Monday, June 30, 2014



Here we are at the end of our pre-opera month of June (master classes, public concerts, conferences, etc.) and VERY relieved to learn that our actual opera festival in July will indeed take place. Just days ago, Bernard Foccroulle, Director of the opera festival in Aix-en-Provence, made it official: after intense debate and negotiations, the intermittents du spectacle, the temps of the entertainment world (see blog June 15) in Aix voted to call off their strike here, even though the dispute remains unresolved in Avignon for now. Phew! A repeat of the disastrous summer of 2003 was avoided in the nick of time.

Protesting "intermittents"
Prime Minister Manuel Valls extended a "helping hand" to the intermittents in announcing that the waiting time between the last paid job and the beginning of unemployment payments would not have to be borne by the intermittents but would be paid for by the State (at a cost of €40 million), and that before the end of this year his government would make sure that the special statute of the intermittents would be fixed once and for all. In exchange, he asked them to drop their strike.

This past month has seen a rash of strikes (railroad workers, air traffic controllers, public defense lawyers, farmers, driving test inspectors, the SNCM ferry between Marseilles and Corsica). Many were in protest against the dreaded "reforms" required to improve France's competitiveness and boost its economy, and to bring its public debt down to 3 percent of GDP. In a country where every announced cutback is greeted with a strike, and where it is now up to a socialist government to enact painful reforms where previous, center-right, governments have failed, this is a near-impossible task.

And yet - it is difficult to see a clear line of conduct in the government's response to this challenge.


Take the Ecotax (see blog 11/1/2013)  that was to be implemented in France on January 1, 2014 after seven other European countries had already done so, and was to bring in €1.2 billion per year in revenues. Based on the "polluter pays" principle that taxes heavy trucks of over 3.5 tons, this measure had already been accepted by the Parliament and was meant to finance new public transportation systems in cities and promote rail and river transportation of freight. To collect the tax, France had signed a 13-year contract with private Italian company Ecomouv to build and manage the sophisticated Ecotax roadside equipment (portiques) along French highways at a cost of €18 million per month.

Ecotax  "portique"
However, soon after a group of noisy and destructive truckers in Bretagne protested against this tax last October, President Hollande decided to postpone its implementation (again) until 2015. Then, his new Minister of Ecology, Ségolène Royal, announced last week that the planned Ecotax has been canceled and replaced by a special toll fee on heavy trucks, and that the French government will buy a 20 percent share of Ecomouv. The new toll fees will produce only half as much income as the Ecotax would have done and will be less effective in reducing pollution levels, which reached a peak in Paris earlier this year and regularly exceed health safety limits in the Paris, Marseilles and Strasbourg areas.

Dropping the Ecotax means a loss of revenues of some €600 million per year and the cancellation of a number of eco-friendly infrastructure projects and employment opportunities, while a 20 percent investment in Ecomouv is not expected to pay off anytime soon.

What makes the government's decision even more incomprehensible is the fact that recalcitrant Bretagne will be excluded from this extra toll on heavy trucks, and that elsewhere in the country, notably in the industrial Alsace-Lorraine area with its heavy truck traffic across the French-German border, the Ecotax was welcomed.

This seems like a missed opportunity for the government to raise money directly from polluters in order to create and promote clean alternatives -- something that benefits everybody and has already been done successfully by many EU countries.


Perhaps the economic forum on the theme of "Investing Today to Invent Tomorrow", to be held in Aix-en-Provence July 4-6, may spark some new ideas. Among the speakers are current and former French and foreign government and industry leaders, Christine Lagarde (IMF), Pascal Lamy (former head of WTO), Michel Barnier (European Commissioner), former Italian prime ministers Mario Monti and Enrique Letta, various finance ministers, economists from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and members of other prestigious institutions. Submitting to this group the case of Socialist France in Today's Globalized World might produce some interesting answers.


Juan Carlos resigns
As France is experiencing its share of difficulties, so does Spain where 76-year old king Juan Carlos suddenly abdicated in early June in favor of his 46-year-old son Felipe amid corruption scandals that just won't go away. Starting with his ill-advised elephant hunt in Botswana in 2012 and growing rumors of his amorous liaisons, the king's popularity had been declining but took a serious beating after damaging revelations in the corruption case of his son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin and daughter Princess Cristina, who stand accused of embezzlement of public funds and money laundering.

After a 39-year reign where he oversaw the transition from Franco's dictatorship to democracy, saved the country from a military putsch in 1981, and had always commanded the affection and loyalty of his people, the latest scandals have seriously damaged his legacy.

