Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Two long-running legal cases were finally wrapped up this month.

After five days of hearings by the Cour de Justice de la République (CJR), which judges wrongdoing by government officials, Christine Lagarde was found guilty of the charge of "negligence by a person in a position of public authority" but spared the potential penalty of a one-year prison term and a fine. The public prosecutor had recommended acquittal based on a "weak" case. Lagarde stood accused of mishandling the arbitration of Bernard Tapie vs the partly state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank when she allowed a payoff of more than €400 million with public funds in 2008 while she was Finance Minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy (see blog 12/21/15).

The lead judge of the CJR, which is made up of three judges and 12 members of parliament, said the sentence was dropped in consideration of the exceptional circumstances of Lagarde's difficult job as Finance Minister during the financial crisis of 2008 and of her strong reputation. The court saw no objection to her acceptance of arbitration but felt she should have contested the excessive payout, as the Treasury had recommended at the time.

The matter of Tapie vs CL had originated in 1994 and after some 14 years of litigation ended on Lagarde's desk when Tapie asked for arbitration to bring this case to a conclusion. The three arbitrators found in favor of Tapie who was awarded €403 million, to be paid from public funds since the CL bank had since gone bankrupt. This huge award of taxpayers' money and rumors of the doubtful neutrality of one of the arbitrators caused the Socialist opposition party to demand a special investigation, and in 2015 the Paris appeals court annulled the award and ordered Tapie to repay.

Back in Washington after the grueling week-long trial in Paris, Christine Lagarde commented that she was not satisfied with the judgment but needed to put this five-year ordeal behind her and focus fully on her work as head of the IMF. Following the verdict, the IMF Board immediately expressed its "full confidence in the managing director's ability to effectively continue to carry out her duties".

Although some experts agree that the legal case against her was weak, the matter was politically sensitive. As a person close to Lagarde said: "You have to take into account the long-running resentment of the judiciary power against the executive power, and the political dynamic among the MPs, between the left and the right." President Hollande's statement that "the judiciary is an institution of cowards" as quoted in the book A President Should Not Say That… (blog 12/05/16) is still ringing in our ears. 

Pierre Le Guennec  

Pierre Le Guennec
Last week the Appeals Court of Aix-en-Provence upheld the verdict of the 2-year suspended prison sentence against Mr. and Mrs. Le Guennec pronounced by the criminal court in Grasse in 2015 in the case brought by the Picasso Administration for theft of artwork (blog 11/03/16). Pierre le Guennec, 77,who had been Picasso's electrician for a number of years, claimed that the 271 unsigned drawings in his possession were a gift from Picasso's widow Jacqueline, but the court found his testimony not credible. This verdict effectively spells the end of a 6-year saga that began in 2010, when Le Guennec took some of the unsigned drawings to Claude Picasso in Paris for authentication. 

I attended the reading of the verdict and was struck by the fact that Le Guennec was alone, without his wife, who is seriously ill, but also without his lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti. The latter takes on mostly high-profile cases and rarely misses an opportunity to be seen and heard on television. His assistant Antoine Vey did not attend either. The Picasso Administration, on the other hand, was represented by two lawyers.The presiding judge read the verdict in a rapid monotone, citing several fines to be paid by defendants according to Articles X or Y, then said "Do you understand, Mr. Le Guennec?" and that was it. Le Guennec's response, if any, had been inaudible but plaintiffs' lawyers packed up their briefcases and rushed out to meet the press, as the judge moved on to the next case. Barely three minutes had passed.

I walked out with Le Guennec and asked him if he knew the Articles the judge had been referring to. He said No, nor did he seem to know why his lawyer was not there. Clearly, Dupond-Moretti's line of defense of the simple but honest little guy who receives a gift that he carefully stores and protects for 40 years before asking for authentication from Claude Picasso did not convince. The plaintiffs' argument that Le Guennec and his wife were part of a sophisticated ring of art thieves won out. Defendant did not have a signed receipt for the gift from Jacqueline Picasso and, besides, had lied during the first trial and could therefore not be believed on anything else. No further evidence needed. Case closed. 

In the cold light of the law there may be no such thing as an outright gift made to a faithful servant by a deeply despondent woman who later kills herself. It was known that Jacqueline hated Claude Picasso and she may have wanted to hide the box of uncatalogued artwork from Claude. Even Jacqueline's daughter considered that scenario not impossible, until she changed her mind later. And who can say for sure that Jacqueline did not gave other unregistered artwork away? Why did Le Guennec wait 40 years before seeking authentication if he was part of an organization of art thieves? Is proof of guilt not just as important as proof of innocence?

My close-up view of this case has left me with some unanswered questions, and with one certainty: the best lawyer always wins. But is it justice?

And Then It Was Christmas...

… and time to wish you Happy Holidays and a new year of PEACE for all mankind.
Far-fetched, you think? Let's just dream a little, especially at this time.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Now that the noise around Donald Trump's election has receded into a distant rumble, pierced occasionally by further worrisome announcements by the president-elect that only underscore his total inadequacy for the job ahead, France has returned to its own problems its primary elections.

