Monday, December 21, 2015

REGIONAL ELECTIONS; CLIMATE CONFERENCE; TAPIE TO PAY, LAGARDE TO STAND TRIAL

REGIONAL ELECTIONS

On Sunday, December 13th, a collective sigh of relief could be heard in France as the results of the second round of voting in the regional elections was announced. Just one week earlier, the extreme-right Front National party of Marine Le Pen had scored a stunning victory over its two main rivals, the conservative Les Républicains party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist party of President Hollande. Bolstered by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Le Pen's anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-European Union rhetoric found a new audience with nervous or undecided voters disappointed by their own parties and disheartened by continued high unemployment and a stalled economy. Suddenly, it was no longer unthinkable that Le Pen would be a serious presidential candidate in 2017, an unpalatable scenario for the mainstream.

From its weak third-place position, the Socialist party leadership then took the decision to withdraw its candidates in several key regions and urged voters there to massively support the conservative Republican party against the far right. The tactic worked and Les Républicains, with heavy socialist backing, won the second round. Moreover, the Front National, which had captured six of the thirteen metropolitan regions of France in the first round, lost all of them in the second round.

An angry Marine Le Pen called this tactical voting scheme "intellectual terrorism by the political mafia" and vowed to be back, recalling her party's strong score in the first round and the more than six million votes it had gathered. Relieved by the final outcome, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls nevertheless cautioned against triumphalism and warned that "the danger of the extreme right is not averted," yet expressing confidence that next time voters could again vote FOR a party, not against one. 


CONFERENCE ON CLIMATE CHANGE

This 'happy ending' came on the heels of the jubilant conclusion of the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, where nearly 200 governments had just reached a landmark agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming, spelling the end of the fossil fuel era. It took thirteen days (one more than planned) of tough negotiations, sleepless nights, a nail-biting finale and all the diplomatic skills of conference president Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, to get the agreement adopted.

In 20 years of UN climate meetings, the COP21 had set the most ambitious goals and succeeded beyond expectation: to limit global warming to "well below 2° C" and, in a concession to the most vulnerable countries, to pursue efforts to keep temperatures to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels with an ultimate goal of bringing the temperature rise down to zero by mid-century. It also included demands for regular five-year reviews of emissions reductions, and agreed on a fund of $100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources to help developing countries in their transition to a clean-energy economy. Although the agreement is legally binding, the matter of funding is not.


Last-minute objections to the text involved details of translation, typos, and a demand from the United States to replace the word "shall" by "should," thereby weakening the text but avoiding the need for approval from the US Congress where it would likely have been rejected. The masterful management and shuttle diplomacy of Laurent Fabius kept the final discussions from derailing and as soon as consensus was reached and his gavel came down, there followed an explosion of joy with shouts, hugs, fist pumping, and a few tears. The tension was finally broken and even the leaders on the dais, including Ban Ki-moon, let loose with a volley of whoops and hugs.

Much of the credit for the success of COP21 went to Laurent Fabius, but equal kudos should go to the City of Paris where Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her team faced the daunting challenge of protecting numerous heads of state, government ministers and VIP's as well as thousands of international delegates during several weeks. And that, less than a month after the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and hundreds more wounded. France was still on maximum alert, but only full cooperation between city management and all the security forces involved could guarantee safety. Paris rose to the challenge and delivered beautifully. Bravo!


TAPIE TO PAY; LAGARDE TO STAND TRIAL

The long-playing saga of colorful French businessman Bernard Tapie may finally have run its course when on December 3rd the Paris court of appeals rejected Tapie's arguments and ordered him to repay his arbitration award of 403 million euros to the State. In 1994, Tapie had filed suit against the partly State-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank for fraudulently undervaluing his Adidas sportswear company when he had to divest himself in order to be named a government minister (see blog of 2/28/2015). The decades-old case has tainted several members of the Sarkozy government and may yet claim another victim today: Christine Lagarde, presently head of the International Monetary Fund.

In 2007, after nearly fourteen years of litigation against CL, Bernard Tapie approached Christine Lagarde, then Finance Minister under President Sarkozy, requesting that his case be settled by arbitration to speed up the outcome. She accepted and three private arbitrators were selected by the parties involved. This arbitration panel judged in favor of Tapie and awarded him €403 million in damages and interest. Christine Lagarde accepted the decision and signed off on the payment, made with public funds (the CL having gone bankrupt) and causing a public outcry.

