Sunday, September 29, 2013


Marseilles, France's second city, is quickly becoming Interior Minister Manuel Valls's First Headache. He just can't get a grip on this crime-plagued city, so different from all others. In spite of increased police power, additional funds, and the appointment of a new Prefect last year, the city registered its 15th homicide for the year on September 5th. That day, in two separate incidents, two men were executed in drug-related reprisals as two helmeted individuals on a scooter pulled up next to a targeted car, shot the driver and disappeared into the traffic. A banal incident by Marseilles standards except that this time one of the victims was the son of a well-known and well-loved local figure: Jose Anigo, coach of the local football club Olympique de Marseille (OM). "This city eats its own children," said Anigo, who deplored his son Adrien's criminal record, including jail time for drug trafficking, and the culture of drug-fueled easy money from which Adrien had been unable to extricate himself.

This time, there was a public outcry, and before the day was over Interior Minister Manuel Valls responded with a call for a concerted effort by local and national officials to unite around a plan of action to end the drug wars in Marseilles. He spoke of a National Pact, headed by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and the duty of elected officials to focus on the tasks at hand: employment for the young; rehabilitation of abandoned neighborhoods; increased video surveillance; fighting school absenteeism. State and local authorities will have to combine forces to overcome the drug traffickers and a certain mindset that have taken hold in Marseilles.

Minister Valls and Mayor Gaudin
Will it work? Jean-Claude Gaudin, 74-year-old UMP mayor of Marseilles who has had his differences with socialist minister Valls, has buried the hatchet and welcomed a united effort where, he insists, politics will have no place. Given the extent of the problem, it will indeed require an all-out effort, if not divine intervention, to break the back of a well-entrenched drug trafficking business that has long relied on young recruits who as simple lookouts could earn more in a day than their fathers did in a week. With unemployment rates of over 40% in poor neighborhoods, teenage boys quickly learned the ropes and moved up from scouts and lookouts to minor dealers, at risk of severe punishment by their "employers". They also moved from small handguns to kalashnikovs, the weapon of choice of their bosses, and to the subsequent turf wars with their former recruiters which so often end in death, as they did again on September 5th. Nevertheless, a new supply of young recruits is always on hand, and the vicious circle continues...

Another problem in Marseilles is its intractable unions, especially the CGT which has a firm grip on the Grand Port de Marseille. They may claim to fight for the rights of dockworkers but are just as often the reason for companies leaving Marseilles or avoiding it altogether. In 2009, in response to a government effort at retirement reform, the CGT called for a 90-day strike, effectively paralyzing the port of Marseilles and causing severe stress on other commerce. Result: if in 1985 Marseilles was still the first container port in the Mediterranean, today it has dropped to 11th place, with Barcelona and Genoa happy to accommodate the frustrated cargo shippers that have had their fill of Marseilles. Strikes by garbage workers are not uncommon either, and in 2007 such a strike was timed to coincide with the visit of the Swiss selection committee for the America's Cup. Piles of rotting garbage quickly convinced the Swiss to choose Valencia over Marseilles.

And Yet...

Marseilles was named European Capital of Culture this year, beating Bordeaux, Lyons and Toulouse in the process. Drugs and gangs seem to exist in a vacuum the Quartier Nord of this spread-out city where no outsider ever goes and where drug dealers kill each other.
The same has been said about Washington DC, where drug violence is largely limited to certain poor, all-black, neighborhoods without disturbing the rest of the city.

Euromed Center
Marseilles still is the largest commercial port overall in France, a gateway to the trading routes to North Africa and beyond, where cruise ships, cargo ships, and ferries cross each other in the harbor, as well as oil tankers on their way to the nearby oil refinery in Fos-sur-Mer. In spite of its recalcitrant unions and frequent strikes, optimism does prevail. How else to explain the €7 billion Euroméditerranée urban renewal project to renovate a 480-hectare area in the heart of the city? (go to link).  Launched in November 1995, this project is funded by the European Union, the State, the Departmental and Regional councils and the City of Marseilles, and involves €5 billion of private investment. Completed to date are the renovated Gare St. Charles, the downtown infrastructure of tunnels and rerouted traffic lanes around the Vieux Port and its enlarged pedestrian areas, new tramlines, underground garages, the renovation of the Haussmann-style Rue de la République, construction of the Zaha Hadid-designed 147-meter-high glass office tower for CMA-CGM (France's largest shipping company), transformation of the Joliette Docks area into offices, renovation of the Silo into a theater and a number of abandoned buildings into museums. Slated for completion in 2015 is the large Euromed Center that will house, among other things, an ultra-modern multiplex cinema under the direction of moviemaker Luc Besson, a convention center, and a Marriott hotel. ( go to link).

