Wednesday, October 12, 2016



September saw the first stirrings of the presidential primaries for the upcoming elections in March 2017. To date, a dozen candidates are on board with promises, programs and reasons why they can do better than current president François Hollande who has little or no chance to be elected to a second term. Nothing as exciting (or frightening) as the Clinton-Trump contest in the United States, of course, and a good thing too because I would have been unable to cover any of it due to computer problems.

I suffered not one but several virus attacks, which resulted in the loss of two months of work that even the young geniuses at my local Apple store could not recover. They did, however, "clean me up" and taught me a few defensive tricks I should have known long before.

Arundhati Roy
So here we are again, happy to report that in a few days Aix-en-Provence will celebrate its 33rd Fête du Livre, with Arundhati Roy, Indian author of "The God of Small Things," as guest of honor. This three-day literary event is close to my heart, and has brought me face to face with a number of Nobel-prize winners and other great writers. 

Since I still have a lot of catching up to do, I hope that you will forgive me this time for reprinting here a story I wrote in late 2014, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to town.

Small French Town Attracts Nobel Laureates 

AIX-EN-PROVENCE Every city has its best-kept secret. In Aix-en-Provence, a culturally rich town in the south of France widely known for its international opera festival, that secret is undoubtedly the annual Fête du Livre, when during three days in October major writers, including many Nobel Prize winners, come and discuss their work with an avid local public.

Who would have expected to see here such greats as Octavio Paz, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburo Ôé, Gao Xingjian, Mo Yan, and Mario Vargas Llosa to name only the Nobel laureates; but also Alberto Moravia, Amitav Ghosh, Jim Harrison, Philip Roth, Russell Banks, Richard Price, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Tabucchi and dozens of others, representing many cultures and nearly all continents?

How does this town of barely 140,000 people manage to convince an international elite of writers from all over the world to come and share their work through conferences, round-table discussions, documentary films, readings, and sometimes master classes? Meet Annie Terrier, 73, founder, soul and driving force of La Fête du Livre, who with the tenacity her last name implies has battled for over 30 years to realize her dream of bringing foreign writers to France through her creation of Ecritures Croisées the introduction and cross-pollination of foreign literature in France. 

In 1983, with little money but a great deal of determination, she organized her first event, entitled Mille et Un Livres, bringing a large group of French writers and small publishers together in a borrowed space in a local school. The next year she moved beyond France and invited German-language writers, subsequently writers from all over Europe, and in 1986 she went trans-Atlantic with guests such as James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Jerome Charyn and others. Meanwhile she had found a new shelter in the local Court House, the Fête's home for the next eight years until the mayor's office finally granted her a permanent address at an abandoned match factory in town which had been converted into a cultural center that would also house the municipal library. In 1988, she landed Octavio Paz, her first big fish, which cemented the growing reputation of La Fête du Livre as an important literary event. Paz, who received the Nobel Prize in 1990, would be her first Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa would be her tenth.

Annie Terrier with Mario Vargas Llosa
She uses her limited budget (made up of city, regional and State subsidies) and her even smaller staff to maximum effect. Boosted by her past successes she spends little or nothing on publicity and calls on unpaid volunteers from time to time. "It keeps Ecritures Croisées small and independent," she says. "I can invite who I want." She begins by sending a letter of invitation to the writer of her choice, and once this is accepted she will visit him or her to jointly work out the program. This has taken her all over the world, including India (Satyajit Ray), Nigeria (Wole Soyinka), South Africa (Coetzee), Japan (Oé), and repeatedly North and South America. [When Satyajit Ray died suddenly just months before his scheduled appearance in 1992, his widow and son attended the Fête du Livre's homage to Ray's work as a writer and filmmaker, in the company of a dozen Indian writers.]

Asked to name a favorite, Ms. Terrier answers that she appreciated them all for different reasons but singled out Satyajit Ray as mythical and, with a wink, called Philip Roth "l'homme de ma vie" for his particularly warm welcome in New York and in Connecticut. Roth was the first to propose a master class.

Some years, the authors are backed up by music, art, or photography of their country. In 2001 Toni Morrison brought along soprano Kathleen Battle, in 2004 Russell Banks brought Patti Smith (both singers gave a performance), and Günter Grass brought a collection of his own drawings and sculptures. 

An important distinction from other literary events is that La Fête du Livre is not a book fair and has no commercial backing. Even though the authors' books are available for sale, the primary purpose of this event, says Annie Terrier, is to present a foreign author and his oeuvre, be it in a cultural or a geopolitical context. Her literary erudition and strong personal commitment are persuasive forces, and no invited author has ever turned her down.

After Mario Vargas Llosa roused an enthusiastic audience to its feet at the closure of the Fête du Livre of October 2014, a happy Annie Terrier took a few days off before starting work on next year's program. No word on the next guest of honor, nor on her retirement. "I love what I am doing," she says, "and will keep at it until they stop me." Good news for Aix-en-Provence.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Following the recent burkini controversy in France, the Conseil d'Etat (highest administrative court) has suspended the burkini ban in the Riviera resort of Villeneuve-Loubet whose mayor had prohibited the full-body swimwear because he considered it a provocation and a threat against the public order. The administrative court found no proven risk to public order and ruled that the ban was a serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms a legal decision that sets precedent in all those French communities where the burkini was banned this past month, some 30 in all.

