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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


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.


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. 


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



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.


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.


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.

Saturday, March 3, 2018



Last Saturday the 54th annual Salon de l'Agriculture opened in Paris and, as expected, President Macron was its first visitor. It's an obligatory passage for every French president, and Emmanuel Macron may have broken the record by spending 12-1/2 hours at the Salon on opening day. He wasn't always warmly welcomed, especially by farmers whose survival depends on the traditional subsidies contained in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the seven-year EU budget that will need to be discussed soon. Farmers fear that Macron may not defend these subsidies as his predecessors always have. [For background on the French farm and the role of subsidies, see blogs of  2/28/16 and 2/25/13.]

Indeed, the next EU budget negotiations to be held in Brussels in May will certainly be affected by Brexit and the loss of €12 billion per year in UK contributions, causing a significant shortfall in the next 7-year cycle of EU funding. The CAP subsidies, of which the French farmers receive the biggest share, will surely be among the proposed budget cuts. In addition, even if the contributions of the 26 post-Brexit members of the EU were to be raised, the next budget will have to incorporate increased expenditures in areas such as defense, border security, integration of immigrants, and innovation. It is no secret that those areas are closer to President Macron's heart than the controversial farm subsidies that have been a thorn in the side of many other EU contributors.

Nevertheless, no French president has ever dared touch the sacrosanct farm subsidies and any attempt to do so has always been countered by the powerful farmers' union and costly, disruptive protests by farmers who have the support of the French people, deeply attached to their terroir and willing to defend tooth and nail the farming methods of their fathers and grandfathers and their indispensable subsidies. Macron will have to tread carefully and try to find a balance between the traditional values of rural France and the demands of the new economics of globalization, without disappointing those voters who will hold him to his promise of a modernization of France.


Another area of tension and disagreement is the costly French national railroad system where a major fight is developing between Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and four unions over the government's announced decision to overhaul the state-owned SNCF company in an effort to reduce its debt of more than 45 billion euros. The proposed reforms will end the preferential terms that rail employees have enjoyed since the company's nationalization in 1937, when trains ran on coal. These include a job for life and early retirement for many of its 260,000 workers. In response, the unions have promised massive strikes such as those that brought down Prime Minister Alain Juppé in 1995 after three weeks of total transport paralysis. 

Edouard Philippe announces railroad reform
Prime Minister Philippe said the current SNCF situation is untenable as its debt grows by 3 billion euros a year, and recalled that a large majority of French voters had supported President Macron's 2017 campaign pledge to modernize France and ensure the economic viability of its national railway system before the end of his mandate. Moreover, he said, the SNCF company had to become more efficient before passenger travel is opened up to competition in the near future, as demanded by European Union rules.

Fuller details of the government's plans will be revealed in early March following a government-ordered study, and a parliamentary debate will take place in mid-March. But Mr. Philippe cautioned the unions that the reforms would be passed by decree, if necessary, thus avoiding a vote in Parliament. "That's blackmail!" cried the unions, as both sides prepare for a long and potentially bloody battle.


The Beast from the East, an icy blizzard from Siberia, blew across Europe this week, its arctic winds causing temperatures to drop to 10 degrees Celsius in much of France (feeling like 18° C with the wind chill factor), and claiming four lives in the first two days. The government has opened additional emergency shelters for the homeless and is urging that young children and the elderly stay indoors as much as possible. Even the Riviera did not escape sub-zero temperatures, and Corsica broke a 30-year record when the beaches around Ajaccio were covered with 10 cm of powdery snow. The southern city of Montpellier was paralyzed for nearly 48 hours when 20-30 cm of snow immobilized trams and buses, and roads became impracticable. "We have no adequate snow removal equipment for this type of storm, which happens only once in 30 or 40 years" said a sheepish mayor Philippe Saurel, "and three rounds of salting across the city were simply not enough." The cold snap is expected to last one week.


