How the French President Got Firm

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking.

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking. On his left, Julie Gayet, his lover; on his right, Valerie Trierweiler, his long-term girlfriend and the First Lady.

Who knew that François Hollande was so hard. Such a dog. Such a Don Juan. Such a baller. Forgive the porno-speak, but those are just a few examples of the kind of language that’s been recurring in the endless commentaries of the Hollande affair in recent days. Even if no one in France is really surprised that the president is having an affair, they actually do seem surprised about—and impressed by—just what this President has got up to.

He’s “a magnificent baller!” declared Frédéric Mitterand, the former Culture Minister under Sarkozy (and the nephew of former president François Mitterand), literally cackling with tawdry glee on Belgian television in a clip that was leaked today.

Mitterand (who’s got his own sexual affairs baggage about which he’s been quite explicit and who’s been known to sometimes go overboard in his public comments) explains exactly why he is so surprised that the President pulled off such an exploit: “He doesn’t really have the looks for this kind of affair…if you were looking for someone to play the role of the total seducer, you wouldn’t pick a guy who looks like François Hollande!”

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a "magnificent baller!"

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a “magnificent baller!”

Mitterand, in his own bawdy terms, has said out loud what everyone has been thinking silently to themselves (and a little less silently: the very well-known political journalist, Michèle Cotta, was caught on microphone calling the President “ugly and pathetic”). Quite simply, Hollande didn’t look or act the part. There seems to be a general sense of genuine surprise that Hollande really could be such a seducer—this kind of seducer in the most traditional and literal sense of the term, with all its masculine and caddish connotations. The kind of guy who would have been involved with a beautiful and much younger actress for, reports are saying today, what may have been nearly two years, while still involved with a First Lady, also younger and attractive, for whom he’d left his previous partner of over 20 years.

No one was surprised that men like Strauss-Kahn, or Chirac or Mitterand, would have had affairs. Those men had an aura, they looked, respectively, charismatic, charming, and regal. But Hollande just didn’t look like a man who would—or could—engage in the kind of behavior that, from the outside, plays perfectly into the cliché of the 19th century gallant or the contemporary bad-boy.

That wasn’t Hollande. Hollande was the man without definition, literally and figuratively, the overweight insipid-looking guy nicknamed Flamby—after a shapeless dessert pudding—who went from a strong dominant mother to his strong dominant partner, Ségolène Royal, and then a strong dominant girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler. Trierweiler’s unflattering and sexist nickname is Rottweiler, because of her reputation for being overbearing. (On the evening of Hollande’s victory, cameras captured her ordering him to kiss her—“on the lips!”—in front of the crowds.)

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Flamby is a jiggly caramel pudding dessert. It was also Hollande’s nickname.

Hollande was the man whose apparent inability to effectively deal with France’s economic problems, to rally political will to make tough changes—whose perceived impotence had translated into the lowest presidential ratings on record in modern France.

But suddenly the President’s edges have hardened. If there’s one thing he’s not, it’s impotent. He’s now the man with the desire and the drive to pursue a reckless love affair. To follow his wants. To take what he needs. Despite his circumstances or the risks. (Or, arguably, decency, when it comes to Valerie Trierweiler, who evidently discovered her relationship with the President was over when he told her, the night before, about the imminent tabloid magazine cover on his affair with another woman).

Everybody is terribly impressed that that guy not only got the girl—but went to get the newer younger sexy girl, while holding onto the previous girl. “A lady-killer!” say innumerable commentators, “It’s a shake-up!” headlines another magazine. He’s no Flamby anymore.

This is, for better or for worse, a model display of the cliché of virility: boundless sexual energy and a sense of power and impunity. “Sexually, François Hollande doesn’t come across as a modern man anymore,” said Eric Fassin, a well-known sociologist, “On the contrary, he’s revived a traditional model in his economic policy as well as his romantic life, from here on in, the President has set a course, and he’s going to hold to it firmly. In brief, he’s become ‘a man’, ‘a hard guy, ‘a real one’, at the expense of his women….”

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

Firm, hard, real. According to friends and colleagues of the President (none of whom actually agree to go on the record) this is actually Hollande’s true nature revealing itself. In a story in the newspaper Le Parisien, someone cited as being “close to” the president says that “his physique makes people underestimate him. It’s a big mistake. Inside, he’s a blade of hard steel.”

Perhaps this blade of hard steel will take an invigorated approach to leading France and that he’ll hold firmly to the new economic course he set last week, pledging policies to make the economy more competitive. But Hollande appears to be dealing with the matter on a personal level, with Valerie Trierweiler, in the same firm, hard manner. He’s set a course and he’s holding to it firmly. Like a political matter, distant and business-like. Ouch. Hollande left Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, in a similar way that evidently he’s been leaving Trierweiler for the past two years: gradually, silently, a little insidiously, without actually telling either woman until public reports would eventually force him to confirm that he was more or less already gone.

Which, even for a “magnificent baller,” is pretty shabby.


Why everyone in France is only pretending to care that François Hollande might be having an affair

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

So the big news in France today is that the president, François Hollande, might be having an affair. If it sounds like the opening line of a late-night show, that’s because the French public and French media seem to be greeting the news with the same deadpan tone that comics like to use. Because nobody’s really that surprised and, mostly, nobody actually cares that much.

Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a big media frenzy and hubbub of social media activity, and lots of snickering. First of all it’s a break from conversations about the Dieudonné controversy. People are tired of debating the issue of the rightness or wrongness of banning the comedian’s anti-semitic performances, so a presidential affair is the perfect—legitimate—excuse to talk about something else. But there’s no real intensity to the reactions. If people are commenting the claim by the tabloid magazine, Closer, that Hollande is having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet it’s because, well, after all he is the president of France.

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on "The President's Secret Love Story."

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on “The President’s Secret Love Story.”

Many French media seem to be echoing a similar refrain: that the presidential entourage has known for several days that the story was going to come out “but did nothing to prevent it.” Which is a media’s enigmatic—or disingenuous—way of implying that, well, the story is true, without actually appearing to report anything more than the fact that these allegations have been made and that Hollande may choose to pursue the tabloid for invasion of privacy.

The enigmatic and disingenuous media is an issue that the French love to revisit. And they’ve been indulging all day. With unavowed nostalgia they recall that time, back in the 80s, when for years—nearly a decade—the media covered up the story of President Mitterand’s second family. Most observers agree today that they should condemn that time and that culture; not the President’s affair, but the culture that entitled the President and other powerful politicians to some divine right of discretion, and engendered a self-enforced censorship among the media. Since the Strauss-Kahn affair, it’s become more complicated to defend that omertà or any powerful person’s special entitlement to indiscretions.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand's second family--his mistress and their daughter--only emerged years after his death.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand’s second family–his mistress and their daughter–only emerged years after his death.

Nonetheless, there’s also been a unified chorus of responses from Hollande’s ministers and his supporters, and even his political opponents, condemning Closer’s publication of the story. They have all come out stating that the President—or, as many have said it, “even the President”—has a right to privacy. Some socialist politicians were actually refusing to comment, saying that the matter has nothing to do with politics, end of story.

So is that true? Does the President’s affair, if he’s having one, have nothing to do with politics? Is the President just a normal guy who deserves privacy? Interestingly, the editor-in-chief of Closer makes the same argument to defend her magazine’s publication of pictures allegedly proving the affair. President Hollande, she said on the radio this morning, “is a normal president who was swept off his feet. There’s no need for so much drama around (the publication of) these pictures.” That a man—even this man—falls for a woman, she implies, is no big deal.

It’s not exactly an uncalculated defence, since Hollande’s campaign slogan—which was much ridiculed—was that his would be a “normal presidency,” in opposition to the ostentatious presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy who had so immodestly spread the details of his private life before the public, divorcing shortly after his election and then just a few months after that marrying the former model and musician, Carla Bruni.

Whether a “normal” president is one who deserves the right to privacy or one who deserves the right to let himself be seduced now seems to be a question. The answer, of course, is that a “normal” president deserves both. It’s just a uniquely French rhetorical obliqueness (or disingenuousness) to defend the former while actually, really, defending the latter.

And what’s also wonderfully, uniquely French is that politicians are defending the president at all. Could you ever imagine American politicians simply refusing to talk about published allegations that the president is having an affair? Could you ever imagine a senator or congressman, when asked about widely-circulated photographs featuring the President of the United States of America spending the night with a woman who is not his wife in a building that is not the White house—simply saying it’s none of his business? Well, that’s how they roll in France.

To give another example of how these things go down in France—and to continue reinforcing a few more stereotypes about French culture—there is some speculation among political analysts and pollsters about the possibility that this affair will actually be good for Hollande politically. The same magazine, a mainstream tabloid publication, that broke the story on its website last night published a poll today asking readers whether:

  • The affair will make François Hollande more popular!
  • After these revelations the President loses all credibility!

(The results as of 11:50 p.m. this evening are 22% thinking it’ll be good for Hollande, and 78% thinking it’ll hurt him).

One final subsidiary point in the underwhelming affair of  President Hollande’s affair is the fact that he would find time to have one at all. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that the President of the 5th largest economy in the world—that also happens to be on the brink of another recession—is able to find the mindspace, and the slot in his schedule, to take a lover.

The Morning After.

The Morning After.

Part of the story revealed by Closer in the photographs published is of the morning after one of the supposed lovers’ trysts. Pictures show a man who is allegedly the President’s bodyguard entering the building with a little paper bag of…croissants.

In France, it’s not really a Morning After unless there are croissants. Even for the President.

Why, As a Jew, I Celebrate Christmas in France

Christmas trees in from of the Pantheon, famous secular temple in Paris's Latin Quarter.

Christmas trees in from of the Pantheon, famous secular temple in Paris’s Latin Quarter.

Liberté and Egalité – freedom and equality – that’s the credo in France and, yes, it’s true even when it comes to Christmas trees. Everyone has one here. The most beautifully decorated Christmas tree I ever saw in Paris was in the home of friends who invited us over to see the pictures from the weekend before…of their son’s bar mitzvah. France offers equal opportunity access to all the joys of Christmas—exchanging gifts, banqueting on Christmas Eve—no matter what your religion. I truly think this is wonderful (please see the photo below), but I do also think it’s totally paradoxical.

My Christmas tree.

My Christmas tree.

There are Christmas trees everywhere in France. In stores, in public spaces like train stations and city halls, on church steps—which makes sense, except that here there are also half a dozen enormous, sparkling Christmas trees in front of the Pantheon, France’s famous temple of secular greatness. It’s a Republican cathedral of secularity…with Christmas trees.

France has secularism inscribed in its constitution and its identity. It is a deeply cherished and staunchly defended value. The French get freaked out when they see the word “God” on American dollar bills or when you try to explain the American public school ritual of the pledge of allegiance: “…one nation, under God.” They find all this deeply representative of the United States’ excess of religion, a country where everyone seems to believe in God and there’s a dangerous lack of boundaries between church and state. They can even get a little very self-righteous about this.

The pledge of allegiance to the flag that is recited in American schools: "One nation, under God."

The pledge of allegiance to the flag that is recited in American schools: “One nation, under God.”

And yet it’s in the country where God is always creeping into public life that we seem to have devised a much clearer policy concerning religious and secular symbols—or at least concerning the Christmas tree. And the Christmas tree is not secular. For the most part in the United States, if you’re Jewish, even just a little bit, you don’t really ever consider getting a Christmas tree. Quite simply because you’re not…entitled. You’re not Christian, hence you don’t celebrate Christmas, the holiday making the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore no Christmas tree.

Strangely, in France, in this deeply secular culture that forbids religious or ethnic surveys, that forbids all religious symbols in public places—strangely they seem to be fine with being all flou on the Christmas tree thing. As though it had nothing to do with Christ. “Well Jesus was Jewish, right?” offered my French mother-in-law when I asked her about this paradox. She seemed to think that wrapped things up nicely.

Nobody here really seems very bothered at all by the paradox. In a schoolteachers’ discussion forum, when the occasional renegade teacher wonders about the presence of Christmas trees and Christmas lunches in the intensely secular French school system, dozens of responses scoff at this literalist nit-picking explaining that the Christmas tree is originally a pagan custom, that of the tree as the symbol of life—because it’s evergreen—and joy and prosperity, and that anyway Christmas has become a family holiday disconnected from any religious significance.

