Count Basie made it into one of the most popular pieces of the big-band jazz era, brass and solo horn and discreet piano — the bandleader himself — keeping the melody from going overboard with happiness or letting the contrasting melancholy get very far. But it is indeed the contrasting moods of “April in Paris” that made it a perennial favorite.
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
No one can ever reprise
Maybe it was on the mind of the young-old king of England as he prepared to make his first visit as monarch to the old hereditary rival France. He would even get a jump on April, scheduling the trip for this week, ahead of a (presumably) more staid and heel-clicking visit with relatives east of the Rhine — the Windsors have some sort of connection there, but I forget what it is — and then hither and yon, because, face it, Charles III could use a little break from the family ruckuses at home.
No luck, decidedly. The French prudently called off a scheduled meeting with President Emmanuel Macron in the splendid Versailles palace, underscoring newfound amity following the chill of Brexit. But mutual congratulations in the high-end while the wretched of the earth burned down the capital next door must have looked like a poor play by a government that has already suffered several years of reproach as the most foot-in-their-mouth, tone-deaf, disconnected, haughty-and-arrogant, stubborn-and-stupid administration in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Which, it is true, may be unfair to the late Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and to the still-kicking-but-legally-challenged Nicolas Sarkozy, and let us not forget Mr. Macron’s predecessor, the butt of a thousand cuts for trying to escape the Elysée Palace (their White House) in disguise and on a scooter for an assignation with his mistress, an aspiring movie person.
But apart from PR, which decidedly is a factor in politics, notably where there is freedom of speech and press, the hosts had to consider that the trains are on strike and King C wanted to try out the famous French high-speed train, which may or may not be eco-friendlier than the roadways. My guess is he planned to do it my own favorite way, which is you take a train at Waterloo Station to Dover, get on the Hovercraft, glide over the waves to Calais, transfer to rail — the legendary TGV, train à grande vitesse — and drink a few brandies while planning a night on the town, dreaming of Doris Day in the movie version of April in Paris. Boy was she lovely.
But it was not to be. The cheminots — trainmen — are striking, and you cannot rely on posted schedules. The air-space people and pilots are striking too, so that would be out. The king could fly over on a RAF transport, but that PR factor again — people would spread the rumor that Macron is planning a coup against his own people or something.
This recurring revolt against reform can be viewed as a chronic case of timorous self-interest.
In 1791, a French monarch — Louis the No. 16 — tried to hightail it out of Paris, which at the time was in the hands of a sans-culotte — no-pants — mob of political hotheads, with the thought of putting his family in a safe place with some of his wife’s Austrian — Hapsburg, if you want to know — relatives so that he could deal with the opposition in the only way that works, grapeshot and cannon. That was the rumor; Louis was by all accounts a peaceful man who did not want civil war. The get-out-of-Dodge plan was botched, possibly due to romantic issues, and the whole family was brought back to Paris under guard, and the no-pants men killed them after legal travesties that anticipated the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s.
The lesson of history here is pretty clear, and Charles III scarcely needs reminding; he knows what happened to his ancestor Charles the First, mid-17th century.
There have been labor-led strikes and violent demonstrations in many French cities for the past two weeks or more, on the pretext that the government proposed some reforms to the complicated and expensive French pension system. Matters worsened when the government, which has a shaky majority in the parliament and was not sure it could enforce party discipline, passed the proposed reform bill without a vote by the legislature.
This is permitted under the Fifth Republic Constitution, on condition that the government then submit to a vote of confidence. It has been done about a hundred times in the past, and admittedly Macron has used it rather freely, lending himself to criticism that he has monarchial delusions, which is not entirely fanciful — he used to compare himself to Jupiter.
In this case the government survived two no-confidence motions, though the votes were a bit close for comfort. This had the effect of encouraging the anti-reform protesters, while the labor unions maintained their strike orders. Pro-reform parliamentarians are receiving vile, fascistic, often anti-Semitic letters, and scores of cops have been wounded while maintaining order and security.
All-united demos are planned for this week, an escalation that cannot fail to remind a few retirees of the heady days of May 1968, when prohibitions on same-gender swimming pool hours in university rec centers led to riots and strike movements that gave the Fifth Republic’s founder and first president, Charles de Gaulle, a serious jolt.
In an irony the pro-Europe Macron will not appreciate, the Council of Europe, a kind of wise-men forum that is supposed to take the Olympian view of current affairs and pay special regard to human rights, has expressed “concern” for the violence in France — not the violence directed against the uniforms that guard people and property but the alleged rough handling of perps who have been caught throwing stones and excrement (in plastic bags) at them. (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: Warrants and Indictments and Rising International Dangers)
Is such acrimony needed, as a hot war wrecks a European country a thousand miles away, a little more than the distance between Washington and Chicago? This is what the French really care about, that retirement benefits should be readjusted to account for changing demographics? The main point of contention is that Macron wants most retirement plans to kick in at age 64 rather than 62.
French pension plans are a maze of regulations, exemptions, entitlements, special cases, and, from a foreigner’s and by no means unfriendly perspective, they could use more than some age adjustments. Workers in the state sector as well as the private sector see their pensions endangered every time a government tries to make some budgetary or age-deferential tweaks. Since the 1990s, every reform proposal has floundered under the threat of massive demonstrations, strikes, and electoral backlashes.
This recurring revolt against reform can be viewed as a chronic case of timorous self-interest because the debate is perennially focused on the worker-to-retiree factor, whereas, in fact, the management of pension funds in a dynamic economy is what matters, if you insist on looking at it from an accounting perspective, rather than as a question of social generosity that requires everyone to chip in to sustain decency and solidarity. This could mean higher taxes, probably inevitable anyway.
Politically, however, it is much easier to say that Macron wants to penalize the blue-collar oldsters because he is the “president of the rich” who worked for the Rothschild bank. Sadly but truly, anti-Semitic demagogy is never distant from the kind of demagogic populism that has been harnessed, across party affiliations, against Macron’s effort.
Maybe things will calm down, though by now both sides are talking about regime change on one side, saving the republic from insurrection on the other. They ought to all go home and turn on the vinyl…
I never knew the charm of spring
Never met it face to face
I never new my heart could sing
Never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris, whom can I run to?
What have you done to my heart?