This should have put the issue to rest, but neither the mayors in question nor a number of pro-ban politicians (including prime minister Manuel Valls and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy) were willing to let the matter drop at a time when politicians are testing the winds and polishing their message to fit the country's mood prior to the presidential primaries in November. A recent poll shows that 64 percent of the French people are in favor of a ban on the burkini. Sarkozy, head of the center-right opposition party Les Républicains, has already announced that, if elected, he will change the constitution to allow for a burkini ban and that he will toughen the immigration laws. He is sounding more and more like the extreme-right, anti-immigrant, Front National party of Marine Le Pen, which is expected to do well in the elections, picking up votes from a disenchanted left as well as from a fearful electorate running for cover from islamic terrorism.

The governmental overreaction to a minor burkini incident on a public beach has, once again, shone a spotlight on a peculiarly French tendency to complicate life and lose control of the issue in question. The sacrosanct French principle of secularism (laïcité) used by local authorities to ban the burkini does not apply to public beaches, and its wearers (few and far between) do not pose a recognized threat against public order. But a jittery population, traumatized by repeated islamist terrorist attacks, is easy prey for opportunistic politicians who prefer to fan these fears for their own political gain rather than to send a unifying message to its pluri-ethnic citizens, nearly 10 percent of whom are Muslim. This immigrant group, mostly from former French colonies in west and north Africa, lives largely in the urban ghettos called cités, where petty crime and high unemployment are endemic and where the unemployed young are tempted into islamic radicalization. Efforts to improve the integration of this population into the French mainstream have been timid at best, and today's unnecessary burkini fight only drives a further wedge between "them and us".

If the burkini has become the hot topic of the season, it has not only divided public opinion but the socialist government as well, where two female ministers (Education, and Health) took prime minister Manuel Valls to task over his pro-ban position and warned of a danger of unleashing racist rhetoric and stigmatization at a time of tension.

When the ban that began in Cannes in early August spread to 30 other coastal communities, including one in Corsica following a violent fight between three Muslim families and a group of locals resulting in injuries, it became international news. And the foreign press was happy to take it on and teach France a lesson. While they couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, the foreign media interpreted the burkini ban as both racist and ridiculous. The absurdity of the situation was made painfully clear in a photo sequence shot by an English photographer that shows three armed French policemen forcing a lone burkini-clad woman on a public beach in Nice to disrobe or be fined a scene reminiscent of the "morals police" of theocratic Iran. 

Although it is proud to call itself the land of Human Rights, it is no secret that France has an anti-semitic streak. It also seems unable to see its Muslim population as equal citizens of the republic despite its lofty national motto of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality for all. Like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. There is no doubt that the context of the recent terrorist attack that killed 86 people in Nice has created a volatile atmosphere and may have evoked an emotional response, but this does not justify the creation of any special laws, said the administrative court.

The burkini battle has also revived the French identity crisis which is never far from people's minds. Does the immigrant population from former French colonies in black sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb region of North Africa people who do not look like us, tend to dress differently from us, and have more children than us threaten our French identity? Can they assimilate into our society and adopt our way of life or to what point do we have to accommodate theirs? Frequent "clashes" indicate that there are no easy answers, but also show that assimilation has not been facilitated by government policy and that there are still many pockets of marginalized and disenfranchised immigrants in France, even if they have French citizenship.

While catholicism is still the main religion in France, the principle of secularism, voted into law in 1905, guarantees the free exercise of any faith and the state's neutrality in all matters of religion. Why then, I asked a friend one day, are there still so many official Catholic holidays in France? "Tradition," was his answer, which goes some way to explaining the fuzziness and confusion of so many French rules and regulations.

Tradition can also mean a fear of change, so palpable in France where change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a potential gain and to be resisted as long as possible. Hence, the rather perplexing fervor with which labor unions and socialists reject the right to open shops on Sundays. The weekly day of rest, rooted in the Catholic tradition, is turned into an obligation, a way to keep change at bay, even at the expense of those who voluntarily offer to work on Sundays in exchange for double pay. It may make France less competitive, but the idea of "protecting" workers from perceived exploitation, in other words, to keep things as they have always been, still prevails.

Schools are re-opening this week and politicians are flocking back to Paris, where the burkini will be slowly displaced by newer crises. Strikers won't be far behind, voices and banners will again be raised in the streets, and the whole diverse and complex world of French society will do its level best to keep it all together. It's the way it's always been.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


August is usually a month of relative calm in France. It's vacation time, even for angry demonstrators and politicians. Political or union organizers may be plotting as they bask on a sunny beach, but their actions are aimed at September when they'll re-emerge with the usual sound and fury in support of or in opposition to one cause or another. Not surprising then that during this summer vacuum a seemingly minor matter became headline news and grew into a divisive subject involving politicians, philosophers and human rights activists.