"Laïcité" means secularism and is an important part of French identity.

“Laïcité” means secularism and is an important part of French identity.

So basically, if you follow that logic, Christmas is like the French Thanksgiving. That probably also has something to do with the fact that, despite France’s roughly 10% of Muslims and half a million Jews—informal estimations since religion-based censuses are not allowed—the great majority of the country is Catholic. The majority’s symbols become everybody’s symbols. Undoubtedly those nit-picking literalists who sense something of a double standard may see it a bit like that.

I’m one of those Jews who grew up without a Christmas tree, and so ultimately I’m delighted that now I can be a Jew and have my tree too. Without feeling guilty about the passive assimilationism of it all. It’s really very win win, this paradox. I do feel like I shouldn’t go overboard—for example,  I went to the Bangladeshi-run dime store in my street to buy tree decorations and I got them in a deliberately un-red and un-green orange color. You know, more “colourful” than “holiday.”

But like anybody cares around here. Especially not the Jews exchanging gifts over oysters and foie gras.

Vive la République. Vive Noël!

Having my yule log and eating it too.

Having my yule log and eating it too.

Is the Rumor About French Youth Leaving France Really True?

This is the jacket cover of Corinne Maier's 2010 book giving 40 good reasons to leave France.

This is the jacket cover of Corinne Maier’s 2010 book giving 40 good reasons to leave France.

The worried question has been in headlines for months now. Are France’s young people being forced to leave? Every week there’s another talk show, another investigative report, another survey showing that French 20-somethings are leaving France and going abroad to work in higher numbers than ever before. And instead of cheering the entrepreneurialism of their ambitious youth, the refrain echoing in the media is, well, much more typically French: Why isn’t France good enough to keep its youth?

The fact that it’s a question at all is part of the problem in France. So young people in France are interested in seeing what the rest of the world has to offer? They think that there might be interesting jobs, exciting experiences, money to be made, a better immediate future elsewhere, outside of France…So what? Why so much shameful soul-searching?

The shame and the handwringing—oh, the opprobrium of an expatriated youth!—is rooted in another tacit belief about France, one that goes deep into the identity of this country which has always been a land of immigration and a not emigration (unlike Ireland, Italy, or Spain, there has never been a French diaspora). The belief is that there is no good reason that you should you want to leave France.

The French seem to be experiencing this trend of youth expatriation as a kind of slap in the face, a reproach to its image of itself as an irresistible land of opportunity capable of nurturing a successful elite. Today, there are over 150,000 18 to 25-year-olds living abroad. The French could view it as a salutary leap onto the globalization train, with its best and its brightest going out into the increasingly borderless global economy. Instead they’re wondering why the best and the brightest just don’t want to stick around anymore.

Somewhere that is not France is where 150,000 young French people have immigrated.

Somewhere that is not France is where 150,000 young French people have immigrated.

But the question of what’s wrong with France isn’t just a question of pride. The reality, aside from this French crisis of identity—What? Pastures are greener elsewhere?—is that that there are very real reasons that the bright young things of France want to leave, and it’s not just to get a flavour of the great wide world. And France should be worried about these reasons.

First, there’s the level of youth unemployment in France, with 25% of the French under the age of 25 who are jobless. That means that fully one quarter of France’s youth can’t get a first job. But the European average for youth unemployment is actually not much lower, at 23,3%. So, arguably, that problem is not a uniquely French one. (In Spain, it’s 50%, in Italy, 40%).

The uniquely French aspect of its youth’s expatriation is that a disproportionately large number of those leaving are highly-educated graduates: 12% have a PhD (when only 1% of all French youths have a PhD), 41% have a Master’s degree, and over a third have at least one to three years of higher education. So it’s not so much that 25% who are registered as unemployed who are leaving—that would make sense, and France might have an easier time forgiving itself and blaming the economic crisis.

Instead, the expatriates are a much smaller percentage of its elite, freshly graduated and, theoretically, highly recruitable. Except they are choosing to start out in life elsewhere. In part it’s because they want to seize the wonderful opportunity to broaden their horizons and see the world—no offense to France!—and they can, precisely because they have prestigious degrees, access to the know-how, and the professional networks to get a job abroad.