Among rumors of manipulation of the arbitration, Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the opposition and later prime minister of Socialist president François Hollande, claimed the arbitration was rigged as a reward for Tapie's support of candidate Sarkozy in his presidential campaign. The Socialists demanded a formal investigation.

In May 2013 Christine Lagarde was questioned by prosecutors about her role in the matter of the Tapie arbitration. She was cleared of any charges but was placed under the status of témoin assisté, an obligation to remain available for further questioning if needed. Her chief of staff at the time of the arbitration, Stéphane Richard, was placed under formal investigation on suspicion of organized fraud.

In February 2015 the Paris appeals court annulled the arbitration panel's ruling and in early December 2015 a court ruled that the Crédit Lyonnais had not undervalued Adidas which it sold at the then market value, based on information that was available to both CL and Mr. Tapie. Tapie should therefore not be compensated for the sale and is ordered to repay the arbitration award of €403 million plus interest.

Days later, the Court of Justice of the Republic (CJR), which handles criminal cases involving government officials, charged Ms. Lagarde with "negligence by a person in a position of public authority" in connection with the arbitration. If convicted, she could be sentenced to one year in prison. Her lawyer called the court's decision "incomprehensible" and will recommend that she appeal.

While the IMF spokesman said that the organization "continues to have confidence in the managing director's ability to effectively carry out her duties," the court's decision to have her stand trial comes at a bad time for Lagarde, 59, whose term as IMF's managing director ends in July 2016. It was widely expected that she would run for a second term.

In a final twist, Bernard Tapie, 72, who two weeks ago said he was ruined by the court's decision and unable to pay back the arbitration award, made a surprise announcement in yesterday's Journal de Dimanche: he is returning to politics. To stop the rise of the Front National, he says, and to deal with youth unemployment. He wants to make youth unemployment illegal and promised to have a proposal ready before the end of January 2016 to "get all unemployed 18- to 25-year-olds into work."

With his roller-coaster career, his bigger-than-life personality and matching lifestyle, his rock star looks, his gutsy gambles, he has succeeded and failed in almost equal measure but has always managed to bounce back. His been-there-done-that resumé (former singer, actor, TV producer, football club owner, government minister, jailbird, tycoon) suggests he won't stop there.

Can he make it back this time? Why politics? A diversionary tactic while he tries to save what he can? We'll have to wait and see as he strings us along like voyeuristic spectators at a slightly off-color show. Watch for the sequel.


... And suddenly, it's nearly Christmas and more important things are claiming our attention. What are we going to EAT? Food talk is in the air, not to mention on TV and in newspapers and magazines. Exotic recipes, sumptuous desserts, once-a-year luxuries are the new standard. Home decoration is way down the list, and Christmas cards have disappeared from the French landscape.

As I slowly shift into year-end gear, I wish all of you the Christmas of your dreams and

PEACE FOR ALL IN THE NEW YEAR.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

TERRORIST ATTACK IN FRANCE


AUX LARMES CITOYENS!  *


As France mourns its dead from the brutal terrorist attacks perpetrated at six separate sites in Paris a week ago, questions are beginning to displace the initial cries of pain and disbelief, and the intense sadness and sympathy felt for the victims. 

With a lump in our throat and a vivid memory of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris just ten months ago, we watched the candles and mounds of flowers left at the killing sites as well as in front of city halls all across the country, listened to the stirring Marseillaise, read the moving messages:  I lost my son and all I did was buy him a ticket to a concert;  129 dead, 65 million wounded;  Your Wars, Our Dead;  and We are Not Afraid!  We observed a minute of silence for the victims and listened to a somber but determined President Hollande as he addressed the two houses of Parliament. "This is war!" he declared, as he outlined his "merciless response" to ISIS which had claimed to be punishing France for its air strikes in Syria and Iraq. France will fight back with all its means and destroy ISIS, Hollande said, adding that the night before, twenty French fighter planes had bombed the city of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria, and blown up a command post, a training center and a munitions depot. He will extend the State of Emergency to three months; propose changes to the Constitution that would allow for a quicker government response in these extraordinary circumstances; speed up the deportation of foreigners who pose a threat to France; create 5000 extra police posts, and call for greater European efforts in fighting arms trafficking, as well as heavier penalties for it in France.


Two days after this speech, an early morning police raid on an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis ended with two people dead and seven arrested. The raid took seven hours, wounded five policemen and nearly destroyed the apartment that was protected by heavy steel-plated doors, before it was all over. The police had acted on a tip that a group of people, housed at that address, might be preparing another attack, and that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed mastermind of the Paris attacks, might be among them. The amount of assault weapons and explosives found at the site confirmed the suspicions, but it wasn't until two days later that it could be confirmed that the unrecognizable human remains found in the rubble were those of Abaaoud.

The rapid police action and the heightened vigilance are reassuring, but it can never be enough to beat the enemy within. And there is the greatest problem of all: most of last week's terrorists were French. Young men born and raised in France, where life is so gentle and living conditions the envy of many, where their parents and grandparents found refuge from poverty or persecution, where there is no state religion but where all faiths are freely practised, and yet... where they grew to hate this country with such passion that they want its destruction. This alienated group of young men (and some women), often unemployed and from poor backgrounds, often convicted of minor crimes, has been radicalized in jail or fallen prey to fundamentalist imams or jihadist internet sites, and today forms a well-trained army of "avengers" ready to kill their own fellow citizens. More than 500 young Frenchmen are said to have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and at least 100 of them have come back after training. Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands each have their share of "foreign fighters," raising serious questions about the porosity of Europe's borders and the apparent lack of intelligence sharing.

A week after the attacks, public reaction ranges from defiance to fear and anger. The un-afraid ones have largely ignored the government's calls to stay home, and the day after the attacks gathered again around the statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, on the Place de la République. Others, refusing to let terrorists dictate their lives, returned to their favorite bars and terrasses for a drink or a cup of coffee, as they have always done. Last night at 9:20 PM, the exact time of the first attack, a young crowd gathered again at the Place de la République, first to pay homage to the victims and then to fan out to all the bars and restaurants in the neighborhood where they partied and danced the night away, clearly visible to all. Il Faut Vivre! was their response.

Most, however, are more fearful and alarmed at this new danger among us:  the deadly violence from within, committed by people who went to school with our children, who loved our ways and our sports, who were like us until the day they pronounced us all infidels, not worthy of living.

As government leaders talk of democracy and human rights, and of France as a multi-cultural, tolerant and generous nation, there are those who say these are alien concepts to the hate-driven jihadist who knows no law but his own and does not value life. And who therefore no longer has a place in a civilized society an open door to Le Front National, the far-right islamophobic and anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen who lost no time in calling for President Hollande's resignation. Opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Les Républicains party, took Hollande to task for not drawing the lessons from the January attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine. Additional potshots came from the hard left and the right, all of which is bound to have an effect on the French regional elections set to take place on December 6 and 13.

It is regrettable that one of the Paris attackers was identified as a Syrian national who sneaked into France via Greece by posing as a refugee. Already, in certain circles voices are being raised against the refugees who are still being processed for admission to EU member states and who have braved great danger and hardship in their flight from war and terrorism in their home countries. The many thousands of refugees still in transit risk becoming collateral damage in this jihadist war being waged on French soil. Rejecting these refugees now would spell the end of the European Union as we know it and represent a huge moral failure.

It is vitally important that this murderous movement of religious fanaticism be attacked at its source, particularly in Syria and Iraq, if we want to keep it from taking hold in Europe. France has been doing so since 2013 with military interventions in West Africa, where it pushed Al Qaeda out of Mali and where it maintains a limited force to protect the Sahel region from Islamic militant incursions. It effected air strikes in Iraq in 2014 and in Syria today, where it is the only European country to join the US in air strikes against ISIS. Today it is paying the price for its leading role.

It is now asking its European partners for military assistance, invoking Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty (if one EU member is attacked, all others are to come to its aid). It has also submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that condemns the Paris attacks and calls for a redoubling of counter-terrorism efforts. This Resolution has just been unanimously adopted.

France remains on high alert, its police, military and intelligence services all fully engaged. The large week-long UN Climate Conference in Paris starting on November 30th a big job for security forces at the best of times represents a huge challenge, with more than 100 world leaders in attendance as well as delegations from 195 countries. Although canceling the event was never an option, the French government has just decided in a last-minute reversal that it will not allow any mass demonstrations during the Conference. In closed spaces, however, where security can be provided, demonstrations can be held, the authorities said.

It has been quite a week in France. This land of leisure, of culture, of live-and-let-live and of the enviable lifestyle, has been shaken from its complacency by cold-blooded barbarians who dealt death and destruction where they found the simple pleasures of eating out or listening to music. In their twisted interpretation of the Koran, enjoying life is a sin for which the punishment, in the name of Allah, is the death penalty. The dark ages are back. How do we respond to this kind of war, to this blind hatred, to these cavemen with Kalashnikovs?!

