Monday, December 16, 2013



Both former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Nelson Mandela in 2008, and current president François Hollande were invited to attend the funeral service for Mandela in Johannesburg where nearly one hundred other heads of state were expected. When Hollande then invited Sarkozy to accompany him on the presidential plane, this was seen as a courtesy of one president to another, possibly inspired by Mandela's example of forgiveness and reconciliation. If reconciliation was indeed the motive, it did not last a day.

Quickly, the old mutual dislike resurfaced and the two men ended up traveling to South Africa in two separate planes. The ostensible reason was an economic and practical one (the use of two Falcon jets being less costly than the presidential Airbus), but the Sarkozy camp hinted at the complications of flying two presidents on the presidential plane that has only one bedroom and shower. For the 13-hour flight, the bedroom suite would go to Hollande and his partner Valérie Trierweiler, and Sarkozy would have to do with a mere business class seat. Pas possible.

Hollande and Sarkozy arrive in Johannesburg
There is no love lost between Sarkozy and Hollande who have barely spoken to each other since the turnover of the presidency in 2012 when, after the official parting handshake on the steps of the Elysée Palace, a boorish Hollande failed to accompany Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni to their car, as is the custom, and let them find their own way. The humiliating treatment left its mark and was generally disapproved of. Almost two years later, Mandela's spirit of forgiveness was notably absent in Paris.

At the same time, President and Mrs. Obama also traveled to Johannesburg for the Mandela funeral, with on board the presidential Air Force One former president George W. Bush and his wife, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential future presidential candidate. Air Force One also has only one bedroom, but accommodations were made to everyone's satisfaction. Where there's a will...


A commercial court in Toulouse has just rendered an unexpected verdict when it ruled against the owner of a shop that sells electronic cigarettes that are meant to help smokers overcome their addiction to tobacco. A buraliste (tobacconist) in Toulouse who runs a Tabac (the government-sanctioned shops where cigarettes and lottery tickets are sold in France) had filed suit against the owner of a nearby e-cigarette shop for "unfair competition". The court agreed with the plaintiff that one smokes an e-cigarette and that as such this substitute cigarette is governed by the State's tobacco monopoly and the health laws that prohibit the advertising of any such product and limits their sale to the licensed buralistes and their 27,000 Tabac shops.

The defendant, who had received official approval to launch his e-cigarette business just months ago, called the ruling absurd and will appeal. His lawyer reminded the court that e-cigarettes have no particular statute in France and should therefore not be governed by the State's tobacco monopoly, all the more so because there is no tobacco in e-cigarettes.

Statistics reveal that 34% of the French still smoke, more than half of them young adults, and that 60,000 people die every year from tobacco-related disease at a cost to the government of 3% of its PIB. E-cigarettes would therefore seem a welcome additional tool in fighting tobacco dependency, especially for a government whose national health system pays smokers €150 per year for substitute products (patches) and reimburses the cost of anti-tabagisme treatments in hospitals. In a further effort to dissuade smokers, it regularly increases the price of cigarettes and will do so again in January 2014, when the cost per pack will reach €7.00. The most visible result so far, however, has been that smokers increasingly stock up across the border, in Belgium or Spain, where cigarettes are cheaper. 

The Toulouse ruling may not directly affect the existing anti-smoking programs, but it does not help in the health department's fight to break tobacco dependency.


In early December, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris published its latest PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment) that compares math, reading and science skills in 15-year-old students in 65 countries. Shanghai students came in first, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, while France dropped to 25th place in math (a 16-point drop since 2003). In addition, France showed a growing gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds, said Eric Chardonnier of the OECD. He did, however, praise some of the reforms that French education minister Vincent Peillon is trying to implement, including the controversial elementary school hours.

That battle is not yet won, however, and to date 55 French mayors still refuse to implement the new 4-1/2 day class schedule in their municipalities, unless and until they receive financial help from the government. The main sticking point seems to be the cost of auxiliary personnel needed to keep the children occupied on Wednesday afternoons after class and before they go home. Minister Peillon reminded the mayors of their civic duty, saying that they represented only a small minority of the 4000 municipalities in France and that he would not allow them to stand in the way of the vast majority. "We will not go back to the old system".

Last week, a strike by prep school teachers ended in a temporary truce and a call for new discussions in January 2014. Dissatisfied middle- and high school teachers are awaiting the outcome of these discussions before deciding what action they will take. There is no smooth sailing in sight for Mr. Peillon's educational reforms.

Fortunately, Christmas is just around the corner and thoughts are turning to school vacations, holiday travel, and food, the great unifier in France. Everybody celebrates Christmas with a grand meal, rich and poor alike. Specialty food shops, patisseries, chocolatiers, and liquor stores do their biggest business of the year, and on this occasion "se faire plaisir" displaces all thoughts of school reform, strikes, or economic crisis. That will have to wait until January.


