From One Demo-cracy to Another… (April 2002)

Last night I got home from a week’s work in Paris. The pilot made an announcement half-way through our Air France flight that France’s right-wing President Jacques Chirac and far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had won the first round of the election, pushing their left-wing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race. A collective gasp went throughout the cabin, before everyone turned their attention back to the Harry Potter movie. In Paris, demonstrations were starting in the very scenic areas where 24-hours before I had been wandering around aimlessly stopping for drinks and coffee. I had seen the election posters up and asked a number of locals for their opinion on the election. The vast majority replied that they were not interested in either of the two mainstream candidates Chirac and Jospin, two “old white men,” preferring instead to cast their vote for one of the minority party candidates as a protest against the status quo. That meant splitting the left vote as voters went for numerous candidates including those from the far-left Trotskyite party for example – with disastrous results.

Back in DC, this morning I walked a leisurely four blocks to work past the Hinkley Hilton (so named by locals after John Hinkley shot then-President Ronald Reagan outside the hotel on 30 March 1991). The hotel is surrounded by police barricades and nearby Connecticut Avenue is due to be closed off to traffic for the rest of the day as anti-globalization protesters come to demonstrate against a pro-Israel lobby group meeting there. Demonstrations have been taking place in the city all weekend while the World Bank meets, but with no huge arrests or violence. It’s quite a contrast to events the previous week when thousands turned out for a pro-Israel rally outside the Capitol.

My time in Paris was mainly spent working on our annual global meeting of Landmine Monitor researchers, the culmination of a long journey of regional gatherings (this time in Seoul, Armenia, Nairobi, Brazil and Geneva) and drafts and deadlines and reminders… We managed to get about 90 researchers/campaigners there from some 75 countries of the far-flung network. I was presented with gifts from Kyrgyzstan, Syria and Azerbaijan, among other places. The meeting had a really good vibe. I’m not sure if it was due to our opulent surroundings in the government-owned conference center, the fantastic food, the undeniably romantic city, or the fact that the world is falling apart and we are all terribly concerned about it.

I managed to get in some leisure time, including visiting some cool flea markets: one at Porte de Clingencourt in the north, which sold expensive antiques and African jewels and hip-hop CDs, and Porte de Montreuil in the east, which was like an Arab souk with some stalls of eccentric collections of cheap second-hand clothes and bags. We spent most of our time on the Rive Gauche, near our hotel by the Eiffel Tower, and also around Saint Michel and Saint Germain, which feature some cool bars, in addition to ones packed with tourists. Ate dinner in what must be one of Paris’s only vegetarian restaurants, aptly located on Rue de Boucherie (Butcher’s Street).

When I arrived home yesterday, I found my letter to the Washington Post in the paper. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself endlessly in my work but someone’s got to say it. For the past few months I’ve been asking myself if the world as I know it is coming to an end… So many bad things seem to be happening right now. I’m glad though that we live in a society where we are able to get up and demonstrate, unlike many of my colleagues from countries with no free speech/media or civil and political rights. For or against, if you don’t do it, you’re sitting out one of the biggest crises of our lifetimes. Get up and get out there…