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?!

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