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. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018



In France the year began with the usual fireworks of burning cars (more than 1000) on New Year's Eve and numerous clashes with police that saw ten police officers wounded, two of them seriously, and 510 troublemakers arrested. Most of the incidents occurred in the outlying areas of Paris, where high unemployment, poverty, and a concentration of immigrants lie at the core of much of the unrest. For the young men among them car burning on New Year's Eve has become their preferred way of letting off steam and pent-up frustration.
In Paris, on the other hand, Mayor Anne Hidalgo had organized a grand show of music and projections at the Arc de Triomphe that drew 300,000 people to the Champs Elysées where a heavy police presence assured the safety of the packed crowd. It was a successful exercise in crowd protection in this country where the threat of a terrorist attack is always present.

In more ways than one the year 2017 ended with a bang. After two earlier winter storms that caused flooding and cuts in electricity but luckily cost only one human life, hurricane Carmen hit France's Atlantic Coast on December 31st with local gusts of such force that it knocked down a 67-meter-high wind turbine in the Vendée area. The 260-ton turbine snapped off just above its base in the first incident of this kind. An ongoing investigation will determine whether this might have been caused by a mini tornado.


A storm of another kind was unleashed by the publication of a letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and 100 other French women in the respected daily Le Monde in response to the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent #Balancetonporc (Snitch on your Pig) that famously took down the Hollywood mogul and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. The signatories denounced the flood of accusations of certain acts such as touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, wolf whistles, clumsy compliments etc. as "sexual harassment." Women can say No to unwanted attention from men who, nevertheless, should be allowed to flirt, was the message. "Rape is a crime but insistent or clumsy flirting is not, nor is gallantry a macho aggression." The lack of distinction may be due to a form of American puritanism, the letter implied.

The inevitable backlash soon followed, led by Italian actress Asia Argento, among the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein, and soon was taken up by the foreign press. A week later, Catherine Deneuve accepted an interview from Libération wherein she clarified that she had signed the letter because she agreed with its premise but later took exception with the statements of certain signatories on French television. She stated that she did not consider herself a feminist ("I am a free woman and don't belong to any group") and reminded the interviewer that in 1971 she had signed the "Manifesto of the 343 Sluts," a declaration of 343 advocates for women's reproductive rights who admitted publicly that they had had an abortion when it was illegal in France. Feeling misinterpreted by her accusers, she nevertheless offered apologies to those victims of real sexual abuse who might have been offended by the letter she co-signed. Calm has returned... for now.


"When the winds of change start blowing, some will build walls, others windmills"— Chinese proverb. France will build windmills, says President Macron. 

On January 7th, Emmanuel Macron began a three-day state visit to China with a view to boosting Europe's economic ties with China and increasing France's global influence. In the wake of Brexit and Germany's difficulties in forming a coalition government, Macron has been filling the void by taking on the role of European leader. His wife Brigitte and some 50 French business leaders accompanied him on the trip.

After visiting Xi'An, the ancient imperial city and hub of the old silk roads, and the impressive terra-cotta army of 8000 warriors, the Macrons flew to Beijing where they were given a tour of the Forbidden City. Taking a clue from China's panda diplomacy, Macron offered President Xi-Jinping a magnificent 8-year old gelding from the Garde Républicaine, complete with its special saddle and a sabre. He also brought two messages: first, the tremendous possibilities that closer cooperation between China and Europe could bring and his total commitment to that effort; and second, the growing concern in Europe and elsewhere over China's unfair trade practices and the resulting trade deficit of €30 billion in France alone. France and the EU want more reciprocity in their trade relations with China and also want to take advantage of China's $1 trillion New Silk Road Initiative, which Macron says must be a two-way road. "After all, the ancient Silk Road was never only Chinese".

Several multibillion-euro contracts were signed during this visit, notably with Airbus (184 planes) and with Areva for the construction of a nuclear-waste treatment plant in China.

Before leaving, Macron promised to come back to China at least once a year, presumably with wife Brigitte who is very popular in China where their unusual marriage is viewed as "very romantic".


As Emmanuel Macron keeps gaining in popularity and international status, Donald Trump seems to be doing everything he can to turn the world against him. Latest case in point: Switzerland.

No sooner had President Trump announced that he planned to attend the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos later this month than the Swiss campaign group Campax launched a petition to keep Donald Trump away from Davos. The petition gathered more than 12000 signatures on its first day. Trump, who would be the first sitting US president in 20 years to attend the Forum, intends to present his America First agenda to the audience of world leaders and business executives. As Campax explained in its petition, "A person who does not believe in anything that constitutes, in our view, a civilized society, has no place here in Switzerland." This statement was issued a day after Trump made his infamous remark on immigrants from "shithole countries" that met with worldwide condemnation, including from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations in Geneva.

This follows London's rejection of a Trump visit by London Mayor Sadiq Kahn last year after Theresa May had invited him because he feared massive anti-Trump demonstrations and could not guarantee Mr. Trump's safety. When Trump announced last week that he would not go to London to open the new American embassy there, Mr. Kahn tweeted: "It appears that President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and the Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city's values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance. [...]  Let's hope that Donald Trump also revisits the pursuit of his divisive agenda."

Who could have believed in pre-Trump days that any country would openly object to the visit of an American president? Times have changed, and so has America, sadly not for the better.