Monday, June 11, 2007


As usual during the month of May, the quality of life in France comes to the fore, thanks to public holidays. From April 28th to May 31st, there were three four-day weekends and one three-day weekend ! None of these holidays or long weekends interfered with newly-elected President Sarkozy's initial actions.

Amerloque remembers thinking "Now, it's back to business as usual !" after M Chirac's triumphant re-election as President in 2002, when he obtained a crushing landslide victory over M Jean-Marie Le Pen. The next five years proved that Amerloque's pessimism was well-founded: not too much groundbreaking legislation was passed that would help France cope with its ever increasing problems. Major events during M Chirac's second and final tenure were France's refusal to accompany US intervention in Iraq (Spring, 2003), the French people's rejection of the treaty for the European Constitution (Spring, 2005), and the urban riots (Autumn, 2005). Otherwise things just seemed to putter along as usual, in spite of valiant attempts by M de Villepin, the Prime Minister, to move things along. As in any complex system, changing one parameter influences the system as a whole, and each reform had to be weighed and evaluated as to the desired results as well as to the possible side effects. It became quite clear that reforms take time.

In the weeks since the second round of the presidential election Amerloque has wondered almost every day whether the French came out in their masses to vote for M Sarkozy … or simply hastened to the polls to vote against the somewhat flaky Mme Royal . Certainly M Sarkozy's promise to implement sweeping reforms carries a lot of weight with the French. Those in favor feel that almost every institution in France needs reform. Those against state that only some aspects of French society must be reformed, while the best that French society can offer should be preserved and cherished. Frequently any common ground between the two viewpoints is a bit difficult to locate.

Amerloque - as well as quite a few French people - was a bit surprised by M Sarkozy's initial action after election. Well before the first round, M Sarkozy had stated that in the event of victory he would be going off on a "retreat" (retraite), so as to "inhabit the job" (habiter la fonction). Of course, one had difficulty imagining him haring off immediately upon election to a monastery such as Solesmes or La Grande Chartreuse, but one could easily visualize him quietly resting and mulling things over in a family house out in the country, for example.

What M Sarkozy did was jet off in a private aircraft for a few days' vacation on a luxurious yacht moored in the Mediterranean, a vessel put at his disposal by its owner, one of the more frenetic and rapacious robber barons in France, M Vincent Bolloré. This was quite badly perceived by certain portions of the population, who were already a bit ill at ease with M Sarkozy's penchant for bling and people: "sponsored holidays" and "a form of arrogance and insult" were but two of the epithets hurled at the newly elected President, and not just by the Socialist opposition. Subsequent polls, however, revealed that a majority of the French people didn't hold his three-day escapade against him, although it did contribute to a cynical feeling among those who thought that M Sarkozy was planning to be president of all the French, and not just the incommensurably wealthy.

After such an unpromising beginning, Amerloque wasn't particularly surprised when the members of Prime Minister François Fillon's first Government were announced. M Sarkozy had promised a "rupture" with the past … yet a huge majority of the ministers are chiraquiens and have served in previous governments ! Even more inauspiciously, M Sarkozy could find nothing better than to appoint a convicted criminal as a Minister of State (second in command after the Prime Minister) in charge of Ecology and Sustainable Development and Infrastructure: M Alain Juppé, convicted and sentenced for corruption (abus de confiance, recel d'abus de biens sociaux, et prise illégale d'intérêt) connected with his activities as a political leader and twelve-year stint as Assistant Mayor in charge of finances under the Mayor of Paris - at the time, M Jacques Chirac. An ex-Prime Minister, Juppé was sentenced to fourteen months in prison, suspended, and loss of his electoral eligibility for one year.

During his time in the desert, M Juppé was a guest professor at the École Nationale d'Administration Publique in Montreal, Canada. When the time was up, he came back to Bordeaux, where he had previously been the Mayor. He requested the City Council to resign so that new elections could be held. They did, and M Juppé was re-elected Mayor of Bordeaux in October 2006, suggesting that voters had forgiven him for the conviction. M Juppé resumed his mayoral duties as though there had been no interruption – and is now one of the most powerful ministers in the government.

This is not the first time that a French politician – whether leftist or rightist – has resumed public life after being tried and convicted for corruption or one of its variants. However, the scale of such returns to office (dozens and dozens) is particularly French – it is far removed from the relative handful of convicted politicians who, after serving their sentence(s), have returned to public life in the USA or in the UK. French voters apparently feel that corrupt politicians in question, although he or she has shamelessly betrayed the public trust, have "paid" for their crime(s) - and are perfectly willing to re-elect the miscreant to public office. It has never ceased to amaze Amerloque that, with over 60 million inhabitants, France is still willing to accept that its corrupt politicians return to public life, as though there were not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of equally-qualified individuals ready to serve willingly.

The next surprise to come along was M Sarkozy's official photo, taken this time by a well-known paparazzo rather than an acknowledged artistic master of the genre. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the European flag, that symbol of supranational dominance which has done more harm than good to France (and as a keen observer and participant in French life for decades and decades, Amerloque weighs his words, here), was included in the official photo, which will henceforth be hanging throughout France in government offices and City Halls. The presence of the flag shouldn't, perhaps, have been all that surprising, since M Sarkozy stated immediately upon election that "France is back in Europe". The French have now been forewarned: the "livability", i.e, the quality of life, in France is set to drop even more than it has (in relation to the past in France, and not to other countries, Amerloque hastens to add) since the French voters approved the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Amerloque is tempted to ask if they even knew what they were voting for. M Sarkozy even announced that he was ready to negotiate a new treaty - to take the place of the European Constitutional Treaty rejected by the French people in a referendum - and have the French Parliament approve it, thus making an end run around French misgivings about the wisdom and current form of "Europe".

