Wednesday, December 21, 2016

CHRISTINE LAGARDE AND PICASSO'S ELECTRICIAN JUDGED


Two long-running legal cases were finally wrapped up this month.

After five days of hearings by the Cour de Justice de la République (CJR), which judges wrongdoing by government officials, Christine Lagarde was found guilty of the charge of "negligence by a person in a position of public authority" but spared the potential penalty of a one-year prison term and a fine. The public prosecutor had recommended acquittal based on a "weak" case. Lagarde stood accused of mishandling the arbitration of Bernard Tapie vs the partly state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank when she allowed a payoff of more than €400 million with public funds in 2008 while she was Finance Minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy (see blog 12/21/15).

The lead judge of the CJR, which is made up of three judges and 12 members of parliament, said the sentence was dropped in consideration of the exceptional circumstances of Lagarde's difficult job as Finance Minister during the financial crisis of 2008 and of her strong reputation. The court saw no objection to her acceptance of arbitration but felt she should have contested the excessive payout, as the Treasury had recommended at the time.

The matter of Tapie vs CL had originated in 1994 and after some 14 years of litigation ended on Lagarde's desk when Tapie asked for arbitration to bring this case to a conclusion. The three arbitrators found in favor of Tapie who was awarded €403 million, to be paid from public funds since the CL bank had since gone bankrupt. This huge award of taxpayers' money and rumors of the doubtful neutrality of one of the arbitrators caused the Socialist opposition party to demand a special investigation, and in 2015 the Paris appeals court annulled the award and ordered Tapie to repay.

Back in Washington after the grueling week-long trial in Paris, Christine Lagarde commented that she was not satisfied with the judgment but needed to put this five-year ordeal behind her and focus fully on her work as head of the IMF. Following the verdict, the IMF Board immediately expressed its "full confidence in the managing director's ability to effectively continue to carry out her duties".

Although some experts agree that the legal case against her was weak, the matter was politically sensitive. As a person close to Lagarde said: "You have to take into account the long-running resentment of the judiciary power against the executive power, and the political dynamic among the MPs, between the left and the right." President Hollande's statement that "the judiciary is an institution of cowards" as quoted in the book A President Should Not Say That… (blog 12/05/16) is still ringing in our ears. 


Pierre Le Guennec  

Pierre Le Guennec
Last week the Appeals Court of Aix-en-Provence upheld the verdict of the 2-year suspended prison sentence against Mr. and Mrs. Le Guennec pronounced by the criminal court in Grasse in 2015 in the case brought by the Picasso Administration for theft of artwork (blog 11/03/16). Pierre le Guennec, 77,who had been Picasso's electrician for a number of years, claimed that the 271 unsigned drawings in his possession were a gift from Picasso's widow Jacqueline, but the court found his testimony not credible. This verdict effectively spells the end of a 6-year saga that began in 2010, when Le Guennec took some of the unsigned drawings to Claude Picasso in Paris for authentication. 

I attended the reading of the verdict and was struck by the fact that Le Guennec was alone, without his wife, who is seriously ill, but also without his lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti. The latter takes on mostly high-profile cases and rarely misses an opportunity to be seen and heard on television. His assistant Antoine Vey did not attend either. The Picasso Administration, on the other hand, was represented by two lawyers.The presiding judge read the verdict in a rapid monotone, citing several fines to be paid by defendants according to Articles X or Y, then said "Do you understand, Mr. Le Guennec?" and that was it. Le Guennec's response, if any, had been inaudible but plaintiffs' lawyers packed up their briefcases and rushed out to meet the press, as the judge moved on to the next case. Barely three minutes had passed.

I walked out with Le Guennec and asked him if he knew the Articles the judge had been referring to. He said No, nor did he seem to know why his lawyer was not there. Clearly, Dupond-Moretti's line of defense of the simple but honest little guy who receives a gift that he carefully stores and protects for 40 years before asking for authentication from Claude Picasso did not convince. The plaintiffs' argument that Le Guennec and his wife were part of a sophisticated ring of art thieves won out. Defendant did not have a signed receipt for the gift from Jacqueline Picasso and, besides, had lied during the first trial and could therefore not be believed on anything else. No further evidence needed. Case closed. 

