Wednesday, December 3, 2014



In a twist on the familiar theme of French strikes, bosses instead of employees took to the streets and struck - the first time this has happened since the imposition of the 35-hour workweek in the early 2000's. According to the business-owners association CGPME, on December 1st some ten thousand owners of small and medium-sized companies (PME, Petites et Moyennes Entreprises) demonstrated in Paris and Toulouse against what they called the intolerable stranglehold of charges and regulations on their businesses. The strike was sparked by three new government regulations: early retirement for "hardship" jobs; minimum employment of 24 hours/week for part-time work; and obligation to give employees at least two months notice before the close of business. "Enough! Let Us Breathe!" was the angry response of business owners who say they cannot take any more rules and cannot implement them anyway. How can we be competitive with all these charges and restrictions? was the leitmotiv. The three main French business-owners associations have called for a week-long mobilization by its members.


As our American friends were tugging into their Thanksgiving dinner and battling the Black Friday crowds, we were having a perfectly quiet time in Aix-en-Provence. No groaning dinner tables (yet) and no sales until January. For now, all local activity is focused on the rather noisy pre-Christmas commerce which in Aix-en-Provence consists of a big children's fair (bumper cars, choo-choo trains, bungee cords, merry-go-rounds) with its cacophony of "music" that takes over part of the Cours Mirabeau as well as the Rotonde, and the Christmas chalets that occupy the remainder of the Cours all this for fully six weeks. The first Christmas decorations appeared in October (!) and the basins of our famous fountains, waterless for the duration, have been adorned with unattractive metal structures that light up at night.

Among all the pop music from public loudspeakers and the carnival-like atmosphere in the streets, it is not easy for the Christmas ambiance to penetrate at least not until churches start having Xmas concerts and reveal their nativity scenes, which can be life-sized and sometimes are set in Provençal landscapes, or until the Tourist Office opens its big Crèche with the famous hand-crafted Santons * descending from their hillside village to carry lavender, olive branches and other gifts to the manger. In the meantime, commerce is king.

If commerce is an unavoidable by-product of Christmas, I'd like it prettily packaged and presented in the joyful, abundant, delicately scented way of big department stores where opulence and enchantment go hand in hand and fairytales come to life in magical window displays such as I saw in Paris last week, where both the Au Printemps and Galéries Lafayette stores upheld this tradition beautifully. Little Burberry-clad children were happily bouncing around and swinging from the Big Ben clock inside Printemps, or flying from umbrellas in the windows while wooden puppets marched below them and a little train chugged by carrying gifts. At Lafayette, colorful animated monsters filled the windows and this year, under its famous Art Nouveau glass dome, there was an impressive 80-ft upside-down Christmas tree that changed color every hour in a timed music-and-light show. Seeing the big tree at Lafayette's has become a Must and draws thousands of visitors a day.

It brings back memories of Harrods in London or Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, whose fairytale window displays set young and old to dreaming. Bear with me for a moment, while I wax nostalgic about my Anglo-Saxon Christmases past:  every year again, I miss the decorations of natural greenery with pine cones, apples or red berries, and the lovely wreaths on people's doors; the homes fragrant with cinnamon, mulled wine, pomander balls, and burning logs in the fireplace. And, with luck, a performance of The Nutcracker. Mmmmm, I can almost taste it.

But now that I have had my fix of Yuletide magic, I feel equipped to ignore the plastic, tinsel and pop around me and look forward to the Marché de Santons, the Treize Desserts and the mouth-watering displays in local food stores. This is where creativity blooms and where the repas de Noël is turned into a work of art. After all, we are in France, where food takes center stage and, in its rich variety and no-expense-spared luxury, outshines the goose or turkey and trimmings elsewhere. Credit where credit is due.


After a campaign where dirty tricks were not totally absent, former president NICOLAS SARKOZY has just won the leadership of the Conservative UMP party which since last summer had been run by a temporary triumvirate after its then-president Jean-François Coppé was ousted following a financial scandal. With 64.5% of the vote Sarkozy fell short of his hoped-for score of 80%, needed to avoid presidential primaries in 2016, where he will face two heavy-weight fellow contenders: former prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon. This is a first step for Sarkozy in his attempt to regain the French presidency in 2017. After losing his bid for re-election in 2012 he withdrew from politics but admitted earlier this summer that he misses politics too much. Despite his legal troubles, he is clearly aiming for the presidency but his first challenge will be to revive and reunite a broken-down and divided UMP party.

The latest labor statistics have just been released and indicate that unemployment rose by 0.8 percent to a record 3.4 million in October, casting new doubts on the effectiveness of PRESIDENT HOLLANDE's policies to stimulate the economy (tax cuts for businesses) and create employment (job programs for the young). He has said he will not run for re-election in 2017 if unemployment is not reduced. Many voters blame the rise of the right and extreme-right parties on François Hollande's weak performance.

As if rising unemployment, a stalled economy, and budget cuts were not enough to keep Hollande busy, the pesky problem of his love life has surfaced again. Last week, gossip magazine Voici featured a cover photo of the president seated with actress Julie Gayet on a terrace in the grounds of the Elysée Palace. The picture, reportedly taken by a Palace insider with a portable phone, seems to indicate that the Hollande-Gayet relationship is "on again" (or never stopped). Julie Gayet, as you all know, is the "other woman" at the heart of the noisy break-up between Hollande and then-mistress Valérie Trierweiler in January of this year (blog 1/20/14). The in-house Elysée security service has not been able to pinpoint the origin of the picture, but five people of Hollande's immediate entourage have been moved to other duties.


SPAIN:  Princess Cristina

Princess Cristina with husband
On November 7th, a Spanish court upheld tax fraud charges against Princess Cristina in a corruption case that also involves her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin (blog 2/11/14). The judge dismissed the more serious charge of money laundering, opening the possibility that Cristina can settle the case by paying back taxes.

The investigation has been going on for three years and was one of the scandals that weakened the Spanish monarchy and led to King Juan Carlos's resignation in June 2014. He was succeeded by his son and Cristina's brother, King Felipe VI, who in his acceptance speech promised integrity and transparency as part of a "renovated monarchy for a new time". Fifteen others, including Cristina's husband, still stand accused of embezzling $7.5 million of public funds. Their trial is expected to take place in 2016.

As part of the crackdown on tax evasion in Spain following the country's economic crisis, footballer Lionel Messi who plays for Barcelona was charged with tax evasion during the years 2007-2009. He and his father, who manages Messi's financial affairs, will have to stand trial at an as yet unspecified date, even though Messi has repaid the outstanding taxes plus interest. 

PORTUGAL:  Former PM Jose Socrates

Former PM Jose Socrates
And in Portugal, former Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates (2005-2011) was jailed on November 24th after two days of questioning on accusations of corruption, money laundering, and tax fraud. Socrates, 57, was detained at Lisbon airport on his return from Paris where he has been living since he quit as prime minister in 2011. Three other people are being held for questioning and the investigative judge has ordered that all remain in temporary custody while the probe continues. In Portugal, formal charges can only be filed at the end of an investigation, which can last up to eight months. Mr. Socrates, who denies the charges, has announced he will appeal.

Judges are being helped by the stricter rules and increased international cooperation against tax evasion and money laundering, and catching some big names has undeniable value. They are fishing in fertile waters and we probably have not heard the last of this.

(*)  Read more about Santons and a Provençal Christmas in my book TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by clicking here:

1 comment:

  1. Once again you evoke the spirit of Provence, with your descriptions of a Gallic Christmas!