Wednesday, August 27, 2014



While most of the French were still in snooze mode with nothing on their horizon but La Rentrée, when kids go back to school and parents back to work in early September, the low hum of French holiday life was suddenly shattered on August 25th when Prime Minister Manual Valls tendered his resignation and the government fell.

Dissenting ministers Montebourg and Hamon
The crisis was set off by two ministers of Hollande's government Arnaud Montebourg (Economy) and Benoît Hamon (Education) who a day earlier had publicly denounced the economic policy of their president with its emphasis on austerity and cuts in public spending. Both Montebourg and Hamon belong to the left fringe of the Socialist Party, which objects to Hollande's Pacte de Responsabilité (tax cuts for businesses to stimulate hiring) without tax relief for the people, and accuses him of lacking a clear strategy to deal with the deteriorating economic situation of the country.

This was one attack too many by "loose cannon" Montebourg, also referred to as Le Coq Français, who is known for his anti-Europe and anti-globalization leanings. Both Montebourg and Hamon were fired, followed by Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti who resigned in protest against Hollande's cutbacks in her department. After the shocking results of the European elections in March where the French Socialist party took a severe beating, the then-Minister of Ecology, Cécile Duflot, resigned from her post over strong ideological differences with Mr. Hollande.
[She was replaced by Ségolène Royal, Hollande's ex, who was happy to get back in government and obliged by canceling the Ecotax which Hollande had found too difficult to implement.] 
Duflot has since published a book wherein she harshly criticizes François Hollande's veering to the right and away from his socialist principles and promises.

Hollande with Emmanuel Macron, his new Economy Minister
With the Party in disarray, Manuel Valls, who was named Prime Minister less than five months ago when he replaced the too-timid Jean-Marc Ayrault, quickly appointed three new ministers (Economy, Education and Culture) and managed to retain perfect parity with eight male and eight female ministers. It is the third government of this year and President Hollande's last chance. If he does not find enough backing in the Parliament for his programs, Hollande may be forced to call for new elections and the result will be co-habitation with the opposition until the end of his term in 2017. 

With his popularity at a new low (17% in the IFOP poll of August 24), unemployment still rising (up another 0,8% in July), and the economy at a total standstill (0% growth in the first sixth months of 2014), President Hollande is in a bad spot.

The word amateurism is again on everybody's lips, as are his indecisiveness and lack of leadership. While Hollande has reiterated that he will not change his chosen course for economic recovery, it will be up to Prime Minister Valls, and his new Cabinet freed of dissenters, to rally the troops around the President's Pacte de Responsabilité and the common cause of economic growth.

Halfway through President Hollande's first term with its creation of such programs as the Pacte de Competitivité and its Choc de Simplification, intended to make French companies more competitive and reduce the complexity and paperwork of doing business here, it may be a cruel coincidence that just this week an article in The New York Times illustrated how little effect these programs have had so far and how the "old ways" to which the French cling like life rafts obstruct any attempts at simplification or competition.

As Suzanne Daley writes in the August 23 International New York Times (*), two young French business school graduates have been trying to open a driving school in Paris that with the help of computer classes and freelance instructors would provide a way to obtain a French driver's license in much less time and at much lower cost than the current system allows. They have run into a wall of regulations and are still waiting to obtain a license to operate from the local Préfecture which simply does not reply. Having complied with all the demands of this "regulated profession" the young entrepreneurs are not welcome among the expensive traditional schools (with waiting times of a year or more for the sparsely allocated exams) who feel that the newcomers are "breaking the rules" and are a threat to the old ways. The Choc de Simplification has not been felt in this area of business.  

Permis de conduire, old and new version
On a personal note I can add that my husband and I have obtained a French driver's license the old way at great mental and monetary cost. Many foreigners settling in France can get a French license in exchange for their valid foreign one, provided that their country has a reciprocity agreement with France. The US does, except for the District of Columbia, where we came from, and a few other States where French licenses are not recognized. Consequently, people from those States have to get a French license with all that implies:  at least 20 classes of driving theory (in French, of course) before you can take a driving test of which there are only a few per year per school. When your number finally comes up you take a zero-tolerance test in a stick-shift car without a right-hand rearview mirror, with the curious French explanation that a rearview mirror is only to be used in addition to your turning your head to see what's behind you.

I passed on the first try but my husband, who had been driving for more than 45 years in different countries, failed twice and finally passed on his third try. It was a costly and frustrating experience but, if it's any consolation, you only need to do this once. A French driver's license is issued for life! Another exception française, and incomprehensible in this over-regulated country where an 80-year-old can still drive with his license issued at age 18 (and presumably with his photo of age 18).
Go figure.

President Hollande may be making an attempt to reduce the mountain of rules and regulations in France that makes doing business here so frustrating and sends young people running to London, but in the true French tradition he also tries to please everybody (read: all those threatened by change) and ends up pleasing nobody.  The "Choc de Simplification" has run headlong into the wall of regulations and died of a brain injury.  R.I.P.

(*) Read the International NY Times article here:

Sunday, August 3, 2014



The hectic month of July is behind us:  operas, concerts, conferences and master classes in Aix were followed by four wonderful plays in Avignon and a sigh of relief that in the end the social conflict of the Intermittents did relatively little damage to these two main summer festivals. The source of the conflict, however, remains unresolved for now and will have to be addressed before year-end if the 2015 festival season is to be saved.  We cross our fingers.

The highlight of the 2014 Avignon season was probably the 18-hour-long performance of Shakespeare's Henry VI that drew a sell-out crowd from 10AM to almost 6AM the next day. For every one of its three shows! With five interruptions of one hour each, the exhausted but euphoric actors finished their marathon performance to a long standing ovation of an admiring public most of whom had stayed until the end. "Better than Game of Thrones" said one young spectator.

The newly nominated Festival Director, author-actor-director Olivier Py, summed up his first season this way: "It was a stressful time but it was beautiful". It was also costly, since the twelve performances cancelled due to strikes cost the Festival €300,000 in lost ticket sales, something that did not unduly worry the Avignon regulars who generally support the intermittents and vowed to be back next year, come what may.

Similarly, Bernard Foccroule, Director of the Opera Festival in Aix-en-Provence, declared himself satisfied with the 2014 season that despite a difficult start and two canceled performances managed to bring the Festival back into the black after a dip into the red last year. With ticket sales of close to 95 percent this year, things look good for next year when some BIG names are on the program, such as Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, the talented Katie Mitchell and others.


Meanwhile, the first big chassé-croisé of the summer, when juillettistes and aoûtiens (July and August vacationers) cross each other coming and going on the north-south highways of France, broke all records on "black" Saturday, August 2nd, with hundreds of miles of traffic backups on all major north-south roads and blistering waits of up to one hour and a half at toll stations. It's a familiar sight on this biggest annual holiday weekend, yet nobody seems willing to forego one day of a holiday rental. Similar difficulties are to be expected every Saturday of August in the southward direction, with another "black" peak on Saturday 16 August in both north and south directions. Don't say I didn't warn you.


A surprisingly optimistic President Hollande in his July 14th television interview was followed last week by a rather pessimistic Prime Minister Manuel Valls who before the 2-week summer break of government ministers announced that the post-holiday return (la Rentrée) will be a difficult one in economic terms. For the eighth month in a row unemployment figures rose in June, and the effects of
Manuel Valls, worried
the Pacte de Responsabilité (blog January 5, 2014) between the government and French business leaders have yet to be seen. Nevertheless, this Pacte is the right government response to youth unemployment, according to Valls, who further warned of a risk of deflation before things will change for the better. Reforms, reforms, reforms - that is what we need and what we are working on, he said, as he asked for people to be patient. "We are working hard and we will succeed".

As members of the Cabinet each went their way on a 2-week holiday "in France and within several hours from Paris so as to be available", François Hollande is taking his own summer break at La Lanterne, the presidential retreat in Versailles, where he intends to celebrate his 60th birthday on August 12th with his children.


Hartmannswillerkopf cemetery, Alsace
This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, called la Grande Guerre in France, which killed 18 million people. On August 3rd, for the first time ever, French President Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck met at the large WW-I cemetery in Hartmannswillerkopf, Alsace, where they honored the 30,000 French and German soldiers buried there. They signed a joint declaration and laid the first stone of a Franco-German memorial building to be opened in 2017. "The terrible battles fought here make of Hartmannswillerkopf a sacred site in memory of the sacrifice of those fallen here, and the new museum will stand as an emblem of Franco-German friendship and a symbol of its reconciliation", read the Declaration signed by both leaders. The meeting was sealed with a long embrace between the two men. 

French and German presidents, holding hands

(Am I the only one to think that this looked a bit forced? The Germans, like the Dutch, are not huggers and both men seemed to be following a script for the journalists and photographers). 


During this government recess and with most of the French on vacation, the month of August tends to be quiet, not to say somnolent. In fact, I feel a bit somnolent myself and will sign off here with a promise to report back to you as soon as everyone starts stirring again. 

As I climb into my hammock, is that a distant plane I am hearing?  Or a buzzing fly?  Or my buzzing cell phone?  Or....  ZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzz.