Thursday, December 26, 2019



Unions against Pension Reform
With French strikes entering their fourth week without much progress in the ongoing negotiations between the government and union leaders, the current standoff is beginning to resemble the 1995 general strike that paralyzed the country for more than three weeks and ended in the defeat of then-Prime Minister Juppé’s social reform plan. Then as now, the railroad workers were the first to call for a strike and were soon joined massively by other unions of the public and private sectors. 

And then as now, a majority of the French people supported the strikers against their potential loss of certain droits acquis. Among those acquired rights are the privileges and early retirement of train drivers, introduced in the post-World War II years when trains were powered by coal, and considered by railroad workers as inviolable and acquired for life. 

During his presidential campaign in 2017 Emmanuel Macron promised to overhaul the complicated French national pension system with its 42 different retirement plans, ranging from full retirement at age 50 or 52 for train drivers to age 62 for others, and replace it with a point-based unified plan for all, where one euro buys one point with the same rights for everyone regardless of job or background. The current system is untenable, running at a deficit of €2.5 billion per year and growing. To finance this shortfall the new system proposes two more years of contributions (retiring at 64 instead of 62). Throughout Europe, people are already working longer because we live longer, but France deems age 62 as a reasonable time to stop working and enjoy our remaining years while still in good health. Anything beyond age 62 would be an infringement on these final years of rest. 

In a typical French paradox, a majority of French citizens agrees with the need for a new pension system, yet supports those who strike against it. The most likely outcome of the current standoff will be a watered-down version of the Macron plan after a very expensive general strike at a great cost to the national treasury and to businesses of all kinds. The strikes’ side effects of school closures, reduced public transportation, hospital care, and all manner of public service may soon be forgotten, but not by those shopkeepers who are still hurting from the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations this past year, and are again taking a hit during this all-important Christmas season. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe continues to negotiate with unions, promising to be flexible on certain points of contention but determined to maintain the new retirement age of 64. Several unions have already announced a new deadline of January 9th, allowing for a short strike-free Christmas break when French hearts and minds turn to food above all else and to their elaborate Christmas dinner, the culinary high point of the year and the one thing all the French can agree on. 

It is too early to predict the outcome of this conflict, with both sides vowing to hold out and further mass demonstrations already planned for January, but it is safe to say that in the end nobody will be happy and that this will simply be another phase in the long history of social upheaval in France. Plus ça change…


Once he had outlined his proposed Pension Reform in July, President Macron stepped back from the subject and it became the prime minister’s business to explain and defend the new plan in detail. This was done through meetings and consultations with the majority of public and private unions in September and October who all, except for one temporary holdout, rejected the new conditions and declared an open-ended, massive strike on December 5th. 

Peace talks with Zelensky and Putin
During that time, Macron was busy on the international scene, from hosting the G7 summit in Biarritz in August, to attending the tense NATO summit in London in early December, with a whirlwind of diplomatic visits to Tunisia, Armenia, the UN National Assembly, Africa, and numerous EU countries in between. He also hosted Russo-Ukrainian peace talks at the Elysée Palace between presidents Putin and Zelensky, with Angela Merkel by his side. 

With a lame duck chancellor Merkel in Germany and a Brexit-focused prime minister Johnson in the UK, Macron is indeed the de facto foreign policy leader in Europe today. Good news to some, less so to others who view him with suspicion, pointing to the fact that he is young, ambitious and impatient, “going it alone” when diplomatic cooperation with other EU leaders slows him down. 

Nevertheless, Macron sees a greater role for France in a global context and is well on his way to making a name for himself on the world stage if he doesn’t get tripped up by his own recalcitrant countrymen. It happened to Charles de Gaulle; it could happen again.


Every three years the Paris-based OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) issues its PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment) that evaluates the scholastic performance of 15-year old students worldwide in mathematics, science and reading. The latest survey of data collected in 2018, which covers 600,000 students in 79 countries, has just been published. 

Like the preceding survey of 2015, it shows that Asian countries continue to lead the way, with China and Singapore scoring highest in all categories, and Northern European countries consistently outperforming the Southern European ones. France lingers in the middle range, ranking 25th in mathematics, but scores worst of all countries surveyed for social-economic inequality. The good results obtained in richer areas are pulled down by the markedly poorer performance in low-income areas with high unemployment and a majority population of immigrants. This population has never been integrated into the French mainstream and survives on low-paying jobs and petty crime (see blog 2/22/2017). It would take a change in government policy to provide a level playing field for French students and improve their PISA ranking in the process. 


For the first time in more than 200 years there was no Christmas midnight mass this year at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The building, which was nearly destroyed by fire last April, remains fragile and is still in danger of collapse. A giant 75-meter-high purpose-built crane has just arrived on site for the most delicate operation in the process of consolidating the structure before renovation:  the disassembling of the twisted metal scaffolding that currently envelops the edifice. Many of its 10,000 metal tubes were soldered together by the fire. They need to be cut up and brought down in pieces without endangering the equilibrium of the fragilized structure. 

