Welcome to PROVENCE TODAY, a blog about life and politics in France.
In our search for the ideal place to retire, my husband and I settled in Aix-en-Provence in 1998 and have never stopped learning about this fascinating country that has become our permanent home. While this blog deals with the socio-political aspects of France, my book "Taking Root in Provence" focuses on the pleasures and paradoxes of daily life in sunny Provence.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn cannot seem to stay out of the news. For the past few days radio, television and newspapers have covered - ad nauseam - his latest troubles with the law which, in fact, are not new but simply the progression of his legal cases in France and the United States, i.e. his involvement in the "Carlton Affair" in Lille and the civil lawsuit in New York filed by hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo for an alleged rape attempt.
After a hearing in Lille on March 26th - two days earlier than previously announced to avoid the media circus that had made the first hearing so difficult - DSK now stands charged with "aggravated pimping" which carries a potential sentence of 20 years in prison. During this second hearing DSK admitted to attending "libertine parties" but still maintained that he did not know that the participating women were paid prostitutes. The investigating judges seem to have rejected that argument, based on a number of text messages between DSK and those who supplied the girls. After posting 100,000 euros bail, DSK was free to go until further notice.
Meanwhile, in New York City the civil suit against him was certainly aggravated by the French charges and DSK's lawyers have announced they will plead diplomatic immunity as their defense. A large amount of money will probably settle this case which, nevertheless, may take up to two years before it's concluded.
After the shock of the perp walk and Ryker's Island last year, which the French witnessed with horror and denunciations of the savagery and brutality of the American judicial system, today the mood in France has turned against DSK. This time there seems to be a merciless attempt to do irreparable damage. The usual scenario - he did wrong, he'll pay the price, end of story - does not apply here as it did for Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer and numerous others. Puritan America is less quick to forgive sexual misconduct than France or Italy where this may draw a slap on the wrist and a wink from the judge ("Don't do this again, you lucky bastard"). Remember that the French press knew of President Mittérand's mistress and illegitimate daughter, but out of respect for the man and his position never breathed a word of it until after his death. All the more surprising then that the respected French newspaper Le Monde - a real opinion maker and as far from the gutter press as you can get - has just leaked the transcript of DSK's first hearing in Lille, including the denigrating terms he used to describe women. It seems sensationalist and unnecessary - the man is down and out, and kicking him now borders on the bloodthirsty. Wherever he is headed - to prison, surely to banishment for life from the French political scene where as little as a year ago he seemed poised to become the next French president - this broken man should be allowed to disappear quietly and walk the path to his personal hell without the vengeful clamor in the media today.
Curtis Roosevelt, 82-year old grandson of Franklin and Eleanor, lives in a hamlet in southern France where he settled 13 years ago. This tiny village may be sleepy but Curtis is not. He writes chronicles for the Huffington Post and has now joined a collective named Roosevelt 2012 together with other old agitators like 94-year old Stéphane Hessel (known for his phenominally successful pamphlet-length book Time for Outrage, published at age 92), 90-year old French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, and 81-year old Michel Rocard, member of the European Parliament and former socialist Prime Minister of France.
Their objective is to "snap at the heels" of the candidates in the current French presidential race, to raise their awareness of the similarities of today's problems with those of the Great Depression of 1933, and to urge immediate action. They want socialist candidate François Hollande to beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, but only if he commits to fulfilling within the first three months of his presidency the 15 conditions they outlined in a little booklet that came out on March 28, 2012 entitled C'est plus grave que ce qu'on vous dit... Mais on peut s'en sortir ("It's worse than you've been told, but we can beat it"). Written by Roosevelt 2012 member Pierre Larrouturou, the economist of the group, it pleads for a re-start of the economy by means of certain fiscal measures that were used successfully by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his New Deal.
When not engaged in politics, Curtis Roosevelt has been involved in the preparation of the French edition of his autobiography "Too Close to the Sun" which is scheduled to appear in September 2012.
In his quiet corner between Nîmes and Avignon, he enjoys buying fresh products at the village market where everyone calls him "Curtis" and where - in spite of his poor French - the local people have come to understand and enjoy this kind American who orders his fish "saignant" and who professes a great appreciation for "la table et le fun." "Like my grandfather Franklin," he says.
