Monday, April 22, 2013



After the disastrous results of the February elections that caused a political stalemate in Italy, Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left coalition, was given a mandate to form a new government. But in eight weeks of haggling and bargaining and five attempts at naming a successor to the presidency, Bersani failed to find agreement and on April 19th announced that he would step down as soon as a new president was elected. The next day, President Giorgio Napolitano, 87, whose term is ending on May 15th, accepted to present himself again as candidate and was immediately elected to a second term.

Giorgio Napolitano
"I cannot shun my responsibility towards the nation", said Napolitano on reluctantly accepting an unprecedented second seven-year term, adding that he hoped that this would be met by a similar "collective assumption of responsibility" by the political leaders. 

But a collective political effort is unlikely when Beppe Grillo, a former comedian whose anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) obtained a surprising 25% of the vote in February, has rejected any alliance with any political party and vowed to "destroy everything" to change the face of Italy. Hundreds of Grillo followers gathered outside the parliament to protest the re-election of Napolitano, saying this was a continuation of the old system that was at the root of all the problems, and Grillo himself denounced the re-election as a "coup d'état". He vowed to mobilize millions of voters to contest Napolitano's re-election.
Beppe Grillo

In his first post-election speech to Parliament, often interrupted by applause, Napolitano warned that he had accepted his re-election only to break the deadlock but that he would resign if the political parties did not make a serious effort to vote in the needed reforms, including a change of the existing electoral system that made this deadlock possible. 
The presidency is a largely ceremonial function but is crucial in times of instability since only the president can dissolve parliament, call elections and nominate a new prime minister.


In his televised interview of April 2nd President François Hollande promised a "choc de simplification" to improve competitiveness by simplifying the way of doing business in France. "We have too many administrative rules", he said, citing that a small company in France (less than 10 employees) is required to provide 3000 pieces of information every year, a number he wants to reduce by half or more. He also announced a review of the State procurement process, as well as a moratorium on new norms, of which no less than 400,000 exist today.

According to a report of the OECD, the complexity of French administrative rules costs the business community 60 billion euros. And between 2008 and 2011 local governments in France spent 2 billion euros just to stay in conformity with the ever-increasing number of norms.

Sounds shocking, indeed, especially when money is tight. The INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques) just released a report that reveals that France counted 5.5 million civil servants at the end of 2010. A good number of them must have been writing norms.


Among the highlights of the MP13 offerings in Marseilles are two impressive new structures: the Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM) and the Villa Méditerranée, a building dedicated to conferences, exhibits, concerts and cultural exchanges on contemporary Mediterranean themes. Both are strikingly modern, located side by side along the waterfront near the Vieux Port. And both are closed to the public, at least for now.

Villa Méditerranée

I naively thought that all buildings planned for the Cultural Capital would be finished for the opening festivities in January 2013 and that Marseilles would finally be rid of its cranes and construction sites, but I was wrong. The lovely new museum Regards de Provence opened its doors on March 1st, the Villa Méditerranée will open on May 3rd, and the MUCEM will finally open to the public on June 7th - almost halfway through the Cultural Capital year.

My Marseillais friends do not seem in the least disturbed by this. "Those are built for the long run, not just for this cultural year", they say. "What's the hurry?" They are taking these delays in stride just as they have the stops and starts and disruptions of the numerous urban renewal projects that have plagued them for years. The Gallic shrug is their answer.

The old CESAR
But even they were a bit annoyed at the recent news of the César. Remember the story of the ferry boat César in Marseilles? (my blog of 9/23/2011). This was the beloved old ferry that after 60 years of linking the north and south banks of the Vieux Port, was replaced by an ultra-modern catamaran, called "Le Ferry Boat". Soon after its inauguration Le Ferry Boat (which locals pronounce FerrEE Bo-AHT) proved to be ill suited to the job at hand, i.e., ferrying people across the Vieux Port. Even though the crossing distance was only 293 meters (900 feet), the catamaran - too shallow bottomed to withstand gusts of cross winds - would veer off course or start spinning around itself.

After some failed adjustments red-faced authorities had to admit that a catamaran, by its very design, is not meant to take sustained side winds on a short crossing, which in a place where the Mistral blows seems a strange oversight. To save at least some of the 1 million euro cost of Le Ferry Boat, the catamaran was given a new route along the Vieux Port (rather than across it) to take visitors to the new MUCEM some distance down the waterfront. During 2013, visitors to MP13 events would thus be able to enjoy this new service which would link a number of cultural sites along the water.

However, when I visited Marseilles recently, Le Ferry Boat was not in service, apparently still awaiting final clearance after a fire some months ago. And the crossing of the Vieux Port which was to be assured by the old César, newly brought up to code at great expense, has still not started. This time the reason, given by Didier Réault at City Hall, was: "administrative difficulties". No new starting date could be provided. "Maybe early this summer", said Réault, "if all goes well".

So after years of technical problems, administrative difficulties are now keeping the ferry out of service. Perhaps something to do with those 400,000 norms?   

Out of Service

My advice: forget the ferry and walk the 2 kilometers or so from the Vieux Port esplanade up to the MUCEM and Villa Méditerranée, past the beautiful City Hall and a number of colorful animal sculptures installed on the wide seaside boulevard leading to the old Fort St. Jean, and on to the J-4 pier and the new museums. It's a lovely walk. On the way back, reward yourself with a refreshing drink at one of the many terrasses along the way and consider the local wisdom: what's the hurry?


Some time ago a friend of mine sent me a list of Glorious Insults, too good not to share. Here's a taste:

George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill: "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one". 
Winston Churchill in response: "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one".

If you like this, more next time...

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