Wednesday, November 22, 2017



Macron with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh
Macron welcomes Hariri to Elysée Palace
Recently, French president Emmanuel Macron drew international attention when he stepped in to ease the tension in the Middle East following the mysterious resignation by Saad Hariri as Prime Minister of Lebanon who had fled to Saudi Arabia because he feared for his life.

Soon, rumors began circulating that Hariri had been forced to resign by Sunnite Saudi Arabia and used as a pawn in its fight against Shiite Iran which is supporting the Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters in Syria. The Hariri "kidnapping" with its spy-novel whiff and its potential for setting off open warfare in the Middle East took place while President Macron was attending a conference in Dubai (UAE). He quickly scheduled an emergency meeting with the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh to discuss the situation of Lebanon, a former French colony, and to reiterate France's attachment to Lebanon's sovereignty and to the stability of the entire region. Two days later he sent his Minister of Foreign Affairs to Riyadh to meet with Hariri and invite him to come to France before returning to Lebanon to clarify his resignation. Subsequently, Hariri did come to France with his family and has since returned to Beirut where he'll meet with President Aoun before officially announcing his resignation (or not).

Even before this incident, Emmanuel Macron's picture had been burnished in the international press where so far he was perhaps best known for his youth and his marriage to a woman 24 years older than himself.

Emmanuel Macron as featured in The Guardian

Earlier this month, British newspaper THE GUARDIAN devoted its weekly Long Read a four-page in-depth article by French author Emmanuel Carrère to the Emmanuel Macron who at age 39 became the youngest ever president of France after barely six months of campaigning. Noting the unlikeliness in tradition-bound France of a young person rising at record speed through a sea of grey-haired politicians to take the top job, the interviewer tried to delve into the personality behind the politician, which did not reveal much except that he loves poetry and often quotes it, and that he is still madly in love with his wife who is also his "best friend." More inclined to talk about his view of the world than about himself, the young president nevertheless gives the impression of being up to the task. With characteristic self-confidence, he said: "If I don't radically transform France, it will be worse than if I did nothing at all."

Macron has promised much and expectations are high. Whether he can fulfill his promises remains to be seen, but he has made a very good start and has managed to win recognition for his political and diplomatic skills far beyond France.

Around the same time, TIME Magazine featured President Macron's picture on its November 20th cover and devoted a five-page article to The Next Leader of Europe. Since his election in May 2017 and his promise to overhaul the complicated French labor laws, he has booked a string of successes at home, where even his far-left opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon had to admit defeat when his calls for massive strikes and demonstrations found insufficient following. With England's Brexit vote, and a weakened Angela Merkel's on-going struggle to form a coalition government in Germany, Macron does indeed seem the man of the hour in Europe. Knowing his total commitment to the European project, we could do worse.


Just before the commemoration of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, President Macron ended the State of Emergency that was declared two years ago and replaced it, effective November 15th, with a new Anti-Terrorism law that gives the police greater powers to search property, conduct electronic eavesdropping, and shut down mosques suspected of preaching hatred. Critics were quick to warn that the new law may undermine civil liberties, but Macron insists that it is necessary in order to counter jihadist terrorism which remains the biggest security threat in France since the Paris and Nice attacks that killed more than 240 people. In response to Human Rights Watch concerns, Macron said that the new legislation will be reviewed in two years and adapted as needed with the oversight of judges. 

The Islamic State jihadists have now lost most of their territory in Syria and Iraq and are retreating in great numbers. Among them are some 700 French fighters who want to come back to France, sometimes with wife and children. These returnees' cases will be carefully reviewed on an individual basis, said Macron. The 398 who have already returned in the past are all under formal investigation and a number of them have been jailed.


This year some 6000 "post-Bac" students did not manage to enter university for lack of space. The Baccalaureate, the French diploma issued after completion of secondary education, is roughly equivalent to a US high-school diploma plus two years of college. The Bac gives admittance to university but there is no pre-selection of majors in French lycées, which means that this selection often takes place after the first year at university when students have a better idea of what they want. Education is free in France, and students are less pressed to get a job than in the US where graduates are burdened with student loans that have to be repaid.

University classrooms overflowing

The French Ministry of Education has promised to find a solution for the lack of space for university entrants and plans to introduce a pre-selection program at the lycée level so as to better channel the post-Bac applicants. It also plans to "update" the lycée curriculum to respond to today's needs in a changing globalized workplace where at the very least a working knowledge of English is required a subject in which France lags far behind other nations and, as a result, French applicants for international jobs do less well than other Europeans.

Indeed, in a country where Philosophy is taught in high school and where erudition is highly valued, it has always surprised me that the seniors among my friends (60-plussers) do not speak a word of English even though they are highly educated (Bac+10). It simply was not part of their curriculum, as French educators have long considered foreign languages as a rather marginal matter. As recently as May 2016, the Minister of Education in the socialist government of President Hollande announced the elimination from the high school curriculum of Latin, Greek, and mandatory German as "elitist" subjects. (Remember President Hollande's letter to President Obama where he signed off with "Friendly, François"?)

But things they are a'changing. Emmanuel Macron not only speaks fluent English himself (very rare for a French president), but intends to give foreign languages their proper place in French schools. In a speech to French and foreign students at the Sorbonne last September on the subject of a strong Europe, Macron announced his proposal that French university students speak at least two European languages by 2024, and that as part of their education they spend at least six months abroad. Now THAT is revolutionary.

European Union 

Friday, October 20, 2017



Marseilles victims Mauranne and Laura
On October 1st two young women were killed at the Gare St. Charles train station in Marseilles by a knife-wielding man who, according to witnesses, yelled Allahu Akbar as he slit the throat of his first victim and stabbed the second one to death. The victims were two young cousins, both students, 17 and 21 years old, respectively. The assailant was shot dead by police and later identified as a Tunisian illegal immigrant with a long police record for minor crimes and no less than 17 different identity papers. The day before the killings he had been arrested in Lyons for shoplifting a jacket from a clothing store, but was released for lack of evidence and, as it turned out, for lack of a place to hold him until he could be extradited. The case prompted Interior Minister Gérard Collomb to call for an investigation of the procedures followed and culminated in the firing of the Police Prefect of the Rhône-Alpes Region for "a serious administrative dysfunction" of his office. In a television interview on October 15th President Emmanuel Macron announced that henceforth any illegal alien who commits a crime on French soil will automatically be expelled to his country of origin. He also announced that a new law will be introduced in Parliament this month to correct the weaknesses of the existing system.


Contrary to his earlier decision to avoid television interviews and let the Prime Minister and the official spokesman speak for him, Macron nevertheless came to feel it was necessary to respond to his growing reputation as the "president of the rich" and the perception that he is arrogant. "I am not arrogant," he said, "but I am determined." On the subject of reducing the wealth tax which would favor the rich, he said: "I don't believe in the French jealousy that seeks to tax success. What has been the result? Wealthy people left the country and we lost a lot of money and talent. It's a huge hypocrisy. I want to encourage success."

President Macron interviewed in his new, modern office

He also rejected criticism over his choice of words when faced with striking workers, and said that in heated exchanges he sometimes uses "popular" words, such as "slackers" and "troublemakers" but never meant to humiliate anyone. "I tend to say it as I see it, unlike the sterilized public discourse of past elites."

Confident that his new labor policies will benefit not only employers but workers as well, he extended unemployment payments to those who leave their jobs voluntarily in search of a better position, with free training programs and reschooling as part of the deal, and promises palpable results within two years. For now, the most palpable thing is his self confidence and determination which, I suspect, will be rewarded.

To those who accuse him of a monarchical style he says: "France is a 'regicidal monarchy' that wants to have a king as long as it can overthrow him." Spoken like a true crownless monarch who is not loosing sleep over dropping popularity ratings.


For lack of time this month due to travel, I would like to end this blog with an article I wrote recently about one of my favorite places:  Chateau La Coste. 

