Monday, June 25, 2012



Thirty years ago, then Minister of Culture Jack Lang introduced the Fête de la Musique in France, to be celebrated on June 21st, day of the summer solstice. Musicians of all kinds and all ages -- from symphony orchestras to one-man bands -- take over the city streets and play throughout the night to the delight of enthusiastic crowds. This popular event was soon adopted elsewhere and today is known as World Music Day in 32 countries worldwide.

This year for the first time since its inception, musicians in Aix-en-Provence were required to obtain a license to play at the Fête and were then given a designated spot to perform. Thus, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Pays d'Aix had the Place de l'Archevêché all to itself while a hard-rock band set up its boom-boom boosters at a safe distance on the Cours Mirabeau. This was the city's solution to the cacophony of recent years when youthful enthusiasm and excessive amplification sometimes caused more pain than pleasure in some of the tighter parts of the old town with bands playing within feet of each other.

One other novelty this year:  the city appointed animators to mingle with the crowds and keep an eye out for drunkenness, while at the same time handing out free breathalizer tests, ear plugs and condoms. The condom part came as a surprise until I found out that AIDS Solidarity Day celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 21st this year. 


A new book has just been published (21 June 2012) entitled "François Hollande President: 400 days behind the scenes of a victory." It is a photographic record of the campaign that identifies Stéphane Ruet as the photographer and Valérie Trierweiler as the journalist who wrote the photo captions.

Voices have already been raised that her captions lack the neutrality of the professional journalist and are too often written in the first person singular of the narrator who, of course, does appear in a number of photos herself. "He takes me in his arms, safe from view. I cry. He laughs," she comments on the last photo. Under a photo where a smiling François Hollande and Ségolène Royal appear side by side on a stage at a rally in Rennes, she writes: "Yes, the man I love had a woman before me. [...]  I have to live with it." Royal's response in news weekly Le Point: "That's an inversion of roles. It was me whose family was wrecked" (when Hollande left her for Trierweiler), adding that it was she who might have reason to carry a grudge.

Ségolène Royal and François Hollande at Rennes rally

At the Rennes rally Hollande gave his supporter Ségolène a peck on the cheek, whereupon Trierweiler whispered to him : "Kiss me on the lips" and Hollande dutifully complied. The film of this scene was commented on by lip readers and the "Embrasse-moi sur la bouche" moment made the rounds of all news channels.

Trierweiler has not been heard from since her tweet and the prime minister's advice of greater discretion, but now that her jealousy is a matter of record she has lost credibility as a commentator on the political scene and even as an impartial observer.

Ségolène Royal, on the other hand, is picking up the pieces after her unexpected defeat in La Rochelle and will certainly be looking at a comeback of sorts. She has survived some tough battles before and managed to come out victorious after the Trierweiler attack by winning the sympathy of a majority. Quipped one observer: "Trierweiler has managed what nobody could before:  to make Ségolène Royal likeable."

These two strong characters are bound to cross paths again. Hollande may be well advised to step out of the way when they do.

Monday, June 18, 2012



In the second round of the French legislative elections on June 17th, the Socialist party won an absolute majority in Parliament which gives President Hollande a great boost in passing his announced reforms. The voting results contained some surprises, however.

Parti Socialiste in the pink

Old-timer and former Cultural Minister Jack Lang lost in Les Vosges, as did Marine Le Pen in her fiefdom of Hénin-Beaumont. Both were narrowly defeated, while young Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine Le Pen's niece and Jean-Marie Le Pen's granddaughter, won convincingly in the Vaucluse. At 22, this law student became the youngest member of Parliament in France's history. François Bayrou, former presidential candidate and founder of the centrist MoDem party, lost out to the socialist challenger in a three-way battle in his district of Pyrenées-Atlantiques.

But the most shocking defeat was surely suffered by Ségolène Royal in La Rochelle, where she was soundly beaten in the second round by local dissident socialist Olivier Falorni who had refused to step aside in her favor. The outcome was no surprise and was generally seen as a tactical error by Royal and socialist party leaders for having catapulted her into Falorni's territory where this "diktat" by Paris was not appreciated.
A defeated Ségolène

It was a heavy blow for Royal who called this a betrayal by Falorni who won with substantial help of the center-right UMP party whose candidate had lost in the first round and was happy to block Royal's expected nomination as Speaker of the National Assembly. Seventy-five percent of Falorni's votes in La Rochelle came from the right, said Royal, which disqualifies him as a left-wing candidate.

