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

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