Friday, December 21, 2018



Gilets Jaunes, Act V
Last Saturday's demonstration by Gilets Jaunes protesters on the Champs Elysées, the fifth in a row since mid November, came and went without major material damage. The police was well prepared with armored vehicles, tear gas and water cannons, but fewer protesters showed up (down to 66,000 from 136,000 the previous weekend) and there were far fewer hooligans. The movement was beginning to unravel and public support was waning after the Gilets Jaunes had won major concessions from the government.

Those who continue to block traffic circles and toll stations are being forcibly removed by police, but not before a few more toll stations in the south had been set on fire and destroyed this week. VINCI, one of the toll road operators, estimated the damage due to vandalism and lost toll income at tens of millions of euros, and overall loss of business in all sectors has climbed to an estimated €2 billion to date. Even though the Gilets Jaunes have become less visible, the movement is far from dead and is now calling for an RIC (Référendum d'Initiative Citoyenne), a Citizens' Referendum. Small encampments of GJ have sprung up near road crossings or toll stations where they plan to spend Christmas, encouraged by supporters who stop by with hot meals and an occasional Christmas tree. The GJ promise to be back with more demonstrations after Christmas to push their demand for a Referendum as a counter power against the government.

As calm seemed restored in Paris, at least for now, the government announced a one-time €300 bonus to thank the police force for its hard work under exceptionally difficult circumstances. For five weekends in a row they had been on active riot duty, and a terrorist attack in Strasbourg (which claimed a fifth fatality this week) had put the entire force on highest alert. Many law-enforcement officers had been injured by hooligans who, a police spokesman said, were particularly aggressive and not just out for a stone-throwing fight with the police but prepared to kill them. Their exhaustion and disappointment at what they considered a "puny" bonus soon led to a pervasive disgruntlement and old grievances that gave birth to the gyros bleus movement (named after the whirling blue lights on top of police cars).

Gyros bleus on the Champs Elysées
Police are not allowed to strike but they are represented by a number of unions. Encouraged by the government's response to the Gilets Jaunes who got most of what they wanted, three police unions called for a slow-down strike on December 19th, which caused long lines at the Paris airports' security gates and a number of symbolic closings of police stations with minimal service by a skeleton staff. The next day, some 100 police cars, their blue gyrophares flashing, drove down the Champs Elysées to reinforce their demands for better working conditions and salary increases, as well as payment of the €274 million in overtime pay that has been accumulating for a long time. After two days of negotiations, their demands were met and all law enforcement officers received salary increases of €120-150 per month, depending on their rank, while administrative and technical staff were awarded a one-time €300 bonus.

The enormous backlog of overtime covers dozens of years and grows by an average of three million hours per year, according to the Interior Minister, who agreed to meet as soon as next month with police union representatives to work out a payment calendar to begin clearing up this backlog. It looks like there won't be much of a Christmas break for those in this government who have to find the money for all these concessions.

A happy end for now? Perhaps - but could other protests be far behind? President Macron's government does not seem to speak with one voice these days. On several occasions, Prime Minister Philippe has made an announcement that would be contradicted by Emmanuel Macron hours later, and Interior Minister Castaner has been "corrected" as well. Everybody seems stressed and overworked, and under pressure to solve current conflicts this month so as to begin with a clean slate in January. Cracks are beginning to show, but so is the lack of political experience in Emmanuel Macron's young government. Fingers crossed for next year. 

As we wait and see how all this is going to play out, let's relax and enjoy this moment of calm to turn to other matters. Such as food, the main subject in France at this time of the year, with many cooking programs on TV, and truffles, foie gras, game, fowl, marrons glacés, and exotic fruits taking pride of place in food shops. In Aix-en-Provence, the Christmas chalets are lined up along the Cours Mirabeau, and the popular Provençal nativity scene is there again with santons in traditional dress carrying offerings of lavender, olives, wheat or chickens as they descend from their hill-top villages on their way to baby Jesus in the stable. The crowds are out and the mood seems festive, even though the heavily armed soldiers on "Vigipirate" duty are a jarring presence.

As the last of the rubble in Paris has been cleared away, the graffiti scrubbed clean, and the shop windows freed from their protective boards, Peace on Earth may yet prevail this Christmas, at least for a while. Fingers crossed again.