(*) For more about local Christmas traditions, see my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here:

Monday, December 2, 2013



After the rather somber news from France in my last blog, let's see how other countries are faring. Here's recent headline news from Holland: "Dutch Santa Claus tradition called racist."
Wow! There goes part of my youth.

On December 5th St. Nicholas, bishop of Madrid, and his Moorish helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), arrive by steamboat from Spain to bring gifts to all Dutch children who have been good. As they walk on the rooftops that night, Sinterklaas takes gifts from the big sack that Zwarte Piet carries and drops them down the chimney. They have been doing this for over 200 years to the delight of many thousands of little children. How simple life was then...

St. Nicholas and Black Pete
Today, a movement is afoot to declare Black Pete a racist stereotype. The issue was launched in 2011 by a Caribbean immigrant and has bloomed into a heated debate on social networks and in the press. The Netherlands have a large immigrant population from former Dutch colonies, Morocco, Turkey and eastern Europe, who may find Black Pete offensive. Dutch traditionalists were quick to gather more than 2 million signatures on Facebook defending their Sinterklaas tradition, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte called it harmless folklore. The debate is becoming politicized and has already resulted in the cancellation of the traditional Sinterklaas parade in several communities. The "politically correct" thinking seems to be gaining ground, threatening to abolish Black Pete and leaving Dutch parents wondering how to explain this to their baffled children. Goodbye innocence.
Can a rewrite of the brothers Grimm's fairytales be far off?


As a final gesture before being expelled from the Senate on November 27th over his conviction for tax fraud, Silvio Berlusconi and his renamed Forza Italia party have refused to give the coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta their vote of confidence. Nevertheless, the government won the vote of confidence and passed the 2014 budget.

A defiant Berlusconi, who still has considerable backing, called his expulsion "a day of mourning for democracy" and vowed to continue fighting from the sidelines. Sentenced to one year of community service (instead of jail time) and two years of ineligibility for public office, he now has to face several pending trials and investigations without the immunity he enjoyed as a senator.

A court in Milan investigating his notorious bunga-bunga parties has just added to Berlusconi's legal headaches by accusing him of paying about a dozen women who attended these parties €2,500 per month for giving false testimony. In its ruling the court said that all the women who had received this monthly stipend had given "perfectly overlapping" testimony, even in their use of language, that contradicted testimony given by other participants. Two of his lawyers involved in arranging the payments were charged with evidence tampering, and three former Berlusconi associates were convicted of procuring girls to prostitute themselves at the parties.

Silvio Berlusconi and Francesca Pascale

Standing firmly by her man, Berlusconi's 28-year old girlfriend Francesca Pascale is calling on Pope Francis for help. "I have requested an audience with the pope so he can hear Silvio's story", she told the press.

Who said "Everything is lived twice; first as tragedy, then as farce"?


Good News, Maybe

France's economy is under stress, with few prospects for improvement anytime soon. But a spark of hope was lit when the just-released labor figures for the month of October indicated a slight decrease in unemployment (-0.6%) for the first time in 30 months. "It is good news," said a cautious President Hollande without, however, calling this the beginning of the unemployment downturn he had promised by the end of this year. "This battle can be won, but it will take the necessary time to reduce unemployment month by month in France," he said, carefully avoiding the mention of any deadline.

Yesss!  Brazil next year!

One battle that was already won, though in the nick of time, was the football match against Ukraine that would allow France to qualify for the FIFA world cup in Brazil next year. After losing a first match in Ukraine, France had one last chance to qualify if it could beat Ukraine by at least three points in a return match. It did so on November 19th, on home soil, with a 3-0 victory that set the country alight with joy and chased the bad economic news from the front pages, at least for a day.

Prostitution Client Fined

In a first reading on November 29th that was poorly attended, the French Parliament passed an anti-prostitution bill that would make paying for sex a crime. A prostitute's client would be fined €1,500 for a first offense, double that amount thereafter. The bill will now be submitted to a final vote next Wednesday where the socialists, with their large parliamentary majority, are expected to vote it into law.

The bill is squarely aimed at the foreign pimping networks that employ close to 90 percent of the 20,000 to 40,000 prostitutes working in France, often in conditions of slavery. Nine out of ten prostitutes are of foreign origin, many from Eastern Europe, and last year alone French police broke up 52 pimping networks, three quarters of them foreign.

