Sunday, July 28, 2013



For the past few weeks we have been experiencing a heat wave that reminds us of the awful canicule of 2003, when 15,000 elderly people, mostly living alone, died in France, and the then-Minister of Health lost his job due to his mismanagement of the crisis. Today this could not happen again, not only because hospitals are better prepared for a sharp increase of heatstroke patients but also because municipalities keep a close watch on elderly people at risk.

For example, every year now all mayors in France send out letters to their constituents over age 70 (that includes us) to remind them how to avoid dehydration, i.e., stay indoors during the hottest hours, drink a lot of water, keep the shutters closed, etc.  That may sound obvious, but few houses here have air conditioning, and since older people often forget to drink because they don't feel thirsty they dehydrate without knowing it, with potentially fatal consequences. Our mayor's letter also asked for our telephone number so we could be contacted regularly and gave us the option of having a city worker stop by to check on us. We declined the offer, but the daily television news keeps showing us municipal workers phoning the elderly to ask them if their shutters are closed, if they have several days worth of food in the house, if they feel drowsy, if they need anything, etc.

A clear consequence of the tragedy of 2003 is that it has raised public awareness of the fragility of lonely elderly people when they lose their customary daily human contact during the long summer holidays.


Former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn's chances of a political career in France may be over but he appears to be making a comeback of sorts in the financial world. On July 15th it was announced that he had joined the Board of the Russian Regional Development Bank, a subsidiary of state-owned Rosneft, the largest listed oil company. Last summer, after his separation from his wife Anne Sinclair, he founded Parnasse, an international consulting firm, in Paris. He also acquired a new woman in his life, 45-year old French television executive Myriam l'Aouffir, with whom he is often seen in public, including at this year's' Cannes Film Festival.

DSK with Myriam L'Aouffir in Cannes
Last month, the public prosecutor in the Carlton Affair recommended that the "aggravated pimping" charge against DSK be dropped for lack of evidence. The judges were expected to follow this recommendation. However, on July 26 the two judges in charge of the case announced their decision to reject the prosecutor's recommendation and to send Strauss-Kahn back before the criminal court. It is unusual that a prosecutor's recommendation not be followed, but it appears that the judges acted on a Memorandum to the court filed by a civil party in Lille, L'Equipe d'Action contre le Proxénétisme, who wanted the case to be continued not only for the charge of pimping but also for "concealment of pimping". In their memorandum they cite a similar case in 1994 where a prostitute charged with the same offense was convicted.

A new trial could take place in 2014 and would likely have a negative impact on Strauss-Kahn's business. If convicted, he may be sentenced to 10 years in jail and a fine of €1.5 million. The light at the end of his tunnel just got a little dimmer.


On Sunday, July 21st, the Tour de France ended in Paris with Englishman Chris Froome as winner. Even for those who may not be cycling fans, the colorful ribbon of 160 riders racing up and down the Champs Elysées around the Arc de Triomphe was a beautiful sight and a worthy finale to the 21 stages in Corsica and across mainland France that were rich in spectacular views.

To celebrate this year's 100th anniversary of the Tour, the spectators in Paris received an unusual treat: a flyover by the famous Patrouille de France, the flying aces of the French air force, as well as fireworks that evening.


July 21st is also National Day in Belgium. This year, 79-year-old King Albert II chose that day to abdicate after 20 years on the throne and to pass the reins to his oldest son Philippe. Following the example of Dutch Queen Beatrix who abdicated in April in favor of her son Willem-Alexander, King Albert II, who is not in good health, said the time had come for 53-year-old Philippe, "who has all the qualities to be a good king", to take over.

Philippe, who is known to be painfully shy, is facing the difficult task of keeping a divided country together. Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia have long been at odds and after the last elections it took more than 500 days to form a government. In this parliamentary democracy the king's role is largely ceremonial but he has one important constitutional duty, i.e., mediating between the warring parties and maintaining political stability.

King Philippe I and wife Mathilde

The new King Philippe (Filip in Dutch) took his oath in the three official languages of the country, Dutch, French and German (even though only one percent of the population speaks German), illustrating just one aspect of this fractious country of 11 million people. Another one is the growing call for independence by several extremist Flemish groups, who are likely to do well in next year's elections. Their frontrunner, the separatist party Vlaams Belang, boycotted the swearing-in ceremonies.


Delphine Boël
Fresh from abdicating, former King Albert II will not be able to enjoy a quiet retirement just yet. Last month, 45-year old Belgian artist Delphine Boël, who lives in London, asked the courts to compel Albert and two of his children to give DNA samples in order to establish that she is the illegitimate daughter of Albert and a Belgian aristocrat. For years she had been trying to resolve this matter directly with King Albert but he refused all contact with her and was protected by the immunity accorded to his position as reigning monarch.

Boël maintains that she makes no claim on the royal fortune but that the unresolved question of her birth is complicating her life. "I don't believe that this legal action will put an end to the discrimination against me or my family", she said, "but with DNA proof there will finally be certainty about my identity". Now that the matter is being widely discussed in the press, her mother, Sybille de Selys Longchamps, has spoken to two Belgian newspapers after decades of silence and admitted that she had an 18-year-long affair with Albert. She added that she understood and supported her daughter's efforts to gain recognition.

It is an open secret in Belgium that Albert and his wife Paola, a princess from southern Italy who hated rainy Belgium, lived apart for years in the 1960's and came close to divorcing. The royal palace has neither denied nor confirmed Boël's claim, considering this a private affair. With the recent flurry of media attention and the court's upcoming ruling on the DNA request, the matter will definitely have left the "private" sphere.


As the opera season in Aix-en-Provence is coming to an end, the famous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, has just started (July 25-August 28).

Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier
This year the Festival celebrates the 200th anniversary of he birth of Richard Wagner and the season's program of seven operas will include the four-part Ring Cycle. The Festival management has always been a Wagner family affair and is today in the hands of Co-Directors
and half sisters Katharina Wagner (35) and Eva Wagner-Pasquier (68), daughters of Richard's grandson Wolfgang Wagner who ran the Festival until his death in 2008, and great granddaughters of founder Richard Wagner himself. [By the way, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, a professional opera manager, was artistic adviser to the Opera Festival of Aix-en-Provence (*) until 2008]. 

The Wagner sisters are being watched very closely this anniversary year. Of particular interest to Ring lovers (called "Ring-nuts" for their utter devotion) is the appointment of German theatre director Frank Castorf, whose staging is often considered provocative. He was not the sisters' first choice but was asked to step in when filmmaker Wim Wenders bowed out rather late in the game. It is no secret that Castorf considers Bayreuth stuffy and old-fashioned, and that he finds the Wagner sisters lacking in artistic vision. He plans to break some rules and has already announced that "his" Ring will be oil-based. The "Rhine Gold" will be oil, the black gold that represents the Nibelung treasure; his version of "The Valkyrie" takes place in oil-producing Azerbaijan; "Siegfried" will have a huge backdrop of Mount-Rushmore-like heads of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, "men who changed the world"; and the "Götterdämmerung" sets will include The New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street "where all fates are decided today".

Scenery for Siegfried

As audiences and management await this year's Ring with a mix of curiosity and anxiety, the Wagner sisters have not been available for interviews and are no doubt keeping their fingers crossed that the 200th anniversary celebration of their great grandfather's birth will not only withstand Mr. Castorf's re-interpretations but that the impressive stage design will sway any doubters. Whatever the outcome, this Festival promises to be a memorable one.

(*) For more on opera in Aix, check the Opera Festival chapter in my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here

Monday, July 15, 2013



After an unusually long winter and the wettest month of May on record, summer has finally arrived and the usual tidal wave of vacationers from the north has again unfurled over the Mediterranean beaches for a month of dolce farniente and fun in the sun. Picturesque villages suddenly echo with more English than French, and Parisians descend again en masse on the Luberon, their preferred vacation area in Provence, where they own or rent a house and mostly visit each other. When it's hot in the south of France, the beaches seem to be for foreigners, the Luberon for Parisians, and the Dordogne favored by the English. No matter where you go, however, culture is never far away, what with festivals, art exhibits and special events on offer everywhere.

This year, with Marseilles being the Cultural Capital of Europe, the choice is particularly rich and includes a blockbuster art exhibit, LE GRAND ATELIER DU MIDI, spread over two museums that show "From Cézanne to Matisse" in Aix-en-Provence and "From Van Gogh to Bonnard" in Marseilles.

Other worthwhile stops in Marseilles would be two striking new buildings in the Vieux Port: La Villa Méditerranée and the MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) which finally opened last month, as well as the charming new museum Regards de Provence in the renovated station sanitaire just across the road.

Museum Regards de Provence

For opera and theatre lovers there are the big summer festivals in Aix and Avignon, each with their diehard followers who faithfully return every year.

Chorégies d'Orange

Aix-en-Provence opens the ball in June with a month of public Master classes that precede the opera festival of July. Opera being my thing, I am happy to stay in Aix for all five operas, several concerts with major symphony orchestras, and a number of conferences with opera stars, directors or stage designers, before I start looking elsewhere. If I am not sated by then, I may go to Les Chorégies d'Orange for more opera and concerts in the incredible setting of the huge Roman theatre (more than 8000 seats) with its impressive backdrop of a 37-meter-high wall built in the first century AD and still standing! King Louis XIV called this "the most beautiful wall of my kingdom".

The famous theatre festival of Avignon offers more than 1000 plays, running from 10 o'clock in the morning throughout the day and evening for the entire month of July in an incredible burst of theatrical activity. Every form and period is represented, from Greek antiquity to Shakespeare, Racine, Molière or Schiller, Pirandello, Tom Stoppard or Sam Sheppard and avant-garde Belgian provocateur Jan Fabre, across cultures and languages. The town of Avignon literally teems with talent in July, and the occasional flop among this multitude of shows only confirms how much good theatre is being produced today.

The town of Vaison La Romaine in the department of the Vaucluse organizes a dance festival in its magnificent Roman amphitheatre, where both modern dance and traditional ballet are performed in a truly exceptional site.

Then there is the international photo festival Les Rencontres d'Arles. This year dedicated to black-and-white photography, this huge show is bound to thrill photo enthusiasts with its 50 exhibits spread over a dozen venues in the town of Arles.

La Roque d'Anthéron

Still not for you?

There is jazz in Marciac, in Antibes, in Nice and elsewhere, often with big American names like Wynton Marsalis or Keith Jarrett, and an international piano festival in the lovely outdoor setting of the Chateau Florans in La Roque d'Anthéron. Chapels and churches throughout the area, including the beautiful Cistercian Abbey of Silvacane, host chamber music concerts and choirs.

Of course popular culture is not forgotten and folkloric events, with fife and tambourine bands and dancers in Provençal costume, appear regularly in town and village squares, not to mention the colorful markets where potters and painters and basket weavers offer their art amid the local produce and preserves.


Amid this embarras de choix it is hard to keep up with the news, but here are a few items I glimpsed this month:

˜˜˜ The Tour de France. I confess that I am not a follower of this biggest sporting event in France, but it was hard to ignore this year since the Tour came right through Aix-en-Provence. After at least an hour of commercial preliminaries in the form of a long caravan of support vehicles and loudspeaker trucks with young girls throwing candy, fruit juice packs and baseball caps to the crowd, the riders finally arrived at our Rotonde and were gone in a blur before you could get your camera focused. The one thing I remember most clearly is the wooshing sound they made when they passed. Last year saw the first British victory ever when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour, and this year again the English are doing very well, with the prized yellow jersey currently being worn by Chris Froome who won yesterday's toughest and highest climb, the Mont Ventoux. The Tour ends in Paris on July 21.

˜˜˜ The French Constitutional Court has confirmed an earlier ruling by the Electoral Finance Commission that found Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of exceeding the legal spending limit for his 2012 presidential campaign against François Hollande. It ordered Sarkozy to repay a government advance of €150,000 and denied his UMP party reimbursement of some €10 million of campaign expenses from the national Treasury, a heavy sanction for a party that is now short of funds while hoping to take back the presidency in 2017. Sarkozy has yet to announce that he is a candidate for the next presidency but he is widely expected to run.

Ex-minister Delphine Batho

˜˜˜ Delphine Batho, Minister of the Environment, was fired by President Hollande for having openly criticized the government's latest budget cuts to her department. She was replaced by Philippe Martin, a Deputy from the Gers region.

Bernard Tapie

˜˜˜ Bernard Tapie, French businessman and sometime actor, stands accused of having falsely obtained a payment of €403 million in 2008 from the state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank. After years of litigation by Tapie who accused the CL of having cheated him in the sale of his Adidas sportswear company in the mid 1990s, the case went to arbitration at the suggestion of then Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who approved the award. Lagarde, currently head of the IMF, was grilled by prosecutors for two days about her role in assigning this case to arbitration. She was not charged but named an "assisted witness" which indicates that some suspicion remains in the eyes of the court. Her then Chief of Staff Stéphane Richard, on the other hand, has been placed under formal investigation but was allowed to return to his job as CEO of telecommunications company Orange (formerly named France Telecom) with the backing of his Board of Directors and of the State, which owns a 27 percent share of Orange. 

The "Affaire Tapie" as well as the colorful Bernard Tapie himself will surely lead to more revelations, and confirm or refute any suspected link with Nicolas Sarkozy on whose watch the arbitrage took place.

Awaiting further developments, I am off to the opera and will get back to you when the music stops.


(*)  For more events see the chapter Summer Festivities in my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here.