Sciences Po, one of France's elite universities, whose students are probably choosing to go abroad.

Sciences Po, one of France’s elite universities, whose students are probably choosing to go abroad.

A few weeks ago, I moderated a debate at the university of Sciences Po—one of the prestigious French institutions whose graduates are going abroad—whose topic was, “Is France a country one must leave at all costs?” The panellists—who included Helene Conway-Mouret, the junior minister in charge of French nationals abroad—all agreed that was preposterous. They agreed that certainly youths are leaving, but mainly by choice, and that it is a good thing.

But there’s also a much more disgruntled portion of this expatriating population.  And undoubtedly it’s their story that’s keeping the question going in the media. These young expatriates say they don’t feel they have any choice but to leave, claiming that only the graduates of France’s most elite traditional institutions are getting good jobs. That opportunities offered are few, poorly paid, below the level of responsibility that their educational background might justifiably lead them to expect.

They describe a professional world that is, for the most part, conservative and risk-averse, a culture that expects them to work their way quietly up through low-paying junior jobs for years before, by virtue finally of seniority acquired, getting a chance at something more ambitious.

What’s pushing these kids to leave is simply the impression that it’s not going to happen for them in France, because France isn’t a happening place. There is an ambient sense of a lack of dynamism, of creative energy, of risk-taking and giving the improbable-but-promising a chance. It’s this culture that they’re not finding in France and that they’re seeking elsewhere.

Exotic Geneva.

Exotic Geneva.

The preferred destinations are Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Germany—not really destinations where you go in search of exoticism. They are places that, professionally, offer a sense of opportunity and sheer possibility that this self-conscious and handwringing nation had better start figuring out how to create.

Right now, a majority of the French expatriates polled plan on coming back. But coming back to what? That’s what France should be worrying about.

I Have Just Launched a New Platform for News About France: Check It Out and Like It!

News about France in fresh, snappy bites you'll want to share.

News about France in fresh, snappy bites you’ll want to share.

For those of you who follow this blog or read it occasionally, you’re probably interested in France, or interested in figuring out what makes France and the French so…French. That’s what I try to figure out every week in the features I post here, where I try to go a little bit further than the headlines.

And now L’Amie américaine will also be bringing you those headlines. I have just launched a newsfeed about France on Facebook so you can truly be au courant of what’s happening in France. Easily, quickly, seamlessly integrated into your Facebook feed.

It’s also called L’Amie américaine and it’s a platform for news about all things French. It’s meant to be informative and fresh, quick and snappy. It’s complementary to this blog, which publishes a longer weekly piece. Follow L’Amie américaine’s Facebook feed to get a different kind of French fix–from the economy to gastronomy, from politics to lifestyle, from hard news to the Twitter buzz–in short bursts of news.

The brief: it’s a stream of news that will give you a sense of knowing–and understanding–everything that’s trending in France today. So please click here and “Like” it to follow!

Post your comments to the feed and let me know what you think.

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Why French Men Are Upset About Being Deprived of Prostitutes

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A little know aspect of French culture, amidst all of this love of the good life and pleasure, is a tendency to scold. Not like S&M-y sexy scolding, but disparaging scolding. American parents with children in the French school system are the first to notice and deplore it (the former Paris correspondent of Time magazine, Peter Gumbel, even wrote a whole book about the scolding of poor schoolchildren).

But for the French it is second nature, they like the principle of a little admonishment. Which is why it’s so interesting that the latest people to object to this inherently French scolding are actually French men. Who are irate about being scolded…for seeing prostitutes.

At first impression, this kind of “scolding” might seem relatively legit: when are men actually encouraged to go see prostitutes? But the facts are a little more complex. A big debate has arisen in France in recent weeks surrounding the proposal of a new law, to be debated in parliament today, that would penalize the clients of prostitutes. In other words, penalize men for paying to have sex with women.

Prostitution in France is not illegal. And a law passed a few years ago that made the act of soliciting illegal is most likely about to be repealed. The idea is to sanction not the prostitutes, but their clients: to fine men 1500 Euros if they are caught paying for sex (and twice that if they are caught again). There is also some discussion about other sanctions, like mandatory sensitivity training on the abusive nature of prostitution.

So what exactly is the law targeting, if it isn’t looking to make prostitution itself illegal? This particular measure is a good illustration of the age-old debate about the age-old profession in France (and lots of other places). On the one hand, the prohibitionists, people who support criminalizing clients and prostitutes, and essentially prohibiting the practice of prostitution, not unlike the way prohibition in the US sought to suppress the use of alcohol. On the other hand, the abolitionists, those who support criminalizing the clients and not the prostitutes, whom they consider victimized enough already, with the idea that if no one is buying—if there’s no demand—then prostitution will disappear.

The celebrity petition: Against Anti-Prostituion Laws, For Freedom.

The celebrity petition: Against Anti-Prostituion Laws, For Freedom.

But the idea of targeting clients has got quite a few men (and some women on behalf of men) quite angry. These men are indignant because they think they’re being gratuitously scolded for simply enjoying the freedom of having whatever kind of consensual sex—paid or unpaid, with their partners or with prostitutes—they want. They see this measure as demonizing all male sexuality. A number of male celebrities and high-profile men in media signed a petition denouncing the proposed law, claiming that it turns men into “sex-starved perverts and psychopaths,” and that it’s a campaign of “repression disguised as a feminist cause.” They say that penalizing the male desire to possibly pay for sex implies—scoldingly!—that male sexuality is brutish and essentially uncontrollable unless penalized by a fine.

The petition’s jaunty-slash-belligerent tone caused some controversy, but then a highly-respected French feminist and intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter, known for her often singular positions on feminist issues, quite spectacularly flew to the defense of these men who feel unfairly admonished. In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, she said the proposed law is “a declaration of hate against male sexuality,” and that government has no business “legislating on the sexual activity of individuals.” She too thinks the measure amounts to arbitrary scolding and disparagement.

Which, ironically, is just so terribly French to begin with. And in fact, in some ways, this whole affair does feel like a bunch of schoolboys bristling at being unfairly chided. The men think they’re being preemptively punished for something they’re not guilty of, being deprived of fun they’re perfectly entitled to have. As those who signed the petition said, “Whether we actually do occasionally pay for carnal relations or not, we would never under any circumstances do anything without the consent of our partners.” They’re free, prostitutes are free, and everyone should be free to consent to the kind of sex they want.

"The Procuress", by Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. The freedom to dispose of one's body in the 17th century.

“The Procuress”, by Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. The freedom to dispose of one’s body in the 17th century.

Except that it’s completely unrealistic to think that, but for a very small minority of women, there is anything truly free about prostitutes choosing to have sex with clients. I understand the principle of personal liberty underlying the men’s petition and Badinter’s objections. And in principle, they’re right: the state has no business, really, telling men what kind of sex they should or shouldn’t have. But the idea that prostitutes are just as free in their consent as male clients is ridiculous.

In France, it’s estimated that up to 90% of prostitutes are foreigners, for the most part caught up in mafia-controlled networks and often victims of human trafficking. Prostitution isn’t exactly a choice for them. These women aren’t actually free to dispose of their bodies as they wish—this freedom being one of Badinter’s arguments for objecting to this kind of legislation—in the first place.

Because even if they were free of the pimps who control them, and free of the economic circumstances that probably drove them to this kind of lifestyle, they would never be free from scrutiny and judgment. The notion that prostitutes and clients are entering into a freely consensual compact is an illusion; there is an absolute asymmetry of power. Everyone may be “free” and “consenting” in theory, but ultimately the women the johns pay to screw will only ever be whores, in their eyes and in everybody else’s. That’s not freedom.

One view of the proposed law.

One view of the proposed law.

I think that there are other, better, reasons to object to this measure. Like the possibility that it will actually make prostitutes worse off by pushing prostitution out of sight, away from city centers, and making the women even more marginalized and vulnerable (a position taken by another more moderately worded celebrity petition that has circulated). But if men here are feeling unduly scolded right now, I actually think that this is one instance where it’s not just the French being arbitrarily disparaging. It’s not a bunch of schoolmarmish French feminists rapping on knuckles because they can.

It’s about a few lawmakers trying to unveil a nasty reality that even the loftiest French principles of sexual liberty can’t hide.