Once the huge crane has been assembled and solidly anchored into the ground, the actual work will begin in February under the watchful eyes of construction engineers and other experts. Knuckle-biting time.

Meanwhile, the traditional Notre Dame midnight mass was moved to the church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois near the Louvre, and the famed Notre Dame Choir to the church of St. Sulpice. Fortunately, the city of Paris does not lack for churches while the cathedral of Notre Dame undergoes an estimated five-year rescue and renovation period to re-emerge, hopefully in all her splendor, in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. 


And so 2019 sputtered to an end. Not a great year to look back on, what with the year-long Gilets Jaunes movement, the fire of Notre Dame Cathedral, and the repeated natural disasters in France and elsewhere. With records being broken every year now, France suffered deadly and devastating floods along the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean region of the Var, while Australia is seeing the worst fires ever after a prolonged drought, and the COP 25 climate meeting in Madrid ended in failure. Sigh.

Perhaps the brightest spot in this bleak picture was the tiny figure of Greta Thunberg, marching steadfast and undeterred on her earth-saving mission all the way onto the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year. 
Here's to you, Greta. You did us proud. May your example finally spur our politicians and decision makers into action. You have shamed them and inspired us. Thank you.

And here's to HAPPY NEW AIR for all of us in 2020.

Friday, November 22, 2019



This past weekend brought back images we had not seen for a while, when the Gilets Jaunes held their 53rd demonstration on Saturday in Paris. Barred from the Champs Elysées, the marchers were assigned other areas, particularly the Place d’Italie where they gathered in the morning despite the local mayor’s plea to the police prefect to spare this square which was undergoing a renovation project. It was not long before the first clashes occurred as demonstrators began to throw up roadblocks against the police with the construction scaffolding and other equipment from these public works, and masked Black Bloc hooligans set fire to cars and rubbish bins, smashed shop windows, bus shelters, the entrance to a shopping center, and a bank’s glass frontage. When they attacked the firemen who rushed in to put out the fires, and the embattled police used teargas and water cannon to push them back, the police prefect, fearing further violence, decided to withdraw the authorization and called off the demonstration at 2:30PM.

Scaffolding for barricades
With 28,000 demonstrators nationwide and 4,700 in Paris, total participation was low and no major incidents were reported at GJ marches elsewhere in the country that day. But even though a march the next day for the first anniversary of their movement was peaceful, the Saturday incidents in Paris showed again that the GJ’s raison d’être a demand for fiscal justice and increased purchasing power for the lower and middle classes – has been hijacked by Black Bloc hooligans who are turning the public opinion against them.   
Christophe Castaner, Minister of the Interior, commented that this Gilets Jaunes march was dominated by hundreds of violent outsiders from the extreme left and right who join these demonstrations solely to do battle with the police and destroy public and private property. He reminded us that street demonstrations are constitutionally protected in France and only allowed in designated areas, but outside interlopers rob the demonstrators from having their message heard. He did not offer a solution as to how to keep those interlopers out, which after one year and 53 demonstrations of this kind may be considered disappointing at the very least.

That disappointment is shared by many Gilets Jaunes who have returned to occupying roundabouts and toll gates where they distribute leaflets and make their pitch for continued support. It should not be forgotten that the leaderless, non-politically-aligned GJ movement was endorsed by the general public who backed their demands and caused President Macron to review his budget with a gift of €17 billion in tax relief and other aid. This major win for the GJ movement may be seen by others as a reason to harden their opposition to President Macron’s upcoming pension reforms. 


Starting with the train conductors who object to any change in their special privileges and early retirement, all transport-worker unions have joined them and announced an “unlimited” national strike on December 5th which is intended to paralyze air, rail and road transport. The Gilets Jaunes will join them in solidarity, as may public hospital workers if their current negotiations produce no results by December 5. The lawyers union with its 70,000 members has just announced a shut-down day of Justice morte on December 5 in protest against their announced reduced pension, and so has the teachers union. Public servants in various branches, including police, are making plans to join following their unsuccessful demands for better working conditions, and the CGT, France’s largest trade union, is urging members to join with demands of their own. The snowball effect may not stop there and a possible convergence of action is growing by the day. With transport unions prepared to “hold out until Christmas, if necessary,” December is sure to be marked by unrest, and this Christmas may not be a time of Peace and Joy – at least not in France. 


With the looming pension reform battle just weeks away, President Macron is preoccupied with another peril – that of the changing geopolitics of America and its growing disinterest in Europe and NATO. Gone are the days when Europe could count on America as a staunch ally in peace and war, when treaties were respected and diplomacy was valued. Today, the American president’s unilateral decisions, particularly the abandonment of his Kurdish allies in Syria, make it clear that we must get ready to go it alone and build up a European military force, says Emmanuel Macron. 

