Paris Hires Birds of Prey to Lead the Pigeon War

Ah, the French.  They really know how to surprise you.  This time it doesn’t have anything to do with food, fashion or sex.  This time it’s about bringing in aerial Top Guns to fight a new war – the war on pigeons. And there are no holds barred.

The municipal government of the 10th district of Paris has hired five birds of prey, a team of three buzzards and two falcons, for a short-term contract of 10 days during the month of October.  This operation will cost the taxpayers 2500 euros a day (about $3000).  It’s a simple work contract with only one objective.

A bird of prey who might soon be a civil servant.
A bird of prey who might soon be a civil servant.

These vultures were hired to scare the pigeons away.  That’s it.  All they have to do is show up and screech; flap their wings; maybe insult the pigeons a bit and fly to Town Hall to collect their paycheck! Not a bad gig.

This isn’t the first time that professional raptors have been used to harass Parisian pigeons.  The Roland Garros Tennis Open has already called upon their services to ensure that there are no pigeon droppings on the clay courts during the renowned tournament. It is estimated that there are several thousand pigeons living in the nearby Bois de Boulogne, the woods that border the tennis courts. An experienced team of ten peregrine falcons were enough to keep those birds away.  These raptors can dive at a speed of up to 200 miles per hour. It’s a good thing they’re targeting pigeons and not people – otherwise a tennis “smash” would have a completely different meaning.

A master falconer and avian coach.
A master falconer and avian coach.

“Merlyn” is the name of the company that trains these birds of prey to chase away the gangs of pigeons that have taken over the ledges of social housing complexes near rue Buisson Saint-Louis in the 10th district of Paris.  The local authorities have tried traditional methods but they were ineffective.  “Merlyn” uses no chemicals and, in so doing, is politically correct.  The master falconer even came to a town meeting last week to introduce the Parisians to the scavengers who will be working for them (meaning the birds, of course).  It all seems so strange that in a country with a 9.6% unemployment rate, the focus is on employing animals and not humans.  However, when you see that the pigeon war costs the Parisians 150,000 euros annually (about $175,000), you can understand that something needs to be done.

I have a couple of questions about this avian operation.  First of all, is it guaranteed?  What happens if it doesn’t work?  Do the raptors give the money back?  Who’s going to ask them for it?  Secondly, isn’t this just displacing the problem?  I mean, really.  The birds of prey swoop in and disperse the pigeons in the 10th district.  Where do you think they will go?  To Belgium? No, they’ll go to a neighboring district where there are no flying falcons.  The pigeon problem won’t go away; it’ll just move slightly north, south, east or west but it’s still a Parisian problem.  A big one.

There are more than 80,000 pigeons in Paris – that’s one bird for every 25 inhabitants.  Though they were useful as messengers in World War I and II, messaging jobs have long been outsourced to high technology.  Now, they just spread disease and disrespectfully poop on the population.  But I think there is a solution that would work from the ground up.  This would involve the Parisians following rules, which is not an easy task.

You see, there is a law on the French books that prohibits pigeon feeding.  pigeon-feederIt is punishable with a fine up to 450 Euros ($485).  But the typical urban outlaw pigeon feeder, who probably thinks he is doing a good deed, doesn’t respect the law.  He or she will even sneak out at night to scatter a bread crumb breakfast for pigeons in public parks.  This practice encourages pigeon overcrowding, competition, aggression and perhaps even disease. Does he care about all that?  Not at all.  But now that the city is giving out work contracts to birds instead of people, he might give his nighttime habits a second thought.  For the good of the French economy.

How the French Election Contributed to the Globalization of Glee

Using the words “happy” and “French” in the same sentence rarely makes any sense but when the new president’s name, Emmanuel Macron, was announced on Sunday, 66% of the French voter population screamed with joy.  (Well, maybe a few of them screamed with relief but it was a blissful sound nonetheless.)  Mr. Macron, the Centrist Independent candidate defeated Marine Le Pen, the National Front contender.  The presidential campaign had been full of diabolical twists and turns.  Macron came out of nowhere and Le Pen came out of hatred and populism.  But, suddenly on Sunday, the French broke into a collective smile – a genuine one at that.

Ecstatic French voters at Macron's victory announcement.
Ecstatic French voters at Macron’s victory announcement.

The French were not alone in their euphoria.  The whole world seemed to join in this Globalization of Glee as congratulations poured in from all over Europe, Asia and even from the USA.  It was a landslide victory for a 39-year-old man who, until three years ago, was an unknown entity on the French political scene.  The polls had him favored to win but only by a slight margin.  Twelve million voters abstained, which was clearly a sign in Le Pen’s favor.  Four million more voted blank (but we wouldn’t know that until the evening) and another million voters “spoiled” their ballots.  However, 75% of eligible French voters cast their ballot and overwhelmingly repudiated hate and nationalism.  I want to address those voters and simply say Merci, Merci, Merci!

Firstly, thank you for restoring hope and good sense to this world.  All eyes were on France for this important election and you came through for us.  After Brexit and Trump, we knew a Far-Right French president would mean the unequivocal end to Europe and the beginning of social uncertainty. You saved us from that – at least for the next five years.

Secondly, thanks for your electoral system.  I know you think it was a long, annoying haul listening to the eleven politicians who ran for president but it was relatively short compared to the years of campaigning we go through in the USA.

The French voting system is surprisingly simple.
The French voting system is surprisingly simple.

It was just a question of months here in France.  You had only one primary for the Socialist party and one for the Republican party.  There were only two weeks between the first and final round of the presidential elections.  The new president won by a simple majority of votes.  A vote in Lille counted as much as a vote in Paris.  No electoral college.  Just old-fashioned, simple arithmetic.  And, the icing on the presidential cake, is that there is only one week between the election and the inauguration of the new president.  One week! Emmanuel Macron was elected on May 7th; he’ll take office on May 14th and nobody cares about who will be singing at his inauguration.

Thirdly, thank you for your election media coverage.  Although some channels are getting a bit “Americanized,” the overwhelming majority of French journalists and presenters are serious characters who do their homework.  They ask relevant questions and cover pertinent issues.  There are times when guests talk over each other during a discussion and no one can understand anything but they are still addressing political issues.  None of your journalists gossiped about anyone’s family members during the campaign.  When there was a wiki leaks story concerning one of the candidates two days before the election, you journalists decided not to make a big deal of it.  Such a welcome change.

No wonder "The Thinker" is French!
No wonder “The Thinker” is French!

Another thing I want to thank you for is your arrogance and unwavering intellectual superiority.  I know that might sound strange but the fact that critical thinking is in the French DNA can be a good thing.  It might also be exasperating and rude but, in this case, it worked for the common good.  You didn’t take the easy road of populism.  You spent some time and brainpower thinking your way through a complicated, divisive and serious situation.  You decided that even though the choices were not perfect, the consequences of a far-right president were too dreadful to let this happen.  You elected an intelligent person who reads and writes.  We elected a person who tweets.

And finally, French voters, thank you for embarrassing Donald Trump and the Americans in general.  Trump did send a congratulatory tweet to Mr. Macron but we all know he would have welcomed Marine Le Pen with open arms, considering her to be a blonde, French version of himself.  He would have insisted he helped her get elected.  He might even have planned a trip to Paris to see his imaginary friend “Jim.”

Merci beaucoup!
Merci beaucoup!

Thanks for showing the world that the USA is not the political center of the universe.  And, in the end, thank you for being so…French!

Mommy and Daddy Issues in the 2017 French Presidential Election

There are officially two candidates left standing in France’s extremely unpredictable May 7th presidential election – Emmanuel Macron for the center and Marine Le Pen for the far-right.  It’s going to be a historically close race.  And even though the candidate is supposed to be running alone and their family members shouldn’t matter, we all know that’s just not true.  Last week, Francois Fillon lost his bid for the presidency due to (among other things) the “Penelopegate” scandal where he was accused of using public funds to provide a fictional job for his wife, Penelope.  This week, no one cares about Penelope. This week, we care about Mommy and Daddy.

Let’s talk about “Mommy” first.  The media is paying a lot of attention to Emmanuel Macron’s wife, Brigitte Trogneux.  Brigitte is 64 and Emmanuel is 39.  They have been married for 10 years.

Young drama student Emmanuel Macron with his drama coach and future wife.
Young drama student Emmanuel Macron with his drama coach and future wife.

They have no children together but Brigitte has seven grandchildren.  So, the young Presidential candidate is already a step-grandfather.  They met when he was a student at a private Jesuit school where she was teaching.  She was his drama coach; they adapted a play together when he was 15 and she was 40.  He said he knew right then and there that he wanted to marry her and he eventually did.  A little bit unconventional?  Yeah, maybe, but that guy knows what he wants and went out and got it. I like that.  But not everybody does.

Now that Mr. Macron might be President, his wife is being seen as a cougar, a predator, someone who abused her position of trust as his teacher.  A tacky Taiwanese video portrays Brigitte ambling up the wedding aisle with a walker.  Another campaign alleges that Emmanuel Macron is a homosexual.  And, of course, there’s the more classic Oedipus complex angle of the man being in love with his mother.  Would any of these theories even matter if he were 25 years older than her?  Of course not.  Unfortunately, ageism and sexism are still alive and well and rearing their ugly heads during this election campaign.

Brigitte Trogneux (she didn’t take the Macron name when they were married) is the inspiration behind her husband’s bid for the French Presidency.  She is his trusted coach, his adviser – handling his agenda and helping him

Mr. Macron and his wife Brigitte in 2017.
Mr. Macron and his wife Brigitte in 2017.

with his speeches.  Emmanuel Macron constantly acknowledges her importance to him.  “Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am,” he has said.  The attention that the age difference is getting is turning out to be a distraction, one that his “En Marche” center party doesn’t need in the last remaining days before the election.  Hopefully, the French can look beyond that when they cast their ballot.

