Posts Tagged ‘France’

Moulin Rogue

Posted in General on October 21st, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

On this day–October 21–in 1858, Jacques Offenbach endeared himself to posterity, particularly cartoon animators and advertising agencies, by premiering this music.

Clique ici.

His Can Can music is one of the world’s most popular and exploited numbers. You have heard it accompany household cleansers and frantic Looney Tunes. And why not? His music is delightful and, more importantly, those studios and ad agencies don’t have to pay him a cent in royalties. When you have been dead for 128 years, you have very few legal rights. True, Offenbach would be a very rich man if he ever resurrected; but Offenbachs usually don’t. (Wrong theology.)

Offenbach would also be bewildered by the reason for his acclaim. He had never intentionally composed music for the Can Can. Tres ironique, n’est-ce pas? The music we most associate with the Can Can was actually written for the operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The operetta is a comic retelling of the Orpheus myth that mirrored French society at the time. In this Gallic Olympus, Zeus is a likable rogue while Hera is respectable but humorless. (It was said that the Emperor Louis Napoleon was amused, but the Empress Eugenie was not.) At the operetta’s conclusion, the Gods merrily dance off to the Underworld to the musical accompaniment of a certain tune.

The Gods may have gone to Hell, and the Second Empire certainly did (courtesy of the Richard Wagner fan club), but Offenbach’s music stayed around. It became the melodies which we most associate with night life of Fin de Siecle Paris. There is no Can Can without Offenbach.

That would have been a problem for the collaborationist Vichy Government during World War II. While it would have had no qualms about transporting Offenbach himself to an unspecified location in Poland, his music was too popular to disappear. Furthermore, the German officers in Paris would expect to see the Can Can, and Vichy would hate to disappoint them. But the dance did require music.

So was the composer of the Can Can music suddenly anonymous or had Vichy belated discovered that Saint-Saens had written it? Offenbach probably wouldn’t have been surprised; he was familiar with French farce.

Tours de Farce

Posted in General on October 10th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

The battle of Tours, fought this day in 732, is listed among the most important battles in history. It certainly is the only time that the French were underestimated. Having brushed aside the lumbering Visigoth clods in Spain, the Arabs assumed that the Franks would be just another trifle. And in theory, they were right. In the 8th century, Gallia was once again in three parts: two independent dukedoms and a weak kingdom fighting with each other. In planning their invasion of France, the Arabs discounted the possiblity of any real and organized resistance.

The Duchy of Aquitaine did not contradict the Arabs’ contempt. Southwestern France was quickly conquered. The most significant Arab losses were from hernias carrying the loot. Indeed, the sheer amount of plunder slowed down the Arabs’ invasion of central France. Their light cavalry had become quite heavy. That delay gave the desperate French two advantages. The first was weather. October in France would not seem a problem to most invaders; the Russians would be in bathing suits. But the Arabs were miserably cold; and their French loot evidently did not include long underwear. Thirty thousand sneezing Arabs are a less formidable foe, but the French still had to fight them.

The slow pace of the Arab invasion allowed the French time to gather an army, but this force was not the typical medieval ensemble of jealous nobles and undisciplined peasants. No, this was a real army with a capable leader. In fact, the French commander was not even a noble, at least a legitimate one. Being a bastard Charles Martel had worked his way up, surviving battles and court politics. He had the earned the rank of Mayor of the Palace. which was more important than it sounds. He was the military commander of the Franks and wielded far more power than the actual king, the incredibly trivial Theuderich IV.

To protect France–and himself–Charles had established a professional, full-time army. (Charles had financed this army by expropriating Church property. None too thrilled, the Church threatened to excommunicate him but decided that he was a lesser evil than an Arab invasion.)

The Arab army was sluggishly advancing on the city of Tours and was surprised to find Charles’ army, along with the reinforcements from the rest of France, standing in the way. As a further inconvenience to the Arabs, Charles used tactics, positioning his army on a wooded ridge. Arab cavalry, riding uphill through trees, was at a definite disadvantage. In fact, the disadvantage was so obvious that the Arab commander spent six days trying to come to a decision: should he attack or withdraw? It was not a pleasant choice. If he withdrew, the Caliph would probably kill him. If he attacked, the French would probably kill him. Of course, if he attacked and–with Allah working overtime–won….So, he did attack; unfortunately, a sizeable portion of his army did not. These Arabs were too intent on guarding their plunder from the possibility of French pillagers (pickpocketing mimes, etc.) that they abstained from the battle. They were willing to live with the shame…and the loot. And they did live with both. The commander was not so lucky, and much of the Arab army died with him.

