Saturday, March 30, 2013



First the good news:  French airplane manufacturer Airbus beat rival Boeing in a bid to build 234 medium-range jets for Indonesia's budget carrier Lion Air, a record order for Airbus in this rapidly expanding Asian market. At a signing ceremony with the presidents of Lion Air and Airbus at the Elysée Palace on March 18th, a beaming President Hollande announced that this contract, worth 18.4 billion euros ($23.8 billion), would create 5000 jobs in France over the next ten years.

Unfortunately, bad news was soon to follow.
March turned into a month of turmoil in Italy, where the late-February elections resulted in a deadlock which to date has not been resolved;  and in France the late-March unemployment figures showed another increase, for the 22nd consecutive month, bringing unemployment to just under 11% today. Instead of a hoped-for improvement following some of Hollande's initiatives, these bad numbers caused a loss of confidence in the government's job-creating policies and President Hollande was called upon to explain himself.

François Hollande in the hot seat
In a long prime-time interview on French television he tried to lift the prevailing mood of gloom and to reassure those who fear that France is on a downhill slide with a shrinking job market and a loss of purchasing power. "I have a box full of tools to combat these problems and I mean to use every single one of them" was the answer, which according to the morning-after press does not seem to have reassured either the right or the left. Forced by the financial crisis and by Europe to reduce public spending, which the socialists who put him in office find difficult to accept, he was quick to point out that he would not touch the generous allocations familiales (child premiums) but may have to ask people to work longer before retiring (currently at age 62) because our life expectancy is longer.

He also announced that his planned 75% tax on the rich, which was rejected by the constitutional court, is back in a different form:  this time, those executives who earn salaries of more than €1 million will be taxed at 75% on the portion above 1 million but it is their employer who will pay the tax. This came as a surprise to employers and made Laurence Parisot, president of the MEDEF (association of French businesses), ask: "what about those who are self employed, such as artists, who earn more than one million by their own efforts? Are they also taxed at 75%?" She called the measure "strange" and one more anti-business move at a difficult time when French companies already are over-burdened by social charges. 

Overall, Hollande's policies were seen as mini-measures considered by the left as insufficient and by the right as deepening the crisis. Before this television interview the president's approval rating was at an all-time low of 22%. So far, nothing indicates that his explanations have improved his standing.

We just came back from The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) which takes place in Maastricht, Holland, every year in March. Here, in the midst of the impressive floral decor and the wealth of museum-quality art on offer, one may be excused for asking: "What crisis?"

For ten days, some 260 exhibitors from 20 countries sell their vetted best here to museum directors, collectors and art lovers, and as always I felt I was in a virtual museum where you are allowed to touch and where experts are happy to answer questions. Yes, they really are willing to take that charming Brueghel off the wall so that you can see the back, or to let you take pictures everywhere. About 5 billion dollars worth of art from all periods is on display here antiquities, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, silver, china, furniture and objects about 35,000 items in all.

Peacock brooch, 120+ carats

And if you like jewelry, this is your candy store, with eye-popping creations that some may find beautiful and others vulgar. One particular piece a peacock pin at Graff Diamonds, London  had a price tag of $100 million, which may or may not include a bodyguard. Alright, it buys you 120.81 carats of colored and white diamonds, but where does a girl wear it? 

Every year there is one particular crowd pleaser, which this time was Jeff Koons's Metallic Venus at Gagosian Gallery. At nearly nine feet and 1200 kilos of shiny blue-green stainless steel she was hard to overlook. Even with a price tag of $6 million, the burly security guard stationed next to it seemed de trop. Who would run off with this big girl?

Metallic Venus, Jeff Koons
One of the exhibitors told me "the crisis" did have an effect in that buyers were more cautious this year than usual and sought the security of big names, both in old masters and in modern art. Even so, top pieces sold at top prices, perhaps because after a few lean years museums' coffers seem to be flush again with new endowments and quite a few of them the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, CT, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Getty Museum of Los Angeles and others bought paintings and rare objects for their collections.

A smallish airport near Maastricht which can accommodate 400 private planes during the fair saw only 120 private planes this year. Perhaps some of the Russian oligarchs with money in Cypriot banks decided to stay home this year.


