Friday, 28 June 2013

Why it always pays to know a foreign language

A bus in Lyon. No traffic jam.
Oh god, that was all I needed. There I was this evening, on the way home after working downtown all day, and my bus ran into a traffic jam. A big one. I'm used to traffic during rush hours but this was obviously due to an accident or something. Patience Frip, patience.

I text a girlfriend and she's available to text back so we text for ten minutes and that helps the time go by. 45 minutes on a stretch that only takes 2 normally. Boredom? Tell me about it.

Then the bus leaves that road as part of its route and takes another one, where there is no traffic. Yay! When we finally get to the bottom of that road however, another traffic jam awaits us at the intersection where the bus turns next. Nothing was moving for hundreds of yards and we were obviously in for a long wait.

But my stop was only 30 yards away. I wait 2 minutes, and then, just as pissed as everyone else at being sardined in a traffic-jammed bus (is that even English?) for almost an hour, I politely ask the driver if he can open the doors for those of us who want to alight at that stop.

Me: Est-ce que vous pourriez ouvrir les portes s'il vous plait pour laisser descendre les gens pour cet arrêt ? (Could you open the doors so that people who want this stop can get off please?)

Driver: Non, désole. Je n’ai pas le droit de laisser descendre les passagers ailleurs qu’à un arrêt. (No, sorry. I'm not authorised to let people off anywhere else than at a bus stop.)

Me: Mais il n'est qu’a trente mètres et rien ne bouge ! (But it's only thirty meters away and nothing's moving!)

Driver: Non. Désole. (No, sorry.)

His persnickety and punctiliously excessive sticking-to-the-rulebook attitude annoyed me. A lot. So I said, mostly to myself, and IN ENGLISH - because English 'gets it out of my system' better than French when I'm annoyed;

Me: Oh that's total fucking bullshit. The traffic is at a standstill and we've been in this thing for an hour for fuck's sake!

Driver: Well fuck you. I'm not opening the doors until the bus stop.

I WAS DUMFOUNDED!! THE GUY SPEAKS ENGLISH!!! AND WELL!! AND WITH A LOVELY ACCENT!!! So I looked him right between the eyes, smiled, and said;

Me: Fuck you too. But you have a super accent I must say.

Driver (smiling):  Thanks, I lived in England for years.
Then he opened the doors, I thanked him, he said no problem, I got off the bus, and we waved goodbye....

Languages are good for you.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Air France: one of the world's safest airlines? Far from it (Part 1 of 2)

I was discussing civil aviation safety with a friend recently, and he said that Air France was one of the safest airlines in the world. But it seemed to me that his knowledge of these issues was limited - none of us are experts at everything after all - because I happen to be a keen follower of air safety issues and his words just didn't ring true somehow. I had the impression that he was just trotting out an 'ism' that everyone knee-jerkingly believes. So I went and dug up some stats, and this is what I came up with.

The first thing I did was to see if Air France is in the top ten list of safest airlines in the world over the last 30 years. It isn't. 

That prompted me to dig deeper, and I then discovered that Air France has had 22 major accidents resulting in over over 1,250 fatalities since the 1950s. What does that mean in relative terms? That is a difficult question to answer because stats can be twisted as we know, but as an illustration of my good faith and an honest attempt to be objective I can relate comparative stats for British Airways - which is the 10th safest airline in the world - and state that they have had just 3 major accidents and 140 victims in the same 60-year period, that is to say since the 1950s. That is a massive difference by any yardstick.

Worse, the last 15 years of Air France's safety record have been particularly appalling. Fatal crashes during this period include;

2000 - Paris. 113 dead in the crash of an air France Concord shortly after takeoff. American airline Continental Airways was blamed for that disaster. It was alleged by French aviation authorities that faulty maintenance on a Continental plane led to a piece of metal falling off it as it took off just before the Concord, leading to the tyre burst on the Concord that resulted in the accident. Continental is currently appealing that decision.

2003 - Brest. 1 dead and a total plane write-off in a crash-landing. This accident was imputed by French aviation authorities to pilot error.

2005 - Toronto. Total plane write-off upon landing and - "miraculously" as was said at the time - no victims. Pilot error. Again.

2007 - Pau. 1 victim in a total plane write-off during takeoff. Pilot error. Well well well.

2009 - Rio Paris flight 447. 228 dead after it went down in the Atlantic. Primarily pilot error. This simplistic conclusion by authorities was and remains a disgrace.

That's a total of  343 victims in just 13 years. In other words, if you spread that death rate out over the last 60 years, Air France's mortality record is actually getting worse over time.

