Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. W.B. Yeats, 1920
A lot has been written lately about the rise in anti-Semitism in France. The New York Times and The Guardian have reported in the last week on increased incidences of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues with the painting of that most recognizable symbol of hate: the Nazi Swastika, and the denunciation of these acts by the Macron government. An article in Le Monde quoted Macron as saying in a speech to CRIF, a coalition of French Jewish organizations: the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France is unequaled since the second world war. In contrast to Mr. Trump, President Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unequivocally denounced hatred and the haters, saying “this is not the country we are.” It may not be the country they want, but it is undeniable that there is a long history of anti-Semitism in France, a country with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and the United States, and a country that deported 78,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.
Camp de Rivesaltes
There is certainly an alarming increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents but it is unclear if this reflects a burgeoning hatred in the population or the increased freedom to broadcast opinions that used to be kept quiet. There is no doubt that as this and other western countries become increasingly polarized, the rhetoric becomes more heated and people gravitate to the extremes of left and right as moderates disappear. In France, Macron’s election destroyed the centrist Socialist and Republican parties; in Britain, Brexit has fractured both the Conservatives and Labor; and in the US, Democrats have moved to the left as Republicans lined up behind Trump. The void in the middle opens a path for populist demagogues as has happened in Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and the United States. Macron seemed to be aware of this dynamic when in his speech to CRIF he supported the adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that is enlarged to include anti-Zionism.
I don’t live in the Elysée Palace, nor do I shop on the Champs-Elysées, which left me relatively unaffected by the manifestations of the last few weeks. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was on a once-in-a-lifetime tour and Saturday was my day for the Louvre and the Lido, but I live here now and I’m learning to shrug like a Parisian.
Last Saturday evening, a Métro ride that should have been 30 minutes took 90, but the restaurant held my table and my friends were still on their first bottle of wine when I finally arrived. This week I shopped around the corner and went home to roast a chicken and dine with Netflix.
The election of Emmanuel Macron wiped out France’s traditional ruling parties—the Republicans on the right and the Socialists on the left—leaving voters with a choice between Macron’s new baby, République En Marche and Marine LePen’s Front Nationale, which has been rechristened the Rassemblement National. So, of course, the left put all their hopes and votes on Macron and the first thing he does is lower taxes on the wealthy.
To be fair, he did say he would do this as part of a plan to reform the French economy and bring it into the 21st century. He also pledged to modernize labor laws and reduce carbon emissions. What many didn’t realize was that all these reforms would hit hardest on the working class, increase the income gap, despair, and anger of people who were already struggling with 10% unemployment and high taxes. Then came the fuel tax hike.
Macron sold it as an environmental issue—and certainly it is—France has to end its dependence on fossil fuels, but this is a tax that punishes the wrong people.
The gilets jaunes began as a grassroots, leaderless effort in rural France where people are dependent on cars to get to work, take their kids to school, and shop for groceries. Public transportation outside the big cities is inadequate or non-existent. The people who can least afford it were asked to shoulder the cost of cleaner air and that was the trigger to get them in the streets, because when the fear of going hungry is real, cleaning the air is an abstract concept that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with day-to-day survival.
Now I have to tell you that I don’t know how real and widespread the fears of the working class are. Taxes here seem high to an American but they are far from the highest in Europe and they do fund a remarkably comprehensive social safety net including a very effective health care program.
Many thought the protests would die out when Macron agreed to delay the gas tax rise, but it has spread in two ways: it’s become a general protest against Macron personally, the president of the rich; and it has been joined by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum who saw an opportunity to exercise their right to vandalism. Protests were smaller throughout the country this week, but this movement is not dead despite the lack of leaders. No one has yet taken credit, but the adoption of yellow vests as a symbol was a brilliant political move. They are ubiquitous because all French drivers are required to carry them in their cars in case of breakdown on the road, and I’m certain news photographers and videographers are extremely grateful for the high visibility.
These are perilous times throughout the world. Authoritarian figures are popping up everywhere to take advantage of widespread discontent and the inequality spawned by dishonest and immoral politicians. In France, Marine Le Pen lurks in the wings.
And a few days away from the problems of my fictional photographers.
Danny and Hago by the Vézère River
Hago and Danny arrived for a brief visit and we took off for the Dordogne, which we all knew only from Martin Walker’s Bruno series of detective novels. Bruno’s almost superhuman wisdom, compassion, and perspective are a bit unbelievable, but the sense of place Walker evokes is tremendously inviting, so off we went: TGV to Bordeaux, rental car to our base in Sarlat.
Bruno lives in the fictional village of Saint-Denis, which exists only in Walker’s imagination, but he creates the place with bits and pieces of regional towns including Sarlat, Les Eyzies, Beynac, and Saint Cyprien.
The Village of Sarlat
Sarlat Store Display
The Village of Beynac
We arrived too late for the Saturday market and left before the Wednesday edition, but there’s no problem finding good food in Sarlat—if you like duck. Magret, dried magret, gizzards, confit, any way you want it. But there’s also goose, beef, pork, and, thank heavens, fish. They grow a lot of corn around here but most of it goes to feed the ducks and geese; other vegetables make rare appearances, except of course potatoes, which Bruno—who can be found in the kitchen when he’s not chasing bad guys or coaching rugby—fries in duck fat. Just writing this is hardening my arteries and generating a craving for lettuce.
Fois Gras and a Glass of Monbazillac
We did occasionally push away from the table and do our touring duty by exploring a cave and boating on the Dordogne River. Cave access is limited. We didn’t arrive early enough to get into our first choice—did I mention the lovely Bergerac wines?—and second place was a letdown. The visible etchings were underwhelming, although my vision may have been less than keen after the third time I hit my head. This is not a great adventure for people over six feet tall with aging knees. The boat ride was more relaxing; I might better describe it as nap-inducing. Not at all a bad thing.
For me, the best parts that didn’t involve eating and drinking were just walking through the villages. There’s a distinctive architectural style of light stone or masonry walls, peaked roofs clad in brown stone tiles and turrets capped with witches’ hats. It’s charmingly traditional and pretty consistent until you get to the main street of Saint-Cyprien.
The Village of Saint-Cyprien
The War Memorial of St. Cyprien
I cannot explain this. I asked a street sweeper if there was a fête going on and he told me no, that’s on the first of July. So I asked if the town was always decorated like this and he decided to have a little fun with the tourist rube, telling me it was the work of fantômes. I thanked him and looked for the tourist office but it was closed for lunch.