Yesterday, Good Friday, was the first day of the Easter exodus when the French leave in droves to spend two weeks away from home. A weekend rouge has been announced on the roads, and airports and train stations expect big crowds. It seems like only yesterday that French school children returned from a two-week winter break, resulting in similar traffic overload.


The French have more time off than anyone else I know and they just don't like to stay home. Employees have a minimum of five weeks paid vacation a year, augmented by overtime (over 35 hours a week) paid out in additional days off. School children have nine weeks of summer vacation plus four 2-week breaks throughout the school year. Attending school only four days a week, a French primary school student spends a total of 144 days per year in class, according to an OECD study, compared with a European average of 187 days.  

Vincent Peillon, Minister of Education
With their 4-day-a-week school schedule French kids have 6 hours of class per day which according to child psychologists it too much for young minds, and Vincent Peillon, Minister of Education, has announced a plan to shorten the school day and go back to the 4-1/2 day schedule to alleviate class work and bring the French system in line with other European countries. 

But nothing is simple in France, least of all les réformes. A number of school areas have already announced that they will not implement the new system in September 2013 (e.g., Marseilles, Lyon: NON) while others will (e.g., Paris, Nantes: OUI). After an initial year of two different weekly schedules, all schools are expected to follow the new rules by September 2014, but several teachers unions, mayors and even parents have already indicated that they have not said their last word yet. Expect confusion, and stay tuned.


The latest computer term to have entered the French language is "liker" which is the act of checking off the like box on Facebook. One French respondent wrote that he had "liké" a certain item. His use of the Facebook "thumbs-up" sign helped those of us who have trouble with English verbs conjugated in French. Now the only thing I still need to find out is how to pronounce "liker". 
Do you say like-ay or leek-ay?    


(*)  Read about Easter in Provence in my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here:

Thursday, March 14, 2013



Stéphane Hessel who died recently at age 95 was given a national funeral with military honors. His flag-draped casket was carried into the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris where President Hollande paid a final tribute to the man he called "our conscience, a citizen without borders, a militant without a party, a free man". Some personal testimonies by fellow-combatants and friends followed, and actress Carole Bouquet read a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire before the cortège left for Montparnasse Cemetery where Hessel was buried.

Stéphane Hessel at the Invalides


On March 7th a court in Milan sentenced Silvio Berlusconi to one year in prison for the illegal publication in 2005 of a wiretapped telephone conversation that was meant to harm his opponent, center-left politician Piero Fassino. His brother Paolo, who owns the newspaper Il Giornale that published the wiretap, was sentenced to two years and three months in jail. Both men are expected to appeal.

Two other Berlusconi trials, one for fraud and the other for paying for sex with an underage prostitute, are still in the pipeline in the court in Milan. The prostitution case referred to as "Rubygate" is expected to conclude by the end of this month, and an appeals decision on a case relating to television rights of his media company Mediaset may also come down this month.

And there's more: Just a week ago former senator Sergio De Gregorio declared that Berlusconi had paid him €3 million in 2006 for switching to his People of Freedom (PdL) party, which caused the center-left coalition of then Prime Minister Prodi to collapse. This accusation of bribery is being investigated by prosecutors in Naples.

And yet... none of this prevents Berlusconi from participating in discussions starting on March 20th regarding the formation of a new government. After the gridlock caused by last month's inconclusive elections, Berlusconi's center-right coalition is the second-biggest group in parliament and as such plays a vital role in forming a new government.


Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault
On March 6th Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced the government's approval of the "Super Metro" project that was initiated by President Sarkozy in 2009 but had since been dropped. With slight modifications - resulting in a cost reduction of 3 billion euros - the Nouveau Grand Paris, as the project has been baptized, will consist of 200 km of new lines and 72 new stations, almost doubling the present 213 km of metro lines. The cost of this vast project, which will start in 2015 and be finished in 2030, is 30 billion euros. 


A severe snowstorm has hit Northern France and wreaked havoc on road, airport and rail traffic. Normandy and Brittany were particularly hard hit and brought to a virtual standstill. The March 11-12 storm was unexpectedly severe, causing power outages and stranding more than 2000 cars overnight. Paris' two main airports cancelled more than a quarter of their flights. The government formed a crisis committee to deal with the storm and called in the army to help. 

