Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Mobbers Are Coming! The Mobbers are Coming!

September 19th was a day like any other until I signed into my e-mail account and found a message from an unfamiliar address awaiting me.

The message, entitled “It will be soon,” consisted of little more than a large, black square. Surely this was another piece of junk mail. But as I moved my cursor across the screen and towards the delete button, I inadvertently highlighted the text hidden within the square:

“Pay attention to your e-mail. At noon on September 20th the information that you are waiting for will be there.”

It was all very mysterious and sinister, and as my boss walked by, I minimized the message—for all I knew I was receiving notification of the next Revolution!

The next day I signed on to my e-mail with eager anticipation, not sure whether the previous day’s message would be followed by an announcement of the Second Coming or rather another spate of Viagra spam. What I found was neither one nor the other, but rather: “Flashmob à Paris ce soir” (Flashmob in Paris tonight).

This time, the black square hid a lengthier set of instructions:

The third Flashmob will take place tonight.
Synchronize your watches.

Meet at 5:57 in front of the bench in the small plaza near 1 Quai de Montebello.
Someone will give you your instruction sheet for this Parismob.

You will be let go at 6:20.
If possible, bring your camera.

Granted, this message could have been just as suspect as the many others that go ignored each day in my junk mail folder. After all, the word “flashmob” brings to mind balding men and trench coats, and the additional instruction to bring one’s camera sounds no more innocent than the “Smut Bonanza” and “Peep this Porn” messages that flanked the Flashmob e-mail.

But then, this wasn’t exactly junk mail. I had signed up for (and subsequently forgotten about) the flashmob e-mails, which alert potential participants of a planned “happening” in some part of Paris. The flashmobs aim to elevate the purposeless act to an art form, and have also recently been spotted in New York, Rome, London, and Montreal.

According to the founders, there is no political or artistic agenda hiding behind the mobs, which debuted in Paris in late August when several people fell to the ground in front of the Louvre pyramid. That act was followed two weeks later by a group of “mobbers” opening and shutting their umbrellas as they walked in a circle alongside the Pompidou Center on a sunny day.

Now fast-forward to 6:00 PM on September 20th, the night of the third Paris flashmob. I have just been debriefed at the Quai de Montebello and am now walking towards Notre Dame armed with a piece of chalk. As I stand facing the cathedral, I watch the scurrying, camera-toting tourists dodge the slower lope of several young Parisians, who, like me, are fiddling with a small black sheet containing with flashmob instructions.

The minutes tick by slowly as the square begins to fill with participants. At 6:10 the mobbers drop to the ground and begin to draw on the pavement with the chalk they have been given. To my left, a surprised British couple begins laughing, while before me, a passing Frenchman snorts, “They’re making it look ugly!” Meanwhile, to my right, a man feeding the birds becomes agitated and lays his accusatory eyes upon me. “What are they doing? Are you a part of this? What’s this about? Hmm? Huh? Answer!” I can understand his confusion, as seeing hundreds of chalk-bearers bow down before Notre Dame is certainly a surreal vision, akin to something straight out of a movie. Then again, had this really been a movie, the man would have been a prophet, the birds would have flown away, and the sky would have suddenly darkened as the meaning of the imminent Revolution became clear to all.

But that wasn’t quite how it happened.

“Crazy kids,” the man muttered, turning back to his birds while the tourists returned to squint at the cathedral through the sun’s glare. But their inattention was not to last, as the clock struck 6:10, and the mobbers immediately rose and began taking pictures of their drawings. Meanwhile, a small circle formed in the center of the square. It soon began to widen, and in less than a minute had spread to cover the entire square, sweeping tourists, gawkers, and Bird Man aside as it pushed towards the perimeter, leaving a gaping hole in the center.

For two minutes, not a word was to be heard. Even the tourists kept quiet, perhaps for fear of the consequences. (Notre Dame is, after all, only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Hôtel de Ville, the home of the guillotine during the French Revolution.)

At 6:15 Nore Dame’s bells began to ring across the island. At the sound of the first bell, the mobbers threw their hands up to cover their ears and screamed as they fled the square. The tourists remained on the sidelines, bewildered but reassured by the end of the guillotine-free performance, snapping photos to add the Notre Dame spectacle to their collection of souvenirs.