In a recent interview with THE ECONOMIST that drew criticism, a frustrated Macron spoke of NATO as “brain dead” and Europe “on the edge of a precipice.” He saw Trump’s troop withdrawal from Northern Syria without consulting his allies as a sign that America may be “turning its back on us” and lamented NATO’s inability to prevent Turkey’s subsequent cross-border offensive against Kurdish forces. It is time for Europe to stop acting like a junior ally of America in the Middle East, he said. With Europe on the edge of the precipice, if we don’t wake up we will have no geopolitical future and risk losing control of our destiny.

Commerce and trade have assured peace in the past but as America turns protectionist this will no longer be enough. With authoritarian regimes like Russia and Turkey on our European borders, slow-moving Europe has to get its head out of the clouds and realize we must prepare for our own defense in a tougher world. This would require opening up relations with Russia, which the east-bloc countries might resist. There also is a role to play for Europe as a buffer between the American and Chinese giants, but getting 27 countries to agree on these and other issues will require a high degree of diplomatic skill.

One of the first reactions to Macron’s interview came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who acknowledged certain problems he raised but said Macron’s words were “too drastic and not my view of the situation.” Ahead of a key summit in London early next month on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the alliance that will be attended by President Trump, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said NATO was “strong, even though we have problems and need to pull together.” Others felt that Macron was right to draw attention to the urgent need for a reassessment and to shake the alliance out of its lethargy. Although the tone of Macron’s message may have been considered blunt and his words “brain dead” objectionable, few disagreed with the content, and in the end the criticism seemed mostly one of form over substance. In diplomacy as elsewhere, C’est le ton qui fait la musique.

Macron, who sees himself as the leading man of Europe, may have kicked an anthill but if his aim was to provoke a reaction, he has succeeded. The December summit may tell if he went too far.


Amélie arrives
After a record-breaking summer of excessive heat in much of Europe, winter had an early start in France this year. In early November, winter storm Amélie lashed the Atlantic coast with rain and winds exceeding 100 miles/hour, causing flooding, and disrupting train and ferry traffic. As it moved eastward, the storm caused a mudslide in Nice that killed a 71-year-old woman in her home. A week later, heavy early-season snowfall paralyzed the southeast of France and left more than 300,000 homes without power. Seven départements were put on Orange snow-ice alert. One man was killed in Isère when he tried to remove a fallen tree and another tree fell on him. A second man who was helping him was injured. In the Drôme region 3,500 homes are still without electricity today. It is highly unusual for this kind of severe weather to occur in the south of France in early November before winter has officially started. 

Early snow in south-east France
Meanwhile, nearby Italy is suffering its own share of weather-related misery this month. Venice measured the highest floodwater levels in more than 50 years when aqua alta covered three fourths of the city and the rising waters on St. Mark’s square briefly topped six ft. High tides and heavy rains have battered Venice for ages and the multi-billion-euro Moses project of a mechanical barrier to keep the city from flooding has been floundering since its inception in 2003. Its initial completion date of 2011 has repeatedly been extended and is now expected in 2021. Corruption and mismanagement are blamed for this failure and global warming is only adding to the headache. Other cities have had problems as well, notably Florence and Rome, where the Arno and the Tiber burst their banks, and coastal areas have sustained considerable damage from flooding and mudslides.

Italy's environmental watchdog organization Legambiente paints a bleak picture in its recent report "The Climate Has Already Changed" of the Italian peninsula which faces rising seas on three sides. There is not much that can be done against nature’s violent force, it says, but places much of the blame for the current disasters on years of government complacency. The authors cite budget cuts and several years of deadly earthquakes that soaked up funds which led to a total lack of preparedness for climate-related disasters. ”We are the only large European country without a climate plan,” they say, pointing out that Italy spends four times as much on damage repair as on disaster prevention, with the notable exception of one preventive measure when it closed down the Italian side of the Mont Blanc earlier this year due to the threat of the glacier breaking apart. 

Greta "Unite behind the Science"
Today there is no more room for doubt:  the results of global warming are visible all around us and decision-makers today would do well to take Greta Thunberg's warnings to heart. This quiet but stubborn young girl, whose cry for climate action was heard around the world, is currently making her second ocean crossing on a catamaran sailboat to rejoin Europe and the next UN climate conference in Madrid in December. If her advice to “Follow the science!” has yet to convince the likes of Donald Trump, whose vision is impaired by dollar signs, a look at the astronomical bills that Italy is currently paying for ignoring global warming signs may convince them. Act Now or Pay Later still holds, even if selfish politicians may yet choose the “later” when they are no longer in office. We will all be paying their bills, but only until the next elections.  