MuCEM (left) and Villa Méditerranée (right)
Especially built for the 2013 Cultural Capital of Europe were the eye-catching museums of MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and Villa Méditerranée on the waterfront, as well as the new FRAC (Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain) museum built by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma in the center, and Norman Foster's Ombrière on the Vieux Port plaza. At a cost of €190 million, €70 million, €21 million, and €45 million, respectively, they are daring and costly additions to the architectural landscape of Marseilles.

Norman Foster's Ombrière
Adding the major renovation and extension of the Museum of the History of Marseilles (€20m) and the transformation of the old Station Sanitaire, where newly arrived immigrants were checked, into the museum Regards de Provence (€4m) dedicated to regional art, shows the importance given to art and culture in Marseilles.   

Can this possibly be a city in decline, an area to be avoided by tourists, an ungovernable territory taken over by drug lords? Absolutely not.
Granted, drug trafficking does exist but far from the tourist areas, a mafia element does exist but is more interested in Brinks trucks and gambling casinos than in your purse or necklace, and corruption is not unknown either. Case in point: Jean-Noël Guérini, PS Senator and President of the Bouches du Rhône Department, who was expelled from his own party but so far has refused to step down. Already the subject of several criminal investigations, he is currently awaiting trial for embezzlement of public funds, while his brother Alexandre has been convicted and sent to prison for criminal conspiracy.

So what to say about Marseilles?
Throughout history Marseilles has always been a rebellious city and often at odds with the government in Paris. It exasperates and delights in equal measure, like the difficult child in the family. It seems to walk a fine line between its sunny side (natural beauty, ethnic diversity, blessed climate and laid-back lifestyle) and its shady side of sometimes questionable governance and inability to control its unions.

Even allowing for a tainted local government and a certain underworld, the normal business world appears to function rather well here, as evidenced by the successful transformation of the city and the ongoing Euromed project. All things considered, perhaps the biggest surprise of Marseilles is that it functions at all.

(*) To read more about Marseilles, click here for the chapter Surprising Marseilles in my book Taking Root in Provence.

Thursday, September 5, 2013



As I drove north through Lorraine on my way to Holland recently, I just missed the famous international hot-air balloon festival that takes place here every two years. For ten days in late July/early August some 1200 balloonists from 40 different countries meet at the old NATO base in Chambley near Metz for the Festival Mondial Lorraine Ballons, the largest hot-air balloon gathering in the world. Despite unfavorable winds on certain days, several records were broken this year:  the largest mass take-off ever (408 balloons, a new world record) and a few days later the longest single line-up of balloons (391). The festival drew 350,000 spectators.

Ballooning is very popular in France where it was invented by brothers Joseph and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier in 1783. Sons of a paper mill owner in Annonay, they had been experimenting with paper bags that would rise when a flame was held near the opening at the bottom. Their first hot-air balloon, called a montgolfière, was a large paper-lined sack of light-weight taffeta cloth, coated on the inside with alum which has fire-resistant properties. In September 1783 a montgolfière with a sheep, a rooster and a duck flew for eight minutes in front of King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and the court at Versailles. For this experiment, Louis XVI had at first proposed carrying two criminals aloft, but the three animals with their different physiological characteristics were thought to be more scientifically revealing. Soon thereafter, Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier took the first manned flight in a tethered balloon, ascending to 80 feet, which was the length of the tether. The first free flight took place in November 1783 when two army officers ascended to 3000 feet and flew for 25 minutes above Paris, covering a distance of nine kilometers before landing safely. Louis XVI was so impressed that he elevated Montgolfier père to the nobility, conferring the nobiliary particle de Montgolfier on him and his descendants.


September means Rentrée in France, when children return to school and people go back to work, including the government. Here, the summer holidays are long; schools close for two months and most people take a one-month break from work. But this year, President Hollande decided that there was too much work to be done and ordered his ministers to limit their holiday time to two weeks and to stay in France. They do have their work cut out for them:
For the 27th month in a row, unemployment increased in July (+0.2%) and at 10.4% remains very high.  The economy remains stagnant, and the long overdue Retirement Reform that Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault revealed on August 28th is facing stiff opposition from the right as well as from most of the major unions. This red-hot issue will be discussed by the Counsel of Ministers on September 18th, the bill will then be submitted to Parliament in early October and should be voted on in November. Even though the current system is too expensive and unsustainable, Ayrault has already announced that he will not change the legal retirement age (currently at 60, then at 62 as of 2017).  A suivre...

Manuel Valls vs. Christiane Taubira
Another reform that is attracting attention is the Réforme Pénale proposed by Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira. French prisons are overcrowded and recidivism is high. Rather than build more prisons, Minister Taubira proposes to introduce Probation and do away with the existing minimum sentences for crimes punishable by five years or less of incarceration. In counterpart, prisoners will no longer be released automatically once they have served three-quarters of their sentence, but each case will be reviewed and decided individually. And finally, Taubira calls for a reinsertion plan to gradually prepare prisoners for release, starting at least six months before their release date.