Let's hope that we have seen the last of them, so that we can begin to focus on what needs improving or rethinking: better cooperation between intelligence services; improved border checks; a coordinated worldwide effort to cut off the financial sources of the Islamic State; expulse dangerous imams; find a way to prevent young people from joining IS through education, job programs, sports programs, etc.  The list is long and the need urgent.

And we're not finished. In neighboring Belgium the city of Brussels has just been put on the highest alert level on fears of a "serious and imminent terrorist attack". Recent police raids have resulted in numerous arrests, but fugitive Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers who managed to get back to Belgium, is still at large. It is thought that he is back in Brussels, where this weekend all cultural and sports events have been cancelled and the metro system closed.



Our gentle world has changed and our lights have temporarily dimmed, but give us time and they will burn bright again. We're all in this together. If we join our efforts, our hopes, our brain power and our determination, there is no reason why we cannot get rid of this rot, this cancer in our midst that is ISIS, and regain the peaceful existence we all deserve.


AUX ARMES CITOYENS!  The time has come to fight back for what we hold dear.



* Banner headline in the daily La Provence


Saturday, November 14, 2015

CLIMATE CONFERENCE IN PARIS; CRISIS IN CALAIS


Last month, Provence Today was mum since I spent the entire month of October in the United States, totally disconnected from France. It was a disconnect but, inevitably, also a time of comparison between two worlds that function very differently.


World Trade Center 2015
On the one hand, the mighty UNITED STATES, richest country in the world (give or take a couple of oil-rich dictatorships), where a terrorist attack wiped out the proud twin towers of New York's financial heart in 2001, and where today an air of defiance hangs over the new One World Trade Center tower, tallest in the western hemisphere, higher and more beautiful than its predecessors. Opened to the public more than a year ago, One WTC, together with its moving Memorial and Museum, will soon be surrounded by five high-rise office buildings (two are still under construction) on the new 16-acre WTC site that fairly throbs with energy and vigor in that uniquely American can-do way.
Would this be possible in Europe? I wondered.

Or this:  American television programs are all interrupted by advertising. These commercials are a nuisance but something one gets used to. What struck me this time, however, was the incessant advertising of drugs and medical treatments, even in the printed press. "Ask your doctor," many of them say, which I suspect few people do given the expense of medical care in the US, a good part of which is no doubt caused by the vast amounts spent on pharmaceutical advertising.

Or this:  The televised presidential debates preceding next year's elections showed the usual verbal skirmishing and grandstanding only more so on the part of Donald Trump about a wide range of issues among which the two constants:  God and guns. Yes, God and guns, which no American presidential candidate can sidestep or ignore.

On the other hand, FRANCE: less energetic, more ponderous, more bureaucratic; more inclined to take the long-range view, less so to take risks. Also, more generous with its excellent universal health-care coverage and free education.

Two very different societies, each with their strengths and weaknesses and their mutually incomprehensible issues:
"Why can't America get a grip on its guns? Even if the Constitution grants this right, why do people feel the NEED, especially for assault weapons that don't serve for self defense?"
"Why is everything so COMPLICATED in France where unemployment remains high? Why can't people work on Sundays if they and their employers WANT to? And why does this lay country still celebrate half a dozen saints' days with official holidays?"  

No short answers to any of this, so let's move on.


CLIMATE CHANGE

On to France, that is, and to what's happening there this month, which is essentially the preparation of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11. Named COP 21 (for 21st COnference of the Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), this conference aims to reach a binding international agreement to keep global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions below 2°C. COP 21 is preceded by a final preparatory meeting in Paris on November 8-9-10, attended by 62 Interior Ministers from participating nations and presided by Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs. The purpose of this pre-COP 21 meeting is to identify areas of compromise on four critical issues that are holding up a global deal, so that these can then to be taken to the COP 21 at the end of this month in hopes of speeding up a resolution.

Organizers expect at least 40,000 people from 175 countries for the climate conference, as well as tens of thousands of activists from environmental and human rights groups. A major protest march in Paris is also planned. In this context, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced last week that France will reinstate border controls in the Schengen area for a duration of one month around this event. This is a temporary measure taken in view of terrorist threats and a risk of disturbances to public order, he said.