What put the cherry of unhappiness onto Amerloque's banana split of depression was M Sarkozy's gleeful announcement that he wants to "carry out all the reforms at the same time" (mener toutes les réformes en même temps). A poll stated that 67% of the French people agreed with him.

This augurs ill for France and the French way of life, in Amerloque's view. For decades and decades the French people and their politicians have been fine-tuning French society, so as to achieve a relatively fair sharing out of national wealth, to build and maintain an excellent educational system, and to devise and pay for a superb health care system (to name but three notable accomplishments of the French). There are links between each sector, each program, each social service. Furthermore, strengths and weaknesses must be coldly determined, and not analyzed or compared to some imperfectly understood "American" or "British" or "German" or "Swedish" system, because France is neither the USA, nor the United Kingdom, nor Germany, nor Sweden. Superficially the problem may appear the same, but it isn't: the context is different.

It is not clear at all to Amerloque that M Sarkozy - or the French political class as a whole - has correctly identified and analyzed the "problems" afflicting France, and it is even less clear to Amerloque that the solutions he is proposing will solve the putative "problems" at all. In some cases the latter will be exacerbated: that is blindingly obvious to anyone with any knowledge of the USA and the United Kingdom.

Another way of looking at all this might be from the perspective of cuisine, a subject much appreciated in France. When one wants to prepare a meal, one selects the various dishes to be served. Then one looks at each given dish: one seeks and finds recipes. (One can also, of course, prepare food from the ingredients to hand – but recipes are usually valuable in that case, too !) One obtains the necessary ingredients, one measures them out, and one follows the chosen recipe to a successful conclusion. Unless one is a master chef, with years and years of experience, one does not dispense with a recipe. Each part of a meal has its own dishes; hence a choice can be made among a number of recipes. That's how French society (the meal) is organized: a multitude of recipes, tried and tested. If the society has problems as a whole, it is perhaps just a given recipe which is at fault, not the entire meal. Each recipe can be considered a reform … so one reforms a society by varying a recipe or two, in order to change the balance within the meal. Of course, one can invent or develop new recipes at will, at any time.

With his wish to "carry out all the reforms at the same time", M Sarkozy is basically saying that he wants to change all the recipes simultaneously. He is saying that such a "meal" – with recipes not tested as to their effect on other recipes - will be better than the previous one.

Apparently the French people are buying wholeheartedly into this bizarre way of thinking, since as Amerloque writes these lines, the French have given a commanding lead to M Sarkozy's center-right UMP party in the first round of the legislative elections. Exactly 7640 candidates, in over 80 political parties, contested parliamentary seats yesterday, in what was a relatively dispassionate election: the question was not whether UMP would win the election but rather by how much. The UMP could take as many as two thirds of the 577 seats at stake: it is expected to win between 405 and 445 seats at the outcome of the second round next week, while the opposition Socialist party is projected to win only 100 to 140 seats. Fully 39.56% of the French voters abstained in these Parliamentary elections, one of the highest abstention rates in years - and in marked contrast to the first round of the presidential election several weeks ago. Seven of the eleven outgoing ministers who were candidates won handily, including the Prime Minister, François Fillon; 105 members of Parliament were elected in the first round, which is a record in the Fifth Republic.

The media has been publishing and broadcasting information about M Sarkozy's planned reforms throughout the run-up to this first round of the legislative elections. It's sometimes hard to determine whether such and such a proposition is for real, or is just a trial balloon to see what reaction it elicits. It also remains to be seen whether the reforms promised are really the reforms that will be carried out. Time will tell.

The French proverb about May is "In May, do whatever you like." (En mai, fais ce qu'il te plait) and Amerloque has taken it to heart. He is spending a lot of time out at his farm in Normandy, thanks to all the long weekends. This year the May the weather in France was less than ideal: a lot of drizzly rain and March-like gusts of wind combined to make each long weekend (pont) a bit disagreeable. There was even snow in some of the higher resorts in the Alps and the Pyrénées ! Fortunately out in Normandy it was possible for Amerloque to curl up in front of a warm fire in the evenings after puttering about during the blustery days. Tasks were numerous and varied: opening the house for the season; fertilizing apple trees, plum trees and rose bushes; cleaning out the winter's accumulated debris from the small stream running through the property – each day or weekend had its own springtime odd jobs.

With or without presidential or legislative elections, Normandy is still a calm place to be in May and June. Yet not a day goes by but that the delocalisation of still another company somewhere in France is announced – and far too often the company is in Normandy. More and more small shops are closing up for good, and the désertification of the countryside continues apace. Worrying indeed are more and more frequent press reports stating that young doctors are increasingly refusing to relocate to the countryside.

One hopes that among is bubbling cauldron of reforms M Sarkozy is offering there is at least one that will encourage doctors to move to the countryside to practice. Without adequate medical care, retiring there will cease to be a viable option for more and more older people - including the first wave of babyboomers.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
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