Thursday, September 28, 2017

PARIS WINS OLYMPICS; MACRON SIGNS NEW LABOR LAWS, DEFENDS EUROPE AT SORBONNE


PARIS OLYMPICS IN 2024 

At its mid-September Session in Lima, Peru, the International Olympic Committee made the historic decision to simultaneously announce the awarding of the Summer Olympics to Paris in 2024 and to Los Angeles in 2028. After three unsuccessful bids in the past 25 years, the City of Paris finally won the Olympics for 2024, exactly one hundred years after it last hosted the Games.

It will be an occasion for Paris, host of the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change, to show its many climate-friendly initiatives that should benefit the Games: cleaned-up Seine river, diesel-driven trucks banned from the city, electricity for most public transportation, more bicycle paths, reduced car traffic.

With a current Games budget of €3.8 billion, roughly half will go to the sporting events, the remainder to development and infrastructure projects which will extend to the banlieues, those Paris suburbs in the department of Seine-St. Denis where youth unemployment is high and social unrest a recurrent problem.

Future Tour Montparnasse
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo boasts that these Games will be cheaper and greener than earlier ones, pointing out that 95% of all sports venues already exist or will be temporary, and that many of the new structures will benefit disadvantaged areas such as Seine-St.Denis where the Olympic Village will be built, as well as an aquatics center and a media center. The aquatics center will become a pool for local residents after the Games, and the Olympic Village and the media center will be turned into housing.

Another project of lasting benefit to the locals is the €300 million "green" makeover of the 209-meter-high Tour Montparnasse, a true eyesore. The new Tour will be clad in a glass outer structure, with lower levels covered in planting and crowned by a roof-top garden. Work on the conversion will begin in early 2019, to be finished in time for the 2024 Olympics.

Beach volleyball at Eiffel Tower


Some 38 venues for olympic and paralympic events will be dispersed throughout Paris, with some competitions taking place in existing buildings and others in temporary structures with backdrops such as the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, and the river Seine. Equestrian and biking events will be held on the grounds of the Chateau de Versailles, and sailing events will take place in Marseilles.






French designer Philippe Starck has designed a special, layered, Olympic gold medal for these Games. It will be thicker than before, but can be split in four so the athlete can share it with parents or friends. 



The use of stunning historic sites in Paris and Versailles as well as the natural assets of Marseilles and its off-shore islands cannot fail to make the 2024 Olympics one of the most spectacular ever.  
And now to work!


MACRON SIGNS NEW LABOR CODE
Macron signing new labor laws
with Minister of Labor, Muriel Pénicaud


The month of September came and went without the sound and fury promised by labor unions and other opponents of President Macron in their mass demonstrations on September 13, 21 and 23 in Paris. Generally well attended, the demonstrations were nevertheless peaceful, though disruptive, and proved of no great impact.

At summer's end, President Emmanuel Macron's approval ratings had nosedived from a high of 64% in June to a low of 36%, which would be a source of concern for any president on the eve of passing a contested Labor Reform bill. Yet, nothing indicates that this month's protest marches and the exhortations of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (LFI), had any effect on Macron's determination to pass his controversial reforms by decree. Defiantly, he even signed his executive order at the Elysée Palace in front of TV cameras, à la Donald Trump. 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon
Amid general agreement that the complicated French Labor Code needs to be simplified, giving companies more flexibility in hiring and firing, there is little support from the Left which considers these reforms more pro-business than pro-employee. They fear that "easier firing" will result in loss of jobs and cause one more crack in the protective shield of their droits acquis those rich benefits gained during the 30 post-war years of uninterrupted growth. These benefits, which include job protection, universal health care, free education, family allowances, long paid vacations, etc. have come under increasing pressure over the years and have always led to massive protests and costly strikes whenever cutbacks were attempted.

Unions protesting
Earlier this month Macron invited the labor union leaders to the Elysée Palace for discussions and potential adjustments to his proposals. That time has now passed, and on September 22nd he signed his reforms by executive order before they will be passed into law by the Parliament, where Macron's party holds a majority.