In the cold light of the law there may be no such thing as an outright gift made to a faithful servant by a deeply despondent woman who later kills herself. It was known that Jacqueline hated Claude Picasso and she may have wanted to hide the box of uncatalogued artwork from Claude. Even Jacqueline's daughter considered that scenario not impossible, until she changed her mind later. And who can say for sure that Jacqueline did not gave other unregistered artwork away? Why did Le Guennec wait 40 years before seeking authentication if he was part of an organization of art thieves? Is proof of guilt not just as important as proof of innocence?

My close-up view of this case has left me with some unanswered questions, and with one certainty: the best lawyer always wins. But is it justice?


And Then It Was Christmas...

… and time to wish you Happy Holidays and a new year of PEACE for all mankind.
Far-fetched, you think? Let's just dream a little, especially at this time.





Monday, December 5, 2016

A PRESIDENT SHOULD NOT SAY THAT… but he did


Now that the noise around Donald Trump's election has receded into a distant rumble, pierced occasionally by further worrisome announcements by the president-elect that only underscore his total inadequacy for the job ahead, France has returned to its own problems its primary elections.

A Trump presidency could potentially have serious consequences for Europe and the Middle East, especially at a time of dangerous geopolitical tensions, so one immediate concern for French voters is how to avoid a similar disaster in France, where Marine le Pen of the extreme-right, islamophobic, anti-immigrant Front National party (and admirer of Trump and Putin) is a candidate for the presidency in 2017. If elected, she promises to leave the European Union (a Frexit, if you will), send back refugees, and close French borders. Nationalism and protectionism just like Trump would be her program.

The recent primaries of the French center and right parties in November have produced a surprise winner:  conservative François Fillon of the Les Républicains party, whose fellow-candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was eliminated in the first round.

A very divided French left will hold its primaries in late January with a mixed bag of candidates. The surprise announcement of sitting president François Hollande that he will not seek a second term may have improved the chances of the splintered left but not enough to survive the first round. Fillon will therefore face Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in April 2017, and although it is not expected that Le Pen will win, that possibility cannot be excluded.  [There are some independent candidates as well, but a Fillon-Le Pen runoff is still the most likely outcome.]

Time, then, to wake up to a worst-case scenario of total chaos, keeping in mind that Brexit was not expected to pass but it did, and Trump was not expected to win but he did. Imagine also, if you can, a Europe that is increasingly leaning to the right (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Hungary, and perhaps post-Renzi Italy), with "commander in chief" Trump and his ally Putin at the helm. Are you worried yet? I think we should be.

How did we get there?
In France, one contributing factor surely is the total crumbling of the left during the presidency of François Hollande who disappointed both the left and the right and compromised himself out of any significant reform, including the lowering of the unemployment level which he had staked his second term on. Among growing disagreement right from the start, eight ministers left his government (in protest or fired), a ninth was convicted of tax evasion, and a number of close advisers were dismissed as well. A certain amount of amateurism and incompetence accounted for a difficult start and precious time lost, but the greatest self-inflicted damage to any chance at re-election was probably caused by the recent publication of the book A President Should Not Say That..., written by two investigative journalists who over the past five years were granted numerous exclusive interviews with President Hollande. As authors Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme of the respected daily Le Monde write in their introduction, Hollande welcomed these interviews, and with very few exceptions stuck to the agreed-upon weekly one-hour sessions throughout.  