One of Aix-en-Provence's greatest attractions lies exactly ten miles out of town. It's a winery. Yes, but...  It's an art centre. Yes, but... It's both, and more than that. It's CHATEAU LA COSTE, a vineyard set in a beautiful hilly landscape that is dotted with world-class architecture and works of art. This is where in 2002 Irish businessman Patrick (Paddy) Mc Killen bought the existing La Coste winery near the village of Le Puy Ste Réparade to indulge his two passions: wine-making and creating a center for contemporary art. Today, fifteen years later, the gradual conversion to organic vines is complete, and the latest building by a renowned architect (Renzo Piano's exhibition hall) has just been opened to the public, following buildings by such star architects as Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and Frank Gehry's music pavilion. Two more buildings are planned: one by the firm of legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and another by British architect Richard Rogers (who together with Renzo Piano designed the revolutionary Centre Pompidou in Paris). This year also saw the opening of a 5-star hotel-spa on the grounds, with a restaurant run by chef Gérald Passedat of three-Michelin-star fame in Marseilles.

Louise Bourgeois: Crouching Spider
There are two other restaurants on the premises: one in the Tadao Ando art center and an Argentine restaurant that opened this spring, with a menu that leans more to French than to Argentine cuisine. In addition, there is La Terrasse, a pleasant outdoor cafe for simple fare at lunch and dinner times. These will take care of your basic needs so that your more spiritual needs can wander off into the gentle hills and feed on the works of art along the four kilometers of trails of the domain.

Renzo Piano exposition hall
As Paddy McKillen began to create the winery of his dreams, he called on famous architects to design a number of buildings, and invited sculptors to spend some time in residence at Chateau La Coste in order to familiarize themselves with the landscape and choose a spot for their work. This has resulted in some two dozen works (so far) dispersed throughout the 200-hectare estate by an international roster of artists as diverse as their countries of origin. Among them: Louise Bourgeois (France), whose giant Crouching Spider greets you as you arrive at the Reception building, Ai Wei-Wei (China), Paul Matisse (US), Tunga (Brazil), Richard Serra (US), Tracey Emin (UK), Alexander Calder (US), Lee Ufan (Korea), and everybody's favorite, Tom Shannon (US), whose shiny "Drop" hovers among the trees like a UFO just about to touch down. On the highest point of the domain stands the little 17th-century chapel, beautifully restored and "modernized" with a glass surround by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who also created the wooden "Four Cubes" environment pavilion and several origami benches along the way. Next to the chapel stands a large red cross, fashioned from glass balls by Jean-Michel Othoniel.

Tom Shannon's Drop
From this vantage point (and others along your path), take a minute to admire the surroundings, let your eyes glide over the vines, take in the deconstructed music pavilion of Frank Gehry down below, the Vietnamese teahouse and two Jean Prouvé houses that border the vegetable garden designed by famous landscaper Louis Benech, and move toward the Luberon mountains in the distance and the ruins of a castle above the village of Cadenet. Then proceed on your way down, past other works of art toward the final one, the interactive Meditation Bell by Paul Matisse. Set among the trees, this understated but ingenious metal structure allows you to pull a cord that moves two rubber-clad hammers to hit a hollow cross bar, emitting a deep, sonorous sound that like a Buddhist Ommm mantra hangs in the air, almost forcing you to close your eyes, sit down on the low stone wall surrounding the Bell and let the sound envelop you like a final blessing: "You have visited a place of beauty and peace. Now go, respect nature and act responsibly." Some visitors may hear a different message, but the important thing is to listen to the sound, feel its vibrations in your body if you put your ear to one of the metal tubes, and let it talk to you.

Paul Matisse's Meditation Bell

As you follow the narrow tree-lined path back, past the music pavilion towards the underground parking, the Bell may whisper in your ear: "Stop at the Terrasse for a refreshing glass of rosé. You deserve it." 

My advice: Don't fight the Bell's wisdom.  

Thursday, September 28, 2017



At its mid-September Session in Lima, Peru, the International Olympic Committee made the historic decision to simultaneously announce the awarding of the Summer Olympics to Paris in 2024 and to Los Angeles in 2028. After three unsuccessful bids in the past 25 years, the City of Paris finally won the Olympics for 2024, exactly one hundred years after it last hosted the Games.