During his presidential campaign, Macron had pledged sweeping economic and social changes which would make France more competitive, attract foreign investors, and reduce unemployment which, at 10%, remains high. He also pledged to bring France's national debt to below the level of 3% of GDP, as required by the European Commission. To achieve this, he proposes not only a change of labor conditions, more in line with other countries, but a mix of savings, tax cuts and tax hikes, with winners and losers, but nothing particularly alarming.

He blames the stagnation of France's economy on the rigidity of its labor codes which make employers reluctant to hire people they may not be able to get rid of later on. His new labor laws would simplify direct negotiations between employers and employees, and reduce the power of national collective bargaining. Unions and young jobseekers see this as a threat and have vowed to continue protesting, but Macron's response that he "believes in democracy but democracy is not in the streets" speaks of his resolve. Backed by the Medef, France's employers' union, and armed with the lessons learned from previous failed attempts at reform, he has youth and self-confidence on his side.


FOR A STRONGER EUROPE

Macron speaks at the Sorbonne
Days after he signed his new Labor Code by executive order, Macron gave an impassioned speech to hundreds of French and foreign students in the great amphitheater of Sorbonne University on his favorite subject: Europe.

For an hour and a half he outlined his vision of a strong Europe, including
a common defense budget and common efforts to fight terrorism;
 a common migration policy, with a European border police and a European Asylum Office;
a common response to global warming, with common efforts and means to protect civilians against increasingly frequent "natural" disasters;
an effective carbon tax within the EU borders as well as a tax on financial transactions, and taxing internet giant GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) on their revenues where they are earned, not in the fiscal paradise where they are currently applied.

Protesting Macron outside Sorbonne
As for France and its notoriously insular attitude towards foreign languages, he proposed that by 2024 all university students speak at least two European languages, and that as part of their education they spend at least six months abroad. [This could only come from a young president, since not a single one of the previous ones, with the exception of Jacques Chirac, spoke English.]

Aware of the mounting nationalism in a number of European member states, Macron underlined that he does not want a federalist Europe, but a sovereign, united, and democratic one; a bulwark against the superpowers of the United States and China. To get there, he will need the full support of his pro-Europe ally Angela Merkel who, unfortunately, was weakened in last Sunday's German elections and will now have to form a three-party coalition that includes at least one anti-European one. Forever the pragmatist, Merkel will likely look for common ground and make compromises both at home and on Europe. An upcoming meeting of the Franco-German couple may produce good or bad news for Macron's Europe. We will soon know more.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A SIZZLING SUMMER; JEANNE MOREAU; EMMANUEL MACRON

A SIZZLING SUMMER

The month of August is usually a quiet one in France, with a good part of the country as well as the government on holiday.  In addition, a heat wave that brought us unheard-of temperatures of 39°C in Aix-en-Provence and up to 41°C elsewhere kept people indoors and produced the unusual sight of an empty Cours Mirabeau at mid-day, where limp-looking overheated tourists sought relief on mist-cooled terraces or by splashing their faces with fountain water. Without air conditioning at home, I prefer to take refuge in the cinemas in the old city center for an afternoon movie during the hottest hours of the day. Easy enough when we have a choice of more than 30 films, spread over three cinemas, every week. No long lines and perfect air conditioning (not too cold), exactly what the doctor ordered.


As we all slowed down and went into energy-saving mode, there was no break for the firemen who worked to the point of exhaustion in battling the numerous blazes in the tinder-dry south of France and in Corsica, often against a strong mistral wind or on difficult terrain. Many thousands of acres were destroyed this summer, sometimes for good, reducing the pine-covered hills to desolate moonscapes, and displacing people from campsites, holiday homes and remote villages. Even the monks in the beautiful monastery of Senanque in the Luberon had to be evacuated when a fire in nearby Gordes threatened their ancient abbey.
Senanque Abbey







Some of these fires were caused by lightning but others were the result of negligence or of careless drivers who threw a lighted cigarette from their car windows. [One mayor of a small town in the Alpilles region pleaded with auto makers to reintroduce ashtrays in cars.]  But according to Vincent Pastor, investigator at the regional fire department for the Bouches-du-Rhône area, fully 25 percent of all fires are set by man, usually with criminal intent. One such pyromaniac, a 19-year-old from Istres, was finally apprehended after witnesses had denounced him. He has admitted to setting at least eight of the fires that have sprung up in and around Istres this summer because he was "fascinated by flames." If convicted, he risks up to 15 years in prison.




