.

In this case, it does.

So, please: if you visit Paris…
Skip ‘2theloo’.

And now, just for fun and very little to do with the above, here’s Georges Brassens’ homage to his ladyfriend, the ’emmerderesse’.
Lyrics in French and English here.

I’m Not Charlie. I’m The Doorman.

All must by now be aware of the murderous attack on the offices of the French magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, leaving so many dead or seriously wounded in its wake while the security forces thrash around in the search for the culprits.

What appears to be the cause of the attack? The publication of rude drawings of Mohammed with more or less witty commentaries. Alongside rude drawings of rabbis, priests, popes and politicians with equally more or less witty commentaries which have, so far, led none of the groupies of those so attacked to assault the offices with kalashnikovs.

I was never a fan of Charlie Hebdo…it drew on the tradition of the muck raking pamphleteering of the nineteenth century where fact could be overlaid by scatalogical innuendo to bring down opponents, allied to the more modern French passion for strip cartoons- Bandes Dessines – where ‘strip’ seems to be the main interest where female subjects are concerned. Macho, sexist, downright rude.

But sometimes extremely funny.
mohamed
Mohammed bewails his sort…how hard it is to be worshipped by stupid bastards.

I also disliked it because it was run, edited and supplied with material by people who used and misused their perceived views of ‘les beaufs’ – the Parisian hoi polloi – to reflect views not publicly acceptable in their own social, PC milieu, however much those views were subscribed to sub rosa.

There was always a whiff of de haut en bas in a publication which appeared to be designed to allow the ‘haut’ to revel in the perceived views of the ‘bas’ without admitting that those prejudices mirrored their own.

France has been on a terror alert for years…there is a programme called ‘Vigipirate’ which seems to consist of putting crush barriers in front of small rural primary schools and not much else. It costs a fortune to administer and is..as events have proved….totally useless.
Ah, says the spokesman, that’s because it was it was designed to reassure the public rather then to be effective.
So you can’t park outside the school without the police moving you on but you can attack a building already subject to threat just as you please.
Or so it seems.

One of the editors of the magazine had a personal police bodyguard…who died in the attack.
Would it not have been better to have had a police watch on the premises? That way the poor chap on the door of the building might not have died.
Still..he’s not a journalist…not someone who matters…except to his family.

It reminds me of the attitudes of an earlier age which we thought – hoped – were forgotten…

All quiet along the Potomac

Not an officer lost, only one of the men, moaning out all alone the death rattle.

I sincerely hope that this incident will not prove to be an excuse for governments to further restrict the liberties of their citizens in the name of ‘security’…because ‘security’ it is not….

The services listening in on Tante Fanny’s conversations with her neighbour did nothing to prevent this incident: neither did the mad restrictions on what you can do with your own money when you move it through banks…and where were the CCTV cameras which are supposed to prevent crime and do nothing of the sort.

How could the police reaction have been so late and so puny in scale, giving rise to the death of officers? They might well be called upon to face danger in their job, but they don’t have to be put into danger by the poor planning of their superiors.

How could the perpetrators drive off through Paris without let or hindrance?

In meeting the threat of terrorism, this incident shows that the authorities have put in place neither prevention nor cure.

Already, politicians are playing games…the Front National should not be allowed to join in a march showing solidarity with the victims, trumpets a Socialist Party politician….
Already this appalling crime has become a debating game for the talking heads.

I hope that people will not let it fade to this…when marching, when putting up ‘Je Suis Charlie’ on their Facebook page, I hope that people will show their determination to defend freedom of expression -including against their own governments.

Dear Puzzled of Honolulu….

http://withinthekstreets.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/wacky-wednesday-walk/
http://withinthekstreets.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/wacky-wednesday-walk/
Unaccustomed as I am to the role of Agony Aunt, doling out sympathy to Distracted of Devizes, a blast from the hosepipe directed at the vitals of Lustful of Lostwithiel or suggestions of a good book and a bus pass for Bored of Balham (and wouldn’t you be if you lived there) I felt that I could not ignore your predicament as set forth in your post of today’s date: Wacky Wednesday Walk.

With all the sophistication to be expected of an experienced ‘flaneur’ of the K Streets of Honolulu you can take in your stride the notion of three young male singers being labelled as ‘The Three Fruits’, an internet cafe which forbids potential clients from trespassing on its premises and the delights of a Japanese discount store where it seems that live octopus have taken possession of a range of televisions….but surfing in Paris was a step too far.

You have doubts as to the viability of such a project…somehow you do not see in your mind’s eye lightly clad surfers mounting the waves of the Seine in the wake of the bateau-mouches under the eye of the gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris…

You are right to have doubts. Despite the efforts of the city authorities to persuade people that Paris is actually on the sea by dumping tons of sand along the river bank in summer so that right thinking eco warriors can fall off their bikes while ogling the sunbathers, surfing is not a recommended activity…indeed, until a set of norms are invented for it, it is a forbidden activity, French law running on the principle that if something is not clearly permitted (within the limits of the six volumes of norms annexed) then it is forbidden.