Now let’s walk over to the far-right side and talk about Daddy.  Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate, is the youngest daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.  He is 89 years old; has run the party for four decades and founded it on racist, hateful, xenophobic tenets.  He was suspended from the party in 2011 after publicly stating that the gas chambers were just a “detail” of World War II.  Madame Le Pen’s Daddy is a polarizing figure in French politics who loves to be hated.  He was convicted 15 times and has paid more than 30,000 Euros in fines for hate speeches.  Marine claims she is “estranged” from her father.  But is she?  And, if she is, what does that say about her?

Marine Le Pen markets herself as the Populist candidate, the person who will speak for the working class of France.  She claims to understand the ordinary guys and is not one of the present “bourgeois elite”

Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie before their Family Feud.
Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie before their Family Feud.

who govern this country.  However, her Daddy inherited 5 Million Euros (about $5,450,000) and an 11-room mansion in 1977.  The donor was Hubert Lambert of Lambert Cement, a wealthy French Industrialist and an ardent National Front supporter who wanted Jean-Marie to become president one day.  (Mr. Le Pen ran for President and lost five times – in 1974, 1988, 1995, 2002 and 2007).  Without this generous donation from a bourgeois elitist, the National Front Party would not exist.  Marine Le Pen clearly benefited and continues to benefit from this political inheritance.   Daddy, in a roundabout financial way at least, is the source of her rise to power.  So why is she trying to distance herself from him?  Why doesn’t she talk to him or answer his messages?

Marine Le Pen is trying to win a more moderate part of the French electorate.  Daddy gets people angry and she doesn’t want that.  She wants votes – this time enough votes to win the presidency.  She has toned down the racist hate-talk that her Daddy is famous for, but is still representing the National Front party, the one that has xenophobia and racism as its base.  If she really wanted a more moderate platform, why didn’t she just start her own party and divorce Daddy completely?  It’s an easy-enough thing to do in France.  Emmanuel Macron started his own party, as did seven other initial presidential candidates.  When Marine Le Pen won the first round, she didn’t mention Daddy.

And the winner is.....
And the winner is…..

He texted her a congratulatory note, she didn’t answer.  She also avoided him on May 1st, the traditional National Front speech day.  Daddy spoke in front of the Joan of Arc statue in the center of Paris and she picked a venue in a more modest area in the northern part of the city.  She used him to get where she is, a stone’s throw away from the presidency, the biggest Elitist office this country has to offer.

French citizens will go to the polls on Sunday, May 7th.  The whole world will be watching this extremely important election for France and for the future of Europe.  Mommy and Daddy will be watching too.  We’ll have to wait until Sunday to see which one wins.

A Chic and Charming French Touch to TV Infotainment

I usually stay away from French television programs entirely but one show I love to watch is called “Quotidien,” which means “daily.”  And, as you might have guessed, it’s a French, modified version of America’s The Daily Show. It is presented by Yann Barthès, a charming, classy 40-something Frenchman who excels in the business of conversation.  “Quotidien” is a relatively new show on prime-time TV but Yann is not new to television.

Yann Barthes, the charming presenter of the "Quotidien."
Yann Barthes, the charming presenter of the “Quotidien.”

From 2011-2016, he was the impertinent, controversial presenter of “Le Petit Journal,” a satirical news program on Canal Plus.  Due to internal differences, he ultimately left that network and, along with Laurent Bon, co-founded a production company called Bangumi. (“Bangumi” is the Japanese word for TV program.)  The pressure was on for him to succeed in this daily venture and, so far, he has done quite well.  I recently had the opportunity to be part of the live studio audience of “Quotidien” and I jumped at the chance to see how French TV works.  It was interesting, amusing…and oh, so French.

First of all, the formalities for entry into the studio were even more stringent than a visit to the Prefecture of Paris when applying for French citizenship.  Before you could step foot in the building, you had to sign a disclaimer in which you promised to give up your passport or identity card, cell phone and handbag to the Bangumi production

Waiting in the first of many lines at the TV studio.
Waiting in the first of many lines at the TV studio.

company for the time you were in the studio.  You also gave permission to the company to make a copy of your passport.  You agreed to actively participate in the “Quotidien” (meaning applauding when they tell you to); not get paid for it and, especially important, you agreed to behave.  Any sign of trouble and you were out the door, facing a possible civil lawsuit.

The French administrative inefficiency continued as you waited in line to give up your passport to one person (the one who was most likely photocopying it during the show.)  Then, there was another line to surrender all your earthly belongings and cell phone to another person who was stocking them in the coat room.  That’s right, one person only was taking care of about 120 people who would be part of the audience – how efficient is that? Then there was the metal detector passage.  And, finally, you could “hurry up and wait” in the downstairs, sectioned-off lobby.  At least there were restrooms available, a coffee machine and a couple of benches for a lucky few who got there first.

After about a thirty-minute wait in the brouhaha of anticipation, we were finally shuttled in to the real television studio and placed on the rock-hard, grandstand seats.  We had a coach, a friendly-enough guy with a hat who explained how to laugh and when to applaud.  We practiced clapping with him and then he went around reprimanding the gum chewers.  It was a relaxed, summer-camp ambiance – until I heard a camera man yell at an apprentice for not having anything on hand to clean his camera lens.

The set of the French TV show, "Quotidien."
The set of the French TV show, “Quotidien.”

The young man was 17 at the most and ran off the set embarrassed as hell as his mentor loudly complained about how “stupid” the kid was.  Ah, the joys of the French teaching approach of shaming students.  Even outside of the classroom.

When Yann Barthès came on the set, everyone applauded spontaneously (although we had been told before only to applaud on cue).  You could see he was well-liked by this group of viewers and by the other 1.2 million fans who were watching him on TMC (Tele Monte Carlo).  He was pleasant, natural and professional.  Once the program got off the ground, he was at ease and in charge of all the topics and guests.  It was an eclectic program too, that included interviews with young National Front voters (France’s far-right party led by Marine Le Pen); a conversation with Melania Trump’s make-up artist; conversations with an actress and director of the movie “Grave” based on cannibalism; a talk with a Canadian stand-

Garance Marillinier, the star of the French cannibal film "Grave" ("Raw in English).
Garance Marillinier, the star of the French cannibal film “Grave” (“Raw in English).

up comic, Sugar Sammy and a report on the “Salon du Bébé.”  Yann supposedly has carte blanche on the content of the program “Quotidien” and he uses it to blend a cocktail of news, comedy, culture and human interest stories.  He is serious when he needs to be but knows that a little bit of light-hearted “Infotainment” can go a long way in the TV business.  I appreciated the fact that, unlike other talk show hosts, Yann doesn’t come across as the Star.  The star of the “Quotidien” is its unique mix of news and humor – a breath of fresh air in French TV programming.

When the show ended, French administrative inefficiency reared its ugly head just as strongly as it had in the beginning.  The staff shuffled us all back into the hall where we waited for up to an hour to get back our phones, bags and passports.  There were several other team members standing around looking important, but only one person to return the bags and another person to return the passports.  Happy to say, though, that there was a little bonus for us on the way out.  We all got a “Quotidien” sticker for good behavior.  I must admit that the Prefecture of Paris would not give you that.

Francois Fillon Turns the Tables in the French Presidential Election

With only seven weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, no one is talking policy.  Everyone is talking “Fillon” instead.  And all the conversations and predictions are about whether this candidate should stay or go.  Three days ago, 100 political chiefs deserted him.

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe just says No to Plan B.
Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe just says No to Plan B.

Yesterday, the Plan B candidate, Alain Juppe, officially proclaimed he would not run.  So today, Francois Fillon is back – and it looks like he’s going to stay.  His strategy is just to keep standing and let the others come and go as they please.  That seems to be working for him.  Is it working for France?  Only time and votes will tell.

Fillon hosted a rally on March 4th in Paris to insist publicly that he is still the Presidential hopeful.  The Fillon team said there were 200,000 people in attendance.  Now, that’s the French version of fake news since Trocadero, where the rally was held, can only hold 45,000 people, according to the French police. Polls show that more than 70% of French voters want Fillon to withdraw his candidacy.  They want him to resign; name a replacement and ride off into the sunset of a possible indictment that is facing him.  But, just like the Elton John song, he’s still standing.  Here’s how all this unprecedented mess started.

Penelope and Francois Fillon very much in the public eye.
Penelope and Francois Fillon very much in the public eye.

Back in November, 2016, Francois Fillon won the first-ever Republican party primary with a healthy score of 44%.Things were looking good for him and the party in general. Since this was the first time for a primary, no one thought about what happens if the candidate gets into a legal scandal before the election.  As it stands, the only exit for acandidate would be a resignation letter.  However, Mr. Fillon is adamant that he is in for the long-haul.  The scandal  he is now in is being called “PenelopeGate.”  He is supposedly about to be charged with creating fictitious employment for his wife Penelope (to the tune of almost a million euros, pretty much the same amount in dollars).  The suspicious employment he gave to two of his children while they were law students is also on the judge’s table.

So, for the French right party, the Republican Party, Francois Fillon is a candidate who might (or might not) be indicted on March 15th when he is summoned to court.  The far-right populist candidate, Marine Le Pen, has also been summoned for financial dealings concerning two members of her staff but she has “solved” her problem by saying she simply won’t go.  On the left side of the government, Francois Hollande, the current president, bowed out of the Socialist primary.  He chose not to run for the “good of the party” since all polls were saying he was sure to lose.  The Socialists had their scandal just before the last election in 2012 but theirs was a sexual one.  Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the left front-runner for president, was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York back in May 2011. He subsequently spent a night in Rikers prison and settled the civil case out of court for an undisclosed amount. The accompanying disgrace ended his chances of running for president and that’s when Francois Hollande came into the picture.  He was Plan B for the Socialists in 2012.

