Monday, January 28, 2013



President François Hollande has been having bad press for a while but the war in Mali has given him an unexpected boost. His decisive and rapid action in the face of a serious jihadist threat in Mali earned him approval at home and abroad. After his television address of January 11th, the  Journal du Dimanche expressed it most succinctly with its headline: Finally President! Until then, Hollande had generally been perceived as soft and hesitant, but his strong response to the terrorist threat in Mali changed all that. At least initially. As time went by and absent any significant aid from European partners and little more than verbal support from the US, warning voices began to be heard about a potential French Afghanistan, an "unwinnable war" and one too costly to be entered into in the current economic climate. Yet, as the French Minister of Defense reminded us, the Malian government had urgently requested help from France against an advancing army of Islamic extremists that had already occupied the sparsely populated north of the country and was two days away from overrunning the capital of Bamako in the south. The rapid spread of Islamic extremism from the east toward Northern and Western Africa concerns us all, he said, and needed to be stopped.

With the death of Osama Ben Laden his terrorist network has taken a blow, but some of its forces have regrouped and moved westward where various cells have been operating in Yemen, Somalia, and now Mali. The AQIM cell (Al Qaida in Maghreb) is well-equipped with modern weapons taken from the well-stocked arsenals of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and has been applying Sharia law along its path while kidnapping westerners for ransom, among them many Frenchmen who work for large companies in the area such as nuclear giant Areva with interests in uranium mines. While looking for a political solution involving the UN Security Council as well as local and international participants, France, helped only by some Togolese troops and a poorly trained Malian army, is fighting a lonely battle.


On 22 January 1963 General de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer met in Paris to sign the Elysée Treaty which officially sealed the Franco-German reconciliation, and fifty years later President François Hollande joined Angela Merkel in Berlin to commemorate its birthday. As treaties go, this one has held up longer than General de Gaulle might have expected when he said that treaties are like young girls and roses: they have but a short bloom.
50 years of Franco-German friendship

Throughout history the two countries have repeatedly been at war with each other and even today they have their pronounced political and cultural differences. But together they form the engine of Europe and they do need each other. So here's to the Elysée Treaty and its continued flowering.


As President Hollande was in Berlin on January 22nd he was spared the noxious cloud that spread over Paris and a wide swath of northwestern France and southern England that day as a result of a problem at the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen, Normandy. This plant produces mercaptan, an additive to odorless gas so that it can be detected. First reports indicated that an unexpected chain reaction had occurred in a large vat of chemicals, which caused a malodorous gas to escape and be carried by winds as far north as London and south to Paris. Thousands of people reported a strong rotten-egg odor, and some complained of headaches and nausea.

Ecology Minister Batho: "No danger"

Delphine Batho, French Minister of the Environment, visited the site and reported that it would take several days to neutralize the stink but that the escaped gas presented no health hazard. The American-owned Lubrizol is a "Seveso" plant - a reference to the Italian town of Seveso where a chemical accident occurred in 1976 that resulted in stringent industrial safety measures known as the Seveso II Directive. The EELV Green Party and the Robin Hood Association have called for an investigation into the cause of the accident and Lubrizol's potential responsibility.


In a meeting of European Finance Ministers in Brussels on 21 January, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, 46, was elected President of the Eurogroup, the guiding body of the European Monetary Union, for a term of two and a half years. He replaces outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg who held the position for eight years. In the often tense environment of the European Monetary Union Dijsselbloem's proven diplomatic skills won out over his relative lack of experience (he has been Dutch Finance Minister for only three months). He emerged as the compromise candidate among the main European political groups and between the economically stronger and weaker European countries.
President Jeroen Dijsselbloem
During the same meeting in Brussels the Eurozone Finance Ministers decided to postpone a decision on the Cyprus bank bailout until after the Cypriot elections in February.


Despite a non-disclosure agreement signed by both parties in New York last December, French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche disclosed on 21 January that it has obtained information from sources close to Strauss-Kahn indicating that he paid hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo a sum of 1.5 million dollars to settle her civil suit against him.

Meanwhile, on January 24th DSK appeared again in court in the northern city of Lille where he was confronted with Jade, an escort girl and plaintiff in the Carlton Affair. The court is trying to determine whether DSK took an active role in organizing the sex parties that were held for his benefit in Paris and Washington with prostitutes supplied by Dominique Alderweireld, a French pimp who runs a prostitution ring in Belgium. To date, nine people including Alderweireld and his girlfriend have been indicted in the Carlton Affair. The vertiginous fall of former IMF chief Strauss-Kahn from moving among world leaders and having a clear shot at the French presidency to being judged for aggravated pimping in the company of a low-life hustler nicknamed "Dodo la Saumure" is the stuff of nightmares. Or a bad B-movie.