It's been quite a year, here as elsewhere. But things are rarely as bad as they look, so go ahead and enjoy the blessings of the season, including the abundance of food and drink that mark Christmas. Remember that New Year's resolutions exist for a reason, so make it worth your while before paying for it later, helped along by this handy Holiday Workout.

May you all have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and a PEACEFUL NEW YEAR full of the promise of better times ahead. 
Together with champagne Santa, I'll raise a glass to that.

Saturday, December 15, 2018



Armored vehicles on the Champs Elysées
"This is Not a Government" read a newspaper headline (with a wink to Magritte). It featured a picture of last week's violent clashes in Paris between riot police backed up by armored vehicles and demonstrators wearing the yellow safety vests (gilets jaunes) required in every car. Front page news at home and abroad, this yellow-vest protest against a fuel tax hike was deteriorating into urban warfare.

Street protests and strikes are as French as the baguette and part of daily life here. They are organized by trade unions, student groups, or professional associations who usually demand wage increases or object to some government decision or other. But this Gilets Jaunes protest against the sharp increase in fuel taxes next year has no apparent leader, is not affiliated with any political party or trade union, and was sparked on social networks where it set fire to the combustible cloud of discontent voiced by a disparate population of indeterminate age and background that grew to unexpected proportions in record time. Laborers, farmers, employees, small business owners, retirees on fixed incomes they all reject the 23% increase in the price of gas which, being the latest in a string of price increases this year, would significantly affect their purchasing power. Particularly those outside the big cities who need to use their car to get to work, would find it harder to make ends meet. Even if they approve of the government's intended goal of fighting pollution by reducing the number of cars on the road as part of its Ecological Transition Plan, they feel strongly that it is always their group, the middle class, that is asked to pay, and not the rich who got tax breaks or the poor who are exempt. No More Taxes, they cried, Enough is Enough!


One of the first acts of newly elected president Macron in 2017 was to scrap the wealth tax, the ISF (Impôt Sur la Fortune), in order to stimulate growth. This, more than anything else, has earned him the reputation of president of the rich, even though economists generally supported the measure. In France, like elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and the gap between rich and poor is growing wider. Over time, the resentment against the growing cost of living and the government's deaf ear finally led to the current explosion of anger that is about to enter its fifth week of demonstrations.

The unrest started in mid-November, when to everyone's surprise a strong response to the call on Facebook caused thousands of people to take to the streets, wearing high-visibility yellow vests, to protest against the planned fuel tax. They handed out pamphlets, occupied roundabouts, built roadblocks, blocked toll stations and oil refineries. As usual, the public supported the protesters and soon the Gilets Jaunes took their cause to Paris where the following Saturday they organized a demonstration on the Champs Elysées. This time, their manif, as these protests are called, was infiltrated by outside hooligans and looters (casseurs) in yellow vests who attacked the police with paving stones, threw up barricades, smashed windows, set fires, outshouted the protesters and disrupted their demonstration.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe invited the Gilets Jaunes to meet him at his Matignon office to discuss their grievances, but of the six elected representatives only two showed up and one left after a few minutes. This was a grassroots movement, an amorphous group without leadership or spokesperson, leaving the government at a loss of how to respond or who to talk to. These demonstrators were not the oft-forgotten poor, but working people from the extreme left and right who found common ground in feeling that they were over-taxed and losing purchasing power.

Clean-up at the Arc de Triomphe
As frustration began building and the tone hardened, another march on the Champs Elysées was called on Saturday, December 1st, but this time the authorities had blocked all side roads to the Champs Elysées in an effort to keep out the casseurs and prevent further incidents. Unfortunately, access to the Champs Elysées was still open via the Place de l'Etoile and this is where a large number of hooligans and anarchists managed to mingle with the demonstrators and started defacing the Arc de Triomphe, spray-painting slogans on the façade and breaking into the monument itself, where they wrecked furniture, destroyed a souvenir shop, and smashed the face of a sculpted Marianne, the very symbol of the French Republic. In an extremely violent confrontation with police that caused injuries on both sides, they rampaged down the Champs Elysées where they set cars on fire, smashed storefront windows and bus stops, looted a supermarket, wrenched benches and iron gates from their moorings to throw at police, and left a trail of ruin. Meanwhile, other troublemakers had managed to reach the Boulevard Haussmann, dense with shoppers at the famous department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, where security personnel quickly shepherded shoppers to safety and closed the doors. Lafayette, with its giant Christmas tree under the beautiful glass dome, and its Holiday windows with automated fairytale displays that draw big crowds every year, was a sad sight when those windows were boarded up and the festive lights turned off.

