Friday, March 16, 2012

Ethylotest, Getting Nasty, Exception Marseillaise, Vacation Bound


The French government has announced that from July 1, 2012 on, every automobile in France must be equipped with an Ethylotest, a device that measures the alcohol content in the blood of the driver. Motorcycle drivers too will have to have this breathalizer bag on board. Those caught driving without it will be fined 11 Euros. Bars and night clubs serving alcohol have been obliged to carry breathalizers of one sort or another since last November, but this rule has now been extended to all drivers. In France, 31% of all fatal accidents are alcohol related, and Nicolas Sarkozy is counting on the breathalizer to help him reach his target of 3000 road fatalities this year − down from nearly 4000 in 2011. For good measure, he is adding 400 fixed radars to the existing 2500 along French roads this year.


Nerves are beginning to fray as the French presidential campaign enters the final stretch before the election on April 22 and May 6 (runoff). In one of his televised interviews incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy called his main rival, Socialist François Hollande, a liar: "He lies from morning to night" he said − rather unusual in France where political pronouncements and stump speeches may be brutally attacked but not a candidate's character. Ever since his election in 2007, when he celebrated his victory at a fancy Paris restaurant with rich friends, followed by a vacation on a wealthy friend's yacht, Sarkozy has been perceived as a "president of the rich." Despite some awkward apologies for poor judgment and a back-breaking schedule of "meet-the-people" campaign stops, he has not been able to shake this image and the wear and tear shows when he tells a hackler to "get lost" and gets visibly irritated during TV interviews.

Sarkozy and Hollande

The three main contenders − Sarkozy (centre-right), François Hollande (left) and Marie Le Pen (extreme right) − have been slugging it out in the public arena but so far without facing each other. After weeks of trailing Hollande in the polls, Sarkozy has begun to move increasingly to the right and is making a shameless play for the constituency of Marie Le Pen. "We have too many foreigners in France" and "I want to cut immigration in half" are his new themes, as well as the promise of a Made-in-France or at least Made-in-Europe policy like president Obama's Buy American Act to keep French factories running. It did boost his score and the latest polls now put him slightly ahead of Hollande. Both camps are on high alert and this race promises to be tight until the very end.


There has been much talk lately about the unusual work contract of the municipal garbage men in Marseilles. This contract calls for 7 hours work per day for 5 days a week with the specificity that those who can get their work done faster can leave as soon as the job is done (and, often, go on to another job). Result: the garbage collectors of Marseilles manage to do their rounds so fast that they work an average of 3.5 hours a day for 7 hours of pay. This is locally referred to as "Fini-Parti" (loosely translated as "Done-Gone") and is perfectly legal. Problem is that the flying cleaning squad does not seem to do a very thorough job of it and that Marseilles is today the dirtiest city in France and, according to local journalist and author Hugues Serraf, pays the highest cost per inhabitant for garbage collection. It also has a history of frequent strikes and strong-arm tactics in wage negotiations. We remember 2007 when Marseilles was one of the four candidates proposed by Switzerland, winner of the previous Cup, to host the America's Cup sailing competition. A well-timed week-long garbage strike in mid summer offered the Swiss selection committee a smelly and unsightly welcome that quickly led to the choice of Valencia as host city.

Garbage strike in Marseilles

So far, no mayor has dared go against the garbage workers' strong union (Force Ouvrière), and when a courageous citizen recently filed a petition in court for a "return to normal" he lost against the legal argument that the "fini-parti" is normal since it is a "historic custom that cannot be abrogated" (even though the judge promised to make a final ruling at a later date). The popular Marseilles-based TV series "Plus Belle La Vie" has already been renamed "Poubelle La Ville" by some. One fears for 2013 when Marseilles will be the Cultural Capital of Europe.

A citizens' group has now created a blog with a plea to end the "fini-parti" and it is producing results. A new gadget will soon be introduced that is able to track the working hours and the movement of each Dumpster in town. Called a chronotachygraphe, this device is expected to demonstrate the failings of the "fini-parti" rule and finally have it eliminated. The mayor has already consented to hiring 40 additional street sweepers a year for the next 2-3 years and requires garbage collectors to pick up around the Dumpsters from now on. There is hope for 2013.


The financial crisis of the past few years is not stopping the French from taking vacations. A recent poll by Protourisme revealed that 53% of the French plan to take at least a one-week vacation away from home this year, up by 1% from last year, and to spend more on their next vacation, i.e. at least 2300 Euros (approx. $3000) per family. This is the first increase in 10 years. With a minimum of 35 days of paid vacation per year, most French people have always taken a winter and a summer holiday, but in recent years they have traveled less far as a result of la crise.

Speaking of holidays, I will soon be leaving for a month-long family visit on different continents which will silence this blog for a while. I will miss Eastertime in Provence (*) which is celebrated with a Good Friday meal of Aioli (cod with boiled vegetables and a strong garlic mayonnaise) and Easter Sunday dinner of roasted lamb, as well as a four-day bullfighting Feria in Arles, folkloric feasts in villages, and the first big wave of travelers from the North.

Grand aioli de Provence

Have a Happy Easter wherever you are;  I look forward to talking to you again in May.

(*) To read about Easter in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

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