Thursday, January 30, 2014



The high drama of President Hollande's messy love life that made front-page news in Europe and beyond has deflated like a tired soufflé. With a simple telephone call to Agence France Presse on January 25th, Hollande announced: "I am making it known that I have put an end to my shared life with Valérie Trierweiler". He added that he was speaking as a private citizen, not as president of France. [How many private citizens would call AFP about their separation, I wonder?]

The next day, Trierweiler left on a two-day trip to India to visit a French charity in Mumbai, Action Against Hunger, and attend a fund-raising dinner at the Taj Mahal Hotel. She made the long-planned trip as a guest of the charity. Just before her departure she fired her attorney, Frédérique Giffard, for having spoken on her behalf without approval by saying that the parties "were trying to resolve this matter in the most dignified way possible". A few days later, it was reported that over lunch at La Lanterne, Hollande and Trierweiler had come to an agreement that left them "on good terms". 

While in Mumbai, a confident-looking Trierweiler spoke to journalists, saying that she was "vaccinated" against the hypocrisy of political life, that she will continue writing her book reviews for Paris Match magazine, and that she was fine. "Don't worry about me".

End of story? Not likely. Having lived through a very public humiliation, and being freed from the restraints imposed by the Elysée, this proud woman may decide to write a book and have the last word. A clue? She refused to sign a joint announcement of the break-up, leading to Hollande's one-sided statement: "...... I have put an end to my shared life with Valérie Trierweiler".  


Spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
During the recent media frenzy around François Hollande's personal problems, I wondered why the man who has said that he wants a Chinese wall between his public and private life, was not calling upon his official spokesperson to face the press and shield him from some of the unwanted attention. In fact, Moroccan-born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 36, Minister of Women's Rights and Spokesperson for the Government, is rather inconspicuous. Her double title seems to indicate that the government does not consider Women's Rights nor Spokesperson to be a full-time job, and at least in the latter capacity Vallaud-Belkacem is rarely seen or heard. When under siege, the president, who is not a natural communicator, has the luxury of having a specialist do the unpleasant job for him. A Spokesperson who rarely speaks seems like a wasted asset.


On January 24, President Hollande paid a visit to Pope Francis in Rome under the cloud of the recent revelations about his private life. Among the delicate topics to be discussed were Gay Marriage, the separation of Church and State, and a petition signed by some 115,000 conservative French Catholics indicating their "profound malaise and growing concern" over the Socialist agenda and the upcoming legislation on expanded abortion rights and on assisted suicide.

A stern-faced pope greeted a nervous François Hollande for the 35-minute meeting which, as Hollande stated afterwards, focused mostly on points of convergence: the war in Syria, the Central African Republic, and the defense of human dignity. At the end of the audience Hollande offered the pope a book on Saint Francis, "your patron saint". "Yours too", the pope replied, finally smiling.


The unemployment figures for the month of December 2013 are in and it's more bad news. Contrary to President Hollande's prediction in October that the unemployment trend was beginning to turn downward, the December results showed that unemployment increased by 0.3 percent in the month of December, and by 5.7 percent for the year 2013. It now stands at a record high of 11.1 percent.

In an awkward effort to give a positive twist to these figures, Labor Minister Michel Sapin said that employment for the category of workers under the age of 25 had markedly improved, but economists were quick to point out that this improvement was largely due to state-sponsored youth jobs rather than a sign of recovery of the economy. On a state visit to Turkey, President Hollande admitted that he had not succeeded in his attempts to turn unemployment around, but said that he feels that his current measures will bear fruit eventually.


One tiny uptick in the French economy occurred at Motoblouz, the company in the northern Pas-de-Calais region that fabricates the motorcycle helmet that Hollande wore on his nightly escapades. Motoblouz CEO Thomas Thumerelle said it sold 1000 "Dexter" helmets on the day that Closer magazine published the pictures of the president wearing their helmet and that sales continued to be phenomenal. He placed a quarter-page ad in national daily Libération, thanking Mr. Hollande for wearing their helmet for his protection. 


Continuous heavy rains have caused extensive damage along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Three people were killed in the Var area, where a rock slide closed the road between Nice and Menton and cut off the ski resort of Isola 2000 for several days.

Rock slide near Nice
Hyères, Var
The towns of Hyères and La-Londe-de-Maures were particularly hard hit when several rivers burst their banks.

Earlier this month torrential rains whipped up by Storm Dirk pummeled and flooded the town of Quimperlé in Brittany which, together with much of Finistère, has been declared a natural disaster area. High waves in Biarritz shattered the glass entrance of the Thalasso spa across the wide seaside promenade, and in the Pyrenées Atlantiques region several villages were flooded and bridges and roads were badly damaged.