The bombshell Twitter message from Valérie Trierweiler, François Hollande's partner, in support of Falorni certainly did not help but could not be blamed for this upset. It simply added to the miseries of Ségolène Royal whose partner of 30 years and father of her four children left her in 2005 for current girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler. Nevertheless, Royal supported Hollande throughout his presidential campaign, a favor Hollande returned when he declared his support for Royal in her face-off against Folarni -- thereby provoking Trierweiler into a fit of jealousy. Politics in France just got a little bit more complicated.


Remember the story of the withdrawal of Marseille's old ferry boat Le César in 2008?  (blog of 9/23/11). It was replaced in 2010 by a catamaran named Le Ferry Boat.  [Yes, Ferry Boat is its name, which the locals pronounce ferry bo-AHT].

Le César back in service

The chug-a-lug César (named after the Marcel Pagnol character) had been making the short 900-ft crossing between the north and south banks of the Vieux Port for 55 years before age caught up with it and made it unsafe. The municipality decided that new technology was called for and introduced a sleek solar-powered catamaran that soon proved unable to handle the mistral wind and had to be retired from ferry duty. Red-faced City Fathers promised a solution and -- surprise! -- this week announced the return of Le César which after an extensive renovation had just passed its last test and was found fit to resume ferry service soon. But first it will be moored in front of City Hall in the Vieux Port as part of the Marcel Pagnol trilogy that actor/director Daniel Auteuil is adapting.

The catamaran will be assigned a new job of taking passengers from Le Vieux Port to the new MUCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerrannée) a short distance away along the same bank, thereby avoiding the sideways gusts of wind that can apparently incapacitate it during a crossing.

The people of Marseilles are happy to welcome old César back, which to them was as much part of Marseilles as the cable car is part of San Francisco. Even if the catamaran shaved some two minutes off the crossing time, what's that to a Marseillais? Remember their motto: "Doucement le matin, pas trop vite le soir." (*)

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012



Valérie Trierweiler, President Hollande's partner, has created a political storm at a delicate time for the socialist party which is currently trying to obtain a parliamentary majority in the on-going legislative elections that will be decided on Sunday, June 17th. Ségolène Royal, Hollande's ex and mother of his four children, is running for re-election in the district of Poitou-Charentes where she faces a rival from her own socialist camp: Olivier Falorni. The first round was won by Royal with 32% against 29% for Falorni, but when party leaders asked him to step aside in favor of Royal he refused. The losing center-right candidate in this three-way contest has now given her backing to Falorni, which makes a win by Royal in the second round very difficult. In this context, president Hollande gave his public support to Ségolène Royal (who had been an unfailing supporter in his run for the presidency) but within hours a reportedly furious Valérie sent out a Twitter message supporting Ségolène's rival Olivier Falorni.

The players: Trierweiler, Falorni, Royal, Hollande

The left-wing daily Libération published a picture of Trierweiler under the heading "France's First Gaffe" while others questioned the "normalcy" of François Hollande who finds himself embroiled in a far from normal situation that can only have a negative impact on his image.

The Right is making the most of the situation, sniggering about The War of the Roses and Vaudeville coming to the Elysée, while Le Figaro states that Trierweiler's tweet has sown amazement and confusion in the socialist ranks with possibly "heavy consequences." But at the socialist party nobody is laughing. So far no official comment from Ségolène Royal other than that she wants to keep the focus on her campaign, and nervous silence from the Elysée. Barely one month into his presidency, Hollande is facing his first crisis − one not resulting from political and financial problems in the Euro-zone or beyond, but from a nasty domestic spat.

There is much at stake for Ségolène Royal who, after her presumed victory in the parliamentary elections, was promised the job of Président de l'Assemblée Générale (Speaker of the House). Her chances to get that position may have been seriously damaged. The latest polls today, June 13, indicate that Falorni has taken the lead from Royal and is currently set to beat her with 58% to her 42%.
Hold your breath until Sunday.

