Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy New Year, Kings' cake, DSK-Sinclair, French Juries, Lotteries, Truffle Wars, Marseilles, Calanques

HAPPY NEW YEAR -- Santé et Bonheur pour tous!!

So it's 2012 already. Ouch! The older I get the shorter the years seem to get.
With a new year that's barely begun, I'll dip into the end of last year for my first item: a strike. Yawn... You're right, but this one produced a surprising reaction from the government. The security personnel at airports nationwide decided to strike just before Christmas, which caused the cancellation of numerous flights and the delay of others. This is the busiest air-travel time within France when families gather for Christmas holidays, and the disturbance was keenly felt in those long lines that formed at airport counters. Yet, as so often before, I found the French extremely tolerant and few of them took their anger out on the strikers whose right to strike is sacrosanct even though their timing was not much appreciated. After a few days, the government sent in the gendarmes to take over the security checks and things returned to normal. Explained president Sarkozy on television: "It is unacceptable that strikers take the French people hostage at a time of holidays when families get together." Of course, I remember many strikes against cutbacks in education or in health care, or even among judges and lawyers who took to the streets against government encroachment on their independence -- all well justified and widely supported despite the discomfort they caused -- but never before had a president declared this "hostage taking" unacceptable. Then again, that was not during a family holiday and not just before a presidential election...

Airport security agents on strike


The first newspapers of the year tend to be predictable in their listing of last year's accomplishments, although some of those are rather self-congratulatory. For instance "This year, fewer road fatalities than last New Year's Eve!" loses a bit of its luster when you know that France has the worst record in Europe and that the slightly better figure of this year is mostly due to the increased number of gendarmes on the roads and the brand-new law that may hold bar owners co-responsible for drunk driving. All bars and night clubs that close after 2 a.m. are now equipped with alcohol-test devices for clients to use before they leave the bar and when this indicates a level beyond the legal limit for driving, the car keys are withheld and the client will be driven home by volunteers or by taxi. It has been proven to be effective, at least on New Year's Eve, but the cynics among us will wonder how soon this will go the way of most New Year's resolutions.  


On Epiphany Day, January 6th, many countries, including France, celebrate the arrival of the three Magi with a traditional cake (called the Galette des Rois) that contains a fava bean (fève in French). The person who gets the bean will be king or queen for the day. This tradition is alive and well but in France the fava bean has been replaced by a porcelain token, still called a fève but no longer a bean, that can take the shape of the baby Jesus from the nativity scene, or a small santon, or a little fantaisie such as a mini delivery van with the name of the bakery painted on it. Over time, certain bakeries have distinguished themselves with their original tokens, but this year two bakeries made the newspapers. In the village of Vedène in the Vaucluse, a patissier introduced the "Galette Coquine" which contains one of a dozen different positions of the Kama Sutra. He also announced that once a week one of his galettes coquines will contain a little penis of pure gold! Collectors - get in line.

Fèves:  Naughty...
... and Nice

Meanwhile, in Aix-en-Provence, baker Serge Richier announced that he baked 1500 traditional galettes des Rois of which only one contained a real treasure:  a genuine English gold sovereign valued at more than 300 euros! The 1500 galettes were sold out in three days, which led the baker to announce that he would repeat his offer for St. Valentine's Day -- this time with a necklace of similar value, to be reclaimed by the person who presents the fève created especially for this occasion.   

STRAUSS-KAHN Saga - cont'd: 

Anne Sinclair, wife of you-know-who, has been appointed head of the new Paris bureau of The Huffington Post, renowned international blog. Well-known in her own right as a television journalist in France before the g(l)ory days of DSK, this new post should give her something to do other than standing by her man. And did you know that Sinclair was voted "Woman of the Year 2011" by French feminist website Terrafemina? Chosen for her "courage and tenacity" she inched past Christine Lagarde, current head of the IMF who replaced Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Hillary Clinton took third place. Speaking of DSK, he is slowly re-emerging in the socio-political circles in Paris where he used to shine. Just yesterday, January 11th, he and his wife were seen attending the screening in a movie house on the Champs Elysées of the about-to-be-released French television series "The Men behind the Scenes" and it looked just like the old days:  the famous couple, all smiles, were allowed to take their well-placed seats before the others and were quickly surrounded by old friends, PR people, and certain politicians who had cautiously kept their mouth shut during the scandal. And in mid-December DSK had been invited to an economic forum organized by "NetEase" in Peking where his 35-minute speech and subsequent interview were widely covered by international television. His pessimism about "Europe" drew a lot of attention here as well as his comment that "Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are not on the same page" which creates grave problems in the eurozone. Is DSK getting back into the public arena? Let's say that for now he is back from the brink, at least.


