Lifestyle & Belief

French grapes of wrath


A demonstrator holds a French flag on September 7, 2010 in Lille, northern France, during a one-day national strike action against a government pension reform bill.


Phillipe Huguen

Top News: It is a government PR stunt that turned into an international headache.

Over the summer, the French public avidly followed the daily reports on the Bettencourt affair, involving France’s Labor Minister Eric Woerth and his conflict of interest.

The scandal stirred public opinion to the point that president Nicolas Sarkozy granted a rare sit-down interview to the TV network France 2 to express his support for his Minister. 

But that was not enough to cool interest. So Sarkozy managed to engineer one of his now-famous diversionary stunts - announcing a crackdown on illegal Roma immigrant camps in France. 

The families who live in these camps, most of them unemployed, are being deported back to Romania, having accepted a $400 package to resettle there.

The government argued that the camps were threatening law and order in France - inhabitants were accused of attacking a police station.

The deportations made headlines around the country, and while Sarkozy and his administration might have been hoping to distract people’s attention from the Bettencourt scandal, things did not work out that way.

Media outlets continued to report the Bettencourt-Woerth affair in minute detail, while the deportations of Roma immigrants has only served to greatly tarnish France’s image throughout the world.

Even the Vatican voiced outrage at Sarkozy’s security measure: "One cannot generalize and take an entire group of people and kick them out," said Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Vatican's Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People commission. 

The European Union also expressed concern about the expulsion of around 1,000 Roma.  

"It is clear that those who break the law need to face the consequences,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.  “It is equally clear that nobody should face expulsion just for being Roma.”

The U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) also urged to France to stop the deportations.

"We understand that France has to deal with security issues,” said the CERD vice-chairman Pierre-Richard Prosper, “but we are concerned that these actions appear to have been done in a collective manner. An entire group is being identified and moved.”

Some have compared the expulsions with the deportations during WWII, pointing out that Roma, too, were victims of the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel condemned the crackdown on Roma immigrants, but said the comparison with the Holocaust’s deportations was not appropriate.

“These Roma are sent to Romania, to Hungary, not to Auschwitz,” Wiesel said. "One doesn’t have the right to trivialize events, memories and souvenirs.”

Many in France, have also expressed anger at the crackdown. On Saturday, an estimated 100,000 people took the streets of Paris to protest against Sarkozy’s action. And protests were held in several other French cities.

“There are many of us calmly saying that the future of this country is not a return to the old hatreds and racist prejudices,” said Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of France’s Human Rights League.

It looks like Sarkozy’s position could get even more uncomfortable in the coming days, with the strike season kicking off Tuesday. 

Money: Sarkozy’s flaws may have made the French forget the many flaws of former president Jacques Chirac, whose approval rating once reached a high 75 percent.

Recent developments in the case of corruption charges against Chirac have, however, agitated old wounds.

Chirac has been under investigation for misusing City Hall funds to pay aides not working for City Hall. The investigation began in the late 1990s - when Chirac was president and thus guaranteed immunity from prosecution. 

Naturally, many thought that the end of Chirac’s term would provide an opportunity for a fair trial.  But according to recent media reports, the prosecutors are working out a settlement deal with Chirac that could help him avoid jail and possibly bring an end to the legal proceedings.  

Chirac would pay around $700,000, while the right-wing UMP party that replaced Chirac’s ruling party would pay around $2 million to clinch the deal.

Elsewhere: Followers of World Cup soccer will have read of the French national soccer team fiasco - the poor performances and shameful behavior of players during this year's event in South Africa that has jeopardized the love affair between the French and their national team that started in 1998, when they won the World Cup at home.

After striker Nicolas Anelka reportedly insulted coach Raymond Domenech, and the players called an audacious strike during the World Cup tournament, the team went through a drastic cleanup. Anelka will probably never play another game with the national team, and other key players have been suspended for several games.

However, when former champion and team captain Laurent Blanc took the helm hopes were been somewhat revived. Even French soccer icon Zinedine Zidane showed up at a practice session to inspire the new team, which includes more than a few rookies.   

The performed very poorly and lost to Belarus, hardly a traditionally great soccer team.   

Why the media focus on a French sports team that can’t seem to get it right? Probably because with the tensions and divisions caused by the government, the French soccer team, despite its many flaws and shortcomings, seems to be one of the few things that still brings the country together.