Saturday, June 30, 2018


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.


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. 


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:

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). 


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



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?! 


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.