 CRISIS IN CALAIS

The Jungle


While focusing on the security issues surrounding the upcoming COP 21 meeting in Paris, Bernard Cazeneuve is nevertheless not allowed to forget about the serious difficulties in the port city of Calais, where overnight clashes between migrants and police have broken out in the over-populated Jungle, the temporary tent city where those who want to try to get into England are "housed" in shamefully inadequate conditions. Calais is located at the mouth of the Eurotunnel through which the migrants try to reach England as stowaways on trucks or trains, or even on foot. Many want to go to England because of the language or because they have relatives there; others want to ask for asylum or, as illegal workers, disappear into the black economy.



The recent wave of war refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East has overwhelmed reception centers in Greece and Italy and caused hostilities at a number of border crossings in Europe. The number of refugees backed up in Calais on their way to England has grown from 3,500 to 6,000, far more than the city can handle. At the request of England, France instituted tough new security measures this summer, such as 15 ft. high razor-topped fences and increased police patrols, to help prevent migrants from entering the UK. As a result, migrants' attempts to cross the Channel have dropped from a high of 2000 in July to 150 in August. 


The onset of winter, the lack of running water and the unhygienic conditions at the Jungle, as well as the growing frustration among migrants over their inability to get to England, are now leading to unrest that is further being exacerbated by political activists from Britain who incite the migrants to riot. Police were called in when migrants had begun placing obstacles on a nearby road leading to the Ferry Port in order to stop trucks so as to jump on board. 


According to Pierre-Henri Brandet, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, it is the quasi-anarchistic No Borders organization that takes advantage of the migrants' disarray to push them into rioting and supplies them with iron bars and rocks to throw at police. In the recent clashes 27 police officers suffered minor injuries and the situation remains extremely volatile.


It is to be hoped that both the security at the COP 21 in Paris and at the Jungle in Calais can be assured in the coming weeks, and that subsequently a serious international effort will be made to find a solution to both pressing problems.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

THE POWER OF A PICTURE

THE POWER OF A PICTURE


It's worth a thousand words, we know, but also capable of stirring people into long overdue action. For months now, we have been exposed to newspaper and television coverage of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries by crossing the Mediterranean on dangerously overloaded boats in an attempt to reach Europe. Many made it, some 2500 of them did not and drowned or suffocated − to widespread indifference or at least inaction in the West. Shocking as this indifference may seem, the refusal to help was usually motivated by economics, self-protection, or "religious" reasons (Hungary turning down Muslims).

But then little Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach and a photo of the 3-year old, face down in the sand like so much human flotsam washed by lapping waves, touched a nerve worldwide. Followed the story of his family's dramatic flight on an overcharged boat that capsized within sight of rescuers, causing Aylan's mother and 5-year old brother to drown in high seas and leaving his devastated father as sole family survivor.
Soon, the sight of the pitiful little body set the social media abuzz and managed to galvanize the political debate, creating the beginning of a solution for a fair distribution of refugees across reluctant EU countries.

J'ACCUSE! might be a response to this family drama, one among too many others. But whom do we accuse? The warring nations that leave its endangered populations no choice but to flee? The despicable human traffickers who not only profit from but often abandon their victims mid-way? The EU countries whose hard-hearted rulers close their doors to these desperate migrants? The oil-rich Gulf States for refusing to take in their uprooted Arab brothers? The refugees themselves for accepting a life-threatening voyage of uncertain outcome organized by criminals whose sole aim is personal profit?




Of course we know that the root cause of this dramatic situation is to be found in the migrants' home countries and needs to be attacked there. But when the house is on fire and the flames are at your heels, you jump from the window no matter what floor you're on. Uncertain as their future may be, these migrants have reason to believe that staying put means death or a dismal future for their children. Who are we to question their motives? No-one, especially parents of small children, abandons home and hearth at great risk without compelling reason.


The present flood of Mediterranean migrants is not likely to diminish anytime soon and has already stretched available services in Italy and Greece beyond capacity. In response, the European Commission proposed a quota system for refugees based on the GDP, population and unemployment rate of each host country, but this was immediately rejected by Spain and France who claimed high unemployment levels within their borders. Germany then took the lead and increased its refugee quota for this year to 800,000, asking its EU partners to accept their fair share of asylum seekers (i.e., those fleeing wars) as well. The disappointing response was meeting after meeting of haggling politicians who could not find consensus, exposing again the European Union's fatal flaw:  its fragmented leadership and the persistent nationalism within its Union. Thus was the situation when a wave of solidarity and voters' demands unleashed by social media got the politicians' attention:  private homes and small-scale solutions were being offered and shame was being heaped upon our quarreling leaders.

