SETE – French poet Paul Valéry called it “the singular island” – an expression that the inhabitants of Sète have adopted as their own.
How else to describe this quasi-archipelago at the foot of Mount Saint-Clair, bordered in the north by the string of lakes that make up the Etang de Thau, and in the south by the Mediterranean Sea? This city in the southern French region of Languedoc is a sort of giant floodgate between two bodies of water, crisscrossed by canals. Not surprisingly (or very originally) it was nicknamed the “little Venice of the Languedoc.”
However, Sète is not just singular, it is mostly very plural. Especially due to its mixed origins: Italian, Catalan, North African and French. Each community has its roots in the city: the local patois dialect spoken by the elders is a mixture of Italian and Occitan, the Romance language spoken in the south of France. In the kitchen, Italian cooking wins, with the tielle, a pie made with calamari, tomato sauce and spices. The other specialty is the macaronade, made with macaroni and meat. It is said that there are as many different macaronade recipes than there are inhabitants of Sète.
To discover the city for the first time, locals recommend you see it from on high, by climbing the Mount Saint-Clair. Standing at 183 meters high, it is not the Mont Blanc, but the people of Sète are as proud of their mountain than the inhabitants of Chamonix are proud of their legendary peak.
View from Mount Saint-Clair - Photo by : Clemens Franz
Base camp for the ascension is in front of the town hall. Take the Rue Paul-Valéry, continue through the Rue Louis-Ramond, take a break in front the Beaux Arts school, and then continue via the Rue de Belfrot and the Biscan-Pas path.
Street art and music
Once you have arrived at the top, enjoy the view, which spans from the old fishing port and beyond. Before heading in the direction of the Pierres-Blanches (“White-Rocks”) path, take a moment to discover the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, whose walls have been adorned since 1952 with murals painted by French artist Jacques Bringuier.
From there, follow the Pierres-Blanches path to the actual white rocks. On your way down, head towards the cimetière marin (“sailors’ cemetery”), the one where the rich inhabitants of Sète are buried, as opposed to the more modest Py cemetery in front of the Etang de Thau, where Paul Valéry is buried, as well as theater director Jean Vilar and painter Pierre François. François’ tomb, at the south entrance of the cemetery is surrounded by a blue enclosure – his favorite color.
Just in front of the highest entrance of the cemetery stands the Paul-Valéry Museum. It sits above the sailors’ cemetery and the Mediterranean Sea. Its architecture, made out of concrete steel and glass was designed by Guy Guillaume in the early 1970’s and is inspired by Le Corbusier.
Once inside, you dive into the culture of Sète. There are beautiful paintings, including works by Robert Combas or those of the Di Rosa Brothers, pioneers of the Figuration Libre (“Free figuration”) neo-expressionist art movement of the 1980s. There is also very complete Paul Valéry collection with more than 300 documents and objects.
Art and Sète is a love story. Like the one between Hervé Di Rosa and Bernard Belluc in 2000, which gave birth to the very rich and unusual Museum of Modest Arts – its acronym MIAM, translates to “YUMMY.”
It is out of the question to leave the “singular island” without having visited the Georges-Brassens Space. More than a million visitors have already come to “spend an hour with Brassens,” as someone wrote in the guest book. Brassens, a French singer-songwriter and poet (1921-1981) born in Sète, is an iconic figure in France.
The visit starts with Brassens’ childhood in Sète, his first friends, and ends with the lyrics of Supplique pour être enterré sur une plage de Sète (“A wish to be buried on a beach of Sète”).
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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