Still, France is a place that Ken Starr and I have come to know and love. In an uncanny way, almost every time I come to Paris, Kenneth?who, in France, is probably the best-known American outside of Bill Gates, and the most reviled one outside of whoever the U.S. Trade Representative happens to be?pops up to haunt my thoughts. In 1997, when I was in Paris to cover the parliamentary elections and Clinton was on a tour of Europe to celebrate the anniversary of the Marshall Plan and eat, the Supreme Court announced that Paula Jones' lawsuit against the President could proceed. This drove domestic election news out of the papers, taught me the word "pantalonnade" and turned Kenneth Starr into a household name. Last year, I arrived en plein scandale, days after the release of the Starr report. And last week, I was greeted on my arrival from Berlin by front-page stories about Starr's retirement.
Experiencing the Starr regime through the eyes of the French has been a real treat. While I ultimately came down on the French side?you don't impeach a fellow for a zipper problem?the absolute unwillingness of the French to reason their way to that position was appalling. Although the sexual harassment laws that Clinton violated were tyrannical ones, he himself did pass them. It was an extremely complicated case, and Starr's role in it?although ultimately harmful?was by no means dishonorable.
But the French want none of it. They know from tyranny, after all, and their favorite pastime is to snicker at other people's moral scruples. I had lunch the other day with a conservative editor friend who is mystified at the ethical mess Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi has found himself in for the last three years. The charges involve favorite-son contracts, free city-owned apartments in fancy neighborhoods. But the best of all the charges?and the one on which the case seems pretty open-and-shut?is that M. Tiberi's not-conspicuously-literate wife got tens of thousands of dollars to write (if indeed she wrote it) a position paper of a couple thousand words on certain government improvements.
"But that is nothing!" my friend says. "Nothing compared to what Mitterrand did!" So last night, at dinner with a socialist friend, I asked her about Mitterrand's corruption and fascist ties. She said, "But that is nothing! Nothing compared to what de Gaulle did!" (Meanwhile giving me that dismissive French wave that's usually accompanied by a spat-out "Banh!")
If you want to render a Frenchman absolutely speechless, you can ask him, "Well, what do you think is corrupt?" You could tell a Frenchman about a mass murderer who stole all the money from UNICEF and used it to hire a thousand child prostitutes, and then used them to forge the election returns that got him elected president so he could pursue his policy of selling nuclear bombs to terrorists, and the Frenchman would say either one of two things: (1) "But that is nothing!" or (2) ) "But that is nothing compared to your Senateur Tailgunneur Joe McCartney!"
Turd Republic Granted, their values are not ours. But their values are not always theirs, either. For all their claims to be appalled that Americans are so fascinated with Bill Clinton's sexual conduct, it's the only thing?the only thing at all?that interests them about America. And they drag it into everything. After the Senate wisely rejected the comprehensive test ban treaty last week, Le Monde ran the story on the front page, under the diffident headline: "America restarts the arms race." The editorial continued: "Now they've got their revenge. Spiteful at having been unable to topple Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, the Senate has just inflicted an unprecedented humiliation on the President of the United States." It is, as they say here, pourri de chez pourri?as rotten as you can get.
"Something-de-Chez-Something" is the best piece of French slang I've picked up on the trip. Here as at home, lots of restaurants and businesses begin with Chez. So if you disagree with someone, you can say he's spouting "merde de Chez Merde"?crap from the House of Crap; crap from Crapland; crap from the Crap Emporium.
I also laughed for a whole afternoon at the ad campaign that's been organized by Mayor Tiberi's office around the slogan: "You're right not to pick it up; he can do it perfectly well for you." This is, believe it or not, a citywide campaign organized around dog turd. The pictures that accompany the slogan show various unfortunates getting into serious trouble, thanks to negligent pet owners. There's a wheelchair-bound woman skidding over a yard-wide puddle of it, with a great glop of it stuck to the wheel, having revolved up to the place where she's about to put her hand. There's a similar one with a blind guy.
The flagship of the campaign shows a two-year-old French boy in one of those cute little two-hundred-dollar French children's outfits. He's sitting cross-legged in front of a dripping, stinking, donut-shaped, obviously fresh dog-dropping. He's got a shovel and a big smile on his face. The coup de grace is that the kid is holding in his free hand one of those little yellow ducky-molds that kids use to make sandcastles and mudpies, and it's filled neatly with a pasty substance the same color and consistency as the steaming fumit into which he's so eagerly plunging his shovel.
Let it never be said that French ad men don't enjoy life.
My Ears Are Burning Germany had other pleasures. For one, it is a country that continues to be as Balkans-obsessed as I and my NYPress colleagues were last spring. That's unsurprising, for two reasons: (1) the NATO campaign resolved for many Germans the question of whether Germany should be a disarmed observer in the West's military operations or an armed participant?in favor of the latter; and (2) Once their houses get burned or their villages bombed or their fathers killed in battle, everyone in the Balkans goes here. Germany is home to?literally?the vast majority of Yugoslavia's refugees. The Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who really dug this war, notes that his children's school classes have Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins and now Albanians in them.
A happy side effect of this human misery is that one of my journalistic colleagues, stationed in Belgrade for many years, has unlocked his larder of Serbian war jokes for me, for instance:
The snipers Dusan and Momcilo lie silently in the forest, guarding a mountain pass. There's a loud rattle of gunfire and suddenly Dusan is screaming.
"AHRRGKK! My ear! My God, Momcilo, they shot off my ear!"
"Don't worry, Dusan! I'll find it!" Momcilo runs into the underbrush. You can hear him rooting around. And he comes back waving something red in his hand. "Here it is, Dusan! I've got it! I've got your ear!"
Dusan: "That's not my ear. Mine had a cigarette on it."