Wednesday, July 19, 2017



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.  


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.

(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.


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



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.


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



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.


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



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.


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.


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!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017



Last Saturday, 27 European heads of state met in Rome to celebrate the signing, 60 years ago, of the Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Community (EEC) with six member States. This created a common market for the free flow of goods, services, capital and people throughout its member countries, and was the first chapter in the development of the European Union (EU) which today counts 27 member States (post Brexit). It has not always been a smooth road and has required a number of amendments and sub-treaties on the way to becoming the complex juggernaut it is at present. Often criticized for moving slowly, the EU colossus nevertheless is making steady headway in the turbulent waters of a multi-layered Europe, and its founders' goals remain as valid today as they ever were.

EU heads of State in Rome, March 2017
Just as the NATO pact was intended as a shield against foreign aggression, the EEC created a bulwark of countries forming a single market for greater economic strength. These international agreements have been essential to the peace and prosperity Europe has known for more than 60 years, but are threatened today by the Brexit vote and by President Trump's announced intention to cut America's financial contribution to NATO and his encouragement of other countries to leave the European Union so as to diminish its economic power.

Jean-Claude Juncker in Rome
In the same room where the original treaty was signed in 1957, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded to these threats by recalling the original signers' pledge to work for the "ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe" and spoke for all the signatories when he said: "We solemnly renew our vows and reaffirm our commitment to our undivided and indivisible union. Only by staying united can we pass on to future generations a more prosperous, a more social and a safer Europe." This was true in 1957 and it is true today.
May the message be shared widely across a Europe weakened by Brexit, and serve as a warning against rising populism.


Geert Wilders (L) vs. Prime Minister Mark Rutte
One loud voice that has been thundering against the EU is that of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, a right-wing populist who is in favor of leaving the EU. This admirer of Donald Trump wants to close Holland's borders to Muslims, shut down mosques, and ban the Koran. I was in Holland during the general elections on March 15 and was struck by the fact that there were practically no billboards or posters of political candidates and that the mood was calm and sober. I heard no rabid speeches in the days before nor great jubilation after the election; just a sigh of relief at the defeat of Wilders who, riding on a wave of populism, had been running neck and neck with Prime Minister Rutte almost until election day. Sober, solid and down-to-earth Holland saved the day, and hopefully set an example for France...


... where presidential elections will take place in late April and early May, and where far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Wilders's soul mate, is expected to win the first round. If elected, she would immediately leave the European Union and the euro, close French borders to immigrants, revoke French citizenship from Muslims with dual nationality, and pretty much follow Wilders's script. His defeat in Holland was greeted with joy in France and seen as a welcome check in the rise of the extreme right.

Penelope and François Fillon
French polls have been predicting that Le Pen will lose in the second round but nobody counts her out yet, as her opposition is fractioned and in turmoil. Several of her fellow candidates are under investigation, first among them conservative front-runner François Fillon, former Prime Minister, who looked like a shoe-in until the revelation of alleged fictitious employment of his wife and two children as well as expensive gifts from wealthy donors tarnished his image of Mr. Clean and completely overshadowed his political platform. When the preliminary judgment by a financial fraud panel failed to clear him of the charges and concluded only that further investigation was necessary, Fillon refused to withdraw but his chances of winning have been badly hurt.

Emmanuel Macron, former Economics Minister and the current front-runner, is being investigated over a costly visit to the 2016 electronics trade show in Las Vegas with members of his Ministry that was organized without a call for bids. An aide explained that Business France, a unit of the Economics Ministry, had chosen the Havas PR company to organize the trip without seeking other bids and that this investigation has nothing to do with Macron himself.

Marine Le Pen with Vladimir Putin
Marine Le Pen also faces several investigations over campaign financing and misuse of funds at the European Parliament. She has refused to reply to a Summons from judges in the parliamentary case while she is campaigning. She has the support (and possibly financial backing) from Vladimir Putin who received her at the Kremlin last week.

As soon as President Hollande announced that he would not run for a second term, Manuel Valls resigned as Prime Minister in order to run for the presidency himself (he lost against left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon). Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve then replaced Valls as Prime Minister, and Deputy Bruno Le Roux was appointed to replace Cazeneuve as Interior Minister. It was another reshuffle in the Hollande government which has known many, and should have been the last before the change of government in May. Alas, Le Roux lasted little more than three months and was forced to resign over the fact that he had employed his two school-age daughters of 15 and 16, respectively, as Parliamentarian aides during school vacations. Not much evidence could be found for work done for the benefit of the Parliament except for paychecks totalling 55,000 euros. In the wake of the Fillon fictitious employment scandal, Le Roux was forced out and was replaced by Matthias Fekl, who in September 2014 had replaced Thomas Thévenoud, then newly-named State Secretary for Exterior Commerce who, after only nine days on the job, had to resign over years of unpaid taxes. (His excuse: "I don't like paperwork").
Are you still with me?

President Hollande in his office
One may well ask whether President Hollande has ever heard of background checks, but that's a moot point by now. Without a lasting legacy, he will soon be forgotten. A recent article in daily La Libération with the headline François Hollande, Résident de la République, depicted a man isolated in his gilded cage, surrounded by all the glitter and ostentation of France's past glory, who is keenly aware of his exalted position and seemingly in need of all the trappings that come with it as if he still does not quite believe that he made it to the top. Even when he invites journalists for a chat over a cup of coffee, he receives them in these formal surroundings where a uniformed lackey cries out Le Président de la République! as he enters the room to join his guests.

With a tinge of pity we will soon say goodbye to this well-meaning but ineffective president, who may well miss his shiny palace more than we will miss him.

King François is dead. Long live the king!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


As elections approach in Holland (mid March) and in France (late April/early May), we have to tear ourselves away from the Trump circus and its daily dose of doozies, which isn't easy given its undeniable Biggest-Show-on-Earth quality. Like The Sopranos, we don't want to miss a single episode of this saga with its predictable outcome, but then there is the real world...


Fillon and British-born wife Penelope
Less colorful and entertaining than Trump on the stump, France is in the midst of its own political scandal. Known as Penelopegate, it concerns François Fillon, the conservative candidate and presumed winner of the upcoming presidential elections where he would beat right-wing Marine Le Pen in the second round. No longer. When it was reported that Fillon had been paying his wife Penelope for many years from public funds for a non-existing job as his parliamentary assistant and later recruited two of his children as well, his ratings dropped sharply. The accumulated paychecks reportedly totaled nearly €900,000 paid out of Fillon's public-fund treasury, plus €100,000 to Penelope paid by a wealthy friend for two book reviews in a literary magazine he owned. In France, parliamentarians are allowed to hire family members as long as their job is genuine, and Fillon's defense has been that he has done nothing illegal and can provide evidence of the work done by his family members. A financial fraud panel is looking into the allegations and Fillon has said that he would withdraw his candidacy if the judges found him guilty, expressing the hope that a verdict could be rendered quickly. When a few days ago a preliminary judgment stated only that the panel has not had sufficient time to come to a decision and that the investigation continues, Fillon decided to keep campaigning because he considers himself "the only candidate who can put France back on the rails". His support has plummeted, however, and today's polls see him losing in the first round of the elections.


Marine Le Pen
This has been manna from heaven for Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right Front National party, who is expected to win the first round of the two-part presidential election, even though she too is now being investigated in connection with two fake jobs at her office as deputy at the European Parliament. If found guilty, her punishment would be a fine but would have little effect on her presidential run. With populism on the rise in Europe as elsewhere, she is supported by extreme-right leaders in Holland, Italy and Germany - all Eurosceptics - as well as Donald Trump and Putin.

Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron

With Fillon presumably eliminated in the first round, if not before, Le Pen is likely to face Emmanuel Macron, the rising young star of the newly-formed centrist party who, as things stand today, would be victorious in the second round. His biggest drawback: he is only 39 (and looks younger). 

