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.

The Americanization of French Presidential Campaigns

Oh no, it’s happening in Paris too.  Just when the US presidential campaign is almost over and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief; the French contest is starting and local TV is trying a new thing – producing political “shows a l’américaine”.  I saw one last week and couldn’t believe my eyes or ears.  It was a horrible harbinger, an omen of how bad the French presidential campaign just might become.

The name of the show is “Une Ambition Intime,” which translates to “A Private Ambition.”

This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.
This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.

The presenter is a beautiful, sexy lady named Karine Le Marchand, who usually hosts a popular reality show where she helps French farmers find love in the comfort of their own home.  (It’s called “L’Amour Est dans Le Pré” or “Love is in the Field”.)  She oversees the matchmaking of the contestants and interviews them in their country surroundings.  It’s a stretch to go from hosting a heartfelt, love-farm program to interviewing political candidates.  However, Karine does it while sitting on a couch and drinking wine.  She even makes the politicians cry and give up family secrets.  So, in the end, it’s not such a stretch.  And, in the end, it made me cry too – but for different reasons.

Karine Le Marchand is the producer of this show. Television rumor has it that she threatened to quit if the M6 channel, which broadcasts the program, didn’t give her the chance to host something else besides the Farmer takes a Wife.  The first airing of “Une Ambition Intime” received some bad reviews but the head of M6, Nicolas de Tavernost, defended Karine’s show saying that people would be surprised at the number of politicians who want a place on Madame Le Marchand’s sofa (that’s right; that’s what he said).  He added that he was proud of her.  Critics claimed that Karine doesn’t know anything about politics.  However, knowledge of French politics is irrelevant since, in “A Private Ambition,” Karine exposes the human side of the presidential candidates or, rather, lets them expose themselves.  A lot.

Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.
Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.

The objective of the program is to unveil another facet of the presidential candidate – one the audience would not see on a typical political program.  There is absolutely no discussion of current issues, social problems, the deficit, security or jobs.  Karine Le Marchand doesn’t grill the candidate as to what the basis of their political platform is and how he or she would accomplish their goals.  Instead, with sappy pop music in the background, (appropriately chosen by her 13-year-old daughter), Karine coyly asked the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, if she should call him “Nicolas” or “Mr. President”.

She cuddled up on the couch; poured him a glass of red wine and asked him about the ladies in his life.  He told her he had an “enormous track record” with women and she then asked if that was the only “enormous” thing he had.  She followed that with a pathetically fake giggle.

It got worse.  There were three more candidates to go.  The emotional highlight of Arnaud Montebourg’s interview was when he got all teary-eyed thinking of his premature baby.    The next candidate, Bruno Lemaire, shed tears when he talked about his wife (she’s fine, by the way).  Then Karine Le Marchand had a conversation in the garden this time (no couch) with Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate.  With Marine, she evoked favorite recipes and flowers and commiserated about how both Karine and Marine are single moms.  She offered wine again (white wine, this time) and they toasted to life.

Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get "cozy".
Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get “cozy”.

Madame Le Pen went on to talk about her difficult, if not impossible, relationship with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who used to be the head of the National Front party.  She threw him out of the party a few months ago and they haven’t spoken since.  Marine said that was an extremely painful thing to do – second only to childbirth.  Wow.

That politicians have turned into entertainers in the United States is not a new phenomenon.  But this is new is for France and, personally speaking, I hope it stops right here.  However, “A Private Ambition” attracted 3.1 million viewers; that’s 14% of the Sunday evening market so it looks like it will probably continue.  The French are voluntarily lowering their standards of political campaigning and the candidates are letting them do it.  Why, oh why, did these potential presidents agree to do such a program?  They could have all nipped this trend in the bud by just saying no.

Let’s hope that one day we will all pick our presidents in the same way we choose a doctor.  For example, if you were going to have a knee operation, would you care about your surgeon’s romantic liaisons?  About his or her favorite recipes, gardening talents, musical preferences?

