Tuesday, February 6, 2018

OBITUARIES; DAVOS; FLOODS; FRENCH TERRORIST ON TRIAL IN BRUSSELS


OBITUARIES

Two recent deaths in France are worth noting.
Peter Mayle, popular author of a series of books on Provence, died on January 18th at age 78. Paul Bocuse, legendary French chef and innovator, passed away two days later at 91. Both, in their different ways, had made their name in promoting the French quality of life, and found fame and fortune in doing so.

PETER MAYLE

When Peter Mayle wrote A Year in Provence in 1989 he could not have known that it would become an instant bestseller and cause a flood of foreigners to come looking for a 'house in Provence' of their own. The impact on villages in the Luberon where Mayle had settled was immediate. Local farmers were happy to sell their unimproved homesteads, some without indoor plumbing or hot water, to eager buyers who would renovate them to modern standards of comfort and Provençal "charm". Poor villages became rich, soon sprouting boutiques and souvenir shops, sidewalk cafes, and real estate offices. Mayle's first Provence book, soon followed by others, sold millions of copies and was quickly translated into 28 languages but not in French. When a French translation finally appeared in 1996, it was not appreciated. The villagers he had been writing about with tongue in cheek did not take kindly to Mayle's humor and felt mocked and treated like idiots. "You put us under your microscope as if we were insects" was one of the criticisms, and the Englishman who had happily made a French village his home was suddenly less welcome. It is true that the local economy had vastly benefited from Mayle's promotion of the enviable local life, but consequently that life had become too expensive for many of the villagers. The amiable Mayle defended himself as best he could but failed to convince the French. He moved to another village and continued writing until shortly before his death.

PAUL BOCUSE, FIRST CELEBRITY CHEF IN THE WORLD 

Dozens of chefs from all over the world attended Paul Bocuse's funeral service in the cathedral of Lyon to pay their last respects to their teacher and friend "Monsieur Paul" who was as much loved for his culinary mastery as for his simplicity and generosity. All of the star chefs were there, including the American Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud who came from New York, as well as Hiroyuki Hiramatsu who came from Tokyo. Among those who spoke affectionately of Bocuse were Gérard Colomb, Minister of the Interior and former Mayor of Lyon, as well as fellow chefs Pierre Troisgros and Marc Haeberlin who fondly remembered some of the famous Bocuse dishes and his jovial "Bon Appétit et Large Soif." In a tribute from Davos, French President Emmanuel Macron called Bocuse "the incarnation of French cuisine."

Known as a leader and proponent of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse nonetheless did not shun the heartier traditional dishes he grew up with. His food empire included a restaurant at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, and seven restaurants in Japan. He was named Chef of the Century by the Gault et Millau guide in 1989 and again by the Culinary Institute of America in 2011.

Chefs attending Bocuse's funeral 
The "Pope of French cuisine" was laid to rest in the village of Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or where he was born and where he lived above his famous restaurant L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which continues to feature three Michelin stars today as it has without interruption since 1965.

Classique ou moderne, il n'y a qu'une seule cuisine... la bonne. 
Paul Bocuse, 1926-2018


DAVOS

The World Economic Forum opened in Davos on January 23 and its keynote speaker on opening day was French President Emmanuel Macron who for one hour (half in English, half in French) presented his views to the international audience of bankers, innovators and financiers.

He addressed all the big themes of today and pleaded for greater global cooperation on immigration, terrorism, and climate change, underlined the need for transparency, multilateralism, a strong European Union, and called on China to stop its unfair trade practices and create a level playing field for international business there. He also asked that American internet giants doing business in Europe be taxed where they sell their products and not in tax havens. The speech was well received, even though certain attendees would no doubt take exception with some of Macron's proposals. Nevertheless, there is no denying that his performance in Davos reinforced his image as a world leader.

On the final day of the Forum, President Trump took to the podium and spoke to a packed auditorium, inviting investors to come to the United States where the stock market is booming and investment opportunities abound. Claiming all the credit for this economic resurgence, he hammered home his America First message and urged others to do the same for their own countries. For once he stayed on message, although he could not stop himself from criticizing the press and its "fake news" a remark that met with boos. Overall, he received a polite response and happily huddled with a number of business leaders afterwards.