As soon as Mrs. Taubira announced her Réforme Pénale in mid-August, Interior Minister Manuel Valls attacked the proposed elimination of minimum sentences and an open tiff between the two ministers resulted. The very public dispute was finally settled by President Hollande himself when he arbitrated the issue on August 30th in favor of Mrs. Taubira. 

As if he did not have enough troubles at home, President Hollande was put in an awkward position when British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to get support for Great Britain's participation in a limited allied attack on Syria in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, and President Obama announced shortly thereafter that he would wait for Congressional approval for this attack. France had been quick to condemn Syria on moral grounds and wants the regime punished for crossing the red line of chemical weapons use. As president, Hollande is not constitutionally required to obtain parliamentary approval before committing French forces to this mission which he sees not as a war but as a sanction. He told Le Monde: "We are ready and we will decide our position in close liaison with our allies". While he is in limbo, a first poll showed that 64% of French voters oppose a French military response to Syria.

La Rentrée is also the time when French publishers announce their new titles:  555 this year, down from 642 last year but with one difference:  this time, nearly all new books have an e-book edition as well. The French are decidedly more hesitant than Americans to embrace this new technology, and even though the offer is steadily increasing, e-books amount to only 3% of book sales here compared to 22% in the US. As the literary buzz gets louder, publishers do what they can to keep "their" authors among the names quoted as potential winners of one of the numerous French literary prizes to be awarded in October and early November, such as the Prix Goncourt, Renaudot, Fémina, Médicis, Interallié, to name just a few. Usually, these prizes carry little money, but the commercial benefits to authors and publishers can be important.


On Wednesday 4 September German President Joachim Gauck, together with François Hollande, visited the ghost village of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France where German SS troops rounded up and killed the entire population on June 10, 1944. In all, 642 people were shot and burned alive, among them 247 children. After the war, General de Gaulle decided that Oradour should not be rebuilt but preserved as testimony of the worst Nazi massacre of civilians on French soil.


No German leader has ever visited Oradour, and "even ten years ago, the memories were still too painful and it would be unthinkable" said Raymond Frugier, mayor of the new village built just one kilometer down the road. But Joachim Gauck, a former East German civil rights activist, seems committed to remembrance and has already visited two such sites:  the Check village of Lidice in 2012 and the Italian village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema in March of this year. The symbolic visit to Oradour is "a key moment in our national history" says Frugier, on a par with the 1984 visit of then-president François Mitterand and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl to Verdun where they joined hands in remembrance of the 700,000 soldiers killed in 1916.

Joachim Gauck at Elysée Palace
Gauck's French visit was not purely symbolic, however. During his press conference and State dinner with President Hollande at the Elysée Palace the day before his Oradour visit, Gauck did not miss the opportunity to remind Hollande that "I am among those people who are pleased when concrete steps toward consolidation and reform are taken in France".
As things stand today, Hollande's tentative steps under difficult circumstances may take a while to lead to concrete results.


Closer to home, on this first Sunday of September Aix-en-Provence celebrated its annual Bénédiction du Calisson at the church of St. John of Malta. The calisson is a lozenge-shaped almond-paste candy that dates from 1629 when the city of Aix was threatened by the plague and people urgently prayed to their patron saint, the Virgin of the Seds, to save them. The Virgin heard their prayers and during a high Mass of thanks, as bread was not available, a soft almond-based sweet was handed out from the chalice (calisse) and became known as the Calisson, pride of local pastry makers and exclusive to Aix-en-Provence. This year, in fact, those pastry makers joined together in an effort to obtain an IGP label (Identité Géographique Protégée) that would protect them against copies -- similar to an AOC for wines. "We don't want what happened to the savon de Marseille -- mass production and loss of quality -- to happen to the calisson" said Jean-Christophe Grossi of the mayor's office.

This Bénédiction is a festive occasion with folkloric dancers and tambourine players in provençal costume that attracts big crowds. But this year they received more than blessed calissons at the church of St. John of Malta; they got three blessed church bells as well. These bells replace those that general Napoleon Bonaparte "borrowed" from the bell tower in 1793 to melt into cannons for his siege of Toulon and promised to return, a promise soon forgotten once he became emperor. The mayor of Toulon recently managed to find enough bronze in his local arsenal to have three new bells made that were baptized this day Jeanne "la Calisonne", Gérard and Augustine, before they will be hoisted into place in early 2014. The one remaining bell in the tower pealed in happy anticipation.

(*)  Read more about Calissons and other traditional foods in my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here: