Thursday, September 04, 2003

That Busy Man, Mr. Raffarin

It’s been quite a busy week for French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. While families have been rushing to prepare their children for the “rentrée” of the school year, Raffarin has been preparing for the legislative rentrée, announcing this week a series of plans to target the country’s most pressing issues.

Top at the list was the announcement of a 3 % tax cut in 2004. The cut is aimed at revitalizing the French economy in the face of a difficult economic climate but has already been met with criticism from both the Left and the Right. The PM, however, is stuck in a difficult situation: lower taxes, after all, was one of the key promises made by President Jacques Chirac during his re-election campaign last year. (The 3% cut in 2004 is, however, off-pace with Chirac’s promise to lower taxes by 30% by 2007.)

The cut was announced just days after the release of new estimates that place unemployment near 10% by the end of the year. And as if to drive the statistic home, both Yoplait and Tat Express announced this week they would be making cuts. As a result, Raffarin has been busy meeting with union leaders this week, and affirmed Thursday that his 3% tax cut would help stimulate the creation of more jobs.

The French public, however, seems less certain: according to a study published in mid-August, four out of five believe unemployment is going to increase over coming months. One year ago, that belief was held by only half of the population.

Social Security reform is also on the Prime Minister’s to-do list, although Raffarin has admitted that it is taking the back burner to the deficit. However, France’s Health Minister has already released an agenda outlining the work to be undertaken over the next few months, and affirmed that a proposal would be ready next spring for submission to the fall Parliamentary session. Also scheduled to be elaborated over the next two years is the creation of a new law targeting France’s education system. Although the law will tackle pedagogical methods, its main focus will be to resolve the major budget problems plaguing the current system.

While all of these issues have been the subject of debate for months, no one seems to be raising too much opposition to Raffarin’s fourth rentrée target: pyromaniacs. The Prime Minister told Le Figaro this week that in addition to the deficit, Social Security, and the school system, his fall line-up also included strengthening penalties for acts of pyromania.

As if that weren’t enough, Raffarin has also had to manage the daily hassles of being Prime Minister, like dealing with “36 Hours”, a planned TF1 political reality show that will follow powerful politicians through the course of their day. The Prime Minister has apparently discouraged his entourage from participating in the new TF1 show, saying his administration shouldn’t participate in “tele-reality”.

However, 36 Hours’ first guest, government spokesman Jean-François Copé, has yet to cancel his mid-October appearance. Instead, he offered the following statement this week, no doubt allowing Raffarin to sleep easier: “ One thing is certain: I will not agree to participate in programs with porno stars like the Italian politicians do.”

Meanwhile, in matters that are no less dear to the French than tax cuts and Social Security, French smokers were outraged to hear that they will be paying 18 to 20% more for their cigarettes starting early October. The price hike, which was announced this week by the tobacco companies, is intended to help the companies recoup losses due to the cigarette tax hike passed by Parliament in July.

In between coughs, however, the French public responded quite positively to the 9th IAAF World Championships, which ended August 31 after nine days of competition in Paris-Saint-Denis. The Paris Championships were the most successful ever for the French, who garnered two gold, three silver, and two bronze medals. The country is now hoping that the large turn-out and enthusiastic response by the French during the event will boost their bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

And after the news, now a story:

Sleepless Nights in a Pricey Pad

There are two kinds of people in this world: those of us who, if handed $250, would immediately think of buying a pair of shoes, replacing the old TV, or making a donation to Save the Whales.

And then there’s the other kind: those of us who would blow it all on one night at the Lovehotel, Jota Castro’s rent-able tribute to sex, Japan, and French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not a likely combination, but the references are all there, hidden amongst the plush red cushions, crumpled sheets, and multilingual porno mags.

Castro’s one-room Lovehotel exhibit at the Maisonneuve gallery is inspired by Japan’s pleasure palaces, where couples can rent rooms designed to inspire amorous feelings and naughty behavior. Castro, a Peruvian-born Belgian artist, chose Paris as the exhibition site in direct response, he says, to Sarkozy’s controversial proposition to deport non-E.U. prostitutes.

These are not, however, the first things that come to mind upon entering the exhibit. After finding the non-descript building housing the Maisonneuve gallery, one must take the elevator up to the fifth floor, where a long, dim corridor awaits. At the end of the hall is the Lovehotel, a red room consisting of little more than a circular bed, books, and, oh yeah, a harness hanging down from the ceiling.

A little sleazy, a little run-down. This is not what most people would consider luxury accommodations.

But that is, of course, the idea. And people seem to love it: after opening April 5 for a “50 day, 50 night” run, the exhibit’s success convinced the Maisonneuve to extend the Lovehotel show through August 31. All of which comes as no surprise, since the Lovehotel’s free admission price and racy subject matter makes it an attractive draw.

More dubious, however, is the interactive aspect of the hotel. Would you really pay $250 just to say you participated in ART?

If so, the place is yours as soon as the gallery workers leave for the night. You will be given access to the red room, a tiny, red-curtained shower, and a shelf of inspirational toys. You’ll also be able to use a small kitchen, which is totally unremarkable except for the phallic maracas hanging along the wall.

I asked a gallery worker how many people have plunked down the cash for a night at this sordid love palace.

“Oh, about fifteen different nights have been rented, mostly by couples,” he said, pausing before adding, “There have also been groups of people.”

Noticing my raised eyebrows, he quickly added:

“We do laundry each day.”

Still, I noticed that most of the toys on the shelf remained wrapped in plastic, looking as innocent as any penis-shaped child’s toy. Were the visitors so enraptured by the idea of participating in an art project that they forgot to fool around? Or do all used toys get replaced with each new nighttime visitor?

I decided not to ask.

Taking a final glance of the room, I admitted that the sordid setting and dim lighting could perhaps serve as the perfect pretext for a bored couple's fun and games. But as the worker continued to rattle off the other uses of the room—a porno shoot, a magazine party—it appeared that the rental of the Lovehotel had much less to do with setting a sexy, naughty mood than with participating in a commercial art event.

Which is all fine and dandy, but for $250, I think I’ll bypass the Lovehotel and spend my dough on trusty whips and chains.

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