Marianne defaced
The demonstrations had turned ugly and dangerous, affecting not only the retail sector in its busiest season, but also hotels and restaurants, tourism, nightlife, and of course the Christmas markets. Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner had to admit that the security measures had been inadequate and promised that next Saturday, December 8th, the police presence would be doubled (89,000 police nationwide, with 8,000 in Paris alone) and that this time the riot police would be supported by armored vehicles, capable of removing whatever burning barricades the protesters might throw up and provide essential protection to the police who had been badly tested for weeks already and sustained many injuries. Football matches were cancelled, both opera houses and some theaters closed, as were the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, while businesses were asked to stay closed that day and board up their windows.

The authorities prepared the Champs Elysées by removing all items that might be used to hurl at the police, including iron grates and manhole covers, and installed a number of checkpoints where items such as hammers, gas masks, boules, spray paint, and molotov cocktails were confiscated. This time security forces were able to keep control of the Champs Elysées and arrest a large number of troublemakers. Nothing, however, could stop the violence that broke out on and around the Place de la République, which suffered extensive damage. Other cities, notably the beautiful old center of Bordeaux, experienced similar violence and destruction, including the looting of an Apple store that was completely cleaned out. A shaken Mayor of Bordeaux and former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé called on President Macron to break his silence and respond in strong, concrete terms to the Gilets Jaunes' demands.

Hooligans at work
After four Saturdays of increasingly violent demonstrations that caused millions of euros of material damage and an estimated €1.1 billion of business losses so far, as well as 179 personal injuries, six deaths (mostly due to road accidents), nearly 2000 arrests nationwide, and with determined protesters vowing to continue until Christmas and beyond, the Gilets Jaunes protest has turned personal and cries for Macron's resignation have multiplied. They accuse him of arrogance and contempt for their class, and their ranks were soon joined by high school students, environmentalists, as well as union leaders, all with their own demands and all feeling they were "not being heard." This was no longer about tax relief, it was a groundswell of discontent and a cry for social justice that was ballooning into a crisis.

Prime Minister Philippe and Interior Minister Castaner had repeatedly called for calm, reached out to the protesters and given in on a number of demands (including the cancellation of the contested fuel tax). But it was too little too late and, perceiving a crack in the government's determination, they now wanted an increase in the minimum wage, lower taxes on the middle class, and the re-imposition of the ISF wealth tax.

President Macron addressing the nation
A somber-looking President Macron finally spoke on Monday, December 10, in a televised address that was short and sober. Starting off with a firm condemnation of the violence and the promise that the perpetrators would be dealt with severely, he sounded a more conciliatory tone towards the Gilets Jaunes who he said deserved to "live decently from their work." Having already dropped the fuel tax hike, he offered a €100 monthly pay increase to minimum-wage earners as of January, the elimination of the planned tax hike on retirees' pensions, and tax-exempt overtime pay for all employees. But he refused to reinstate the ISF tax on the rich which had so rankled the protesters and given rise to his reputation as president of the rich. The offer was costly (estimated at €8-10 billion) and a severe setback for Macron, but it fell short of expectations and the Gilets Jaunes were quick to announce their next demonstration on the Champs Elysées on Saturday, December 15, calling it Act V.

A closer look at the demonstrators' profile has revealed some interesting facts. The movement counts as many women as men; their average age at 45 is higher than usual; workers and retirees alike are mostly from the lower middle class; and many of them had never demonstrated before.

If this Gilets Jaunes movement proved anything, it is that social networks can quickly bring masses of people together to form a powerful force for or against a common cause, and that this can happen at any moment. A new challenge to those in government.


It is hard to predict where this new phenomenon of revolution by social networks will lead, but it is already clear that President Macron's presidency has been damaged. The man who said he would never back down was forced to do just that, at a high price in money and image. His Reforms agenda will surely be slowed down and may have to be curtailed, and the boy wonder who was elected president at age 39 with promises of long-needed reforms has lost much of his luster after 19 months in a presidency marked by some early successes but as many setbacks and missteps. His elite education and unquestioned intelligence have served him well in his rapid rise to the top, but he seems disconnected from ordinary people, the very people who now want to be heard about life in their world, the real world. The success of this Gilets Jaunes movement is only the latest example of this disconnect and what it can lead to.

Is Macron getting it? Not sure, but "the street" has won this first round and won't let him forget it.

Meanwhile in Strasbourg:

Earlier this week a terrorist shot four people to death and wounded 12 others as they strolled through the famous Christmas Market in Strasbourg. He got away but was quickly identified as 29-year-old Shérif Chekatt, a locally-born petty criminal with a long criminal record, and tracked down and killed by police when he was cornered in his own neighborhood 48 hours later. The incident put the police on high alert and the government made an appeal to the Gilets Jaunes to drop their planned Act V in Paris this Saturday to give the exhausted police a break. No response. The march will proceed as planned with the unspoken message to President Macron: You did not listen to us; we will not listen to you.

As I write this, police are investing the area of the Champs Elysées where groups of Gilets Jaunes are beginning to arrive, awaited by armored vehicles and water cannons, ready to do battle once again amid boarded-up façades while desperate shopkeepers look on and count their losses in this crucial holiday season. No sign here of Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill.

PS:  This battle is not over, and I will keep you posted next week.
Will Christmas soften some hearts and bring protesters and government closer together? Will it open some eyes to the folly of war-like damage that will ultimately have to be paid by all? Will the government recognize that growing economic inequality is the root of all social unrest and find a workable solution?
Facing a less than joyous Christmas and a clean-slate New Year, all we can do is HOPE.   

Saturday, November 17, 2018



Three buildings before...
On November 5th, under a mid-day clear-blue sky, a five-story apartment house in a popular neighborhood in the center of Marseilles suddenly collapsed in a heap, pulling its next-door neighbor with it in a roar and a cloud of dust. As fire trucks and rescue services got to the scene it was quickly apparent that a fragilized third building was in danger of toppling without its neighbor's supporting walls and was preventively destroyed. All three had been in poor condition and one of them, owned by the City of Marseilles, had been declared uninhabitable in 2015 but was squatted. Final tally:  eight bodies pulled from the rubble, 100 people displaced, and some ugly facts about  Marseilles brought to the surface.

...and after collapse
In this second-largest city of France, with over a million inhabitants, there is no dearth of dilapidated buildings. Some of them have been expropriated by the City while others are owned by unscrupulous investors or the mafia who buy up distressed property and pocket the government subsidies that serve to renovate these buildings and bring them up to code. However, these renovations are often largely cosmetic and the apartments are then rented to immigrants or low-income people who receive rental subsidies from the government. Lax and infrequent building inspections, which rarely seem to result in the necessary repairs, have caused the number of run-down buildings to grow over time while the City of Marseilles proceeded on a major renovation of the touristy Vieux Port area and of the main railway station, built several new museums including the stunning MUCEM, expanded the metro lines, built a new modern tramway, expanded the airport with a low-cost hub, built a new cruise ship port, and gradually turned Marseilles into an attractive business environment and a desirable tourist destination that earned it the designation of Cultural Capital of Europe in 2013. Good for Marseilles, but bad for its stock of aging buildings.

Jean-Claude Gaudin, Mayor of Marseilles
The uproar over the collapsed buildings forced the local authorities to rapidly inspect and subsequently evacuate a number of decrepit buildings throughout the city. In the end, 703 people were rendered homeless and temporarily housed in hotels while awaiting essential repairs. After initially trying to blame the recent heavy rains for this disaster, 79-year-old Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin finally admitted that the city had failed its low-income tenants and that the inspection system would be overhauled. Gaudin, who has been mayor of Marseilles for 23 years, is known to have a cozy relationship with the local mafia, which is no doubt of mutual benefit. A grandfatherly figure, who is generally seen by the Marseillais as someone who does no harm and manages to keep the various factions (unions, mafia, political opponents) in check, found himself roundly booed this time when he showed little emotion after the disaster, took no personal responsibility for it, and did not show up for either of the two marches in honor of the victims. Angry citizens carrying placards reading "Gaudin Assassin!" and calling for his resignation were kept at a safe distance from City Hall and tear-gassed when they refused to disperse.