Cautious by nature, Hollande nevertheless seemed at ease with these journalists and surprised them by making a number of disparaging and damaging statements about certain persons and institutions. More than once he said: "A president should not say that..." (title of the book), knowing that these conversations were being recorded, but saying it nevertheless. About his first prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (So loyal he is inaudible); about the president of the Parliament Claude Bartolone (He is insignificant); about his young Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (She is no intellectual, but she is good at stonewalling); about the Judiciary (An institution of cowards); about the French national football team (A bunch of under-educated brats who have become overly-rich super-stars; football clubs should not only work on their muscles but on their brains as well); on immigration (We have too many immigrants that should not be here). He even mentioned four targeted assassinations by French secret services under the code name Homo, which some have called a breach of national security. Finally, the book reveals that Hollande, who is always seeking advice, does not listen to any.

Hollande and Valls
Amid the brouhaha that followed the book's publication last month, Hollande's defense that his words were taken out of context (in a book of nearly 700 pages based on taped interviews?) did nothing to help his cause. Majority leader Claude Bartolone publicly broke with Hollande and refuses to speak to him; the two highest magistrates of the country accused the president of humiliating the judiciary and demanded a retraction (they did not get it); Manuel Valls and socialist party chairman Cambadelis distanced themselves from him, and even the foreign press weighed in, with expressions of incomprehension from German Handelsblatt and Spanish La Vanguardia. Translated by We, the People, as:  WTF ???????????????

Here is a devastating indictment of the man who wanted to be a "normal president" (as opposed to Nicolas Sarkozy's "bling-bling" presidency), who made a virtue of being simple but employed a personal barber at €10,000 euro per month, who craved secrecy yet managed to have his love life and messy breakup with mistress A splashed all across the media as a result of his poorly-disguised night-time scooter escapades to mistress B. And who ends his first term amid appeals from his own camp to please go away and let prime minister Valls try to save what he can of a totally disintegrated left before the January primaries. After an agonizingly long wait, Hollande finally threw in the towel on December 1st and immediately flew to Abu Dhabi to attend the opening of a branch of the Louvre museum - where, amid the gaudy glitter and the pride of Arab leaderdom, he could temporarily forget his own gilded Elysée bunker that had so effectively shielded him from reality these past years.

But let me not end on such a negative note and try to find a chuckle where I can, for instance in the fertile field of French-English confusion. It is an established fact that few French people (especially the well educated of a certain age) speak English. Or, at least, English that an English-speaker might understand. So it took me a while to figure out what a French friend was talking about as we were discussing the American elections. What sounded like "pawn sweet" remained a mystery to me until she referred to Facebook and the growing "pant suit" nation of Hillary Clinton fans. Naturally!   
In France as elsewhere, most computer terms are English (except the word computer, ordinateur in French), but here they get conjugated to become:  drivé, switché, tweetez, likez, followez, etc.
Two bistros in Aix are selling Handburgers now, and one is offering Go Home Food.
And do you know what a female DJ (disc jockey) is in French? A DJette!
😂😂😂
I am going to have my chuckle at a local bar where the Happy Hour lasts five hours.  Cheers!






Thursday, November 3, 2016

PICASSO TREASURE: GIFT OR THEFT?


This week I attended an interesting trial: the case of THE PICASSO ADMINISTRATION vs LE GUENNEC which was heard on appeal in Aix-en-Provence after a first hearing in Grasse last year.


Le Guennec with attorneys Dupond-Morretti (r) and Vey

Brief summary:  Pierre Le Guennec, Picasso's electrician and handyman, was accused with his wife Danielle of having hidden 271 works on paper by Picasso contained in a carton box wrapped in a garbage bag and stored in his garage for nearly 40 years. Le Guennec says the box was a gift from Picasso's widow Jacqueline, who had asked him earlier to store 17 garbage bags at his home and later asked for their return. When he returned them, she said to keep the last one: "This is for you." Le Guennec, 77, says he never looked inside the bags, simply storing them for "Madame" (Jacqueline Picasso), and returning the last bag to his garage where he left it until 2009 when he developed health problems. That is when he opened the bag, thinking "it might have some value since it came from Picasso" and could represent some money for his two adult sons who earned a living as simple workmen. With the help of his brother-in-law he inspected the box which contained drawings, collages, lithographs, as well as a sketchbook, and photographed some for the purpose of seeking authentication. He contacted the Picasso estate, headed by Claude Ruiz Picasso, son of Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot, and was asked to produce some of the works. Once their authenticity was established, the Picasso Administration had Le Guennec's home raided by police who confiscated the 271 items, all produced between 1900 and 1932, most of them unknown and never inventoried. Le Guennec and his wife were charged with possession of stolen goods.


