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.




Saturday, June 30, 2018

MARSEILLES; DOGGY BAGS; SUMMERTIME ACTIVITIES



Flag of Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur
Somehow Donald Trump has bloated my blog lately and I feel the need the throw the windows wide open to let Provence back in. I tip my head back to the spotless blue sky, close my eyes, inhale the local scents and sounds and, after all the craziness and hatefulness spilling from Washington, let myself drift back to the simple joys of summer in Provence. Aaaahh, normality!!

So here's some light fare and local news that won't keep you awake at night.


MARSEILLES

A recent uproar in Marseilles made the front page of  La Provence, the largest of the local papers. It appears that "Brussels" had begun slapping fines on some of the local fishermen who sell their daily catch at the waterfront of the Vieux Port because they had not been listing their fish by their latin names, as required by EU regulation number whatever. Adding the scientific name would assure the consumer that he is indeed getting what he thinks he is buying and not a different or lower-quality species. Also required:  listing the date and place of the catch, as well as the method of fishing. High-volume sellers such as supermarkets print this information on labels and packages, but at market stalls like those in Marseilles it is handwritten on slates.

Even though these EU rules are five years old already, Marseilles, always a bit contrarian, considered the "latin" requirement a step too far and the height of absurdity because the fishermen go out at night and bring in their catch in the early morning where the fish is sold directly, mostly by the fishermen's wives, to a steady clientèle of locals who "need no latin to know what they are buying or where it comes from. They trust us and we know each other." And what about the various sub-types of seabream or seabass, grouper, tuna, hake or whiting? "Nobody here expects to read doradus doradus on my slate, or epinephelus aeneus or mugli cephalus or thunnus thynnus. What are they thinking là-haut (Brussels), forcing a third language on us (marseillais, french, latin)?! Chez nous une dorade est une dorade, ça suffit aux clients!"

The clients agreed and supported the fish sellers, who put pressure on Jean-Claude Gaudin, mayor of Marseilles, who spoke of it to President Macron and, voilà, the issue had become a matter of state. Macron, who has bigger fish to fry (pardon the pun) and knows which fights he cannot win, responded within a day and gave Mr. Gaudin a personal guarantee that the fish sellers of the Vieux Port in Marseilles would be exempted from the latin rule. Common sense prevailed; time to pour a pastis and move on.

A roar of a different kind was heard in Marseilles last weekend during the Formula One festival, a promotional event preceding the actual F1 race at the newly reopened Paul-Ricard racetrack in nearby Le Castellet on June 24th. The French have always been mad about car racing, ever since the first Grand Prix was held here in 1906. As a former F1 reporter I share this enthusiasm and was glad to see the large turnout for a simple demonstration of two F1 cars from 2011, driven by David Coulthard and Franck Montagny, respectively, who "raced" down a 2-km stretch (including a hairpin turn) of the beautiful Vieux Port in Marseilles, engines screaming, accelerating, decelerating, and laying lots of rubber. I felt the thrill of old, even though this was just a child's version of the real thing two days later which I watched from the comfort of my couch.

Going back to food for a moment (after the fish fight in Marseilles), you may be pleased to know that the French Parliament passed an amendment last month that requires restaurants to offer doggy bags to those who want them as from July 2021!!  Reactions varied from outright objection to a shrug of indifference, but three years should be enough to get used to the idea. According to ADEME (Agency for the environment and energy conservation) which hopes to reduce food waste by half in 2025, France wastes 10 million tons of food (estimated at €16 billion) per year, mostly in restaurants.

One positive side effect of this drive against waste is the emergence of an app that allows food providers (mostly bakeries, pastry shops, take-out food shops) to sell their products at one-third or less of the original price at the end of business hours. The client can order and pay online, and pick up the item at a specified time. It's good for seller and buyer alike and in the two years of its existence the app has become very popular in bigger cities, its awkward name notwithstanding. "Toogoodtogo" might lead you to believe that this food is too good to take out, i.e. should be eaten on site, when "Toogoodtowaste" is what they mean. English still has a little way to go in France. 