Let's talk about skills, not stories, please.
Let’s talk about skills, not stories, please.

No, there’s no time for silly small talk and, truthfully, you would just want a skilled professional with experience.  You would probably check out his team; the reputation of the clinic; his or her surgical success rate.  Let’s face it, we’re all human and we all have stories.  But, when it comes to deciding who will govern a country, there are some stories we just don’t need to hear.

The Disrespecting Women Effect in Presidential Elections

Everyone I have spoken to about the upcoming US presidential election, both in France and America, is shocked at the incredibly low level our presidential debates have sunken to.  The French news media broadcast both debates live but it’s really the second one that is the most embarrassing.  You see, when you’re an American living in Paris, your French friends and family feel it’s absolutely necessary to badger you with their opinions and questions about the elections.

The candidates in the second round of low-level debates.
The candidates in the second round of low-level debates.

They ask you how Donald Trump could have been nominated in the first place; why do Americans dislike Hillary Clinton so much; how does the electoral college work; why don’t the candidates talk about their policies during the debates; why is sex so important in the election and on and on.  Explaining the electoral college system to the French is boring and useless so I’ll just skip it.  Let’s talk about sex – and its part in both French and American recent and future elections.

The latest sexual development in the American campaign is, of course, the sound track of Donald Trump’s offensive comments regarding having a license to grab women’s private parts.  This caused Republicans like Paul Ryan and John McCain to withdraw their support of Trump, saying he had crossed the line.  This also gave hope to Hillary supporters who believe that the indecisive voters will now be on her side or not vote at all – which in the end is good for her.  I just want to remind everyone that Trump crossed the line with racist comments many months ago.  He also insulted families of soldiers who have died for their country.  But fellow Republicans didn’t raise an eyebrow until he was exposed as a sexual aggressor.  Just goes to show how women, or rather disrespecting women, could make or break this election.

Presidential candidate hopeful DSK being arrested in New York City.
Presidential candidate hopeful DSK being arrested in New York City.

Now the French have their sexually-related political problems too.  Remember Dominique Strass-Kahn?  He was the Director of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) who was supposed to have run as the Socialist candidate for president of France in 2012 but encountered a major obstacle in 2011. That was when he was taken off an Air France plane in New York and arrested in connection with the alleged rape of a hotel maid.  His subsequent trial and eventual settlement blew his chances for political success and cleared the way for Francois Hollande’s win in May of 2012. Another potential-president bit the dust due to a woman-related issue.

Again back in the USA, the Trump campaign is hitting Hillary hard with claims that Bill Clinton has sexually attacked and abused women for many years.  The fact that Bill Clinton is not running for president doesn’t seem to deter Mr. Trump.  For the second debate, he brought in three women, Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey who have all alleged that Mr. Clinton sexually assaulted them

Trump and the women who claim Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them.
Trump and the women who claim Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them.

during different points of his career.  Their claims range from sexual harassment to rape.  Mr. Trump thought he would show that Hillary is not a defender of women’s rights.  He said and I quote, “Hillary was an enabler and she attacked the women who Bill Clinton mistreated afterward.”  The second debate seemed like more of a reality-show-gone-horribly-bad or, even worse, a horribly bad TV show that suddenly becomes real.  I have never seen anything so hard to watch.

The French have now begun their debates in view of the presidential elections which will take place in May of 2017.  France is hosting primaries for the first time in its political history and the first meeting of seven candidates of the center-right party was held this week.  It was a tame, polite meeting compared to the Trump-Clinton debates, but it’s only the beginning.

The first French Presidential primary debate - a calm affair - for now.
The first French Presidential primary debate – a calm affair – for now.

The current president, Francois Hollande, has not yet announced his candidacy and will not do so until December.  That makes for only five months of French political campaigning, which seems like heaven at this point.  Women-wise, we’ll see what happens.  So far, so good, no major sexual scandals have emerged.  But, like I said, it’s just the beginning.