France has an excellent public transportation system and seven million people in the surroundings of Paris use it every day to come and work in the city. All this commuter traffic was severely disrupted by the storm, most trains and buses were cancelled, and authorities called on commuters to stay home until public transportation could be re-established. The Eurostar train to London was also cancelled, as well as the Thalys that links Paris to Brussels.

Paris, 12 March 2013
Here and there snowfall of up to 60 cm (24") was reported, mostly in Normandy, with heavy winds and snowdrifts making snow removal difficult. Yet, I could not help wondering how Sweden or Moscow or Canada manages to keep trains running, while France - with its ultra-modern TGV and Eurostar rail systems - cannot keep its equipment from freezing? A young tourist in Paris had similar thoughts when he said "We have tons of snow in Quebec without a problem but a few centimeters of snow here shuts everything down". Perhaps the new crisis committee will have an answer.


According to French weekly Le Canard Enchainé, President Hollande's girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler had a violent disagreement with her editor Olivier Royant of Paris Match, where Trierweiler is employed as a book reviewer, over the February 7 issue that ran a four-page article about her and Hollande and featured them on their cover walking arm in arm in the Jardin de Luxembourg. When she could not reach Royant, she left him a phone message, reportedly containing terms like "ton journal de merde" and "ces photos de merde". Written by her colleague Mariana Grépinet at Paris Match, the inconsequential article entitled "Parenthèse Amoureuse" described a brief time of relative quiet for the couple before their whirlwind tour to India later that month. Trierweiler allegedly demanded that Grépinet be excluded from the press pool that was to accompany Hollande on the presidential plane to India.

Trierweiler no longer works at the magazine's offices but sends in her column every two weeks, and her relationship with management and co-workers appears tense at best. Insiders say that Royant was shocked at the language Trierweiler used in her message but shrugged it off, saying "She'll get over it". 

Arnaud Lagardère and Valérie Trierweiler
Nevertheless, she continues to be on the payroll of Paris Match, to the dislike of the magazine's owner Arnaud de Lagardère who is quoted in a recent biography as saying that he had asked that Trierweiler's contract not be renewed at its expiration in late 2012, but that he dropped the idea after president Hollande told him the "she is not really a first lady". In the book Arnaud Lagardère: L'Héritier Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie (Ed. Flammarion), journalist Jacqueline Rémy writes that Lagardère, when asked if he considered Trierweiler a plus for his magazine, responded: "Are you kidding? Rather a handicap! Ever since the election of Hollande she has caused us nothing but trouble".


While Trierweiler seems to have a hard time controlling her temper, Ségolène Royal, Hollande's former companion for 28 years and mother of his four children, is showing greater self control and stubbornly continues her efforts to rebuild her political career while avoiding any commentary on the Hollande-Trierweiler couple. She knows it's a slow process - one slippery step at a time.

She just came out with a new book, Ce Que Je Dois, to be published this month, which she describes as an homage to those people, past and present, who have inspired her. It is also an answer, she says, to the questions she was asked after her political and personal defeats suffered in 2011 and 2012, as to how she managed to hold up, to take it on the chin, to find the strength to go on, to stay in politics. 


I don't know if this can be called Franglais, but when a new coffee bar just opened in the center of Aix with the name "Smouth Jazz" (pr. smoos jazz) I knew I was not in America. Then again - this might be a play on words (mouth and jazz?) or perhaps a new form of jazz? Any experts out there?

Same novel English on this sign (left) in front of a money exchange on the Cours Mirabeau. Don't say they don't try to please tourists.

Perhaps best of all is some of the English I hear at home: "The bucket stops here" - "Wait, let me pick up my breath" - "I am under the blues" - "Her plants are beautiful; she has a green tooth".  Clear as a bell.

(*) For more Franglais tidbits, check my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013



One of my heroes just died at age 95. Stéphane Hessel, French Resistance fighter during World War II, survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, diplomat and writer, is perhaps best known for a pamphlet-sized book he wrote in 2010 titled Indignez-Vous! (Time for Outrage! in English). It sold more than 4 million copies worldwide and spawned movements such as Occupy Wall Street in the USA and Los Indignados in Spain. His message of peaceful resistance against any form of social injustice resonated at a time of international turmoil following the financial meltdown, and the little book became an instant success. Among Hessel's causes were the plight of Palestinians, the illegal immigrants in France, and protection of the environment. His latest work, A Nous de Jouer!, will be published later this month.