OPERA AND MORE


Summer in Aix means opera and all that comes with it: Master classes, open-air concerts, interviews with singers, directors, stage designers, etc. and some noteworthy public events that are free and very popular, such as this year's interactive opera Orfeo & Majnun, based on the legend of Orfeo and Eurydice and its Arab counterpart Layla and Majnun, sung in three languages by professional singers and a choir of amateurs.

Excerpts of this work were performed last Sunday on the Cours Mirabeau in the center of Aix, with the participation of a large public of young and old who paraded down the Cours with hand-held cut-out animal figures they had fabricated themselves that afternoon with the help of volunteers who demonstrated how to cut these figures from sheets of polyethylene or Styrofoam and mount them on sticks. It was a happy mix of music, fun and fraternity, and a creative way of bringing opera to the people. Here is a little video on these easy-to-make animals and their creator, Roger Titley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K01rvh0S1_c


For those who don't care for opera there is the three-day Economic Forum at the faculty of law of Aix-Marseille university, where business leaders, economists, politicians, bankers, journalists, philosophers, but also young start-uppers and graduate students, will discuss this year's topic of "The World's Metamorphoses".

The wide range of knowledge and international experience of the participants from 30 different countries who represent governments, international agencies, as well as institutional and private business environments, should make for interesting debates, all of them open to the public.


Not your cup of tea? There is also the month-long theatre festival in Avignon with its bewildering choice of some 1300 plays in big and small venues, running from 10 a.m. to midnight every day. For foreigners it's good to know that more and more plays are performed in English or another language (with subtitles). 


ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz



Whatever your choice, ENJOY!


But if the thought of all this activity exhausts you, and as temperatures are climbing into the mid-thirties Celsius, there is always the option of doing nothing at all. A long siesta, preferably under a tree, with a cool drink and a book within reach, and a mind wiped clean of the turmoil surrounding us — why look any further?






PS: While you're having that snooze, Angela Merkel's political survival is hanging in the balance and the EU summit in Brussels last week managed in extremis to come up with an interim solution of 'closed centers' for the migrants who keep landing on our Mediterranean shores, even if it is in vastly reduced numbers. After an all-nighter, the 28 divided EU member states agreed on this vague proposal that will of course require future meetings and negotiations that may or may not be successful, but at least they bought themselves some time until the next crisis.

More on this subject next time. Right now, it's just too hot…






Friday, June 15, 2018

ITALY AND THE EU; CANADA G7; NORTH KOREA

ITALY

di Maio (l) and Salvini, unlikely alliance
Italy just elected a populist coalition government powered by the left-wing Five-Star Movement of Luigi di Maio and the far-right League of Matteo Salvini, both Europhobes. After reluctantly accepting to keep the Euro as single currency, they quickly expressed their hostility toward the European Union and 'Brussels' which they blame for most of Italy's problems. The new Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, who will do his best to keep this rickety ship afloat, is a civil lawyer who has no previous government experience.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
This new Italian government adds another layer (post Brexit) to the growing populism in Europe, where anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of loss of national sovereignty in the face of mass immigration have weakened the traditional center-right governments that have dominated for so long. After her party lost the last election, Angela Merkel was forced into a coalition with the center-left which has considerably weakened her at home and on the international scene. In losing the support of now-europhobic Italy, still the third-largest EU economy, fervently pro-Europe French president Macron will have to redouble his efforts to keep the EU engine from stalling without Mrs. Merkel by his side. We wish him well and cheer him on.

A strong and coherent European Union is more important than ever when Donald Trump's America First policy suddenly lands on your doorstep with a threat of punishing tariffs. Forgotten are the tales of French discontent or news of the continuing railway strikes in France that are hiccuping along at the rate of two days of shutdown per week, to little effect. Travelers have adapted to the reduced service and found alternative solutions, the hue and cry of the unions has died down to a whimper, and repeated street protests have simply not had the expected success.


CANADA and the G7

The attention has shifted to President Trump's decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum that, if applied, would have devastating effects on the EU economy, in particular on the auto industry in France and export-dependent Germany. Emmanuel Macron has called these tariffs (25% on steel, 10% on aluminum) illegal and has put the matter before the World Trade Organization in Geneva. "This is not a question of national security of the United States," he said. "It is protectionism, pure and simple, and that is unacceptable." Germany's Angela Merkel agreed, cautioning against a global trade war where "there are no winners". EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström called this "a bad day for world trade" and condemned this "economic nationalism that will penalize everyone, including the US". European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the European Union now had no choice but to challenge the United States' action at the WTO and promised European counter measures, while European Council President Donald Tusk expressed concern over the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged by its main architect and guarantor: the US.