The French Work Ethic – Something to Sing About

The French often get a bad rap for their work ethic, or, rather, what the outside world sees as a lack of one.  They are usually shown demonstrating on the streets of Paris and other major cities; striking or threatening to do so or just plain old vacationing.

The French take to the streets - often.
The French take to the streets – often.

(After all, they have between five to nine weeks a year during which they can spend their free time.  And they do spend it, proudly.)  The French also take long lunches; hardly work on Sundays (since Labor Laws prohibit them from doing so) and are not ashamed to call in sick. Good for them.

With all this free time to enjoy themselves, it seems strange not to see smiling faces when you walk around the city.  That’s a Parisian paradox I still don’t understand – the fact that the French can stay home from work and get paid for it should make them jump for joy.  But that’s just not the case.  They are a discreet, dressed-in-black, serious bunch.  Last night, however, I saw about two thousand French men, women and children dancing and singing like crazy.  What were they all excited about?  Work, of course.  Well, actually, not working.  But smoking, lots of smoking.  Let me explain.

It was a Pink Martini concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris that inspired this fit of French celebration.  Firstly, let me tell you that the Olympia Theater in itself is a French musical icon of the highest order.  It opened in 1888, founded by Joseph Oller, the creator of the Moulin Rouge.  As you might have guessed, it is very red and has a sublime art deco theme. All the people who work there are extremely pleasant, doing their best to make you feel welcome.

The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.
The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.

The Olympia hosts rock bands, pop music, jazz and comedy.  I will name just a few of the legends who have played there and you will understand how important this stage is to the musical world – Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Marlene Dietrich, the Beatles, Charles Aznavour, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, the Grateful Dead and on and on.  And last night, it was Pink Martini.

Pink Martini is an American jazz/pop/eclectic musical orchestra based in Portland, Oregon, whose first album, “Sympathique” included a song in French that rejoiced in not working.  The title means “Nice” in English.  The chorus, the popular refrain of the song translates to: “I don’t want to work, I don’t want to have lunch, I only want to forget and so, I smoke.”  The intro describes a hotel room in the form of a cage and the sun that’s filtering in through the windows – and the urge to light up a cigarette.

Some of the lyrics to “Sympathique” (also known as “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler”) were taken from a poem called “Hotel” written in 1913 by the famous French poet,

Apollinaire's take on happiness.
Apollinaire’s take on happiness.

Guillaume Apollinaire. The rest of the lines were penned by the Pink Martini bandleader, Thomas Lauderdale, and the group’s singer, China Forbes.  However, the smoking instead of working idea was definitely Apollinaire’s.  “Sympathique” quickly became an international phenomenon, nominated for the “Song of the Year” award and France’s “Victoires de la Musique” in 2000.  The French car company, Citroen, used it for the soundtrack of an extremely popular television commercial for its Xsara Picasso model. (You can watch the video of that ad at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiDoOMXNdg8).

In the course of the evening, Pink Martini performed many wonderful, catchy numbers but none of them could get the French spectators out of their seats and into the aisles of the gorgeous Olympia concert hall. Staying put is pretty much business-as-usual for French

Pink Martini - the group that got the French moving.
Pink Martini – the group that got the French moving.

concert-goers.  They don’t move much.  In fact, they usually yell at the people in front of them who stand up and start gyrating.  They want them to sit down and stop twirling so they can sit comfortably and see the musicians on stage.  In this case, in the “I-don’t-want-to-work” theme song case, the French audience really got into it.  They spread out.  They were everywhere.  They ran from the balcony to the orchestra seats and onto the stage – singing and dancing, dragging their children along with them.  It was fun to see them so happy and exuberant.  Even if the inspiration for this was all about not working and even if they would be snarling in the streets the next day.  For one night, just this one night, they were all happy campers.