Physically diminished after five hip operations, a tired and tainted Juan Carlos seemed no longer able to inspire respect and confidence among his subjects who have been plagued by years of economic hardship and high unemployment.

King Felipe, Queen Laetizia
Juan Carlos is the third monarch to abdicate in the past two years, after Queen Beatrix of Holland and King Albert of Belgium who made way for their oldest sons. Next in line are the monarchies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and of course the 88-year old queen of England who has given every indication that she will "die in the saddle", but even that heroic death cannot be more than a few years away.

All largely ceremonial figures, these monarchs are becoming increasingly irrelevant and the next generation may well be the last in line. Among the reasons cited for abolishing the monarchy is the cost of maintaining them, but Christina Patterson in the June 28 edition of The Guardian claims that, in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, her "royal grant" of £40 million per year (which serves to cover the costs of her function and maintaining the royal palaces) translates to just over one penny per week per person of the realm. She still carries out about 430 engagements a year, uncomplaining dignity included, and is about the only steadfast thing left in a turbulent time. All that for a penny per person per week − it's a bargain.


Finally, despite fierce opposition by David Cameron of the UK, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected as the next President of the European Commission in Brussels where he will replace Jose-Manuel Barroso. 
Jean-Claude Juncker
Juncker, former finance minister and long-time prime minister of Luxembourg, who worked with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on the establishment of the Euro, is seen as a veteran of European politics but is considered too much of a federalist by Cameron who fears a loss of national influence as a result. His bullying style and barely veiled threat of a UK withdrawal from Europe if he lost, was finally seen as blackmail and isolated him completely. Cameron called his defeat "a bad day for Europe" and said his fight to keep Great Britain in a reformed European Union has become harder. If re-elected, he has vowed to hold an In-or-Out referendum on the question in 2017.


As "tweeting" has become an accepted verb and the tweet has entered the dictionary, you may want to know that a tweet in Spain is a "tuit".  

Sunday, June 15, 2014



On June 6th, France commemorated the landing of allied troops on Normandy beaches that took place exactly 70 years earlier. In extremely difficult conditions, and at the cost of thousands of young lives, Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944 succeeded in breaching the German stronghold on the coast and opening the way for Europe's liberation from almost five years of Nazi occupation.

British veterans on Sword Beach

All day long, French television showed official ceremonies in various cities, at American and British cemeteries, and at Sword Beach in Ouistreham where a moving 2-hour commemoration was held in the presence of 19 heads of state and a number of World War II veterans, who heard President Hollande pay tribute to the fallen soldiers and thank "those soldiers who are here today for their courage and sacrifice so that we may be free". Giant screens showed scenes from the terrible battles on these very beaches, and actors, dancers and children enacted the suffering of the people as their towns and villages were bombed, and their jubilation as they were liberated. As the red-white-and-blue vapor streaks from the Patrouille de France faded overhead, the official cars began taking their illustrious passengers back to Paris where they would meet again for the state dinner hosted that evening by President Hollande for Queen Elizabeth II and 240 guests.

President Hollande with heads of state in Normandy

It was a busy and potentially risky day for François Hollande who had invited presidents Putin and Obama who were not on speaking terms, as well as president-elect Poroshenko of Ukraine who had yet to be recognized by Putin all three to be kept from crossing each other. With Queen Elizabeth II as guest of honor, three other reigning monarchs (Denmark, Holland and Belgium), and numerous heads of state all converging on Normandy, the protocol, security and logistical challenges were daunting. The extremely tight schedule was only slightly compromised when following the official D-Day lunch at Bénouville Obama and Putin were seen talking to each other and nobody wanted to break them up.

Merkel diplomacy
[A day earlier in Paris, political tension had required that Hollande have dinner twice to keep Obama and Putin apart: a 7PM dinner with Obama in a Paris restaurant, and a 9PM supper with Putin at the Elysée Palace.] But during the ceremonies at Sword Beach that afternoon, a freewheeling Angela Merkel managed to talk to Putin and Poroshenko together. The ice was melting all over the place.

President Hollande is to be commended for his initiative to invite political enemies and facilitate their contact on his territory. It was a delicate exercise and a diplomatic success that should lift him a notch in the polls where he has scored very poorly this year.


