Punaise! is an old-fashioned slangy French exclamation — its meaning not unadjacent to WTF? in English — but it’s also the name of the common or garden bed bug, and also of a drawing pin (probably in reference to the experience of stepping on one).
Punaises are all over the French and foreign media these days: there’s currently an infestation of them in Paris. They disturbed Fashion Week aplenty, with some pictures interrupting the flow of fashion models and top reporters’ Instagram feeds, and giving everyone the creepy-crawlies.
La punaise de lit is now not only threatening the 2024 Olympics, but also the reputation of France, and so, like so many things in our top-down centralised country, it has become political.
Not that the outbreak is new. Bed bugs have been in the news for several years. But they only happened to others: in poor and not terribly hygienic places, as indeed they always did in the past.
Alas, since the end of Covid and the resumption of international travel, they are now proliferating. Bed bugs (and their eggs!) travel fast, and news of them even faster.
Social media started crawling with truly disgusting videos of small (about the size of an apple pip) critters on train seats, in the Metro, at cinemas — and, in a truly egalitarian push, all over the city and beyond, including first class TGV cars and five star hotels.
The papers are full of what to do to avoid them. (Look out: in an hotel, hang your clothes rather than laying them down on upholstery; never leave your suitcase on the ground, use the folding luggage racks; if you fear you’ve stayed in a place that had them, unpack in the open because the punaises hate fresh air; wash your clothes at 60C then tumble dry them on a warm setting; or put them in plastic bags in your deep freeze for two days at least).
If you see even one in your home, call a specialist who can handle the required insecticides: there’s nothing you can do to fix it. It will set you back at least €1,000.
No wonder that the story has as many legs as a centipede. Things, however, developed into a pile-on for one of France’s most popular talk show hosts, Pascal Praud, when he asked a couple of unfashionable questions.
Praud is a star on the French equivalent of GB News. He was a well-known football commenter on TF1 — France’s historic First Channel, privatised in the 80s — for 20 years, then had several radio talk shows comparable to Jeremy Vine’s, first on RTL radio then on Europe1. He become “controversial” when he veered into politics, with the successful political talk show he started three or four years ago.
The pile-on against him is mostly a pile-on against his channel, CNEWS, which several ministers have already said should be closed down, as well as its entertainment sister channel C8. Both are owned by the billionaire industrialist Vincent Bolloré, a conservative Catholic, disliked on the Left.
On bed bugs, Praud picked up on well-documented news about the prevalence of bed bugs at Charles de Gaulle Airport in holding pens for illegal immigrants, as well as in migrant camps in Paris and Calais.
For this, he has been tagged not just a racist but a Nazi, with many a liberal columnist or politician referring to Collaborationist propaganda, in which Jews were likened to rats. From Left-wing and Green MPs to Equalities minister Bérangère Couillard, who demanded sanctions from the supposedly independent media watchdog Arcom, everyone vented on Praud. He shot back “let them sue”, as he was looking forward to defending himself in court.
You might think it’s not the job of ministers to close down news companies or of journalists to encourage it. There’s a strong body of anti-racist laws in France; far more stringent than, say, in the UK. (The former right-wing presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who used to have a talk show on CNEWS, was successfully sued for things he said on television and in political rallies.)
As for the French State and other public bodies, they certainly are responsible for keeping trains disinfected, and regulating public places from restaurants to theatres. The astringent public health expert, Dr Guy-André Pelouze suggests, in a refreshing return to the principles of classic conservatism, that it’s also the responsibility of the individuals to keep their homes clean and well-aired, all conditions bed bugs hate.
But then the minute you step outside in Paris, the climbdown in cleanliness from the years where one Jacques Chirac was Mayor leads to despair. The Paris Métro and buses, once efficient and modern, are now dilapidated and none too fresh. Under Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her Red-Green coalition, the entire city, even when the dustmen are not on strike and no-one is rioting, has become uglier and dirtier.
I remember longingly, more than two decades ago, when, every morning at dawn, the pavements were swept and the streets washed with water from a special water network separate from the drinking water one. (Today, the Hidalgo administration, which is €10Bn in the red, finds this “too expensive”: they are in the process of destroying this remarkable infrastructure built in the mid-19C under Napoleon III.)
Long before the bedbugs, such neglect increased the rat population of Paris to an estimated 6 million, making our capital one of the five most rat-infested cities in the world. City Hall’s answer to this has been to appoint a committee to help Parisians “learn to cohabit with the rats”. How long before we are told to cohabit with the punaises?