Wednesday, December 26, 2012



The departure of French actor Gérard Depardieu for tax-friendlier Belgium has had an unexpected aftermath. Among the fellow-actors and politicians who openly criticized the actor's move was Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (yes, he again), who called Depardieu's behavior "pathetic". In response, a furious Depardieu applied for Belgian citizenship and wrote Ayrault an open letter published in Le Journal du Dimanche that says:  I am surrendering my French passport and social security because France rewards success, talent, creativity and entrepreneurship with punitive taxes. [...]  I may not deserve admiration but I deserve respect, he continues, and as for being called pathetic, he tells Ayrault: "Who are you to judge me like that?"

No reaction from Ayrault, but François Hollande told a reporter: "I don't like to single out individuals but would prefer to praise those who have the sense of solidarity and responsibility to remain when their country is in difficulty". He also would like to see more tax equality between neighboring European countries. Several ministers responded in the same vein, calling French citizenship an honor that comes with rights and obligations, including the duty to pay taxes. Even President Putin weighed in, offering Gérard Depardieu a Russian passport anytime he wants it. 

There is a clear divide between the Left and the Right (UMP) on the issue of increased taxes on the rich. The UMP sees it as an invitation to tax exile and a threat to foreign investment in France, while the socialists adhere to the philosophy of solidarity and partnership through good times and bad.

It can be said that the French have a peculiar relationship to money. Being rich is not admired here as it might be in the US, where a businessman who amassed a fortune by his wits and hard work deserves the big house and the status in society that his wealth bestows on him. It is neither admired nor condemned that the rich would use all the means available to them to avoid paying taxes. Like maximizing profit, it is seen as a business practice rather than anti-social behavior.

COPE - FILLON  cont'd

After a month-long bitter fight following the contested November election, rivals François Copé, current UMP party leader, and François Fillon, fellow contender and former Prime Minister, have agreed to hold new elections for UMP party leader in September 2013. It is assumed that both men will again be seeking the party leadership in the fall, but Fillon has not yet confirmed his candidacy. New rules are being worked out for the proper oversight and total transparency of this next election and a new management team has been formed with representatives of both contenders. As soon as this new management team is installed in January, Fillon will dissolve his breakaway RUMP faction and reunite the UMP party in the National Assembly.


A week after he settled a civil court case in New York, French judges in the appeals court of Douai rejected former IMF Director Strauss-Kahn's claim for dismissal of the charges against him in the Carlton Affair. He stands accused of aggravated pimping, but he has denied knowing that some of the women he cavorted with were prostitutes. His lawyers called the judges biased and say they are trying to "criminalize lust". They will appeal and promised to go to the supreme court, if necessary.


Is it a publicity stunt?  An election gimmick?  Hard to tell with Silvio Berlusconi whose recently announced candidacy for the next election for prime minister was met with a yawn. The financial markets did not react at all, and a majority of Italians seem to think that he has little chance of winning in February, especially now that Mario Monte has declared himself willing to step in if called upon.

So how does Berlusconi get the spotlight back on himself? By announcing on a popular Italian television station (owned by him) that he has a new fiancée. Yes, fiancée. This time it's serious, he says, as he describes 28-year-old Francesca Pascale as extremely beautiful, both inside and out. Born in Naples where she headed a Berlusconi fan club, she met her idol several years ago, and as their relationship deepened has been taking lessons in speech, composure and other useful attributes for a role in public life.

Francesca Pascale
Berlusconi (76) has always had a strong female following but has been losing part of that constituency as a result of his vaunted sexual exploits and bunga-bunga parties, which he now says he regrets. Without his traditional female support his chances at being elected are weakened and a new fiancée and possible marriage may help him reclaim his lost fan base. Could this May-December marriage make the difference? Berlusconi seems to think so.

And so we have come to the second anniversary of my blog. I thank you for having read this far and hope you will continue to read, share, and participate in the future. 



Thursday, December 20, 2012



The horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT, has shocked the world and reignited a debate that we have all heard before. European news sources reported the tragedy in terms of "gun madness" and "gun culture" an American aberration founded on the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms. The continuing fierce resistance against any interference with this sacrosanct right despite repeated mass murders is something Europeans cannot understand.

As so often before, there is horror and grief. But this time a line was crossed when 20 of the victims were young children, mowed down in the safety of their school. This tragedy would serve some purpose if it could be the beginning of effective gun control. To let politics and greed again stop serious change would be unforgivable this time.

When friends in Europe ask me to explain how these things can happen, I have no answer. How do you explain that the "right" to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment written in 1791 when the world was a far different place, seems to outweigh the right to be safe, to be protected from weapons that were built not for self defense but for efficiently killing the greatest number of people, weapons that are used in war zones and can be bought LEGALLY in the US today?

How to explain that an unhinged youngster had his pick of deadly weapons at home where his mother, a gun enthusiast and collector, was the first to be killed with one of her own guns? Irony of ironies, she frequently took her son to target practice where he clearly became a good shot. 

How can a government that has banned smoking in all public places not ban assault weapons that have no justifiable raison d'être in private hands? How do you reach someone whose mind has been poisoned by years of self-serving arguments and slogans of the National Rifle Association? In the aftermath of the killing, a restaurant owner in Newtown was heard to say on CNN: "Gun control? I don't know about that. Perhaps schoolteachers should have guns. This tragedy might not have happened if those teachers had had guns...".

Americans seem to feel an innate need to "protect themselves" and have always enjoyed owning and using guns. But where a simple handgun would meet the need for self-protection, the desire for increasingly bigger and more powerful guns feeds a more sinister human craving.

In a country with 250 million weapons in private hands, the need for meaningful control is more than obvious. Easy access to assault weapons has no redeeming value and endangers the safety of all. Gun lovers have nothing to fear but the loss of assault weapons, and loving assault weapons is like loving napalm; it may have its uses in warfare but not in civil society.

The excessive power of the National Rifle Association and the weak politicians who are willing to do its bidding are largely to blame for today's situation. Enough already!

When President Obama said in Newtown that "we are not doing enough to protect our children" I disagreed. We are doing everything to protect our children but if the government cannot control the proliferation of dangerous weapons, nothing we do for our children will ever be enough. It was clear that he was still shying away from using the words we need to hear, GUN CONTROL, and that even in his second mandate he instinctively remains cautious. Only after Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would propose gun control legislation that bans all assault weapons did Obama announce that he would back her proposal. A few days later he appointed Vice President Joseph Biden to head a White House task force to tackle gun violence.

There, you (almost) said it, President Obama. Now - Just Do It.  YES, YOU CAN!  Here is your chance to make your presidency the one that can finally claim:  Yes, We Did!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012



Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has re-appeared on the political scene in an attempt to mediate a solution to the unrelenting fight between François Fillon, his former Prime Minister who represents the center-right of the UMP opposition party, and François Copé, winner of the recent election for party leader who did not hesitate to move toward the extreme right to obtain the necessary votes to win. Moderate Fillon calling this a political and moral break within the party  continues to contest the results and demands new elections within three months, while Copé sticks to the voting results and considers himself the legitimate UMP party leader. Amid accusations of fraud and ballot stuffing, proposals and counter-proposals have been made and rejected by both candidates. Enter Sarkozy, seen as a potential unifying force, who was said to be furious at the stalemate that endangers the party. But after fruitless meetings with each candidate he has declared: "If they do not reach an agreement by Tuesday December 4th, I consider both of them unfit to rule".

Copé - Sarkozy - Fillon
New elections, with new candidates, could spell the collapse of the UMP, political heir to the party founded by General de Gaulle after World War II. It is important for Sarkozy to try and keep the UMP party together in case he wants to make a come-back presidential bid for 2017.

Meanwhile, Fillon has formed a breakaway faction in the Parliament, the Rassemblement UMP (RUMP for short), where 72 députés (out of 194) have already joined him. If and when he reaches agreement with Copé on new elections, he will dissolve his breakaway faction.


Carla Bruni, singer, model, and wife of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has been making some news of her own. In an interview with French Vogue magazine, which features her on the cover of its December issue, she talks mainly about the joys of motherhood and family life, but what got everyone's attention was her remark: "My generation doesn't need feminism. There are pioneers who opened the breach".

In response to a Twitter storm of protest the former First Lady said that her words were taken out of context.
"My phrase was clumsy and should have read: I myself have never been an active feminist. [...] I admire the courage of those women who continue the fight today, but I have decided to commit myself elsewhere."

This won't be the last we'll be hearing of Carla Bruni since she has a new record coming out soon.


The infighting in the opposition UMP party can only benefit the left, but the Socialist party of François Hollande has plenty of problems of its own. In November, Moody's Investors Service downgraded France's credit rating from AAA to Aa1, after Standard and Poor had taken France's rating down a notch in January. Both ratings agencies quoted concerns about France's poor economic outlook and lack of competitiveness, as well as its connection to Eurozone problems and the potential risk of a Greek default (French banks have the highest exposure, ahead of German banks). As long as the outlook remains negative, said Moody's, we will not change our rating, adding that they did not think that President Hollande's efforts to reduce the deficit were far-reaching enough.

Unemployment has reached a thirteen-year high of 10.3% in the third quarter and industry closings continue, most recently at the ArcelorMittal plant at Lozange in the industrial Lorraine district where Mittal wants to shut down two blast furnaces that are no longer economically viable.

The issues with ArcelorMittal seemed to be resolved when Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a deal with Indian-born owner Lakshmi Mittal to keep the two blast furnaces going and save 630 jobs. But a week later Mittal seemed to retract his offer when he dropped out of the bidding process for a European pilot project at the Lozange site, and soon unions rose up and accused Ayrault of "betrayal". 

This may be just a prelude to the problems awaiting in the French auto industry.The country's largest automobile company, PSA (Peugeot Citroen), has announced that it needs to close its plant at Aulnay and lay off 8000 workers by 2014.
The autoworkers' unions have proposed reduced work weeks of 32 hours at several other PSA plants in order to absorb the 3000 jobs lost in Aulnay. Like the auto bailout plan in the United States, then-president Sarkozy had already granted €6.5 billion in 2009 to support the auto industry and keep its jobs in France. It has not been enough. Philippe Varin, head of PSA, who justified the massive layoffs because labor costs "are the highest in Europe" has asked the government to lower taxes on the industry, but this request has been denied. The government and the unions are now studying solutions to this problem which is likely to turn into another severe test for the embattled Hollande-Ayrault team.


Gérard Depardieu, the well-known French actor, is France's latest tax fugitive. He has bought a house in the small town of Néchin in Belgium, barely one kilometer from the French border, where 25% of the population is already French. Depardieu, who owns a wine chateau in the Loire Valley, three Paris restaurants, a fish shop, a motorcycle concession, and vineyards in various other countries including Argentina, will be joining such other wealthy French tax exiles as the owners of the Auchon and Carrefour supermarket chains.

Daniel Senesael, mayor of Néchin, said on December 9: "Depardieu has already moved in and he's very welcome here. He enjoys our quiet country side and our simple way of life and, of course, our lower taxes." Belgium's top tax rate is 50%.

Ever since President Hollande announced his tax hike on the rich in France (75% on earnings over one million euros), Belgium has become a favorite refuge.


Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the euro-zone finance ministers' Eurogroup and Prime Minister of Luxembourg, has announced that an agreement has been reached between Cyprus and the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF) for a bailout, following heavy losses Cyprus sustained in its dealings with Greece.
Jean-Claude Juncker

The amount of the rescue package could be as high as 17.5 billion, nearly the country's entire economy, but the final amount will be discussed by the European finance ministers on December 13th following the publication of a report with a preliminary assessment of the Cypriot banks' recapitalization needs. Juncker also announced that he will retire as president of the Eurogroup at the end of this year.