Sunday, October 13, 2019



Former French president Jacques Chirac died on September 26th at age 86. After one of the longest political careers in this country he was twice Prime Minister, twice President (1995-2007), and mayor of Paris for 18 years he left a mixed legacy of hits and misses. Best known for his strong opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, he was the first French president to apologize for France’s role in the Holocaust. He ended military conscription, improved road safety, and reduced the presidential term from seven years to five. But he also resumed nuclear testing in atolls in the French Pacific, and when his center-right government tried to pass much-needed reforms to combat high unemployment and growing inequalities, the country suffered paralyzing strikes and widespread urban rioting. He made no more attempts at reform.

His term as mayor of Paris was darkened by a scandal of embezzlement and illegal party funding for which, at age 79, after his presidential immunity had expired, he was given a two-year suspended prison sentence a first for a French president. 

Chirac at Agriculture Fair, Paris
Yet, he was the most popular president ever. People fondly remember his jovial personality, his charm, and his visceral need to shake hands. He was the French farmers’ best friend and defender, and their special relationship was mutual. He applied his particular brand of seduction to politicians and voters alike, glad-handing, drinking beer with the common man in local cafés, or eating as much as five lunches in one day on the campaign trail. At the annual Agricultural Fair in Paris, he would happily sample all the farm products offered to him and spend hours talking knowledgeably with farmers, petting cows, picking up and kissing piglets, stroking sheep, goats and all manner of farm life, seemingly feeling in his element. 

He was a collector of primitive art, and his brick-and-mortar legacy in Paris is the Quai Branly Museum along the Seine that features indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. To the man in the street, however, his lasting image is more likely to be that of a warm and expansive man, a bon vivant, an amiable rogue whose duties as president never got in the way of the pleasures of life, and one who mastered the art of being presidential and “just like us” in equal measure.

The country honored Jacques Chirac with a national day of mourning and a funeral service at the Invalides, before a private burial in the family grave, next to his eldest daughter who died in 2016. 


A knife-wielding employee at police headquarters near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris killed four colleagues and wounded two others, one of them a female administrative assistant who is still in critical condition, before he was shot dead by a police officer. The 45-year-old attacker, Mickaël Harpon, from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, had been employed as an IT worker in the police intelligence unit for 16 years, when on the morning of October 3rd he suddenly went on a killing rampage, using a ceramic kitchen knife and an oyster shucker he had bought that morning. His Moroccan-born Muslim wife told police that her husband had been agitated the day before and that on the morning of the attack they had exchanged 33 text messages in one half hour, all of a religious nature and ending with his sign-off “Allahu Akbar” (Harpon was deaf and communicated in writing). His wife was taken into custody and held for three days but was subsequently released without charges. 

Mickaël Harpon
A police investigation found that he had converted to Islam ten years ago and had become increasingly radicalized (he would no longer shake hands with his female colleagues). A house search revealed that he had links to the fundamentalist Salafist movement, and a USB key found in his office contained Islamist propaganda videos as well as personal details on twelve of his colleagues. It is not known today whether he passed these personal details on to others, but his coworkers are understandably jittery while investigators try to unravel the data on the USB key. 

Although he did not have the highest security clearance, he did have a clearance that allowed access to much information, and the discovery of a radical Islamist working at police headquarters in intelligence caused an outcry and finger-pointing at the police prefect and ultimately at Christophe Castaner, the Minister of the Interior. Speaking from the scene of the crime, Castaner said that Harpon had never shown any sign of radicalization or any behavior that would raise an alarm. This was soon contradicted by colleagues of Harpon who said they had verbally reported their suspicions of his radicalization to their superiors, especially after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack that left twelve people dead to which Harpon responded “Well done!” These reports were never acted upon because they were not in writing, and were not passed on to the top hierarchy.

President Macron honors police victims
The attack followed a rare nationwide police strike a day earlier over difficult working conditions, inadequate resources, and rising violence against the police. It should be noted that 52 police officers have committed suicide so far this year (against 35 in 2018). This terrorist attack by one of their own may further sap the police morale, especially at this time of widespread discontent and street protests against President Macron’s Reforms program and a Gilets Jaunes movement that may be hibernating but is not dead. 


While President Macron continues to fight his Pension Reform battle, his ministers for the Economy and for Public Finance have been working feverishly to cobble together the 2020 State budget, which is currently making its way through the Senate and contains a total of €17 billion in concessions to the Gilets Jaunes demands (see blog June 2019). This “giveaway,” made up largely of tax reductions to increase purchasing power, includes €9.3 billion in lowered or eliminated taxes to Households and €1 billion in reduced taxes to businesses, as well as a number of measures such as closing tax loopholes, tightening control of unemployment and welfare payments, improved measures against tax fraud and tax evasion, reducing the number of federal employees, etc. 

