Report February 2014 (Panthéon, Nantes, Serge Dassault)

New Entries in the Panthéon – France pays Tribute to her Female Heroes

France, 13 Feb – 26 Feb 2014

French government honours heroes of the Resistance ++ Strong resistance of airport opponents ++ Former mayor and tycoon in custody over vote-buying
by Matthieu Choblet

French government honours heroes of the Resistance

Last week, François Hollande made use of his presidential prerogative to name new entries in the Panthéon. The Panthéon, a former church close to the Sorbonne University in the famous Latin quarter of Paris, is the French nation’s monument to worthy historical figures. There lay the remains of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Marie Curie, to name but a few.

The announcement of the new entries had been awaited with much anticipation. For long, feminist groups had urged the government to include more women in the list of honour. Indeed, until last week, of the 73 people honoured in the Panthéon, 71 were men. Hollande finally named two women and two men, who were all members of the French Resistance during Nazi occupation. By doing so the President also followed the advice of the National Monuments Centre.

These are the four nominees: Ms Germaine Tillion, an ethnographer who also campaigned against the Soviet gulag system. Ms Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (yes, she is related to the General) who joined the resistance at 19 and worked to fight homelessness in France after the war. Both women survived the concentration camp of Ravensbrück in Germany. The two men are the lawyer Jean Zay and the former Education Minister Pierre Brossolette.

The four ‘embodied the values of France when the country was beaten to the ground’, said Hollande on a visit to a martyrs’ memorial outside Paris. Tillion, de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Zay and Brossolette will soon be buried close to another important figure of the Resistance in the Panthéon, Jean Moulin.

Strong resistance of airport opponents

A heavy clash between riot police and protestors occurred in the western French city of Nantes. Shop windows were broken, bus stops destroyed, at least three police officers injured and fourteen protesters detained. The bone of contention is the government’s plan to pursue the building of the massive international airport of Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDL), which will replace the relatively small regional airport of Nantes. NDL is also a pet project of today’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was Mayor of Nantes before joining the government in 2012.

This is not the first incident of violent protests against the new airport. However, most demonstrations had been located on the building site, far outside the city. The most recent clash in the city centre drew much more attention and alienated the government.

Among the protesters are farmers, environmental activists and committed citizens who criticise the extremely expensive project, as its usefulness is disputed. According to a survey, a 56 percent-majority of the respondents is opposed to the airport project, surpassing the 24 percent in favour.

Meanwhile in Paris, the Socialist Ayrault made serious allegations against his Green colleagues inside the coalition-government. As members of the Green Party they oppose the project, yet the government officially supports the building of a new airport. Facing Ayrault’s accusations, Green politicians distanced themselves from any acts of violence but kept an ambiguous stance on the so-called Ayrault-port.

Former mayor and tycoon in custody over vote-buying

Serge Dassault, billionaire, arms manufacturer, senator and former Mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a suburb of Paris, has turned himself over to the police. Previously, investigations had been delayed as the French senate initially refused to lift his senatorial immunity. Last week, 88-year-old Dassault finally agreed to an interrogation by the police’s anti-corruption agency in order to ‘prove his innocence’ as he said. ‘What I did in Corbeil-Essonnes is a marvellous thing’, stated a proud Dassault. He was referring to his accomplishments for the suburb’s economic infrastructure during his mandate from 1995 to 2009.

However, the successful entrepreneur and politician is suspected of setting up an extensive system of vote-buying during the mayoral elections in 2008 – already invalidated by the court – in 2009 and 2010. All these elections were won either by Dassault or by his successor, Jean-Pierre Bechter, who is also facing charges. At the core of the alleged vote-buying scheme was a secret staff of local petty criminals, whose duty was to steer the electorate of Corbeil-Essonnes.

‘Don’t forget that Dassault is paying for your traineeship and driving license,’ is what young potential electors claim to have been told. Whether all accusations are true remains to be proven. What is clear is that it was a marvellously profitable system for at least one of the involved. Investigations uncovered a transfer of 18 million euros to a Lebanese bank account which probably served to disburse Dassault’s special campaign staff.

