The first time I heard about the now-commonplace airport restrictions for carry-on liquids, I was already standing, beltless and shoeless, in front of a security agent at Orly. Nancy and I were flying to Spain for a short trip with small bags that we had hoped to keep with us in the cabin.
At first, I found it odd when the agent asked if I had any liquids, but then she explained the new regulation and rattled off a list of examples: shampoo, toothpaste, skin cream, sunscreen… I, wishing to be cooperative, pulled out all the fluids in my bag, which included just about everything in her inventory, all in regular (i.e., larger than the limit) jars and bottles.
Then she said something that I found even odder: as I was assessing my liquid holdings, checking the containers’ sizes and resigning myself to throwing most of them out, she said, in a tone of affable mock exasperation, “Il ne fallait pas me dire!” – “You shouldn’t have told me!”
In other words, she had no problem with me carrying on an overload of potential bomb juice as long as she didn’t know about it. It was a poor example of safety vigilance but an excellent example of one of the things that I find most intriguing about life in France: even people in positions of authority and responsibility seem to think that what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Or anyone else.
(Note to terrorists who also happen to be C’est Ironique readers: forget it. This took place years ago, and security at Orly is much stricter now.)
I was reminded of this bug in the French logic circuit one day last week when I was taking a bus to work. There were two women at my stop who wanted to board with an enormous box, probably containing a newly bought piece of furniture, that was easily six feet tall and three feet wide.
Despite the fact that there are passengers of that same size and even more weight, taking such large packages on public transport is against the rules. As the driver told them. But not without helpfully adding this advice:
“If you wait a few minutes, you can take one of those long three-door buses and get on in the back. But I can’t let you on this one because I’ve already seen you.”
Once again, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff but not falling until he realizes that he’s in midair, it wasn’t the situation that caused the problem, but awareness of the situation.
Consider these other examples:
• The clerk at my bank who allowed me to forge a signature, while she histrionically looked the other way, on a check that a deadbeat client had sent me unsigned (as recounted in a previous C’est Ironique).
• The French devotion to soccer, the country’s most popular spectator sport, in which a foul is not a foul unless the ref sees it. In fact, players can literally commit assault with intent to inflict great bodily harm (as explained – where else? – in another C’est Ironique), and it’s laughed off as “part of the game.”
• The B&B owner in Burgundy who told me not to worry about driving home from a nearby restaurant after drinking wine with my dinner because “the gendarmes never stop people around here.” As though impaired judgment is caused by breathalyzers, not alcohol.
In the latter case, this attitude is actually written into the traffic code: in France, a private citizen cannot denounce a driver for DUI or for any other offense – speeding, running a light, reckless endangerment, wearing stripes with checks, etc.
According to the law, a moving violation must be seen by a police officer, either directly or remotely via a radar speed camera.
(My source of information here is a newspaper article that I read years ago and have about as much chance of relocating now as the Lost Dutchman’s Mine or the Trump Tower wiretap records, although I did find this discussion thread that confirms the principle, however informally.)
I find this galling (insert laughtrack). My apartment happens to overlook a busy intersection where I could stick a camera out the window any time of day or night and, within 10 minutes, be virtually guaranteed of catching at least one motorcyclist running the light.
In fact, I think I will.
It took me three minutes to get this one during the day…
And only two minutes to get this one at night.
Of course, sometimes a whole hour goes by with no pedestrians getting mowed down, but the point is this: even if the riders seen here were identifiable, they could not be charged with this bald-faced misdemeanor because I’m not a cop.
Since the concept is enshrined in a decades-old law, I started wondering how far back this “see no evil” policy extends. So I looked up Exodus 20:2-17 in the French Bible (Roi Jacques version) and, not to my surprise, the Ten Commandments read a bit differently from what many American fundamentalists think is the original English.
Here’s a literal translation:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But after is okay, for lo, I cannot see what lieth behind me. Duh.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Legal told me to put this one in, but verily I’m not entirely sure what “graven” meaneth, so go thou ahead for now, and I’ll get back to thee on this one.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. At least not out loud. Or in front of the kids. Well, not more than, say, twice a day. Aw hell, just keep thou a swear jar, empty it into the collection plate every Sunday, and we’ll call it even.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother – to their faces.
6. Thou shalt not kill. Just thought I’d mention it.
7. Thou shalt do everything in thy power to avoid ever being caught committing adultery, yea unto crouching without raiment on a cold Paris rooftop, like the naked man mentioned in this article that I, the infallible and omniscient Lord thy God, can assure you is not fake news.
8. Thou shalt not steal what thou canst not conceal. Hey, that rhymes! Am I all-powerful or what?
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor until thy neighbor strayeth out of earshot.
10. Let’s face it: being the infallible and omniscient Lord thy God, I know Me-damn well that thou art going to covet the bejesus out of thy neighbor’s house, thy neighbor’s wife and thy neighbor’s manservant, maidservant, ox, ass and probably a bunch of other stuff that I haven’t even created yet. So just try not to be a total jerk about it, willya?
All of this reminds me of another air travel incident. On a flight out of Charles de Gaulle last year, I noticed a guy across the aisle who continued texting on his phone long after the announcement was made that all mobile devices had to be switched off.
He was making an obvious effort not to be obvious, crouching down in the seat, cupping his hand over the phone and keeping an eye out for patrolling flight attendants. And he kept tapping away right through takeoff, evidently operating on the theory that the danger to plane navigation doesn’t come from mobile device interference but rather from the cabin crew’s knowledge of mobile device interference.
I already knew that he wasn’t a rocket scientist, but now I realize: he must have been a French airport security agent. Or bus driver. Or banker. Or soccer player. Or theologian. Or, I guess, pilot.
The next new C’est Ironique will appear on April 19.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.