Cours Mirabeau
As I reported in a March 2014 blog, the plane trees in Aix-en-Provence are infected with a deadly parasite (the incurable ceratocystis platani) that slowly squeezes the life out of the emblematic, blotchy Provençal platane that so enchanted Van Gogh. Some of these trees are more than a hundred years old, but once infected they can live another 50-60 years before their nourishment is completely choked off and they risk falling over in a minor storm, as happened with two city-center trees a few years ago. The mayor then declared that all 2000 platanes in Aix would be checked and the sickest ones felled, resulting in the removal of more than 40 trees on the Cours Mirabeau alone. It now appears that the surviving trees are infecting their neighbors, including some of the new saplings, and that the only way to stop the spread of the contagion is to take all the parasite-carrying trees down, as well as all those within a 35-meter radius! Sadly, this means the end of the leafy tunnel that for so many years has shaded the terraces along the Cours Mirabeau and elsewhere in town. The removal, soil disinfection, and replanting with 61 Acer Platanoides (Norwegian maples) will take 2-3 months, but many years will pass before they will spread their precious shade.

The buzzing of tree-cutting saws has now joined the ear-splitting noise of jackhammers and heavy equipment that are breaking up a number of streets and sidewalks in town, where a new 17-km Express Bus lane is being created in and around the city in an effort to increase the pedestrian areas and keep cars out of the city center. If all goes well and no significant Roman artifacts are found, this project will take one to two years. Added to the 3-year project of the renovation of the three squares in front of the Palais de Justice, which has one more year to run, a walk through Aix today has turned into a noisy, dusty, obstacle course that is sure to disappoint many a tourist.


We may reasonably expect that all this nuisance will be rewarded by improved living conditions in the old city center (more pedestrian streets, less traffic, less noise and pollution), but we have already been assured of one major gift: upon completion of the renovations in front of the Palais de Justice, a major Picasso museum will arise in a former convent on the Place des Prêcheurs. It is a gift to the city of Aix-en-Provence by Catherine Hutin-Blay, only daughter and heir of Jacqueline Laroque Picasso who was Picasso's last wife and muse. Mrs. Hutin-Blay recently bought the 12th-century convent that will become the Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso Museum to house the exceptional collection she inherited: over 2000 works from 1952-1973, many of them never shown before, including 1000 paintings and 1000 works of sculpture, ceramics, drawings and photographs. The museum will also have a 200-seat auditorium, a Picasso research center, and artistic workshops for ceramics and printmaking. Mrs. Hutin-Blay said she wanted the museum located close to the Chateau de Vauvenargues outside Aix-en-Provence where both Picasso and Jacqueline Laroque are buried. The museum is scheduled to open in 2021 and is expected to draw 500,000 visitors a year. 


Curiously, the French language does not contain a wide range of swear words. Nothing like the Italians and Spaniards who go so far as to include your relatives and ancestors in their curses, or the English with their liberal use of sexual terms to express anger or just about any other feeling. It may surprise you, then, that the French have developed a fondness for the word 'fucking' which they use rather lightly and in some unexpected places.

Note the window on Cooper's, a traditional-looking hair salon on a high-end shopping street in Aix which is proud to call itself, in gold lettering no less, the "Best Fucking Cut Shop."

Not quite in the same league as the near-English I found at the "Handburger" restaurant, but likely to stop you in your tracks nevertheless.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018



Two recent deaths in France are worth noting.
Peter Mayle, popular author of a series of books on Provence, died on January 18th at age 78. Paul Bocuse, legendary French chef and innovator, passed away two days later at 91. Both, in their different ways, had made their name in promoting the French quality of life, and found fame and fortune in doing so.


When Peter Mayle wrote A Year in Provence in 1989 he could not have known that it would become an instant bestseller and cause a flood of foreigners to come looking for a 'house in Provence' of their own. The impact on villages in the Luberon where Mayle had settled was immediate. Local farmers were happy to sell their unimproved homesteads, some without indoor plumbing or hot water, to eager buyers who would renovate them to modern standards of comfort and Provençal "charm". Poor villages became rich, soon sprouting boutiques and souvenir shops, sidewalk cafes, and real estate offices. Mayle's first Provence book, soon followed by others, sold millions of copies and was quickly translated into 28 languages but not in French. When a French translation finally appeared in 1996, it was not appreciated. The villagers he had been writing about with tongue in cheek did not take kindly to Mayle's humor and felt mocked and treated like idiots. "You put us under your microscope as if we were insects" was one of the criticisms, and the Englishman who had happily made a French village his home was suddenly less welcome. It is true that the local economy had vastly benefited from Mayle's promotion of the enviable local life, but consequently that life had become too expensive for many of the villagers. The amiable Mayle defended himself as best he could but failed to convince the French. He moved to another village and continued writing until shortly before his death.


Dozens of chefs from all over the world attended Paul Bocuse's funeral service in the cathedral of Lyon to pay their last respects to their teacher and friend "Monsieur Paul" who was as much loved for his culinary mastery as for his simplicity and generosity. All of the star chefs were there, including the American Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud who came from New York, as well as Hiroyuki Hiramatsu who came from Tokyo. Among those who spoke affectionately of Bocuse were Gérard Colomb, Minister of the Interior and former Mayor of Lyon, as well as fellow chefs Pierre Troisgros and Marc Haeberlin who fondly remembered some of the famous Bocuse dishes and his jovial "Bon Appétit et Large Soif." In a tribute from Davos, French President Emmanuel Macron called Bocuse "the incarnation of French cuisine."

Known as a leader and proponent of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse nonetheless did not shun the heartier traditional dishes he grew up with. His food empire included a restaurant at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, and seven restaurants in Japan. He was named Chef of the Century by the Gault et Millau guide in 1989 and again by the Culinary Institute of America in 2011.

Chefs attending Bocuse's funeral 
The "Pope of French cuisine" was laid to rest in the village of Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or where he was born and where he lived above his famous restaurant L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which continues to feature three Michelin stars today as it has without interruption since 1965.

Classique ou moderne, il n'y a qu'une seule cuisine... la bonne. 
Paul Bocuse, 1926-2018


The World Economic Forum opened in Davos on January 23 and its keynote speaker on opening day was French President Emmanuel Macron who for one hour (half in English, half in French) presented his views to the international audience of bankers, innovators and financiers.

He addressed all the big themes of today and pleaded for greater global cooperation on immigration, terrorism, and climate change, underlined the need for transparency, multilateralism, a strong European Union, and called on China to stop its unfair trade practices and create a level playing field for international business there. He also asked that American internet giants doing business in Europe be taxed where they sell their products and not in tax havens. The speech was well received, even though certain attendees would no doubt take exception with some of Macron's proposals. Nevertheless, there is no denying that his performance in Davos reinforced his image as a world leader.

On the final day of the Forum, President Trump took to the podium and spoke to a packed auditorium, inviting investors to come to the United States where the stock market is booming and investment opportunities abound. Claiming all the credit for this economic resurgence, he hammered home his America First message and urged others to do the same for their own countries. For once he stayed on message, although he could not stop himself from criticizing the press and its "fake news" a remark that met with boos. Overall, he received a polite response and happily huddled with a number of business leaders afterwards.

Macron and Trump, both surprise winners of their presidency, could not be more different in style and substance. After one year under his leadership, Trump's America has veered toward disengagement, protectionism and isolation, while France has taken on a leadership role in Europe and increasingly so on the global scene.  


January 2018 has been the wettest month in France in 100 years. After weeks of incessant rain, rivers overflowed their banks, villages were cut off when roads and railroads were flooded, and excessive snowfall in the southeastern Alps forced the closing of several ski resorts.

When the fast-flowing Seine burst its banks in Paris all river traffic, including the famous bateaux mouches, was halted due to the danger of floating debris, and all traffic lanes along the Seine were closed. The RER-C railroad line serving Paris closed seven stations, and several museums along this line had to close or move their art to higher floors. In the Val de Marne, at the confluence of the Seine and the Yerres, residents who had barely recovered from the terrible floods in 2016 were hit for a second time. Even though the weather improved towards the end of the month, flood warnings remain in effect in the Ile de France as well as in 11 other départements. The floodwaters are receding very slowly due to the soggy ground's inability to absorb any more water, and a recent cold spell with heavy snow added more misery to the flooded areas.