But why is that the case?

I'll be explaining the reasons in Part 2, but in the meantime suffice it to say that those reasons are contained in clues in this blogpost for those who know how to look for them.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

J'ACCUSE! France's 'Slow Drinking' advice to Jack Daniel's drinkers :)

Keith Richards' favourite tipple
I bought a bottle of Jack Daniel's yesterday evening. Hard alcohol is rarely to be found at my home but I only bought that bottle because I liked the presentation box to be honest. I took it home and promptly forgot about it.

Still, I decided to have a small nip earlier this evening, and it was then that I discovered and read the enclosed leaflet. I nearly dropped dead on the spot. Here are a few excerpts from this scurrilous propaganda.
'Slow Drinking - the art of savouring.'

'Slow Drinking is a new way of tasting alcoholic drinks in which one takes one's time to savour each instant. The Slow Drinking philosophy valorises the visual, olfactive and gustatory senses and offers new rituals and modes of tasting in order to better savour the moment whilst also drinking moderately.'

'When I don't have a doser, I use the bottle cap and that makes sure I limit my consumption.'
WHAT??!! JD is a drink for rock musicians (I was one for years), alcoholics-or-nearly (I almost became one), rebels (always been one), motorbikers (never ridden one), and various other categories of us, the marginals who make this otherwise sad world go round, and I want it to stay that way!!

This 'Slow Drinking' gimmick may be okay for soft drink drinkers of girly drinks like Martini and Bacardi - the campaign is the initiative of Martini-Bacardi France - but it has no place in a presentation box of Jack Daniel's. Worse, the French distinguish themselves once again as the world's most incompetent English users by mistakenly labelling Jack Daniel's as 'Jack Daniel'. How would they like it if Anglophones labelled champagne as 'shampain'? Roquefort as 'Rock Fort'?

Good lord, this civilised 'culturalisation' of JD is an absolute abomination. JD drinkers don't need to 'taste', or 'savour', or - worst of all - 'dose' JD. We need to drink it, lots of it, and without moderation. That's what it was invented for.

But now that the French have started drinking it they are setting a bad precedent for the future.

I swear that if ever they succeed in making people put ice in JD I'll stop drinking it.

After all, it's a strong drink, for rebels like me. So I'll have to find something even stronger if they make it socially acceptable.

Hmmm, now where's the number of the guy I know who makes Moonshine.....

(All that said, at almost 60 years old now I stopped at one drink.)

Excellent weekend to all...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Barroso is wrong to claim that France's 'exception culturelle' is "reactionary"

This man has appalling taste in ties
Francois Hollande, his socialist government and a sizeable chunk of press and public opinion are currently up in arms about inflammatory remarks made yesterday by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. His comments expressed his displeasure at France's refusal to ratify a trans-Atlantic trade agreement between Europe and the United States unless its film, television and music industries were excluded from it. Barroso said;
"[The French stance is] part of this anti-globalization agenda that I consider completely reactionary. [...] Some say they belong to the left, but in fact they are culturally extremely reactionary."
He went on to argue that he believed in protecting cultural diversity but not in "sealing off Europe".

French government negotiating officials had insisted upon this exemption in the name of France's 'exception culturelle' - a protective measure for French cultural production that was introduced partially in an effort to stem what was and still is seen by French governments as being an unacceptably high percentage of foreign (read 'Anglophone') films, music and television series being shown and broadcast in France. Installing limit quotas on them in order to protect home-grown and European product was the method chosen, and this principle is backed up by legislation. The major clauses of the law stipulate that;

a) TV stations must pay a 3.2% tax upon their annual turnover of which three-quarters helps to finance French films.
b) TV stations must reserve 60% of their airtime to films for European films, 40% of which must be French.
c) Music radio stations must reserve 40% of their airtime for French-language songs.

Now what's so 'reactionary' about that? Anglophones don't tend to consider these issues much because almost all their media broadcast uniquely Anglophone cultural products, but in smaller, non-Anglophone countries, there is obviously good reason to support home-grown product in order to protect their cultural identity. And it's not as if foreign culture isn't allowed onto the market in France, which, if you turn the figures round, reserves 40% of TV time and 60% of radio time to other than European - and that, again, essentially means Anglophone - films and music. That may not be as much as the Hollywood moguls would like, but France nevertheless represents a substantial market for them. Anglophone documentaries and other non-film products also get their fair share of the remaining airtime, thus further increasing the total amount of Anglophone product. Then add non-European and Anglophone product - even if there isn't much of it - and you have a situation in which about half of all product is non-French. Isn't that enough?

And there's another factor which should be taken into account when analysing just how much France protects it's own culture to the detriment of that of others, and that is the difference between what the law theoretically says should be done and what is actually being done in the real world. The fact is that TV stations, radio stations and cinemas regularly feature a substantially higher percentage of Anglophone product than they should, but the authorities turn a blind eye to it. In other words, it's a safe bet to say that over half of all product diffused by French TV, cinema and radio isn't French.

No, that is not reactionary and Barroso is wrong.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Nicolas Sarkozy: the Ladder of Lies goes right to the top

A glass and a microphone with a man sitting behind them
It all started out as a rather banal story of a media-attractive formerly convicted and jailed corrupt businessman and erstwhile minister in a French government - nothing new there - called Bernard Tapie who got into a spat with a bank about the sale of one of his companies. He said they had ripped him off, and they denied it. Nothing new there either.

It was finally decided by an arbitral body appointed by Nicolas Sarkozy's government that Tapie was right and that therefore he would be given €405 million of taxpayers' money in compensation. That caused a minor stir at the time but, as is usual in France where the rich and influential are involved, it came to nothing, the years passed, and the affair was forgotten.

Last year however it emerged that then Economy Minister Christine Lagarde, in Sarkozy's government, had successfully demanded that the government and presidency intervene in his favour, an intervention, it is said, which led to Tapie getting his hands on the money. She denied it under questioning and is currently an assisted witness before a Parisian court, which thinks she may be lying.

Events have moved quickly since then. One of Tapie's lawyers and a political adviser to Lagarde were arrested recently on suspicion that they, and Tapie himself, had participated in meetings at the Elysée designed to perfect the strategy which would give him the money.

But why, you may ask, were those meetings ever held? After all, Tapie had been a socialist minister and he was dealing here with Sarkozy, his right-of-centre political antithesis. So what was the common interest?

The common interest, it now transpires, was that Tapie had promised his support for Sarkozy in the latter's efforts to be elected president in 2007 in return for his favourable intervention in his fight against the bank. And, once the deal agreed, Tapie did indeed support him, and had thus turned his political vest for money.

Sarkozy, Tapie, Lagarde and all the others denied that any such arrangement was made. Well, almost all the others. Because Lagarde's political advisor, already in custody, told investigators two days ago that Tapie had actively participated in the deal. He asserted moreover that Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's Chief of Staff at the Elysée, had also known about this operation and had participated in it. Guéant too denies it but the case has become so strong that he too is now under investigation, and Tapie shall not be far behind.

But most importantly however, Guéant, as head of the Elysée's administration and second only to Sarkozy, could not have been able to do this without Sarkozy's permission.

Which leads us to the top of the ladder. The President. Sarkozy. It is as plain as white on rice that this scam occured and that Sarkozy approved it. Do I have the proof? No. Of course not, in a country where it is almost impossible to gain access to the communications - email, letters, meetings, other documentation - which would be needed to prove it.

And that means that even if this scandal reaches Sarkozy, which it looks set to do, neither he nor any of the others will be found guilty of any malpractice. They will be aquitted without trial. Except, possibly, for Tapie's lawyer and Lagarde's political advisor, who may soon find themselves cast in the role of sacrificial lambs, scapegoats, and a sop to the French people in a shabby effort to be able to say that the rich and powerful are not immune from justice.

But they are immune, and the French know it. French democracy is extremely fragile compared to that of other comparable countries precisely because of the sheer amount of abuse its leaders are able to indulge themselves in without being made accountable either to the justice system or the public.

No wonder the French detest their political classes more than is the case anywhere else in Europe. The French elites are liars, thieves, opportunists, a back-scratching mafia, and I for one would be more than pleased to see the French people take to the streets to shout;


But they won't, because their demonstration time is already full of demos against economic measures which are eating away at their salaries due to the financial crisis. So it shall be business as usual.

The French - 'a revolutionary people'? - Laisse moi rire va.....

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A law to limit the use of the term 'restaurant' to those which actually cook? Excellent idea!

My right ear and  left arm in a restaurant. The rest of me stayed at home
Just walk into any French restaurant and you will be amazed at the high quality of the delicious dishes being served. Succulent fresh fish, gorgeous desserts, delicious prawns, eating out in France is a genuine pleasu........

What!!?? Good grief, did I really write that rubbish?! I do beg your pardon, it must be the weather. Or my tax bill.