Opponents fear that the new law will drive prostitutes underground and make them more vulnerable, while humorist Nicolas Bedos commented: "To want to abolish prostitution is like wanting to abolish rain". But Maud Olivier, the Socialist MP presenting the bill said: "To say women have the right to sell themselves is to disguise the fact that men have the right to buy them. So just because one prostitute says she is free, does that make the enslavement of all others acceptable?" Supporters of the bill maintain that the vast majority of people working as prostitutes do so under duress, at risk of violence and disease.

Most of the 20 articles in the bill are aimed at disrupting the foreign pimping gangs that have proliferated in France in the past ten years, and to help the prostitutes stop. Those women who do want to get out would be given a six-month residency permit and a small monthly allowance, while several associations would assist them in seeking other means of support.

Sweden introduced a similar law in 1999 and claims that prostitution has gone down sharply since then.


The Value Added Tax in France will go up come January 1, 2014. Most goods and services are currently taxed at 19.6% and will go up to 20%, others that were taxed at 7% will go up to 10%, but those of "première nécessité" such as food items that were taxed at 5.5% will come down to 5%. Of note: among those products of première nécessité are condoms, whose tax will be reduced from 7% to 5.5%. The Minister of Health explained its place among life's essentials as "a vital tool in our fight against AIDS".

Sunday, November 17, 2013


After my return from a trip to the United States, France looks more than ever at a standstill. In a mere three weeks things have considerably worsened here, with factory closings, workers revolt, tax increases, government U-turns, continued high unemployment, a downgrade to AA by ratings agency Standard & Poor's (*), and an unpopular president Hollande who seems to have no solutions and less and less support. In fact, his approval rating has dropped to an unprecedented 21% and there are signs that even within his own administration there is growing disagreement with the course he has set.

President Hollande on Armistice Day
On Armistice Day, November 11, which marks the end of World War I, President François Hollande was loudly booed as he laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, du jamais vu on a solemn occasion like this. Seventy people were arrested and politicians were quick to express their shock at the chosen place and time for this attack by what they considered a fringe element. But the fact remains that the incident was widely reported on television and in the press, further damaging the president's image. The booing was accompanied by cries for his resignation, and Socialist Deputy Malek Boutih called for the immediate replacement of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is as uninspiring and unpopular as his boss. "We need a strong signal," says Boutih, "and a government shake-up would be a start."

Strikes and protests are par for the course in France, but this time a line has been crossed. Already perceived as weak and indecisive and lacking in leadership, the president seems to be caught in a downward spiral that only a drastic change of course can stop.

In order to reduce its budget deficit and stimulate growth, France has to implement major structural reforms (taxation, labor market, pensions), but thus far Hollande's efforts in these areas have been tentative and ineffective, and nothing indicates that he is ready to change tack. His refusal to touch the costly French social model a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 62, universal healthcare, minimum hourly wage of €9.40 ($12.50), generous family allowances is unrealistic and counterproductive, according to most economists. His reliance on tax increases instead, and his inability to bring down unemployment, have provoked a profound malaise and a loss of confidence that threatens to harden as year-end approaches and the promise of reduced unemployment by 2014 remains unrealized, like many of his other campaign promises. Meanwhile, he asks for more time and keeps tinkering in the margin.

Bonnets Rouges in Brittany
Brittany, a socialist stronghold and major pork and poultry producer, became the latest trouble spot after several factory closings there. Farmers, fishermen and food industry workers joined together to protest against the new Eco-tax on heavy trucks, created by Nicolas Sarkozy with effect on January 1st 2014. The protesters, wearing red woolen caps (bonnets rouges), have become a symbol of revolt and are widely supported.

In response, the government has temporarily suspended the eco-tax, as it has done with various other taxes (an ill-conceived tax on savings, and several business taxes), but held firm on its 75% tax on earnings over €1 million for footballers, to be paid by their clubs. [Last year's decision to tax rich individuals at 75% on earnings over €1 million was ruled unconstitutional.]

Leonarda Dibrani
Another government flip-flop concerned the recent expulsion of a 15-year old Roma girl from Kosovo whose family resided in France illegally. According to Interior Minister Manuel Valls, this expulsion followed the established rules and was justified because "Romas do not integrate well". If many agreed with the rules, few approved of the method applied since the girl was taken off a school bus by police while on a field trip with her classmates. The outraged classmates organized protests and demanded the return of Leonarda. Mr. Hollande, overruling Mr. Valls, thereupon announced on television that the girl was allowed to come back to finish school but without her family, which Leonarda then refused. [Mr. Valls has since said that the girl's father had been expelled because of his criminal record, including beatings of his wife and six children. And Education Minister Vincent Peillon has announced that no more children will be deported during school time.]

This bumbling performance by an incoherent government could not help but reinforce the amateurish, trial-and-error, aspect of an administration that seems to lack a single voice and a firm hand at the helm.

France is divided into 101 départements, each headed by a Prefect as the highest representative of the State. These Prefects render a monthly report to the Ministry of the Interior. In the report of October 25, they express their alarm at the spreading mood of anger and despondency in France. Continuing factory closings and repeated new taxation have brought the people to the point of exasperation and unified them into defiance and revolt. A dangerous mood of pessimism hangs over the country, according to the Prefects, and social unrest is growing. "We need to be alert to a real possibility of explosion. If nothing is done this could boil over into open revolt."    

The bonnets rouges uprising has resulted in the destruction of numerous roadside radars and eco-tax equipment in Brittany and has spread to 23 departments already. Hence the request by the Prefects to take down the offending eco-tax installations in their area before they are destroyed by protesters.

Hollande as Louis XVI
So what are the president's options? Replacing his lackluster Prime Minister with one of two popular candidates, current Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls or former Secretary of the Socialist Party Martine Aubry, might calm the waters for a while. A suggested Cabinet reshuffle, on the other hand, might be risky in view of the municipal elections coming up next spring when socialists could suffer the wrath of disappointed Hollande voters. At the very least, he should do a better job of explaining his strategy and communicating more effectively and more frequently with the voters.

The man who wanted to be a "normal" president has lost touch with the people. Isolated in his golden cage at the Elysee Palace and seemingly deaf to the growing clamor outside, he is increasingly being compared to hapless King Louis XVI same indecisiveness and eternal search for consensus, same inability to read the mood of the citizens, similar problems of empty state coffers and need for reforms. Let's hope that history will not repeat itself and that by some miracle Hollande finds a way out. It's obvious: "normal" is not good enough.

(*) In a November 8 NY Times op-ed article, American economist and Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman writes that the S&P downgrade is directed more against Hollande's ideology than against France's state of the economy which he considers healthy.

Friday, October 11, 2013



I just returned from a brief trip to Holland where I found an unexpected connection to the current shut-down of the American government. As I was driving along the road between Maastricht and Aachen, I noticed that the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten was closed and that a note was posted on the gate. It read: "Due to the U.S. Government shut-down this site is closed to the public".  

Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten
More than 8000 American WW II soldiers are buried at this cemetery which is beautifully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission but also much loved by the local population, many of whom have adopted a grave. It struck me as an outrage to see this site of remembrance and quiet contemplation locked up and abandoned because there is no money to keep it open due to the squabbling in Washington.
Shame on the breathtaking irresponsibility of those who forced this shut-down, which I hope voters will remember during the next election. 


There is a heated debate going on in France over the right to work on Sundays. In a country with high unemployment and an economy under pressure, one might think that those who want to work on Sundays should be allowed to do so. But this is France, the country of the 35-hour workweek and long vacations, where the Workless Sunday law of 1906 still applies even though certain exceptions have been granted over time. Aside from obvious areas such as health workers, agriculture, museums, the hospitality industry, and mom-and-pop shops without employees, the list of officially granted dispensations has grown over time and is today so confusing as to be a source of constant dispute. 

France is a lay country where the Christian Sunday as "Day of the Lord" has long since been replaced with "day for rest and family", protected by law in one form or another as early as 1700. This protection waned during the industrial revolution with its abuse of workers, and via adjustments and reinforcements finally led to the 1906 law that is still in place. Under those rules, all employees have a right to one day of rest per week, usually granted on Sunday. However, ever since women have entered the workforce and domestic life has changed, many people are in favor of shopping on Sunday and have petitioned the government to relax the rules. On the condition that no employee may be forced to work on Sunday, several large chain stores have received permission to open (home furnishings, gardening) but only in certain areas, and certain smaller shops were allowed open Sundays in areas of high tourist traffic. Several large home improvement stores (Bricorama, Leroy Merlin) immediately claimed the same right and opened on Sundays, but they were turned down and fined €120,000 per day per shop for breaking the law. They collectively appealed these fines, their employees signed a petition, and the matter will now be discussed in Parliament in November.  

The older population remains divided on the issue, but the younger generation and especially students who can only work on weekends ask to work on Sundays. A recent IFOP poll indicated that 69% of the French feel that those stores that want to open on Sunday should be allowed to do so.

The greatest resistance comes from several workers unions, particularly Force Ouvrière (FO), who have staged protests and marches against this "Americanization of France". Labor Minister Michel Sapin makes no bones about where he stands: "Pas question de toucher au repos dominical!" 

All eyes are now on President François Hollande who will have to wade through the murky rules-and-exceptions governing this issue and make the final call.  


Tomorrow I'll be leaving France for one month in the United States. I look forward to seeing you again on Provence Today around mid-November.