Suddenly, France's President Hollande found a way to offer asylum to 24,000 refugees over two years, dropping his prior policy to forcibly stop migrants from crossing the Italian border at Ventimiglia into France. And David Cameron, who had so vigorously opposed letting in the migrants stuck in Calais, offered to accept 20,000 of them over five years. All in front of TV cameras, of course, and obviously "for humanitarian reasons". What Angela Merkel had started to widespread popular approval had become an example to follow, whether the heart was in it or not.

We know that Germany has a declining population and needs immigrant labor; that is after all the reason why its offer can be so much higher than anybody else's. But we also know that the Syrian refugee population consists largely of educated middle-class people who had the money to pay passage, who speak English, want to work and many of whom want to return to Syria once it is safe to do so. This population should not scare anyone and can be expected to contribute positively to the various EU countries and identities. And let's not forget that these people did not choose to leave their countries and survived numerous hazards and hardships on their way to our borders. How can we NOT let them in?

France has been capable of great empathy and solidarity, as evidenced earlier this year in its unforgettable response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. As one, the French locked arms and marched for freedom of speech and against religious fanaticism. It was spontaneous, massive and unifying. France is also the country of Human Rights and has provided a safe haven to Armenians and other persecuted groups who have since flourished here and made the social fabric undeniably richer.

It would therefore seem obvious that it open its doors again to those who are fleeing war and violence today. But an iTele-Paris Match poll published last week shows that a majority (52 percent) of the French oppose their government's decision to welcome the refugees for fear that this will encourage future migration to France. The vote breaks down roughly along party lines: 73 percent of those polled on the left are in favor, 68 percent of the center-right are against (with its spokesman Xavier Bertrand calling the proposal of Prime Minister Manuel Valls "irresponsible"), and Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right Front National party is totally opposed to any immigration of any kind. The current political climate in France certainly plays a role in this situation, but so does the French inherent fear of change which is so easily manipulated by the extreme right.

France's motto of Liberté, Egalité and FRATERNITE is being put to the test. Will it hold up under the pressure at its borders?


MILITARY ACTION

Rafale fighter jets
In his bi-annual press conference on September 7th, President Hollande not only confirmed the acceptance of 24,000 asylum seekers over two years but also announced that, beginning immediately, French Rafale fighter planes will join coalition forces in the Middle East to provide reconnaissance flights over Syria in order to offer bombers the best possible intelligence for attacking Daesh-Islamic State sites. No troops on the ground, however, but a valuable tool nevertheless in trying to eliminate the growing threat of Daesh in the area and, no less important, thereby stemming the flow of refugees to Europe.


FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS...

Meanwhile, the juggernaut of the 28-state European Union is moving along at its slow and laborious pace to try and work out a common migration policy while urgent action is needed to deal with the Syrian asylum seekers backing up at its borders. The Central European countries continue to insist on full control of who and how many of the refugees they let in, and Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark, elected only months ago on a platform of anti-immigration policies, has just closed the door to asylum seekers in his country and will only allow them to transit to Sweden where they are welcome. Despite Germany's moral leadership (Ô irony!), several EU members continue to oppose, mostly for selfish reasons, a fair distribution of refugees across Europe.


Jean-Claude Juncker
In his annual State of the Union address on September 9th, an angry Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, called the immigrant crisis "a matter of humanity and human dignity" and spoke of the duty for EU countries to accept refugees, bearing in mind that many of its own citizens are from refugee families. He pointed out that the current wave of Syrian asylum seekers represents only 0.11 percent of the total EU population whereas the refugees in Lebanon represent 25 percent of the population. If no agreement is reached soon, he threatened, he will impose a mandatory quota system. The EU interior ministers will be meeting in Brussels on September 14th to discuss the migrant crisis. This may be their last chance at agreeing to an equitable distribution of refugees before quotas may be enforced.

All it takes is political will and a humanitarian spirit. Remember E PLURIBUS UNUM.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

PORK FARMING IN TROUBLE; PORK AT SCHOOL; AMERICAN HEROES

PROBLEMS AT THE PORK FARM

Pork farmers blocking roads
The summer of 2015 has been a hot one, with temperatures rarely dipping below 30-C and often reaching 37 or 38-C, which is uncommonly high in Provence. The usually quiet month of August (government on holiday) was further heated up by a crisis in the pork industry that has resulted in truckloads of manure being dumped in front of government buildings, access to certain supermarkets and tourist sites (Mont St. Michel) being blocked, and major roads from Germany and Spain being barricaded to stop agricultural products from coming in. The cause of this upheaval is the price of pork, set twice a week by the Breton Pork Market in Plérin, which pig farmers claim is too low to cover their production costs.