He hardly had time, however, to savor his success when within days two major strikes were called in response to planned reforms. French railroad workers went on strike to protest against the Railroad Reform proposal as currently written which contains the joining of the two rail companies SNCF (transportation) and SFF (rails and equipment) and for the safeguarding of their privileges (lifetime jobs, early retirement) in the context of the competitive European railroad network demanded by the European Commission by 2022. The strike started on June 10 and continues to this day, greatly inconveniencing the three million daily commuters in the Paris area as well as travelers nationwide. Only two of five unions are supporting the strike, which is surely one reason why President Hollande has not blinked so far. The length of the strike with its attendant risk of growing resentment against the strikers may do the trick without government interference.

A recent incident underscored the necessity for bringing the two rail companies under one umbrella when more than 300 new-generation passenger trains ordered by SNCF turned out to be too wide for many French railroad stations which had to have their platforms reduced by a few inches to allow the new trains to enter. A costly and embarrassing lack of communication between the two entities.

The second strike was called by the Intermittents du Spectacle (actors and technicians in the entertainment business who do not work full-time but are paid year-round). Once an intermittent has done three-and-a-half months of paid work, the government will pay him the rest of the year through subsidies and unemployment insurance. This special statute, not extended to other unemployed people, is now endangered by the MEDEF (union of French employers) who want this preferential treatment changed and brought in line with other unemployment rules. The intermittents responded with threats to close down all the summer festivals.

Defenders claim that Culture is France's best ambassador and not a piece of merchandise, and that its cinéma d'auteur or its well-known summer festivals would not exist without these temporary workers.
Opponents respond that at an annual cost to the government of €1.1 billion this exception française is too costly and that it is not Culture that is at issue but the manner of financing it. They point out that between the early 1990s and today the number of intermittents in France has increased five-fold, which they consider proof of the irresistible attractiveness of a guaranteed income after only three-and-a-half months of work for a growing group of artists and technicians. 

Since the first threats were voiced, several festival directors have come forward to forcefully defend the intermittents which they see as a rich and varied talent pool that is available on call and absolutely essential to the proper functioning of the performing arts, including the summer festivals. Ever since the MEDEF proposal was submitted in March for expected final approval in June, the intermittents have asked to be heard on the issue by the decision makers, without success. So on June 10th they closed down the Printemps des Comédiens festival in Montpellier and threatened to do the same elsewhere. Newly appointed Labor Minister François Rebsamen does not support their claims but Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti is strongly in favor of maintaining the protected status of the intermittents and reminds the various social partners of their responsibility to live up to an agreement they signed. Prime Minister Manuel Valls then appointed an independent mediator, Socialist deputy Jean-Patrick Gille, who is to submit his report and concrete proposals within two weeks.

In this climate of strikes and demands I cannot suppress a thought of the sacrifices it took to liberate this country so it could rebuild a just and fair society which today offers a free national health system, free public education, more paid holidays than most (35 days/year), 16 weeks of paid maternity leave (increased to 26 weeks for a third child), and numerous subsidies in the form of family allowances (paid to rich and poor alike based on number of children), rent subsidies and school supplies (income related) - to the extent that 47 percent of the French population receives financial aid at a cost to the government of €66.9 billion last year. All these benefits were built up during the Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of reconstruction and full employment following World War II that led to the consumer society and made France rich.

In times of crisis, when reforms and cutbacks are a necessity rather than a choice, when globalization calls for more competitiveness, when everybody stands to lose something on some level, the French more than most will look to their government to solve the problem and make their losses whole. Their acquired rights have become entitlements to be defended come what may. In these selfish times when "the greater good" is rarely considered, the fight to défendre son bifteck (defend one's steak) has become a reflex.
And yet, restaurants are full, people are well dressed, opera and theater tickets sell out, and signs of a "crisis" are hard to see. Can things really be that bad?
One look at the suffering in neighboring Spain (with overall unemployment at 26.7% and youth unemployment at 57.7% in November 2013, bypassing Greece) makes the French look positively spoiled. Even if the government is partly to blame and if a negative outlook is part of the French character, a look beyond their own borders might make the French feel better about their own lot.

A touch of that grounded-ness of Northern Europeans, or the can-do, roll-up-your-sleeves, attitude of Americans would be nice. As globalization spreads, perhaps some of these "foreign" attributes will begin to appear in France. But I won't hold my breath.


Pont des Arts, before
The recent headline BRIDGE COLLAPSES in a Parisian newspaper did not deserve its panicky large font. No one died and the bridge is still standing, but a panel of the famous Pont des Arts in Paris, laden with "love" padlocks, had simply collapsed under their weight. Lovers will no longer be able to put padlocks on the bridge and are encouraged to use ribbons instead, but no decision has been taken yet with respect to the remaining locks. 

Pont des Arts, after