Wednesday, February 22, 2017


As elections approach in Holland (mid March) and in France (late April/early May), we have to tear ourselves away from the Trump circus and its daily dose of doozies, which isn't easy given its undeniable Biggest-Show-on-Earth quality. Like The Sopranos, we don't want to miss a single episode of this saga with its predictable outcome, but then there is the real world...


Fillon and British-born wife Penelope
Less colorful and entertaining than Trump on the stump, France is in the midst of its own political scandal. Known as Penelopegate, it concerns François Fillon, the conservative candidate and presumed winner of the upcoming presidential elections where he would beat right-wing Marine Le Pen in the second round. No longer. When it was reported that Fillon had been paying his wife Penelope for many years from public funds for a non-existing job as his parliamentary assistant and later recruited two of his children as well, his ratings dropped sharply. The accumulated paychecks reportedly totaled nearly €900,000 paid out of Fillon's public-fund treasury, plus €100,000 to Penelope paid by a wealthy friend for two book reviews in a literary magazine he owned. In France, parliamentarians are allowed to hire family members as long as their job is genuine, and Fillon's defense has been that he has done nothing illegal and can provide evidence of the work done by his family members. A financial fraud panel is looking into the allegations and Fillon has said that he would withdraw his candidacy if the judges found him guilty, expressing the hope that a verdict could be rendered quickly. When a few days ago a preliminary judgment stated only that the panel has not had sufficient time to come to a decision and that the investigation continues, Fillon decided to keep campaigning because he considers himself "the only candidate who can put France back on the rails". His support has plummeted, however, and today's polls see him losing in the first round of the elections.


Marine Le Pen
This has been manna from heaven for Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right Front National party, who is expected to win the first round of the two-part presidential election, even though she too is now being investigated in connection with two fake jobs at her office as deputy at the European Parliament. If found guilty, her punishment would be a fine but would have little effect on her presidential run. With populism on the rise in Europe as elsewhere, she is supported by extreme-right leaders in Holland, Italy and Germany - all Eurosceptics - as well as Donald Trump and Putin.

Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron

With Fillon presumably eliminated in the first round, if not before, Le Pen is likely to face Emmanuel Macron, the rising young star of the newly-formed centrist party who, as things stand today, would be victorious in the second round. His biggest drawback: he is only 39 (and looks younger). 

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron
So what do we know about him? After brilliant studies he started off in civil service but then switched to the Rothschild bank where he worked for a couple of years; in 2012 he was invited to join the government as special advisor to President François Hollande, who later appointed him Minister of the Economy. His "Loi Macron" loosens some of the employment regulations in France. He left the Socialist government in the summer of 2016 to form his own centrist party En Marche! and started campaigning for the presidency last November. Considered an outsider at first, his rise has been steady and uninterrupted, and today he has a serious shot at winning the presidency. While we await the details of his program that is to be announced soon, a sketchy outline looks safely middle-of-the-road with a more flexible business environment. His wife Brigitte Trogneux, who is 20 years older than he, was his high-school French teacher and has three children from a first marriage.

Singing from Trump's song sheet, Le Pen's program is squarely on the far right: leave the European Union and the euro; curtail immigration; pull out of NATO; promote a made-in-France nation; close borders, and become independent of the rules and regulations of others (read Brussels).   

By comparison, the relative youth of Macron is surely less scary than that, even in traditional France where youth does not earn its stripes until well into middle age, and where a job as banker is held against you. Besides, with Tsipras in Greece and Renzi in Italy, Macron would not be the first fortyish leader in Europe, and his youthful energy and can-do spirit might blow some fresh air through the cobwebs of French bureaucracy.


French riots in February 2017
Another subject that made front-page news in France this month was police brutality. It is a recurring problem in the sensitive cités, those high-rise suburbs around Paris packed with immigrants, where police are often accused of abusive behavior during identity checks. Latest case in point: on February 2nd, 22-year-old Théo (identified by his first name only), an African immigrant, was stopped in Aulnay-sous-Bois for an identity check that deteriorated when four policeman forced the unarmed man to the ground and one of them sodomized him with his police baton, seriously wounding him and rupturing his intestine. The police later called this rape accidental, sparking riots and protest marches in several suburbs, where cars were set on fire and storefronts destroyed. After cautious initial reactions from the Interior Minister who called for calm, tensions remain high in the area. One of the officers is now under investigation for rape and the other three for undue violence. Calm has not yet returned, with occasional flareups in the area and marches in support of Théo as far afield as Marseilles.

President Hollande visiting Theo
It must be said that French police have been under stress for a long time, especially since the State of Emergency was declared and extended following the murderous jihadist attacks in Paris and Nice. It is also known that the youngest police recruits are usually the first to be sent into the difficult suburbs for regular patrols and identity checks. Backed up by more senior police, they want to show their mettle by being unnecessarily rough and are prone to use excessive force. This was the case in Aulnay-sous-Bois where the junior officer was the one who raped Théo with his police baton. When women from several cités were interviewed, their common theme was the lack of respect these police patrols show the local population and the reflex of rebellion this engenders. "They all call us "tu" (tutoyer is reserved for friends and family; others are respectfully called "vous") and show total disrespect" says one woman. Another adds that she likes to have the police around but only if they protect. Instead, she says, they often provoke and make an already difficult situation worse.

French riots in 2005
This latest unrest calls to mind the terrible 2005 riots in the outskirts of Paris when two young men were electrocuted in a power substation as they fled the police. Weeks-long rioting, three people killed, and widespread destruction of public property were the result, but sadly today nothing much has changed in these densely populated cités with high unemployment and few prospects for a better future. With all of its social benefits and its multitude of immigrants from former colonies, France has done a poor job of integrating these people and providing them access to a mixed society where they have a chance at forging a better life for themselves. Poverty, joblessness and a feeling of exclusion are breeding grounds for riots but also for Islamic radicalization among the Muslim youths in these cités. Unemployed youngsters jailed for minor infractions are often radicalized in prison and on their release spread their new jihadist beliefs to others with tragic results. A perfect vicious circle that awaits some serious government attention and meaningful intervention. Perhaps from the next government?


Nothing, however, will interfere with the French need for at least two holidays a year, one in summer and one in winter. For the past three weeks of staggered school vacations national roads to the Alps and Pyrenees have been clogged on weekends with the coming and going of vacationers seeking sun and snow. Every such weekend is rouge, with heavy traffic and long lines at toll stations. No problem. Getting away is the point, and with a guaranteed minimum of 35 paid vacation days per year, most French tend to use their time off to do just that. At least those who are employed.