Macron and Trump, both surprise winners of their presidency, could not be more different in style and substance. After one year under his leadership, Trump's America has veered toward disengagement, protectionism and isolation, while France has taken on a leadership role in Europe and increasingly so on the global scene.  


FLOODS IN FRANCE

January 2018 has been the wettest month in France in 100 years. After weeks of incessant rain, rivers overflowed their banks, villages were cut off when roads and railroads were flooded, and excessive snowfall in the southeastern Alps forced the closing of several ski resorts.

When the fast-flowing Seine burst its banks in Paris all river traffic, including the famous bateaux mouches, was halted due to the danger of floating debris, and all traffic lanes along the Seine were closed. The RER-C railroad line serving Paris closed seven stations, and several museums along this line had to close or move their art to higher floors. In the Val de Marne, at the confluence of the Seine and the Yerres, residents who had barely recovered from the terrible floods in 2016 were hit for a second time. Even though the weather improved towards the end of the month, flood warnings remain in effect in the Ile de France as well as in 11 other départements. The floodwaters are receding very slowly due to the soggy ground's inability to absorb any more water, and a recent cold spell with heavy snow added more misery to the flooded areas.


VIOLENCE IN CALAIS

Violent clashes broke out in a migrant camp in Calais last week, leaving 22 people injured. Five young Eritreans were hit by gunshots and four of them (between 16-18 years old) remain today in critical condition. It appears that gangs of people traffickers are pitting Afghans against Eritreans. A 37-year old Afghan identified as the gunman is actively sought by police.

PM Theresa May in Calais
Sadly, the dramatic situation of the Calais refugees who still cling to the hope of reaching England was aggravated by a recent meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron when they agreed that England would speed up the visa processing of the many unaccompanied minors who are waiting to join relatives in the UK. The bureaucratic sluggishness is having serious effects on these youngsters, many of whom lost a parent or relative on their way to "safety" and are currently living in violence-plagued camps. The May-Macron announcement of the renewed British commitment caused a surge of new migrants into the already overcrowded makeshift camp in Calais where rival groups are vying for domination. It took only a minor incident in the foodline at the camp, fanned by people smugglers, to spark the violence that sent 22 people to hospital.

In the wake of the dramatic terrorist attacks in France, the problematic open-door immigration policy of Germany that has come back to haunt Angela Merkel, and the reluctance or down-right refusal of certain Eastern European countries to accept war refugees from North Africa, many Mediterranean countries who continue to see overcrowded refugee boats arriving at their shores have doubled their vigilance and their cooperation in detecting people smugglers among them and separating economic refugees from war refugees who seek political asylum. It's a difficult task given that many refugees arrive without papers. France has tightened its border controls, and those who currently live in refugee camps on its territory but do not qualify for asylum will be sent back. The massive migration of people fleeing war and poverty the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time has become a source of either shame or pride for the richer nations of this world.


FRENCH TERRORIST ON TRIAL IN BRUSSELS

Sketch of Abdeslam (R) and co-defendant in Brussels court.
No cameras were allowed.  
Yesterday, February 5th, Salah Abdeslam, sole survivor of the jihadist terrorist cell that killed 130 people in attacks at the Bataclan theatre and elsewhere in Paris in November 2015, appeared for trial in a Brussels courtroom. The 28-year-old Belgian-born French national Abdeslam had been held in solitary confinement in Fleury-Mérogis near Paris awaiting his trial there, but his refusal to speak to French investigators has led his defense lawyers to quit in frustration. For the Belgian trial, which may last a week, Abdeslam was moved to a high-security French prison near the Belgian border from where he will be ferried daily to the Brussels Palais de Justice to be judged for his role in a Brussels shootout in March 2016 in which several police officers were injured. Three days later, during a raid on his hiding place in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, Abdeslam himself was shot in the leg as he ran from police, which allowed his capture after a four-month-long manhunt following the Paris November attacks. He may also be implicated in the failed attack in a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels in August 2015 that was foiled by three American servicemen on leave, as well as in the attack at Brussels airport and a metro station in March 2016 which killed 32 people and wounded more than 300. Security around the Brussels Palais de Justice is extremely tight with a police cordon around the courthouse and a helicopter flying overhead.