Unfortunately, the fact is that up to 50% of French restaurants don't actually prepare or cook all the food they serve. They just heat up frozen dishes such as pizza and serve vegetables straight from the tin, or, in the case of many desserts, serve mass-produced items such as tarts and chocolate cakes straight out of the box or, where applicable, the fridge or freezer. So how can it possibly be right that they are currently allowed to call themselves 'restaurants' in their names and on their facades and menus, just like those restaurants that can actually be bothered to cook fresh food?

This is bad news for tourists of course, because the outside of all restaurants in a given price range look roughly the same and I'll bet a pound to a penny that 90% of tourists wouldn't know a good average-priced restaurant which serves real food from a bad one which doesn't. Until they are served that is, by which time it's too late. Even locals and those of us foreigners who have lived here for years need to be very careful when choosing to go to a restaurant for the first time. The only sure way is to ask someone who has already visited the restaurant concerned, but this isn't always possible, and tourists, of course, can rarely benefit from knowing someone who will send them to a good restaurant.

Are restaurant guides of any help? Unfortunately not, unless you are looking at the high end of the market, or reading a specialist guide. They just list restaurants irrespective of the quality, unless they have a really bad reputation.

Which leads me to one man's laudable attempts to clean up the restaurant business and sort the wheat from the chaff.

The story begins with the scandal which saw horse meat being passed off as beef in mass-produced lasagnes and other products. Nobody was charged in this scandal, and the national outcry it caused prompted the government to do something about it. The job was given to Benoît Hamon, a Delegate Minister for the Social and Solidarity Economy. He has drawn up a law proposal which would drastically increase the controls carried out within the food business and multiply sanctions for frauders by a factor of eight. This law is almost certain to be voted.

Now though a UMP deputy, Daniel Fasquelle, has proposed an amendment to it which would reserve the right to use the term 'restaurant' uniquely for establishments which prepare and serve fresh food. There would be exceptions of course - after all, it would be unrealistic to expect all restaurants to make food items such as cheese, bread and ice cream from scratch, although I do know some restaurants which do make their own bread or ice cream. What an excellent idea!

Many tourists come here with the expectation that food will be good everywhere, but they are often sadly disappointed with the fare on offer. This is not good for the country's image as a temple of gastronomical excellence. This amendment however would make it easier for them - and locals - to better know what they are letting themselves in for when they go into a restaurant. It would also reduce fraudulent practices in some restaurants, which pass mass-produced ingredients off as the real thing.

Some restaurant owners and professional bodies which represent them are against this proposal, saying that it would lead to severe job losses in the industry. But they are wrong, as the boulangerie business will attest.

It was extremely difficult to find a good boulangerie in France until 1995, when a law was passed which reserved the right to use the appellation 'boulangerie' uniquely for those bakers who actually produce their own dough on the premises. This has made things somewhat easier, although tourists and even some locals still have trouble knowing what a good boulangerie is so there is room for improvement. More importantly, it has saved the livelihoods of many bakers who were facing unfair competition from establishments such as those which merely bake products which have been factory-prepared, and the move forced producers of finished baker's products and pre-formed products to improve the quality of their offer, as real boulangeries were regaining the public's confidence and thus market share. (Incidentally, for those interested in the subject of finding good bread in France I wrote a detailed entry on it which you can read here. It's a must-read for tourists.)

France relies on the reputation of its restaurants and all things culinary, but that reputation has taken a serious battering over the last 25 years due to complacency, a lack of imagination when it comes to change which would be better suited to new tastes, and fraudulent practices. And as if that weren't enough, even France's ability to win international awards for food-related products and wine has diminished sharply. There was a time when the French would win a large majority of these awards, but these days they are majoritarily won by people and products from other countries. Did you know, for example, that this year's world cheese championship was won by a japanese lady and her cheeses?

The reputation of France's food and drink industry needs all the legislation and changes in mentality it can get if it is to improve, and the adoption of Daniel Fasquelle's proposed amendment would help not only the restaurant business, it would help to bolster France's reputation for excellence when it comes to food and drink too.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Financial corruption by politicians in France is the stuff of which banana republics are made

Here is a rundown of the background to all the stories I have read today in the French online press which concern ongoing court cases and investigations involving French politicians, almost all of whom are accused of various kinds of financial corruption. It makes edifying reading, so enjoy, for want of a better word.

Jean-Noël Guérini.
Guerini is a Socialist and President of the Bouches-du-Rhône region, which includes Marseille, a city with major corruption and mafia problems, and he is facing charges of passive corruption, influence peddling, criminal conspiracy to commit crime, and illegal restriction of market access to companies wishing to submit tenders for public works projects. All this is in the context of his alleged handing out of contracts for kickbacks to companies owned by his brother or the mafia. He has refused to go to some court convocations, and has claimed he was ill to avoid going to others. Courts have also charged various other local politicians, businessmen and mafia members with various offences related to the Guerini charges. And no, I didn't make an error at the start of this description of him, he is, incredibly, still a regional president in charge of hundreds of millions of taxpayer euros.

