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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

(Not) Understanding French politics - the Macron reform

Quite an ambitious headline, but don't worry, this isn't about to become a pedagogical piece on the finer details of the French political system.

Neither is it going to be a dumbed-down version pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Rather it's a simple but hopefully informative observation as to how difficult it is, even for those who enthusiastically (try to) follow French politics let alone others who only dip into it from time to time, to get to grips completely with the machinations of the system.

Certainly France isn't alone in having its own political peculiarities, but that doesn't mean it's any easier to understand them when they are on full display.

Friday's edition of the excellent lunchtime news magazine "La Nouvelle Édition" on Canal + contains a short segement, presented by journalist Gaël Legras, called "Vu de l'extérieur".

Legras takes a whistlestop tour of other countries' news outlets to discover how they're covering particular stories about France; in other words "what they're saying about us".

Last Friday's chosen subjects were the trial in Lille featuring Dominique Strauss-Kahn who (don't groan) had denied charges of pimping. Paris Saint-Germain's match against Chelsea in the Champions League, anti-semiticism in France following the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Sarre-Union in the east of the country and the racial slur made by a former foreign minister, Roland Dumas during an interview on BFM TV  and the so-called article 49-3 of the French constitution.

Now, that last subject might not seem particularly interesting, but its application last week illustrated perfectly just how idiosyncratic the French political system can be.

It's a tool which can be used by a government to force a bill through the national assembly without a vote being taken.

It's rarely used because, apart from being perceived as out of step with the democratic process, it is invariably followed by the opposition tabling a motion of no confidence in the government.

But that's exactly what happened last week to economic minister Emmanuel Macron's bill "designed to remove obstacles to French economic progress".

Emmanuel Macron (screenshot from interview with Jean-Jacques Bourdin, BFM TV November 2014)

The bill includes a raft of reforms such as extending Sunday shopping, opening up heavily-regulated professions to greater competition, privatising certain regional airports, ending the monopoly of intercity bus routes...and, and, and.

You can read more about Macron and the reform package in this piece by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in The Financial Times.

In short though, the reforms came under fire from a number of Socialist party parliamentarians, rebels known as Les Frondeurs, who said they would not vote through the package.

At the same time, two opposition parties, the centre-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (Union for a popular movement, UMP) and the centrist Union des démocrates et indépendants, (Union of Democrats and Independents, UDI) declared they wouldn't be voting in favour either...even though Macron's bill was largely inspired by ideas previously advocated by both parties.

It makes complete sense - doesn't it? Well, at least politically.

Understanding that this was all going to end up very messily for a reform which was supposed to be one of the most important of the second half of his term in office, the French president, François Hollande, gave his prime minister, Manuel Valls, the green light to invoke that (in)famous 49-3 article.

The outcome - UMP and UDI tabled a motion of no confidence forcing Les Frondeurs to rally behind the government because apparently "voting against a bill (introduced by their own party) was one thing, but backing a vote of no confidence submitted by the opposition was not the same."

Not easy for the world's media to understand what the heck was really happening - and just as impossible for those in France as it seemed the political world had turned upside down.

In essence though it was a defeat all round.

The bill still has to make its way through the Senate and then back (in a revised form) to the national assembly.

The opposition has shown itself unable to stick to any sort of political principles (an oxymoron?), and the Socialist party is as divided as ever.

And...oh yes...there are local elections (départemental this time around) in March when guess whose party is predicted to lead after the first round of voting.

Yep, Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National no doubt benefitting from the disillusion many in France have with the traditional political parties.

And last week's parliamentary palaver will only have helped her cause.

But that's quite another story.

Don't worry if you've understood nothing or very little of all of the above.

You're far from being alone.

It's all...well, very French politics - n'est-ce pas?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Online banking made easy - French style

Notice out of place in the title?

Hint...the idea of a service being both "uncomplicated" and "French" at the same time - two attributes which, sadly, so often reveal themselves to be contradictory.

Of course, that's a gross generalisation.

Or it would be if it weren't for the fact that service in France - no matter in which particular domain - is not quite up to the standards of what might be expected.

The corporate cliché about the direction of a business being determined by the demands of its clientele (summed up in the maxim that the "customer is king") invariably becomes confused if not downright lost when put to the test in France.

And it's as true for online banking as it is for any other sector.

Of course it shouldn't be. The very concept of conducting financial transactions online is...well, very 21st century.

And therein lies the problem perhaps.

It's not that France doesn't have online banking.

Most of the country's main high street banks offer the service and some have even developed their own purely online affiliates: Banque Populaire has BRED,  CIC - Filbanque, Societé Générale - Boursorama and BNP Paribas - Hello bank

It's just...well, for those with regular accounts, the use of the online facilities can be...difficult.

I needed to make a transfer at the weekend.

International you'll understand, even if it meant Euro to Euro.

France to Italy (so you knew trouble would be a-brewin')

The princely sum of €150

First step was to log on to my BNP account and go through the whole  rigmarole of adding a new contact to my list of recipients.

It didn't matter that the payment would be a one-time affair (or that the amount was paltry).

The "rules" stipulate that every time you make an international transfer to a new beneficiary, the same process has to be followed.

First up, fill in the amount.

Next step - complete the recipient's IBAN (or International Bank Account Number) then the BIC (Bank Identifier Code).

Everything seemed in order - a quick double-check.


Painless so far.

The final stage was to receive a text-message confirmation on my mobile 'phone so that the transfer could be made.

Except...the number the bank had on its file was that of my previous 'phone.

I had informed them in June last year that my number had changed. And there in the "emails sent" box was a copy of what I had written.

Time for a snotty email to the person responsible for customer relations (yes, they still have real people to answer queries at BNP - just not outside of regular working hours).

So transfer aborted and over to my account at Crédit Agricole to see whether I would fare any better there.

By now, you can probably guess where this is going.

Crédit Agricole puts customers through pretty much the same palaver to make an international transfer...amount, IBAN, BIC, reason (not obligatory) and that final page telling me that it would take three days - THREE WHOLE DAYS - for the both the new recipient and the transfer to be approved.


Well, no result.

Over 30 minutes online to use a service which the banks promise is "simple, smart, and secure"  and I had got absolutely nowhere.

Update. Heard back from my personal banker at BNP later in the week to be told that I could have changed my mobile telephone number myself online.

I simply had to log on to the page which contained my personal details (lost on a website that seems to believe user-friendliness equates with presenting the maximum information in the most complicated format imaginable) and change the number.

I would then receive - by post - confirmation that I had changed the number to which text message confirmations should be sent.

So simple.

Welcome to online banking - French style.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Friday's French music break - Keen'V, "Saltimbanque"

Friday's French music break this week has more than a feel of Bollywood about it.

It's "Saltimbanque" by Kevin Bonnet, better known by his stage name,  Keen'V.

Quite frankly, the 32-year-old might not be among the greatest singers around but that hasn't detracted from his popular appeal and he has had a string of hits over the years including most notably "J'aimerais trop" in 2009, "La vie du bon côté" in 2012 and "Dis Moi Oui (Marina)" in 2013.

Keen'V (screenshot from appearance on "Comment ça va bien", France 2 - September 2014)

From the very beginning (in 2008 when he decided to take to the Net by posting on YouTube), Keen'V's style has most definitely been dancefloor inspired mixing elements of ragga(muffin), raggae, zouk, French "varieté", electro and simple pop to come up with a sound that most certainly makes you want your stuff.

Probably most popular with a teenage audience (evidence of that, perhaps, is that he picked up an NRJ music award in 2012 as Révélation francophone de l'année) but has taken steps recently to broaden his appeal to the whole family with appearances in celebrity reality TV programmes such as the French versions of "Splash", le grand plongeon (season one) and "Strictly come dancing" ("Danse avec les stars" - season four).

"Saltimbanque" is the title track from Keen'v's chart-topping fifth studio album released in 2014

True to his dance music style and that of being an acrobat or "saltimbanque" (albeit a vocal one) the song is definitely one made for...well, dancing.

Its lyrics (let's not get too deep here) come across as almost autobiographic with Keen'V "proud to be an acrobat" and having chosen music because "he prefers the nightclub atmosphere".

The song might sound a little too studio over-produced, but that doesn't really matter because its real pull lies in the electro-Bollywood feel and beat.