After the Brussels trial Abdeslam will be returned to Paris where he will have to answer for his part in the November 2015 terrorist attacks in which his brother was killed. In a statement found on his laptop computer he admits that he meant to blow himself up at the Palais des Sports stadium in Paris where President Hollande, among 80,000 spectators, was watching a France-Germany football match. He writes that his suicide vest failed to explode and that he dumped it in a nearby bin (it has been retrieved) and regrets that he did not die like his martyr brothers. In the same letter he also says that he had wanted to go to Syria but that on reflection "it would be better to finish the work here with the brothers. I would just like to be better equipped in future before going into action," he adds, showing that he was planning further attacks.

Perhaps Abdeslam is right: nothing more is needed to establish his participation in the Paris attacks, but as the sole survivor he surely has valuable knowledge of European terrorist cells that French and international intelligence services would like to share. Whether he cooperates or not, he is sure to spend the rest of his life in jail. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

NEW YEAR; CATHERINE DENEUVE; MACRON IN CHINA; TRUMP NOT WELCOME


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

In France the year began with the usual fireworks of burning cars (more than 1000) on New Year's Eve and numerous clashes with police that saw ten police officers wounded, two of them seriously, and 510 troublemakers arrested. Most of the incidents occurred in the outlying areas of Paris, where high unemployment, poverty, and a concentration of immigrants lie at the core of much of the unrest. For the young men among them car burning on New Year's Eve has become their preferred way of letting off steam and pent-up frustration.
In Paris, on the other hand, Mayor Anne Hidalgo had organized a grand show of music and projections at the Arc de Triomphe that drew 300,000 people to the Champs Elysées where a heavy police presence assured the safety of the packed crowd. It was a successful exercise in crowd protection in this country where the threat of a terrorist attack is always present.

In more ways than one the year 2017 ended with a bang. After two earlier winter storms that caused flooding and cuts in electricity but luckily cost only one human life, hurricane Carmen hit France's Atlantic Coast on December 31st with local gusts of such force that it knocked down a 67-meter-high wind turbine in the Vendée area. The 260-ton turbine snapped off just above its base in the first incident of this kind. An ongoing investigation will determine whether this might have been caused by a mini tornado.


CATHERINE DENEUVE

A storm of another kind was unleashed by the publication of a letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and 100 other French women in the respected daily Le Monde in response to the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent #Balancetonporc (Snitch on your Pig) that famously took down the Hollywood mogul and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. The signatories denounced the flood of accusations of certain acts such as touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, wolf whistles, clumsy compliments etc. as "sexual harassment." Women can say No to unwanted attention from men who, nevertheless, should be allowed to flirt, was the message. "Rape is a crime but insistent or clumsy flirting is not, nor is gallantry a macho aggression." The lack of distinction may be due to a form of American puritanism, the letter implied.

The inevitable backlash soon followed, led by Italian actress Asia Argento, among the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein, and soon was taken up by the foreign press. A week later, Catherine Deneuve accepted an interview from Libération wherein she clarified that she had signed the letter because she agreed with its premise but later took exception with the statements of certain signatories on French television. She stated that she did not consider herself a feminist ("I am a free woman and don't belong to any group") and reminded the interviewer that in 1971 she had signed the "Manifesto of the 343 Sluts," a declaration of 343 advocates for women's reproductive rights who admitted publicly that they had had an abortion when it was illegal in France. Feeling misinterpreted by her accusers, she nevertheless offered apologies to those victims of real sexual abuse who might have been offended by the letter she co-signed. Calm has returned... for now.


MACRON IN CHINA

"When the winds of change start blowing, some will build walls, others windmills"— Chinese proverb. France will build windmills, says President Macron. 

On January 7th, Emmanuel Macron began a three-day state visit to China with a view to boosting Europe's economic ties with China and increasing France's global influence. In the wake of Brexit and Germany's difficulties in forming a coalition government, Macron has been filling the void by taking on the role of European leader. His wife Brigitte and some 50 French business leaders accompanied him on the trip.