His mandate runs until 2020 and he has refused to resign. But the cry of the people and the results of an investigation into his part of responsibility for this tragedy may well cut short his final term. It may be too much to expect rectitude and total transparency from a complicated city like Marseilles, but it certainly deserves better than what it's got.


On November 11, France celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 1918 Armistice that ended the First World War and led to the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles six months later. This devastating four-year war that killed ten million soldiers and nearly seven million civilians was ultimately won with the help of American troops, some 126,000 of whom were killed and lie buried in American cemeteries in France.

More than 70 world leaders attended this centennial commemoration in Paris, including Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Justin Trudeau, who would each visit a cemetery of their countrymen prior to the official ceremony on Sunday before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. [After visiting a British cemetery in Belgium and in France, Theresa May flew back to London to attend the British commemoration there on Sunday with the Queen.]

Trump at American cemetery at Suresnes
Donald Trump's program listed a visit to the American cemetery of Aisne-Marne, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, on Saturday but this was canceled due to rain. Apparently, his helicopter could not fly safely with low-cloud coverage, even though the distance could easily have been covered by car, as Merkel, May had Trudeau had done. Trump's cavalier decision drew sharp criticism and was considered particularly insensitive in view of the fact that most of these soldiers had died in a grueling trench war, falling face down in the mud after weeks of rain. The unplanned cancellation left Mr. Trump with a free afternoon which he is said to have spent watching television in his rooms at the American Embassy. The following morning, stung by the criticism and ridicule, he did go and pay his respects at a closer-by American cemetery in the Paris suburb of Suresnes. Yes, it was still raining and he went by car.

Trump's Paris visit got off to a bad start when upon his arrival on Friday morning, even before Air Force One had come to a full stop on the tarmac, he fired off an angry tweet to his host President Macron, accusing him of wanting to create a European army to defend itself against the US. "Very insulting! " This was a misreading, misunderstanding or poor translation of what Macron had said a day earlier in a radio interview, when he explained the need for a European army because "faced with a menacing Russia which is at our borders, we should be able to defend ourselves without relying solely on the US and in a more sovereign way". Later on in this interview he talked about cyber threats and the attempts by many to "intrude into our cyberspace and interfere with our democracy. We must protect ourselves against Russia, China, and even the United States."

Clear body language
Later, when they met face to face before TV cameras, Macron explained to Trump that he had meant that the EU should do more to coordinate its 27-nation efforts in a common defense force, i.e. create a European army, to be able to react quickly without depending on the United States; a message repeated forcefully by Chancellor Merkel before the Bundestag in Berlin. Macron did, however, agree with Trump that the EU should pay a greater share of the NATO budget to which the US contributes proportionately more. This seemed to have calmed the waters and they shook hands on it. But Trump appeared sullen and moody throughout his visit and on his return to Washington sent another accusatory tweet to Macron, showing that nothing was forgiven or forgotten.

World leaders walking to the Arc de Triomphe
The Sunday ceremonies were somber and moving, starting with a brief walk of all the Heads of State (except Mr. Trump who arrived later by car), sheltered under a sea of black umbrellas against the persistent rain, to the Arc de Triomphe where school children around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier read messages written by soldiers in various languages, a European youth orchestra played with a Russian conductor, and Chinese-American cellist Yo-yo Ma played Bach. President Macron then addressed the assembled leaders, including Trump, Putin, Merkel, Erdogan of Turkey, Netanyahu of Israel, Trudeau of Canada, the kings of Spain and Morocco, and many more. His speech focused on the importance of international cooperation to avoid war, the need for a rules-based world that is open and multilateral, and specifically rejected nationalism which he called "a betrayal of patriotism. By saying 'Our interests first, who cares about the others,' we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life and what is essential: its moral values."