Sunday, June 10, 2012



Valérie Trierweiler
domestic partner of French President François Hollande, will continue to work as a journalist for Paris Match magazine but will switch from political reporting to covering Art and Culture. In a little dig at her critics she opened her first article, a book review of "Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and Rebel" by stating: "How about that? A journalist First Lady is nothing new!" pointing out that Eleanor Roosevelt, mother of six, had written freelance articles for a number of publications before beginning her daily syndicated newspaper column on life at the White House, which she continued writing until her death. Clearly identifying herself with Eleanor Roosevelt, Trierweiler goes on to say that Franklin Roosevelt's wife had an independent nature and allowed herself to disagree with her husband on certain issues. In an interview with a fellow journalist, Trierweiler has also said: "As a mother of three, my job is vitally important to me. I have to earn a living and, besides, it's a form of normality."

The couple Strauss-Kahn

As former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn continues to battle his legal problems in France and the United States, a book has just been published (8 June 2012) about the private life of DSK and his wife, journalist Anne Sinclair. Titled Les Strauss-Kahn and written by two female journalists of the newspaper Le Monde, the book reveals that on a personal level Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nicolas Sarkozy were closer than generally known. They shared a number of wealthy friends from the business world and from both sides of the political spectrum, and frequented each other's homes from time to time. Nevertheless, Sarkozy knew all the rumors about DSK's sexual exploits and was kept well informed by police sources of his regular visits to Parisian sex clubs as well as an incident in a steamed-up car in the Bois de Boulogne containing DSK and several partners. These reports were carefully kept under wraps but the decision was made to send high-risk Strauss-Kahn off to the IMF in Washington and away from the political fray in France for a while, reportedly with a warning from l'Ami Sarkozy to watch his ways because "Americans won't go for this."

Sarkozy as well as many other political figures in France were convinced that DSK's womanizing and his libertine lifestyle would stand in the way of his ever being elected as president of France in spite of his obvious professional qualities. One commentator compared Les Strauss-Kahn to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, the story of the fall of another Master of the Universe.


I just attended a conference and book signing by Douglas Kennedy, successful American novelist, at my favorite English bookstore in Aix-en-Provence. As book signings go, this was a mob scene. Kennedy is an engaging speaker in English as well as French, and the fact that his novels were available in both English and French surely contributed to this success. Interestingly, the crowd was about evenly divided between youngsters and retirees, who all patiently waited in line to have their copy signed − a hopeful sign that not all young people have succumbed to the mania of reading only ebooks. 

Two weeks ago this same bookstore welcomed Canadian author Joseph Boyden, one of my favorite young writers (check out his "Three Day Road"- beautiful!). I had met him two years ago at a literary festival in the village of Fuveau near Aix where a French publishing house hosted its authors under the banner of "American contemporary literature" but exclusively in the French translation. During interviews, Boyden, Marilynne Robinson, A.M Holmes and other invited authors were assisted by a French interpreter, but at the author table seated behind piles of their books with unfamiliar French titles they were sometimes heard to ask: "Which one is that? Oh, the blue one" before signing a particular book. No such problems at his book signing in Aix. 


Sarcophagi in Marseilles
When digging the excavation for the foundation of an apartment and office complex in the center of Marseilles earlier this year, the builder uncovered between six and eight tombs, one child-sized and the others over six feet long, which were thought to be of Greek origin. Scientists, who suspect but have yet to confirm that these are indeed Greek tombs dating from the 4th and 5th century BC, have expressed their surprise at the location of the find. According to one archeological expert: "Cemeteries were usually located outside the cities, which makes this discovery extremely interesting in the context of what we know about the Greek occupation of the area at the time. We may have to revise our map." Whatever the final outcome, these sarcophagi are similar to some found in nearby areas, with funerary urns and ashes inside, and as such are a major discovery.


Today, June 10th, is the first round of the 2-round legislative elections in France, where the socialist government of François Hollande hopes to gain a majority in Parliament. He will most certainly need that to push through a number of the reforms he has announced with as yet unspecified funding. The next round will take place on June 17th. Stay tuned...