Nicolas Sarkozy.
He needs no introduction but some of you may not know much about the fact that he has been charged with breach of trust by means of the abuse of the reduced mental faculties of the victim. This case revolves around allegations that he and others personally obtained envelopes stuffed with banknotes to finance his 2007 election campaign from Liliane Bettencourt, who is the heiress of the L'Oréal cosmetics conglomerate and has a net worth of over $30 billion. Bettencourt was made a ward of the state in 2011 for the poor state of her health and being incapable of the management of her fortune, and she has also been placed by a court under the guardianship of members of her family on concerns about her declining mental health, although she has appealed this latter judgement. This case forced the replacement of Sarkozy's then Budget minister, Eric Woerth, and about 20 other people have also been charged with varying offences in relation to this affair.

Christine Lagarde and the Lagarde-Tapie affair.
A former Economy minister in François Fillon's government, she is now Managing Director of the International Monetary fund. Lagarde is an assisted witness who now stands to be charged with offences related to what is known as the 'Lagarde-Tapie affair'. She is under investigation in relation to her role as a minister in an alleged government decision to illegally settle the court battle between businessman and former minister Bernard Tapie and the Credit Lyonnais bank over alleged fraud concerning the sale of Adidas, a company Tapie owned at the time. Tapie was awarded €405 million in compensation after what is alleged to be government interference in the case on Tapie's behalf in exhange for his support for Sarkozy during his 2007 election campaign. Several other ministers as well as Nicolas Sarkozy are also suspected of being involved in the affair, as are various lawyers, heads of major companies and political advisors, some of whom have spent or are spending time in police custody. Bernard Tapie has not yet been charged but if the case goes ahead he most certainly shall be. Not that he isn't used to being in court of course, given that he was jailed some years back for corruption.

Claude Guéant.
Guéant was Nicolas Sarkozy's Interior minister and the General Secretary of the Elysée. He is under criminal investigation in several affairs.
a) He is suspected of being involved in the illegal financing of Nicolas Sarkoz's election campaign by Muammar Gadaffi by transiting €500,000 through his own bank account.
b) Judges have found evidence that he may have received up to €240,000 in secret government cash funds between 2002 and 2004 and creamed some of it off for his own benefit.
c) He is one of several senior government figures who are suspected of being involved in the Lagarde-Tapie affair.
d) He is facing charges of fraud, receiving stolen goods and complicity to commit an offence for his part in the creation of a non-existent and well paid political advisory job to help a political ally and friend by using his influence as Sarkozy's head of the Elysée.
Again, other politicians are implicated in these cases.

Jérôme Cahuzac.
He was François Hollande's Budget minister in charge of dealing with tax fraud until May, when he resigned after being himself charged with tax fraud. He admitted holding an offshore bank account for 20 years which contained €600,000 of laundered money when investigations began. Cahuzac is in the news today because - and contrary to previous declarations - he will no longer cooperate with judges and investigators. It is suspected that his illegal activities were known to other ministers, who said and did nothing to stop him being offered the job of Budget minister.

Michèle Tabarot.
Tabarot is second-in-command of the UMP party after Jean-François Copé and is being investigated for her role in a massive €72 million real estate fraud in Spain involving her brother, her political advisor (who was a shareholder in the incriminated company) and another politician, all three of whom have already been charged with various offences. She is alleged to have used some of the money to finance her political campaigns.

The Socialists of Béthune, in the Pas-de-Calais region.
Too numerous to name here, dozens of socialist politicians in the town Béthune, including the Mayor, have been charged with offences including forgery, the use of forged documents, the embezzlement of public money, passive corruption, active corruption, forged invoices and many more. The Federation of the whole of the Pas-de-Calais region is also under investigation. The Socialist Party in Béthune was described as a judge as having created "a mafia climate" in the town. Private planes paid for with taxpayers' money, the extortion of illegal commission from companies tendering for local authority contracts, fraudulent accounting practices, you name it, it's on the charge sheet.


As I said at the beginning of this entry, these cases are just those which appeared in the French press today and as such they do not represent all of the ongoing cases against and investigations into French politicians. There are many more and and even more are in the pipeline. Very few of the well-known politicians involved in these scandals shall ever be found guilty, never mind go to prison.