Following the Sunday ceremonies and lunch at the Elysée Palace, President Macron had organized a Peace Forum as an opportunity for the Heads of State and Government or their representatives from 84 countries "to reflect on world governance while we commemorate the end of World War I and recognize our collective responsibility." The 3-day Forum, held in the beautiful Grande Halle de La Villette in Paris, was opened by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkey's president Erdogan and Russia's president Putin were among the speakers that afternoon. The Forum was conceived as an annual event for project leaders worldwide, "bringing together political, economic, and civil society representatives [...] to seek solutions to current world challenges with an emphasis on multilateral and collective action."
This is not President Trump's cup of tea. He snubbed the Forum and flew home.

It is a sad day when a president of the United States, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (and repeated draft dodger), attends an all-important commemorative event and, in full view of the entire world, shows a shocking lack of respect for those Americans who fought and died here, apparently incapable of behaving with even a minimum of decorum and courtesy as he slouches through two days of ceremonies as if he had better things to do elsewhere.

As the rest of the world looks on with embarrassment or glee, Trump keeps bumbling along, ignorant and belligerent, not knowing the difference between the Balkans and the Baltics, disrespecting the press and dismissing journalists he does not like, to say nothing of his inane tweeting which nobody can seem to control. His tweet storm directed at Emmanuel Macron after the Paris visit got no response from Macron, who said days later when questioned in an interview: "I don't do policy or diplomacy by tweets." Somebody please pass that on to Mr. Trump.

Saturday, October 20, 2018



Fall arrived with a bang in the south of France where serious floods in the Aude region, in and around the city of Carcassonne, caused 14 deaths last week and the greatest devastation ever registered there since 1891. Bridges and roadways were washed away, cars, trees, and heavy debris tossed around like so many toys, and houses flooded, sometimes to their rooftops. In the small town of Trèbes, hardest hit, a number of people were rescued by helicopter while others had drowned inside their house. Not a single front door in a nearby village had resisted the force of the rushing water which quickly rose to the third floor, trapping some in their beds.

After the deluge
An Orange Alert had been issued that day, warning of heavy rains and potential flooding, and raised to a Red Alert later on in the evening when some may already have been asleep. As the weather service explained later, rainstorms can be forecast with a certain amount of accuracy but it is near impossible to predict where exactly the torrential downpours will occur. As the storm progressed and meteorologists concluded that the Aude Valley lay directly in its path, they changed the alert to Red and local authorities began to issue evacuation orders. However, villagers in this valley are quite used to Orange alerts and many of them do not like to leave their sturdy age-old houses which have survived so many storms before. They may have regretted their decision to stay on but were unanimous in calling this a phenomenon "the likes of which they had never seen before" the same sad refrain heard throughout this summer following record-breaking floods, droughts and fires from Capetown to the Arctic.

Of course, it is now a scientific fact that these ever-increasing natural disasters are a direct result of man-made global warming. But last week the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a shocking report showing that global warming has increased faster than expected and that we have only 12 years left to keep the temperature increase down to 1.5°C by 2030. Even one half degree more (the Paris Agreement aimed for "between 1.5°C and 2°C") could double the risk of severe droughts, flooding and fires that would affect untold millions of people. The proposed solutions are costly but the cost of doing nothing would be far higher and fatal for many. It is no longer a political choice but a moral obligation for our leaders to safeguard a livable planet.

The unconscionable decision of president Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change affects and endangers us all, and would be significantly aggravated if Jair Bolsonaro, presumed president-elect of Brazil, were to follow Trump's example and withdraw Brazil as well, as he mentioned during his campaign. It is to be hoped that the other signatories to the Paris Agreement (195 in all) will find a way to prevent this.


President Macron with new Interior Minister Christophe Castaner
Two weeks after France's Interior Minister Gérard Collomb tendered his resignation earlier this month, President Macron finally announced the appointment of Christophe Castaner as Minister of the Interior. An early Macron supporter, Castaner left the Socialist Party in early 2017 to join Macron's new political movement En Marche, and was rewarded with the job of government spokesman and subsequently Liaison with the Parliament. The appointment is seen as an appeasement to the Left's growing perception that Macron's policies are veering to the right in matters of budget and immigration. In the shakeup, four ministers were replaced, including embattled Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen.

