Au Bistro

Light and Shadow on Pope's Visit

le Sorbon

by Ric Erickson

Paris:- Saturday, 21. September 1996:- Pope John-Paul II arrived at Tours during a rainstorm on Thursday for his fifth visit to France. He did not look well as he left the Alitalia jet and the press has been speculating endlessly about his health.

Under a brilliantly clear sky on Friday, he seemed much more robust as he made his rounds to meet 120,000 Catholic faithful in Brittany, at Ste-Anne-d'Auray. Today he was again in Tours, and tomorrow he flies to Reims to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of Clovis' baptism by Saint Remi.

In a poll conducted by CSA, published in Thursday's editions of Le Parisien, 34 percent of the French polled declared they had doubts about the Pope's actions and 17 percent were strongly opposed, leaving him an approval rating of 37 percent. In response to another question, 70 percent agreed that John-Paul II was either conservative or traditional, while only 27 percent thought he was open to reality or progressive. Compared to polls conducted eight years previously, doubt has risen dramatically.

In France, 67 percent of the population is Catholic; but only 13 percent are practicing. A full quarter of the population claims no religion. The remainder are two percent Muslim, two for Protestants, one for Jews and three percent for 'others.' The number of priests are down by 8,000 to 30,200 since 1980.

France is a Republic and by law, the church is divorced from the state. A lot of people take this seriously, and security forces are on the alert for disruptions by ultra-Republicans, who have, so far, have contented themselves with speeches. Nevertheless, the French air force is on the alert for low-flying ULMs - to prevent leaflet bombing runs on the 'Popemobile,' a converted four-door Mercedes jeep.

For the anti-Papists and the health-chroniclers, the Pope has promised a return visit - to Paris - on Friday, the 15th of August, 1997.

'Dirty Talk' Gains Participants in France

In last week's Metropole Diary column, I expressed the hope, under the title, 'Dirty Talk in France,' that somebody in France would get up and out-talk Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right Front National Party.

I'm sure it was the purest co-incidence, but while I was writing that opinion, François Léotard was blasting Le Pen at a Republican meeting at Rognes. The President of the UDF party said, "Le Pen stubbornly incarnates, one who is proposing to France the slow and terrible policy of hate. This puppet, Le Pen, manipulated by his own grudges, is the obstinate incarnation of smallness of heart and reason. His is a France of small grudges, little weaknesses, minor ambitions," but to Le Pen, "it is also, remember, a France of great betrayals."

And that was only Monday. It was in reaction to a speech Le Pen made last weekend. On Monday evening by one of his lieutenants called the French Republic 'rotten.'

On Tuesday, the Conference of the Bishops of France weighed in to the war of words, saying that a Catholic label could not be glued to a bottle full of racist thoughts. The Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Lustiger, said that the inequality of races proposed by Le Pen, was an "old theory of the 19th century," that the church has recognized as a mortal danger for the past half-century.

On Thursday night, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, was reported to have said in Montpellier, "Jean-Marie Le Pen is profoundly, I say deep-seatedly racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic. That is the translation of all his declarations for the last 15 years and one must fight against it." He continued, "We don't want a society in which we are told that some races are superior to others, that Jews do not have their place in the sun, and that xenophobia is the only possible answer."

On Friday, at party headquarters at St. Cloud, west of Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen responded to the Prime Minister's remarks by saying, "I solemnly demand the resignation of the Prime Minister," and said he was going to sue for defamation. He added, "It is evident that Mr. Prime Minister is acting without being in procession of all his powers nor has the equilibrium necessary for running the government."

To be continued, no doubt.

Our Very Own Tabloid News

Lady bank robbers, nicknamed 'The Amazons,' also filled some newspaper columns last week. Five of them, dressed in men's clothes, with fake moustaches, wigs and dark glasses, robbed seven banks - starting with 100,000 francs taken in 1989. The sole man involved - as their driver, on the first job - was dismissed from the gang for being afraid to stop in front of a Crédit Agricole.

They took a year off and recommenced sticking up banks in 1990, sometimes at intervals of two weeks. After one holdup, one of them went grocery shopping with her mother. In July 1990, they retired.

A miserable break-in in July 1991 lead to their arrests and they were held in prison temporarily until 1992, when they were released under judicial control. As their trial got underway Thursday, they are in the news again.

The head prosecutor does not think there is anything picturesque about the group's activities. "Does one have the right to commit hold-ups if one is the mother of the family?" he asked. He reminded the court, that even if society was reproached as being sexist, when one has a firearm in the hand, man or woman, "The result is the same." He demanded penalties from 10 years down to four years, depending on the amount of responsibility of each. One of the ladies, had returned to France from Australia, for the trial.

Although two of the group deny any participation, the defense lawyers are arguing that after the time already spent in prison, after six years of their peaceful co-existence with society - more prison time would be cruel. Verdict: next week.

'Heritage Days' Visitors Up 12 Percent

Last weekend's 'Journées du Patrimoine' drew eight million visitors for its 13th edition. Crowds waited for hours to tour the Hôtel de Sully and the residence of the President of the Assembly National, the 'splendid' Hôtel de Lassay, and the Elysée Palace. The crowd scenes were duplicated around the country,where some natural sites were included for the first time.

Yul Brynner Auction Tops Estimates

Also last week, I announced the Paris auction of the actor Yul Brynner's collection of stage and movie role costumes, to take place on Monday. The black hat he wore for the 'Sept Mercenaires' fetched 73,000 francs, and the total sales amounted to 4,2 million francs - far above the estimate of 1,5 million. His Mexican boots went for 35,000 instead of 2000, and the Colt Peacemaker was carted off for 64,000 francs. Most of the costumes were reportedly bought by Americans. Mr. Brynner died in 1985.

Big Commie Party Scores Success

After I wrote about the big annual Communist Party party last week, I bought Monday's edition of l'Humanité to see how they did. I was surprised to learn that my paper shop only gets two copies of 'L'Huma' daily. The local 'closet royalists' probably outnumber the local 'closet cocos' by 100 to zero - excuse me: 100 to two, and I've probably ripped off somebody's copy.

At noon last Sunday, 230,000 advance tickets had been sold - not counting unreported sales and tickets bought directly at the entries. The newspaper sold 2191 subscriptions, and the PCF itself picked up over 5000 new members. With the Socialist Party drifting towards the centre, and without Moscow hanging around its neck, the French Communist Party is emerging as the serious conscious of the social-left in France. And as the patron of France's biggest pop music festival.

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