Wednesday, September 19, 2012


It's mid-September -- and La Rentrée (both scolaire and littéraire) is behind us. 
The rentrée littéraire created no particular excitement this year -- no scandals, and no shocking revelations in the various new books about François Hollande and Valérie Trierweiler or other public figures.


As for the rentrée scolaire, within a week of the start of the new school year four separate incidents occurred where a teacher was physically attacked by a student or by a parent of a student, reminiscent of similar incidents last year that sometimes resulted in serious injuries. School sanctions no longer seem to work and a government response was necessary. Vincent Peillon, Minister of Education, has now announced the formation of a Commission for the Study of Violence in Schools. This is expected to lead to better prevention, but leaves many school directors weary of just another report and another set of statistics instead of action. According to Philippe Tournier, Secretary-General of the public-school directors union in France (Syndicat National des Personnels de Direction de l'Education Nationale - SNPDEN), for the past 20 years there have been many different directives varying from toughened measures to preventive dialogue, but the government has never wanted to see the underlying cause of the problem, which is the growing communautarisme (segmentation along ethnic or religious lines) in public schools. Ever since 2004 when the wearing of visible religious signs in school was outlawed, there has been an increase in communautarisme, says Tournier, and the slightest thing can lead to furious debate or fist fights, such as a Christmas tree, which is not even a religious symbol! The Minister of Education has proposed the introduction of Lay Ethics in the school curriculum, which may not help but cannot hurt.


A new book that is creating quite a stir is the 912-page report just published by two eminent French medical professors, Philippe Even* and Bernard Debré, entitled "Guide des 4000 Médicaments Utiles, Inutiles ou Dangereux." In its September 13 issue, the French weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur devotes no less than ten full pages to the book and its authors who accuse the pharmaceutical industry of flooding pharmacies with useless drugs and charge doctors with overprescribing as a result of the incessant visits by pharmaceutical reps. France has a "prescription culture" they say, where most medication is covered by health insurance and where patients have come to see drugs as a consumer product. It is no secret that France is among the biggest users of antibiotics and of anti-depressants in the world. But who knew of "disease-mongering" laboratories that create treatments for non-maladies? Being in a funk is now called "dysphoria" and there is a pill for it, as there is for what used to be a natural waning of sexual desire in aging people, or for every-day minor stress.

Even and Debré refer to Christopher Lane of the University of Chicago who in 2009 wrote "How Psychiatry and the Pharmaceutical Industry have Medicalized our Emotions", wherein he warns of the growing list of recognized psychiatric disorders in the DSM manual (77 in 1952 vs. 525 in the 2013 edition). Today, for instance, shy or emotional people suffer from "social anxiety disorder" -- for which of course there is a pharmaceutical remedy.

In their extensive report Even and Debré list 94 Excellent Medicines (many of them discovered years ago and never improved by new inventions) and 58 Dangerous Medicines which they consider at best ineffective and useless, at worst dangerous if misused. Of all the medicines sold in France, the authors consider 50% of them useless, 20% not well tolerated, and 5% potentially very dangerous, but 75% of them are reimbursed. Since many of the first-generation molecules are no longer protected by patents and are now available as generics, the industry has been creating "new" drugs that are near copies of the originals but marketed as second or third generation, and presumably improved. Unfortunately, doctors tend to prescribe the new drugs which are often more expensive but not better.

Drs. Even and Debré
Aware that it is hard to fight an industry that spends 45% of its total budget on marketing (vs. 5% on research) and effectively lobbies at all decision-making levels of government and society, the authors suggest that the government stop reimbursing ineffective medication, that doctors and patients accept generic drugs wherever possible, and that pharmacists routinely propose generic molecules. In fact, last year Nicolas Sarkozy introduced some measures along these lines, and this summer a pharmacy in the Deux-Sèvres was fined for having sold an unacceptably high number of non-generic drugs. It will not be enough to staunch the hemorrhaging of the national healthcare treasury, but it is a start. 

* Philippe Even is the former Dean of the School of Medicine in Paris and President of the Institut Necker. Bernard Debré is a urologist and member of the National Assembly of France.


Last week French billionaire Bernard Arnault, CEO of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, announced that he was seeking Belgian citizenship in response to President Hollande's decision to levy a 75% tax on personal income over 1 million euros. This would not apply to income from investments and is intended to last only two years while the country tries to bring down its deficit from 4.5 to 3 percent of PIB as per the European directives of the Maastricht Treaty.

Bernard Arnault
It was reported that Mr. Arnault had a 40-minute private meeting with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (presumably unsuccessful) before he announced his decision. The reaction was swift and furious, as evidenced by the screaming front page of left-leaning newspaper Libération: "CASSE TOI RICHE CON!" (Get lost rich jerk!) in imitation of President Sarkozy's irritated response to a hackler ("Casse toi pauv' con") some time ago. Forbes Magazine listed Mr. Arnault as the richest man in France and the fourth richest in the world, with an estimated net worth of $25 - $41 billion (depending on sources). The right-wing UMP party jumped into the fray by accusing Mr. Hollande of scaring away investors and opening the door to capital flight. In a televised response President Hollande then appealed to the rich to do their patriotic duty in these difficult times and pay their fair share to help the country where they created their wealth. He reiterated that the 75% tax is temporary, and that French citizenship should be a matter of pride.