Macron's approval ratings have plummeted since the Benalla Affair (see August 8 blog) and the resignation of popular Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot a month later. But the unexpected resignation of political heavyweight and Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, former Socialist mayor of Lyon and at 72 the most experienced politician in Macron's young Cabinet, created a power vacuum that sparked the reshuffle. It took Macron fully two weeks to form his new government, which some speculated was due to difficulties in finding willing candidates. An Elysée insider called the new team dynamic, with a second wind but the same political mandate. In a televised address the next day, a solemn-looking Macron said that his government will stay the course and that he plans to maintain his calendar of reforms in the coming months "when difficult decisions will have to be made."

Macron speaking at UN General Assembly
Despite his problems at home, Macron's international standing remains high but it is far from certain that he can regain the voters' confidence in time for the European parliamentary elections next March, where in a worst-case scenario a wave of right-wing Eurosceptics might be elected to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. And rising nationalism in Europe is not his only worry when the US president keeps breaking international agreements left and right, causing Macron to pick up the banner for such causes as the Paris Climate Agreement, a deal with Iran, the preservation of international institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but above all multilateralism which he defended so passionately before the UN General Assembly last month. The contrast between the Macron and Trump messages, between globalism and isolationism, between statesmanship and populism, could not have been greater.

In less than two years as French president, Macron has won recognition and appreciation on the international stage where he has chalked up some wins and some losses, but even an ambitious and energetic 40-year old has only 24 hours in a day, and burning the candle at both ends has its consequences. Some minor incidents of his own making have dimmed his glow and slowed down his progress. Perhaps the renewed Cabinet will give him a breather in preparation for the next battle over his Reforms, which no French president, from de Gaulle on, has ever been able to win. 


French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, whose career spanned eight decades, died on October 1st at age 94 at his home in Provence. Upon the announcement of his death, the Eiffel Tower lit up in gold in tribute to "the last of the giants of the French chanson".

Born Shahnour Aznavourian in Paris to Armenian parents, Aznavour recorded some 1400 songs, 1300 of which he wrote himself, and sold more than 100 million records in his lifetime. He began his singing career as an opening act for Edith Piaf at the Moulin Rouge, and over time recorded with Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Céline Dion, Bryan Ferry, Sting, and Liza Minelli, as well as with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Multilingual and an inveterate traveler, he has recorded in a number of languages and was named "Entertainer of the Year" by CNN in 1998 because of the global reach and popular appeal of his songs.

He may be less well known for his film career. Starting as a child actor when he was 9 years old, he appeared in some 70 films, most notably Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum. In 2017 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Homage to Aznavour in Cour des Invalides
The nation paid homage to Aznavour with a sober ceremony at Les Invalides, site of Napoleon's tomb in Paris, in the presence of both President Macron and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia. His coffin, draped in the French flag, was carried into the famous courtyard where a spray of flowers in the colors of the Armenian flag awaited as an Armenian folksong was played on the traditional dudek flute. In his eulogy, Macron spoke of the many Aznavour songs that accompanied three generations of us and will be eternal "because poets never die." Prime minister Pashinyan declared a national day of mourning in his country for its famous son and benefactor.


And then, suddenly, another vacation was upon us − this time the two-week school holiday of Toussaint, the celebration of All-Saints Day. [In spite of its official secularity, France celebrates every Catholic event with a holiday.] It seems like only yesterday when the 2-month-long summer holidays ended and children went back to school in early September. But the French school year includes a break every six weeks and, as usual, many people use these breaks to leave home − for the countryside, a family visit, or an all-in trip abroad. The first sign of these school breaks for those of us without young children is the announcement of traffic conditions on the morning news, with alerts of congestion or accidents on the clogged exit roads of major cities ("all fluid" this morning).

As the weather continues to be unusually warm for this time of the year, certain summer dress styles persist on the city's sidewalks, like the tiny shorts and flimsy tops on teenage girls who never seem to be cold. Even so, we are slowly moving from our favorite summer rosé to red wine as the multiple mushroom varieties appear on our market stalls and the idea of winter food is beginning to make its way to the surface.

The daily farmers' market in Aix-en-Provence has managed to open my supermarket-trained eyes to nature's seasonal gifts, which in this blessed part of the world are bountiful at all times.
So, as a convert to the food-driven French lifestyle, I raise my appéritif to the hearty stews, cassoulet, choucroute garnie, venison, game, chestnuts and truffles in the coming months.

Mother Nature has a nice way of making up for shorter days with longer meals.