The Digital Journalist
Bring Aspirin
April 2007

by James Colburn

If you're going to spend a few months in France, bring aspirin. Or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Or whatever your over-the-counter pain reliever of choice is.

It seems that since the French get their pain relievers for free (with a doctor's prescription) the concept of "generic" OTC pain relievers is, well, foreign to them. In the U.S. you can get a 250-pill bottle of generic aspirin for around $2, or less than a penny per pill. In France OTC aspirin comes from major companies like Bayer and is beautifully packaged in little boxes with huge pieces of paper describing its side effects. Each pill is individually sealed in foil. A box of 20 of the suckers will cost you around €5 ($6.66, or 33 cents/pill). You also have to buy them from a real pharmacy, not your local supermarket, and pharmacies are closed on Sunday…

Don't ask me how I know.

Mind you, you can buy paracetamol (what they call Tylenol) with codeine over-the-counter for about 40 cents/pill so if your tooth filling falls out to expose a nerve, you start hemorrhaging from the ears or you just want to experiment with some low-grade opiates, then this could be your very own Land Of Plenty.

I've covered politics and politicians for more than 25 years but two days ago I went to my first Communist rally. Not just a Communist rally, a Revolutionary Communist League rally. Their slogan is "100 Percent Left" and they mean it. It's the first political event I've been to that ended with a raised fist singing of "The Internationale," the anthem of international communism.

They have a candidate on the national ballot and he managed to bring 1,500 people together to a packed hall near the eastern city of Nantes. He spoke for over an hour (no 15-minute stump speeches for the French) and got a lot of applause and quite a few laughs.

One amazing thing about all this is that 1,500 people came to listen and they listened, and paid attention, for the whole speech. The other amazing thing about it is that the candidate is a 32-year-old mailman named Olivier Besancenot who, when he's not taking time off to run for president, delivers the mail in a wealthy suburb of Paris called Neuilly.

He doesn't have much of a chance of winning (he was getting 3.5 percent in the latest poll) but he gets equal time on national TV and radio along with every other candidate. While I didn't understand what he said I must admit that my respect for mail carriers has gone up.

Oh yes. His employer (the government) can't fire or replace him while he runs for the highest office in the land.

My partner and I, Independent American Filmmakers, were welcomed to the rally and given a few minutes for an interview with the candidate. In fact we've been welcomed all over the place by parties from the far right (the National Front) to the far left (see above).

It took very little effort to get me into an Interior Ministry ceremony for the departing minister (Nicolas Sarkozy) who is also running for president. No prejudice and very little BS from the people running the various shows on whether we are "important enough" to be allowed in to cover their event, even though they know that anything we shoot won't help their candidate one damn bit.

It's refreshing.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer