Monday, March 17, 2014



No, this is not the title of a local whodunit but the sad sight of dying plane trees (sycamores to Americans) in ever greater numbers on the beautiful Cours Mirabeau, pride of Aix-en-Provence, where locals and tourists alike love to linger on the many terraces, shaded by the double rows of plane trees against the summer sun. The platane, emblematic of southern France, suffers from the deadly chancre coloré, a purplish micro organism (ceratocystis platani) that infects the tree and slowly chokes it. There is no cure.

The Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence
Last month two large healthy-looking trees in the city center fell during a mild storm, miraculously causing no harm. The mayor immediately ordered all planes in the touristy historic center to be tested, resulting in the condemnation of a dozen trees. Over the next four years all 2000 plane trees of the City of Aix-en-Provence will be checked, and it is expected that a number of them will have to be felled for safety reasons.

Ceratocystis platani
In the past few years, some 40 planes have already been taken down and replaced by saplings of a more resistant species. Sadly, the famous green-tunneled Cours Mirabeau is full of gaps today which will take years to be filled with new greenery.

And it's all the fault of the Americans! Yes, once again, the French who are quick to criticize the Americans and just as quick to copy them, put the blame on the U.S.  It appears that in 1944 the U.S. army shipped its weapons in wooden crates that carried the parasite which brought the disease to these shores. A final bit of collateral World War II damage that is slowly eating its way through our plane tree population.


Nicolas Sarkozy, still running
It is no secret that ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy has ambitions to make a political comeback and be a candidate for the next presidential elections in 2017. Polls show that if he ran against unpopular socialist president Hollande today, he would win. And this despite his involvement in several legal proceedings, including the Bettencourt case where he is suspected of having fraudulently obtained campaign funds from the mentally frail Mrs. Liliane Bettencourt, elderly billionaire heiress of the L'Oréal cosmetics empire. It had been expected that Sarkozy would announce his candidacy soon after the municipal elections later this month, where the socialist mayors may suffer the consequences of President Hollande's failed economic policies and his poor standing in the polls.

But then came a flurry of bad news for the right. First, the conservative magazine Le Point accused François Copé, leader of the center-right UMP party, of having used the 2012 campaign to steer without due bidding process at least €8 million to a PR company founded by two of his close friends

Next, on March 3rd the daily Le Monde announced that two Parisian judges investigating the claim that Libya's then-ruler Muammar Gaddafi had helped finance Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign had decided to tap the phones of Sarkozy and his former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux in an attempt to collect evidence. In December 2013 the judges overheard several conversations between Hortefeux and Christian Flaesch, head of police investigations in Paris, showing a suspicious closeness between the police and Mr. Hortefeux. Fragments of these phone conversations found their way into Le Monde and Mr. Flaesch was fired.

Later, Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog were overheard discussing the progress of the Bettencourt case. The investigating judges soon found that certain facts known to Sarkozy and his lawyer had been leaked to them by Gilbert Azibert, a public prosecutor at the Court of Appeals with access to the intranet service of the highest courts. Mr. Azibert, as it turned out, was keeping Sarkozy's lawyer discreetly informed about the judges' leanings in the Bettencourt case in exchange for a promise of help by Sarkozy in trying to obtain a juicy posting in Monaco.  

Justice Minister Taubira on the defensive
Never before has the Justice Department eavesdropped on a former president and whichever way the case unravels, this time Sarkozy's chances of being re-elected seem severely compromised.

Of course, the timing of these revelations, just two weeks before the municipal elections, can hardly be accidental and soon the UMP party began accusing the socialists of using dirty tricks to keep the right from winning.

Then, in the uproar over the wiretapping, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira gave the UMP a chance to even the score when she said in an interview that she had learned about the wiretap in the press. This was immediately contradicted by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who confirmed that he and his Justice Minister had learned of it several weeks earlier but did not know the contents of the wiretaps. When Taubira then said she had made a mistake in the dates but had not lied, the UMP party called for her resignation and the tables were turned again in favor of the right.
As the cacophony grew it laid bare once again the internal tiffs and poor communication of the Hollande government.


For nearly a week in March the level of fine-particle air pollution exceeded the established safety levels in Paris and a large number of French départements. A number of conditions (warm days-cold nights, many diesel-driven vehicles, no wind) came together to trap the polluted air and cause a health hazard for the very young and the old. In response, the government offered free public transportation in the affected areas and imposed reduced speed limits, but it took four days before the prime minister decided to apply the alternate-day driving rule for even and odd-numbered cars.

Paris, 14 March 2014
This does not go far enough, according to experts who argue that rather than reacting to these occasional peaks of pollution the government should prevent them by levying a city congestion fee on cars such as London, Stockholm and Milan have already done, supporting the development of alternative means of transportation, and taxing the heavy trucks and encouraging commercial rail transport as the Ecotax, which the Hollande government has just postponed until 2015, would have done. This Ecotax already exists in Finland, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Austria, with proven effect.

France was expected to begin applying the Ecotax on January 1, 2014 and had already installed the sophisticated computerized road equipment, built like a metal arch across the road (called portiques in France), that would calculate the tax based on the weight of every vehicle over 3.5 tons equipped with an obligatory on-board device that allows it to be identified, tracked and weighed. But in November the Bonnets Rouges, a group of angry truck owners and agricultural workers in Brittany rebelled against the tax, blocked roads and began to tear down the costly Ecotax portiques (blog 11/17/13). Within weeks the government gave in and postponed the measure until 2015, despite the fact that the tax is based on the "polluter pays" principle and would have produced revenues of €1.2 billion/year destined to pay for new or extended tram lines in a number of cities, improving infrastructures for train and river transport, and serve as an enticement to seek less polluting means of transportation.

An Ecotax "portique" in Bretagne
Canceling the Ecotax was not only detrimental to the environment but very costly to the State which has signed a 13-year management contract with the private Italian company Ecomouv that built and installed the portiques and for €220 million per year (€18 million per month) will collect the tax, administer the system and maintain the equipment. The French government is now contractually obliged to pay Ecomouv €18 million per month whether any tax is collected or not.  

Mr. Hollande's weakness in the face of opposition benefitted a very few and caused unnecessary environmental and economic harm to the very many. It also won him only a few months before he will be forced, in accordance with European Union agreements, to apply the Ecotax in 2015.

But let's not leave on this gloomy note and remember the positive:  For over a month now, President Hollande has not been seen on a motorcycle at night and no new amorous conquests have been reported. I will miss the cartoons. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014



During his recent state visit to Washington, President Hollande may indeed have polished his country's luster a bit when he reminded the United States of France's readiness to send troops to Syria (while the U.S. backed out at the last moment), and of the important role France is playing in Africa where last year it helped run Islamic terrorists out of Mali and where it currently has troops on the ground in the strife-torn Central African Republic. Bravo France. 
[Now if the promised help of some EU countries (troops) and of the US (drones) materializes soon, the threat of genocide in the CAR may yet be averted.]

After the Franco-American love-fest in Washington and the Best Buddies show of presidents Obama and Hollande, the French contingent traveled on to San Francisco where François Hollande met with 300 young French entrepreneurs who had created start-ups there. In an awkward compliment Hollande used their example to demonstrate how creative and imaginative young French entrepreneurs are, forgetting perhaps for a moment that all this young talent had left France precisely because their creativity could not flourish in the French business bureaucracy and with the punishing tax policy that stifles entrepreneurship here. 


Speaking of the difficulty of doing business in France, remember the issue of Open or Closed Sundays for the sector of home-improvement stores (blog 10/11/2013)? That finally seemed settled by a government decree issued on December 30, 2013 that allowed home-improvement stores to open on Sundays until July 2015 when a definite ruling would be made. Well, it is not to be. On February 12th, the French Supreme Court (Conseil d'Etat) issued a judgment that put into question the legality of this decree and suspended its implementation because this involves a temporary exception to a permanent public need and "poses a serious threat to the principle of a weekly day of rest for workers, guaranteed by the constitution, which day of rest is generally taken on Sundays".  

Closed on Sundays - until further notice

The two workers' unions (CGT and Force Ouvrière) who had filed suit against the decree because they saw it as a Trojan horse for spreading Sunday work to other sectors, called the Court's ruling "a return to normal". To others, however, this ruling turns the "right" to rest into an "order" to rest which prevents numerous employees from earning extra money on Sundays while being guaranteed a day of rest on another day of the week.

Minister of Labor Michel Sapin announced immediately that the government will prepare a new Open-Sunday decree for the home-improvement sector, and this time as a permanent exception to the Sunday-rest law rather than a temporary one.

Change is hard to come by in France. In the meantime, home improvement stores remain closed on Sundays. Again. At least for now. We think. 


Just as we had begun to appreciate the absence of Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian parliament and a return to relative seriousness and hope, an internal coup by Matteo Renzi, brash young mayor of Florence, toppled fellow PD party member Prime Minister Enrico Letta who had led the fragile coalition government for only ten months.

After he won a vote of confidence in the Senate and the lower house on February 22nd, Renzi, 39, became the youngest Italian prime minister ever, and the third non-elected one in a row.

Enrico Letta - Out
Matteo Renzi - In

He appointed a cabinet of eight men and eight women, younger and presumably better equipped than the old guard to implement the "radical, decisive choices" outlined in his ambitious program. These include a new electoral law, reforms of the labor market, the judiciary and the public administration, as well as a 2-digit cut in employment taxes to stimulate growth. And all that, if we are to believe him, before this summer.

Renzi's Cabinet with President Napolitano

It's a tall order, but can he deliver? Critics say his program is short on detail and on how he is going to pay for all this. They call his gender-equal cabinet a stab at "political correctness" and its youth (average age 48) a worrisome lack of experience.

Given that the old guard has not done so well in the recent past, "experience" may be less of an asset here than youthful vigor and a certain impatience with the status quo. Clearly, Renzi is a young man in a hurry. If he fails, he will fail quickly. Then again, he might just pull it off.


Berlusconi with wife Nr. 2
Since we are in Italy, how can we not think of Silvio Berlusconi? He was barred from the Senate in November 2013 after his appeals ran out and a Milan court convicted him of tax fraud and sentenced him to a four-year prison term, subsequently reduced to one year and converted to house arrest or community service, to begin in April 2014, because in Italy people over 70 cannot be sent to jail (blog 12/02/13). Meanwhile, he is still fighting several criminal convictions, including one in Milan for paying an underage prostitute for sex, and one in Naples for paying a €3 million bribe to a senator to make him switch sides and join Berlusconi's party. This does not disqualify him from leading his Forza Italia party and keeping his hand in politics, as he did recently when he made a deal with Matteo Renzi in the formation of a post-Letta coalition government.  

Berlusconi with wife Nr. 3?
On February 20th, Berlusconi's divorce from second wife Veronica Lario was finalized in a Monza court, five years after she had filed for divorce on grounds of his "consorting with minors". Initial alimony payments were set at an unprecedented €3 million per month, but were later reduced to €2.1 million/month - approximately 34 million dollars per year - which should keep Veronica comfortable for a long time to come. He is now free to marry his 28-year-old girlfriend Francesca Pascale who reportedly has already ordered her wedding dress.

What will we read about first: his next wedding or his next conviction? For the time being, there is no quiet retirement in sight.


Did you know that the most-stolen car in France is the Smart? For the second year in a row, French car magazine Auto Plus listed the Smart as the most stolen car based on statistics from 15 insurers and banks, representing 20 million cars in France. 
One of the smallest cars made, the 2-seater SmartForTwo is a popular city car that takes barely more parking space than a motorcycle and has low fuel consumption. That makes it attractive to buyers, but what is its appeal to thieves? "Very little resistance to burglary", according to Auto Plus, and the fact that "its parts are worth gold".

So what about the second most stolen car, the German 4X4 BMW X6, with its very sophisticated computerized locking system? In fact, that turns out to be its weakness since hackers have found a way to freeze its anti-theft device.
Can't win against a determined thief.


The 2014 Michelin restaurant guide has just been published, and quickly drew commentary. Noted restaurant critic Gilles Pudlowski feels that Michelin focused too much on young chefs to the detriment of established older chefs. This year saw only one new three-star awarded: to 39-year old Arnaud Lallement for his restaurant L'Assiette Champenoise near Reims. Six new restaurants earned two stars and 57 got their first star, including young chef Oscar Garcia of La Table d'Uzès who is just 25. 

As always, some restaurants lost stars this year, but then there are those who in the past few years have given back their stars (most notably Senderens in Paris, and Olivier Roellinger in Bretagne, three stars each), followed by some one-star restaurants who have found that the cost, both financial and physical, is simply too high. Most of these chefs have continued cooking and turned their fancy restaurants into more affordable brasseries, cutting down on caviar and crystal but also on stress.

But the most surprising new food phenomenon in France today is the success and rapid expansion of food trucks. Far from the usual "fast food", it's generally fresh, often organic, and of respectable quality. Right after Kristin Frederick, a native Californian, graduated from a Parisian cooking academy, she started the first food truck in Paris in 2010. Her Camion Gourmand was so successful that she soon had competition and today food trucks are a familiar sight in Paris, as well as in Lyons and increasingly in other cities.

The latest to join the trend is famous chef Marc Veyrat who in early February 2014 opened three food trucks in Paris and plans to expand to 15 trucks throughout France by next year. Veyrat, known for his signature black hat, twice had a three-Michelin-star restaurant until a skiing accident stopped him in 2009. He grows his own organic foods.
Marc Veyrat

Orders can be placed in advance and an SMS tells you when it is ready to be picked up. The food trucks, which can be fixed or ambulant with itineraries posted on the internet, are much appreciated by city workers who want healthy food at a reasonable price but don't want to "waste" time in a sit-down restaurant. 

Did I say France never changes?  Guess I have to take that back.