Ministers Darmanin and Le Maire present 2020 Budget
Yet, after all the scratching and scraping there remained a shortfall of €2.5 billion which the State will have to borrow – as it has done every year since 1974, except for the year 2018 when Macron finally managed to keep public debt at 2.8% of PIB, i.e. within the 3% limit set by the European Union. So, back to the old bad habits and a possible slap on the wrist from the EU Commission which will likely show clemency in the face of the extraordinary challenge of the Gilets Jaunes movement that led to a serious social crisis and nearly brought the government to its knees. In the end, the final largesse of the government was a choice between extinguishing the fire or letting the house burn down.

Fortunately, France is currently borrowing at very low or negative interest rates, and a recent one-billion-euro settlement from Google to the French government could not have come at a better time.


The “Bouquet of Tulips” that Jeff Koons offered to the City of Paris to commemorate the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks was finally unveiled in the gardens of the Champs Elysées between the Petit Palais and the Place de la Concorde. Public objection to the initial placement on the Esplanade du Trocadéro held up the installation for two years. 

The giant metal sculpture, 41 ft. high and weighing 67 tons, was not universally appreciated. It soon turned out that Koons had only donated “the idea,” not the actual construction and the materials, and financing was difficult to find. When private donors raised the funds, Koons pitched in €1 million when it went over budget. 80% of the royalties from associated commercial products is meant to go to the victims of the attacks, 20% to the sculpture’s maintenance. Although Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, thanked Koons warmly for “this magnificent symbol of freedom and friendship,” a survey by art magazine Le Quotidien de l’Art of readers, gallery owners and collectors showed that 98% disapproved of the project. A lukewarm welcome at best.

In her response to the controversy, mayor Hidalgo cleverly said that vibrant debate, particularly over art, was a hallmark of Parisian identity. “Everything is big in Paris – emotions, controversies, and the traces that art leaves in our lives.” I might add that it takes less that a controversial piece of art to set Parisians off against each other, the government, foreigners, “Brussels” and any number of perceived threats to their superiority. [Yes, I am generalizing, but… just sayin’.]


This year's guest of honor at the annual Fête du Livre of Aix-en-Provence was Louise Erdrich, American author best known for her writing on American Indians and their fading and threatened culture. Amerindian herself, Erdrich was born to a German father and an Ojibwe Indian mother, and is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa nation of North Dakota. In the tradition of William Faulkner, she shines a light on today's Native Americans so long ignored in literature, and has been compared to Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy as a woman writer dedicated to making the voice of her heritage heard worldwide. Her seventeen novels to date have garnered many prizes, including the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and she has received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction as well as the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
German actress Hannah Schygulla (Werner Fassbinder's muse) gave a reading from Erdrich's work.

Louise Erdrich was accompanied by Lisa Halliday who rose to instant fame in 2018 with her debut novel Asymmetry, and by Nurrudin Farrah, exiled Somali writer currently living in South Africa, whose novels and plays have been recognized with a number of international literary prizes in Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, as well as the US-based Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the Lee Hochul Literary Prize for Peace in South Korea.

As always, it was a fascinating multi-cultural event, highlighting the importance and the limitless reach of art, more than ever needed today in our divided and conflict-ridden world.

Thursday, September 26, 2019



Pension reform march in Paris
September started with a bang, promising plenty of sound and fury in the coming weeks of protest against President Macron’s announced Pension Reform program which seeks to unify the current 42 different pension schemes into a single points-based pension system for all with full retirement at age 64, effective in 2025. The current retirement age is 62, one of the lowest among OECD countries, with some of those with “special regimes” retiring as early as age 50. Macron proposes a system where “a one-euro contribution buys the same pension rights, whenever it was paid and whatever the status of the person”.

The need to reform the French pension system with its multiplicity of rules and rights and retirement ages is generally accepted, but the labor unions, who were largely ignored in Macron’s first year as president when he overhauled the complicated Labor Code and pushed through employment reforms by decree, will not be sidelined this time and intend to have their say in the negotiations. Two left-wing unions, the FO and the CGT, immediately called for strikes by transport workers, resulting in Black Friday on 9/13 when public transportation in and around Paris (train, Metro, tram and bus) came to a virtual standstill. A few days later, French doctors, lawyers and pilots marched in Paris in protest against this reform which, they claim, will cost them more in contributions and force them to work longer. And they are just the first of many others who are preparing to strike. [Since private pension plans are rare in France, most workers are enrolled in compulsory state-backed plans.] 

Another reason for pension reform is the fact that the current system is unsustainable, especially in the public transportation sector with its “special retirement regimes” that incur a chronic loss of 5.5 billion euros every year, plugged by taxpayers’ money. 


Return of the Gilets Jaunes
Nevertheless, the government will face many obstacles, not the least of which will be the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) protesters who managed to stall Macron’s reforms agenda for nearly a year and who – with exquisite timing – came back on the scene for their 45th demonstration on Saturday, 9/21, the day of a peaceful Climate March in Paris and cities worldwide. Unfortunately, and predictably, they were joined by their new best friends, the dreaded Black Bloc anarchists who quickly turned to violence, breaking windows and setting fires as they attempted to infiltrate the Paris Climate March, which broke up as people fled when police tried to push back the black blocs with tear gas.