Some external reasons for this are the EU economic sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, effectively closing down a huge export market of EU meat, as well as slowing Chinese demand. The resulting excess of pork products has flooded European markets at depressed prices. But other reasons are to be found in France and its family farms that are too small to compete with the larger, heavily mechanized farms in Germany and Spain. Says one farmer: "We pay higher social charges than our European competitors and are burdened by an accumulation of environmental and other regulations in France, including a government-set maximum size of our farms. How can we compete?"

The support system of price controls, EU subsidies and state aid that has underpinned French agriculture for decades is now unraveling, and it is generally agreed that France needs to reform its agriculture in depth. This includes the entire breeding sector, from pork to beef to milk producers, whose size and traditional methods make them uncompetitive.

France accounts for more than ten percent of EU pork production, most of it in Brittany. In the past, the industrial meat purchasers have occasionally bought up overproduction at set prices to absorb the excess, but this time two of the biggest French pork buyers were unwilling to participate, boycotting the Plérin exchange and shutting it down for eight days. They refused to pay the farmers' price of €1.40 per kilo below which, the farmers say, they cannot make ends meet. Today, one quarter of all French pig farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy.

Farmers dump live pigs at supermarket
All eyes are now on Stéphane le Foll, French Minister of Agriculture, who has called a roundtable of all players and offered the farmers an emergency package of €600 million in tax relief and government-backed loans but failed to address the foreign competition issue. Like most French farmers who blame Europe for overproducing and selling at cheap prices which they cannot match, Le Foll agrees that the solution lies in harmonizing prices among European states. "If we could find a price compatible with the German, Spanish and British systems, we could talk" he said at a news conference last week. He will meet his counterparts from other European farming nations in Brussels on September 7th, where he will try to obtain guarantees. However, according to Catherine Laillé who runs a pig farm in the Loire Atlantique region, the government should act on the French social welfare charges and regulations which need to be brought in line with those of other EU farming nations. Failing that, she says, the French breeding sector is bound to die out.

French public opinion is squarely on the side of the farmers. The French love their farm-raised products, which they buy at daily outdoor markets, convinced that fresh small-farm produce is superior to supermarket produce. They are willing to pay more for organic food, a growing sector, and would probably be willing to pay more for French pork to save the breeders, but supermarkets and distributors object to a rather significant price difference between French and less expensive imported pork. For the consumer, saving the French family farm is an emotional issue, for the free market an economic one. We all know, of course, which side will win.


PORK AT SCHOOL?

Speaking of pork, the question of whether or not pork should be offered at public school cafeterias has made front-page news this month. For years, public schools have been offering a standard lunch menu as well as one without pork for those with religious objections. But in March of this year, Mayor Gilles Patret of Chablon-sur-Saône announced that he was against religion-based substitute menus in public schools and would ban them in his community come September. Pork has been served once a week as part of the standard school menu, and on those days a substitute menu was available to Muslim or Jewish students. Patret's decision was denounced by his Muslim constituents and by some Muslim leaders, and ended up being challenged in court. But on August 13th a judge in Dijon ruled in favor of Mayor Patret, accepting his argument that vegetarian menus are available every day and that nobody is obliged to eat pork. Citing the cost of substitute menus and the principle of laicité in public schools, Patret suggested that Muslim parents (he does not have Jewish constituents) pack a sandwich on pork days, but that no secular school should be expected to observe religious restrictions of one kind or another.

The 1905 French law on separation of church and state has at times been used to political advantage, and some ten years ago served to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, crosses or other "ostentatious" displays of religion inside French public schools. France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe, and tensions in the Middle East are often replayed between the two communities. Not surprisingly, the incident in Chalon-sur-Saône was seized on by the extreme-right Islamophobic Front National Party of Marine Le Pen who declared she would immediately ban the pork-less substitute meals in the eleven communities her Party controls.

Public opinion is largely divided along political lines, with conservatives supporting the court's decision, but Abdallah Zekri, speaking for the Council for the Muslim Faith, called the decision regrettable and "not taken to bring social peace to schools". No comment from the French pork farmers who must be quietly jubilating.