* first published on *

Report January 2014 (Dieudonné, Brittany, Hollande)

Notorious Comedian’s Gesture sparks Debate on Freedom of Speech

France, 15 Dec – 15 Jan 2014

La quenelle: the “obscene clowning of a pitiful buffoon” ++ Heavy storms in Brittany – again ++ President Hollande’s New Year’s resolution
by Matthieu Choblet


La quenelle: the “obscene clowning of a pitiful buffoon”

The controversy surrounding a supposedly humoristic show put the French artist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala at the centre of public attention during the last weeks. Dieudonné is the ‘inventor’ of a controversial hand gesture dubbed la quenelle. But what is “la quenelle”? Originally, the term described a French fish or meatball dish, which Dieudonné reportedly wished to “put into Zionism’s butt”. The corresponding gesture had been part of Dieudonné’s stage show for years without drawing much attention, until things changed recently.

First, two soldiers were photographed making the gesture in front of a synagogue. Also, a police officer put a photography online showing himself in uniform doing the ominous gesture. Finally, French footballer Nicolas Anelka performed a quenelle in celebration of a goal in December. So is the quenelle an insinuation of the Nazi salute, a distinctive mark for all kinds of anti-Semites or just another vulgar insult without any political meaning?

Dieudonné’s supporters claim it is a sign of defiance against a corrupt establishment. Critics point to Dieudonné’s arguable political attitude and say it is a sign that incites racial hatred. Dieudonné, whose father is from Cameroon, claims to be anti-racist and a victim of intolerance. Yet he maintains a good relationship with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the French far-right political party Front National.

The controversy reached its climax when the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira called Dieudonné a “pitiful buffoon”, whose gesture was just part of the “obscene clownings of a chronic anti-semite”. Simultaneously, French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls encouraged local authorities to declare a stage ban against Dieudonné, “the entrepreneur of hate”. Indeed, Dieudonné has already been sentenced eight times for anti-semitic language and racial abuse in the past.

Nonetheless, some people wonder if it was right for the government to intervene the way it did. The fierce reaction of France’s political elite makes Dieudonné a martyr of political correctness in the eyes of his followers. A spokesman of the Front National accused the government of an attack on freedom of speech. Even among democratic parties there is a high level of insecurity about how to handle the case. Critics point to the fact, that while Dieudonné is well known for his belligerent language, it is questionable to ban a show which is not per se anti-semitic on the pure grounds of what the artist might be wanting to say. Last week, Dieudonné has announced that he was going to change the concept of his show. It remains unclear whether the conceptual change will be an improvement.


Heavy storms in Brittany – again

During Christmas, Brittany and the north of France were hit by a heavy storm with strong winds of up to 113km/h. A torrential rain caused flooding and 240,000 homes were cut off from the power grid. Days after the storm, the government was still having difficulties assessing the full extent of the damage. .

In the previous months, Brittany had been shaken by storms of another kind, as the ‘Red Caps’, protesters forced the French government to back down from its plans to introduce a new road-tax. Fearing more political protests the French government was eager to show that after the storm Paris would not leave Brittany behind. Still, its cautious – some even say sluggish – reaction to the natural catastrophe of December gave way to new criticism. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls admitted that the early warning systems for floods needed to be improved.
President Hollande’s New Year’s resolution

On Friday 3rd January, the French government met for its traditional first council meeting of the year in the sumptuous offices of the Ministry of the Interior in the centre of Paris. President François Hollande presented his New Year’s wishes to the assembled ministers and appealed to the government’s unity and sense of duty – without explicitly mentioning the disputes surrounding the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira and the popular Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls.

Furthermore, Hollande put three objectives on top of the government’s agenda: “employment, less deficit spending and energy transition”. However a French economic research institute questions the government’s intention to simultaneously reduce corporate taxes and government spending on a national and regional level. The economists point to the already low demand that plagues the French economy, while public debt remains high.

Observers were also intrigued by the government`s intent to bypass difficult parliamentary debates by resorting not only to law-making but also to ordinances and presidential decrees, which do not require the consent of the legislative assembly. It was said that the government hopes to regain the sympathy of the French voters before the forthcoming municipal election by showing quick action and avoiding any dissent. Among other topics, the government will have to decide very soon on a limitation of the number of mandates that can be held concurrently.


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