Thursday, May 31, 2012



May 15, 2012 was a memorable day here. On that day François Hollande was sworn in as the new president of France. After a brief ceremony at the Elysée Palace where outgoing president Sarkozy "handed over the keys" to François Hollande, the new president took place in an open-roofed car and, accompanied by the Garde Républicaine on horseback, left with his motorcade for the traditional Défilé sur les Champs Elysées to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Dressed in a dark suit and without overcoat, Hollande was standing up in the presidential car to receive the acclamations of an enthusiastic crowd. It was impressive, it was colorful, it was perfect until it started raining. As umbrellas went up everywhere, Hollande stayed upright and continued to wave until he was completely soaked. Dripping wet he laid a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe, then returned to the Elysée for a celebratory lunch and a change of clothes.

President Hollande during inaugural parade

Later that afternoon, he flew to Berlin through stormy skies and his presidential plane was hit by lightning. The pilot decided to return to Paris where the presidential party changed planes and took off again, arriving in Berlin with an hour's delay. There, Chancellor Merkel received President Hollande with all due pomp and circumstance, including the inspection of troops and a slow walk down the red carpet in a driving rain. Another soak and another change of suits before their meeting and the official dinner.

Hollande with Merkel in Berlin

Was this an auspicious beginning (Marriage pluvieux, marriage heureux)? Or a Wagnerian sendoff with thunder and lightning and the Teutonic menace of bad things to come? Stay tuned.


As always, the Cannes film festival (May 16-27) had its memorable moments but this year was mostly marked by rain. Torrential rain, in fact, like the cloudburst on May 20th just at the time the stars arrived for their famous Montée des Marches and the long walk down the red carpet into the theatre. As it happens, these were the stars of the movie "Amour" by Austrian director Michael Haneke which ended up winning the Palme d'Or this year:  Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emanuelle Riva (both in their eighties) and Isabelle Huppert.

Despite repeated sweeping, the red carpet was a spongy mess, but - noblesse oblige - the stars did their professional best to keep smiling and posing for the hordes of photographers and trying to keep their windswept hair out of their eyes. When she got to the top of the stairs, Isabelle Huppert, her beautiful evening dress streaked with rain, shook herself like a dog and tried to lift the wet hair from her forehead and fluff it back into the expensive natural look a hairdresser had labored over just hours ago. A moving Jean-Louis Trintignant, much aged since the murder of his actress daughter Marie Trintignant a few years ago, looked fragile and windblown as he shuffled to his seat on the arm of Isabelle Huppert. 

And the winner is...

Outside the Palais du Festival the mood was down. The recent excessive rains had washed away whole chunks of beach and with it such commercial activity as lounge chair and parasol rentals, etc. Except for brief spells of intermittent sunshine, this year's festival was a washout for the beach merchants.

And that was not all...
As thunderous clouds hung over the Cannes closing ceremony, a violent hailstorm severely damaged nearly 6000 hectares of vineyards around Brignolles, some 60 miles away in the Var region. The size and weight of the hail stones were such that most of the young shoots and their barely budding grapes were knocked off the vines, destroying from 60 to 100 percent of this year's harvest in the area.

Is there any bright spot in this picture? Perhaps the fact that the threat of drought that everyone was talking about a few months ago has been averted. The groundwater level which was dangerously low in many parts of France earlier this year, seems to have been restored to healthy levels and the threat of dry swimming pools this summer eliminated. Ouf.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Hello again or Re-bonjour!  We're back from gone (Washington-Buenos Aires-Montevideo-Rio de Janeiro-New York), where we found family and friends in great shape and discovered the wonderful world of Inhotim in Brazil. Located in the province of Minas Gerais not far from Belo Horizonte, it is a magnificent natural park and art center that deserves a separate write-up some day but this link to INHOTIM will have to do for now.


Back in France, the world seems to have stopped at the French presidential elections and, as it turned out, a change of government from la droite of Nicolas Sarkozy (tax breaks for the rich, cutbacks of public services, and austerity measures à la Angela Merkel to save the Euro) to the socialism of François Hollande. This was a people's vote of hope that Hollande will bring more tax equity to the equation (he announced a 75% income tax rate for millionaires), restore some of the cutbacks and preserve the generous government-guaranteed benefits that French workers enjoy. He had promised parity, and his new government immediately named a cabinet of 34 ministers: 17 women and 17 men. He also announced an increase in the budgets for Education and Research and Development which had suffered cutbacks under Sarkozy, and right after the inaugural ceremonies he took off for Berlin to discuss with Chancellor Angela Merkel a way to foster growth in the midst of imposed austerity. The big unknown is how he will pay for all of this.