A bleuet - cornflower

Amid all the bad news in the Eurozone, here's a spark of good news. According to a November poll published in Livres Hebdo, the most popular Christmas present in France this year will be books. Paper books, not the electronic kind. Across all categories (adult, adolescent, children's literature) book sales are up. Even though the general economic situation is partly responsible for this, as a book lover I am delighted and encouraged by this trend because at the very least it is good for bookstores. The publishing industry may be feeling the effects of e-books, but the French still buy their books in brick-and-mortar stores, and there are still many of those around not only in cities but in villages as well. 

Take the village of Banon in Provence. It counts less than 1100 inhabitants and is widely known for its traditional goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, and a thin dry sausage that is sold by the meter.

But a more recent claim to fame is Banon's bookstore Le Bleuet, that since its foundation in 1990 has grown into a huge success with an estimated turnover this year of 2.4 million (well over $3 million)! Last month it opened a website for online sales, to be managed from its own ultra-modern warehouse in the village, which is expected to bring total sales to 4.5 million in 2013. Its visionary founder and owner, Joël Gattefossé, has been nominated to receive the prestigious Order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres early next year.   

Joël Gattefossé, Owner of Le Bleuet
Granted, the success of Le Bleuet is an exception and unique in France, where like elsewhere many bookstores are living on the edge, squeezed by high rents, and publishers are reducing their new titles. The government of François Hollande, aware of the cultural importance of bookstores in communities, has reduced the sales tax on books from 7% to 5.5% starting in 2013.

Nevertheless, every year some bookstores close, but others are still opening, which fans my hopes that booksellers in France may still have some good days ahead of them.


A New York judge has announced that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has made a financial settlement in the civil lawsuit brought by the hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault at the Sofitel hotel in New York last May. The terms of the agreement, signed on December 10th, were not disclosed, but the settlement amount was rumored to be $6 million. This amount was immediately denied by DSK's lawyers. Influential French daily Le Monde reported that DSK has told friends that he planned to take out a bank loan for $3 million, and that his wife Anne Sinclair, from whom he separated this summer, would lend him the rest.

The settlement of the civil suit will effectively end his 18-month legal saga in New York, but in France Strauss-Kahn is still awaiting judgment on December 19th on a charge of aggravated pimping in the Carlton Affair.

He has moved out of his wife's home, has opened an international consulting business, and according to the French tabloid press has a new woman in his life. In September he was photographed on a Corsican holiday with Myriam L'Aouffir, 45, a Moroccan-born Frenchwoman who works for a French television station in Paris. Strauss-Kahn has filed complaints for invasion of privacy against three gossip magazines who ran a picture of him and Myriam on their covers. Since then the couple has been seen together in Jerusalem and just last week they were spotted in Venice.


Italian Premier Mario Monti who since his appointment in November 2011 has managed to bring the country back from the fiscal brink, has announced he will resign as soon as the Parliament passes his budget bill, expected before the end of this year. He said he can no longer govern because he has lost the crucial support of Berlusconi's party, the biggest in Parliament. Monti, former European Commissioner and respected economist, introduced cuts in public spending, higher taxes and pension reform "to avoid the fate of Greece". It is feared that his early departure may lead to a downgrade of Italy's credit rating and to increased instability in the eurozone.

Silvio Berlusconi and Mario Monti

Silvio Berlusconi, who was forced to resign in November 2011 after a parliamentary revolt and pressure from financial markets, and who was recently convicted of fraud by a Milan court and sentenced to a four-year prison term and a five-year ban on holding public office, has just announced that he will run again for the premiership in the upcoming election, possibly as early as February 2013. He has appealed this latest conviction, which effectively postpones the application of the sentence through two levels of appeal during which time he is free to return to politics. He has also announced that he disagrees with Monti's austerity measures which he considers to be ineffective.