The American elephant has wreaked havoc in the global china shop and left anger and frustration in its wake. But it also has united the EU countries as never before, and they wasted no time in agreeing on retaliatory tariffs on American products in the hope that the WTO will soon declare the US tariffs illegal and things can return to normal. Mexico and Canada will do the same, with Canada slapping retaliatory import duties as early as July 1st on American steel and a list of US consumer products worth C$16.6 billion, while simultaneously challenging the US tariffs before the WTO and under the NAFTA agreement.

Without distinction between friend and foe Trump is punishing us all for his trade imbalance with China. But with his America First policy and the unilateral cancellation of several multilateral agreements, he is increasingly isolating the US and encouraging other nations to work towards greater independence from the US, an ally whose word cannot be trusted and whose self interest today outweighs such universal interests as saving the planet from the devastations of global warming. Under Trump's presidency, the world has become angrier, more divided and more dangerous.

Six to One - speaking volumes
The summit of the seven leading industrial nations (G7) in Canada on June 8-9 quickly turned into a G6+1, with Canadian host Justin Trudeau and his counterparts from France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and Japan all condemning the new American tariffs and rejecting the "justification" that they would be a threat to US national security.

A combative Donald Trump appeared late at the summit and left early. Seemingly unconcerned about the outcry over his tariffs, he simply reiterated his complaint that Canada and Europe have long imposed unfair tariffs on the US but added that he thought a deal could be worked out. He also used the occasion to call for the G7 to let Russia back in (to form the old G8); this in ignorance of, or in spite of, the fact that Russia was expelled because of its illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Angela Merkel later said that all EU members at the summit agreed that Russia could not be readmitted as long as there was no clear progress on Ukraine. 

Nevertheless, even though the vote for retaliatory tariffs against US exports was unanimous, the G6 cannot afford to risk an all-out trade war with a nation that accounts for more than half of the combined GDP of the G7. France has already withdrawn two of its biggest companies, oil giant Total and automaker Peugeot, from Iran in fear of the American reprisals threatened by Mr. Trump against those who do business with Iran. The G6 may find Donald Trump repellent, they nevertheless intend to do everything they can to prevent the American tariffs from being implemented.

Eloquent body language
In the course of the Friday G7 meeting, Trump seems to have softened somewhat, promising separate follow-up negotiations with individual countries (he likes one-on-one dealing). The next morning he left Canada to fly to Singapore for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, leaving some of his entourage in place to attend the final sessions, including the one on climate change. But no sooner had a carefully crafted joint communiqué been shared with Trump than he tweeted from his plane that he would not sign it. This president who habitually insults people (and was on his way to meet North Korea's "little rocket man") took umbrage at Justin Trudeau when he said in a post-G7 press conference that Canada had felt insulted by the tariffs imposed on a long-time ally and that he planned to go ahead with reciprocal tariffs on American goods. Petulant and vindictive, Trump now got personal and nasty, calling Trudeau "weak and dishonest" and blaming him for the failure of this G7 summit.

What sandbox is this thin-skinned, impetuous, egocentric and ill-tempered man-child playing in??
Where are his handlers?! 


NORTH KOREA

Historic handshake
Trump's June 12 meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-un Dr. Strangelove meeting Rambo did nothing to reassure us. If anything, Kim appeared to be the winner of this first round: having the president of the United States flying halfway around the world to come and shake his hand and make the goodwill gesture of canceling military exercises in the area, without giving anything in return. And what did Trump get? A photo opportunity and the illusion that he had "solved the North-Korean problem".

Trump used the historic occasion to give a singularly embarrassing speech that talked about building hotels and condos on the beautiful beaches ("look at it from a real-estate point of view") and expressed his admiration for Kim Jong-un who "at only 26 years of age took over from his father and is running the country with a strong hand". In one of his inane tweets following the meeting he tells us that we can "now sleep better because there will be no nuclear war with North Korea." Deal done. Check off another victory for world peace. DT is ready for his close-up and, yes, for that Nobel Peace prize.

Having just savaged Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, one of his closest allies, and then praised a brutal dictator who notoriously murdered his own half-brother among his other human rights abuses, it is clear that supreme leader Trump does not know the difference between right and wrong. Sleep better? Not likely. With nasty visions of a future controlled by two unhinged maniacs with the Red Button at their itchy fingertips, I will just try to stay calm and breathe in slowly, thinking positive thoughts. Like... uh... um ... hmm... let me get back to you on that.





Wednesday, May 9, 2018

FROM PEDESTAL TO PAVEMENT; MORE STRIKES; WHAT NEXT?


FROM PEDESTAL TO PAVEMENT
  
As Emmanuel Macron returned from his three-day state visit to the United States he found the French press notably less effusive about this trip than its American counterpart. Nobody really expected Macron to succeed in changing Trump's mind on the Paris climate agreement and on the Iran nuclear deal, but state visits are prestigious and hold the promise of diplomatic and commercial gain. Mutual laudatory remarks, especially between oldest allies, are de rigueur, but the best-buddies show of bearhugs, backslapping, kisses and holding hands, not to mention dandruff flicking, was perceived at home as a rather embarrassing love-in unbecoming a president of France.

In many ways these two men are each other's opposites: globalist vs. nationalist, intellectual vs. populist, environmentalist vs. climate change denier, erudite vs. street smarts, diplomat vs. bully, but they are both presidents of important countries and undeniably need each other. Hence, Macron had everything to gain by playing along with best pal Donald.

Not until he addressed a joint session of US Congress did Macron come into his own. His forthright speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause and ended with a standing ovation even though much of what he said contradicted Trump's position. In a later town-hall meeting with 1000 students at George Washington University, a relaxed Macron in shirtsleeves, speaking English without notes, encouraged those frustrated with the American political system to challenge it and create their own. Pointing to himself and his unexpected presidential win, he said that everything is impossible until it isn't. "Your generation is the one to decide for itself. You will face significant challenges in the coming years and tomorrow's leaders will have to come up with innovative solutions to improve the global economy, tackle climate change and manage geopolitics." In these areas and many others, "you must take your responsibilities," he said, before he left the stage to shake hands, submit to selfies, and enjoy a rock-star exit as he moved on to a press conference next door with French and US media for another impressive performance.

Macron applauded by US Congress
Even though he failed to change Trump's mind on the Paris and Iran agreements, Macron earned credits on this state visit. It allowed him to show that he has the makings of a world leader he is fearless, intelligent, ambitious, persistent, and a good speaker, qualities he will need to push through his sweeping reform program in France and further his aspirations for the European Union where he now is the leading man.


STRIKES, NOISE AND VIOLENCE

Black Block anarchists in Paris
Nothing like a French labor crisis to burst Macron's bubble and quickly bring him back to the harsh reality of strikes and demonstrations at home where negotiations between the government and the national railway unions had broken down. The traditional May 1st celebration with the customary workers' march in Paris was interrupted this year by a group of more than 1000 Black Bloc anarchists who threw rocks and firebombs at police, vandalized businesses, torched a McDonald's restaurant, and set fire to cars and heavy mechanical equipment along the route as they shouted anti-capitalist slogans. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, and some 200 anarchists were detained. Mobilized by encrypted messages on social networks, the ultra-left black bloc rioters describe themselves as anti-fascist, anti-globalization, anti-capitalist, anti-police, revolutionaries who model themselves after their German 'colleagues' of the 1980s. Needless to say they did not help their protesting fellow marchers whose message was drowned out in the violence.

Black Block Marxists
A second protest was then planned in the form of a tongue-in-cheek "Party for Macron" on May 5th, organized by left-wing firebrands François Ruffin and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the La France Insoumise (LFI) movement, who called on all those who oppose Macron's reforms to join together and march in Paris on the first anniversary of Macron's presidency. Nearly 40 thousand people attended and, amid a reinforced police presence, this demonstration remained peaceful in a rather party-like atmosphere as many marched with their children on this sunny Saturday that ended with a free concert.