Being forbidden, the producers of the tee shirt exhibited to public gaze in a shop in Honolulu should be careful not to step foot in France….
Incitement to upset the fabric of French society by encouraging surfing on the Seine will be viewed with severity, and, given the state of the public deficit, probably punished by a fine equivalent to at least one percent of the Gross Domestic Product, currently running at several leaky nuclear power stations and a few striped jerseys.

Situated as I am at this moment, on a balcony in the Costa Rican countryside wondering whether plunging my feet into a bowl of mango pulp would be effective in removing hard skin from my big toe I am unable to respond to your request for information on surfing conditions in Paris….but I trust to the goodwill of those kind enough to follow this blog to link to yours at Within the K Streets and give you the information you seek.
Though thinking of some of them and their sense of humour…naming no names, Adullamite… you might well be advised to check before use.

When History Repeats Itself

Parc Monceau Gustave Caillebotte Commons wikipedia.org
Parc Monceau
Gustave Caillebotte
Commons wikipedia.org

Paris has never appealed to me: I regard it as a place to slog through to get to somewhere more interesting and am relieved that I have rarely had to stay there for more than a couple of days.
I must be a provincial at heart – not even that gem of a book ‘Paris des Pas Perdus’ by Alain Rustenholz can enthuse me enough to check out whether or not the Eiffel Tower is painted in three different shades of grey to make it look as if it tapers.
For one thing I would have to pay an entrance fee and for another I much preferred to return home to see my own Eiffel Tower…the metal spire of the village church designed by Eiffel and destined to become the subject of a French rural version of Bleak House as the village, varying departmental architects of Batiments de France and a firm of painters slugged it out in the courts for years to see who was to take the blame for the paint peeling off it and who was to pay for the solution.
I could have told them the answer: they must have used that wonderful French invention – non stick paint.
It would peel from my shutters in under a year, so no wonder it peeled from the steeple in two.

Still, were I to be lumbered with a longer stay in Paris I think I could seek solace in the alleys of the Parc Monceau, still not all that different from its depiction by Caillebotte above.
Quiet today as when he painted it, but not many years before it had been one of the sites where the supporters of the Paris Commune were shot by the troops of the bourgeois French Republic in May 1871….those rounded up had their hands inspected to see if they had been firing weapons and those thus incriminated were sentenced to immediate sentence of death by firing squad by an ad hoc military tribunal.

Pavillon de Chartres Pavillon de Chartres Parc Monceau scholarsresource.com
Pavillon de Chartres
Parc Monceau
scholarsresource.com

This building at one end of the Parc Monceau is one of the few remains of the Wall of the Farmers-General, built in the late eighteenth century to encircle Paris at the behest of the ‘Ferme generale’ – the corporation of private individuals who collected most of the taxes on behalf of the government.

The royal government had long since given up the task of tax collection by that time.
It had hived off the function to the Ferme generale whose members would bid for the chance to collect a particular tax in a particular area….thus the government was guaranteed a certain income, and the members of the Ferme generale were guaranteed a whopping profit as – thanks to their spirit of solidarity – the bidding process was not exactly competitive.
They collected all sorts…taxes on land, taxes on that most basic of commodities, salt….and taxes on everything that entered Paris.
Thus the wall.

After a brief moment of revolutionary madness when the tax on goods entering Paris was briefly abolished before being rapidly reinstated, the wall remained – not to disappear until Paris was torn apart by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s, its narrow insanitary streets being replaced by the wide boulevards we see today and as the wall disappeared so did the tax which gave birth to it.

The wall had long outlasted its progenitors however: prominent members of the Ferme generale having filled the maw of Madame Guillotine the new French state took taxation into its own hands.
No more middlemen.

Well, not until recently, that is.

The previous government of France, that of Sarkozy, signed an agreement with a private company, Ecomouv which enabled that company to organise a system of tax collection on the usage of particular stretches of road by heavy goods vehicles in return for a fixed tariff to be paid to the French state.

Once the system was due to come into force there were protests – notably in Brittany whose hauliers claimed that they were being penalised for being at a distance from Paris, out on their peninsular.
Several of Ecomouv’s installations were destroyed and the Hollande government promptly announced that implementation of the tax would be postponed.

In the meantime, journalists at ‘Marianne’ have uncovered an opinion of one of the civil servants most closely involved with the Ecomouv concept that the infrastructure as set up not only enables the company to monitor heavy goods vehicles – but all vehicles

And not only that…with the technology available road pricing can be put into place.
You’re a rich bugger – your company can pay for your use of a road rendered empty by price fixing and lay it off to tax.
You’re a minister or high civil servant – the public purse can pay.