Mr. Fillon is now being compared to Trump..
Mr. Fillon is now being compared to Trump..

 

The French media like to compare their presidential candidates to Trump.  Up to now, they were consistently doing this only for Marine Le Pen.  She is France’s Populist candidate on the far-right. She is consistently anti-immigration; anti-European and anti-Muslim. However, this week, the media has started to compare Francois Fillon to Donald Trump since he attacked the judicial system which he feels is attacking him (something equivalent to Trump’s tweet about the “so-called judges” who stopped his Executive travel ban order).  Mr. Fillon also staged his public “feel-good” rally in Trump fashion and urged his supporters to “resist,” to “fight this strange combat” along with him.

 

Francois Fillon's latest Motto.
Francois Fillon’s latest Motto.

After Fillon’s anti-justice system declaration, his spokesperson resigned; his campaign manager bailed and many elected officials said that Fillon had “crossed the line.”  They all point to the fact that Fillon initially said he would pull out of the presidential race if there were to be a formal investigation.  There is a formal investigation and Fillon is still running.  France is on political hold.  The only thing is sure at this point is that Fillon is the candidate for the conservation Republican party.  He has managed to “divide and conquer” his party — just by running in place.

PenelopeGate – A New Feminine Twist on French Political Scandal

There’s another political scandal blazing in France and this time it doesn’t involve the President taking a ride on a Vespa and paying a nocturnal visit to his girlfriend. It still concerns a woman though, but a woman who has done, and openly admits to doing, nothing. No problem in that, in and of itself, except that she was allegedly paid 831,400 Euros (about $894,000) for that “nothing.” Now that’s a problem.

Francois Fillon, the Presidential candidate for the French Republican party, and the frontrunner, is suddenly

Penelope Fillon out and about in Paris.
Penelope Fillon out and about in Paris.

embroiled in a situation that is wreaking havoc on his party and the whole country.  Mr. Fillon is accused of falsely employing his wife, Penelope Fillon, as a Parliamentary assistant over several years and paying her an enormous sum of money – from public funds.  There is nothing illegal about employing family members in the French political system (nepotism is welcome here).  What the voters are upset about is that it seems there is no proof that she actually worked in the Parliament.  There is no trace of a badge, no pay slips, no one remembers seeing her working in the wings of the Parliament building.  Adding to this is the alleged salary of 84,000 Euros (about $90,000) that Mr. Fillon paid to two of his adult children for their legal advice.  Again, hiring family members as lawyers is not illegal, however, his children were not yet qualified lawyers when they were paid.  They were still students.

Before the investigative French newspaper “Canard Enchainé” broke the story, Francois Fillon was the morally irreproachable man of the hour.  He won the Republican primary by a landslide.  He had been the Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy and was the perfect candidate from the right to replace the Socialist President, Francois Hollande.

Fillon family at their French chateau.
Fillon family at their French chateau.

His solid, Catholic family was picture-perfect – married for 37 years to the same woman, Penelope, who is of Welsh origin.  They are both in their early 60’s and have five children.  They live in an honest-to-goodness chateau in the Sarthes region of France.  In the rare television or newspaper interviews that Penelope has given, she has always talked about how she was just an ordinary housewife bringing up her children and letting Francois handle the political stuff.  In October 2016, she was quoted as saying, “Up until now, I have never been involved in the political life of my husband.”  Unfortunately, she is very involved now, and may be the reason that her husband’s political life might soon be over.

So, what’s happening now in French political circles?  Well, it’s one ill-timed, right-sided mess.  The first round of the presidential election is April 23rd.  Mr. Fillon and his family are being questioned this week.  They could be exonerated of all suspicion or the affair could continue to criminal court, and if that happens, Mr. Fillon could not run for President.  This is not the first time a politician is accused of mis-use of public funds – far from it.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is one happy camper.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is one happy camper.

The problem is the timing.  If Mr. Fillon were President, the government would have to wait until his term was over to take him to Court to settle this accusation.  However, he is only a candidate.  But, he is the only candidate that many French people think could have easily won the Presidential race…that is, until the doors of “PenelopeGate” opened.

Recent polls say that 6 out of 10 voters want Francois Fillon to resign as presidential candidate. Alain Juppe, the mayor of Bordeaux who lost to Mr. Fillon in the primary, has already stated he refuses to be the “Plan B.” The party would have to come up with someone else – but they are running out of time. Meanwhile, this instability definitely helps the other runners.  The ones who are currently left standing are Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU, Trump-loving representative of the National Front party; Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under President Hollande, who is running as an independent; the Socialist rebel and ex-minister of Education, Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the perpetual candidate from the hard-left.

Mr. Fillon's campaign tract calling PenelopeGate a witch hunt.
Mr. Fillon’s campaign tract calling PenelopeGate a witch hunt.