As of this month France will be testing a new jury system, initially only in the cities of Toulouse and Dijon, in order to increase lay participation in criminal trials. Two jurors will assist three magistrates in cases punishable by five to ten years in prison (sexual assault etc.) in correctional courts. Heretofore, the French jury system was limited to cases before the Cours d'Assises (higher courts that deal with serious crimes such as murder) where nine jurors assist three investigating judges. If the test results are favorable, the new jury system will become applicable throughout the country as of 2014.


Superstition persists on Friday the thirteenth and in most countries with a national lottery system people will buy more tickets on a Friday the thirteenth than any other day. This is certainly true in France, where lines will form today in front of the bureaux de Tabac (places where cigarettes are sold) where people buy these state lottery tickets. The radio announced this morning that the year 2012 will have three Fridays the thirteenth. Yoopee for the gamblers.

El Gordo winners

This reminds me of El Gordo (The Fat One) in Spain, named after the top prize in the Spanish state lottery. Tradition has it that everybody in Spain buys lottery tickets at Christmas time, for themselves and for gifts to friends or family, which makes this the richest lottery in the world. I once witnessed this lottery fervor from my hotel window in Madrid when I saw a queue of people stretching for more than a block across the street. In these harsh economic times I thought they were lining up at an unemployment office, but it turned out that this was one of the places where tickets for El Gordo were sold and that many people pay someone to stand in line for them. This was early December and many days yet to go before the drawing on December 22nd, but these long queues would be a daily sight until the closing. For Christmas 2011 El Gordo's pot grew to 2.5 billion euros ($3.29 billion) and the first prize of more than 700 million euros was won by the small town of El Grañén (pop. 2100) where 1800 people had pooled their resources to buy shares in the top prize. In one fell swoop each of the 1800 participants received 400,000 euros for their 20-euro tickets, a particularly happy outcome for this hard-hit town where several businesses had closed and unemployment was high. A more-than-merry Christmas for El Grañén! And for the State, which does not tax these winnings but retains 30% of the total sum spent on tickets -- at more than 1 billion euros, one of the biggest takes since El Gordo was launched in 1812.   


Truffles have long been a delicacy for which people are willing to pay a high price (1000 euros per kilo), but it's no longer just gourmets who go after them but thieves as well. An increasing number of truffières (truffle farms) are being plagued by robbers who come with sniffing dogs to dig up truffles in the dead of night. In two of the most "fertile" truffle areas of the Drôme and the Vaucluse regions, truffle farmers are now being helped by gendarmes equipped with special silent four-wheel-drive vehicles and night-vision goggles who patrol the back roads for these poachers. A number of arrests have been made and the gendarmerie has promised to keep up this increased surveillance until the end of the truffle season in mid-March. Between the wild boars in the area and this new human plague, some of these farmers are getting itchy trigger fingers, and in December of 2010 a truffle thief was fatally shot by a farmer.

(yes, Marseille takes an 's' only in English)

In 2013 the city of Marseilles will be the Cultural Capital of Europe. An honor, but quite a challenge in view of the size and complexity of some of the planned projects that are yet to be completed this year. There will be new buildings, new tunnels, new infrastructures, new green spaces, and 400 planned cultural events over 365 days for the 2 million tourists expected. The largest single new building currently under construction is the MUCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) that is rising very slowly on the edge of the Old Port of Marseilles and has just hit another snag. This time, an unexploded American World-War II bomb was found that caused all further excavation to be stopped. The 500-lb device packed with explosives was located in a densely populated area and surrounded by some of the greatest historical treasures of the city. Before removing the bomb, extensive precautions had to be taken in a perimeter of 800 meters, including the evacuation of 4,300 people and the home confinement of 10,000 others, closing two nursery schools, blocking roads and tunnels, and stopping all commerce including shipping (cruise ships to be diverted) for a duration of 6 hours. Finally, on January 18th all services were coordinated and the bomb squad could go to work. It successfully removed the bomb, took it out to sea and exploded it 30 km off-shore. When the all-clear sounded, the locals heaved a sigh of relief, including the architect who can now resume this big project that is to be delivered in January 2013. Let's hope he won't be hitting some Roman ruin in the meantime.

MUCEM in Marseilles


The stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis is blessed with calanques - crystal-clear inlets flanked by cliffs and sometimes with small sandy beaches. These calanques can only be accessed by sailboats or by steep hiking trails, which saves them from overcrowding like most Mediterranean beaches. A project has been introduced last year, soon to be voted on, to turn this precious stretch of coast into a National Park in order to guarantee its preservation. Environmentalists and a good part of the local population applaud the initiative, but as the vote approaches political cracks are appearing, opposing groups are forming, the fishermen of Marseilles want guarantees that their fishing rights won't be interfered with, one local community is threatening to withdraw, and non-negotiables are being negotiated. And so it goes...

Calanque d'En-Vau

(*)  To read a special chapter on Marseilles in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

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