PARIS PLAGES - GAZA PLAGE 

Paris Plage 2015
Every summer the City of Paris offers local vacationers a very popular month-long event, Paris Plages: more than three kilometers of sandy beaches on the banks of the Seine with deck chairs, parasols, palm trees and food stands, and some water-sports events at the La Villette Basin. This year, however, the holiday atmosphere was clouded by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo's decision to celebrate the city of Tel-Aviv on August 13th with one-day festivities of Jewish music and foods as part of Paris Plages. The announcement was met with outrage from pro-Palestinian quarters who responded with their own Gaza Plage on the other side of the Notre Dame bridge, facing Tel-Aviv sur Seine.

Trying to calm the waters, Hidalgo explained: "The idea was born on a diplomatic mission of the Paris City Council to Israel and Palestine last May to feature Tel-Aviv this year just as we have in the past invited Athens and various beach-front cities of Brazil and Polynesia". She called Tel-Aviv a progressive city that is known for its opposition to the hardliners in their government and said that France entertains a lively exchange of culture and new technologies with the city.

Nevertheless, the pro-Palestinians found it unacceptable to honor a country responsible for the killing of four children on a Gaza beach last summer and more recently the fire-bombing of a house in Gaza that killed a young father and his baby boy. "Would you have organized a Berlin Beach in 1944?" one protester cried. Answering the call of the Europalestine Association, some one hundred protesters gathered to wave a Palestinian flag, hand out free falafels and carry "Boycott Israel" signs.

Tel-Aviv sur Seine
On the opposite bank a festive mood reigned as people danced with an Israeli flag and chanted to Jewish music, offering typical pastries and generally ignoring the disturbance as much as they could. Some, however, spoke of a sense of apartheid and expressed their disappointment at the reconstitution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict in this relaxed and happy beach setting in Paris.


Despite the tension in the air, the day ended without major incident, in large part due to preventive security measures (metal detectors and a bag check at the entrance to Tel-Aviv sur Seine) and a police force of 500 who managed to keep the two opposing camps separated and nipped flare-ups in the bud. 


Free-market pricing, pork on public school menus, even Paris Plages  in the end All is Politics, as Thomas Mann would say.


AMERICAN HEROES

L to R: Americans Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Englishman Chris Norman
The talk of the day in France is about the courageous Americans who forestalled a terrorist attack on a passenger train from Amsterdam to Paris last Friday. It so happened that in the last car of the Thalys high-speed train three Americans (two off-duty military personnel and one university student who were childhood friends) were traveling together when they noticed a young man with a heavy bag on his way to the toilet. Next, their trained ears picked up the sound of a magazine being loaded into a machine gun and almost simultaneously a shot being fired at a French passenger who tried to stop the gunman as he came out of the toilet with a Kalashnikov rifle. "Let's get him" one of the Americans yelled as they ran up to jump the gunman, led by Spencer Stone (6 ft. 4") who got there first and tried to wrestle the gun away. In the struggle a shot went off, slightly wounding a passenger, and Stone was slashed in the neck and hand with a box cutter knife. The three managed to overpower the gunman ("we beat him unconscious") and, helped by a British passenger who came to their aid, tied him up and grabbed the weapons: a machine gun with nine magazines, a handgun and a box cutter.
Spencer Stone leaving hospital
As the train rolled into the station of Arras where police took the attacker into custody, the train carriage (the last one on the train, a perfect trap) revealed a movie-like scene of dazed passengers and several bloodied victims: the wounded Frenchman, Spencer Stone with knife wounds to his neck and hand, one passenger with a superficial head wound from a glancing bullet, and another one with cuts to his hand sustained when he broke the window to pull the emergency brake. The Frenchman who was shot is recovering in a Lille hospital and is out of danger, Stone underwent an operation on his nearly severed thumb and was released two days later, and all others were treated for minor injuries.


Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior, who had rushed to the scene, later announced on television that an initial investigation has revealed that the suspect is 26-year-old Moroccan citizen Ayoud El-Khazzani who had lived in Spain and in France, and had been placed on a police watch list in 2014 for his radical Islamist views and suspected links to ISIS. He had boarded the train in Brussels, intent on committing a massacre. Cazeneuve expressed his gratitude to the Americans for their courageous act that without a doubt had foiled a terrorist attack. They were also praised by President Obama and will be received by President Hollande at the Elysée Palace on Monday.


To each of the fearless Americans I say, ATTABOY!!  And VIVE L'AMERIQUE!