Monday, December 16, 2013



Both former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Nelson Mandela in 2008, and current president François Hollande were invited to attend the funeral service for Mandela in Johannesburg where nearly one hundred other heads of state were expected. When Hollande then invited Sarkozy to accompany him on the presidential plane, this was seen as a courtesy of one president to another, possibly inspired by Mandela's example of forgiveness and reconciliation. If reconciliation was indeed the motive, it did not last a day.

Quickly, the old mutual dislike resurfaced and the two men ended up traveling to South Africa in two separate planes. The ostensible reason was an economic and practical one (the use of two Falcon jets being less costly than the presidential Airbus), but the Sarkozy camp hinted at the complications of flying two presidents on the presidential plane that has only one bedroom and shower. For the 13-hour flight, the bedroom suite would go to Hollande and his partner Valérie Trierweiler, and Sarkozy would have to do with a mere business class seat. Pas possible.

Hollande and Sarkozy arrive in Johannesburg
There is no love lost between Sarkozy and Hollande who have barely spoken to each other since the turnover of the presidency in 2012 when, after the official parting handshake on the steps of the Elysée Palace, a boorish Hollande failed to accompany Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni to their car, as is the custom, and let them find their own way. The humiliating treatment left its mark and was generally disapproved of. Almost two years later, Mandela's spirit of forgiveness was notably absent in Paris.

At the same time, President and Mrs. Obama also traveled to Johannesburg for the Mandela funeral, with on board the presidential Air Force One former president George W. Bush and his wife, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential future presidential candidate. Air Force One also has only one bedroom, but accommodations were made to everyone's satisfaction. Where there's a will...


A commercial court in Toulouse has just rendered an unexpected verdict when it ruled against the owner of a shop that sells electronic cigarettes that are meant to help smokers overcome their addiction to tobacco. A buraliste (tobacconist) in Toulouse who runs a Tabac (the government-sanctioned shops where cigarettes and lottery tickets are sold in France) had filed suit against the owner of a nearby e-cigarette shop for "unfair competition". The court agreed with the plaintiff that one smokes an e-cigarette and that as such this substitute cigarette is governed by the State's tobacco monopoly and the health laws that prohibit the advertising of any such product and limits their sale to the licensed buralistes and their 27,000 Tabac shops.

The defendant, who had received official approval to launch his e-cigarette business just months ago, called the ruling absurd and will appeal. His lawyer reminded the court that e-cigarettes have no particular statute in France and should therefore not be governed by the State's tobacco monopoly, all the more so because there is no tobacco in e-cigarettes.

Statistics reveal that 34% of the French still smoke, more than half of them young adults, and that 60,000 people die every year from tobacco-related disease at a cost to the government of 3% of its PIB. E-cigarettes would therefore seem a welcome additional tool in fighting tobacco dependency, especially for a government whose national health system pays smokers €150 per year for substitute products (patches) and reimburses the cost of anti-tabagisme treatments in hospitals. In a further effort to dissuade smokers, it regularly increases the price of cigarettes and will do so again in January 2014, when the cost per pack will reach €7.00. The most visible result so far, however, has been that smokers increasingly stock up across the border, in Belgium or Spain, where cigarettes are cheaper. 

The Toulouse ruling may not directly affect the existing anti-smoking programs, but it does not help in the health department's fight to break tobacco dependency.


In early December, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris published its latest PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment) that compares math, reading and science skills in 15-year-old students in 65 countries. Shanghai students came in first, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, while France dropped to 25th place in math (a 16-point drop since 2003). In addition, France showed a growing gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds, said Eric Chardonnier of the OECD. He did, however, praise some of the reforms that French education minister Vincent Peillon is trying to implement, including the controversial elementary school hours.

That battle is not yet won, however, and to date 55 French mayors still refuse to implement the new 4-1/2 day class schedule in their municipalities, unless and until they receive financial help from the government. The main sticking point seems to be the cost of auxiliary personnel needed to keep the children occupied on Wednesday afternoons after class and before they go home. Minister Peillon reminded the mayors of their civic duty, saying that they represented only a small minority of the 4000 municipalities in France and that he would not allow them to stand in the way of the vast majority. "We will not go back to the old system".

Last week, a strike by prep school teachers ended in a temporary truce and a call for new discussions in January 2014. Dissatisfied middle- and high school teachers are awaiting the outcome of these discussions before deciding what action they will take. There is no smooth sailing in sight for Mr. Peillon's educational reforms.

Fortunately, Christmas is just around the corner and thoughts are turning to school vacations, holiday travel, and food, the great unifier in France. Everybody celebrates Christmas with a grand meal, rich and poor alike. Specialty food shops, patisseries, chocolatiers, and liquor stores do their biggest business of the year, and on this occasion "se faire plaisir" displaces all thoughts of school reform, strikes, or economic crisis. That will have to wait until January.


(*) For more about local Christmas traditions, see my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here:

Monday, December 2, 2013



After the rather somber news from France in my last blog, let's see how other countries are faring. Here's recent headline news from Holland: "Dutch Santa Claus tradition called racist."
Wow! There goes part of my youth.