Violent clashes broke out in a migrant camp in Calais last week, leaving 22 people injured. Five young Eritreans were hit by gunshots and four of them (between 16-18 years old) remain today in critical condition. It appears that gangs of people traffickers are pitting Afghans against Eritreans. A 37-year old Afghan identified as the gunman is actively sought by police.

PM Theresa May in Calais
Sadly, the dramatic situation of the Calais refugees who still cling to the hope of reaching England was aggravated by a recent meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron when they agreed that England would speed up the visa processing of the many unaccompanied minors who are waiting to join relatives in the UK. The bureaucratic sluggishness is having serious effects on these youngsters, many of whom lost a parent or relative on their way to "safety" and are currently living in violence-plagued camps. The May-Macron announcement of the renewed British commitment caused a surge of new migrants into the already overcrowded makeshift camp in Calais where rival groups are vying for domination. It took only a minor incident in the foodline at the camp, fanned by people smugglers, to spark the violence that sent 22 people to hospital.

In the wake of the dramatic terrorist attacks in France, the problematic open-door immigration policy of Germany that has come back to haunt Angela Merkel, and the reluctance or down-right refusal of certain Eastern European countries to accept war refugees from North Africa, many Mediterranean countries who continue to see overcrowded refugee boats arriving at their shores have doubled their vigilance and their cooperation in detecting people smugglers among them and separating economic refugees from war refugees who seek political asylum. It's a difficult task given that many refugees arrive without papers. France has tightened its border controls, and those who currently live in refugee camps on its territory but do not qualify for asylum will be sent back. The massive migration of people fleeing war and poverty the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time has become a source of either shame or pride for the richer nations of this world.


Sketch of Abdeslam (R) and co-defendant in Brussels court.
No cameras were allowed.  
Yesterday, February 5th, Salah Abdeslam, sole survivor of the jihadist terrorist cell that killed 130 people in attacks at the Bataclan theatre and elsewhere in Paris in November 2015, appeared for trial in a Brussels courtroom. The 28-year-old Belgian-born French national Abdeslam had been held in solitary confinement in Fleury-Mérogis near Paris awaiting his trial there, but his refusal to speak to French investigators has led his defense lawyers to quit in frustration. For the Belgian trial, which may last a week, Abdeslam was moved to a high-security French prison near the Belgian border from where he will be ferried daily to the Brussels Palais de Justice to be judged for his role in a Brussels shootout in March 2016 in which several police officers were injured. Three days later, during a raid on his hiding place in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, Abdeslam himself was shot in the leg as he ran from police, which allowed his capture after a four-month-long manhunt following the Paris November attacks. He may also be implicated in the failed attack in a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels in August 2015 that was foiled by three American servicemen on leave, as well as in the attack at Brussels airport and a metro station in March 2016 which killed 32 people and wounded more than 300. Security around the Brussels Palais de Justice is extremely tight with a police cordon around the courthouse and a helicopter flying overhead.

After the Brussels trial Abdeslam will be returned to Paris where he will have to answer for his part in the November 2015 terrorist attacks in which his brother was killed. In a statement found on his laptop computer he admits that he meant to blow himself up at the Palais des Sports stadium in Paris where President Hollande, among 80,000 spectators, was watching a France-Germany football match. He writes that his suicide vest failed to explode and that he dumped it in a nearby bin (it has been retrieved) and regrets that he did not die like his martyr brothers. In the same letter he also says that he had wanted to go to Syria but that on reflection "it would be better to finish the work here with the brothers. I would just like to be better equipped in future before going into action," he adds, showing that he was planning further attacks.

Perhaps Abdeslam is right: nothing more is needed to establish his participation in the Paris attacks, but as the sole survivor he surely has valuable knowledge of European terrorist cells that French and international intelligence services would like to share. Whether he cooperates or not, he is sure to spend the rest of his life in jail.