Francois Fillon is on the road campaigning this weekend; claiming this whole deal is a witch hunt, a set-up by his political enemies.  He is asking his supporters to just look at his program but, when they do that, they see he wants to cut 500,000 civil service jobs, which does not look good next to the allegations of paying his wife close to a million euros for allegedly not working at all.

It seems that, at this point, it doesn’t even matter whether or not Fillon mis-used public funds – the damage is already done.  The entire Republican party is in disarray and the Presidential election is around the corner.  How they will get out of this sticky situation is anyone’s guess.  Maybe there’s another woman hanging around on the left who can generate another political scandal.  That seems to be business-as-usual in French (and other) political circles.

Parisians Join US Women’s March the Day after Trump Inauguration

There is usually a honeymoon period after a US presidential election, a time when the new guy can do no wrong; when Americans are happy with their choice and they allow him to get on with the business of governing the country.  However, the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, will have to be content with the honeymoons he has already experienced with his three wives. The unprecedented mass “Women’s March” protests

Women's March took place in more than 60 cities globally.
Women’s March took place in more than 60 cities globally.

held all over the world the day after his inauguration made it perfectly clear that the new woman in his life, the female American electorate, will be watching him very closely.  No honeymoon in sight for the new President. (In fact, his third wife, Melania, has already left Washington DC to return to New York to take care of her “Mom” duties.)

For a man who has tweeted his way into the Presidency, it seems only fitting that the Women’s March Movement started with a social media facebook invitation.  Teresa Shook, a retired attorney and resident of Hawaii, invited forty of her friends to a March on Washington with one little click.  Twenty-four hours later, that one click turned into a group with thousands of names.

The DC crowd itself was estimated at about 500,000 participants; over 700,000 people participated in Los Angeles (the biggest turn-out).  More than 5 million women activists around the world, including 7,000 women in Paris, used the morning after the inauguration to come together and “send a bold message to the new administration on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights.”

A sea of pink as thousands of women sported "pussyhats".
A sea of pink as thousands of women sported “pussyhats”.

If you saw any of the Women’s March photos, you most likely noticed a sea of pink hats bobbing on the horizon.  Those hats come from the Los Angeles based “Pussyhat Project,” where knitters first began crafting little pink caps with cat ears as an angry rebuttal to Trump’s 2005 offensive remarks about grabbing women’s genitalia.  Many of the celebrities who attended and performed at the Marches wore a pussyhat as a symbol of protection of women’s rights.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of the stars in attendance:  Helen Mirren, Gillian Anderson, Jane Fonda, Charlize Theron, Cher, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Fran Drescher, Felicity Huffman, Amy Poelher, Madonna, Ashley Judd, Michael Moore and Scarlett Johansson.  When you consider that celebrities were conspicuously absent from the Presidential Inauguration ceremony and celebration, you have an idea of how divided the USA has become.

But you might wonder why French women (and men)Getty.A-demonstrator-carries-a-sign-reading-Pcame out in support of this American demonstration.  I mean, what happens in the USA stays in the USA, right?  Wrong!  Quite a few women who were interviewed at the Paris March stated that the subject of women’s rights concerns the whole world.  The French have seen female reproductive rights put into jeopardy once again in Poland, Spain and Portugal when those neighboring countries elected conservative leaders. France will be electing a new President this spring and women are worried about the National Front Candidate,

Marine Le Pen, coming into power.  Mme Le Pen is an avid supporter of President Trump. At a recent, unprecedented meeting of Europe’s rightwing party leaders, she was quoted as saying, “His position on Europe is clear. He

National Front Presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, is an avid admirer of Donald Trump.
National Front Presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, is an avid admirer of Donald Trump.

does not support a system of the oppression of peoples.  2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. I am certain 2017 will be the year when the people of continental Europe wake up.”

It’s strange that the organizers of the Parisian Women’s March also alluded to Trump’s election as being a wake-up call for France.  We’ll just have to wait and see which side wakes up first.

Smoking Changes in the City of Light

Happy New Year 2017!
Happy New Year 2017!

The New Year’s Eve fireworks in France not only announce a calendar change – they also proclaim new government legislation such as a price increase in postal stamps, food labelling restrictions or pollution stickers for your automobile.  I chose one of the most significant ones of January 1st 2017 for this blog, the new packaging rules for one of France’s most famous symbols – the almighty cigarette.

Anyone who visits France from the US immediately notices how much the Parisians smoke.  Why?  Because they can.  They can smoke on the street here.  There is a ban on cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants but that just means the smokers get to sit on the terrace (the nicest spot) where supposedly the smoke gets diffused into the atmosphere.  However, if you’re sitting near the terrace, you’re inhaling just as much as the Frenchman puffing away next to you.  And, if you’re walking around Paris and happen to look up, you’ll most likely see someone smoking on their balcony and subsequently throwing the still-lit cigarette butt on the street (or perhaps on you!).  There is supposed to be a 68 Euro fine ($72 dollar) for cigarette littering but the smoker needs to be “caught in the act” by a policeman.  Fat chance of that happening.  This new law is a bit easier to enforce – it obliges all cigarette packaging to be “neutral.”