The contrast between Monti and Berlusconi could not be greater. Monti: professor of economics, sober technocrat, staunch catholic, model of responsibility. Berlusconi: womanizer, aging playboy, populist politician who during three earlier premierships managed to introduce several laws to suit himself in his many legal battles. Even today he is awaiting judgment in his trial for teenage prostitution and abuse of power, and the outcome of appeals in other cases. Yet, when he announced his candidacy for a fourth term, Berlusconi said he is running "out of a sense of responsibility to Italy". Of course, a win would guarantee him immunity from prosecution during his term of office - which seems a more likely, though less lofty, motivation.


Jakubyszyn and Bouilhayguet
For the past few months President Hollande's girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler has been holding her peace and staying out of the papers. But recently she has filed a lawsuit against the authors of "La Frondeuse", the latest Trierweiler biography, written by journalists Christophe Jakubyszyn and Alix Bouilhayguet. The complaint for libel and breach of privacy is to be heard on December 10th by the District Court of Paris. What sets this suit apart from earlier ones is that François Hollande (on non-official stationery) and his Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls (on official stationery) each wrote a letter favorable to Valerie Trierweiler. Hollande states errors of fact on two specific pages and Valls, who had accepted to be interviewed by Jakubyszyn last summer, denies that he made some of the remarks attributed to him while other statements were taken out of context. They cannot interfere with the justice system but they can try to discredit the authors.


For all the vaunted quality of life in France, I miss the Anglo-Saxon yuletide magic:  Christmas carols, beautiful natural greenery in garlands wrapped around lampposts and strung around store windows, wreaths on every door, stockings by the fireplace, halls decked with boughs of holly... fa la la ... Yes, it's warm and fuzzy and oh so appealing -- as are the smells of Christmas that are lacking here: logs burning, mulled wine, cinnamon, roasted chestnuts, dried oranges studded with cloves, eggnog in a bowl. I miss it.

Southern Europe has its own way of marking Christmas, with all the commercial aspects of the USA but without the coziness. Big Christmas markets like those in Strasbourg and Madrid are popular events that draw huge crowds, and some 50 chalets along the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence are a smaller version of same. But it is hard to get into the Christmas mood with the large children's fair that overwhelms the quiet Cours with its bumper cars, choo-choo trains, bungi cords, merry-go-rounds full of bells and whistles, stands of churros and cotton candy, and too many loudspeaker announcements -- for seven long weeks! No respite until Christmas Day when the noise makes way for the deeply sonorous bells ringing from many churches, as people gather around a sumptuous repas de Noël, and a sense of calm and serenity finally descends on this old city.

Aix's decorations are more tinsel than tannenbaum. Of course, it cannot compete with the splendid Christmas lights of Madrid, or with the opulent decorations of department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue or Harrods or Galeries Lafayette and their wonderful window displays that cast a spell on young and old as they tell their enchanting stories.

It more than holds its own, however, with the traditional crèche provençale of hand-carved figurines, called santons*, representing a village population of baker, miller, innkeeper, mayor with tricolor sash, peasants carrying baskets of fruit or fowl, a shepherd with his dog and a flock of sheep - all in traditional Provençal dress walking through a local landscape on their way to the manger. These local nativity scenes can be quite large and are usually on display in churches. During the holidays a favorite pastime for families with children is to go and see the crèches provençales.

Santons with offerings

Another local tradition is Les Treize Desserts de Noël, a bounty of thirteen desserts symbolizing Christ and his twelve apostles. They are:

Les 13 desserts de Noël

Gibassié (a dry olive-oil and orange-zest cake to be dipped in sweet wine), black and white nougat, dried figs, raisins, nuts and almonds, white grapes, green winter mellon, quince paste, dates, mandarins, and calissons, the traditional sweets from Aix-en-Provence.

(*) For more about Santons and Christmas traditions in Provence, see the chapter "Christmas in Provence" in my book Taking Root in Provence. Click here