This time I'm really off and away for a month. But before leaving I'll share with you an unusual Easter card I received from an Italian friend. With all due apologies to those who believed Easter eggs came from the bells of Rome, I wish you all a Happy Easter.
In the Vacation Bound item of my last posting, I mentioned that in spite of the financial crisis 53% of all French people have plans to take at least a one-week vacation away from home this year. That should have been 67% - fully two-thirds - of all French, as confirmed by Protourisme at the recent Salon Mondial du Tourisme in Paris. The same source announced that nearly 80 million foreign tourists are expected to visit France in 2012, over 3% more than in 2010.
DRIVER'S LICENSE TROUBLE (*)
In Lyons the driving inspectors have decided to strike for a wage increase after negotiations with the government broke down. This is expected to delay between 1000 and 2000 driving tests, a nuisance we have experienced ourselves a number of years ago when inspectors in Aix-en-Provence struck in protest against aggressions by students they had failed. At that time, test results were given right away but today they are announced by mail. Driving tests are more difficult here than in the United States and many applicants fail at least once or twice. Depending on the time of year, getting a new test lined up can take months so an inspectors' strike is a big deal. One consolation is that you'll go through this misery only once since a French driver's license is issued for life!
MORE BOMBS IN MARSEILLES
Bomb with embedded jackhammer
After a major bomb scare in January which required 4300 people to be evacuated, another bomb was found in Marseilles when a heavy road drill accidentally pierced a World War II bomb, this time of German origin, and partially set it off. Miraculously, the explosion caused only two minor injuries but removing the damaged bomb with its 650 kilos of explosives and the drill head still inside posed a challenge. About 1500 people were evacuated during the removal operation in the Joliette neighborhood where the bomb was found. Luckily, Joliette consists mostly of office buildings including the impressive new headquarters of shipping giant CMA-CGM, a 142-meter glass tower designed by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid. Had the full charge of the bomb exploded, experts say, it would have flattened two city blocks.
The port of Marseilles was heavily bombed during World War II, and with more construction work going on around the port area in preparation of next year's 2013 Cultural Capital of Europe celebrations, there is some fear that this may not be the last bomb to be discovered. On the other hand, since the end of the second world war much construction has taken place in France's second-largest city, including a metro in 1977, without a single bomb scare.
HOLLANDE DRAWS PEOPLE
During this presidential election campaign a newspaper headline: "François Hollande s'entoure de people" seems unremarkable enough. But those among you who do not speak Franglais might have concluded that François Hollande attracted people, which is the least one might expect from a presidential candidate. Things become more interesting when you know that "people" in France has acquired the specific meaning of "famous people," or "stars." Pronounced peepull (rhymes with dull) and sometimes spelled "pipole" in the French press, this new word has the peculiarity of always being used in the singular, as in "un people" for "a famous person" or "la presse people" for tabloid press or gossipy magazines with lots of pictures, like our People magazine. In Hollande's case, the term referred to some of the well-known people who appeared at his side during the recent Salon du Livre in Paris, such as Alexis Jenni, recent winner of the Prix Goncourt (equivalent of our National Book Award), Stéphane Hessel, and Jeanne Moreau. It was an occasion for Hollande to announce that, if elected, he would reduce the value-added tax on books from 7% to 5.5% and regulate the leases on inner-city bookstores to allow them to stay in town.
(*) Check out Taking Root in Provence for driving license requirements in France and for the joys of Franglais; click here.
The French government has announced that from July 1, 2012 on, every automobile in France must be equipped with an Ethylotest, a device that measures the alcohol content in the blood of the driver. Motorcycle drivers too will have to have this breathalizer bag on board. Those caught driving without it will be fined 11 Euros. Bars and night clubs serving alcohol have been obliged to carry breathalizers of one sort or another since last November, but this rule has now been extended to all drivers. In France, 31% of all fatal accidents are alcohol related, and Nicolas Sarkozy is counting on the breathalizer to help him reach his target of 3000 road fatalities this year − down from nearly 4000 in 2011. For good measure, he is adding 400 fixed radars to the existing 2500 along French roads this year.