Claude Ruiz Picasso, a striking resemblance to his father

In March 2015 a court in Grasse heard the case brought by the Picasso Administration and sentenced the couple Le Guennec to a two-year suspended prison term and a fine of €375,000. The couple appealed and the case was re-heard in Aix-en-Provence on October 31, 2016.



As I watched Claude Picasso, who manages the Picasso Administration and represents the six Picasso heirs, enter and take a seat, surrounded by his seven lawyers, opposite the rather fragile-looking elderly Mr. and Mrs. Le Guennec, represented by three lawyers, the David and Goliath image seemed fitting.


Picasso self portrait
Under questioning by the court and by the Picasso lawyers it was revealed that the defendants had earlier lied about certain details, specifically about the timing of Jacqueline's gift to Mr. Le Guennec. This had occurred before Picasso's death in 1973, according to Le Guennec's first testimony, but was now claimed to have occurred "some months or perhaps a year after" his death. It is a crucial difference, since Pablo Picasso never gave away anything that was not dated and all the items in question were undated. Le Guennec now says that he had fibbed on the date because he wanted to protect Madame (and by extension himself), who he thought might be accused of theft by the heirs if they knew that she had taken it upon herself to give away certain things. He added that he was aware of "problems between Claude and Madame" (saying at some point that they were "at war") and that Madame might have given him the 17 garbage bags for safekeeping in order to hide them from Claude. He never questioned her motives and simply did as he was asked. Why would she confide the bags to the electrician and not to someone else? "Because she had complete confidence in me," said Le Guennec. And was he not even curious about what was in the bag? No, he answered, having testified earlier that he had opened the bag when he first brought it home and on finding "a lot of papers with sketches on them and even some crumpled-up paper" he thought these were probably rejects and had closed the bag again.

Danielle Le Guennec, 73, confirmed her husband's testimony and added that Madame, to whom she was extremely devoted, often confided in her about the emptiness of her life without Picasso and her difficult relations with the Picasso children, and that she had periods of depression. Jacqueline killed herself in 1986 when she was 59.

Pablo and Jacqueline Picasso
Pierre Le Guennec was Picasso's electrician at various Picasso properties from 1970 until the painter's death in 1973, and then continued to work as Jacqueline's handyman until her death in 1986. In 1983, when his electrician's jobs were dwindling, Jacqueline had granted him a loan of 450,000 FF so he could buy a taxi license ("my father was a taxi driver"). This loan was largely but not entirely repaid by the time Jacqueline died in 1986.

Pierre and Danielle Le Guennec, who are both in ill health today, did not hold up well under questioning, seeming confused and at times bewildered, yet they steadfastly refused to testify sitting down whenever the offer was made as though standing up gave them some added dignity. They realized that having lied in the past they lacked credibility today, and offered little resistance to the plaintiff's attorneys who needed little more than the absence of written proof for this "gift from Madame" and the unreliability of the defendants. They asked that the earlier conviction be upheld, and the prosecutor concurred. 

It did not look good for Mr. and Mrs. Le Guennec and I myself held out little hope for them until the final playdoyer by the star defense attorney Eric Dupond-Moretti and his brilliant young assistant Antoine Vey. Dupond-Moretti made much of the modest circumstances of the defendants, who during the nearly 40 years they were in possession of a treasure never once tried to sell even one single piece to an unscrupulous dealer.