Many in his new Cabinet are young (thirties and forties) and Hollande himself, who has never been minister, has no international experience. Whether "new blood" will be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen, but the upcoming legislative elections on June 10 and 17, where all 577 seats in the General Assembly are contested and where the socialists hope to wrest away the majority that is currently held by the right, will be crucially important.

The eyes of the world are on this new, untested, political figure who calls himself a Normal Man, a man of the people as opposed to a man of the elite. One person who described him as such is the new woman at his side, his "compagne" Valérie Trierweiler, former journalist for the French magazine Paris Match. She has accompanied Hollande on his recent trip to Washington and Chicago, where she may have given the protocol people a headache as the twice-divorced unmarried partner of a sitting president. What to call her: First Lady? First Girlfriend? First Partner? As expected, the French have not made an issue of this. After all, Hollande is the father of the four children of Ségolène Royal, his fellow socialist and one-time presidential candidate, whom he never married as both considered marriage a bourgeois institution.

Couple Hollande-Trierweiler

Will there be a Monsieur et Madame Hollande in the presidential palace?  It is not expected that Hollande will change his mind about the bourgeois nature of marriage at this stage of the game. And Trierweiler has already indicated that she does not intend to live in the Elysée, preferring the modest Ikea-furnished apartment she has been sharing with Hollande for the past five years in the 15th arrondisssement in Paris. Even Nicolas Sarkozy who did not disdain a certain amount of glitter preferred the spacious private residence of his wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy in the rich 16th arrondissement over the presidential apartment in the Elysée. The French security services will probably have the final word on the un-official presidential residence, but the definition of a "normal man" may not be quite the same once this not-so-normal couple will begin life in the public eye.


In France, the month of May has four official holidays:  May 1st (Labor Day), May 8 (World War II Victory Day), May 17 (Ascension Day), and May 28 (Whit Monday). This year's Ascension Day, a Catholic feast that is celebrated as a national holiday in this lay country, falls on Thursday May 17th, which means that most French working people will take off Friday in order to end up with four consecutive non-working days. This is called faire le pont -- throwing a bridge from one non-working day to another. May 1 and May 8 fell on a Tuesday, which means people "made the bridge" and took Monday off. If the average 30-day month would leave 22 working days (30 minus 8 week-end days), the month of May and its "bridges" usually leaves only 18 working days, something to remember when you plan to move or need some real work done.

Also know that the French leave their homes en masse for short or long holidays. A four-day break, for instance, would call for a quick package tour to a nearby place in the sun (e.g. Morocco, Tunisia), or a trip south to the Alps or the Mediterranean beaches -- the latter usually by car. And car travel means adding extra time for the road which, of course, is taken at the front end of the holiday, explaining that on the Wednesday before Ascension Day, the morning news's traffic report warned of long lines of cars clogging the southbound exits of Paris, and warning of long delays later in the day at toll stations around Dijon, Lyon etc. The four-day break somehow turned into a five-day leave. Call it Cartesian.

If the average American employee might think twice about taking some of his 2 or 3-week annual leave time to create long weekends, French employees have no such qualms since every one of them has a minimum of five weeks paid vacation. But thanks to the 35-hour work week, they won't even have to touch this vacation time since many of them also have RTT: Récupération du Temps de Travail. When the 35-hour workweek was introduced many years ago it sought to alleviate the unemployment problem by distributing the workload over more people. Those who had been working a 39-hour week would now work only 35 hours. If, however, those workers were asked to work more than the allowed 35 hours, the extra hours would be compensated with earned time off. In certain sectors (e.g. hospitals) this "recuperated time" can easily grow to annual RTT of several weeks or even more and may have to be paid out. But most employees are happy to use their days of RTT to "make the bridge" repeatedly without touching their holiday time. 

The government of former president Sarkozy has made a number of attempts to do away with the 35-hour workweek but always met with great resistance. Socialist president Hollande will surely try to maintain the shortened workweek but will have to solve some sticky problems for which no solutions have been found so far. Meanwhile, France remains one of the best places to work -- as long as you are not an employer.