These wind-whipped fires in the Provence and Var areas of France could not be fought without the help of the Canadair fire-fighting planes that like giant pelicans scoop up the water that they dump on forest fires and hard-to-reach blazes. On windy days they are sent into action at the first alert and their distant rumble has become a familiar sound on hot summer days as it blends with the song of cicadas.


JEANNE MOREAU DIES


Jeanne Moreau in Avignon, 2011
Legendary actress Jeanne Moreau died at her home in Paris on July 31, aged 89.
Best known for her roles in such French classics as Jules and Jim (François Truffaut) and Les Amants (Louis Malle), she worked with many international directors as well, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Elia Kazan, Luis Buñuel, Joseph Losey, Toni Richardson, Wim Wenders, and Orson Welles who called her "the best actress in the world." She won a number of Best Actress awards and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Hollywood. She first appeared in Avignon at the opening of its theatre festival in 1947 directed by its founder Jean Vilar, and for the last time in 2011 when she recited Jean Genet's play Le Condamné à Mort accompanied by pop singer Etienne Daho, her face by then a magnificent ruin, her smoker's voice as strong as ever. "Living is taking risks" she was fond of saying.
Born to a French father and an English mother, she was perfectly bilingual, yet to some of us she was the most French of French actresses, sensuous, stylish, intelligent, and unpredictable. A star.
She is survived by a son from her first mariage to Jean-Louis Richard. She had a brief second marriage with American director William Friedkin.


MACRON: END OF THE  HONEYMOON?

Other than fires and Donald Trump's latest excesses, the French press has had little to report on this month, which may be one factor contributing to the current wave of anti-Macron stories. Suddenly, the golden boy of French politics who was the star of recent global summits and host to three of the world's most controversial leaders in Paris (Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Benyamin Netanyahu), has tumbled from an approval rating of 64% in June to 36% in August at the end of his first 100 days in office. What happened?  Various explanations are offered, varying from "too authoritarian, too far to the right, not what he promised" to "undemocratic" (he plans to pass a new labor law by decree), "a banker" (read: untrustworthy), and "surrounded by inexperienced people." I would venture to add an observation of my own: The French are never happy. It is in their DNA to complain, and the post-election euphoria was bound to be short-lived. A swing of the pendulum was to be expected and was definitely helped along by talking heads and columnists whose job it is to create controversy and keep the ink flowing.

Code de Travail, 3000 pages
Nevertheless, a sense of disappointment is in the air, and what sounded attractive to voters after the failed government of socialist president Hollande, is beginning to feel threatening to the traditional French base now that Macron has unveiled his plans and begun detailing some of his proposals. The source of their worry is Macron's announcement that he wants to reign in French deficit spending and bring the national debt down to 3 percent of GDP, as required by the European Commission in Brussels.

To that end:
he plans to change labor laws that hold France back in the international market place (but guaranteed job security to French employees);
he introduced a law on Moralisation of Political Life that prohibits French parliamentarians from employing family members as paid assistants, a widespread custom that caused the downfall of presidential candidate François Fillon (see Penelopegate). This moralisation law, passed last month, would also eliminate the current trust-based slush fund for deputies' expenses and switch to verifiable expense accounts for reimbursement.
civil servants (20% of the French workforce) will not receive an automatic salary increase this year and, in an effort to curb absenteeism (which costs the State €170 million a year) will no longer be paid for the first day of sick leave. 
Jean-Luc Mélenchon
perhaps most controversial of all, Macron cut the Defense budget by €850 million, causing General Pierre de Villiers, chief of the armed forces, to resign.

Hence: discontent in parliament, in the civil service, and in the military, not to mention the outcry on the political left which was to be expected.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, firebrand leader of the radical-left movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) that won 17 seats in Parliament in the last elections, has vowed to block the proposed new labor code and is calling for massive demonstrations in Paris on September 23rd.
For its part, the CGT, France's largest labor union, has called for a general strike on September 12th. 