Nerves are beginning to fray as the French presidential campaign enters the final stretch before the election on April 22 and May 6 (runoff). In one of his televised interviews incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy called his main rival, Socialist François Hollande, a liar: "He lies from morning to night" he said − rather unusual in France where political pronouncements and stump speeches may be brutally attacked but not a candidate's character. Ever since his election in 2007, when he celebrated his victory at a fancy Paris restaurant with rich friends, followed by a vacation on a wealthy friend's yacht, Sarkozy has been perceived as a "president of the rich." Despite some awkward apologies for poor judgment and a back-breaking schedule of "meet-the-people" campaign stops, he has not been able to shake this image and the wear and tear shows when he tells a hackler to "get lost" and gets visibly irritated during TV interviews.
Sarkozy and Hollande
The three main contenders − Sarkozy (centre-right), François Hollande (left) and Marie Le Pen (extreme right) − have been slugging it out in the public arena but so far without facing each other. After weeks of trailing Hollande in the polls, Sarkozy has begun to move increasingly to the right and is making a shameless play for the constituency of Marie Le Pen. "We have too many foreigners in France" and "I want to cut immigration in half" are his new themes, as well as the promise of a Made-in-France or at least Made-in-Europe policy like president Obama's Buy American Act to keep French factories running. It did boost his score and the latest polls now put him slightly ahead of Hollande. Both camps are on high alert and this race promises to be tight until the very end.
There has been much talk lately about the unusual work contract of the municipal garbage men in Marseilles. This contract calls for 7 hours work per day for 5 days a week with the specificity that those who can get their work done faster can leave as soon as the job is done (and, often, go on to another job). Result: the garbage collectors of Marseilles manage to do their rounds so fast that they work an average of 3.5 hours a day for 7 hours of pay. This is locally referred to as "Fini-Parti" (loosely translated as "Done-Gone") and is perfectly legal. Problem is that the flying cleaning squad does not seem to do a very thorough job of it and that Marseilles is today the dirtiest city in France and, according to local journalist and author Hugues Serraf, pays the highest cost per inhabitant for garbage collection. It also has a history of frequent strikes and strong-arm tactics in wage negotiations. We remember 2007 when Marseilles was one of the four candidates proposed by Switzerland, winner of the previous Cup, to host the America's Cup sailing competition. A well-timed week-long garbage strike in mid summer offered the Swiss selection committee a smelly and unsightly welcome that quickly led to the choice of Valencia as host city.
Garbage strike in Marseilles
So far, no mayor has dared go against the garbage workers' strong union (Force Ouvrière), and when a courageous citizen recently filed a petition in court for a "return to normal" he lost against the legal argument that the "fini-parti" is normal since it is a "historic custom that cannot be abrogated" (even though the judge promised to make a final ruling at a later date). The popular Marseilles-based TV series "Plus Belle La Vie" has already been renamed "Poubelle La Ville" by some. One fears for 2013 when Marseilles will be the Cultural Capital of Europe.
A citizens' grouphas now created a blog with a plea to end the "fini-parti" and it is producing results. A new gadget will soon be introduced that is able to track the working hours and the movement of each Dumpster in town. Called a chronotachygraphe, this device is expected to demonstrate the failings of the "fini-parti" rule and finally have it eliminated. The mayor has already consented to hiring 40 additional street sweepers a year for the next 2-3 years and requires garbage collectors to pick up around the Dumpsters from now on. There is hope for 2013.
The financial crisis of the past few years is not stopping the French from taking vacations. A recent poll by Protourisme revealed that 53% of the French plan to take at least a one-week vacation away from home this year, up by 1% from last year, and to spend more on their next vacation, i.e. at least 2300 Euros (approx. $3000) per family. This is the first increase in 10 years. With a minimum of 35 days of paid vacation per year, most French people have always taken a winter and a summer holiday, but in recent years they have traveled less far as a result of la crise.
Speaking of holidays, I will soon be leaving for a month-long family visit on different continents which will silence this blog for a while. I will miss Eastertime in Provence (*) which is celebrated with a Good Friday meal of Aioli (cod with boiled vegetables and a strong garlic mayonnaise) and Easter Sunday dinner of roasted lamb, as well as a four-day bullfighting Feria in Arles, folkloric feasts in villages, and the first big wave of travelers from the North.
Grand aioli de Provence
Have a Happy Easter wherever you are; I look forward to talking to you again in May.
(*) To read about Easter in Taking Root in Provence, click here.