Quimperlé, Bretagne

A recurring comment by locals was "In my 30 (40, 50...) years here I have never seen anything like this".

Mother Nature may be trying to tell us something, but is anybody listening? 

Monday, January 20, 2014



Julie Gayet, new First Lady?

During his televised New Year's wishes on December 31st, President Hollande had announced a Pacte de Responsabilité which he would elaborate on in an upcoming press conference set for January 14, 2014 in the Elysée Palace with 600 journalists in attendance, many of them representing foreign papers. It was to be an opportunity to roll out his economic recovery plan for the next three years. A couple of days before that date, however, the French gossip magazine Closer revealed a secret affair between Mr. Hollande and French actress Julie Gayet, backed up by seven pages of photos. The timing was bad for Hollande, as the press immediately shifted its attention from the economy to the alleged affair, and the first question asked at his press conference was: "Will Valérie Trierweiler remain First Lady of France, especially with respect to your state visit to Washington on February 11th?". The answer was short and final: "This is not the time or place to address this subject, but I will do so before the date you mentioned (2/11)".
Salle des Fêtes, Elysée Palace

The next two hours of the press conference were hugely disappointing to all those foreign correspondents who had come for "the affair" and left empty-handed. Not used to a compliant press at home, they had expected more aggressive questioning and judged the event "way too long for too little". Why, they wonder, is the French press so deferential? Is it the intimidating setting of the Salle des Fêtes in the Elysée Palace, with its excess of gold and glitter and its whiff of Gloire? Or is tough questioning just "not done" because the French president is perceived as a monarch without a crown but with all the trappings of royalty?

Although the Affair has gone viral and gotten a lot of attention worldwide, in France the reaction was initially rather muted, with man-in-the-street comments ranging from "It's an invasion of privacy" and "We have more important things to think about" to the opinion that celebrities (i.e. presidents) lose their right to privacy when they are constantly in public view, or as this French journalist in a televised debate saw it: "Hollande est un people comme les autres" (using the curious French interpretation of "people" - in the singular - as "celebrity").

Strong privacy laws have long protected presidents in France where having a mistress has been more rule than exception. Jacques Chirac earned the nickname "Monsieur 15 Minutes, shower included", and François Mittérand managed to keep his double life and secret daughter under wraps even after Paris Match magazine discovered the girl and published a photo of her with Mittérand. When faced with this evidence, Mittérand famously said: "So what?" and that was the end of the story, at least during his lifetime. Wife with sons and mistress with daughter all gathered at this funeral. So civilized, so French. 

And so impossible today, with the internet, Twitter, cell-phone cameras, a flourishing gutter press and fines that are no longer dissuasive. The French press may have reacted with more restraint than others, it nevertheless covered the matter extensively, if often in the manner of "This is what the foreign press is saying" and then repeating every salacious detail. Even if Le Scandale did not make the front pages of French newspapers (as it did abroad), the story of the affair and subsequent revelations quickly moved from the gossip magazines to the more serious papers, including Le Monde, and to television debates.

There may be a certain French pride in mousy Hollande's conquest of beautiful women (hear the Gallic rooster crowing?); and an element of soap opera in the jealousy fit of Valérie Trierweiler and her Twitter attack last year on Ségolène Royal (mother of Hollande's four children and his partner for nearly 30 years). There also was much mention again of Hollande's stated wish to be a "normal" president, and his promise of total transparency. Sidelined by his claim of privacy, journalists were only too happy to regurgitate all this while awaiting developments.

Valérie out?
But when current mistress and First Lady Valérie Trierweiler had a nervous breakdown following news of the affair and was hospitalized, the matter became more serious and more potentially damaging to the president.

Every day new revelations appeared in the papers: Prior to his press conference, Hollande had tried to have Trierweiler sign a joint statement announcing their separation (she refused); the Hollande-Gayet affair had been going on for at least 18 months (not denied); Gayet is pregnant (denied); Trierweiler had suspicions and left her apartment in June to move into the Elysée palace; Last summer Trierweiler vacationed in Greece with her sons, waiting in vain for Hollande who instead took Julie to the south of France; Gayet appointed to prestigious Villa Medici position; Gayet's appointment to Villa Medici cancelled by Ministry of Culture following scandal; Gayet sues Closer magazine; Closer withdraws article and photos from internet; Hollande has not yet visited Trierweiler in hospital (her doctors had not allowed it); Hollande finally visited Trierweiler on day six (with doctors' approval); Trierweiler to remain in hospital for ten days, then perhaps in rest home near Paris; Tryst apartment at 20 rue du Cirque belongs to convicted Corsican criminal (denied by alleged criminal who says he rented the apartment, then left it to his ex-wife who is a friend of Gayet); Bodyguard brings breakfast croissants to Hollande love nest;... and on and on. A trickle every day, until the "private" matter of the president's infidelity had grown into a firestorm that has singed his presidential image and, as some say, caricatured France abroad.

Disguised motorcyclist Hollande

On January 18th Hollande visited the small town of Tulle (pop. 1200) in the Corrèze department of central France where he used to be mayor and deputy, for the formal New Year's wishes to his old constituency. No less than 90 journalists awaited him there in hopes of some response to the growing scandal. In vain but those from the foreign press (including BBC and The New York Times) now know where to find Tulle on the map.

Two days later, Hollande made his first solo State visit when he visited The Netherlands without Valérie Trierweiler. Accompanied by several of his ministers, he gave a joint press conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague where, inevitably, he was once again asked if Valérie Trierweiler remained the First Lady of France. His answer: "She is doing better and is currently resting at La Lanterne".  

Presidential retreat La Lanterne, Versailles

In France too the pressure is mounting. When Interior Minister Manuel Valls was questioned about his responsibility for the safety of Mr. Hollande who made repeated nightly visits to Ms. Gayet on a scooter with only one bodyguard, he said that at no time the president's security had been compromised. At the same time, Claude Bartolone, the powerful president of the French Parliament, expressed his hope that Mr. Hollande and Ms. Trierweiler will soon be able to find a way out of the impasse.

Valérie Trierweiler has asked Mr. Hollande for "urgent clarification" of her situation and, after eight days in La Pitié-Salpêtrière, has left the hospital for La Lanterne, the French presidential country house in Versailles for "further rest". As France's First Lady she has an office at the Elysée Palace with a personal staff of five including a chauffeur, paid for with public funds. She also lives at the Elysée and in an initial response has indicated that she has "no intention to move".

Her impetuous nature and jealous disposition have not won her many friends, but her "cold dismissal" in the glare of the media after seven years of cohabitation did not play well, even as a private matter. More publicly, Hollande has been criticized for questionable behavior unworthy of high office, disregard for his personal safety in his pursuit of amorous trysts, and the naiveté of his unrealistic claim to a right of privacy "accorded to all private citizens". As Le Figaro put it: He is no longer a private citizen and owes the French people the decorum attached to his office. Gérard Courtois in Le Monde went even further in speaking of the "inquiétante légèreté" of the president, his distraction from matters of state at a critical time, and "le ridicule de la situation", adding that the president has a professional duty to represent France at home and abroad in the best possible light.

During his January 14 press conference, Hollande promised to answer the First Lady question before February 11th. He is now under pressure to find a quick resolution of this private problem and present it to a panting press that is not likely to let him get away twice with a plea for privacy. 

Confronted with a low approval rating in the polls, severe economic problems, and a lack of confidence in his policies, Hollande has a lot of challenges. But perhaps the toughest one of all:  the woman scorned who awaits his decision.

Oh yes, as for that Responsibility Pact...  Naah, you don't really want to know about that. Not until the hottest show in town is over and some sort of normality has returned. Stay tuned ...

Sunday, January 5, 2014



The year may be new, but some things remain the same old same.

In the hot suburbs of Paris and Strasburg, the new year was welcomed with the usual fireworks of burning cars. However, when Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced that this time 1067 cars were burned, he sounded rather pleased when he compared it to last year's number of 1193. "This decrease of 10.6% is very encouraging", he said.
On the other hand, three people were killed on New Year's Eve; two were stabbed to death and one died in an accidental explosion of illegal fireworks.
Nothing to brag about.

President Hollande started 2014 with a televised address of New Year's wishes that contained nothing new and least of all a change of plans. He restated that reducing unemployment remained his first priority and feels he is on the right track. He promised to continue his efforts to bring down public spending and to reduce the tax burden on the French people "down the line". He also announced a Pacte de Responsabilité between the government and French companies: in exchange for a reduction of labor costs and an easing of certain regulations, the companies would commit to hiring new employees. This reminds us of last year's Choc de Simplification and the Pacte de Compétitivité which to date have had little or no effect on unemployment in France. Perhaps a new name for an old program looks like progress?


SNCM ferries blocked
In Marseilles, the year 2014 started with a strike. The Marseilles-based maritime company SNCM (Société Nationale Corse Méditerranée), which has 2600 employees, was recently condemned by the European Commission to pay back €220 million in illegal subsidies for its restructuring and privatization in 2006 and another €220 million for unfair competition against its Corsica-based rival Corsica Ferries. The French State owns 25% of SNCM, Veolia Environnement as largest shareholder owns 66%, and SNCM employees hold 9%. While the Commission's decision is being appealed, Prime Minister Ayrault immediately offered €30 million to keep the company afloat, a drop in the bucket according to local unions who reminded the government of the recovery plan it signed last September which includes the purchase of four new ships. Unable to repay the €440 million required by Brussels, the SNCM is now facing bankruptcy unless it can convince the Commission to reverse its decision. In the meantime, various unions in Marseilles, including the powerful CGT-Marins, have called for a strike, which went into effect on January 1st and continues as of this writing.

Despite a number of cash infusions by the State over the years, the CGT-Marins union has called numerous strikes against the SNCM in the past, resulting in chronic losses of income, and of the company's market share that has dwindled from 82% in 2000 to 34% in 2011. Referring to this difficult working climate, majority shareholder Veolia has announced that it plans to pull out and sell its shares.

One potential scenario might be that the French government re-nationalize the company, but if the issue cannot be resolved and SNCM were to be closed down, its impact on Marseilles will be severe and it is feared that the city may see serious social unrest.


On January 1st 2014, the last restrictions were lifted to Rumania and Bulgaria's free access to the European Union's labor market, allowing its citizens to work anywhere within the European Union. These two poorest member states had been accepted into the EU in 2007 with restrictions amid concerns over widespread corruption. The last of those restrictions free movement throughout the border-free Schengen area has now been lifted.

Rumanians and Bulgarians had already been working in EU countries but had needed work permits to do so. Those are now no longer required. Some EU members, notably Great Britain and Germany, have expressed fears of a wave of new immigrants who may strain their welfare systems. David Cameron said in November that legislation was being prepared that would make it harder for new immigrants to receive social benefits in England.

Most experts, however, do not believe there will be a massive exodus from Bulgaria and Rumania, since most people who wanted to leave have already done so. Lazlo Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said there were already three million people from Rumania and Bulgaria living in other EU countries, and that he did not expect any major increase now. He added that migrants were essential to economic recovery and must be protected from discrimination. "I firmly believe that restricting the free movement of European workers is not the answer to high unemployment" he said, and noted that the European Union provides contingency funds if migrant influxes strained the welfare system in certain host countries.


New currency in Riga
Latvia began the new year by joining the Eurozone as the 18th member of the EU states that use the Euro as its currency. This former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea replaced its former currency, the Lats, by the Euro on January 1, 2014 in hopes of reducing its dependency on Russia and attracting foreign investors. EU Commissioner Olli Rehn said that joining the Eurozone marked the completion of Latvia's return to the economic and political heart of our continent. Although government and business leaders were generally in favor of joining the single currency, some opinion polls indicated that nearly 60% of the population was against it.


The issue of allowing home improvement stores
to open on Sundays is back on the table. As you may remember, Sunday is considered a day of rest in France and only by government decree are certain areas of business exempted, such as hospitals, food, security, tourist venues, and the hospitality industry. In recent months, gardening centers, furniture stores, and home improvement stores have asked for government approval to open on Sundays, and this was granted on certain Sundays in certain specific locations and for a limited time only. Some shops outside these approved sectors that opened nevertheless were fined.

Given that more and more people in France like to shop on Sundays, that unemployment among the young is very high, that many students who can only work on Sundays want to do so, that Sunday work must be paid at no less than twice the weekday rate, and that no employee in France can be required to work on Sunday against his will, pro-Open-Sunday voices have been growing louder. So Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault last fall charged Jean-Paul Bailly, former head of the Postal Service, to write a report and make recommendations to the government. Based on the Bailly Report, the government has now announced that effective immediately home improvement stores may open on Sundays until July 2015, by which time it will have reached a decision on all other areas of business and proposed a new, clearer law on the subject.

On January 2nd, two unions, Force Ouvrière and the CGT, announced that they would not sign this agreement that they were no party to. If and when an agreement is finally reached between unions, workers and the government, the new law, born by forceps, should finally settle the issue once and for all. We hope.


Marseilles Cultural Capital of Europe 2013 ended the year in spectacular fashion with a gorgeous show of light, music, and pyrotechnics produced by the incredible Groupe F, famous for Olympic Games opening ceremonies and other world events. To see some of their work, click here:

More than 150,000 spectators gathered in the Vieux Port to attend this final event of the rich MP13 calendar, which in the course of the year drew 1.2 million visitors to Marseilles.

Take a look at these images - click here
WOW, right?!