Why French Media Is So Afraid of Innovation

Afraid of innovation?

Afraid of innovation?

I don’t think it’s unfair to say, with all the affection I have for France and the French way of doing things, that there is often a 10-year lag between the US and France. This can sound like a long time, and it is. But the Atlantic Ocean is vast, I suppose. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, for example, in the context of hipsters, a species spotted for the first time in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, around 1999 or so and still popping up in Belleville in Paris today. Other things with some delay: customer service, e-commerce, day spas…oh and the internet and media.

But when it comes to media, the past month here in Paris has been uncharacteristically disruptive in the most positive and innovation-driven sense of the term, with not one, but four new digital media start-ups being announced. None, strangely (but for reasons about which I will speculate below) seems to have created much buzz…even though one of the launches was Buzzfeed France.

Capture d’écran 2013-11-22 à 19.54.37

Recognize this? Cat LOL’s evidently don’t get lost in translation.

Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison between U.S. and French media, just by virtue of the sheer size of the (totally unregulated) American market: hundreds of cable television channels, thousands of newspapers, dozens of internet-only news websites with traffic that surpasses the websites of traditional media, plus bloggers, aggregators, curated crowd-sourced content, hugely popular amateur content, mobile-only content. It is an extraordinarily vibrant, highly-innovative, frenetically disruptive media market. There are new ideas (and new jobs) being created all the time in the media industry in the U.S. They can also risk going away just as fast as they came, too.

France…is different. There is some of the same stuff, but much less of it; and then some of the new stuff just hasn’t made it here yet. Arguably, when it comes to the development of new internet-only media (really not much), to the transformation of traditional media and their adaptation to digital platforms and mobile (slow), to the creation of new mobile-only media (none yet really), you could say that France is not very efficient.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

I often wonder what they’re waiting for, and I speculate that it has something to do with the inefficiencies of a media market dominated by public media behemoths like France Télévisions and Radio France, for whom implementing change is a hugely complex, slow-moving, procedural enterprise. France is actually (improbably) ranked among the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to industry and research (only Japan and the U.S. are ahead of it). Why not when it comes to media?

I also speculate that it has something to do with a layer of upper management in newsrooms and networks that is, for the most part, a club of male baby-boomers. This is a delicate speculation to make and so I proceed with caution, as 50- and 60-something male management is not necessarily a barrier to change, it’s just that youth and diversity tend to encourage innovation and that the only diversity you’ll find at the head of French newsrooms is the occasional woman.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

But innovation is coming, slowly, as these past few weeks demonstrate. After Buzzfeed France, the French version of the famous American listicle site earlier this month, yesterday came the announcement of Rue 89 Weekend, a tablet-only weekend edition of one of France’s most successful internet-only news sites, Last week, the news site L’important was launched, introducing a whole new genre of media to the French landscape: a website produced in partnership with (France’s other most popular internet-only news site) that curates and aggregates the most relevant news tweets sourced, the founder says, from a network of volunteer twitterers all over the world.

And lastly, Canal Plus, the biggest paying channel in France (essentially the French HBO in terms of its importance in the French media landscape), announced the creation of 20 new YouTube channels in partnership with the video-sharing platform where they’ll feature all of their catch-up TV programming, and—this is the more interesting announcement—the creation of Canal Factory, a new brand dedicated to finding and producing talent and content exclusively for the web.

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It’s all a nice little spike of innovation catch-up. But none of these launches are actual start-ups, really: they’re all new projects related to pre-existing media (Rue 89, Mediapart, Canal Plus), or just the local iteration of…an American media (Buzzfeed). I’m not diminishing the merit of these projects, all of which I actually find really interesting and pretty ambitious (especially for France!), but nor is the French media really paying much attention either. If you Google the news about Canal Factory, there are practically more top-ranked entries in English than in French.

Maybe it’s a good thing that these new media launches don’t create the same kind of media scrutiny that most launches get in US media, with a whole industry parsing the project—its funding, its content, its founders, its revenue streams—before the first consumer has even clicked. Or maybe the traditional French media is just playing ostrich.

In any case, I will also speculate that the media industry can’t afford to take ten years to catch up this time. They might want to take their heads out of the sand.