On December 5th St. Nicholas, bishop of Madrid, and his Moorish helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), arrive by steamboat from Spain to bring gifts to all Dutch children who have been good. As they walk on the rooftops that night, Sinterklaas takes gifts from the big sack that Zwarte Piet carries and drops them down the chimney. They have been doing this for over 200 years to the delight of many thousands of little children. How simple life was then...

St. Nicholas and Black Pete
Today, a movement is afoot to declare Black Pete a racist stereotype. The issue was launched in 2011 by a Caribbean immigrant and has bloomed into a heated debate on social networks and in the press. The Netherlands have a large immigrant population from former Dutch colonies, Morocco, Turkey and eastern Europe, who may find Black Pete offensive. Dutch traditionalists were quick to gather more than 2 million signatures on Facebook defending their Sinterklaas tradition, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte called it harmless folklore. The debate is becoming politicized and has already resulted in the cancellation of the traditional Sinterklaas parade in several communities. The "politically correct" thinking seems to be gaining ground, threatening to abolish Black Pete and leaving Dutch parents wondering how to explain this to their baffled children. Goodbye innocence.
Can a rewrite of the brothers Grimm's fairytales be far off?


As a final gesture before being expelled from the Senate on November 27th over his conviction for tax fraud, Silvio Berlusconi and his renamed Forza Italia party have refused to give the coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta their vote of confidence. Nevertheless, the government won the vote of confidence and passed the 2014 budget.

A defiant Berlusconi, who still has considerable backing, called his expulsion "a day of mourning for democracy" and vowed to continue fighting from the sidelines. Sentenced to one year of community service (instead of jail time) and two years of ineligibility for public office, he now has to face several pending trials and investigations without the immunity he enjoyed as a senator.

A court in Milan investigating his notorious bunga-bunga parties has just added to Berlusconi's legal headaches by accusing him of paying about a dozen women who attended these parties €2,500 per month for giving false testimony. In its ruling the court said that all the women who had received this monthly stipend had given "perfectly overlapping" testimony, even in their use of language, that contradicted testimony given by other participants. Two of his lawyers involved in arranging the payments were charged with evidence tampering, and three former Berlusconi associates were convicted of procuring girls to prostitute themselves at the parties.

Silvio Berlusconi and Francesca Pascale

Standing firmly by her man, Berlusconi's 28-year old girlfriend Francesca Pascale is calling on Pope Francis for help. "I have requested an audience with the pope so he can hear Silvio's story", she told the press.

Who said "Everything is lived twice; first as tragedy, then as farce"?


Good News, Maybe

France's economy is under stress, with few prospects for improvement anytime soon. But a spark of hope was lit when the just-released labor figures for the month of October indicated a slight decrease in unemployment (-0.6%) for the first time in 30 months. "It is good news," said a cautious President Hollande without, however, calling this the beginning of the unemployment downturn he had promised by the end of this year. "This battle can be won, but it will take the necessary time to reduce unemployment month by month in France," he said, carefully avoiding the mention of any deadline.

Yesss!  Brazil next year!

One battle that was already won, though in the nick of time, was the football match against Ukraine that would allow France to qualify for the FIFA world cup in Brazil next year. After losing a first match in Ukraine, France had one last chance to qualify if it could beat Ukraine by at least three points in a return match. It did so on November 19th, on home soil, with a 3-0 victory that set the country alight with joy and chased the bad economic news from the front pages, at least for a day.

Prostitution Client Fined

In a first reading on November 29th that was poorly attended, the French Parliament passed an anti-prostitution bill that would make paying for sex a crime. A prostitute's client would be fined €1,500 for a first offense, double that amount thereafter. The bill will now be submitted to a final vote next Wednesday where the socialists, with their large parliamentary majority, are expected to vote it into law.

The bill is squarely aimed at the foreign pimping networks that employ close to 90 percent of the 20,000 to 40,000 prostitutes working in France, often in conditions of slavery. Nine out of ten prostitutes are of foreign origin, many from Eastern Europe, and last year alone French police broke up 52 pimping networks, three quarters of them foreign.

Opponents fear that the new law will drive prostitutes underground and make them more vulnerable, while humorist Nicolas Bedos commented: "To want to abolish prostitution is like wanting to abolish rain". But Maud Olivier, the Socialist MP presenting the bill said: "To say women have the right to sell themselves is to disguise the fact that men have the right to buy them. So just because one prostitute says she is free, does that make the enslavement of all others acceptable?" Supporters of the bill maintain that the vast majority of people working as prostitutes do so under duress, at risk of violence and disease.

Most of the 20 articles in the bill are aimed at disrupting the foreign pimping gangs that have proliferated in France in the past ten years, and to help the prostitutes stop. Those women who do want to get out would be given a six-month residency permit and a small monthly allowance, while several associations would assist them in seeking other means of support.

Sweden introduced a similar law in 1999 and claims that prostitution has gone down sharply since then.


The Value Added Tax in France will go up come January 1, 2014. Most goods and services are currently taxed at 19.6% and will go up to 20%, others that were taxed at 7% will go up to 10%, but those of "première nécessité" such as food items that were taxed at 5.5% will come down to 5%. Of note: among those products of première nécessité are condoms, whose tax will be reduced from 7% to 5.5%. The Minister of Health explained its place among life's essentials as "a vital tool in our fight against AIDS".