The most vociferously discussed subject in France this month was the gay marriage bill proposed by President Hollande that will be voted on by lawmakers on January 29th. During his presidential campaign François Hollande had promised to legalize gay marriage within a year of taking office in May 2012.

Demonstration AGAINST

The subject is a controversial one in France, opposed by Roman Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders and a large conservative block of voters. Many mayors, in deference to their local constituencies, announced that they would not officiate gay marriages, to which Hollande (befitting his indecisiveness) responded that they did not need to and could delegate the task. This only muddled the issue and caused a backlash from those in favor, so Hollande had to backtrack and finally declare that the law applies to all, including mayors who are representatives of the State - whether they like it or not.

Demonstration IN FAVOR

Two large demonstrations - for and against marriage equality - took place in Paris two weeks apart. On January 13th more than 300,000 vocal opponents gathered in Paris calling for a vote against the law that would grant same-sex couples the same marriage and adoption rights as straight couples. Two weeks later, proponents held a counter-demonstration to defend legalization of marriage equality. Many celebrities showed up, including Valérie Trierweiler, unmarried partner of President Hollande.

The issue remains divisive, but the latest IFOP poll indicates that today 63% of the French are in favor of same-sex marriage, up from 60% a month ago. The bill is expected to be passed by Parliament.

Sunday, January 13, 2013



Most major cities of the world celebrate the arrival of the New Year with fireworks but Paris reserves its fireworks for the national holiday on the 14th of July, when France commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789. Nevertheless, the French skies do light up on December 31st when not far from Paris - notably in the poorer Parisian suburbs and the area around Strasbourg - more than a thousand cars are set afire every New Year's Eve. Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls announced in December that he would reveal the number of vehicles burned "because the French people have a right to know", contrary to former president Sarkozy's decision to withhold this information for fear of provoking a competition between rival gangs to outdo each other.

Saint Sylvestre fires

In spite of a strong police presence in the most vulnerable areas, and Minister Valls's denouncing this form of New Year's arson as "an intolerable form of violence against property", he revealed a tally of 1,193 vehicles that were burned this New Year's Eve, slightly more than President Sarkozy's figure of 1,147 on 31 December 2009, the last time his government announced the arson figures. "There's been no notable change in arson over the past few years", said Valls at a news conference, without further comment on what looks like a uniquely French phenomenon. Another exception française?



When 64-year-old French actor Gerard Depardieu became a tax exile in Belgium last month, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called his behavior "pathetic". In response an angry Depardieu announced he would apply for a Belgian passport. No need to wait for Belgium, however, since personal friend Vladimir Putin then offered Depardieu a Russian passport "for the asking". Depardieu asked and on January 6th, when he arrived in the Black Sea town of Sochi where Putin was vacationing, he received a Russian passport directly from the hands of his benefactor. They bear-hugged like long-lost friends and praised each other in front of the press, who promptly began referring to Depardieu as "a Russian actor of French origin".

Depardieu told Russian journalists that he loves Putin and that this is mutual, and he called Russia a great democracy, adding: "this is a great country where the prime minister does not call a fellow citizen pathetic", indicating how deeply offended he had been by that remark. No word about the fact that in Russia there is a flat income tax of 13%, which beats even Belgium as a tax refuge. 

Two days later he visited Saransk, capital city of Mordovia, 300 miles east of Moscow, where he was given a hero's welcome by the governor and other officials and offered a free apartment. It is not known whether Depardieu has accepted taking up residence in this area noted mostly for its prison camps, where today 23-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. leader of the Pussy Riot band, is purging a 2-year sentence.

The financial benefit to Depardieu is obvious, but Putin may be the bigger winner. He tweaked the nose of President Hollande and his 75% tax on millionaires*, and turned the event into a huge publicity stunt for Russia as a welcoming tax haven for rich Europeans. Not everybody shared Putin's excitement, however. Russian filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin commented with a shrug: "One more alcoholic in Russia."

It is no secret that Depardieu loves his alcohol. He failed to show up in a Paris court on January 8th following a drunk driving charge in November when he fell off his scooter in Paris one afternoon with an alcohol level three times the legal limit. He did not contest the charges, but his lawyer said the actor could not appear in court because he had a meeting abroad with the producers of a film about Dominique Strauss-Kahn wherein he is to play the lead role. The drunk driving case will now be referred to a criminal court.