And in fact, the flashmobs in front of Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Pompidou make a great story for the tourists, who can tell the folks back in Edinborough or Witchita how their casual cathedral or museum visit became performance art. But the experience is even more delightful for the mobbers themselves, who enjoy a shared sense of naughtiness, as well as the pleasure of watching their meaningless act perplex passersby.

All of which means that the flashmobs will surely grow in size as word continues to spread about the events. In fact, whereas the first Paris flashmob only one hundred participants, the Notre Dame affair easily tripled or quadrupled that number. Which simply means that the event will surely lose its cult appeal for many of those mobbers exchanging complicit grins last Friday between sketches and ear-covering.

In other words, you best get yourself to the Parismobs website before it’s too late, so that in twenty years, you too can tell everyone you were there when it all went down.

Wanna jump like an ape in front of the Paris Stock Exchange? Rendez-vous at http://parismobs.free.fr for more information.

Time for some France news...

Homework, Lunchbox, Veil?

Get ready for some arguing—the national education debate has taken its first steps

Children weren’t the only ones dreading the start of the new school year. Although it was Jacques Chirac whose campaign promised a reform of the French education system, it’s Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin who must sort out the details. This week, Raffarin took the plunge, creating a 40-person commission that will guide the debate, which will end in 2004 with a revision of the 1989 law laying down the principles of the country’s education system.

There is little argument as to whether the system needs reforming. Statistics gathered over the past ten years show a stagnating student progress despite ever-increasing education budgets. The controversy, however, is in what should be reformed, and the commission will tackle the age for required schooling, teachers’ work conditions, school violence, and pedagogic methods.

Also at hand is whether female students of Muslim faith should be allowed to wear their veil at school. The veil issue is particularly contentious, and there is little consensus among members of Chirac’s government. Labor Minister François Fillon took an extreme position this week, saying he favored the creation of separate legislation prohibiting all religious symbols in schools. That idea is not likely to receive a warm reception from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who earlier this year created the French Muslim Council to provide a representative voice for Muslims in France. Meanwhile, Education Minister Luc Ferry has stated that such a law could contradict the French Constitution and European law, and that it would be better to keep the debate about the veil and other religious symbols within the confines of the larger reform of the school system.

While the official school debate is just getting going, the heated talks surrounding France’s fiscal plans for 2004 are drawing to a close, with Raffarin announcing a few additional measures this week. As if the price hike on cigarettes were not enough to ensure a fall in popularity, the Prime Minister announced this week a 2.5-cent per liter increase in gas prices (currently around 75 to 90 cents)—the largest tax hike on gas since 1993. The 800 million Euros to be collected from the tax will finance rail investments, but critics were quick to point to the seemingly contradictory fiscal policies adopted by the minister, who is raising taxes on certain goods while lowering income tax in 2004 by 3%.

In fact, according to a joint AOL-Libération survey published Monday, Raffarin weighed in this week at 40%, his lowest approval rating yet. And Mr. Popularity is only likely to fall further if a rumored 50-cent tax hike on medicine is announced this upcoming week.

But while the French public is grumbling about the hikes, the European Union would likely prefer to see more of them. This week the EU Commission threatened France with a three billion Euro-fine if it did not alter its current 2004 budget so as to fall under the EU’s 3% limit on public deficit. But France remains obstinate, claiming its deficit will hover around 4% in 2004 and not fall under the 3%-bar until 2005. The country has until September 25 to budge, and may yield depending on the outcome of a meeting with Germany at week’s end. The EU heavyweight is also suffering from budget difficulties, but is on track to bring its deficit in-line with EU regulations well before France. This week’s meeting is targeted at creating a Franco-German initiative to stimulate jobs and growth, and projects on the docket include TGV expansion, research and development initiatives, telecommunications, and sustainable development.

In other news, the long-rumored merger of Air France and KLM was confirmed Wednesday, although the details of the plan are not yet finalized. The merger between the state-owned France Air and the beleaguered Dutch airline will mark the first time two national airlines have come together, but will likely be complicated by the planned privatization of Air France. While traders at the Bourse expressed skepticism about the deal, those with frequent flyer miles were pleased, as KLM will now join the Delta / Air France Sky Team program.

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