Thursday, December 18, 2014



This weekend's Olive Festival in Aix, when the area's olive mill owners introduce their new millésime AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée), was decidedly less festive than in previous years. The reason was simple:  excessive late rains and an infestation by the feared olive fly, a parasite that bores into the olive and makes it fall off the tree prematurely, have decimated the olive oil production this year. Between 70 and 80 percent of olives were infested and unfit for consumption, and the small quantity of available oil was sold in smaller containers and sometimes even rationed among customers of this annual fair. Very few 5-liter containers (we buy three of those) were to be found, and for the first time ever we had to spread our 15-liter purchase over three different producers. 


Under pressure from the European Commission in Brussels to reduce its deficit, the French government has begun selling stakes in public assets in hopes of raising €4 billion in the next two years. Last week, it sold 49.9 percent of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport to a Chinese consortium for €308 million. Discussions are underway to reach similar deals for the airports of Nice and Lyons.

The airport sale to China has raised some security concerns, especially since aeronautical giant Airbus Group is located at Toulouse Airport. Earlier this year, China bought 14% of French carmaker Peugeot.

Emmanuel Macron
To avoid EU sanctions for not having effected enough reforms this year, France's Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron last week proposed a "basket" of new laws to stimulate the economy and create employment. It contained, among others, a bill to open up certain regulated professions to competition, and another one to allow shops to open 12 Sundays per year instead of the current five. The latter proposal, to be discussed in Parliament in January 2015, ran into immediate opposition from Martine Aubrey, former Leader of the Socialist Party, who called it a "regression" and vowed to vote against the new law. Prime Minister Manuel Valls's response that "everything is open for discussion" indicates that even this timid effort at removing some business restrictions will probably be watered down. Macron, who has often criticized the 35-hour workweek, did not include this hot potato in his basket.

Finally, credit rating agency Fitch has just downgraded France's rating from AA+ to AA, judging that the government's efforts to cut its deficit are not good enough. Last October, Standard & Poor had similarly downgraded France's credit, quoting the poor outlook for the country's economy in the next two years.


The next Climate Summit will be held in Paris in December 2015. In view of the meager results obtained at the UN Climate Conference in Lima earlier this month, which left most contentious issues unresolved, much work remains to be done to pave the way to successful negotiations and a potential global climate deal in Paris next year. And the French government would be setting a bad example if it did not make a serious effort to reduce its air pollution on home ground, particularly in Paris and Ile de France, where dangerously high levels of fine-particle air pollution were recorded several times this year (blog 3/17/14).

Mayor Anne Hidalgo
As a first significant anti-pollution response, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo declared last week that diesel-engine cars, known to be the worst polluters, would no longer be allowed in Paris from 2020 on. She plans to promote and increase public (clean) transportation, create more pedestrian-only areas in the center, increase the number of city-owned rental bicycles and double the dedicated cycling lanes, reduce the speed limit within the city to 30 km/hr, and ban diesel-driven delivery trucks from the city as early as 2017. It is an ambitious program that will no doubt face many obstacles, but then - what is easy in France?

Remember the regrettable decision by Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal who last summer decided to do away with the Ecotax (blog 6/30/14), an anti-pollution tax levied on heavy trucks traversing France? This tax was meant to finance eco-friendly means of transportation (rail and river transport, extended metro and tram lines, a new fleet of "clean" buses). Ms. Royal decided that the loss of Ecotax revenues could be (partly) offset by new taxes to be levied on the highway companies that are getting "unduly rich" on toll revenues. Notably absent from this reasoning is the issue of air pollution.

If you were baffled by the elimination of the Ecotax, as I was, Ms. Royal has surprised us again when she declared a week ago that she would invalidate the recent prefectorial decision to outlaw wood-burning open fireplaces in greater Paris from January 2015 on. She found the measure "excessive" and called it "punitive ecology". According to environmental experts, open fireplaces release as many toxic fine particles into the ambient air (23%) as car exhausts. Ms. Royal disputes this figure but wishes to promote the use of wood ("France's surface consists for 30 percent of forest") as an excellent heating fuel, especially when it is burned in an energy-efficient closed space such as a stove or a fireplace insert. If wood-burning fireplaces are not the principal source of heating but serve only a recreational purpose, she sees no reason to outlaw them. And her wood-as-fuel argument seems a valid one. Yet, undoing a prefectorial decision based on public health considerations just weeks before it was to go into effect seems rather dictatorial and calls into question her tolerance of avoidable pollution, however minor, especially as Minister of the Environment. It is after all those very same fine particles that have repeatedly exceeded the established safety levels this year and caused serious problems.


I recently visited the Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation museum in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, which was officially opened on October 28th with a concert by pianist Lang-Lang in its auditorium. The stunning building, shaped like a boat with billowing glass sails, houses the private contemporary art collection of Bernard Arnault, France's richest man and owner of the luxury conglomerate LVMH. The twelve giant sails, reflected in an adjacent pool, are made of a new purpose-built glass invented and fabricated by St. Gobain Group in France. They cover and interconnect four levels of indoor galleries and outdoor terraces, and give an air of floating lightness to the large structure. Although equipped with the latest technical advances, I noted with some glee that the main elevator was out of order at the time of my visit. Perhaps just to keep us grounded amidst all this space-age technology.

The art displayed inside is completely overshadowed by the building. In fact, the building IS the work of art and in its strange diversity of shape and form must be toured inside and out. Its setting on the edge of the Jardin d'Acclimatation allows for a walk around the entire site and a near-transparent view from many an angle, even seated from one of the park's benches. Expect a Vaut le Détour listing in the next Paris tourist guide. 


Trierweiler signing in Aix
Last Saturday, Valérie Trierweiler came to Aix-en-Provence to sign her book Merci pour ce Moment, the account of her relationship with President François Hollande. Published in early September, the book has been widely criticized and the author vilified for washing her dirty laundry in public. In France, a philandering husband (or partner) is nothing exceptional and often accepted as a fact of life. Take it or leave it. Had the break-up not been so public it would have been greeted with a yawn. But it was, and the whole world shared in it. Today, it appears that the fascination continues, judging by the huge crowd of buyers, book in hand, lined up at the bookstore where VT was appearing. Some in the (mostly female) crowd carried several copies; Christmas gifts no doubt.

Even the local press got excited and the next day published a huge photo of VT on the front page of the newspaper La Provence, and a half-page article on page 2 with another large photo of the author. One woman waiting to have the book signed was quoted as saying: "This is for all the betrayed women". Perhaps that explains its success? To date, 700,000 copies have been sold.


Detail of a Provençal crèche

And suddenly, Christmas is upon us. A large Crèche peopled with Santons has been installed on the Cours Mirabeau, famous chefs are preparing Christmas dinners on television, the rush is on for foie gras, truffles and champagne, and I better get my own house in order and get busy. 

But not before wishing you happy holidays with my glittering Christmas car(d). 
May your bulbs never dim and burn bright forever! 


Wednesday, December 3, 2014



In a twist on the familiar theme of French strikes, bosses instead of employees took to the streets and struck - the first time this has happened since the imposition of the 35-hour workweek in the early 2000's. According to the business-owners association CGPME, on December 1st some ten thousand owners of small and medium-sized companies (PME, Petites et Moyennes Entreprises) demonstrated in Paris and Toulouse against what they called the intolerable stranglehold of charges and regulations on their businesses. The strike was sparked by three new government regulations: early retirement for "hardship" jobs; minimum employment of 24 hours/week for part-time work; and obligation to give employees at least two months notice before the close of business. "Enough! Let Us Breathe!" was the angry response of business owners who say they cannot take any more rules and cannot implement them anyway. How can we be competitive with all these charges and restrictions? was the leitmotiv. The three main French business-owners associations have called for a week-long mobilization by its members.


As our American friends were tugging into their Thanksgiving dinner and battling the Black Friday crowds, we were having a perfectly quiet time in Aix-en-Provence. No groaning dinner tables (yet) and no sales until January. For now, all local activity is focused on the rather noisy pre-Christmas commerce which in Aix-en-Provence consists of a big children's fair (bumper cars, choo-choo trains, bungee cords, merry-go-rounds) with its cacophony of "music" that takes over part of the Cours Mirabeau as well as the Rotonde, and the Christmas chalets that occupy the remainder of the Cours all this for fully six weeks. The first Christmas decorations appeared in October (!) and the basins of our famous fountains, waterless for the duration, have been adorned with unattractive metal structures that light up at night.

Among all the pop music from public loudspeakers and the carnival-like atmosphere in the streets, it is not easy for the Christmas ambiance to penetrate at least not until churches start having Xmas concerts and reveal their nativity scenes, which can be life-sized and sometimes are set in Provençal landscapes, or until the Tourist Office opens its big Crèche with the famous hand-crafted Santons * descending from their hillside village to carry lavender, olive branches and other gifts to the manger. In the meantime, commerce is king.

If commerce is an unavoidable by-product of Christmas, I'd like it prettily packaged and presented in the joyful, abundant, delicately scented way of big department stores where opulence and enchantment go hand in hand and fairytales come to life in magical window displays such as I saw in Paris last week, where both the Au Printemps and Galéries Lafayette stores upheld this tradition beautifully. Little Burberry-clad children were happily bouncing around and swinging from the Big Ben clock inside Printemps, or flying from umbrellas in the windows while wooden puppets marched below them and a little train chugged by carrying gifts. At Lafayette, colorful animated monsters filled the windows and this year, under its famous Art Nouveau glass dome, there was an impressive 80-ft upside-down Christmas tree that changed color every hour in a timed music-and-light show. Seeing the big tree at Lafayette's has become a Must and draws thousands of visitors a day.

It brings back memories of Harrods in London or Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, whose fairytale window displays set young and old to dreaming. Bear with me for a moment, while I wax nostalgic about my Anglo-Saxon Christmases past:  every year again, I miss the decorations of natural greenery with pine cones, apples or red berries, and the lovely wreaths on people's doors; the homes fragrant with cinnamon, mulled wine, pomander balls, and burning logs in the fireplace. And, with luck, a performance of The Nutcracker. Mmmmm, I can almost taste it.

But now that I have had my fix of Yuletide magic, I feel equipped to ignore the plastic, tinsel and pop around me and look forward to the Marché de Santons, the Treize Desserts and the mouth-watering displays in local food stores. This is where creativity blooms and where the repas de Noël is turned into a work of art. After all, we are in France, where food takes center stage and, in its rich variety and no-expense-spared luxury, outshines the goose or turkey and trimmings elsewhere. Credit where credit is due.


After a campaign where dirty tricks were not totally absent, former president NICOLAS SARKOZY has just won the leadership of the Conservative UMP party which since last summer had been run by a temporary triumvirate after its then-president Jean-François Coppé was ousted following a financial scandal. With 64.5% of the vote Sarkozy fell short of his hoped-for score of 80%, needed to avoid presidential primaries in 2016, where he will face two heavy-weight fellow contenders: former prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon. This is a first step for Sarkozy in his attempt to regain the French presidency in 2017. After losing his bid for re-election in 2012 he withdrew from politics but admitted earlier this summer that he misses politics too much. Despite his legal troubles, he is clearly aiming for the presidency but his first challenge will be to revive and reunite a broken-down and divided UMP party.

The latest labor statistics have just been released and indicate that unemployment rose by 0.8 percent to a record 3.4 million in October, casting new doubts on the effectiveness of PRESIDENT HOLLANDE's policies to stimulate the economy (tax cuts for businesses) and create employment (job programs for the young). He has said he will not run for re-election in 2017 if unemployment is not reduced. Many voters blame the rise of the right and extreme-right parties on François Hollande's weak performance.