After visiting Xi'An, the ancient imperial city and hub of the old silk roads, and the impressive terra-cotta army of 8000 warriors, the Macrons flew to Beijing where they were given a tour of the Forbidden City. Taking a clue from China's panda diplomacy, Macron offered President Xi-Jinping a magnificent 8-year old gelding from the Garde Républicaine, complete with its special saddle and a sabre. He also brought two messages: first, the tremendous possibilities that closer cooperation between China and Europe could bring and his total commitment to that effort; and second, the growing concern in Europe and elsewhere over China's unfair trade practices and the resulting trade deficit of €30 billion in France alone. France and the EU want more reciprocity in their trade relations with China and also want to take advantage of China's $1 trillion New Silk Road Initiative, which Macron says must be a two-way road. "After all, the ancient Silk Road was never only Chinese".

Several multibillion-euro contracts were signed during this visit, notably with Airbus (184 planes) and with Areva for the construction of a nuclear-waste treatment plant in China.

Before leaving, Macron promised to come back to China at least once a year, presumably with wife Brigitte who is very popular in China where their unusual marriage is viewed as "very romantic".


WINNERS AND LOSERS

As Emmanuel Macron keeps gaining in popularity and international status, Donald Trump seems to be doing everything he can to turn the world against him. Latest case in point: Switzerland.

No sooner had President Trump announced that he planned to attend the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos later this month than the Swiss campaign group Campax launched a petition to keep Donald Trump away from Davos. The petition gathered more than 12000 signatures on its first day. Trump, who would be the first sitting US president in 20 years to attend the Forum, intends to present his America First agenda to the audience of world leaders and business executives. As Campax explained in its petition, "A person who does not believe in anything that constitutes, in our view, a civilized society, has no place here in Switzerland." This statement was issued a day after Trump made his infamous remark on immigrants from "shithole countries" that met with worldwide condemnation, including from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations in Geneva.

This follows London's rejection of a Trump visit by London Mayor Sadiq Kahn last year after Theresa May had invited him because he feared massive anti-Trump demonstrations and could not guarantee Mr. Trump's safety. When Trump announced last week that he would not go to London to open the new American embassy there, Mr. Kahn tweeted: "It appears that President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and the Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city's values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance. [...]  Let's hope that Donald Trump also revisits the pursuit of his divisive agenda."

Who could have believed in pre-Trump days that any country would openly object to the visit of an American president? Times have changed, and so has America, sadly not for the better.



Friday, December 15, 2017

TRUMP AND THE WORLD; D'ORMESSON AND JOHNNY HALLYDAY; ONE PLANET SUMMIT


TRUMP AND THE WORLD

It's as if a dark cloud has descended on the United States ever since Donald Trump was elected president. Under his leadership, America has lost its moral compass and its status as leader of the free world. Abroad, his incessant tweeting, his recklessness (North Korea, Jerusalem) and his shameless irresponsibility (withdrawing from Paris climate agreement) have lost him the respect of heads of state of all persuasions and awakened in the average citizen a reflex of shock and disdain for this embarrassing figure in the White House. Unflattering cartoons abound, as does concern and criticism from newspapers, international pundits, the United Nations Security Council and even the Pope.

As most Americans already know, their president is not only isolating his own country but, following his outrageous "decision" on Jerusalem, is also destabilizing others. Especially in that city of permanent tension and a fragile co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians where Muslims and Christians have holy shrines that are unthinkable under Israeli control, it is hard to say if it was ignorance or arrogance that led Trump to go where he shouldn't have. The predictable violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis and an escalating anti-Americanism have only just begun and could well spread farther afield. Trump's motive? Fulfilling a campaign promise to his evangelist supporters (and of course taking another dig at President Obama who had a notoriously bad relationship with Netanyahu). With a State Department that he disrespects and has downsized dangerously, Trump tends to take counsel from the business people he has surrounded himself with rather than from professional diplomats or Washington experts. The results are predictably messy, but a compliant and self-serving Republican Party seems unable to reign in the dangerous excesses of the unstable man they so slavishly serve. On the Jerusalem question, Jared Kushner, Trump's orthodox-Jewish son-in-law and his Special Adviser for the Middle East, as well as the powerful Jewish lobby, deserve their share of the blame for this unnecessary provocation, but it is the heavy footfall of maniacally egocentric Donald Trump himself that is heard around the world. The black cloud is now hanging over all of us.