Climate marchers fleeing tear gas
Even though more than 160 violent protesters were arrested, the Climate marchers and the National Heritage Day visitors to buildings that are normally closed to the public lost out to those who seem unable to make their message heard without violence to people and property. A sad sign of the times.

This trouble came on the heels of the successful G7 meeting in Biarritz, where Emmanuel Macron reinforced his image of Europe’s de facto leader and adroit negotiator. He will need all his skills for the upcoming battles at home as he tries to pass his proposed reforms and keep Paris from burning.


After the ouster of the extreme-right leader Matteo Salvini in Italy last month, the new Italian government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his new Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced that NGO rescue ships with migrants fleeing dangerous Libyan detention camps can again dock at Lampedusa island. On September 23rd five EU ministers met in Malta and agreed to a tentative, voluntary scheme of allowing these migrants to disembark in their ports, on a rotating basis, where they will be checked as legitimate asylum seekers and redistributed across Europe. They represented France, Germany, Italy, Finland and Malta, with the prospect of five other countries joining later. This draft agreement needs to be endorsed at a full meeting of the EU Interior and Justice ministers next month. 

Carola Rackete, migrant rescuer
At this stage it is only a Draft Agreement and asks for the voluntary commitment of host countries, but it is a first step toward a solution of the untenable situation in the Mediterranean where too many migrants are still drowning as they flee on unseaworthy inflatable rafts (968 so far this year according to the International Organization for Migration), and those lucky enough to be rescued are often rejected by countries who don’t want them. It was time to formalize the earlier loose arrangements, and bring local laws in accordance with international maritime law. As Carola Rackete, captain of the Norwegian-flagged Sea Watch 3 rescue ship, stated after forcing her way into the Lampedusa port with 44 exhausted refugees on board and was arrested and briefly jailed for it: “I broke a local law in order to obey an international one,” referring to the universal maritime rule that a captain is obliged to rescue those in peril at sea. The problem is a complex one and requires a binding solution which, after years of squabbling, should not be beyond reach. 


At last Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York, the most famous and perhaps most widely admired speaker was 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the diminutive Swedish climate activist who, addressing herself directly to the world leaders and policy-makers in attendance, criticized them for their inaction in the face of a potentially catastrophic climate crisis and with blistering frankness accused them of betraying the young people of the world. You have stolen my childhood and that of millions of others, she said, and we will not let you get away with it. “How dare you!” her voice rang out to the 60 national representatives in front of her, as her anger visibly mounted and nearly brought her to tears. “Right here, right now, is where we draw the line!” Strong words, indeed, perhaps because Thunberg had indicated earlier that she did not expect much from this climate summit which was boycotted by major polluters Brazil and the US. As the speeches droned on that day, her fear was borne out when it became clear that nobody brought anything new to the table and those who did (Germany) had disappointingly late target dates (2038 to phase out coal mining). None of this will allow to hold down the global temperature rise to 2°C above the pre-industrial levels, as projected in the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Not surprisingly, Greta’s ideas resonate most strongly with young people who are now massively school-striking every Friday afternoon, and with those adults who marched in unprecedented numbers around the world this past Saturday, demanding government action. 

Greta Thunberg at UN Climate Summit
In just one year’s time Thunberg has become the poster child for climate activism, who managed to channel her Asperger syndrome and nightmare-causing anxieties about global warming into a near-obsessional mission to alert others to the urgent need to reduce our carbon emissions and stop the rapid disintegration of our environment, including the extinction of 200 animal species every day. 

In the course of her growing activism, she has gained admirers and detractors, but nothing has slowed her down so far. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the UN’s COP-24 climate talks in Poland, and before the British Parliament. She seems remarkably resilient to the vile attacks on her person and her appearance, mostly on social media, but never fails to repeat her mantra of “Follow the Science!” to the unbelievers. 

In the French press and political circles she has not been treated kindly. The most frequent criticism is that she is a “mere child,” not to be taken seriously: “We take no lessons from a 16-yr old; she is manipulated by her parents; she is mentally disturbed; she is too young to have an informed opinion; who is paying her?” In their rush to condemnation, they must not have heard her message: Follow the Science! And how to explain that this “child” has singlehandedly sparked a worldwide movement for climate action, has managed to put climate change at the top of the international agenda, to inspire high-schoolers all over the world to skip classes on Friday afternoons, and to spearhead the biggest ever Climate March worldwide last Saturday – all without breaking a single window or setting a single fire?    