This is the stuff of which banana republics are made and it goes a long way to explaining why the vast majority of French citizens think that most politicians are corrupt. It also proves that they are quite justified in thinking that. But why do the French people tolerate this extraordinarily vast and generalised amount of corruption by their politicians?

Was Charles De Gaulle right after all to say that "les français sont des veaux", an expression he used to say that the French were too indolent, meek and lazy to fight for what was right, even when it was in their own interest?

It obviously seems that way at the moment, but who knows, things may change one day. That said, don't hold your breath whilst waiting...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet - a highly unconventional political rebel and my favourite French political personality

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet
If you were asked to to choose your favourite French political personality, which criteria would be the most deciding factor in your decision? The political opinions they defend? Their debating skills? Their high level of honesty? (No, scrub that, that criteria doesn't apply to politicians.) Their experience maybe?

Those are all valid criteria of course, but my main criteria is that the person must be a free electron with an eccentric side to their manner of doing politics which sets them apart from all the drab party-line following clones. And if there is one French political personality who fits that description to a tee it has to be right-of-centre UMP politician Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.

The first thing that stikes me about her is that she doesn't even look like a politician. Kosciusko-Morizet's vestimentary style is, well, ummm, not exactly coordinated, and it cannot be said that she is exactly the most beautiful of women in a classic sense either. She has often been referred to as being 'pale' or 'pasty' faced and it has often been remarked that she looks tired. Makeup isn't her strong point. She obviously spends little time on it. No complementary chic outfits of classy skirts and blouses of the sort that 99% of female politicians wear for her either, she tends towards a rather frumpy and old-fashioned look and wears what most people would consider to be bland and outdated outfits. Her hair is a permanent mess, generally tied carelessly back with what look like supermarket quality clips and bands which struggle against the odds to keep it in place. And it's not as if her hair doesn't deserve better because - and as can be seen in the rare photos of her in which she lets it down - she actually has the kind of hair that many women would be more than pleased to show off to the world if they could. But she looks as if she just got out of bed. She just doesn't seem to care about all that fashion stuff, and that is rare in politics today, where image is everything.

Nor does she behave like most other politicians. She swears a lot and - sin of all sins for a politician - is often to be seen smoking in the street, and she even smokes when she speaks to members of the public during meetings and other events. That's political suicide for most people, but not for her. On the contrary, people like her honest, frank and down-to-earth approach with the public. French political parties consist of several ideological clans, or factions, and being a member of one of them is considered to be an essential advantage for ambitious politicians who want to climb further up the party ladder and get noticed by party leadership and the press. Not so Kosciusko-Morizet. She is a member of no party clan. 'Worse' still, she is despised by some of them and has been involved in numerous spats with other party members. She is considered to be an outcast by many, and has a substantial number of political enemies within the UMP. But she doesn't care about all that either. After all, despite - or perhaps I should say precisely because of - her fierce intellectual and political independence, she was noticed early on in her career by Jacques Chirac, who promptly invited her to dinner. He subsequently helped her carer in many ways. Now that's what I call being different.

But is she an effective politician and has she reached a point where she is influential despite her rather singular and controversial character? The answer is yes on both counts. She became a deputy in 2002 at 29, which is very young by French standards, and was reelected in 2007 and 2012. She went on to become the Ecology State Secretary in 2007 before taking over the post of secretary of state with responsibility for Forward Planning, Assessment of Public Policies and Development of the Digital Economy in 2010. One year later she was appointed as Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing under Nicolas Sarkozy, who would later make her his official spokesperson for his reelection campaign. 

How did she get that high up the ladder?  Kosciusko-Morizet is known for being a very hard, almost obsessive and obsessed worker, as illustrated by the following words, spoken by fellow UMP member Serge Dassault who was praising her work on transport and sustainable development issues during her time as Ecology minister;
"I just don't know how she does it. She works on everything at once - bridges, rail transport, ports, everything, and on top of that she [as a mayor] looks after her circumscription. She really is a formidable woman."
But that's not surprising given that another politician had said of her years earlier, when she was a mayor, that;
"She knows all about every single pothole in Longjumeau."
That said, perhaps - and, again, unlikely on the face of it - the principal reason for her success is her personality, which can vary between anything from charming to highly aggressive. She is said to be a highly patient, knowledgeable and persuasive politician when the mood takes her, which is why both Chirac and Sarkozy appreciated her and often invited her to discuss issues and listen to her point of view. But she is better known for her fierce will to do and say things as she sees them. This trait of character, particularly disliked in female politicians by their male counterparts, is what got her demoted as a minister on one occasion, and Sarkozy would often rage against her departures from the party line in speeches and parliamentary discourses.