Because the Arab strategists (Paleo-Cons?) back in Spain had never considered the possibility of defeat, the Arab invasion had not even organized a clear chain of command. There was no one to succeed the dead commander. With the officers feuding and the army battered, the Arab force averted complete disintegration only by retreating back to Spain. The Arab threat to Western Europe was over, at least until O.P.E.C.

France was saved–but so were the Dark Ages.

The Measure of a Man

Posted in General, On This Day on April 7th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

On this day in 1795, France adopted the meter as the standard unit of length. Revolutionary France obviously needed a new system of measurement; it had just cut off the tops of its old rulers.

Napoleon, however, was not that crazy about the Metric system. Perhaps under the old system, he seemed taller. While his conquering armies acted like liberals on steroids, and abolished serfdom, the Inquisition and the other medieval relics that still enslaved Europe, they did not attempt to impose the metric system. There were limits to Napoleon’s audacity.

Yet, where liberty, equality and fraternity have yet to take hold, the Metric system has. Of the allegedly advanced countries of the world, only the United States adheres to a medieval system of weights and measures. The length of the yard was said to be determined by Henry I of England; it was the distance from his nose to his outstretched end of his arm. Since Henry sired 21 children (only two with his wife) you can just imagine what other appendage he might have set as a standard of measurement.

Perhaps we should be grateful that 12 inches is called a foot.

And Today’s Special Guest Victim Is…

Posted in General, On This Day on March 23rd, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

If embezzlers and MBAs had a Hall of Fame, Nicolas Fouquet would be shamelessly prominent. As the Minister of Finance during the early reign of Louis XIV, Fouquet maintained a bookkeeping system modeled after the Gordian Knot. It could be said that he would collect all the revenues but was willing to share some with the government, or at least the officials he liked.

Fouquet had the finest home in France. It seems unlikely that he afforded it just by brownbagging his lunches. The thought certainly occurred to Louis XIV, who evidently resented being the social inferior of his minister. The King ordered Fouquet arrested for embezzlement. There was a public trial, and the verdict could hardly be in doubt, but the judges proved unusally sympathetic to the accused. (Had they been past recipients of Fouquet’s generosity?) They sentenced him to banishment; you might well suspect that Fouquet planned a comfortable exile. The King, however, overruled that lenient sentence and condemned Fouquet to life imprisonment. The disgraced minister spent the last fifteen years of his life in a less than luxurious cell. He died this day in 1680.

His second career began in the 1930s. Someone in Hollywood had been reading Alexandre Dumas. The 19th century French novelist apparently had screenplays in mind. “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” had been box office hits, and the studios wanted more. While Dumas himself was no longer available, he had been prolific and his works included a sequel to The Three Musketeers. Based on a legend about a prisoner in the Bastille, the story was known as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

Dumas had imagined that the title character was Philippe the twin brother of Louis XIV, hidden from birth but now the center of a plot to substitute him on the throne. In the novel, the younger brother was the unknowing pawn of ambitious men. Their attempted coup fails, however, due to the heroism of D’Artagnan and the shrewdness of a government minister named Fouquet. The real king is saved (even if France isn’t) and Philippe is condemned to the Bastille where his royal features are covered by an iron mask.

It seemed like another swashbuckler perfect for Hollywood…except for one problem: the villains. In Dumas’ novel the conspirators were the Jesuits, led by the renegade musketeer Aramis. Hollywood was not prepared to vilify the Catholic Church (although the Church never has been shy about vilifying Hollywood). So, a new villain had to be created.

Poor Fouquet already had a criminal record. Since he was an embezzler, why not make him a traitor, too? So, from helping to foil the plot, Fouquet became the mastermind of it.

But then Hollywood came up with yet another improvement on the plot. Instead of making poor Philippe a malleable cipher, portray him as a noble alternative to his wicked older brother Louis–and have the plot succeed. Good Philippe would secretly replaced Louis, who then would become The Man in the Iron Mask. Of course, Fouquet would still have to be a villain, but he would prove his intrinsic evil by being loyal to the legitimate King.

The logic of the plot was very similar to Fouquet’s Gordian bookkeeping. Dumas would have been dismayed; he actually seemed to like the wily minister. In fact, Dumas even gives Fouquet one of the novel’s few jokes.

Fouquet has heard rumors of the twin prince. He asks a trusted henchman, “Do you recall some mystery surrounding the birth of Louis XIV?”

The aide replies, “Do you mean that Louis XIII was not the father?”

Fouquet corrects him, “I said a mystery.”

The Strange Bedfellows of Louis XII

Posted in On This Day on January 8th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 8, 1499

Let’s congratulate Louis XII and Anne of Britanny on their wedding anniversary. The customary gift (after the 75th anniversary) is formaldehyde. It was a second marriage for both, and the groom deserves special congratulations for surviving his first father-in-law: Louis XI!

If Karl Rove has a French role model, it must be Louis XI. One of the greatest dirty tricksters of history, his intrigues and machinations earned him the epithet “The Spider King“.

Louis XI was a genius at undermining his rivals, real and hypothetical. He fomented civil war in England, subsidizing the Lancasters and Tudors in their dynastic struggle that exhausted France’s oldest enemy. He undermined the Duchy of Burgundy, igniting a series of rebellions that eventually destroyed both the Duke and his vast duchy; and Louis managed to acquire many of the fragments. (He did fail to coerce the orphaned heiress of Burgundy to marry his son; she preferred the good-looking Hapsburg boy to the son of her father’s killer.)

However, his nastiest strategem was how he dealt with his second cousin, the Duke of Orleans. The Duke, the other Louis, was a virtuous and careful man, so he did nothing to justify even a suspicion of treason. Yet, his mere existence was a potential threat to the King and his young heir. If England could have dynastic wars, why not France. Louis XI wanted to eliminate even the potential for a threat. If he couldn’t blatantly kill the Orleans line, he did have a way to sterilize it.

The King had a daughter Jeanne who was crippled and incapable of having children. In most cases, the handicapped children of royalty and the aristocracy were sent off to the church, where they could be forgotten. The Spider King, however, had a more practical idea. He forced the Duke of Orleans to marry Jeanne. What could the Duke do? A refusal would have been treason.

That should have been the end of the House of Orleans. When Louis XI died in 1483, he was succeeded by his son Charles VIII. Charles coerced another orphaned heiress, Anne the Duchess of Brittany, to marry him. None of their children survived 15th century medicine, however; and when Charles died in 1498, guess who succeeded him? The next in the succession was the Duke of Orleans, now Louis XII.

(So, the nastiest trick of Louis XI really didn’t work; but you have to marvel at its evil.)

The new King wanted his marriage annulled and divulged all the conjugal challenges before Pope Alexander VI. Since the Pope had six children, he saw no reason for a king to be celibate. Jeanne was obliged to announce her retirement to a convent. The now bachelor King married the widow of Charles VIII. As it turned out, Anne of Britanny had one leg shorter than the other. However, this handicap could be surmounted…ahem. Their union produced at least some healthy daughters. (Louis XII would be succeeded by his son-in-law Francis I.)

Queen Anne died in 1514, and political considerations obliged Louis XII to marry again. But this time, the middle-aged man was presented with a healthy, very pretty teenage bride: Mary, the younger sister of Henry VIII. Louis was delighted–finally. But, to quote Shakespeare, “how strange desire should so outlive capacity”! Louis was dead within four months: the diagnosis was over-exertion.

It had to be an amusing funeral. Louis definitely was laid to rest.

p.s. The teenage widow returned to England where (unprecedented in this narrative) she then married someone she actually loved. And she lived happily ever after–until she died at the age of 37. Even true love couldn’t conquer 16th century medicine.

How France Lost Canada

Posted in General on October 18th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

I know how eager you are to learn more details about the Huguenots and French colonial policies. How can I refuse you….

Protestants were prohibited in the French colonies. In fact, it seems that no one was allowed in New France. France and England began colonizing North America at the same time, in the early 1600s. One hundred fifty years later, at the start of the French & Indian War, New France encompassed most of Canada, from the Atlantic to west of Lake Superior, as well as the Ohio Valley and the Mississippi Valley down to the Gulf of Mexico. The total population was approximately 100,000. By contrast the British colonies, wedged between the Atlantic and Appalachian Mountains, had a population of 2.5 million.

Britain had allowed anyone to migrate: paupers, minor criminals, superfluous sons and religious loonies. By contrast, France had a suffocatingly restrictive immigration policy. No one could just book a ticket to Quebec or New Orleans. The royal adminstrators had to approve of each and every applicant. If Quebec did not need an extra baker that year–or decade– that baker was staying in France. There was a shortage of women in the French colonies, and few female applicants. To alleviate this situation, the French government did ship arrested prostitutes to New France.

The sparse population of New France was a strategic disadvantage against the teeming populace of the British colonies. However, it did make many of the native American tribes more inclined to ally with France. Consider the tribes’ choice: put yourself in their place. On one side, there are 2.5 million British colonists who want to steal your land and kill you. On the other side, there are 100,000 French who only complain about your eating buffalo with white wine.