It will be an occasion for Paris, host of the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change, to show its many climate-friendly initiatives that should benefit the Games: cleaned-up Seine river, diesel-driven trucks banned from the city, electricity for most public transportation, more bicycle paths, reduced car traffic.

With a current Games budget of €3.8 billion, roughly half will go to the sporting events, the remainder to development and infrastructure projects which will extend to the banlieues, those Paris suburbs in the department of Seine-St. Denis where youth unemployment is high and social unrest a recurrent problem.

Future Tour Montparnasse
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo boasts that these Games will be cheaper and greener than earlier ones, pointing out that 95% of all sports venues already exist or will be temporary, and that many of the new structures will benefit disadvantaged areas such as Seine-St.Denis where the Olympic Village will be built, as well as an aquatics center and a media center. The aquatics center will become a pool for local residents after the Games, and the Olympic Village and the media center will be turned into housing.

Another project of lasting benefit to the locals is the €300 million "green" makeover of the 209-meter-high Tour Montparnasse, a true eyesore. The new Tour will be clad in a glass outer structure, with lower levels covered in planting and crowned by a roof-top garden. Work on the conversion will begin in early 2019, to be finished in time for the 2024 Olympics.

Beach volleyball at Eiffel Tower

Some 38 venues for olympic and paralympic events will be dispersed throughout Paris, with some competitions taking place in existing buildings and others in temporary structures with backdrops such as the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, and the river Seine. Equestrian and biking events will be held on the grounds of the Chateau de Versailles, and sailing events will take place in Marseilles.

French designer Philippe Starck has designed a special, layered, Olympic gold medal for these Games. It will be thicker than before, but can be split in four so the athlete can share it with parents or friends. 

The use of stunning historic sites in Paris and Versailles as well as the natural assets of Marseilles and its off-shore islands cannot fail to make the 2024 Olympics one of the most spectacular ever.  
And now to work!

Macron signing new labor laws
with Minister of Labor, Muriel Pénicaud

The month of September came and went without the sound and fury promised by labor unions and other opponents of President Macron in their mass demonstrations on September 13, 21 and 23 in Paris. Generally well attended, the demonstrations were nevertheless peaceful, though disruptive, and proved of no great impact.

At summer's end, President Emmanuel Macron's approval ratings had nosedived from a high of 64% in June to a low of 36%, which would be a source of concern for any president on the eve of passing a contested Labor Reform bill. Yet, nothing indicates that this month's protest marches and the exhortations of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (LFI), had any effect on Macron's determination to pass his controversial reforms by decree. Defiantly, he even signed his executive order at the Elysée Palace in front of TV cameras, à la Donald Trump. 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon
Amid general agreement that the complicated French Labor Code needs to be simplified, giving companies more flexibility in hiring and firing, there is little support from the Left which considers these reforms more pro-business than pro-employee. They fear that "easier firing" will result in loss of jobs and cause one more crack in the protective shield of their droits acquis those rich benefits gained during the 30 post-war years of uninterrupted growth. These benefits, which include job protection, universal health care, free education, family allowances, long paid vacations, etc. have come under increasing pressure over the years and have always led to massive protests and costly strikes whenever cutbacks were attempted.

Unions protesting
Earlier this month Macron invited the labor union leaders to the Elysée Palace for discussions and potential adjustments to his proposals. That time has now passed, and on September 22nd he signed his reforms by executive order before they will be passed into law by the Parliament, where Macron's party holds a majority.

During his presidential campaign, Macron had pledged sweeping economic and social changes which would make France more competitive, attract foreign investors, and reduce unemployment which, at 10%, remains high. He also pledged to bring France's national debt to below the level of 3% of GDP, as required by the European Commission. To achieve this, he proposes not only a change of labor conditions, more in line with other countries, but a mix of savings, tax cuts and tax hikes, with winners and losers, but nothing particularly alarming.

