Tuesday, March 28, 2017

THE EUROPEAN UNION, THE NETHERLANDS, FRANCE

THE EUROPEAN UNION


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.


THE NETHERLANDS

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...


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 Caseneuve then replaced Valls as Prime Minister, and Deputy Bruno Le Roux was appointed to replace Caseneuve 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

PENELOPEGATE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, RIOTS


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...


PENELOPEGATE

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.


LE PEN and MACRON


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.


RIOTS IN PARIS SUBURBS

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?


WEEKENDS ROUGES

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.




Friday, January 27, 2017

TRUMP AND EUROPE

PRESIDENT TRUMP: WHAT IT MEANS FOR EUROPE


The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has Europe baffled and worried. Only the leaders of extreme-right parties (in France, Holland and Germany, all facing elections this year) cheered this outcome, while the rest of a stunned European leadership tries to measure what effect this might have on the European Union, its security, its international trade agreements, immigration, the COP21 environmental agreement, etc.

There was good reason to worry after hearing the new President's aggressive inaugural speech which was sadly devoid of greatness or any inspirational message. Here was a blustering bully who on this grand occasion could do no better than give another campaign speech full of promises and threats, offending in the process the three past presidents who honored him with their attendance (Obama, Bush Jr. and Carter) with accusations of bringing the country to ruin and doing nothing about its problems. This was the mendacious and pugnacious campaigner who was not going to change now that he had won. The hateful speech was an embarrassment, killing the last spark of hope in those who had not voted for him. Even before the marching bands had stopped playing that afternoon, he had already set in motion the demolition derby against President Obama's greatest achievements by signing an executive order to begin dismantling Obamacare. No time to lose.

Inauguration crowds for Trump (left) and Obama (right

There was worse to come: the next morning he visited the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia to first praise the institution he had slandered during his campaign, and then to segue into a lengthy and petulant outburst against those he claimed had falsely reported that Obama had drawn bigger crowds to his inauguration than Trump had. "When I looked out over the Mall I saw at least a million, perhaps a million-and-a-half people, all the way up to the Washington Monument!", he said, giving the lie to newspaper photos that clearly showed the contrary (and since have been flashed around the world). For good measure he added that people of the press were "among the most dishonest people in the world", a message echoed by White House Communications Director Sean Spicer who stated that "This was the largest crowd ever to witness a presidential inauguration, period!" and warned journalists that they would be held accountable. And then we learned about alternative facts... Oh, my!  

It is hard to think of a worse start, but here we are: the man was elected democratically and we're stuck, unless...

... we hold him to his word that he is "giving the power back to the people". The people responded massively on the day after the inauguration when more than three million of them, many wearing symbolic pink knitted "pussy hats", walked in the Women's March on Washington (more than 500,000) and in cities across the United States, as well as in "sister marches" in most European capitals and in Asia. In all, 670 rallies were held all over the world, including one in a distant outpost in Antarctica and several in hottest Africa, to protest against President Trump. Never before has the world been so united in such numbers against a president who is seen as divisive, vindictive, irresponsible, and not qualified to hold our fate in his hands. This massive, well-documented, global uprising has boosted the protesters' spirits and given rise to a renewed civic interest in politics, with thousands of Americans giving notice to their Representatives not to cross a red line, and reminding them that their re-election is in the hands of the people. The mid-term elections in 2018 are sure to reflect today's widespread disapproval.

No one has forgotten the alleged Russian interference in the election process, the role played by the Director of the FBI, the fact that Hillary Clinton got three million more popular votes than the winner, the fact that Trump has refused to produce his tax returns, that he has not put his businesses in a blind trust, that his cabinet appointees are all billionaires or generals without government experience.

In his first few days at the helm Trump has declared the Trans-Pacific Partnership dead, the NAFTA agreement to be renegotiated, approved the building of the Keystone oil pipeline that Obama had blocked and the Dakota Access Pipeline through Sioux territory, giving the finger to environmentalists and casting doubt on the COP21 agreement on climate change signed in Paris in December 2015. With lightning speed he is trying to undo or damage as much of his predecessor's legacy as he can before congressional hearings begin.

Why should this concern Europe? Because Trump considers the European Union as an economic threat to the US and likes to see it weakened, because he praised the UK's Brexit and encourages other member states to leave the Union, because he considers NATO obsolete, because he is attacking environmental regulations and does not believe in global warming, because his support of Putin and of Netanyahu's hardline settlement policies threatens the fragile stability in the Middle East, and because he is a bull in a china shop with the Red Button within reach.   

No, Mr. Trump, Making America Great Again does not begin with giving (tax breaks) to the rich and taking (Obamacare) from the poor; with denying science (man-made climate change exists); with facilitating oil production and pipeline building (benefiting your investment portfolio) when alternative energy should be developed and dependency on oil reduced; with building walls and closing borders; with unfunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities; with threatening a trade war with Mexico; with turning an independent press against you. All this the sum of your first week in office has us worried.



But some bright spots are already appearing on the horizon, not the least of which is that a weakened European Union may be strengthened by its united stance in response to your provocations. In Washington, the first ethics lawsuit has been filed against you while in office and we expect more to come. Your sabre rattling and offensive statements will surely provoke diplomatic incidents before long, and your uncontrollable tweeting will sooner or later set your own camp against you. Hello hope!