To those who point to her Asperger’s as a disqualifier, I would point to Greta’s own response: I am sometimes different from others but I see my difference as a strength. It is indeed likely that this difference makes her so determined, maniacal if you will, in the pursuit of her goal despite the personal sacrifices (not to mention the attacks and insults) that come with it. I would ask the sceptics: Where is the risk in believing her? Like President Trump’s followers, there is probably no way to convince the disbelievers. But as long as young Greta keeps on message and continues to call out those who fail us, she deserves our full support and gratitude. She has shown courage, maturity and leadership in an uneven battle against the inertia of our lead-footed leaders. I, for one, do not see a more effective and articulate spokesperson for a cause that is of vital concern to us all: the very survival of our livable planet. 

As for her youth: Joan of Arc led an army to victory against the British at age 18, and Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17.  But never mind that.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


For a good part of this month I was absent from France and only occasionally checked the press for home-front news, finding nothing of interest. It confirmed that August in France is shutdown time, when the government is in recess for at least three weeks, the general population likewise absent, and demonstrators hold off their next action until September when people are back to work and their lives can be disrupted again by traffic shutdowns and strikes. No point in agitating when nobody is there to see you.

Meanwhile in Italy...

PM Conte flanked by warring Salvini and Di Maio

The same cannot be said for Italy, where the entire Senate was called back from vacation to deal with a crisis sparked by deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the hard-right populist League party who filed a motion of No Confidence against his fellow deputy Prime Minister and coalition partner Luigi di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star movement. On August 14, the hurriedly called Parliament decided to delay the timing of this proposed No Confidence vote until August 20, allowing some time for reflection. On August 20, however, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte effectively muted the motion of No Confidence by resigning after a sharp rebuttal of Salvini’s “irresponsible and dangerous agitation that could lead Italy into a spiral of political and economic instability.” It is now up to President Sergio Mattarella to try and form a new government or call for a snap election. In the meantime, Conte will head a caretaker administration.

Salvini would become Prime Minister if he were to win an early snap election, but his coalition partner Di Maio wants to pass the proposed Senate Reform bill (reducing the number of parliamentarians by one third) as well as the 2020 budget before a change of government. Italy is facing rising tension in the European Union over its public debt that exceeds the EU limits, and must come to an agreement on the budget before year-end.

Former allies Di Mayo and Salvini
The Salvini-Di Maio coalition was a poor match from the start, where Salvini’s Trumpean style soon overshadowed Di Maio, most notably in his rigid anti-immigrant policy, his Euroscepticism, reckless spending, and close ties to the likes of Putin, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Steve Bannon, the American mastermind behind Trump’s election. His far-right party is currently riding a wave of popularity for his anti-immigrant stance, his refusal (as Interior Minister) to allow humanitarian ships to dock at the island of Lampedusa, and punishing those who try to rescue refugees at sea. 

Rescue ship off Lampedusa
Latest case in point – the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, with more than 100 refugees on board, had roamed the Mediterranean waters for 20 days with increasingly desperate conditions on board, having been rejected from various ports, before it dropped anchor just off the island of Lampedusa to evacuate more than a dozen people for urgent medical care. During that time Spain deliberated about the best reception point and promised to send a navy vessel to meet the Open Arms and offload the refugees – a round trip of six days that some might not survive. Italian public prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio then decided to personally inspect the conditions on board, declared them “explosive and critical” and, overruling Salvini’s decree of non-admission, allowed the ship to dock in Lampedusa and disembark its refugees. 

This setback for Salvini occurred on the very day that Giuseppe Conte resigned as prime minister, and Italy entered a time of uncertainty as its president urged the various parties to agree on a new coalition by next Thursday to avoid a snap election in October. Polls indicate that such a snap election would be won by Salvini, with potentially serious consequences for Italy’s democracy and for an already frayed European Union. 

Back in France

Boris Johnson feeling at home
As the Italian drama unfolded, France began to wake from its summer siesta and President Macron went into high gear to receive no less than three heads of State in one week. He welcomed President Putin at the Fort de Brégançon, the presidential summer residence on the French Riviera, for an informal get-together prior to the G7 meeting in Biarritz on August 24-26 from which Russia has been excluded since its take-over of Crimea in 2014. They reportedly covered a wide range of subjects, but we can be sure that one of them was Russia’s desire to reintegrate the G7 (returning it to G8). Within the next few days, Macron received Boris Johnson at the Elysée Palace to discuss his planned “Brexit on 31 October come what may” and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Chateau de Chantilly for further discussions initiated earlier in India on bilateral issues of interest and the Franco-Indian strategic partnership. 


And then it was off to Biarritz in the southwest of France, where Macron would be hosting this year’s G7 meeting. This is an informal meeting of the seven most industrialized democracies in the world: the U.S., Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, to discuss the important issues of the day and try to find common solutions. Last year’s G7 was held in Canada and ended on a negative note when Donald Trump refused to sign the final communiqué, and even before he left for Biarritz last week Trump made it clear that he considered these G7 meetings a waste of his time. 