So after a somnolent August, September promises to be agitated as the government reassembles in Paris and the all-important issue of the labor code looms on the horizon. Mélenchon, with his "over-my-dead-body" attitude, aims for maximum disruption and has threatened to seize the Constitutional Council over the legality of a government decision by decree. It is the first major test for Emmanuel Macron, and he will be watched closely.

Marseille, home of pastis


In the meantime, France is still in holiday mode and blissfully unconcerned for a few more weeks about the political storm that is brewing.

September can wait, with its back-to-school and back-to-work and back to strikes and protests.

Pass me the pastis, will you?




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

SIMONE VEIL, FESTIVAL AVIGNON, QUATORZE JUILLET IN PARIS AND NICE


SIMONE VEIL

Veil defends her abortion law in 1974
Simone Veil, French humanist, politician and feminist icon, died in Paris on June 30th at age 89. She was a Holocaust survivor who lost half her family in Nazi concentration camps, yet worked hard on the rapprochement with post-war Germany as part of her strong belief in a unified Europe. She is best known for the abortion law she wrote when she was Minister of Health and defended in an epic battle before a hostile Parliament. In three days of heated debate and a volley of insults in an Assembly of only nine women and 481 men, some of whom compared abortion to the Nazis' treatment of Jews and to embryos being thrown into the crematorium ovens, an uncompromising Simone Veil succeeded in pushing through her law (la Loi Veil) that legalized abortion effective January 1975. Her courage and dignity throughout this battle earned her widespread admiration, and opinion polls have consistently shown her to be one of the most beloved people in France.

She continued to champion women's causes and drafted legislation to expand the rights of women prison inmates. In 1979, she became the first female President of the European Parliament, was named Minister of Social Affairs a few years later, and in 1998 became a member of the Constitutional Council of France, a position she held for nine years. In 2010 she was elected to the illustrious Académie Française where she had her sword, which is part of the elaborate uniform of the Immortals, engraved with the concentration camp number she still wore on her arm. 

If her professional life was marked with success and recognition, her private life was darkened by personal tragedies. Born Simone Jacob in a Jewish family in Nice in 1927, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz together with her mother and older sister Milou, while her father and brother were sent to another concentration camp. Only she and her sister survived, but Milou was killed in a car accident six years later. Her father and brother were last seen on a Lithuanian convoy of Jewish deportees headed for Estonia, but no trace of them was ever found. As a student at the elite Sciences-Po in Paris she met her husband, Antoine Veil. They had three sons, one of whom died in 2002, and in 2013 Antoine died after 64 years of marriage. Two sons and 12 grandchildren survive her.

In a nationally televised tribute France paid homage to her in a funeral ceremony at the Invalides, attended by national and foreign dignitaries as well as crowds of admirers. In a solemn address President Macron bestowed a final honor on Simone Veil by announcing that she will be buried, together with her husband (per request of the family), in the Paris Pantheon among the Greats of the nation. She is only the fifth woman ever to be buried in this hallowed place whose portal bears the inscription: To the great men of France, a grateful nation.  


AVIGNON FESTIVAL

Summer equals festivals in France, especially in the sunny South with its many outdoor events. Villages, towns, coastal resorts, they all have festivals of one kind or another where high and low culture each have their place. Among the more important ones is the theatre festival in Avignon, founded 70 years ago by French actor and director Jean Vilar.

Since its modest beginnings in 1947 when Vilar presented three plays, this festival has grown into one of the biggest theatre events in the world, breaking its own record every year to reach an astonishing 1480 plays this year, performed in 128 venues (119 legitimate theatres and nine temporary accommodations in cloisters, courtyards, schools, etc.). These shows span all ages, from Greek antiquity to today, and all genres: drama, dance, poetry, one-man/woman shows, comedy, musicals, puppet shows. Increasingly, foreign plays are performed in their original language with French subtitles.

Antigone at Palais des Papes
This year the festival opened with a presentation of Sophocles' Antigone, staged by Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi in the impressive Cour d'Honneur of the Popes' Palace that seats 2000. This nec plus ultra of Avignon settings is where the IN festival reigns, those 40-or-so plays that are performed in the best venues in town and are supported by government subsidies. Occasionally, the IN festival features big-name actors, such as Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Jeanne Moreau, to name just a few.


