Sunday, February 28, 2016



Yesterday, one hour before its official opening, President François Hollande visited the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, where all farm-produced riches of France live as well as transformed will be on display for nine days on the vast grounds of this annual fair at the Porte de Versailles. Just returned from a visit to South America and to French Polynesia, where he was wreathed in flower garlands, he found quite a different reception at the Salon where his arrival was booed amid cries for his resignation. The angry farmers, who have been marching and disrupting traffic everywhere for over a month, claim that Hollande has not kept his promises and that they are hanging on by their fingernails, facing bankruptcy if immediate relief is not forthcoming. Worst off are the dairy farmers and pork producers who cannot compete with lower-priced products from Germany or Eastern Europe sold at French supermarkets.

Hollande in difficulty at the Salon
Last summer Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll acknowledged that French farmers pay more social charges and face stiffer environmental regulations than other European farmers who can offer their products at lower prices (see blog 8/23/15).  He promised to take up the issue with the European Commission in Brussels and to request that supermarkets show solidarity by reducing their profit margins on certain French farm products. In January of this year the government granted the farmers a 10 percent reduction of their charges but it was not enough and the demonstrations continued. At yesterday's Salon opening a beleaguered President Hollande said that negotiations with the supermarket chains are continuing and that he would discuss the problems caused by the EU's sanctions on Russia (big export market for French farmers) with the European Council at their meeting of March 7th. For the farmers it was a song and dance they had heard before, and they responded by tearing down the Salon's stand of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Stand of Ministry of Agriculture destroyed
The small family farm, so beloved by the tradition-bound French, is facing an uphill battle against mechanized, industrial-size farms elsewhere and their ultimate failure looms large. Bankruptcies are likely to reduce their numbers in the coming years, and perhaps some survivors may want to reinvent themselves as exporters of a high-priced luxurious niche product targeted at the deep pockets of the ultra-rich, a segment that seems to suffer no slowdown. Like fine French wines, champagne and perfumes, high-end artisanal truffel-studded French sausage?


After a court last Thursday gave the Calais prefecture the go-ahead to dismantle the notorious Jungle camp outside Calais (blog 2/5/16), local officials have begun telling refugees that they will have to move out. No deadline was set, but after transfering some 3000 migrants to other shelters in Northwest France in recent months, authorities have already razed the crowded southern section of the camp and brought in a large number of converted shipping containers equipped with heating and plumbing to house some 1300 migrants while their asylum applications are being treated. They also tried to convince the other refugees to give up their attempts to reach England and apply for asylum in France.

Jungle before
However, Clare Moseley of British volunteer aid organization Care4Calais said that several aid groups have been opposing the dismantlement in court and that a new legal appeal against Thursday's ruling has been filed. Volunteers, aided by French students, toured the camp and explained to the migrants that they were allowed to stay while the appeal is pending. It appears that most have no intention to move anyway, like the Afghan man who said "It took me two years to get here and I have been here for three months now. I have tried lots of times to go to England. I have family there; it's the only place I want to go." Similarly, a Pakistani man (no-one gives his name here) said: "I'm staying here. It's either here or England."

Calais Jungle after
Some of the camp's residents have moved into the heated containers, others leave daily in small groups on official buses that take them to other refugee centers. But most prefer to stay in the improved camp that contains a refugee-built church, a mosque, a language school for French and English classes, and several shops. Among them are more than three hundred unaccompanied children who have family in the UK and who could have their claims considered here, according to Rachel Robinson of the human rights group Liberty. British actor Jude Law, who visited the camp last week, called on David Cameron to allow unaccompanied children in the camp entry into the UK if they have family there.

The clean-up and eventual destruction of The Jungle has begun but is not likely to be finished anytime soon. Furthermore, the appalling lack of a coordinated European response to the migrant crisis and growing nationalism in eastern Europe bode ill for the refugees in the short term and for the very survival of the European Union in the long term.


In the shadow of furious farmers and suffering refugees, another battle is quietly brewing in France: the recent circumflex-and-simplified-spelling issue has turned into an open confrontation between the Académie Française and the Minister of Education (blog 2/5/16). In an interview published on February 13 in the daily Le Figaro Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, Perpetual Secretary of the Académie Française, re-stated the position of the Académie: "A total opposition to any spelling reform but a conditional agreement on a limited number of simplifications that shall not be imposed by any authority and shall have to withstand the test of time." She insisted that the "limited simplifications" were proposed in 1990 by the Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française and not by the Académie Française, "as the Ministry of Education has us believe."  The fine distinction between the Council and the Académie might have escaped mere mortals, but Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister of Education, was not taken in and called on Mrs. Carrère d'Encausse to explain herself. The hair splitting that followed added little light to the situation but gave Mme Carrère the opportunity to slip in the fact that international studies have shown that the educational level in France has decreased over the years in comparison with other countries and that in 2016 we have one out of every five French students leaving school without proper reading skills. Ouch!

If the fine points appear rather immaterial and both the old and new spelling rules are accepted (so where's the problem?), one thing is clear:  nothing unleashes French passions like touching their language.

New spelling? Oh Nooooooooo!

Friday, February 5, 2016



On January 27th, outspoken French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned and left the Socialist government of President François Hollande in a clash over the proposed law on stripping French-born dual nationals convicted of terrorism in France of their French citizenship. Taubira had refused to support a law that she considers discriminatory because it would create two different levels of citizenship, contrary to the principle of Egalité embedded in the French Constitution. Prime Minister Manuel Valls then presented the bill himself to the National Assembly without any mention of dual citizenship, ostensibly because in practice one cannot leave an individual stateless and the law could therefore only apply to dual nationals.

The bill requires an amendment of the French Constitution and will be deliberated in parliament together with the government's request to extend the state of emergency for another three months after its expiration on February 26. Although both issues have raised reservations on the left, they are widely supported on the right and by a majority of the French people. It is now up to Taubira's successor, Jean-Jacques Urvoas, a Deputy and law professor from Brittany and a close ally of Prime Minister Valls, to defend the measures in Parliament.

Although Taubira's resignation came as a shock it was not really a surprise. Best known for her role in legislating same-sex marriage in 2013, she had had earlier run-ins with the President and Prime Minister Valls on policy issues. In August 2014 three government ministers resigned in protest against Hollande's economic policies, and the President had to intervene in a public dispute between Valls and Taubira to avoid her departure as well. Despite her 4ft. 11in. height she cast a long shadow as a feisty defender of leftist causes, and as a black woman with a background of socialist militancy her symbolic value to Hollande was undeniable.

Their break was inevitable but the parting on the steps of the Elysée Palace seemed cordial. After the President had thanked her for her significant contributions, Taubira hopped on her bike and pedaled away to loud applause of her supporters. Only to be on everybody's lips again a few days later with the publication of her well-timed book "Murmures à la Jeunesse" a detailed defense of her opposition to the revocation of citizenship. By then, Taubira was in New York where she gave a rousing speech to a packed audience at NYU and to accept an honorary doctorate degree in law and human rights from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Taubira is only the latest in a string of ministers to leave the current government. Of the 34 ministers François Hollande appointed upon his election in May 2012, only 13 remain today. All others were either fired or resigned, mostly over policy disagreements with a president they felt was betraying the socialist principles on which he was elected and had become too accommodating to the right.

This move to the right can be explained in the context of France's weak economy and continued high unemployment where Hollande's various remedies have had little or no effect so far, and the November terrorist attacks in Paris that called for a strong response such as a state of emergency, with increased house arrests and police raids without warrants. The President's anti-terrorism actions at home were perceived as strong and decisive, and raised his approval rating right after the attacks by 22 points to 50%, as shown in a December IFOP poll. A jittery nation responded well to a strong hand at the helm.

Unfortunately, all was lost again when 2015 year-end figures confirmed a near stagnant economy and yet another increase in the unemployment level. A January 7 poll by Elabe showed that only 26% of French voters approved of Hollande's leadership and that his New Year's message had failed to provide reassurance. Echos of "It's the economy, stupid" ?


Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is looming large in several EU countries, nowhere more so than in the French port city of Calais where things are coming to a boil. As I reported earlier, some 6000 refugees seeking to enter the U.K. are stuck in and around Calais where they try every day to board a ferry or stow away on a truck bound for England. The local authorities grouped them together on a vacant lot outside the city where it sheltered 1500 of them in tents with access to food and showers nearby. Soon, however, the continued flow of new arrivals overwhelmed these facilities, makeshift tents sprouted up everywhere, living conditions worsened and tensions rose. The camp became known as The Jungle, a slum made increasingly unlivable with its unsanitary conditions and the onset of winter. About half of the refugees have been transferred to other centers, but some 3000 remain today in The Jungle which heavy rains have turned into one vast field of mud.

In response the local authorities are installing heated living containers in the camp to replace the flimsy tents which are poor protection against rain and mud. They have also moved some 120 women with young children to the neighboring Jules Ferry open-air center where they are well housed in a building behind a gate that is locked at night to keep them safe from male aggressors. [Médecins Sans Frontières has noted many unwanted pregnancies, venereal disease and signs of abuse among the 200-300 women who live in the camp.]

The authorities have also begun to clear a 100 m security zone around the camp's perimeter, demolishing in the process a makeshift church and a mosque built by the refugees. Construction of the converted containers, bolted onto a cement foundation, continues but will not replace all the tents before the end of winter. This does not seem to disturb some of the diehards who still hope to get to England and will keep trying in spite of the tightened security, razor-wire-topped fences, unscalable walls and guard dogs on both sides of the border. "The biggest problem" says one of the migrants, "is that this transit, this temporary wait in Calais, could become permanent with better housing. We are at the mercy of your goodwill and benevolence, which we are very grateful for, but as able-bodied men we want to work, we want to keep hoping, we want to rebuild our lives and join our family members in England. It is hard to keep your dignity, whether you live in a leaky tent or in a comfortable box."