Part of the seized artwork
You accuse them of being part of an international art laundering scam? Look at them! And why would they wait 40 years before trying to get an idea of the value, and this by going directly to Claude Picasso? Is that rational? Plaintiff says that it is "highly unlikely" that Jacqueline Picasso would have given a bag full of artwork to the electrician, but how rational would a deeply unhappy woman be who later committed suicide? Do you know what went on in her head? Nobody does. And can you be sure that she did not give or stow away more artwork? I ask the Court for a further investigation (Information Supplémentaire) into the possibility that other Picasso work might have escaped the inventories before your final deliberation of this matter. The Le Guennecs say they had a respectful but amical relationship with the Picassos, backed up by a handwritten note from Picasso to "Pierre Le Guenec (sp), my friend" and several notes with "tendres baisers" from Jacqueline to Danielle. "Et si c'était vrai?!" thundered Dupond-Moretti. What if this were true? Remember that Jacqueline went to visit Danielle in hospital after the birth of her second son. Would you make a substantial loan to someone who is no more than an employee to you? Isn't it possible that Jacqueline was inspired by a feeling of friendship when she gave the bag to Le Guennec? Just as there exists no written proof that this was a gift from Jacqueline, there exists no proof to the contrary given the special relationship between Jacqueline and the Le Guennecs. You have thoroughly investigated this couple's financial situation, which after more than 50 years of hard work affords them only a modest retirement, yet they never enriched themselves by selling what they considered a gift from Madame because, as they have said: "You don't sell a gift." You are looking at simple people here, who trusted and were trusted until this matter threw their lives in disarray.

He then turned over the closing arguments to his assistant Antoine Vey who stressed the doubts hanging over this case, doubts that should benefit the defendants, and he repeated the request to the Court for an additional investigation into possible other uninventoried Picasso work. Should this request be denied, said Vey, the defense asks the Court to dismiss the charges against Le Guennec based on unresolved doubts.



Like in a Hollywood film, the last minutes of this trial provided all the drama and a glimmer of hope for the defendants.

Nothing is certain, however, and the suspense will continue until December 16th when the verdict will be rendered.








Wednesday, October 12, 2016

FETE DU LIVRE

FETE DU LIVRE


September saw the first stirrings of the presidential primaries for the upcoming elections in March 2017. To date, a dozen candidates are on board with promises, programs and reasons why they can do better than current president François Hollande who has little or no chance to be elected to a second term. Nothing as exciting (or frightening) as the Clinton-Trump contest in the United States, of course, and a good thing too because I would have been unable to cover any of it due to computer problems.

I suffered not one but several virus attacks, which resulted in the loss of two months of work that even the young geniuses at my local Apple store could not recover. They did, however, "clean me up" and taught me a few defensive tricks I should have known long before.

Arundhati Roy
So here we are again, happy to report that in a few days Aix-en-Provence will celebrate its 33rd Fête du Livre, with Arundhati Roy, Indian author of "The God of Small Things," as guest of honor. This three-day literary event is close to my heart, and has brought me face to face with a number of Nobel-prize winners and other great writers. 

Since I still have a lot of catching up to do, I hope that you will forgive me this time for reprinting here a story I wrote in late 2014, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to town.


Small French Town Attracts Nobel Laureates 

AIX-EN-PROVENCE Every city has its best-kept secret. In Aix-en-Provence, a culturally rich town in the south of France widely known for its international opera festival, that secret is undoubtedly the annual Fête du Livre, when during three days in October major writers, including many Nobel Prize winners, come and discuss their work with an avid local public.

Who would have expected to see here such greats as Octavio Paz, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburo Ôé, Gao Xingjian, Mo Yan, and Mario Vargas Llosa to name only the Nobel laureates; but also Alberto Moravia, Amitav Ghosh, Jim Harrison, Philip Roth, Russell Banks, Richard Price, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Tabucchi and dozens of others, representing many cultures and nearly all continents?

How does this town of barely 140,000 people manage to convince an international elite of writers from all over the world to come and share their work through conferences, round-table discussions, documentary films, readings, and sometimes master classes? Meet Annie Terrier, 73, founder, soul and driving force of La Fête du Livre, who with the tenacity her last name implies has battled for over 30 years to realize her dream of bringing foreign writers to France through her creation of Ecritures Croisées the introduction and cross-pollination of foreign literature in France. 

In 1983, with little money but a great deal of determination, she organized her first event, entitled Mille et Un Livres, bringing a large group of French writers and small publishers together in a borrowed space in a local school. The next year she moved beyond France and invited German-language writers, subsequently writers from all over Europe, and in 1986 she went trans-Atlantic with guests such as James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Jerome Charyn and others. Meanwhile she had found a new shelter in the local Court House, the Fête's home for the next eight years until the mayor's office finally granted her a permanent address at an abandoned match factory in town which had been converted into a cultural center that would also house the municipal library. In 1988, she landed Octavio Paz, her first big fish, which cemented the growing reputation of La Fête du Livre as an important literary event. Paz, who received the Nobel Prize in 1990, would be her first Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa would be her tenth.


Annie Terrier with Mario Vargas Llosa
She uses her limited budget (made up of city, regional and State subsidies) and her even smaller staff to maximum effect. Boosted by her past successes she spends little or nothing on publicity and calls on unpaid volunteers from time to time. "It keeps Ecritures Croisées small and independent," she says. "I can invite who I want." She begins by sending a letter of invitation to the writer of her choice, and once this is accepted she will visit him or her to jointly work out the program. This has taken her all over the world, including India (Satyajit Ray), Nigeria (Wole Soyinka), South Africa (Coetzee), Japan (Oé), and repeatedly North and South America. [When Satyajit Ray died suddenly just months before his scheduled appearance in 1992, his widow and son attended the Fête du Livre's homage to Ray's work as a writer and filmmaker, in the company of a dozen Indian writers.]

Asked to name a favorite, Ms. Terrier answers that she appreciated them all for different reasons but singled out Satyajit Ray as mythical and, with a wink, called Philip Roth "l'homme de ma vie" for his particularly warm welcome in New York and in Connecticut. Roth was the first to propose a master class.

Some years, the authors are backed up by music, art, or photography of their country. In 2001 Toni Morrison brought along soprano Kathleen Battle, in 2004 Russell Banks brought Patti Smith (both singers gave a performance), and Günter Grass brought a collection of his own drawings and sculptures. 

An important distinction from other literary events is that La Fête du Livre is not a book fair and has no commercial backing. Even though the authors' books are available for sale, the primary purpose of this event, says Annie Terrier, is to present a foreign author and his oeuvre, be it in a cultural or a geopolitical context. Her literary erudition and strong personal commitment are persuasive forces, and no invited author has ever turned her down.

After Mario Vargas Llosa roused an enthusiastic audience to its feet at the closure of the Fête du Livre of October 2014, a happy Annie Terrier took a few days off before starting work on next year's program. No word on the next guest of honor, nor on her retirement. "I love what I am doing," she says, "and will keep at it until they stop me." Good news for Aix-en-Provence.





Thursday, September 1, 2016

BURKINI POLITICS AND AFTERMATH


Following the recent burkini controversy in France, the Conseil d'Etat (highest administrative court) has suspended the burkini ban in the Riviera resort of Villeneuve-Loubet whose mayor had prohibited the full-body swimwear because he considered it a provocation and a threat against the public order. The administrative court found no proven risk to public order and ruled that the ban was a serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms a legal decision that sets precedent in all those French communities where the burkini was banned this past month, some 30 in all.

This should have put the issue to rest, but neither the mayors in question nor a number of pro-ban politicians (including prime minister Manuel Valls and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy) were willing to let the matter drop at a time when politicians are testing the winds and polishing their message to fit the country's mood prior to the presidential primaries in November. A recent poll shows that 64 percent of the French people are in favor of a ban on the burkini. Sarkozy, head of the center-right opposition party Les Républicains, has already announced that, if elected, he will change the constitution to allow for a burkini ban and that he will toughen the immigration laws. He is sounding more and more like the extreme-right, anti-immigrant, Front National party of Marine Le Pen, which is expected to do well in the elections, picking up votes from a disenchanted left as well as from a fearful electorate running for cover from islamic terrorism.