The reasoning behind this is that it will deter children and young adults from starting to smoke since it won’t be “cool” anymore.  The packs can still have the brand name on them but it has to be in small print and in only one place.

One example of the new mandatory "neutral" cigarette pack.
One example of the new mandatory “neutral” cigarette pack.

Even though the government calls this new packaging “neutral,” that’s not really the case. The shocking photos of black lungs, gray teeth and disgusting purple feet can now occupy up to 65% of the package as compared to only 30% of the older versions.  Marisol Touraine, the French Health Minister claims that 78,000 deaths per year are linked to smoking.  She also said that 33% of teenagers smoke daily.  The new packaging targets that specific population following the adage that the best way to quit smoking is to never start.

As you can imagine, this law was not an easy one to pass here in France, where smoking is a real part of the scenery (just check out the butts on the ground).  The angry Tobacconists’ Union staged several protests in 2016, claiming they would lose a lot of business and the law would be ineffective in reducing the number of smokers in France.  At one point, they dumped, literally dumped, 4 tons of carrots in front of the Senate building.  Why carrots you might ask? Did they want to encourage people to smoke vegetables?  No, it was because the carrot looks like the famous “TABAC” sign, which is their logo. The protests differed the law for a few months and gave the tobacconists an extra six months to sell their stock of cigarettes with the old packaging, but that’s it.  It is now in effect.

Carrots dumped outside the French Senate in protest by the French Tobacconists.
Carrots dumped outside the French Senate in protest by the French Tobacconists.

Some argue that cigarette taxes bring in so much money that it’s worth being nice to the tobacco industry.  Look at all the revenue France would lose if everyone really kept their New Year’s resolution to kick the habit.  The sale of cigarettes brings in about 14 billion Euros yearly. There are 27,000 tobacconists in France who employ 100,000 people.  However, the Health Ministry says that the price of medical care related to smoking costs three times what it brings in.   Australia was the first country to pass the neutral cigarette packaging law, back in 2012.  They claim there is already evidence that it is reducing smoking in the teenage population.  UK and Ireland are on their way to enforcing these same measures.

Will this new measure make any noticeable difference in the smoking population of France?  I sincerely doubt it.  The French are good at “thinking outside the box” (pun intended).

Puffing away in the streets of Paris.
Puffing away in the streets of Paris.

I’m sure they will make more trips to Italy and Spain to buy their cigarettes in their original packaging. They might come up with funky and/or elegant cigarette cases that would appeal to smokers of all ages.  Or the tobacconists can start delivering cigarettes 24/7.  Maybe Uber can begin a new line of service for smokers only and offer cigarettes to their clients instead of water and candy.  My point is, in any case, the inhabitants of the City of Light will never stop lighting up – no matter what laws the government might pass.

Surprising French FaceOff as Presidential Primaries Begin

All I can say is that political polling seems to be really off its rocker in both the USA and France. No one saw Trump coming; most of the polls wrote him off early, but then Voila! – he’s here. A similar thing just happened with Francois Fillon

One Happy French Camper - Francois Fillon.
One Happy French Camper – Francois Fillon.

in the first round of the presidential primaries of the “Republicans,” the center right party of the French government. On November 20th, an unexpectedly high turnout of voters, (4 million Frenchmen and women), surprised all the pundits by putting Francois Fillon at the head of the race and ending Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career.
All the predictions were for Alain Juppe, the mayor of Bordeaux, to come in first; Sarkozy second and Fillon third – but a long way behind Sarkozy. However, the results were 44.1% – Fillon; 28.6% – Juppe and 20.6% – Sarkozy. Since the Cartesian French keep their elections simple, that means Sarkozy is out, and on November 27th, there will be a face-off between Fillon and Juppe. The victor of the run-off, by a simple majority, will be the candidate for the right-wing Republicans. That winner, Fillon or Juppe, will be in the global spotlight until the elections on May 7th 2017 since so many people are looking to see if he will be able to defeat Marine LePen, the far-right, Front National candidate who is hoping to ride the Brexit/Trump wave.
You can read up on these candidates in other political blogs, in this article, I wanted to talk about how this first French Republican presidential primary was conducted. It’s so different from what happens in the USA that it’s worth a closer look. Any registered voter could participate in the primary as long as they signed a “Republican” charter and paid two euros (about $2.12). Here’s what the charter stated, “Je partage les valeurs républicaines de la droite et du centre et je m’engage pour l’alternance afin de réussir le redressement de la France”.

French voters (including Alain Juppe) waiting in line to sign the Charter.
French voters (including Alain Juppe) waiting in line to sign the Charter.

In English, it translates to something like this, “I share the Republican values of the Right and the Center and I am committed to the change of power so that the recovery of France will succeed.” That sounds a bit flowery and, when you analyze it, it’s a pretty general statement, not really requiring a great deal of thought on the voter’s part. Kind of like a “goes without saying” situation. And, after signing the charter, you had to pay.