As if rising unemployment, a stalled economy, and budget cuts were not enough to keep Hollande busy, the pesky problem of his love life has surfaced again. Last week, gossip magazine Voici featured a cover photo of the president seated with actress Julie Gayet on a terrace in the grounds of the Elysée Palace. The picture, reportedly taken by a Palace insider with a portable phone, seems to indicate that the Hollande-Gayet relationship is "on again" (or never stopped). Julie Gayet, as you all know, is the "other woman" at the heart of the noisy break-up between Hollande and then-mistress Valérie Trierweiler in January of this year (blog 1/20/14). The in-house Elysée security service has not been able to pinpoint the origin of the picture, but five people of Hollande's immediate entourage have been moved to other duties.


SPAIN:  Princess Cristina

Princess Cristina with husband
On November 7th, a Spanish court upheld tax fraud charges against Princess Cristina in a corruption case that also involves her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin (blog 2/11/14). The judge dismissed the more serious charge of money laundering, opening the possibility that Cristina can settle the case by paying back taxes.

The investigation has been going on for three years and was one of the scandals that weakened the Spanish monarchy and led to King Juan Carlos's resignation in June 2014. He was succeeded by his son and Cristina's brother, King Felipe VI, who in his acceptance speech promised integrity and transparency as part of a "renovated monarchy for a new time". Fifteen others, including Cristina's husband, still stand accused of embezzling $7.5 million of public funds. Their trial is expected to take place in 2016.

As part of the crackdown on tax evasion in Spain following the country's economic crisis, footballer Lionel Messi who plays for Barcelona was charged with tax evasion during the years 2007-2009. He and his father, who manages Messi's financial affairs, will have to stand trial at an as yet unspecified date, even though Messi has repaid the outstanding taxes plus interest. 

PORTUGAL:  Former PM Jose Socrates

Former PM Jose Socrates
And in Portugal, former Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates (2005-2011) was jailed on November 24th after two days of questioning on accusations of corruption, money laundering, and tax fraud. Socrates, 57, was detained at Lisbon airport on his return from Paris where he has been living since he quit as prime minister in 2011. Three other people are being held for questioning and the investigative judge has ordered that all remain in temporary custody while the probe continues. In Portugal, formal charges can only be filed at the end of an investigation, which can last up to eight months. Mr. Socrates, who denies the charges, has announced he will appeal.

Judges are being helped by the stricter rules and increased international cooperation against tax evasion and money laundering, and catching some big names has undeniable value. They are fishing in fertile waters and we probably have not heard the last of this.

(*)  Read more about Santons and a Provençal Christmas in my book TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by clicking here:

Friday, November 7, 2014



This year the Halloween fun in France was overshadowed by the bizarre phenomenon of "evil clowns". In recent street attacks, one man had his hand slashed by a knife-wielding clown, another person was beaten by a clown with an iron rod in a robbery attempt, in a Paris metro station a clown pursued a passenger with an axe, and clowns have jumped out of dark doorways to scare pedestrians, causing panic. In the southern city of Agde police arrested a group of youngsters in clown costumes, armed with knives, a baseball bat and a pistol. Following these incidents, anti-clown vigilante groups have sprung up across France, and the mayor of Vendargues, a small town near Montpellier, decided to ban clown costumes for a month starting on Halloween. Some of the clowns turned out to be teenagers who wanted to post a YouTube video of their prank but had no intention to harm. Even so, the Police Nationale has issued a formal warning that anyone in a clown costume carrying a weapon will be arrested.


Dominique Strauss-Kahn reappeared in the news when his Franco-Israeli business associate 
Thierry Leyne, 49, committed suicide in Tel Aviv on October 23rd. In September 2013 Strauss-Kahn and Leyne jointly formed a Luxembourg-based finance firm named LSK & Partners, to be run by Leyne as President. Strauss-Kahn, who bought a 20% stake in the firm, took on the chairmanship. Under Leyne's management, the firm ran into financial difficulties and Leyne started borrowing heavily, something Strauss-Kahn became aware of in early October of this year. On October 20th, DSK resigned from the firm and three days later, Leyne jumped to his death from a Tel Aviv skyscraper. 
Thierry Leyne with DSK

In an interview with Le Parisien DSK expressed his sorrow at the human tragedy behind Leyne's death (Leyne's wife had committed suicide in 2011) and admitted that he left the partnership in disagreement over some of Leyne's business decisions. He is likely to lose his entire investment, which he says is "a lot of money." He will now re-focus his full attention on his private consulting firm, Paris-based Parnassus, which specializes in economic advice to governments.