Hôtel du Palais, home to G7 Biarritz
Wisely, Macron decided that this year there would be no written communiqué but a press conference to briefly resume the subjects of discussion and the results achieved. And thanks to Macron’s masterful management of the event, and his pragmatic “try to keep Trump happy” line of conduct, a satisfied Donald Trump declared in his press conference that this G7 had been very successful and productive, with “the best exchange I have ever had,” referring to the 2-hour luncheon with Macron, without staff or interpreters, which is Trump’s favorite way of negotiating.  

Agenda:  The out-of-control fires in the Amazonian rainforest pushed Climate Change and the need for an immediate and coordinated international response to the top of the agenda. This issue was given added urgency when President Macron threatened to withhold ratification of the recently negotiated free-trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur countries (Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina) if Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro does not take immediate action to protect the Amazon rainforest. 
Other items on the agenda were Iran, the US-China trade war, taxation of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) sales in France, gender equality, and more.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif
But the most memorable part of this G7 meeting did not appear on the agenda. It was Macron’s master stroke of inviting Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who arrived as a surprise guest on Sunday afternoon to sit down with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian. They would try to diffuse the US-Iran blockage by allowing Iran to export some of its oil in exchange for a guarantee that Iran would not produce nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. To formalize this arrangement, Donald Trump would meet with president Hassan Rohani “when the conditions for such a meeting are in place,” which following this first encounter in Biarritz might happen in the coming weeks, said Macron. It was a major diplomatic coup on Macron’s part.  

What results? 
•  On Climate Change. No progress on Climate Change (the U.S. did not attend this session). However, the G7 countries agreed to send €20 million in aid in the form of Canadair planes to fight the Amazon fires, as well as immediate French military support for this effort. They also agreed on further financial aid for reforestation at a later date, to be submitted in detail to the UN Assembly in late September. (Bolsonaro haughtily rejected this aid stating that Brazil was nobody’s colony, before he changed his mind the next day). 

•  The GAFA tax issue was set for resolution in 2020 when an agreement would be worked out with the OECD on international taxation of the GAFA companies.  

•  As for the US-China trade war, president Trump stated that he felt that China “would soon want to come to an agreement because it could not hold out much longer.” This remains to be seen. 

•  No change, but a new ray of hope, on the US-Iran standoff, where Trump expressed the same view: that Iran will come to the table sooner or later because the sanctions are working. The dangerous tensions in the area are such, however, that a speedy resolution would be welcomed by the entire world, and the positive meeting between the Iranian and French foreign ministers in Biarritz may well contribute to such an outcome. 

Overall rather slim pickings, perhaps, but Macron’s defense of these G7 meetings is that they take place in conditions that allow a great deal of direct personal contact as well as side meetings with back-up specialists. This can be more effective and produce quicker results than larger, more formal gatherings, and he considers Biarritz a good example. 

Press Conference 
The joint press conference produced some memorable moments and contrasts.

Most visibly, the Trump-Macron bromance (real or faked) is alive and well again, complete with accolades, back slaps, arm squeezes and mutual compliments. Macron, who spoke first, briefly listed the main points of the meeting and their progress or lack thereof, giving the event a positive spin overall. He is a good, natural speaker and handles the press well, without straying from the subject in question. After about 12 minutes, he opened the floor to two questions addressed to each president. Once these were answered at length, Macron withdrew and left president Trump to his own press conference which stood in cruelly stark contrast to Macron’s style and contained its usual share of slurs and lies. 

Trump repeatedly blamed president Obama for making terrible and stupid deals (Iran, China, and others) and being outsmarted by Putin. He feels that Putin should be allowed to rejoin the G7 and when someone reminded him that Russia was excluded because it annexed Crimea, his answer was “that was under president Obama” and “that could have been stopped with the right whatever.” 

His views on climate change: “I am an environmentalist. I probably know more about the environment than anyone else and have done more environmental impact statements than any other president.” Nevertheless, he gutted the Environmental Protection Agency, reduced its budget by 31 percent, and rolled back many Obama-era safety rules and restrictions.

He rambled on for close to 50 minutes, spreading blame and compliments where he saw fit (“Boris Johnson will be a great prime minister”) and often getting off-track with interjections like “.. and by the way I can say the same (compliment) of North Korean president Kim Jong Un; I know him very well and like him, and so does the First Lady.” Melania never met him.  

When a reporter asked if he stood to make a lot of money on hosting next year’s G7 in Miami at one of his own golf clubs, he replied “I don’t care about money. I only do what is right for the country” and then launched into a lengthy promotion of his golf club with its various bungalows (one for each country), large grounds (for parking), proximity to the airport, etc. He also mentioned in passing that the presidency will cost him about 3 to 5 billion dollars over five years in lost income and opportunities. “I used to make (well paid) speeches all the time; now I get zilch for my speeches but that’s alright because I do it for the country.”

What can we say?  

Both Macron and Trump are first-time presidents, but only one of them is a statesman.