The OFF festival of more than one thousand smaller productions must largely fend for itself but is often the place where new talent is discovered and where creativity may be greatest. Youthful enthusiasm is all around, and the fire-in-the-belly of these young actors is almost palpable as they roam the streets, hand out programs and try to draw you into their theatres. They need it with performances starting at 10:30 in the morning and running past midnight every day, it takes energy as well as talent to keep up the pace. And to keep the hope alive that someday, somewhere, they will be "discovered" and offered a chance to shine in Paris. It happens.



LE QUATORZE JUILLET
(never referred to as Bastille Day in France)


France celebrates its national holiday on the 14th of July, and this year President Trump was the guest of honor at the military parade on the Champs Elysées. The somewhat artificial reason for President Macron's invitation to Donald Trump was that this year marks the centennial of the United States' entry into the first World War. The parade was therefore led by American soldiers and some old WW-1 tanks. It was the usual display of military might and patriotic pride: sophisticated war machinery, well-choreographed troops, marching bands and flyovers, all meticulously executed under very high security. It was also an occasion to show Franco-American friendship and Melania Trump's dresses (she did beat Mrs. Macron in elegance).

The visit was not without risk in this country where Donald Trump has few admirers. Some accused Macron of grandstanding and catering to the enemy. Others see him as a savvy strategist who invited an embattled Trump in an attempt to obtain American support for French military operations in Africa and to try and reverse the US decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Trump's tantalizing parting message that "something could happen with respect to the climate change agreement; we'll see what happens" lit a spark of hope. If this vague promise could become reality, Macron's charm offensive would have paid off handsomely. But we will not hold our breath.

NICE

After the parade in Paris with Donald Trump at his side, President Macron flew to Nice which on this day remembered the victims of last year's terrorist attack by a radical islamist who drove his 19-ton truck into a crowd of people as they were leaving the July 14 fireworks, crushing 86 of them to death and wounding 443 others. In a somber and moving commemoration ceremony where the names and ages of the victims were read aloud, Macron added a name to the board of tiles that formed a heart-shaped list of the dead, placed temporarily near the site of the tragedy on the famous Promenade des Anglais seaside boulevard.

Macron adds name to list of victims
In an earlier speech before a packed crowd on the Place Massena, Macron vowed to continue the fight without mercy against terrorism and radicalism, and assured the attacks' survivors, many of whom are still undergoing treatment, of the State's continued support and aid. "We owe this to you," he said to the victims' families, as former presidents Hollande and Sarkozy, Prince Albert of Monaco, and a number of government ministers looked on.



Nice honors its victims

At nightfall, following a last tribute on the Promenade, 86 blue light beams suddenly pierced the sky as 86 large white balloons ("our angels") were released in a final salute to each of the victims.

It was a moving and beautiful sight, bringing on thoughts of the randomness of death. Or of life.



Remember yesterday and live life today, because there may be no tomorrow.





Sunday, June 18, 2017

EMMANUEL MACRON, DONALD TRUMP and OPERA IN AIX


PRESIDENTS MACRON AND TRUMP

G7 leaders in Taormina
Newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron had barely had time to appoint the members of his government late last month before he left for a marathon of international meetings with his G7 counterparts in Taormina, Sicily, and with his NATO partners at their summit in Brussels. A baptism by fire, you might say, but one that he passed with flying colors and with positive reports in the press.



In fact, rather much of that press coverage went to Donald Trump who attended these same meetings and drew a great deal of attention to himself by his oafish behavior and signs of unpreparedness. When shortly after his return to Washington he announced that he would withdraw from the  COP21 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, foreign leaders and the international press were unanimous in their condemnation of this decision and dropped all pretense of political correctness and diplomacy in doing so. In Germany, an exasperated Angela Merkel called Mr. Trump an "unreliable partner in international treaties;" French president Macron went on live television to say "On climate there is no Plan B because there is no Planet B" and launched the slogan "Make Our Planet Great Again," while former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who presided over the December 2015 Agreement's signing, called Donald Trump's decision "a major fault against humanity and against our planet." French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who had just returned from a six-month space mission, agreed and said that he had personally observed the earth's fragility to global warming, calling Trump's withdrawal from the Agreement "irresponsible." Germany's Der Spiegel published a shocking magazine cover and an article headlined: "Donald Trump's Triumph of Stupidity." Clearly, outside his clique of diehard supporters at home, President Trump's decision met with universal disapproval, and the powerful US now finds itself on the sidelines in the smelly company of fellow non-signers Syria and Nicaragua.