Bikini vs. burkini

It all began when the mayor of Cannes, at the request of some of his constituents, banned the burkini, the full-body swimwear favored by some Muslim women, from his beaches. His example was soon followed by mayors of other Riviera resorts, and to date no less than fifteen French mayors have banned the burkini in their communities.

Burkini brawl in Sisco, Corsica
Initially, the burkini ban in Cannes was seen as a local incident in the wake of the Bastille Day massacre of 86 people by an Islamist terrorist in nearby Nice that had left the town's people jittery and sensitive to all things Muslim. At the sight of burkinis in their midst, a sense of Muslim invasion took hold of the vacationing beach crowd who called on their mayor for action, sparking the beginning of a quickly spreading burkini ban that soon reached Corsica. Here, in the small coastal town of Sisco, an encounter between a group of teenagers and three local Muslim families of Moroccan origin degenerated into fisticuffs when one of the teenagers photographed a Muslim woman whose husband objected. One of the teenagers called his parents and soon 200 villagers stormed the local North African neighborhood with cries of "This is our home!" Riot police were called in and the beach brawl ended with four people in hospital, five others arrested, and a burkini ban in Sisco.

Suddenly, the burkini was no longer a local issue and was even picked up by foreign newspapers. Voices began to be raised for and against the ban, with pro-ban arguments ranging from "the burkini is unhygienic" to "not in line with our French values" and "a form of suppression of Muslim women by their men".

Marseilles beach where burkini is not banned
One may well ask Why unhygienic? - but perhaps it's best not to. One may also question the French Values, especially in matters of beachwear: topless women? string bikinis? big-bellied men in tiny Speedos? Let's not go there.  And as for the burkini as a form of suppression of Muslim women's choice of dress, this matter of cultural difference was perhaps addressed most delicately by the mayor of Nice when he said that he had banned clothing that "overtly expresses adherence to a religion at a time when France and its places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks." The July 14th mass killing in his city and the subsequent murder of a Catholic priest as he was celebrating Mass in his French village church had left raw wounds that have not healed yet. France remains cautious and on edge.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he could understand the mayors' decisions and came out in support of the burkini ban, saying the garment reflects the "enslavement of women", while Laurence Rossignol, French Minister for families and women's rights rejected the burkini as "archaic" and "intended to conceal the body of women".

With these views the Socialist party joined those of the extreme-right National Front party whose leader Marine Le Pen supported the burkini ban, saying "The soul of France is in question here. France does not lock away a woman's body; cover up half its population."

So much for political positioning in anticipation of the 2017 presidential elections, as an increasingly crowded field of presidential candidates is gathering both on the left and the right. After the devastating string of terrorist attacks on their soil, nervous French voters are looking for reassurance from a strong leader who can inspire confidence and a feeling of safety that is lacking today.

On the other hand, many support the right of a devout Muslim woman to wear the full-body burkini for bathing in public, even if it sets her apart from other bathers. Prohibiting the burkini would effectively exclude these Muslim women from access to the sea. The League of human rights (LDH) and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) have filed an appeal with the Nice administrative tribunal to overrule the burkini ban because it goes counter the right to free speech, freedom of religion and choice of dress, and is disproportionate to the perceived threat it may pose. The tribunal is to rule before the end of the month.

Marks & Spencer ad
France is a secular country where all religions are allowed, but where since 2004 the wearing of "ostentatious signs of religion" is forbidden in public schools.  Another law, voted in 2010, forbids face coverings by full burqa or niqab, or by ski masks, in all public spaces, and this for obvious security reasons. Neither one of these laws would prohibit the wearing of a burkini on a public beach, nor did these laws encounter strong opposition from the large French Muslim population at the time they were passed.

Zanetti, inventor of the burkini

It is interesting to note that France's apparent distaste for the burkini in the name of its sacrosanct secularity contrasts sharply with the United Kingdom where popular department store Marks & Spencer has launched its own line of burkinis this year and rival store House of Fraser's has just responded with a competing line. In response to the French controversy, Aheda Zanetti, the Lebanese-born Australian inventor of the burkini says women buy her suit for different reasons (skin cancer, sun sensitvity, greater comfort than a wet suit) and that 45 percent of her clients are not Muslim. The burkini is all about choice, she says. Or as one of her clients put it: "It's just a swimsuit, for heaven's sake!" 

Considering where we stand today in France  an unpopular president who is perceived as weak; an extended state of emergency after repeated terrorist attacks; proven inefficiency and lack of cooperation among French security services it is easy to see why the relatively inoffensive burkini has become such a big issue this summer. It represents a facet of Islam, a subject that rightly or wrongly has created a certain nervousness among the French; it is a political plum, opportunely arriving just in time for use or abuse by the candidates in the pre-election activities beginning this fall; and it was the "only game in town" this summer.