I, for one, was taken aback by the fact that the French voters had to go to the polls with a two-Euro coin in their collective pocket. (The pre-voting publicity was very clear about not making change nor allowing for electronic payments.) However, after reading about the reasoning behind the contribution, it started to make sense. The primary costs between 6 – 9 million Euros to run. The rules say if the voter contribution

The price to pay for voting in the French primary.
The price to pay for voting in the French primary.

is not enough to pay for those costs, the Republican party will make up the difference. If there is more than enough, the extra amount will go to the winner of the primary to be used in his campaign. Since there were four million voters who contributed two euros each, the costs were largely covered by the eight million that was collected and the lucky winner of the November 27th run-off will get the overflow.  Surprisingly, none of my French friends protested paying to vote in the primary. I can’t even imagine that system being allowed in the US – not even for a second.

So, what happens on the left once the center-right candidate has been chosen? Well, between December 1st and 15th, the Socialist candidates who plan to run for president must make an official announcement.  It’s still not certain if Francois Hollande, the incumbent, will run, since his popularity rating is at an historic all-time low of 4%. The Socialist primary is on January 22nd and the first round of presidential elections on April 23rd. If no candidate has the majority of votes in April, the second and final round between the top two will be held on May 7th 2017. And that’s it, the new French presidential primaries and elections take place within a span of seven months! For once, the French touch is an efficient one. Let’s see if the polls can get this one right. We’ll have to wait and see.

Explaining Inexplicable American Politics to the French

Text messages and phone calls from my French friends started invading my cell phone around midnight on Election Day.  The messages all subscribed to the same theme of extreme surprise and overwhelming curiosity.  “How could Trump even be the nominee?”  “He just won Florida – does that mean he could win the election?”

Texting for political explanations.
Texting for political explanations.

“Will I need a Visa to visit the States now?”  I shut my phone off to gain some extra time.  But I knew, as an American living in Paris, that the French wanted answers.  Answers that could be understood.

Then, the next day, as if explaining how Donald Trump won the Presidency wouldn’t be a daunting-enough task, I saw that Hillary Clinton won the majority of the popular vote.  That meant I had to EXPLAIN the Electoral College, the “only-in-America” voting system, to the demanding French.  You see, when you’re the only American they know here in Paris, they think you know everything.  But I don’t.  So, as a first step, when I finally got my head cleared, I went with the numbers.  Now, that’s something everyone can understand in any language – at least that’s what I thought.

I started returning my phone calls and messages with statistics.  I told the curious French that 46.9% of eligible American voters did not vote (this was less of a voter turnout than in 2012 and 2008).  I told them that Trump got 279 electoral votes; he needed 270 to win.  Clinton got 228, so she lost the electoral votes.  Now, that could look like a big win for Trump.  But, for the popular vote, where every person counts, Hillary beat Trump by 238,087 votes.  That means that Trump got 59,704,847 and Clinton received 59,942,934 votes.

Historical statistics.
Historical statistics.

If the US election followed French rules, Hillary would be President.  And, by that same token, Al Gore would have been named President instead of George W. Bush in 2000 since Al Gore had more than half a million votes over Bush.  I gave my French friends the numbers and they all asked the big question, “Why don’t you Americans change the voting system?  Using the majority system is fair and easy.”

Using the majority system might be easy, but changing the electoral college requires an amendment to the Constitution.  Even though the electoral college began in 1804 and times have changed since then, US lawmakers have only tried once to change it to a direct vote election.  That attempt failed in the Senate by only by 2 votes.  And that was in 1934.  There is another movement, started by John Koza, a computer scientist and lead author of the book “Every Vote Equal.”  Professor Koza has proposed legislation to change to a direct voting system state-by-state, thereby circumventing the need for a constitutional amendment.  Each state would pledge its votes to the winner of the popular vote.

John Koza is the lead author of "Every Vote Equal".
John Koza is the lead author of “Every Vote Equal”.

So far, eleven states have adopted this – not yet enough for repeal of the electoral college.  My French friends scratched their heads in disbelief.  I was getting tired of feeling responsible for the US electoral woes so I changed subjects.

“You know, we voted for some interesting issues on the Presidential ballot,” I told them.  I mentioned how some states voted for the legalization of marijuana.  Now that took them by surprise.  “What, you can do that in America?  Vote for marijuana and the President at the same time?  That’s strange.”  Strange as it may seem, I explained that on November 8th, California, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana use.  Three other states – Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas – voted yes to medical marijuana.  I threw another number at them.

America votes green!
America votes green!

Now 21% of Americans live in a state where there is legal recreational marijuana.  “Put that in your pipe and smoke it,” I added, quoting an age-old expression my mother used to say (though, I must admit, she was never referring to marijuana!)

Talking about the marijuana referendum issues with my French friends was so much more fun than trying to explain the electoral college.  I won’t have to try and deal with our voting system for another four years, when its ugly head will reappear for the next presidential election.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy helping French friends plan their future vacations to California, Nevada or Massachusetts.