It's a sad day when the president of the United States is mocked by the entire world and is no longer taken seriously by anyone, when respectable magazines run covers such as "Liar-in-Chief" (Time) and when in a few short months this president managed to severely damage his country's reputation all over the world and undermine the respect it has always commanded. It goes without saying that Donald Trump's actions concern all of us, that pollution does not stop at America's borders, that unhealthy air and foul water do not make America great again, and that international agreements are not to be dismissed like a candidate on his reality TV show The Apprentice. "Unfit for the highest office" does not begin to describe Donald Trump.


If a point can be made for Europe taking on a bigger share of the NATO defense budget, no reasonable argument can be made for quitting a hard-fought climate agreement signed by 195 nations for the benefit of all. Fortunately, European leaders have united as never before in their commitment to adhere to the COP21 goals, joined by such major polluters as China and India. But the damage is done, and with his stunning arrogance and ruthlessness Trump has alienated all his European allies and isolated America to a desert island of blind conceit and ineptitude where this alpha male can rule his pack of chimps until they run out of coconuts or the rising oceans mercifully engulf them.


MEANWHILE, IN THE ADULT WORLD… 

A novice president of an altogether different sort is Emmanuel Macron who in less than two months since his election in May has not only won early kudos from world leaders but whose brand-new EM party managed to win a vast majority of the parliamentary seats in the legislative elections on June 11th and 18th. It's a remarkable achievement of a party that did not even exist a year ago, in a country where endless debate is par for the course and actual reform is considered impossible. Let's see if Macron's government, half of them women and one-third of the entire Cabinet coming from civil society rather than politics, can do better. Hopes are high.

Macron's ministers

In the meantime, as tourists and vacationers are flocking southward and invading our mist-cooled terrasses, and as our first heat wave (36°C) inevitably dulls our interest in the world's turmoil, we turn our attention to the pleasures of the Opera Festival in Aix-en-Provence which opened last week with its first Master Class. Even for those who don't care for opera, the pleasures of this opera season are many, as I described in an article that appeared in the excellent PROVENCE POST on May 29, 2017 which you can read by clicking here.  

Enjoy your summer and don't worry too much about the Yellow Peril in the US. This too will pass, and as Johann Strauss said in Die Fledermaus: "Glücklich ist wer vergisst was doch nicht zu ändern ist" (Happy is he who forgets what he cannot change anyway).


So climb into your hammock with a book and a cool drink, and relax.
I'll see you next month.



Monday, May 15, 2017

PRESIDENT MACRON

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON


Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron was sworn in as president of France, at 39 the youngest ever, elected without the backing of a political party, and until recently better known for his unusual marriage than for his presidential potential. Seeing the official passation de pouvoir on television a damaged and unpopular President Hollande handing over his powers to the rebellious economy minister who had left him less than a year ago to form his own political movement the improbable story of the young outsider finally became real.


Outgoing and incoming presidents
Of course, Macron was helped by the fact that President Hollande did not run for re-election, that primary winner and front-runner for the presidency François Fillon self-destructed during his campaign, and that the Socialist party was largely destroyed by infighting and numerous defections. Nevertheless, when last November Macron declared himself a candidate for the presidency, few people thought he could win, let alone in less than six months. But his ambition, his intelligence, his youth and energy, his independence from any political party, and the timing of his candidacy when France was weary of prolonged high unemployment, angry at corrupt politicians, and full of doubt opened the door to something new. And in stepped Macron, together with a wife who fascinates the press far beyond France.


BRIGITTE

As the entire world knows by now, Brigitte Macron is 24 years older than her husband. They are both from the northern city of Amiens, where Brigitte Trogneux was a teacher of French and drama at her daughter's high school when she first met the student Macron; she 39 and married, he 15. When at age 17 he declared his love for her, his parents sent him off to Paris for further study. Several years later, Brigitte divorced her husband and moved to Paris where she continued teaching until 2015. She and Macron married in 2007, a happy ending to an unusual love story, and one that made Macron an instant stepfather of Brigitte's son and two daughters (today engineer, cardiologist and lawyer, respectively) and now step grandfather to seven grandchildren. 