Take a listen. The official video only features a still of Keen'V and the lyrics, which is a bit of a shame because their a real dance performance would have been a bonus.

And if you want to catch Keen'V live, you're in luck because he'll be embarking on a two-month nationwide tour of France from April with dates scheduled in a number of Zeniths including those in Amiens, Caen, Paris, Toulouse and his home city of Rouen.

Bon week-end and enjoy.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Friday's French music break - Millers Daughter featuring Nicom, "Undeniable"

Friday's French music break this week isn't exactly French.

It's "Undeniable" from the British duo (twin sisters actually) of Louise and Christie Miller -better known as Millers Daughter.

Millers Daughter (screenshot from "Undeniable" official video)

The French angle is that for the release of the song in France, they've teamed up with Nicom (an interview here with him - in French) for a version that combines all the country pop feel of the original with an almost typical Jean-Jacques Goldman sound.

Not a bad way to break into the French market and "Undeniable" (taken from Millers Daughter's debut album "So Hollywood") has been receiving plenty of radio airplay.

Nicom (screenshot from "Undeniable" official video)

Millers Daughter and Nicom are all alumni of My Major Company, the crowdfunding platform started and co-owned incidentally by Goldman's son, Michel in France in 2007,  and responsible for the launch of (now established) acts such as Grégoire, Irma and Joyce Jonathan.

There's no denying that "Undeniable" has a US twang to it - almost Taylor Swift-ish (or Shania Twain?) - and that's not surprising perhaps as Milllers Daughter name the American singer-songwriter among the artists they like (along with "Snow Patrol, John Mayer, Lady Antebellum, Mumford & Sons and many many more.."

Their influences are also very pop, country, soft-rock inspired (Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, The Eagles, Shania Twain Dolly Parton..."and pretty much anything with great hooks and melodies! so..the list goes on...") so it's not really surprising that "Undeniable" contains exactly what they enjoy most...a great hook and a very catchy melody.

"Undeniable" is immensely sing-a-longable. The duo's voices are pleasant without causing any offence (it might be going just a little over the top, as one reviewer did, to describe the song as having "crystalline melodies, mountain-air pure harmonies and solid gold choruses that you thought they didn’t make anymore) and the addition of Nicom gives the song that Anglo-French touch so popular with many trending artists in this country.

"Undeniable" is no nonsense, pure pop music at its best (or worst for some people).

It is what it is - and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that frankly - unless you're a complete misery.

So, here are both the original and the more recent version with the addition of Nicom.

Happy listening et bon week-end!

Friday, 6 February 2015

Friday's French music break - Vianney, "Pas là"

Friday's French music break this week is proof that there are a number of talented young singer-songwriters ready to make their mark on the French music scene.

It's "Pas là" from the 23-year-old Vianney Bureau who goes simply by his first name as a performer.

Vianney (screenshot from "Pas là" official video)

"Pas là" is the second track to be released from his debut album "Idées blanches" and deals with that time-honored tradition of disappointed love.

Nothing startling new there...but given its wonderfully melancholic (and at the same time very catchy) melody combined with clever lyrics, it has been getting plenty of airplay.

Just listen to the opening lines of the song and you'll soon be aware that Vianney is no ordinary songwriter but one blessed with the talent to write poetically.

And, oh yes, his voice has a gentle elegance to it and a pitch quite different from many others of his generation. Plus he has an ability to perform live that just makes you want to hear more (check out this acoustic version during an appearance on France Ô)

Vianney hasn't gone unnoticed among music critics with Yannick Delneste writing enthusiastically to say the least) in the regional daily Sud Ouest after the release of the first single "Je te déteste" that it had "a sense of an unstoppable and unifying melody, swirling vocals and clever texts"

And in L'Express, Gilles Médioni described Vianney as being "exceptional and different" not just because of his musicality but also his background.

"Polite, cheerful and stylish, he attended a military lycée (at this own request), grew up in Panama in a family of four boys, went to business school in Paris before completing a diploma at the private fashion school Esmod."

Those were experiences which Vianney himself said had "opened his mind socially and artistically" as did presumably the part time jobs, singing in the Paris métro, a hitchiking trip to Israel  (crossing the Balkans and Turkey), cycling to Stockholm and, and and.