Homage to Hessel in Paris
A few years ago I met Hessel when he gave a lecture at the municipal library in Aix-en-Provence where he mesmerized the audience and got a standing ovation. He spoke with youthful enthusiasm, inciting without haranguing, smiling frequently yet being dead serious when he urged the younger generation to remember the spirit of resistance and reject rampant capitalism or attacks on human dignity. He would quote poetry in English, French and German and said it was his greatest pleasure in life and had sustained him during torture and in the death camps. (In "Ô Ma Mémoire - La Poésie, Ma Nécessité" (Seuil, 2006), he weaves an autobiographical thread through an anthology of 88 of his favorite poems).

In the mold of old activists like Hervé Morin, Curtis Roosevelt, and Michel Rocard with their Roosevelt 2012 collective (see my blog of March 2012), Hessel spoke out in support of Europe while warning against the growing gap between the world's rich and poor and against "the international dictatorship of the financial markets". This inspiring figure, who came to enjoy near rock-star popularity in his nineties, was also the only Frenchman I know who spoke slowly!

Foreign Policy magazine listed Hessel as one of the world's great global thinkers, and he was eulogized by President Hollande as well as numerous other public and political figures. Reading the last interview he gave just one week before his death, it is hard to believe that Hessel is gone. May his defiant spirit and his rallying cry to "Get Involved!" live on.


Following a complaint by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Paris court judged the book Belle et Bête by Marcela Iacub to be an invasion of privacy, and ordered that an insert be added to each copy stating as much. This is expected to delay the launch of the book, which was set for February 27th, by about a week. In addition, he ordered that the author and her publisher (Stock) pay DSK €50,000 in damages and that Le Nouvel Observateur pay €25,000 for the excerpts it printed prior to the book's publication. Moreover, the magazine was ordered to publish this verdict in its next issue.

The court rejected Strauss-Kahn's request to have the book banned, but DSK's lawyer said he was satisfied with the outcome since books are rarely banned in France.

Actress Isabelle Adjani, who was to play the role of DSK's then-wife Anne Sinclair opposite Gérard Depardieu as Strauss-Kahn in a movie to be made by American director Abel Ferrara, has just announced that she is withdrawing from the project. "In the context of recent developments based on the destructive invasion of privacy of Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair, I no longer wish to be associated with the film Abel Ferrara is preparing," she says, adding that she had been looking forward to working with Depardieu and that she admired Ferrara's work.


Ségolène Royal, French politician, former non-married wife of François Hollande and mother of his four children, and former presidential candidate in 2007, has been named Vice President of the French Banque Publique d'Investissement (BPI). She maintains her position as President of the Poitou-Charente Regional Council. Amid controversy and a treacherous Twitter message from Hollande's current companion Valérie Trierweiler, Royal lost in the legislative elections of June 2012 a bruising defeat in a remarkable political career.

Her position of Vice President and Spokesperson at the BPI will allow her to be closely involved in the granting of loans to small and medium-sized regional companies, and will give her added public exposure. It may also bring her one step closer to her hoped-for re-entry into a government role at the national level. 


As part of the MP13 cultural events, cities throughout the MP13 area from Arles to La Ciotat via Aix-en-Provence, are hosting shows, concerts, and exhibits with a connection to the cultures of the region and the Mediterranean Basin. Various forms of art, from antiquity to today, are presented in age-old buildings or in brand-new ones, such as the striking Villa Méditerranée by Italian architect Stefano Boeri and the MuCEM (Museum of Cultures from Europe and the Mediterranean) by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, neither one of which is open to the public yet. The Villa Mediterannée is set to open in early April and the MuCEM in June. The visitor would do well, however, to check the MP13 website for any program changes or delays.

Musée des Regards de Provence, Marseilles

Despite some criticism from out-of-town visitors about poor communication and far-away ticket booths, the response to the many new museums and exhibition halls and to the innovative new architecture in Marseilles has been very positive. And after many months of construction sites and traffic tie-ups throughout the city all is forgiven and the local population loves its renovated Vieux Port with its vast new esplanade, reduced traffic flow and increased pedestrian-only space. All the better to enjoy the pleasures of the waterfront well beyond MP13.

For details on the numerous events planned throughout this year, you may want to consult the MP13 website here.