Their determination in the face of opposition by parents and rejection by the settled bourgeoisie in Amiens, as well as the patience and persistence with which they slowly won back respect and support, are character traits that will come them in good stead in dealing with the inevitable hardships and pitfalls of politics. And with the cruel emphasis placed on her age. Some hurtful and mean-spirited remarks regarding the couple's difference in age have already appeared, directed mostly at Brigitte, whose heels are judged too high, her skirts too short, and her appearance altogether too high-fashion. But this woman who broke the rules long ago amid much criticism in order to live her dream with Emmanuel Macron, has had time to develop a thick skin. It also helps that she has a sense of humor. Here's what she said when Macron had won the election: "It's a good thing he won now, because in 2022 my face would have made it impossible." 


As someone who watched the all-day inauguration ceremonies on television yesterday, with its share of solemnity, ritual, splendor and poignancy, I sensed a positive mood overtake the city, a return of hope and self confidence, a belief in the promise of this young president who wants to revolutionize the political system and make it more efficient and responsive to today's needs. His task is immense and his path marked with goals he is expected to reach very soon, first among them to obtain a majority of seats in parliament for his new government (to be voted on the 11th and 18th of June) without which it will be near-impossible for him to enact his program of change.

After a much-applauded inaugural speech, humble and grand all at once, he was given a great send-off. Now it's up to him.

We wish him well and will follow him closely.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

FRENCH ELECTIONS

FRENCH ELECTIONS


It's over, and the winner of the first round of the French presidential election is centrist Emmanuel Macron of the movement En Marche! who will face far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) in the runoff on May 7. With 24.01 percent and 21.30 percent of the vote, respectively, they eliminated from the race conservative and early frontrunner François Fillon and hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon who obtained close to 20 percent each. Predictions are that Macron will win the second round and become the next president of France, but if the abstention rate is high (May 7 is in the middle of a long weekend) and if Mélenchon's disappointed followers vote for Le Pen because she, like Mélenchon, wants to leave the Euro and the European Union, nothing is sure.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon
I watched these elections at a friend's house where about a dozen of us had gathered for the election results and for dinner. One couple among us had voted for socialist candidate Benoît Hamon out of political conviction even though he had no chance of winning. This type of sympathy vote is not uncommon in the first round since you can change your vote in the second round. But we all remembered the disastrous outcome of the 2002 election when confident socialists frittered away so many votes in the first round that far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) overtook and eliminated socialist candidate and expected winner Lionel Jospin. A joyous evening instantly turned somber, to which our hostess had only one answer: she opened several bottles of Chateau d'Yquem that she had just inherited from her father.

No Chateau d'Yquem this time, but cautious optimism that 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron will win the presidency on May 7. Given the scandal-clouded campaign of center-right candidate Fillon, and the sudden rise of firebrand left-of-the-left Eurosceptic candidate Mélenchon in the latest polls, the Macron-Le Pen duel was one of the better outcomes we could hope for. But this was no ordinary election in that, stunningly, the two main ruling parties, Fillon's LR and incumbent President Hollande's PS, were both knocked out in the first round.

Five years of President Hollande's failed government have left the socialist party in tatters (its presidential candidate Benoît Hamon got no more than 6.36 percent of the vote), and the refusal of a damaged François Fillon to withdraw from the race in favor of fellow Republican Alain Juppé has been blamed for the conservative LR party's loss. Voters' disenchantment with the two main parties was surely one of the reasons for maverick Mélenchon's strong showing.


Marine Le Pen
Most political leaders, including President Hollande, have since called on their constituents to vote for Macron (against Le Pen), if for no other reason than that France should stay in the European Union. But Le Pen smells victory and is redoubling her efforts, especially in distressed areas where factories have closed and unemployment is high. Her audience, essentially less educated workers, traditional, older and risk averse, fears Macron's youth and is suspicious of his banking background. They are pessimistic by nature and seek security and protection with Le Pen. She is a high-energy person and a good speaker whose nationalist message resonates with her audience.