What is she up to today? She is the official UMP candidate for the upcoming mayoral elections in Paris, a city with a tradition of electing socialist mayors, often by landslides. Her attempt to become mayor is thus theoretically doomed in advance. But, again, Kosciusko-Morizet surprises us. The latest voting intention polls give her a deficit of just a few points with respect to her opponent, socialist Annie Hidalgo, and the gap is closing. Who knows, maybe she will be elected? Here we have a politically unconventional operator, an isolated and insolent rebel who is under no-one's command, but she may just pull off what the UMP has been trying - and failing - to do for many years. If that isn't an exceptional situation in today's political world in France I don't know what is.

To sum up, all of this is why Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet is my preferred political personality in France. She is dedicated to her work, she has genuinely honest relations and candid conversations with people she meets in the street, she sticks to her principles and she is - make no mistake about it - a canny and extremely talented politician.

And besides, who can possibly not like someone who, whilst smoking a cigarette in a public place, and after being advised by a nearby political communications and media advisor that smoking in public is perhaps not the best thing to do in terms of image, damningly and dismissively replies "tu vas arrêter de me casser les couilles ou quoi?!" Which, in plain English means;
"Are you going to stop breaking my balls or what?!"
That kind of straight talking is why Chirac, who appreciated her enormously, would affectionately refer to her as "the shit-stirrer." And he was absolutely right to do so.

Yup, no doubt about it, this lady has balls all right. She's a lone wolf, she's unfathomable, and my money says that she has not finished surprising us yet, not by a long chalk.


(This piece was inspired by a comment by Streaky on a post I published yesterday. Grateful thanks to him, her, or whatever it may be.)

Friday, 7 June 2013

The killing of Clément Méric was both predictable and inevitable

Demonstrators here in Lyon, France, yesterday (my photo)
Clément Méric, an 18-year-old hard-left militant, was killed in Paris earlier this week by extreme-right wing militants. A classic case of ultra-right violence? Not so fast. Those who attacked Méric might be guilty of the murder itself, but they are not the only ones responsible for it, and those who are ultimately responsible for the detestable climate of political hate and debate in France which inspired this crime shall never be brought to justice.

The first and most obvious culprit is the cluster of extreme-right wing groups to which Méric's alleged killers are said to belong. They have been upping the violence stakes for months in their fight against the left, homosexuals, foreigners and anybody else who does not share their opinions. An example of this can be seen here in Lyon, where the St Jean quarter has been terrorised for two years by extreme right wing groups who have been smashing up bars and businesses owned by gays and people of immigrant origins. Locals are beginning to avoid the area at night and tourism is being affected by it. But because it takes two to tango - and two to fight - a long hard look also needs to be taken at their extreme-left wing enemies, and French film director Marc-Aurèle Vecchione has done just that. His 2008 film 'Antifascist skinhead hunters' paints a grim picture of the years-long state of gang warfare between left and right wing skinheads. These groups even dress the same, with a marked preference for Dr. Martens boots and clothes from the Fred Perry and Ben Sherman brands. Shops which sell these items attract both groups, and it appears that Méric was at a private sales event involving clothes from these brands when he got into an argument with others in the shop who were members of right-wing groups. The fight which ensued left him brian-dead and he died yesterday afternoon. Méric, as it turns out, was a hard-left militant who was well known to opposing groups. Both left and right wing groups have incontestably contributed to the climate of hate which led to Méric's killing.

But these groups did not exist in a vacuum, and they were egged on by another guilty party, the organisers and supporters of the 'Manif Pour Tous', the anti-gay marriage group which has been staging inflammatory demonstrations over the last few months designed to provoke violence and the police reaction to it which ensued on several occasions. This organisation's hate-filled and violently homophobic bile was directly responsible for a spate of vicious attacks on homosexuals which hospitalised several of the victims. Just a few weeks ago the MPT's iconic figurehead - Frigide Barjot - addressed a menacing menace to President François Hollande in which she said "Hollande wants blood and he's going to get it".  She partially retracted that statement later, but it was too late. These demonstrations attracted members of extreme-right wing groups who caused much of the violence, and Méric's suspected killers - who were arrested yesterday - are said by police to be members of them. It would be naive at best and malicious at worst to suggest that the Manif Pour Tous did not contribute in its own indirect way to Méric's murder by provoking violence and civil disobedience. The killers of Méric were useful, if dangerous, idiots who were manipulated by others and Barjot finally has the blood she promised would flow.