Rabin, Clinton, Arafat in 1993
Even though he is already back-tracking (he may not move the American embassy to Jerusalem after all, but will consider Jerusalem Israel's capital), it is too late to undo the damage caused in international circles where not a single government supported him. Everyone except Donald Trump seems to realize that with this decision America, facilitator of the Oslo Peace Accords signed in 1993 at the Clinton White House by Israel (Rabin) and Palestine (Arafat) and sealed with their famous handshake, disqualified itself from its role of mediator in the difficult negotiations between Israel and Palestine who now have to deal with each other directly an unpromising prospect.  

Two days after Trump's decision on Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Paris for a meeting with President Macron who has become the go-to European leader. They held a joint press conference at the Elysée Palace where Macron made it clear that he disagrees with Mr. Trump's unilateral decision and asked Mr. Netanyahu to give peace a chance by resuming the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and to stop the building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, including occupied East Jerusalem. "It is important to make that gesture towards the Palestinians" he told Netanyahu, who left Paris empty-handed for a meeting with EU leaders in Brussels the next day. There, too, he was rebuffed by EU's Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini who said that the EU's position joins the international consensus of a two-state solution negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, with Jerusalem as capital of both states.

[This brings back a personal memory from my visit to Jerusalem in the mid-1990s where my husband was attending an international conference. Our hotel was located near the Knesset and had extremely high security, including elevator operators in every lift and plenty of precautionary advice for its guests. Our buses for the spousal program of visits from the Sea of Galilee in the north to Masada and the Dead Sea in the south were protected by two machine-gun-wielding soldiers, one front, one aft, who never left our side. Back at the hotel I looked into some less "formal" visits and I asked directions to The American Colony, a charming hotel in East Jerusalem where the international press used to hang out. I was told in no uncertain terms not to go to East Jerusalem. "You will get raped" the female clerk told me. "Is that a promise?" I joked, but nobody laughed. "Anyway, no taxi will take you there. They will just drop you off at the border," which turned out to be true, but a short walk to The American Colony met my expectations of a delightful place for a relaxed lunch in the sunny courtyard of a former sultan's palace, among fragrant orange trees and the background sound of many different languages. Life seemed normal here, just a short distance from our hotel with its Them vs. Us atmosphere. Sadly, then as now, these two neighborhoods remain separated by deep mutual suspicion and a sea of irreconcilable differences.]

Trump's latest misstep turned into a poisoned gift for Netanyahu, with its worldwide condemnation and little benefit to Israel. It also may have been just another diversionary tactic by Trump to keep attention away from the Russian investigation by Mr. Mueller that may ultimately lead to Trump's downfall. When one man, through ineptitude, egocentrism, and disregard for the consequences of his ill-considered actions can threaten world peace and cause the United Nations Security Council to hastily convene in response to the growing madness, the destitution of Trump as president concerns us all.


ADIEU TOUS LES DEUX

At the time of the Jerusalem bombshell, France was totally absorbed by the death of two national figures.

Jean d'Ormesson, writer, philosopher, newspaper commentator, and the most visible member of the prestigious Académie Française, died December 5th, aged 92. He was a frequent guest on television programs where he sparkled as much by his erudition as his mischievousness, which gained him a certain popularity beyond the world of intellectuals. He was honored with a national funeral ceremony at Les Invalides, attended by former presidents, politicians, Academicians and fellow writers. In his eulogy at the solemn homage in the Cour d'Honneur, President Macron called him "a prince of letters" and "the best of the French spirit".

The next day, Paris saw another national funeral of a very different kind. Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis Presley who was little known abroad in spite of the millions of records he sold, had died at age 74 a day after d'Ormesson and was given a huge send-off covered in full by both French public TV channels. In contrast to the formal Hommage Officiel to Jean d'Ormesson, this was an Hommage Populaire which drew a million fans to the Champs Elysées and the Place de la Concorde, closed for the occasion, where they sang his songs and chanted Johnny! Johnny!, throwing flowers at his hearse as it followed 700 bike riders straddling their Harley Davidsons just as their hero had done. The massive crowd of all ages reflected the 60 years of Johnny's career that since its modest beginnings had never stopped growing and retained its appeal to all generations by the simple words of love and loss that spoke to everyone. Impossible to find a single French person who does not know at least one of Johnny's songs by heart.

This Rock'nRoller was a cult figure, but one who was buried with honors accorded to few. President Macron addressed the crowd gathered at the Place de la Madeleine "on this sad day in December". He called Johnny a friend and a brother who was a part of all of us, a part of France, and asked the people to applaud with him as the casket was carried into the church. There, joined by his wife Brigitte, his prime minister, his minister of culture, the mayor of Paris and other government officials, he attended the funeral service which was broadcast on a giant screen for those outside.

I could not help seeing a certain excess here for someone who - though very popular - was also a tax evader, something that is not easily forgiven in France (government ministers have gone to jail for it, and Gérard Depardieu, who first moved to Belgium and subsequently to Moscow, was fiercely attacked in the press). Johnny had chosen Switzerland as his tax haven and spent most of his days in any one of several residences abroad (including Los Angeles), when he was not performing in France, where he also had a house but not his principal residence. Moreover, disappointing many of his fans, he had asked to be buried on the Caribbean island of St. Barts where he also had a residence.

Was this a touch of Realpolitik from a man who is perceived as a president for the rich? In praising this "fils du peuple" Macron spoke to the many people from all walks of life that will hear no evil of their Johnny. As much as they despise the very rich in general, Johnny remains for them the unblemished hero with the big heart to whom all is forgiven.  


NO REST FOR THE WEARY


On Tuesday, December 12th, second anniversary of the signing of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, President Macron opened the One Planet Summit, co-hosted by the United Nations, the World Bank, and France to deal with the financing of green solutions for the reduction of global carbon emissions. It was also an occasion to counter President Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Agreement and his argument that the Paris Accord was "bad for business". "We're not moving fast enough; it is time to act and win this battle," said Macron in his opening address to more than 50 world leaders and government representatives, investment fund managers and a number of wealthy individuals such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Michael Bloomberg. Former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger also were in attendance.


The President of the World Bank announced that the Bank would stop financing coal and gas explorations in 2019. French insurance giant AXA said it would stop investing in any company involved in coal mining and will withdraw nearly $3 billon from the sector. More than 200 large-scale investors, including the HSBC and the California pension fund CalPERS, agreed to put pressure on the 100 most polluting companies in the world in the oil, mining, and transport sectors. The European Commission and the Gates Foundation earmarked large sums for agricultural research to combat the effects of climate change on farming. And in defiance to Donald Trump, President Macron invited 18 foreign scientists (13 of them American) to come and work in France for the rest of Donald Trump's presidency, funded by 20 million euros in French research grants.

All this and more points to a new impetus to the Paris Accord and to the necessary funding to meet its goals. We have Donald Trump to thank for that, said billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City.


On this note of hope, I will sign off and bid you Goodbye until next year. As this turbulent year 2017 comes to a close, may you all find solace, pride, and inspiration to take on the next year and whatever it may bring us.



HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!








Wednesday, November 22, 2017

PRESIDENT MACRON — AT HOME AND ABROAD


MACRON  AT HOME AND ABROAD

Macron with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh
Macron welcomes Hariri to Elysée Palace
Recently, French president Emmanuel Macron drew international attention when he stepped in to ease the tension in the Middle East following the mysterious resignation by Saad Hariri as Prime Minister of Lebanon who had fled to Saudi Arabia because he feared for his life.

Soon, rumors began circulating that Hariri had been forced to resign by Sunnite Saudi Arabia and used as a pawn in its fight against Shiite Iran which is supporting the Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters in Syria. The Hariri "kidnapping" with its spy-novel whiff and its potential for setting off open warfare in the Middle East took place while President Macron was attending a conference in Dubai (UAE). He quickly scheduled an emergency meeting with the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh to discuss the situation of Lebanon, a former French colony, and to reiterate France's attachment to Lebanon's sovereignty and to the stability of the entire region. Two days later he sent his Minister of Foreign Affairs to Riyadh to meet with Hariri and invite him to come to France before returning to Lebanon to clarify his resignation. Subsequently, Hariri did come to France with his family and has since returned to Beirut where he'll meet with President Aoun before officially announcing his resignation (or not).

Even before this incident, Emmanuel Macron's picture had been burnished in the international press where so far he was perhaps best known for his youth and his marriage to a woman 24 years older than himself.