A Trump presidency could potentially have serious consequences for Europe and the Middle East, especially at a time of dangerous geopolitical tensions, so one immediate concern for French voters is how to avoid a similar disaster in France, where Marine le Pen of the extreme-right, islamophobic, anti-immigrant Front National party (and admirer of Trump and Putin) is a candidate for the presidency in 2017. If elected, she promises to leave the European Union (a Frexit, if you will), send back refugees, and close French borders. Nationalism and protectionism just like Trump would be her program.

The recent primaries of the French center and right parties in November have produced a surprise winner:  conservative François Fillon of the Les Républicains party, whose fellow-candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was eliminated in the first round.

A very divided French left will hold its primaries in late January with a mixed bag of candidates. The surprise announcement of sitting president François Hollande that he will not seek a second term may have improved the chances of the splintered left but not enough to survive the first round. Fillon will therefore face Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in April 2017, and although it is not expected that Le Pen will win, that possibility cannot be excluded.  [There are some independent candidates as well, but a Fillon-Le Pen runoff is still the most likely outcome.]

Time, then, to wake up to a worst-case scenario of total chaos, keeping in mind that Brexit was not expected to pass but it did, and Trump was not expected to win but he did. Imagine also, if you can, a Europe that is increasingly leaning to the right (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Hungary, and perhaps post-Renzi Italy), with "commander in chief" Trump and his ally Putin at the helm. Are you worried yet? I think we should be.

How did we get there?
In France, one contributing factor surely is the total crumbling of the left during the presidency of François Hollande who disappointed both the left and the right and compromised himself out of any significant reform, including the lowering of the unemployment level which he had staked his second term on. Among growing disagreement right from the start, eight ministers left his government (in protest or fired), a ninth was convicted of tax evasion, and a number of close advisers were dismissed as well. A certain amount of amateurism and incompetence accounted for a difficult start and precious time lost, but the greatest self-inflicted damage to any chance at re-election was probably caused by the recent publication of the book A President Should Not Say That..., written by two investigative journalists who over the past five years were granted numerous exclusive interviews with President Hollande. As authors Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme of the respected daily Le Monde write in their introduction, Hollande welcomed these interviews, and with very few exceptions stuck to the agreed-upon weekly one-hour sessions throughout.  

Cautious by nature, Hollande nevertheless seemed at ease with these journalists and surprised them by making a number of disparaging and damaging statements about certain persons and institutions. More than once he said: "A president should not say that..." (title of the book), knowing that these conversations were being recorded, but saying it nevertheless. About his first prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (So loyal he is inaudible); about the president of the Parliament Claude Bartolone (He is insignificant); about his young Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (She is no intellectual, but she is good at stonewalling); about the Judiciary (An institution of cowards); about the French national football team (A bunch of under-educated brats who have become overly-rich super-stars; football clubs should not only work on their muscles but on their brains as well); on immigration (We have too many immigrants that should not be here). He even mentioned four targeted assassinations by French secret services under the code name Homo, which some have called a breach of national security. Finally, the book reveals that Hollande, who is always seeking advice, does not listen to any.

Hollande and Valls
Amid the brouhaha that followed the book's publication last month, Hollande's defense that his words were taken out of context (in a book of nearly 700 pages based on taped interviews?) did nothing to help his cause. Majority leader Claude Bartolone publicly broke with Hollande and refuses to speak to him; the two highest magistrates of the country accused the president of humiliating the judiciary and demanded a retraction (they did not get it); Manuel Valls and socialist party chairman Cambadelis distanced themselves from him, and even the foreign press weighed in, with expressions of incomprehension from German Handelsblatt and Spanish La Vanguardia. Translated by We, the People, as:  WTF ???????????????

Here is a devastating indictment of the man who wanted to be a "normal president" (as opposed to Nicolas Sarkozy's "bling-bling" presidency), who made a virtue of being simple but employed a personal barber at €10,000 euro per month, who craved secrecy yet managed to have his love life and messy breakup with mistress A splashed all across the media as a result of his poorly-disguised night-time scooter escapades to mistress B. And who ends his first term amid appeals from his own camp to please go away and let prime minister Valls try to save what he can of a totally disintegrated left before the January primaries. After an agonizingly long wait, Hollande finally threw in the towel on December 1st and immediately flew to Abu Dhabi to attend the opening of a branch of the Louvre museum - where, amid the gaudy glitter and the pride of Arab leaderdom, he could temporarily forget his own gilded Elysée bunker that had so effectively shielded him from reality these past years.

But let me not end on such a negative note and try to find a chuckle where I can, for instance in the fertile field of French-English confusion. It is an established fact that few French people (especially the well educated of a certain age) speak English. Or, at least, English that an English-speaker might understand. So it took me a while to figure out what a French friend was talking about as we were discussing the American elections. What sounded like "pawn sweet" remained a mystery to me until she referred to Facebook and the growing "pant suit" nation of Hillary Clinton fans. Naturally!   
In France as elsewhere, most computer terms are English (except the word computer, ordinateur in French), but here they get conjugated to become:  drivé, switché, tweetez, likez, followez, etc.
Two bistros in Aix are selling Handburgers now, and one is offering Go Home Food.
And do you know what a female DJ (disc jockey) is in French? A DJette!
I am going to have my chuckle at a local bar where the Happy Hour lasts five hours.  Cheers!