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".