Emmanuel Macron as featured in The Guardian

Earlier this month, British newspaper THE GUARDIAN devoted its weekly Long Read a four-page in-depth article by French author Emmanuel Carrère to the Emmanuel Macron who at age 39 became the youngest ever president of France after barely six months of campaigning. Noting the unlikeliness in tradition-bound France of a young person rising at record speed through a sea of grey-haired politicians to take the top job, the interviewer tried to delve into the personality behind the politician, which did not reveal much except that he loves poetry and often quotes it, and that he is still madly in love with his wife who is also his "best friend." More inclined to talk about his view of the world than about himself, the young president nevertheless gives the impression of being up to the task. With characteristic self-confidence, he said: "If I don't radically transform France, it will be worse than if I did nothing at all."

Macron has promised much and expectations are high. Whether he can fulfill his promises remains to be seen, but he has made a very good start and has managed to win recognition for his political and diplomatic skills far beyond France.

Around the same time, TIME Magazine featured President Macron's picture on its November 20th cover and devoted a five-page article to The Next Leader of Europe. Since his election in May 2017 and his promise to overhaul the complicated French labor laws, he has booked a string of successes at home, where even his far-left opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon had to admit defeat when his calls for massive strikes and demonstrations found insufficient following. With England's Brexit vote, and a weakened Angela Merkel's on-going struggle to form a coalition government in Germany, Macron does indeed seem the man of the hour in Europe. Knowing his total commitment to the European project, we could do worse.


NATIONAL SECURITY

Just before the commemoration of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, President Macron ended the State of Emergency that was declared two years ago and replaced it, effective November 15th, with a new Anti-Terrorism law that gives the police greater powers to search property, conduct electronic eavesdropping, and shut down mosques suspected of preaching hatred. Critics were quick to warn that the new law may undermine civil liberties, but Macron insists that it is necessary in order to counter jihadist terrorism which remains the biggest security threat in France since the Paris and Nice attacks that killed more than 240 people. In response to Human Rights Watch concerns, Macron said that the new legislation will be reviewed in two years and adapted as needed with the oversight of judges. 

The Islamic State jihadists have now lost most of their territory in Syria and Iraq and are retreating in great numbers. Among them are some 700 French fighters who want to come back to France, sometimes with wife and children. These returnees' cases will be carefully reviewed on an individual basis, said Macron. The 398 who have already returned in the past are all under formal investigation and a number of them have been jailed.


PARLEZ-VOUS ANGLAIS?

This year some 6000 "post-Bac" students did not manage to enter university for lack of space. The Baccalaureate, the French diploma issued after completion of secondary education, is roughly equivalent to a US high-school diploma plus two years of college. The Bac gives admittance to university but there is no pre-selection of majors in French lycées, which means that this selection often takes place after the first year at university when students have a better idea of what they want. Education is free in France, and students are less pressed to get a job than in the US where graduates are burdened with student loans that have to be repaid.


University classrooms overflowing

The French Ministry of Education has promised to find a solution for the lack of space for university entrants and plans to introduce a pre-selection program at the lycée level so as to better channel the post-Bac applicants. It also plans to "update" the lycée curriculum to respond to today's needs in a changing globalized workplace where at the very least a working knowledge of English is required a subject in which France lags far behind other nations and, as a result, French applicants for international jobs do less well than other Europeans.

Indeed, in a country where Philosophy is taught in high school and where erudition is highly valued, it has always surprised me that the seniors among my friends (60-plussers) do not speak a word of English even though they are highly educated (Bac+10). It simply was not part of their curriculum, as French educators have long considered foreign languages as a rather marginal matter. As recently as May 2016, the Minister of Education in the socialist government of President Hollande announced the elimination from the high school curriculum of Latin, Greek, and mandatory German as "elitist" subjects. (Remember President Hollande's letter to President Obama where he signed off with "Friendly, François"?)


But things they are a'changing. Emmanuel Macron not only speaks fluent English himself (very rare for a French president), but intends to give foreign languages their proper place in French schools. In a speech to French and foreign students at the Sorbonne last September on the subject of a strong Europe, Macron announced his proposal that French university students speak at least two European languages by 2024, and that as part of their education they spend at least six months abroad. Now THAT is revolutionary.

European Union