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...

Sunday, April 14, 2013



France has a new scandal on its hands, referred to as L'Affaire Cahuzac, and this one is a biggie. Earlier this month, France's Minister of the Budget, Jerôme Cahuzac, resigned following his admissionafter four months of denialsthat he had an undeclared bank account in Switzerland. A Budget Minister whose job it is to combat tax fraud can hardly be forgiven for evading taxes himself. So Cahuzac, who lied to the President and to Parliament, lost his job and was expelled from the Socialist Party, but that hardly calmed the waters. Public confidence in President Hollande's government took another hit, with the man in the street calling this latest scandal simply more proof that "all politicians are crooked". The opposition called for the formation of a new government, and an embattled François Hollande, his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici could do no better than express their shock and outrage at Cahuzac's "betrayal". This in turn opened a discussion about the lack of adequate vetting for high office and the need for France to take a look at the vetting process in the United States which ensures that dishonest candidates are disqualified before they take up their functions.

Jerôme Cahuzac in action

Despite the government's best efforts at damage control, new revelations and accusations kept the scandal going and on April10th President Hollande appeared on national television to say that he wants to eradicate all tax havens. He also presented a draft proposal for "moralizing" French public life, and announced the appointment of a Special Prosecutor for Tax Fraud and Corruption. For greater transparency, he said, French banks will now have to declare their foreign subsidiaries; all French cabinet ministers must disclose their assets (as is done in the U.S.) and members of parliament will be asked to do the same. Some parliamentarians have already revealed their assets, while others said they would await the proposed law before acting.

François Hollande responds
However well intentioned, these measures are largely symbolic considering the size of the problem. The billions of dollars lost to tax evasion and tax avoidance every year (including through legal loopholes for large multinationals) is putting a severe strain on national treasuries, which few governments can afford in this time of financial crisis.

Meanwhile, one question regarding Cahuzac's secret bank accounts remains unanswered: what did François Hollande and his ministers know and when did they know it? (Doesn't that sound familiar?).


Speaking of taxes - last September, Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury goods group LVMH and richest man in France, left France for Belgium following President Hollande's announcement that he was going to impose a 75% tax on income above 1 million euros. His departure, considered "indecent" for someone with a personal fortune estimated at 22 billion euros, earned Arnault some bad press and was condemned by political parties on the right and the left.

But in an April 10th interview with the daily Le Monde Arnault announced that he had dropped his application for Belgian citizenship. "As I have said before, I never left France for tax reasons and I continue to pay my taxes in France", he stated, adding that he went to Belgium to set up a trust that would protect the unity of his company in case of a dispute among his heirs (five children from two marriages). "To clear any ambiguity, my return is a gesture of my attachment to France and my faith in its future".

Bernard Arnault returns
And - dare we suggest - perhaps the consequence of the fact that Belgian authorities had rejected his application for citizenship because he did not meet the three-year residency requirement? 

LVMH, with headquarters in Paris, employs nearly 100,000 people worldwide, 30% of them in France.


Not all scandals are bad. In the past few weeks a number of meat-labeling problems have surfaced, revealing that packaged meat labeled as beef contained in fact horsemeat or pork. "Beef" from Romania but packaged in France turned out to be horsemeat, for example, while the Swedish meat balls at IKEA labeled as pure beef consisted at least partly of pork. While watchdog agencies are looking into the scam and trying to place blame, butchers in France are quietly rejoicing. In an effort to reassure consumers, health agencies had stressed that horsemeat is a wholesome food that is lower in fat than beef. It is still being sold in France, mostly at markets and at specialized butcher shops, where business has increased between 10% and 20% since the "beef-labeling scandal". Similarly, regular butcher shops have noticed increased sales because consumers have been staying away from packaged meats. One man's loss is another man's gain.


Carla Bruni, singer/songwriter and wife of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has just released her fourth album. "Little French Songs" was favorably received and rose to the number two spot on the French charts within a week of its release. Bruni put her musical career on hold in 2008 until the end of her husband's presidency last year and her role as first lady. She writes songs in English, French and Italian and accompanies herself on the guitar. One of the Little French Songs, "Mon Raymond", is a love song to Nicolas Sarkozy, while another, "Le Penguin", is rumored to be a swipe at François Hollande's ill manners during the presidential turnover at the Elysée Palace last year. Bruni denies the rumor. 


The French have difficulty pronouncing English, which can make their perfectly correct "English" hard to understand. This is largely due to the fact that they treat English words as if they were French:  stressing the last syllable, dropping aitches, etc. It can be a challenge to get their meaning, but when you do it gives you a kick. Latest case in point:  "the wooze woo". Yes, that's what it sounded like on television, the "w"s carefully formed through the nicely pursed lips of the announcer. It took some more listening to realize that we were talking about the "Who's Who".