In the meantime, more than half of Air France's employees rejected their management's latest offer in the ongoing salary dispute, and the company's president subsequently resigned. So for now, the two days/week railway and airline strikes continue and another date was set for all concerned, including hospital personnel and all those who work in the public sector, to march again on May 26th.

In the middle of all the unrest, the students who had been occupying various universities in protest against proposed changes in the university admissions system were dislodged by police and classes reopened for those who want to take their June exams. The truce may be short-lived, however, as many students have vowed to join the May 26 march.  

To date, the government is holding firm even though Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he is keeping the door open for amendments to the final rail reform text to be voted in Parliament on May 28th. The various transportation unions have vowed to be equally unyielding and a sense of generalized frustration and fatigue is spreading among strikers and citizens alike. 

Are Macron's reforms too ambitious and is he moving too fast? Does he deserve to be called The President of the Rich who is disconnected from the working class? Is he ready to face the growing discontent, not only from the rail workers but from other public sectors as well, with the potentially dangerous consequences of a convergence of complaints in a massive nationwide protest? 
The answers may well come from "the street" as so often before. 


WHAT NEXT?

This month of May has its share of challenges for the Macron government, but they are no more than a street brawl compared to the new dangers unleashed by President Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. As we hold our breath for the fallout, we in France may congratulate ourselves on the quality of our government and the protections afforded by our parliamentary system.

But that is scant consolation if one irresponsible madman in the US can unilaterally declare hard-fought multilateral agreements nul and void, riding roughshod over the other signatories and over the pleas of his Western allies.


Choose your worst-case scenario.  It is no longer unthinkable.  







Wednesday, April 11, 2018

STRIKES AND CONSEQUENCES


RAIL REFORM - PERHAPS

Gare de Lyon (Paris) on strike day
This month saw the beginning of the ultimate test between two powers, the government and labor unions, which currently are at opposite ends of the issue of reform of the French national railroad system SNCF. At stake is the special statute of French railroad workers (cheminots) who since the early days of the coal-fired train engines have been guaranteed a job for life and early retirement (at age 50 to 52 for train conductors). During the 30-year economic boom in France following World War II (Les Trente Glorieuses), there was little reason not to reward workers in "hardship jobs" with special incentives, but in today's world of straitened circumstances and globalized competition, it is difficult to defend this costly privilege for a modernized rail system, especially when the heavily indebted state-owned train operator SNCF is losing €3 billion a year. Earlier attempts at rail reform have failed, notably in late 1995 when a 3-week transportation strike brought the country to a virtual standstill and led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé.


STRIKES - NATURELLEMENT

Today, four unions are joined in protest against the government's rail reform plans for the hemorrhaging SNCF, agreeing on a series of rolling strikes for a duration of three months. The first strike occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 3rd and 4th, following the Easter weekend, and was particularly disruptive when Air France employees joined the strike after their negotiations for a 6 percent wage increase ended in failure, thus severely curtailing rail and air traffic simultaneously, both for commuters and for returning vacationers. The rolling strikes will consist of two days of striking followed by three days of work followed by two days of strikes, until the end of June. The SNCF moves 4.5 million people per day, and after the first week (four days of shutdown) the strike had cost the company €100 million euros already, according to its CEO Guillaume Pepy.    



Last year, Emmanuel Macron campaigned and won on a promise to modernize France, which voters widely approved of. He intends to make the SNCF more efficient and economically viable before passenger traffic is opened up to foreign competition in the coming years, as required by the European Union rules. He also envisions turning the SNCF into a publicly listed company with the government retaining 100% of the shares. 


The unions see this as an attack on public service and a path to privatization (which the government denies). The strikers point to the disastrous results of railway privatization in the UK, which the government counters with the excellent results in Germany and the argument that "we are in a position to avoid the mistakes made by others before us."




Meanwhile, other public sectors have been protesting and threatening action against government cutbacks, notably in the areas of garbage collection, energy, and civil service. Mindful of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's statement that the rail reforms will be passed by decree, if necessary, the rail unions are digging in and hope that their cause will be helped by the growing social discontent elsewhere.