The third group category of people responsible for the deleterious climate in France today is France's political class, which has spent years embroiled in spiteful and violent 'debate', for want of a better word, and mutual insult, all of which has triggered a mimetic reaction in French society. The biggest offenders here at the moment are certain anti-gay marriage members of the right-of-centre UMP opposition party. Some of them, including party leader Jean-François Copé, attended Manif Pour Tous demonstrations knowing full well that they were likely to end in violence, which they then blamed on 'government provocation'. They promised to scrap gay marriage if elected in 2017 and - in a break from republican tradition - some of them even called for demonstrations to continue even though the law has been voted. Some mayors have said that they will refuse to celebrate gay marriages and there have been vague calls from the right about 'continuing the resistance' and 'civil disobedience'. The left has generally been less provocative lately, although they too have a history of inflammatory statements. One example that nobody will forget here was the 2007 call by Ségolène Royal for people to "take to the streets" to protest against the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who had just trounced her in what was after all a democratic election. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is another left-winger with a reputation for fiery provocation, and his language is peppered with words such as 'revolt', 'revolution' 'a people's uprising' and others. Hardly a week goes by without some politician using words such as 'fascist', 'Nazi', 'collaborator', 'Vichyist', 'gas chambers' and others to describe their opponents and their policies. More sickeningly still they have all, left and right, been using Méric's murder to score cheap political points and recuperate the event since it occured. The atmosphere in French politics has been getting more and more violent over time, with hate-filled diatribes and appeals for civil disobedience by politicians of the right and extreme right finally becoming the norm. They have no shame, and they refuse to accept their part of the responsibility for the social and political climate in which Méric's killing took place.

Finally, bad enough as all this is, yet another element been whipping people up into a frenzy. Its name? The French media. Extremists of all colours crave platforms of expression and media exposure - without which they would be much less effective - and the press has been generously dishing out all the coverage they desire. TV debates featuring politicians who are known to despise each other are common. Viewers lap up these vulgar spectacles, in which politicians insult and shout at each other, walk off the set, treat journalists appallingly and generally behave like the foul-mouthed louts they are. Audience figures are sky-high and everyone is happy. The press publishes sensationalist headlines and interviews with extremists of both left and right, and contentious subjects are the object of countless articles of a polarising nature. The press has also played a part in the climate of hate and fear which led to this week's murder.

The murder of Clément Méric for reasons linked to political hatred was a despicable act, but worse still, it was both predictable and ultimately inevitable due to the underlying reasons which formed the backdrop to it. If French society fails to rein in the excesses of extremist groups, French politicians and the press soon it is only a matter of time before someone else is killed for similar motives.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Demonstration in Lyon in homage to Clément Méric, murdered in Paris by fascists

Clément Méric was a young left-wing militant who was attacked in Paris last night by members of a well-known fascist group here in France. He was declared brain-dead on admission to hospital and he died this afternoon.

Demonstrations in honour of Méric's memory expressing their disgust with the current upsurge in extreme-right violence in France have been held today in several French cities, including Lyon, where I live. I went down to the demo, which ended peacefully, and took some photos. Here are a few of them.

What do I think of all this? These are just photos of a demo, but don't worry, I'll be back tomorrow with another post with my thoughts and opinions on this ignominious attack and its implications for France. And that post shall take no prisoners....

The victim.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

A major political party in one of the world's largest democracies says it's 'learning about democracy'. Jesus...

Copé with his 'studiously interested' look on
Meeaaanwhile, Jean-François Copé, President of France's main opposition party, the right-of-centre UMP, came out with a stupifying, almost surreal, statement today.

His party introduced a primary system a while back in an effort to modernise and get rid of the dreadful in-fighting which was characterising each internal election (not that the Socialists are any better mind).

The first primary came a few months back when they elected Copé as party president. It led to fierce rows in the UMP and accusations that Copé had cheated, and the atmosphere in the party is still poisoned today by that affair.

This weekend sees the UMP's second primary, in which they are to elect a candidate for the upcoming Paris mayoral election, and, once again, there are accusations of cheating being flung around by the candidates like confetti at a wedding. Awful spectacle.

Anyway, Copé did a TV interview this morning, during which he explained away the squabbles and allegations of cheating in his party by saying that
'We're learning about democracy. It's quite new to us.' 
So. Let me see if I've got this right. Here we have the edifying spectacle of the leader of a political party which hopes to be elected to run one of the worlds largest democratic countries after the next presidential elections blithely informing the French that they are LEARNING ABOUT DEMOCRACY' and that it's a NEW thing to them??!!


Non mais putain, on est pas sortie de l'auberge c'est sûr....