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron
So what do we know about him? After brilliant studies he started off in civil service but then switched to the Rothschild bank where he worked for a couple of years; in 2012 he was invited to join the government as special advisor to President François Hollande, who later appointed him Minister of the Economy. His "Loi Macron" loosens some of the employment regulations in France. He left the Socialist government in the summer of 2016 to form his own centrist party En Marche! and started campaigning for the presidency last November. Considered an outsider at first, his rise has been steady and uninterrupted, and today he has a serious shot at winning the presidency. While we await the details of his program that is to be announced soon, a sketchy outline looks safely middle-of-the-road with a more flexible business environment. His wife Brigitte Trogneux, who is 20 years older than he, was his high-school French teacher and has three children from a first marriage.

Singing from Trump's song sheet, Le Pen's program is squarely on the far right: leave the European Union and the euro; curtail immigration; pull out of NATO; promote a made-in-France nation; close borders, and become independent of the rules and regulations of others (read Brussels).   

By comparison, the relative youth of Macron is surely less scary than that, even in traditional France where youth does not earn its stripes until well into middle age, and where a job as banker is held against you. Besides, with Tsipras in Greece and Renzi in Italy, Macron would not be the first fortyish leader in Europe, and his youthful energy and can-do spirit might blow some fresh air through the cobwebs of French bureaucracy.


French riots in February 2017
Another subject that made front-page news in France this month was police brutality. It is a recurring problem in the sensitive cités, those high-rise suburbs around Paris packed with immigrants, where police are often accused of abusive behavior during identity checks. Latest case in point: on February 2nd, 22-year-old Théo (identified by his first name only), an African immigrant, was stopped in Aulnay-sous-Bois for an identity check that deteriorated when four policeman forced the unarmed man to the ground and one of them sodomized him with his police baton, seriously wounding him and rupturing his intestine. The police later called this rape accidental, sparking riots and protest marches in several suburbs, where cars were set on fire and storefronts destroyed. After cautious initial reactions from the Interior Minister who called for calm, tensions remain high in the area. One of the officers is now under investigation for rape and the other three for undue violence. Calm has not yet returned, with occasional flareups in the area and marches in support of Théo as far afield as Marseilles.

President Hollande visiting Theo
It must be said that French police have been under stress for a long time, especially since the State of Emergency was declared and extended following the murderous jihadist attacks in Paris and Nice. It is also known that the youngest police recruits are usually the first to be sent into the difficult suburbs for regular patrols and identity checks. Backed up by more senior police, they want to show their mettle by being unnecessarily rough and are prone to use excessive force. This was the case in Aulnay-sous-Bois where the junior officer was the one who raped Théo with his police baton. When women from several cités were interviewed, their common theme was the lack of respect these police patrols show the local population and the reflex of rebellion this engenders. "They all call us "tu" (tutoyer is reserved for friends and family; others are respectfully called "vous") and show total disrespect" says one woman. Another adds that she likes to have the police around but only if they protect. Instead, she says, they often provoke and make an already difficult situation worse.

French riots in 2005
This latest unrest calls to mind the terrible 2005 riots in the outskirts of Paris when two young men were electrocuted in a power substation as they fled the police. Weeks-long rioting, three people killed, and widespread destruction of public property were the result, but sadly today nothing much has changed in these densely populated cités with high unemployment and few prospects for a better future. With all of its social benefits and its multitude of immigrants from former colonies, France has done a poor job of integrating these people and providing them access to a mixed society where they have a chance at forging a better life for themselves. Poverty, joblessness and a feeling of exclusion are breeding grounds for riots but also for Islamic radicalization among the Muslim youths in these cités. Unemployed youngsters jailed for minor infractions are often radicalized in prison and on their release spread their new jihadist beliefs to others with tragic results. A perfect vicious circle that awaits some serious government attention and meaningful intervention. Perhaps from the next government?


Nothing, however, will interfere with the French need for at least two holidays a year, one in summer and one in winter. For the past three weeks of staggered school vacations national roads to the Alps and Pyrenees have been clogged on weekends with the coming and going of vacationers seeking sun and snow. Every such weekend is rouge, with heavy traffic and long lines at toll stations. No problem. Getting away is the point, and with a guaranteed minimum of 35 paid vacation days per year, most French tend to use their time off to do just that. At least those who are employed.