This financial setback comes at a time when DSK is still facing another trial in Lille in February on charges of "aggravated pimping".


Former Economics Minister Arnaud Montebourg announced in an interview on October 7th that he is leaving professional politics in order to go into private business. He has enrolled in a four-week Advanced Management Programme at INSEAD, a prestigious business school in Fontainebleau. The cost of this high-level management course is €34,500 and he is said to have applied for a scholarship.

Having worked for the current socialist government first as Minister of Productive Reconstruction and subsequently as Economics Minister, Montebourg was fired by President Hollande in late August after he publicly voiced severe criticism of Hollande's economic policies (blog 8/27/14). Friend of the trade unions, Montebourg is known for his anti-globalization stance, his protectionism of French industry, and his confrontational style.

In preparation of the English-language INSEAD course, Montebourg is taking two hours of English every day before the start of his management program in November, after which he plans to start his own business, together with a few associates, in the field of medical imaging. "In the past two years I have come to realize that running a business is a real profession," he said of his new calling. But then our newly converted businessman lets it slip that he may yet run for the presidency in 2017.  "We'll see in 2016." He never stops surprising us.  


Mario Vargas Llosa
Every year in October Aix-en-Provence invites a major writer to its Fête du Livre and this year our guest of honor was Mario Vargas Llosa who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. He was the tenth Nobel Laureate to come to Aix (the first was Octavio Paz) which has also hosted such greats as Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Alberto Moravia, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Tabucchi and dozens of others.

Annie Terrier
We have one person to thank for all of this:  Annie Terrier, the founder and driving force behind this exceptional three-day literary event, who 30 years ago created the program "Ecritures Croisées" for the introduction and cross-pollination of foreign literature in France of which La Fête du Livre is the annual highlight. With a limited budget and an even smaller staff, she has managed to draw literary giants from all over the world to the small town of Aix-en-Provence. Now 71 years old, Terrier has no plans to retire which, in this land of early retirement, makes her a true exception française.


At this time of the year France awards its literary prizes, of which the Prix Goncourt is the most important one among the "big six" that also include the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Femina, the Prix Médicis, the Prix Interallié, and the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française. Tradition has it that the winner of the Prix Goncourt, first awarded in 1903, is announced at a lunch at restaurant Drouant near the Opéra Garnier where its 10-member jury has been meeting once a month since 1914. Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary and André Malraux are among its winners. The Goncourt awards only a token €10 because of its tremendous effect on sales which makes a Goncourt winner an instant millionaire. Those readers in France who only buy one book per year will always choose the Goncourt.

Lydie Salvayre
This year's winner was former psychiatrist Lydie Salvayre for her novel Pas Pleurer (Don't Cry) which is partly based on her mother's experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Salvayre was born in 1948 near Toulouse where her parents, Republican Spanish refugees, had settled at the end of the Spanish Civil War and where she learned to speak French in elementary school. She published her first book in 1990 while working as a practicing child psychiatrist which she continued to do for many years. She has published 21 books, some of them adapted for the theatre. 

The well-known English-language Man-Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded this year to Australian Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about a Japanese POW camp on the infamous Burma Railroad of which Flanagan's father was a survivor.

But also...

Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole
Last month, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Frenchman Patrick Modiano, and shortly thereafter a second Nobel prize, this one for Economics, went to another Frenchman, economist Jean Tirole, 61, professor at the Toulouse School of Economics. The Nobel Committee rewarded Tirole for his "attempts to tame powerful firms" and finding ways to curb the dominance of major companies, often privatized former public monopolies such as water, electricity, and telecoms. His work has been adopted by competition regulators around the world.

These Nobel prizes may help to boost national pride and pierce the dark cloud of pessimism hanging over France. At least for a while.