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Sunday, 24 June 2007

Regulatory bollox

Blesséd be the European Union and its real policy makers.

Tony, Nic, Angie, Lech, José and others might think they’re the decision makers. After all they grab all the headlines for themselves, wrangling into the wee hours of the morning over the institutional future of the glorious 27.

But the real powerhouse grinds away inexorably in the background, day after day, away from the glare of the cameras. The Commission, with its layer upon layer of expertise, tantalising bureaucracy and mountains of draft recommendations, revised drafts, final drafts, revised final drafts…..and all in a linguistic rainbow incomprehensible to those “outside the know”. The months and years of fine tuning after the Blairs of this world have finally (and thankfully) disappeared from the political stage translate into another Brussels directive guaranteed to send one member state into an apoplectic fit long after the show is over.

This time it’s energy pricing and so-called “liberalisation” or “deregulation” of prices and suppliers that is proving to be the proverbial spanner. Britain, Germany and others might already have got their heads around the problem, but France is only just about to

From July 1 consumers here will be able to choose which supplier they get their gas and electricity from.

Fabulous news. There will be freedom of choice and of course lower prices for everyone if we’re to believe the blurb. We can shop around for the best and greenest deal saving our purse strings and the planet at the same time.

So why then is has the country’s most respected consumer magazine “Que Choisir” actually recommended doing absolutely nothing?

Well they’ve have based their advice on the experience of industry and business (which are after all the biggest energy users) over the past couple of years. Back in 2004 the “professionals” were encouraged to sign new contracts (with the very same suppliers of course such as EDF) at seductive levels lower than the regulatory prices. €30 per megawatt hour rather than the regulatory or fixed price of €33. Big numbers when we’re talking big users of course.

But by the end of 2005 and 2006 the professionals found themselves shelling out mega bucks for their mega watts - €60 and then more than €70, while EDF were raking in huge profits and literally laughing all the way to the bank. And the real knife in the back for those that had initially opted out of regulated prices was that they couldn’t opt back in again!

There was so much heartache and belly griping from the Captains that parliament finally gave in and allowed those who wanted the chance to return to regulated pricing.

There is however to be no such period of grace or understanding for the private consumer. Opting out will be a definitive move with no chance of being welcomed back into the regulatory fold – ever. And that’s final (and brutal). Little surprise then that “Que Choisir” is promoting a strategy of “wait and see”. After all nobody can actually be forced to change. Ah the delights of liberalising the utilities. Isn’t it just always the consumer that benefits most?

So while we listen to the latest yawnathon – and let’s face it, who really understands all that baloney anyway? We can remain rest assured that Brussels will shortly and quietly be churning out another globally agreed directive based on the premise that at one size fits all.

Monday, 18 June 2007

The Blues

Um. Nic must be a touch disappointed. After such a tremendous first round in the parliamentary elections last week, there were headlines everywhere screaming about a “blue wave” washing through parliament; a virtual tsunami as some some media commentators indelicately put it, and all the Socialists had to look forward to was picking up the pieces and facing an unsure future after a disastrous result.

But proof again that yesterday’s (newspaper) news is only today’s fish ‘n chip wrapping, or whatever the French equivalent might be. Lo and behold, Segolene was all over the place banging her party’s drum during the second week of campaigning (she was clearly taking a breather just before the first round), although not actually standing herself and voters seemingly ignored Sarkozy’s appeal for a whopping majority to give him the green light to force through just about anything he wanted. Meanwhile the Socialists have had a pretty decent showing overall.

In fact his party, even though it still has a healthy majority, actually has fewer seats than in the last parliament. And what’s more his number 2, Alain Juppé, former PM and convicted criminal (he was banished to Canada for a year for his part in some housing scheme scandal – Chirac’s scapegoat) lost his seat and is probably going to have to resign. Bit of a bummer really as he heads one of those super ministries incorporating energy, environment, transport and just about anything else you care to mention.

Them wot know say Juppé failed because of his “troubled” past (finally France seems to be ridding itself of the old corrupt order) and the geezer who would have been his deputy (ministers cannot hold office and be sitting representatives, so if they win, they have to hand their seat over to somebody else) is a complete nobody locally, and the people of Bordeaux wanted someone recognisable more than competent to represent them.

Well that apparently is one of the many reasons for the upset.

Makes you wonder why cabinet ministers bothered standing (four of them didn’t) if they knew that by prior agreement a loss would see them out on their bottoms. Not a very clever move by Sarkozy, unless, unless, unless he just wanted to teach one of Chirac’s former cronies a lesson by appointing him to such a high post, knowing the chances he could come a cropper were pretty high. No Summerton, that is far too cynical a thought.

Contributory factors to the overall less than startling results posted by the UMP (Mr S’s lot)? Well a record low turn out is one. Thereagain that was also used as the reason for the Socialists’ poor showing in the first round. Proof again that you can bend the figures to fit whichever theory you like. Another is the polemic – oh yes, there’s that word again – over PM François Fillon’s proposals for a hike in VAT (the poor persons tax remember) to fund the tax breaks for the better off. Sound familiar? Same old, same old. Sarkozy put the brakes on that during the week after all the furore it created, but the Socialists do seem to have benefited.

Then there’s the voter fatigue issue – which leads to a low turn out apparently, because people have had it up to the gills with traipsing down to the town hall week in, week out and of course a general feeling that the result was a foregone conclusion so why bother anyway.

We’ll let the pollsters and pundits get on with what they do best though. Fact is, Sarkozy has a comfortable majority, he’s going to call an extraordinary session of parliament over the summer to push through a raft of new legislation, and he is still planning to “reach out and touch everybody’s hand” (no I’m not about to break into song) by appointing yet more lefties and centrists to positions of power…..where presumably he’ll be better able to control and supervise them. Whoops another touch of cynicism there.

So no tremendous blue wave then, but enough to be able to surf on happily (to keep the cheesy symbolism going) and a reinvigorated Socialist party, reeling (not) from the split between Royal and Holland with the former likely to take aim at the latter and try to force him to step down as party president before the end of his allocated time in office. Now that could prove to be interesting. Very Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner, especially as Segolene announced just after yesterday’s results that she had “asked François to leave the conjugal home and pursue his romantic interests elsewhere”. It has all been carefully stage managed of course, as she is about to release a new book outlining the difficulties she had during her campaign for president. Clearly François and his meanderings only compounded the all round back-stabbing she was getting from the rest of the Elephants, the party’s old guard elite.

Gotta feel for her. Maybe NS will draft her into his government. That would really put the cat among the proverbials.

Wonder what colour parliament would be then.

A tale of two “marriages” – French style

One of the many great things about France is the law governing personal privacy and the fact that the mainstream media doesn’t really go around poking its nose into public figures’ private lives. Political scandal as such, focuses more on who has taken a backhander rather than mattress-creaking exploits. As a general rule of thumb then, it “just ain’t that interesting”.

Fair enough, the disclosure that Mitterand had a daughter by his longstanding mistress made the headlines several years ago, but didn’t have nearly the sort of impact it might surely have had back in Blighty. Similarly it’s pretty much common knowledge that Chirac has had a few dalliances during his marriage to Bernadette (her of the Eiffel Tower hairdon’t), and one of them apparently bore fruit somewhere in Japan, which perhaps goes a long way to explaining his many “diplomatic” trips to the Far East.

Right now though there has been a fair number of words penned on the collapse of Segolene’s relationship with her partner, François Hollande. She of course was the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate. He was the boss of the party. Much was made (in the US media) that they were not legally wed. An “unmarried mother of four” was how CNN’s Jim Bitterman disgracefully described her, although Segolene was more than willing to drive home her status as a “mother” in the final days of her unsuccessful campaign.

Anyway Segolene and François are now to split. It’s official. She announced it at on the same evening the final results for parliamentary elections were released. A not-so-well-kept secret timed to hit the stands just before the launch of her book. It won’t exactly be a political kiss-and-tell, but we’re promised some revelations about the back-stabbing she received from all quarters in the final few months of the race for the Elysée Palace.

“A woman scorned” and all that perhaps. But maybe Segolene is a lot cleverer than many think and there is more political depth to her than her critics would have us believe. Most commentators agree that the Left in general and the Socialist Party in particular needs a massive shake-up. And she clearly sees herself as the one to do it. So the first logical step would appear to be to kick that “cheating man” out of her life – which is exactly what she has done.

Troubled conjugal waters on the Left then, but also on the Right. Cecilia spent much of last year in Canada, leaving hubbie alone to pursue his (now successful) presidential ambitions. Lured perhaps by the promise of posh frocks, glitz and even more glamour, she returned a couple of months before the final vote, and has been beautifully and dutifully by his side ever since (apart from not bothering to vote in the second round of the presidential election it should be added)

There have been some very public shows of affection on his part at least.
Just how strong his feelings are though for his wife are probably best demonstrated by how they got together in the first place.

Cecilia María Sara Isabel Ciganer-Sarkozy to give her full blown name has been married before – to former TV host Jacques Martin – BIG in the 70s and 80s when he was a presenter of one of the country’s most popular Sunday afternoon programmes,

They have two gorgeous gals – blonde stunners both of them – very photogenic and so full of style it’s flooding out of their lugholes. Cecilia and Jacques married in the 70s at the local town hall, as is often the custom here in France, and the ceremony was officiated of course by the mayor. Their local town hall was Neuilly, one of the chicest Parisian suburbs. And the mayor was a certain Nicolas Sarkozy!

Apparently he was smitten on the spot, fell in love with the bride and spent the next six years pursuing her. The rest is history – or herstory – or theirstory – if you prefer. Very….um…Mills and Boone?

There’s still a lingering doubt among the cognoscenti whether they’ll last the course. But that said, it probably wouldn’t really hurt Sarkozy’s career if she legged it again. And apart from a couple of paragraphs in the press and glossies, and a few minutes on the box, it probably wouldn’t turn into a “Charles and Diana” style national pastime.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Pressing the flesh

We all know how much politicians enjoy the round of hand pumping, back slapping, lip smacking, baby holding photo ops when they’re out there campaigning among we mere mortals, but heavens, it seems to have spillt over into high-powered love fests.

Welcome to the world of Touchy Feely G8 leaders. And once again the French are taking the lead in this refreshingly modern open-collared diplomacy. New boy Nic endearingly has invaded everybody’s personal space in that most Mediterranean of ways. He was spotted stroking Blair on the arm, planting his now customary greeting kiss on Merkel’s cheeks and even getting tactile with Bush as they gently brushed arms.

And he seemed to be getting downright too chummy with Putin – remember the geezer who waited two days before getting on the blower to congratulate him in May when he won the election.

Leaving politics aside, the burning question on everybody’s lips here in France is just who was on the ‘phone when Nic was seen strolling along with Vlad.

Grins galore (on the French side), Gr8 eye contact as the two men meander down the road mobile ‘phone pressed briefly against Our Esteemed Leader’s ear and then he passes it to a slightly startled fellow Head of State.

So…. to start with, who the heck among the French entourage speaks Russian? And more intriguingly who exactly was on the other end of the line and what did they say?

The political love-in over the past couple of days has certainly offered the opportunity to ponder some disjointed and not-so-interesting observations.

Bush apparently wants any future international agreements or frameworks (poor man can’t decide which) on climate control to be UN-led……that’ll be a first for him. Up until now he hasn’t really shown much enthusiasm for multilateral decisions. And Bless Him for claiming to protect the interests of India and China. They’ll be pleased won’t they?

Meanwhile Putin clearly called the US’s bluff by offering to use a radar system in Azerbaijan to develop a shield to detect incoming missiles from those rogue states who make up the Axes of Weasels. By the way, does he ever smile?

As the Magnificent 9 (clearly Barroso just can’t be kept away from a party) ambled along in pairs in the sunny Baltic resort of Heiligendamm. (just couldn’t resist a bit of journalese there) why did nobody appear to be talking to Abe?

Is it possible that Prodi has the same hairdresser as Bernadette Chirac? That’s some thatch there on his bonce. It’s hard not to be envious.

With water already one of the world’s most valuable commodities, how (in)appropriate was it for the kindly German police to point their cannons at those terribly nice protesters in an attempt to blast them to Kingdom come.

And a free eco-friendly McDo to anyone who can name the Canadian prime minister (without Googling I might add).

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The holiday that isn’t

I’ve promised myself for over a week now to write something about lundi Pentecôte or Whit Monday but haven’t really had the guts to tackle it.

The status the day has achieved over the last few years reflects all that is wonderfully maddening and completely confusing about France. It makes absolutely no sense to the French. So what chance does a foreigner have even one living here?

It’s refreshing to see how little impact the Protestant Work Ethic has had here in France. The French are renowned for getting their priorities right (in my book at least) and along with their Mediterranean neighbours tend to work to live rather than the other way round that prevails in normally colder European climes. Yes perhaps I’m stretching a point here and flexing a few clichés, but there’s undoubtedly a hint of the truth.

So how to explain the public holiday that is officially at least no longer. But thereagain it sort of is still a holiday for most people rather than the working day it was meant to become back in 2004.

It’s the French idea of Solidarity. Nothing will become clearer. You have been warned. Reach for the gin now before it’s too late

Up until 2004 all was fine and dandy in the garden of French public holidays. Whit Monday was Whit Monday clear and simple – and nobody worked (just for a change).

The seeds of confusion were sown in 2003 though as the government sought a knee-jerk response to the fatal heatwave in June of that year, which killed more than 11,000 (mainly) elderly people. Some bright spark in Chirac’s government hit on the idea of scrapping Whit Monday as a holiday and replacing it with a Day of Solidarity.

No more public holiday and instead people would work and income generated from that day (estimated at around €2 billion) would boost the (tax) coffers to care for the elderly and handicapped.

Good idea – Right? Only on paper, and perhaps not even on that!

What mustn’t be forgotten is that much of the country’s workforce is already struggling with the 35-hour working week and the requirement to take a certain number of “enforced” days off (RTTs) a year to keep to the letter of the law.

So many bosses saw the new “non holiday” as a chance to oblige employees to use up one of those RTTs and closed for business. Meanwhile others chose to remain open, leaving it to individuals to decide whether they went to work or claimed the day as an RTT (which they were of course entitled to do).

Result? Well after the fiasco of the last two years when for example some schools were open and others closed; a couple of government ministries reported for business as usual but others put up shop for the day, the State finally caved in and gave its own employees the day off.

But it hasn’t helped. This year 60 per cent of the population took the day off and 40 percent struggled to work (public transport of course operates a holiday service). It was hard to guess what would and wouldn’t be open or whether anyone apart from the office cleaner or security guard would be there to answer the number you were calling if you did show up for work.

So much for Solidarity then! And to spice up the mess one loopy Socialist parliamentarian actually called for a strike to demonstrate against a law which required people to lose a day’s (RTT) holiday if their company forced them to take the day off. Don’t think too many people turned up!

And just to sum up this complete idiocy – an anecdote. The centre where Hen works (you know, the one which employs several thousand people – many of them completely incompetent it would seem to destroy/save the planet, depending on how look at things) operates its own bus service for employees – arriving at 09h and leaving at 17h (ON THE DOT). Most commendable!

The centre decided to close on Monday – remember enforced RTT (just checking that you are still following). But somehow, somewhere the day of Solidarity didn’t exactly fit in with the 35-hour working week, which meant that everyone ran the risk of “losing” an hour or “giving up” an hour too many of “Solidarity”. Solution? The buzzer went one hour earlier on the Friday evening and everyone who was bus-bound pootled off at 16h.

I love the French

Forget the tonic, I’ll have the Gordon’s straight – preferably from the bottle.
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