She may be getting some help from Russia (she met Putin in Moscow last month) according to reports that Russian hackers have targeted Emmanuel Macron's computer network. Global cybersecurity firm Trend Micro identified the group as the same ones who penetrated the Democratic National Convention's network last year and says they may be linked to the GRU, an elite Russian military intelligence unit. Putin does not want a strong European Union, and neither does Le Pen. French authorities have been alerted, and Trend Micro will issue a detailed report this week. 

Macron and wife Brigitte
Emmanuel Macron tends to attract a better-educated, somewhat younger population that is willing to break with tradition and is open to change. He founded his own EM movement ("neither left nor right") to have the freedom to promote his personal vision for a stronger, modernized France, where it will be easier to innovate or start a business, and where he wants to streamline a bloated bureaucracy. He is a strong defender of the European Union and of international trade. To counter the argument that at age 39 Macron "lacks experience" his followers point to his four years in government service, the last two (2014-2016) as Minister of the Economy, and to the extraordinary feat of winning the first round of the presidential election after less than six months of campaigning. Before the final round, however, he still needs to convince the doubters and fence sitters to step to his side rather than to Le Pen's.

This campaign is not over, but I cannot help dreaming already of a dynamic Justin Trudeau or John F. Kennedy at the helm in France.


REFUGEE CAMP BURNED

Le Grande-Synthe camp on fire
Two weeks ago, the refugee camp at Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk was destroyed by a fire, said to have been set by the migrants themselves in a clash among the camp's occupants. Ten people were hospitalized, several of them with stab wounds, and some 600 were sheltered in nearby gymnasiums. Hundreds of others, however, are unaccounted for and are thought to be roughing it in the surroundings.

According to local authorities, a fight had broken out between Kurdish and Afghan migrants over accommodations in the camp, with Afghans complaining that they were housed in the collective kitchens while the Kurds slept in wooden sheds. This camp of wooden sheds had been built by Doctors without Borders to house 800 people, but at the time of the fire it held 1500. The original occupants were mostly Kurdish, but when French authorities dismantled the infamous Calais Jungle camp in October 2016, it re-settled hundreds of Afghans in the Grande-Synthe camp which lacked sufficient wooden sheds for all.

Le Grande-Synthe before
Most of the people at Grande-Synthe want to go to England, including minors who have family there, and are awaiting visas for the UK or asylum papers for France. Others are still trying to get to England illegally and refuse to leave the area for camps further south. Many of those who have disappeared after the fire are thought to be hiding out between Dunkirk and Calais for further attempts to cross over to the UK.

As a rule, it is government policy to settle families with small children first and to house unattached men in temporary camps while their visa or asylum applications are being handled. In the meantime, these men are not allowed to work, but with the help of volunteers and charitable associations they are given language classes and usually a place of worship. Nevertheless, the longer they are held in these camps, the more discouraged they become and the easier it is for a minor incident to spark violence. It is to be remembered that these people ran for their lives and that they paid a terrible price just to find safety before returning home when war ends or being allowed to work and build a new life without handouts. It is a matter of survival and life with some dignity for the migrants, and a moral and humanitarian issue for the host countries where, more often than not, especially in northern Europe, the welcome has been lukewarm at best.


TERRORIST ATTACK IN PARIS

Sadly, the refugee crisis has been displaced by French elections, shifting tensions in international relations, and continuing terrorist attacks around the world, including in Paris where a policeman was killed last week on the Champs Elysées, and two other police officers and one tourist were wounded. The assailant was shot dead by police. The attack was soon claimed by the Islamic State, although the gunman, identified as 39-year-old French national Karim Cheurfi, who had a long criminal record and spent 15 years in jail for attempted murder of a police officer, was not known to be radicalized. At his death he carried a note in his pocket that defended ISIS, and the addresses of four police stations in Paris as well as a Koran were found in his car. French authorities are treating this as an Islamic terrorist attack and are continuing their search for potential accomplices. No rest for the weary French security forces who have been working under a State of Emergency for too long. And no national security as long as home-grown Islamist extremists pursue their misguided mission against "infidels." Let's hope that the next president will find a workable solution to this problem and, of course, let's hope it will be Manuel Macron!