Saturday, November 17, 2018

AN EVENTFUL NOVEMBER


BUILDING COLLAPSE IN MARSEILLES

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.


COMMEMORATION OF ARMISTICE


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

FLASH FLOODS IN FRANCE; GOVERNMENT SHAKEUP; AZNAVOUR DIES

FLASH FLOODS IN FRANCE

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.


GOVERNMENT RESHUFFLE

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. 


CHARLES AZNAVOUR DIES

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.


TOUSSAINT


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. 



Sunday, September 9, 2018

CHEMNITZ; HULOT RESIGNS; MACRON'S DIFFICULT RENTREE


GROWING NATIONALISM

After its summer break the French government reconvened in Paris in late August to discuss the budget and outline the roadmap for 2019 — year of all dangers with the May elections for the European Parliament, the finalization of the Brexit deal in March, and the threat that growing nationalism in the EU may result in a strong increase in far-right seats in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg.

Anti-immigration protests in Chemnitz
Of particular concern is the hardening of the anti-immigrant stance in Italy, Hungary, and more recently Sweden, as well as a recent outbreak of violence in the German city of Chemnitz where far-right and leftist demonstrators clashed following the stabbing death of a 35-year old German man, allegedly at the hands of an immigrant. The riots lasted two days and caused a number of injuries before an underpowered police force managed to retake control. There have been several flare-ups and the tension remains high. These clashes show the strength of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party with its threat to the fragile coalition government headed by Angela Merkel, and the clear shift to the right since 2015 when Merkel's Open-Door policy drew one million refugees to Germany.

More than ever, French president Macron seems to be the last man standing in the fight to preserve and strengthen the European Union, and among his first post-holiday actions was a four-day salvaging trip to Denmark and Finland to try and push them to more involvement in the EU and greater participation in Europe's defense post-Brexit, citing changing trans-Atlantic relations.


NICOLAS HULOT

The importance of these state visits was momentarily overshadowed by an incident back home, when on 28 August (as Macron was on his way to Denmark) France's most popular member of the government, Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot, suddenly announced his resignation on a morning radio program. As he was being interviewed by two journalists on France-Inter, an increasingly frustrated Hulot suddenly announced: "I am going to make the most difficult decision of my life. I am leaving the government." It seemed a spur-of-the-moment decision but one that had long been simmering and that he had not shared with president Macron and prime minister Edouard Philippe "for fear that they would talk me out of it once again." He then listed a number of disappointments and frustrations of his 15 months in government, including the final realization that the Macron-Philippe team "for whom I have the greatest admiration and affection" would never accord Ecology the urgent attention it deserves because today the worlds of Economics and Ecology are simply incompatible.

Hulot in Parliament
It appeared that the final straw may have been the ministerial meeting of the day before, where Hulot noticed the presence of a lobbyist for the National Hunting Federation, a one-million strong voting block. Among the issues on the table was the hunters' demand for a 50 percent reduction of their hunting-licence fee as well as the addition of several more migrating bird species to their hunting list, all strongly opposed by Hulot. The hunters won on both counts, and Ecology suffered another defeat in the service of political bargaining.

"Lobbyists have no place in a ministerial meeting," was all Hulot would say at first, but when pushed he added that he felt alone in his fight, without formal backing, and that neither the government nor the public seemed able to grasp the severity of the situation. We have let several opportunities for decisive action pass because the political support was not there, he said. Reminded of a few successes he has booked nevertheless, he said they were not enough. Moving by little steps does not get us to where we need to be if we want to stop, let alone repair, the daily damage to our planet. Global warming was predictable and the warning signs have been there for many years. Today the planet is an oven, disastrous fires and record-breaking temperatures this summer in many parts of the world and destructive floods in others, are a picture of our future. We have wasted precious time and from now on, anything we can do to reduce global warming will be more expensive and less effective because much of the damage done is already irreversible.

When told to be patient he answers that he has been patient for 30 years, during which time large areas of Africa have suffered such severe repeated droughts that whole populations have been driven from the parched lands where they used to grow crops or raise cattle, and forced to join the stream of migrants northwards, to Europe and elsewhere. "I can no longer lie to the French people or to myself," he said, barely able to control his voice as he suddenly announced his resignation. It was a dramatic moment, all the more so on public radio.

Nicolas Hulot, who became famous for his nature films and Ushuaia TV show, has long been an ecological activist. He created his own foundation in 1990 and always managed to remain independent. He turned down offers from presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande before President Macron managed to persuade him to join his government. Perhaps Macron's youth and promise of reforms did the trick, but in the end Hulot's visceral fears were borne out: Ecology and a liberal business agenda make poor partners.

A profoundly disappointed Hulot admitted that he had not been able to work effectively within the constraints of politics and that he may not have the makings of a Minister. In leaving, he expressed the hope that his departure would not be politicized but might serve as a wake-up call. Individual efforts are no longer sufficient; it will take a massive public outcry to stop global warming. "Where are my troops? Where is the public support?" he had complained in his resignation speech.

A well attended March for the Planet held throughout France yesterday was a hopeful sign that the wake-up call was heard, as many thousands took to the streets in support of Hulot and his fight against climate change. Large numbers of young environmentalists as well as a number of NGO's joined forces in marches in Paris and other French cities, urging the government to act NOW and promising to keep the pressure on. Their message: If governments cannot do it, citizens will have to take over to force us off the path to self-destruction we are on today. If the political will is there, Economics and Ecology can and must co-exist.


MACRON'S DIFFICULT RENTREE 

Early September is the time of La Rentrée in France, when children return to school and government ministers to their respective offices. What in July still looked like a smooth return to the Macron Reforms program after the summer break, had turned into a more complicated situation by September. The upheaval caused by his bodyguard Alexandre Benalla (see August blog) and the very public resignation of Nicolas Hulot have caused a lot of ink to flow. Then, a week after Hulot, Sports Minister and Olympic fencing champion Laura Fessel resigned "for personal reasons" and Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen's future is hanging in the balance over unauthorized changes to a protected historical building she owns in Paris.

Barely into the second year of his mandate, Macron's cabinet, with its mix of experienced politicians and youthful newcomers, has lost some of its luster, and the pace of the Reforms agenda has been slowed down by growing opposition and disappointing economic results. The latest polls show Macron's approval rating down from an early high of 66 to an all-time low of 31 percent today. 

Macron with Merkel in Marseilles
The honeymoon is over and the pressure is on. It remains to be seen whether his efforts to prop up the European Union (Brexit, immigration, growing nationalism) and the upcoming elections for the EU Parliament will turn into his favor and regain him some credit. He has been making the rounds of EU capitals to that effect. Last Thursday he traveled to Luxembourg to meet with the prime ministers of The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg on efforts to deepen European integration. The next day he hosted Angela Merkel in Marseilles to seek her backing on migration and EU institutional reforms. And on September 20 he will attend the informal summit of EU leaders in Salzburg, Austria, where cooperation on immigration will be at the top of the agenda. There is work to be done to relight the fire that sparked this beautiful project of a United Europe.


AND YET...

Orhan Pamuk
Despite concerns about Brexit, growing nationalism, and climate change, it is not all gloom and doom here. First of all, the summer heatwave is finally over and we are now enjoying the best of all conditions: warm, sunny days with cooler nights and mornings. France survived the long summer without major fires or floods, and the sometimes overwhelming flood of tourists has dwindled to more pleasant proportions.

Another source of joy:  the guest of honor at this year's annual Aix-en-Provence literary festival in October will be Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, the 11th Nobel Prize winner to attend our three-day Fête du Livre!

Hurrah for France and the place it accords Culture, an essential part of its art de vivre





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

FRANCE WINS WORLD CUP; TRUMP IN EUROPE; MACRON IN TROUBLE; HEATWAVE


The sizzling-hot month of July was punctuated by two major celebrations:

BASTILLE DAY on the 14th of July, as alway a showcase of France's grandeur with the requisite pomp and circumstance and an impressive military parade down the Champs Elysées that last year caused an envious Donald Trump to say: "I want one of those". (I hear he is getting one).
Bastille Day concert



Then the evening program with an open-air concert at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, with the Orchestre National de France and international opera stars who not only sang a number of operatic arias but a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise as well, backed up by the full choir of Radio France. And, finally, splendid fireworks on a theme of Love to cap this glorious day. The French do know how to show off and this was a stunner.



Macron in Moscow
The next day, the French soccer team beat Croatia in the WORLD CUP finals in Moscow, to an explosion of joy throughout France where every bar and every terrasse showed the match on a large-screen TV, and most cities had set up fan zones in parks and other public areas where people could watch Les Bleus on giant screens. The final whistle set delirious crowds running down the streets singing, hugging, flag-waving and chanting "On est champion!" until their voices gave out. Even President Macron who attended the match in Moscow could not contain himself and jumped into the air. On this weekend, all was well with the world, at least in France.

But then Donald Trump elbowed his way back onto the scene with a 7-day European visit that quickly went from embarrassment to disaster.


THE GREAT OFFENDER

The visit started with the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12, where Trump demanded (not unreasonably) that Europe spend a proportionately greater share of the cost of its defense, which he put at 4% of GDP per member country. Having noisily declared NATO obsolete last year, he now recognizes its raison d'être as long as everybody pays his fair share, which in the end he accepted as the 2% of GDP agreed to previously. As has become his trademark, Trump took center stage at the first-day breakfast meeting with an on-camera attack on Angela Merkel when he said Germany was being "totally controlled by Russia". Merkel's pointed response was that she knew what an authoritarian regime was since she grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, and that she was happy that today, with NATO, Germany was free to make its own decisions.  

The next day Trump flew to the UK where he met with Theresa May at Chequers, her official summer residence, and publicly crtiticized her Brexit negotiations ("She should have listened to me") while praising her arch-enemy and former foreign minister Boris Johnson, who "would make a great prime minister". Having been banned from London where Mayor Sadiq Kahn said he could not guarantee Trump's safety in the face of massive protests against his visit, he then went on to Windsor Castle where the Queen received him for tea. The cringe-worthy visit will be remembered for the boorishness of the visitors (they kept the Queen waiting, Melania did not curtsey, at the inspection of the Royal Guards Trump did not look at them, he lumbered ahead of the Queen, jacket unbuttoned...) and for the shortness of the visit: exactly 47 minutes, including the tea.

Then on to Scotland for a 2-day stopover at one of his golf clubs before flying to Helsinki and his meeting with Vladimir Putin, which included an unusual 2-hour private discussion with only an interpreter present. Did anyone miss the disastrous press conference where Trump took the side of Putin over his own intelligence services on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections? "Vladimir Putin was very strong in his denial of meddling and I don't see why I wouldn't believe him," he was seen and heard to say, until he tried to wriggle his way out of this blunder the next day by claiming he had meant to say "would" and that he had used "sort of a double negative". Altogether the stuff of some third-rate comedy, and funny if this was not the president of the United States with, at least in theory, the power to save us or doom us. 


MACRON CORNERED

If this did not puncture the bubble of euphoria following the World Cup victory, a scandal from our very own Elysée Palace did. Starting as a seemingly minor incident where one of President Macron's bodyguards was filmed manhandling a demonstrator during the May Day riots in Paris, it soon ballooned into an "affaire d'état" when it became apparent that Alexandre Benalla, the bodyguard in question, had been wearing riot gear that identified him as a police officer when he wasn't. The 26-year-old Benalla was initially suspended for two weeks but kept his job, and it was only after Le Monde published a video of the incident that questions arose about Mr. Macron's security team and the highly centralized and vertical power structure of his office. How did Mr. Benalla obtain a police helmet and armband and a two-way radio? What was he doing at the riots when his job is limited to the personal protection of the president at home and abroad? Why did the Elysée not report the incident to the judicial authorities? Was it an oversight or a cover-up? As pressure mounted, Benalla was fired, but nothing stopped the snowballing news coverage and the growing demands for Macron to explain himself.

Benalla in action 
This was a golden opportunity for the opposition which called for a formal investigation. Macron's reforms agenda, with several parliamentary debates still scheduled before the summer break, was interrupted to answer the clamor for explanations from the left as well as the right. But even testimony from the Paris Police Chief and a number of ministers before the Commission of Inquiry failed to calm the waters and finally Macron, who had dismissed the Benalla incident as a storm in a teacup and accused the press of acting like a judicial power, broke his silence and said at a party meeting: "If they want a guilty one, he stands before you. They can come and get me. I answer to the French people." These were his last words on the matter before his busy agenda took him to long-standing foreign meetings and ultimately, in early August, to his own summer break at the presidential retreat of Fort Bregançon where his first-day guest was Theresa May for an informal Brexit meeting.

Macron with bodyguard Benalla
Even though August is shut-eye time here and serves only to recharge your batteries for La Rentrée in September, there is a movement afoot to keep the Benalla affair alive and to "get Macron" when government reopens. #AllonschercherMacron is their hashtag and it has started trending, turning this initially minor incident into the first serious challenge to Macron's presidency. He is nosediving in the polls, accusations of "arrogance" have resurfaced, and the combined efforts from the extreme right and left to make Macron pay may well affect his reforms program come September.

The image of Jupiter - Roman god of the gods, powerful and above the fray - that Macron invoked in his presidential campaign has come to haunt him. Meant to contrast with the disastrous "normal" presidency of the indecisive François Hollande, the allusion has since been interpreted as imperial and too lofty. Even after a successful first year in office, the young president-in-a-hurry, surrounded by his entourage of relative newcomers who have no debts to the old political order, has been unable to shake the label of 'president of the rich' and 'out of touch with the common people'. Perception is reality, as Public Relations 101 teaches us, and Jupiter will have to come down from his cloud and face his accusers with some convincing counter arguments and, perhaps, a touch of humility. Especially now that respected foreign publications (NY Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, Der Spiegel and even The New Yorker) have taken on the Benalla story, this is no longer the 'storm in a teacup' it may have seemed some time ago. 

No rest for the weary:  Macron's preferred holiday reading of philosophy and poetry may have to make way for crisis management this summer.


LA CANICULE 
After weeks of an unrelenting heatwave across much of Europe and as far north as the Arctic Circle, la canicule has become a daily item on French radio and television. Unusually high temperatures, with an all-time record of 48°C (118.4 F) in southern Spain and Portugal, have affected tourism and stretched public services. Our personal high in our 20 years in Aix-en-Provence was 41°C and the entire tinder-dry south is on high alert for fires, especially when the mistral blows. Noxious algae are proliferating, fish are dying, asphalt is melting, and in Holland warning signs have been posted on the bicycle paths where sand between the paving stones has turned to powder, loosening the stones and creating dangerous conditions.

The memorable heatwave of 2003 that killed 15,000 people in France began in May and lasted a record five months, but today's temperatures are higher than ever before and, according to experts, are a sign of what's to come. Perhaps next summer we'll head for the hills.

Hoping for our sake and yours that we will soon wake from this sweaty nightmare, I wish you all a happy vacation, wherever it may be. See you in September.