[* On December 29th, the French Constitutional Council rejected President Hollande's 75% tax on millionaires as unconstitutional. It was a crushing defeat for Hollande who had made this "tax on the rich" one of his campaign promises. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said that he would seek other ways to impose higher taxes on the rich and that he would resubmit a tax-increase proposal for 2013 and 2014. ]

Brigitte Bardot

Days after Depardieu's noisy departure from France, Brigitte Bardot announced that she was ready to follow him and leave France which she considers "nothing but an animal cemetery today". Noted for her longtime commitment to animal rights, she denounced the planned euthanasia in the Lyons zoo of two old female elephants that were said to suffer from tuberculosis, a diagnosis she contests.

If the elephants are put to death over her objections, she said she will leave France for Russia. It is not sure that Russia, where she is not as well known as flamboyant Depardieu, will be inclined to give any special consideration to her application for citizenship.


After a summit meeting in Brussels on December 21st, Vladimir Putin announced to reporters that he sees a role for Russia in the resolution of the banking crisis in Cyprus, given Russia's bulging foreign exchange reserves and financial muscle. An initial bailout proposal approved by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) last December has run into objections by Bundestag members in Berlin who refuse to guarantee the deposits of Russian tax evaders in Cypriot banks. Carsten Schneider, budget spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party said: "We will not allow the money of German taxpayers to insure Russian black money deposits". Moscow's support for a bailout would lower the EU's exposure and minimize the controversy. The size of the Cypriot bailout will not be known until late January.


On January 7th, Silvio Berlusconi announced that he has entered into an alliance with the right-wing Northern League party, his former partner in three earlier governments. This coalition between Berlusconi's PDL party and the Northern League opens the way to a three-way election split between the center-left of Pier Luigi Bersani, the center represented by Mario Monti, and the right - with a chance of no outright victory for either. Recent polls still predict victory for Bersani's left-wing coalition, but even if Berlusconi is unlikely to win, he can certainly spoil. 

Berlusconi and ex-wife

Scrappy fighter Berlusconi has won numerous battles in his day, but at least one victory seems to have gone to his former wife Veronica Lario who won a divorce settlement of $36 million per year against her former husband, making this divorce settlement the most expensive one on record. Berlusconi called the three female magistrates in Milan feminists and communists. Veronica Lario, who married Berlusconi in 1990, filed for divorce in 2009. They have three children.


Highly visible when she was Justice Minister during the Sarkozy presidency, Rachida Dati has been little seen or heard since she was "banned" to a seat in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in the summer of 2009. She re-emerged in the news last November when she filed a paternity suit against the presumed father of her 4-year old daughter Zohra (see my November 2012 blog).
Dominique Desseigne

The court in Versailles has now ordered Mr. Dominique Desseigne to submit himself to a paternity test so as to establish with certainty whether or not he has fathered Ms. Dati's child. Are we holding our breath?


The officially sanctioned winter sales started on 9 January this year and will last until 12 February. This may surprise Americans, but in France merchants need governmental permission to sell their stock at reduced prices at summer and winter sales. Not only the starting and ending days of these twice-yearly sales but also the price reductions are checked by inspectors in the interest of consumer protection. Shop owners themselves do not seem to object since they fear concurrence déloyale from chain stores or department stores and are happy to see the government in a protective role.

Another surprise to Americans might be the way real estate business is conducted here. Real estate agencies do not share a common data base. They jealously guard their own listings and full commissions against sharing listings and losing part of the commission. The argument of making more money on ten half commissions than on two whole ones is countered by "that's not the way we work". Generally speaking, the French are risk-averse and fear change, which is why la globalisation is so difficult for them. "Tradition" goes a long way here.

Cours Mirabeau

The inauguration of Marseille-Provence 2013 Capitale Européenne de la Culture  - in short MP13 - took place on Saturday 12 January in the presence of Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Jean-Marc Ayrault, French Prime Minister, and French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti. Numerous events in cities from Marseilles to Arles marked this opening with joyous parades, acrobats, tightrope walkers, musicians, fireworks and artistic contributions by an international range of artists. For example, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has had recent retrospectives of her work at the Tate Modern in London, the Whitney in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, dressed the winter-bare plane trees on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence in colorful cloth. Forty kilometers of polka-dotted fabric was used to wrap sixty plane trees along our main avenue, to great effect. Judge for yourself:  joli, non?

In mid-festivities the flying aces of La Patrouille de France overflew the area in tight formation, painting the skies in red-white-and-blue streamers. Cloudless blue skies and mild temperatures completed the perfect picture on this opening day of MP13 which promises some 400 cultural events to come, showcasing the artistic excellence of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. I'll be happy to keep you posted.