STUDENTS JOIN

A recent incident at the University of Montpellier may play out in the strikers' favor if protesting students decide to join the striking cheminots.  
Every French student with a Baccalaureate diploma has a right to go to the nearest university, which has led to popular subjects such as law and psychology to be heavily oversubscribed and prompted the introduction of an unpopular lottery system that allows universities to select students on merit where demand is highest. But about 60 percent of all students drop out or change majors after their first year at university, which President Macron claims is due to a lack of specialization in high school. He proposes to phase out the lottery and tighten the entrance requirements to university by orienting high school students earlier on towards future careers. The response has been mixed, with students and teachers (and their unions) announcing protests against this reform which they say forces high-school students too early into making career choices.

Students protesting March 2018
It was at one of these protests against school reform last month, at the law faculty of the university of Montpellier, that things got out of hand when a group of masked men broke up a student sit-in with batons and baseball bats. Several students lodged complaints with the police and the Minister for Higher Education called for an official inquiry, while Montpellier University launched its own investigation as well. It soon turned out that the Dean of the School of Law had himself called for his lecture hall to be evacuated by the hoodlums and he was forced to resign. Students at Lille University then called for nationwide protests against Macron's school reforms which, they feel, threaten France's tradition of education for all. A dozen major universities immediately followed suit and the protests have since spread to many others. Earlier this week, students at the universities of Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille and Lyon decided to join France's railworkers in their second day of strikes. It seems not impossible that this student protest movement may balloon into a second "Mai '68" revolt that turned into a game changer for France and the government of General de Gaulle. The possible convergence of large numbers of protestors from many different sectors with the air- and rail-transport strikers carries the risk of overwhelming the Macron reform message and taking on a life of its own.  


May 1968 - first students, then workers
It is worth remembering that an unintended by-product of the student uprising of May 1968, which was mostly about sexual freedom, was a worker revolt with wildcat and general strikes by some 11 million workers the largest strike movement France has ever seen that resulted in a shortened workweek, wage increases across the board, and mandatory worker-employer councils (as well as a weakened president de Gaulle who resigned a year later). Today, a whiff of nostalgia still hangs over "Mai '68" which some will choose to remember as a time of social and cultural change provoked by students, while others are mindful of the near collapse of the French economy following two weeks of virtual nationwide paralysis.


MAY 2018

President Macron's reform agenda is bound to run into resistance, but he seems prepared for it and his party's majority in Parliament gives him a margin of comfort. Yet, having promised to do what earlier governments could not, this crucial railway reform may be the make-or-break point of his presidency, especially if public opinion can be swayed by massive discontent. Not only France will be watching this contest closely, but so will the European Union that has come to see Emmanuel Macron as their leader after Angela Merkel lost control of her party. If he fails to pass this reform which a slight majority of the French electorate supports, he will lose all the goodwill he has earned so far and weaken his chances at further reforms. It would also diminish Macron's strong pro-Europe voice amid rising nationalism in eastern Europe and political uncertainty in Italy.

Meanwhile, the unions are filling their coffers with sympathizers' contributions to support a long strike, while commuters are finding solutions that vary from working at home on strike days to carpooling which never really appealed to the individualistic French. In fact, it was during the chaotic first two-day strike at Easter time that many of the stranded travelers first discovered the benefits of long-distance ride-sharing services such as BlaBlaCar that got them safely home hundreds of kilometers away. This young French company, which now operates in 22 countries (not in the US) and has become the biggest long-distance car-sharing service in the world, even offered free rides on strike days via its BlaBlaLines to the first 60,000 commuters to sign up for rides to and from work that are less than 80 km. Way to go! 

Of course, this too will pass, and sooner or later the trains will roll again. But some long-distance travelers may now prefer BlaBlaCar that not only matches offer with demand but also allows the client to choose the best-matched driver by indicating that he/she is a Bla (not talkative) or a BlaBlaBla (very chatty). Now, how is that for luxury?!

Considering that some of the two-day strikes will fall on a weekend and that we will soon be entering the month of May with its fewest workdays of the year (four national holidays), there is little reason for the French not to plan their usual get-aways in May, and for foreigners not to visit France as long as they keep an eye on the strike schedule.