He blames the stagnation of France's economy on the rigidity of its labor codes which make employers reluctant to hire people they may not be able to get rid of later on. His new labor laws would simplify direct negotiations between employers and employees, and reduce the power of national collective bargaining. Unions and young jobseekers see this as a threat and have vowed to continue protesting, but Macron's response that he "believes in democracy but democracy is not in the streets" speaks of his resolve. Backed by the Medef, France's employers' union, and armed with the lessons learned from previous failed attempts at reform, he has youth and self-confidence on his side.


Macron speaks at the Sorbonne
Days after he signed his new Labor Code by executive order, Macron gave an impassioned speech to hundreds of French and foreign students in the great amphitheater of Sorbonne University on his favorite subject: Europe.

For an hour and a half he outlined his vision of a strong Europe, including
a common defense budget and common efforts to fight terrorism;
 a common migration policy, with a European border police and a European Asylum Office;
a common response to global warming, with common efforts and means to protect civilians against increasingly frequent "natural" disasters;
an effective carbon tax within the EU borders as well as a tax on financial transactions, and taxing internet giant GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) on their revenues where they are earned, not in the fiscal paradise where they are currently applied.

Protesting Macron outside Sorbonne
As for France and its notoriously insular attitude towards foreign languages, he proposed that by 2024 all university students speak at least two European languages, and that as part of their education they spend at least six months abroad. [This could only come from a young president, since not a single one of the previous ones, with the exception of Jacques Chirac, spoke English.]

Aware of the mounting nationalism in a number of European member states, Macron underlined that he does not want a federalist Europe, but a sovereign, united, and democratic one; a bulwark against the superpowers of the United States and China. To get there, he will need the full support of his pro-Europe ally Angela Merkel who, unfortunately, was weakened in last Sunday's German elections and will now have to form a three-party coalition that includes at least one anti-European one. Forever the pragmatist, Merkel will likely look for common ground and make compromises both at home and on Europe. An upcoming meeting of the Franco-German couple may produce good or bad news for Macron's Europe. We will soon know more.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017



The month of August is usually a quiet one in France, with a good part of the country as well as the government on holiday.  In addition, a heat wave that brought us unheard-of temperatures of 39°C in Aix-en-Provence and up to 41°C elsewhere kept people indoors and produced the unusual sight of an empty Cours Mirabeau at mid-day, where limp-looking overheated tourists sought relief on mist-cooled terraces or by splashing their faces with fountain water. Without air conditioning at home, I prefer to take refuge in the cinemas in the old city center for an afternoon movie during the hottest hours of the day. Easy enough when we have a choice of more than 30 films, spread over three cinemas, every week. No long lines and perfect air conditioning (not too cold), exactly what the doctor ordered.

As we all slowed down and went into energy-saving mode, there was no break for the firemen who worked to the point of exhaustion in battling the numerous blazes in the tinder-dry south of France and in Corsica, often against a strong mistral wind or on difficult terrain. Many thousands of acres were destroyed this summer, sometimes for good, reducing the pine-covered hills to desolate moonscapes, and displacing people from campsites, holiday homes and remote villages. Even the monks in the beautiful monastery of Senanque in the Luberon had to be evacuated when a fire in nearby Gordes threatened their ancient abbey.
Senanque Abbey

Some of these fires were caused by lightning but others were the result of negligence or of careless drivers who threw a lighted cigarette from their car windows. [One mayor of a small town in the Alpilles region pleaded with auto makers to reintroduce ashtrays in cars.]  But according to Vincent Pastor, investigator at the regional fire department for the Bouches-du-Rhône area, fully 25 percent of all fires are set by man, usually with criminal intent. One such pyromaniac, a 19-year-old from Istres, was finally apprehended after witnesses had denounced him. He has admitted to setting at least eight of the fires that have sprung up in and around Istres this summer because he was "fascinated by flames." If convicted, he risks up to 15 years in prison.

These wind-whipped fires in the Provence and Var areas of France could not be fought without the help of the Canadair fire-fighting planes that like giant pelicans scoop up the water that they dump on forest fires and hard-to-reach blazes. On windy days they are sent into action at the first alert and their distant rumble has become a familiar sound on hot summer days as it blends with the song of cicadas.


Jeanne Moreau in Avignon, 2011
Legendary actress Jeanne Moreau died at her home in Paris on July 31, aged 89.
Best known for her roles in such French classics as Jules and Jim (François Truffaut) and Les Amants (Louis Malle), she worked with many international directors as well, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Elia Kazan, Luis Buñuel, Joseph Losey, Toni Richardson, Wim Wenders, and Orson Welles who called her "the best actress in the world." She won a number of Best Actress awards and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Hollywood. She first appeared in Avignon at the opening of its theatre festival in 1947 directed by its founder Jean Vilar, and for the last time in 2011 when she recited Jean Genet's play Le Condamné à Mort accompanied by pop singer Etienne Daho, her face by then a magnificent ruin, her smoker's voice as strong as ever. "Living is taking risks" she was fond of saying.
Born to a French father and an English mother, she was perfectly bilingual, yet to some of us she was the most French of French actresses, sensuous, stylish, intelligent, and unpredictable. A star.
She is survived by a son from her first mariage to Jean-Louis Richard. She had a brief second marriage with American director William Friedkin.


Other than fires and Donald Trump's latest excesses, the French press has had little to report on this month, which may be one factor contributing to the current wave of anti-Macron stories. Suddenly, the golden boy of French politics who was the star of recent global summits and host to three of the world's most controversial leaders in Paris (Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Benyamin Netanyahu), has tumbled from an approval rating of 64% in June to 36% in August at the end of his first 100 days in office. What happened?  Various explanations are offered, varying from "too authoritarian, too far to the right, not what he promised" to "undemocratic" (he plans to pass a new labor law by decree), "a banker" (read: untrustworthy), and "surrounded by inexperienced people." I would venture to add an observation of my own: The French are never happy. It is in their DNA to complain, and the post-election euphoria was bound to be short-lived. A swing of the pendulum was to be expected and was definitely helped along by talking heads and columnists whose job it is to create controversy and keep the ink flowing.

Code de Travail, 3000 pages
Nevertheless, a sense of disappointment is in the air, and what sounded attractive to voters after the failed government of socialist president Hollande, is beginning to feel threatening to the traditional French base now that Macron has unveiled his plans and begun detailing some of his proposals. The source of their worry is Macron's announcement that he wants to reign in French deficit spending and bring the national debt down to 3 percent of GDP, as required by the European Commission in Brussels.

To that end:
he plans to change labor laws that hold France back in the international market place (but guaranteed job security to French employees);
he introduced a law on Moralisation of Political Life that prohibits French parliamentarians from employing family members as paid assistants, a widespread custom that caused the downfall of presidential candidate François Fillon (see Penelopegate). This moralisation law, passed last month, would also eliminate the current trust-based slush fund for deputies' expenses and switch to verifiable expense accounts for reimbursement.
civil servants (20% of the French workforce) will not receive an automatic salary increase this year and, in an effort to curb absenteeism (which costs the State €170 million a year) will no longer be paid for the first day of sick leave. 
Jean-Luc Mélenchon
perhaps most controversial of all, Macron cut the Defense budget by €850 million, causing General Pierre de Villiers, chief of the armed forces, to resign.

Hence: discontent in parliament, in the civil service, and in the military, not to mention the outcry on the political left which was to be expected.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, firebrand leader of the radical-left movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) that won 17 seats in Parliament in the last elections, has vowed to block the proposed new labor code and is calling for massive demonstrations in Paris on September 23rd.
For its part, the CGT, France's largest labor union, has called for a general strike on September 12th. 

So after a somnolent August, September promises to be agitated as the government reassembles in Paris and the all-important issue of the labor code looms on the horizon. Mélenchon, with his "over-my-dead-body" attitude, aims for maximum disruption and has threatened to seize the Constitutional Council over the legality of a government decision by decree. It is the first major test for Emmanuel Macron, and he will be watched closely.

Marseille, home of pastis

In the meantime, France is still in holiday mode and blissfully unconcerned for a few more weeks about the political storm that is brewing.

September can wait, with its back-to-school and back-to-work and back to strikes and protests.

Pass me the pastis, will you?