Church in The Jungle, before
The mayor of Calais and the Prefect of the region, both women, have repeatedly appealed to the government for help, most recently in the form of army personnel to help clear out the human traffickers in the area as well as anarchists from groups such as No Borders, who incite the migrants to riot and supply them with truncheons to fight the police.
The women met in Paris this week with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and the newly appointed Minister of Justice, Jean-Jacques Urvoas. At stake is not only the lot of the migrants but also the image of the City of Calais and the proper functioning of the port. Meanwhile, a number of NGOs, associations and volunteers are doing their best to keep things together in the camps.

Elsewhere in Europe, refugees are facing other battles.
The New Year's Eve wave of sexual assaults on German women in Cologne that police attributed to migrants from North Africa has put severe pressure on Angela Merkel's open-door refugee policy. Although nothing has changed for war refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, the German government has now decided to put migrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on a "safe country of origin" list, which means they cannot obtain asylum.

Alarm bells are ringing in Scandinavia as well, resulting in tightened immigration policies.
Sweden announced that it may reject up to half of the 163,000 asylum applications it received in 2015 and that the failed asylum seekers will be deported over several years.
Neighboring Finland, which like Sweden has received the highest number of migrants per capita in the EU, announced similar measures and may deny up to two-thirds of the 32,000 asylum requests it is currently considering.

In Denmark parliament approved a new law that allows the confiscation of valuables over 10,000 Kroner (1,340 Euros; 1,450 dollars) from refugees and a delay in family reunification. The tough new law is meant to reduce the influx of refugees and was explained as "no different from what we ask our Danish citizens before they receive state benefits."
Switzerland and Germany have also begun to confiscate valuables and ask refugees to help pay for their upkeep "to ensure that they are not better off than our own people on welfare."

As the mood is turning, the need for a united European response to this crisis has never been more urgent.


The world may be changing, but nothing seems more permanent than strikes in France. In the past two months we have seen strikes by farmers, teachers, airlines, taxis (the regular kind as well as the independent Uber kind they were striking against), and yesterday we had a strike in support of strikers. Thousands of members of the largest French union, the CGT, answered a call to strike to protest against prison sentences meted out against eight workers at a Goodyear plant who held two managers hostage for thirty hours in January 2014. They want the charges dropped.

The sentence by a court in Amiens of nine months in prison with a further 15 suspended was considered too harsh by many, but may have been exemplary in view of a pattern of increased hostage-taking and violence at plant closings over the past years. Though strikers often resort to violence and destruction, they are hardly ever punished by the courts because this usually occurs in the context of plant closings and loss of jobs.

This latest strike took place in many cities throughout France but was most keenly felt in Paris where service on the busy RER A and B lines was reduced to half, thus stranding many of the two million daily commuters. As usual, most French people supported the strikers.


this item in Le Monde of yesterday attempting to shed light on various press reports of the previous day on the status of the accent circonflexe. Will we lose it? Will the spelling reforms kill it off? Will it disappear at the start of the new school year? Social networks were quick to respond. The Department of Education less so, stating they had issued nothing on the subject. The rumor had started when on February 3rd the TF1 website announced that the spelling reform of 1990 would become effective at the start of the new school year in September 2016.
Here is a summary of the long article in Le Monde:

Seat of the Académie Française
In 1990 the Académie Française had proposed a simplification of spelling and accentuation of the French language, resulting in fierce opposition, passionate debate and silence…until 2008, when an official Bulletin of the Department of Education made reference to the "revised spelling" rules. Nobody seems to have noticed until in late 2015 another reference was made to "rectified spelling, as approved by the Académie Française and published in the Journal Officiel of 6 December 1990" in connection with the upcoming school year.

So where do we stand in 2016? A textbook publisher replies: "This time we all decided to incorporate the new spelling in our manuals, which was only done sporadically before. However, this remains a choice and not an obligation." And our circumflex accent? Does it stay? Well, let's say it comes and goes, depending. I'll skip the rules and their exceptions, which end with this statement of the Académie Française: "All those who already have a good comprehension of the old spelling do not have to adopt this new norm." And this conclusion of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French Minister of Education: "The new rules are a reference but cannot be imposed. Therefore, both the old and new spelling are correct."
Just so you know and don't get impatient about impending change.

Sir Michael Edwards

I wonder if Sir Michael Edwards had anything to do with this. Who he? The first Englishman to enter the Académie Française! London-born Edwards is a poet, translator, author and literary critic specializing in French language and literature, who was elected to join the 40 Immortals of the Académie Française in February 2013 where he took the seat of Jean Dutourd who had died in 2011. Married to a Frenchwoman, he has dual citizenship and was knighted in 2014 for  his services to Franco-British cultural relations.

The doors of the most exclusive French institution have opened just a crack to let in UN ROSBIF !
Who would have thought it?