It all makes me think that the Green lobby has a great deal for which to answer.

Why do we use inefficient wind power when we can use nuclear power?
Because nuclear power produces spent uranium which has to be stored…or used in the military weapons which have made a devastation of Iran.
But if we use thorium we don’t have that problem.
Except that governments don’t see it as a problem. They like having depleted uranium available for military purposes.
Where is the Green lobby here?

What do we propose to do to enable people living in the country to access the services they need?
Public transport? Don’t make me laugh!
Elderly neighbours in France were already limiting their trips to town for shopping before I left.

Carbon exchange credits…what does that do apart from permitting polluters to continue to pollute?

I’ll have time for the Greens when they stop taking ‘planes to conferences; when they take into account the lives of the poor in first world countries and when they disassociate themselves from money raking enterprises.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

Paris is Rather a Mess

palace elysee guides.restaurants.frThus the Sellar and Yeatman version of the end of the sixteenth century Wars of Religion in France where the Protestant victor, Henry of Navarre, turned Roman Catholic (again) in order that his victory should gain acceptance.
Paris, he is reported to have said, is worth a mass.

Given current conditions…the Sellar and Yeatman version seems distinctly appropriate.

Eighteen months into his five year stint as President of the French Republic, Francois Hollande is not a happy bunny.
Things are not going according to plan.

Hollande is a graduate of the ENA – where the elite of France are formed to be worthy leaders of their country’s institutions.
Where to succeed you need to know that not only is there only one answer to a question…but also only one question to be asked.

Accordingly Hollande knew the one question to be asked….how to be elected in 2012?
He also knew the answer….be anyone except the retiring President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Nowhere in this process will you find matters such as how to conduct the governance of France.
All ENA graduates know the answer to that one….carry on as before with all the posts of power, private and public, in the steady hands of themselves or other graduates of the ENA.

The ENA would have been gratified at the success of his plan.
He was elected President of the French Republic and set about proving he was not Sarkozy by getting shafted by the German Chancellor at their first meeting and wandering round in baggy bermudas on his hols in the south of France.

Then he got the bit between his teeth.
Sarkozy had given a tax exoneration for overtime worked. Hollande removed it.
Sarkozy had overseen the setting up of the auto-entrepreneur scheme, whereby people setting up in business paid social charges only on what they earned after they had earned it…not on what a bureaucrat thought they would earn and so charged them upfront before they started. Hollande wanted to overturn it….but met opposition, especially from those who found that if they sold the business they had founded they would have to pay a 60% tax on the proceeds.

The grand plan began to run off the rails….

Even the EU had noticed France’s budget deficit and urgent measures had to be taken to reduce it. The people had to be prepared to make sacrifices.
Well, some people.
Not politicians for a start.
Nor top civil servants.
Nor big business.
Nor the state.

No, the little man could stump up.

To have the least malcontents, keeping hitting the same people all the time
To have the least malcontents, keeping hitting the same people all the time
The ENA teaches its students to operate on the Shadok system…..

If there is no solution it is because there is no problem (the only one question principle)….

If there is only one chance in a thousand of success, hurry up and make the first nine hundred and ninety nine cock ups.

This was an unfortunate moment for the budget minister to be found to have had secret Swiss bank accounts.

Then foreign manufacturing companies started to pull out of France….jobs have been lost.
Taxation is hitting hard.
And the one Sarkozyism that Hollande did not boot out – the ecotax on heavy goods vehicles – has provoked riots in Brittany and vandalism to installations elsewhere.

But the ENA has the answer…the only one…..the traditional one.
Bribes.
So billions to Brittany, billions to road transport groups, and probably billions to buy off the Italian firm who were going to run the ecotax

Buit who is going to pay the bribes….yes, the little man through increased taxation.

And the deficit? …Oh; that….

Paris is rather a mess.

Normally when disatified with one main stream political party people turn to the other…but the UMP has its own scandals and infighting to occupy it….so no leadership there.

The journalists (given a whopping tax break by Hollande after Sarkozy had previously removed it) worry about people looking to a strong man…they see the rise of totalitarianism in France….they fear the Front National coming to power.

So today, on the anniversary of the death of General de Gaulle, his tomb has been visited by a range of politicians on the make, anxious to wrap themselves in the mantle of the last strong man to rule France.

They could all be put into one of the pockets of his greatcoat and pass unnoticed.

One, however, has not made the journey.

Moi-je, Francois Hollandouille, President of the French Republic.

Perhaps he worries that, should he pay a visit, the speed at which the General would be revolving in his grave would be sufficient to achieve lift off….and that the resulting encounter would be a re-run of the finale of Don Giovanni….

Hollande going up in flames.

memorialcharlesdegaulle

Midnight Express from Paris

traindejardin.forumparfait
traindejardin.forumparfait

To make the best use of my ticket for a fortnight’s freedom of the French railways I used to take a long distance train just after midnight from one of the Paris terminals, though the destinations and the company varied over the years.

There was the train to Brest, full of inebriated sailors returning to base – Genet would have been ecstatic – or the train to the Tour de Carol in the Pyrenees, empty but for myself and the staff once it had passed the red roofs of Foix.

A packed train to Avignon…an empty one to Grenoble.

I soon learned to use the loo on the train to wash and brush up before starting the day.

Firstly it was free and there was soap, secondly it was usually reasonably clean and, thirdly, it had a proper loo, not a hole in the ground with or without raised emplacements for the feet known in France as a Turkish toilet. Goodness only knows what the Turks call it.

I remember travelling in the same carriage as a group of elderly American ladies who resolutely refused to use the train loo for fear of being trapped within.
I saw them again on the platform, clustering wonderingly around something that looked like a corrugated iron sky rocket, painted a virulent green: the station conveniences.
One unwary fart and there would have been lift off.

They were still clustered by the time I had left my luggage in a locker – one forgets the freedom of the pre terrorist days – and headed for breakfast in the station buffet, all hissing coffee machines and blue overalled railway staff looking for sustenance before coming on duty.

It must have been a toss up between drawing straws for the first victim or ringing the American consul.

I seemed to change trains at Avignon quite often over the years and thus became acquainted with the loo on the long distance platform, a hefty walk under the brassy sun of the south.

It had, of course, a Turkish toilet which involved the usual gymnastics in disrobing sufficiently while ensuring no garment touched the floor, light bag slung over the shoulder.
You did not take a heavy bag in there as there was nowhere to hang it when the periodic flush….like opening the Aswan High Dam…bore all before it.
Handbags shot under the doors and rucksacks became sodden.
You could tell if an international train had just come in by the polyglot cries of the afflicted within.
It did not, however, suffer the defect of the time switch on the light, set nicely to have you in gymnastic pose when it expires and you are alone in the gloom.
It had, no doubt, a time switch but someone had nicked the light bulbs.

Stations usually had separate loos for the sexes, unlike civic or caff loos, where you would walk past the peeing men to reach the cubicles…and being a somewhat shy young person, I preferred the provisions at the stations.

But a fortnight in France enabled me to see more than the range of loos available to the traveller.

I had prepared my trip, I knew what there was to see and I saw it, from the temple and arena in Nimes to the black swans in the moat at Nevers and by economising on eating I could afford to hire a rowing boat to go out on Lake Annecy, lying back under the late afternoon sunshine, utterly at peace.

There were still branch lines dodging everywhere….on a drizzly afternoon in Bayonne the single track line up to St. Jean Pied de Port was alight with fiery crocosmia all the way to the little town which was the gateway to Spain via the Roncevaux Pass….site of the death of Roland.

Another took me from Grenoble down to the Rhone valley….mountains giving way to hills and then to plains, passing the tower of Crest on the way to a long wait at Valence and a distinct longing to be able to take the steam train at Tournon….but it was outside the system and pennies were tight.

pyrenees-cerdagne.com
pyrenees-cerdagne.com
Inside the system, however, was the little yellow train running through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent, Vauban’s fortified city under the flanks of Mount Canigou, around the Spanish enclaves tucked within the frontier proper since the time of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659…when some legal eagle had blundered because while Spain ceded all villages north of the Pyrenees to France it ceded no towns! The train with its toast rack carriages was a favourite of mine….travelling on spidery viaducts through the mountains from the main line at Perpignan, where I was lucky enough to see people dancing the sardana….spontaneously, not organised by some cultural body…not far from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca…to La Tour de Carol where the express for Paris waited, the carriages hot and stuffy in the sun.

A Sunday afternoon would see me on a slow train from the violet city of Toulouse……passing the twin spires of the cathedral of Niort in the Marais Poitevin, where boats replaced roads…..and the town of Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before his rise to power, eventually pulling in under the walls of the chateau at Nantes which faced an art deco biscuit factory on the other side of the tracks.

But what was I seeing of France?
The sights…and the countryside between.

Who was I meeting?
Ticket inspectors.

What was I eating?
Apart from a roll and coffee for breakfast in the station buffets it was cheap picnics…a loaf, some cheese or pate which was soft by the time it came to squash it into the sandwich, cheap wine.
I could look at the pissaladieres and quiches in the windows, but I couldn’t afford them until the end of the trip when there might be a surplus while the idea of eating a meal was in the realms of financial fantasy.

I really was on the outside looking in.