The governmental overreaction to a minor burkini incident on a public beach has, once again, shone a spotlight on a peculiarly French tendency to complicate life and lose control of the issue in question. The sacrosanct French principle of secularism (laïcité) used by local authorities to ban the burkini does not apply to public beaches, and its wearers (few and far between) do not pose a recognized threat against public order. But a jittery population, traumatized by repeated islamist terrorist attacks, is easy prey for opportunistic politicians who prefer to fan these fears for their own political gain rather than to send a unifying message to its pluri-ethnic citizens, nearly 10 percent of whom are Muslim. This immigrant group, mostly from former French colonies in west and north Africa, lives largely in the urban ghettos called cités, where petty crime and high unemployment are endemic and where the unemployed young are tempted into islamic radicalization. Efforts to improve the integration of this population into the French mainstream have been timid at best, and today's unnecessary burkini fight only drives a further wedge between "them and us".

If the burkini has become the hot topic of the season, it has not only divided public opinion but the socialist government as well, where two female ministers (Education, and Health) took prime minister Manuel Valls to task over his pro-ban position and warned of a danger of unleashing racist rhetoric and stigmatization at a time of tension.

When the ban that began in Cannes in early August spread to 30 other coastal communities, including one in Corsica following a violent fight between three Muslim families and a group of locals resulting in injuries, it became international news. And the foreign press was happy to take it on and teach France a lesson. While they couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, the foreign media interpreted the burkini ban as both racist and ridiculous. The absurdity of the situation was made painfully clear in a photo sequence shot by an English photographer that shows three armed French policemen forcing a lone burkini-clad woman on a public beach in Nice to disrobe or be fined a scene reminiscent of the "morals police" of theocratic Iran. 

Although it is proud to call itself the land of Human Rights, it is no secret that France has an anti-semitic streak. It also seems unable to see its Muslim population as equal citizens of the republic despite its lofty national motto of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality for all. Like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. There is no doubt that the context of the recent terrorist attack that killed 86 people in Nice has created a volatile atmosphere and may have evoked an emotional response, but this does not justify the creation of any special laws, said the administrative court.


The burkini battle has also revived the French identity crisis which is never far from people's minds. Does the immigrant population from former French colonies in black sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb region of North Africa people who do not look like us, tend to dress differently from us, and have more children than us threaten our French identity? Can they assimilate into our society and adopt our way of life or to what point do we have to accommodate theirs? Frequent "clashes" indicate that there are no easy answers, but also show that assimilation has not been facilitated by government policy and that there are still many pockets of marginalized and disenfranchised immigrants in France, even if they have French citizenship.

While catholicism is still the main religion in France, the principle of secularism, voted into law in 1905, guarantees the free exercise of any faith and the state's neutrality in all matters of religion. Why then, I asked a friend one day, are there still so many official Catholic holidays in France? "Tradition," was his answer, which goes some way to explaining the fuzziness and confusion of so many French rules and regulations.

Tradition can also mean a fear of change, so palpable in France where change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a potential gain and to be resisted as long as possible. Hence, the rather perplexing fervor with which labor unions and socialists reject the right to open shops on Sundays. The weekly day of rest, rooted in the Catholic tradition, is turned into an obligation, a way to keep change at bay, even at the expense of those who voluntarily offer to work on Sundays in exchange for double pay. It may make France less competitive, but the idea of "protecting" workers from perceived exploitation, in other words, to keep things as they have always been, still prevails.

Schools are re-opening this week and politicians are flocking back to Paris, where the burkini will be slowly displaced by newer crises. Strikers won't be far behind, voices and banners will again be raised in the streets, and the whole diverse and complex world of French society will do its level best to keep it all together. It's the way it's always been.