Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Chambermaids and French dinner parties

Autumn 2009. A dinner party in western Paris. Roman Polanski has just been arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and there's a separate controversy over culture minister Frederic Mitterrand, who has written about his experiences as a sex tourist in Thailand. The guests are outraged. Not because of the sexual abuse, but because of the philistines who want to bring down two great men over a matter of private mores. Surely sexual freedom is as French as the red wine in our glasses and the foie gras on our plates.
Philistine that I am, I point out that Mitterrand's behaviour isn't exactly a private matter since the sex trade is a form of human exploitation. Just to add a bit of factual evidence to the discussion, I talk about a feature I once wrote about Nigerian prostitutes in Italy, and the harrowing stories the women told me about their work. When I'm done, the French bohemian next to me thoughtfully cradles his wine glass.
"Bien sur, prostitution is exploitation," he says. "But you know what, working in a factory, that's also exploitation!"

I'm in London this week and can't report live from a French dinner table, but reading Bernard-Henri Levy's column about his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest is almost as good. "No one knows" if DSK is guilty of sexual assault, Levy says quite rightly, and he could have left it there. But that wouldn't be quite spicy and controversial enough, so he swiftly adds that the accuser shouldn't have cleaned the room alone, and that another woman who has accused the IMF head of sexual aggression merely "pretends to have been the victim."
And also, poor Greece is going to collapse now, and all because of a chambermaid who shouldn't have cleaned the room alone in the first place.

Because, you know, bien sur, slandering a woman who says she has been sexually assaulted is a form of exploitation*.
But working in the factory of international finance while being distracted by an irritating court case, that's also exploitation.

*Speaking of which: the New York times just reported that DSK's defence lawyers have hired Guidepost Solutions, a global investigations company led by a former federal prosecutor and US Secret Service special agent, to look into the chambermaid's background. There goes her chance of ever having a normal life again, whatever the outcome of the case. Does this happen with any other form of crime? If someone were to burgle my flat, would the defence team hire an investigator to look into my background? "A childhood friend who knew S.H. from 1992-93 reported that she had a history of leaving the front door unlocked." Clearly, she was asking for it!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tongues of Men and Angels

"If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal..."

Yes, it's the Corinthians! And no, we're not at an English wedding, you can put away your fascinator. It's just that I'm reading Paul's letters for a new project, which for once means I'm part of a broader trend. The advantage of living in Paris is that you can spot the hottest new looks before they catch on in the rest of Europe. Spring/Summer 2011 is apparently all about wedge heels and Christianity. Sarkozy himself, that great crusader for secularism, shows it off nicely in this photo of him congratulating some Christian ladies in headscarves on their religious heritage.
("But I thought he was against headscarves," I hear you say, fiddling with your wedge heels. Do keep up, please. Headscarves are only bad when they're Muslim headscarves.)

So, the Corinthians. I was reading the King James version, eagerly scanning the pages for the best bit - because the passage about love is, after all, very, very beautiful. There's a reason why it's a wedding classic.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I couldn't find it.
I went back to the beginning and read the letter again, more slowly this time, and realised why I had missed it: in the King James version, the Greek word for love is translated as charity. As in: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity..."

This made me sit up because two days ago, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail about charity, lack of. She'd been attending a European Union event where people with long, important titles were congratulating each other on inventing free travel, human rights, correctly shaped bananas and, yes, charity. That was on the day the Guardian reported that 61 migrants had been left to die of thirst and hunger on a boat in the Mediterranean. 

My friend failed to specify what tongue those charitable EU souls were speaking in. In any case, their self-congratulation chimed nicely with this recent quote from Sarkozy, who was clearly speaking in the tongue of a politician seeking reelection:
"Christianity has given (France)...a magnificent heritage of civilisation," he declared during his springtime visit to Puy-en-Velay, where he met the nuns in the photo, adding that it's "always dangerous to amputate your memory."

Sarkozy is a busy man, flitting between nuns and summits with Italy over reinstating EU border controls to keep out those huddled boat people. So I thought I'd to my bit to prevent the amputation of our memory with this slightly adjusted passage from the King James bible, as a reminder to myself and all those men, angels, presidents and English wedding guests out there:

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself.
Charity turneth not away North African immigrants at the border, nor seeketh to abolish free travel, nor trumpeteth its hard-core immigration policy to win votes from the far right.