Next time, women (and men) will not only march on Washington, they will march to the ballot box if you have not been impeached before then. 


PS:  Another wee bright spot:  the tsunami of Trump cartoons; they are really funny! 



Wednesday, December 21, 2016

CHRISTINE LAGARDE AND PICASSO'S ELECTRICIAN JUDGED


Two long-running legal cases were finally wrapped up this month.

After five days of hearings by the Cour de Justice de la République (CJR), which judges wrongdoing by government officials, Christine Lagarde was found guilty of the charge of "negligence by a person in a position of public authority" but spared the potential penalty of a one-year prison term and a fine. The public prosecutor had recommended acquittal based on a "weak" case. Lagarde stood accused of mishandling the arbitration of Bernard Tapie vs the partly state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank when she allowed a payoff of more than €400 million with public funds in 2008 while she was Finance Minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy (see blog 12/21/15).

The lead judge of the CJR, which is made up of three judges and 12 members of parliament, said the sentence was dropped in consideration of the exceptional circumstances of Lagarde's difficult job as Finance Minister during the financial crisis of 2008 and of her strong reputation. The court saw no objection to her acceptance of arbitration but felt she should have contested the excessive payout, as the Treasury had recommended at the time.

The matter of Tapie vs CL had originated in 1994 and after some 14 years of litigation ended on Lagarde's desk when Tapie asked for arbitration to bring this case to a conclusion. The three arbitrators found in favor of Tapie who was awarded €403 million, to be paid from public funds since the CL bank had since gone bankrupt. This huge award of taxpayers' money and rumors of the doubtful neutrality of one of the arbitrators caused the Socialist opposition party to demand a special investigation, and in 2015 the Paris appeals court annulled the award and ordered Tapie to repay.

Back in Washington after the grueling week-long trial in Paris, Christine Lagarde commented that she was not satisfied with the judgment but needed to put this five-year ordeal behind her and focus fully on her work as head of the IMF. Following the verdict, the IMF Board immediately expressed its "full confidence in the managing director's ability to effectively continue to carry out her duties".

Although some experts agree that the legal case against her was weak, the matter was politically sensitive. As a person close to Lagarde said: "You have to take into account the long-running resentment of the judiciary power against the executive power, and the political dynamic among the MPs, between the left and the right." President Hollande's statement that "the judiciary is an institution of cowards" as quoted in the book A President Should Not Say That… (blog 12/05/16) is still ringing in our ears. 


Pierre Le Guennec  

Pierre Le Guennec
Last week the Appeals Court of Aix-en-Provence upheld the verdict of the 2-year suspended prison sentence against Mr. and Mrs. Le Guennec pronounced by the criminal court in Grasse in 2015 in the case brought by the Picasso Administration for theft of artwork (blog 11/03/16). Pierre le Guennec, 77,who had been Picasso's electrician for a number of years, claimed that the 271 unsigned drawings in his possession were a gift from Picasso's widow Jacqueline, but the court found his testimony not credible. This verdict effectively spells the end of a 6-year saga that began in 2010, when Le Guennec took some of the unsigned drawings to Claude Picasso in Paris for authentication. 

I attended the reading of the verdict and was struck by the fact that Le Guennec was alone, without his wife, who is seriously ill, but also without his lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti. The latter takes on mostly high-profile cases and rarely misses an opportunity to be seen and heard on television. His assistant Antoine Vey did not attend either. The Picasso Administration, on the other hand, was represented by two lawyers.The presiding judge read the verdict in a rapid monotone, citing several fines to be paid by defendants according to Articles X or Y, then said "Do you understand, Mr. Le Guennec?" and that was it. Le Guennec's response, if any, had been inaudible but plaintiffs' lawyers packed up their briefcases and rushed out to meet the press, as the judge moved on to the next case. Barely three minutes had passed.

I walked out with Le Guennec and asked him if he knew the Articles the judge had been referring to. He said No, nor did he seem to know why his lawyer was not there. Clearly, Dupond-Moretti's line of defense of the simple but honest little guy who receives a gift that he carefully stores and protects for 40 years before asking for authentication from Claude Picasso did not convince. The plaintiffs' argument that Le Guennec and his wife were part of a sophisticated ring of art thieves won out. Defendant did not have a signed receipt for the gift from Jacqueline Picasso and, besides, had lied during the first trial and could therefore not be believed on anything else. No further evidence needed. Case closed. 

In the cold light of the law there may be no such thing as an outright gift made to a faithful servant by a deeply despondent woman who later kills herself. It was known that Jacqueline hated Claude Picasso and she may have wanted to hide the box of uncatalogued artwork from Claude. Even Jacqueline's daughter considered that scenario not impossible, until she changed her mind later. And who can say for sure that Jacqueline did not gave other unregistered artwork away? Why did Le Guennec wait 40 years before seeking authentication if he was part of an organization of art thieves? Is proof of guilt not just as important as proof of innocence?

My close-up view of this case has left me with some unanswered questions, and with one certainty: the best lawyer always wins. But is it justice?


And Then It Was Christmas...

… and time to wish you Happy Holidays and a new year of PEACE for all mankind.
Far-fetched, you think? Let's just dream a little, especially at this time.