In taking on Belgian citizenship Mr. Arnault will not lose his French passport, although he will have to establish his primary residence in Belgium. In parting comments Arnault stated that he is not "fleeing" France, that he intends to invest in Belgium (no local citizenship required) and that he will remain a tax resident of France. One may wonder why he needs to acquire Belgian citizenship in that case, but the answer may lie in the fact that tax-haven Monaco welcomes Belgian but not French citizens.


The third weekend in September signaled the yearly Journées du Patrimoine when visitors are welcomed in government buildings that are normally not open to the public. This year again crowds lined up for hours for the privilege to enter historical or off-limits buildings, among them the Elysée Palace in Paris where a relaxed President Hollande and Valérie Trierweiler mingled with the crowds and graciously accepted to be photographed.

Twelve million people were reported to have visited nationwide, which makes these Journées one of the most popular events in France.
The Elysée Palace


A fight has broken out over the Camus exhibit planned in Aix-en-Provence during the "Marseilles-Provence 2013 Cultural Capital of Europe" events.

Albert Camus
At issue is a dispute among the organizing committee in Marseilles, the mayor of Aix-en-Provence and the daughter of Albert Camus who is the guardian and trustee of the Camus archives at the municipal library of Aix-en-Provence, as to who should be the curator of the exhibit. Initially, the MP13 organizers had appointed Benjamin Stora, a well-respected historian and specialist on the Franco-Algerian war.
[Camus, who was born in the then-French colony of Algeria, left Algiers for Paris in 1938 where he became a journalist, philosopher and writer, and won the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, three years before he died in a car accident in 1960.]

Appointed in 2009 as curator of the exhibit "Albert Camus, l'étranger qui nous ressemble" Stora was suddenly dismissed in May 2012 and replaced in July by Michel Onfray, philosopher, prolific writer, and recent biographer of Camus. The ostensible reason was that Catherine Camus refused to release certain documents ("I was not asked within the set time limits") but it appears she really preferred the wider view of Onfray over the France-Algeria view of Stora with respect to Camus the man and writer. Once Onfray had been appointed and had submitted a synopsis of the exhibit now entitled "Camus, un homme révolté", rumors started circulating about the right-wing mayor of Aix-en-Provence's behind-the-scenes machinations in favor of Onfray who would be more acceptable to her large constituency of
Benjamin Stora
pieds-noirs (Algeria-born French citizens) -- rumors firmly denied by mayor Joissains who claims that the decision was solely Catherine Camus's. Soon the air was thick with claims and counter-claims and in early August Aurélie Fillipetti, the Minister of Culture, let it be known that she disagreed with the unexplained dismissal of Stora and his replacement by Onfray. When on August 15 she announced that the Ministry of Culture was withdrawing its subsidy for the Camus exhibit, Onfray resigned in disgust, calling the entire organization a "ship of fools".

Michel Onfray
The story has been widely covered in the French press. The daily Le Monde gave it a full page on September 18th, while the daily Libération and the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur each devoted two pages to the matter. Both Benjamin Stora and Michel Onfray are furious, the silence of the MP13 organizers is deafening, and mayor Joissains of Aix-en-Provence has just re-asserted that there will definitely be a Camus exhibit in Aix-en-Provence in November 2013. Guaranteed! 

What would Albert Camus have thought of all this? When on the 50th anniversary of the writer's death in November 2010 President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed to the son and daughter of Camus an honorary reburial of their father in the Panthéon in Paris among such greats as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Rousseau, they responded that Camus hated pomp, "Paris" and political power, and that his simple grave in the little village of Lourmarin in Provence where he lived at the time of his death was more in character with the man. Honors declined. 


On Sunday, September 16th, the Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomás (37) fought six bulls in a single afternoon in the Roman arena of Nîmes in southern France. His performance was of such perfection that he was awarded 11 ears and one tail before an ecstatic crowd of fans who wept and critics who hailed him as a god. "It was extraordinary", said Nobel winner Mario Vargas-Llosa who was among the spectators, "I have never seen people so overwhelmed." The next day, major Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo ran photos of a triumphant Tomás on their front pages, and critics wrote that this performance has earned Tomás a place in the pantheon of matadors with Juan Belmonte and Manolete.

Usually, a six-bull corrida is shared by three matadors who each take on two bulls. But even more extraordinary is that in 2010 José Tomás was badly gored in Mexico where a bull ripped a major artery and several veins in his groin and brought him to death's door. He has fought fewer corridas since then but seems to be back in top form.

The excitement generated by Tomás's historic performance has re-opened the debate about the ancient ritual of bullfighting, seen as art by some, as slaughter by others. Last year, under pressure of animal-protection groups (as well as dwindling finances), the Spanish province of Catalunia outlawed bullfighting and closed the arena in Barcelona. French fans of tauromachy fear contagion and have held demonstrations in Arles and Nîmes for the preservation of bullfighting which has flourished here for ages. The packed arenas and enthusiastic crowds in Nîmes last weekend seem to indicate that bullfighting is not yet a thing of the past in these parts.