Yes, he sure has packed a lot (of unusual things) into a short space of time, and probably is as far removed as is possible from the TV talent show route that so many of his generation take to achieve instant (and often ephemeral) fame.

Put simply, Vianney, who has apparently been writing songs ever since he "discovered music" at the age of 12 is a name to remember and, more importantly, a talent to remember.

His album "Idées blanches"  - only released in October 2014 - has already been nominated for a Victoires de la musique award (the French equivalent of the Grammys) alongside Indila's "Mini World" and François and the Atlas Mountains "Piano ombre" in the category Album révélations.

The winner will be announced on February 13.

Vianney has several dates lined up throughout France from March onwards, including one at Le Trianon in Paris and smaller venues such as Rock School Barbey in Bordeaux, La Dynamo in Toulouse and the Cargo de Nuit in Arles.

But keep an eye on his Facebook page for news of further dates.

For the moment though, here's "Pas là".


You will!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Christine Boutin's political literary flop. Or how not to write a best seller...or a seller

The late Christopher Hitchens once said (among many other things of course) that, "Everyone has a book inside them which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain."

Sadly though, so many fail to heed that maxim and among those who seem to think the rest of us should benefit from their written words (of wisdom?) are French politicians.

A couple of years ago France Inter dedicated its weekly one-hour programme "Le Grand Bain" to the very question as to why so many French politicians felt the need to write and publish.

The conclusion being that while some had written something worthwhile reading and a certain talent in expressing themselves, the vast majority of them were best served leaving literature, in all its forms, to others and concentrating on what they supposedly did best.

Of course an inflated ego (which politicians must have believing, presumably, that they know best how to serve their fellow citizens in office and determine what's in the interests of the country) must play a part.

But the bottom line of (most) publishing (houses) is surely also to make money - which opens up perhaps the equally perplexing question as to how come so many French politicians manage to find an editor... because so many "œuvres" (inverted commas entirely intentional) are far from being profitable.

Quite the contrary.

Take, for example, the most recent offering from Christine Boutin, "Qu'est-ce que le parti chrétien-démocrate ?".

You remember her, surely.

Boutin served as housing minister for a couple of years during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency before being unceremoniously sacked.

She was also at the forefront of the demonstrations against same-sex marriage in 2013, continuing her long campaign for Christian values (aka "family values" in her parlance) and boring most of us silly with her frequently ignorant and equally ill-judged remarks.

In 2014, for example,  Boutin shared her views on homosexuality with the quarterly political magazine "Charles" describing it as "an abomination".

Ah well. You can read all about that here - old news - but it'll stick around to haunt her (or more likely the rest of us) for quite a while.

Back to that book "Qu'est-ce que le parti chrétien-démocrate ?" ("What is the Christian Democrat party") her 128-page 2010 follow-up to her 2009 book "Chrétiens : de l'audace pour la politique".

Guess how many copies, according to GQ magazine, Boutin has managed to sell.

Christine Boutin's "Qu'est-ce que le Parti chrétien-démocrate ?" (screenshot

Pause for thought.

Here goes.



It pretty much tells the whole story, don't you think.

Of course Boutin isn't alone among politicians who fail to attract readers.

The current finance minister, Michel Sapin sold 346 copies in three weeks of his diary as employment minister  "L'écume et l'océan , Chronique d'un ministre du travail" (clearly few were interested).

The president of the national assembly, Claude Bartolone, fared no better with his "Je ne me tairai plus" ("I'm not going to remain silent any longer") which was bought by only 268 people in two weeks.

And the former environment minister Delphine Batho only managed to shift 715 copies of her book "L'Insoumise".

At the other end of the scale - and perhaps providing a lesson (if not literary, at least a commercial one) was that political potboiler from France's former first lady Valérie Trierweiler.

Her "Merci pour ce moment" has so far sold more than 600,000 (and counting) copies, proving that...well, a tell-all political tale about her relationship with the French president, François Hollande, really might have been a "triumph of self-obsessed raving" but it certainly earned her a bob or two.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Alain Juppé calls on UMP supporters to vote against Front National in Doubs by-election

No, not the most thrilling or exciting of headlines at face value.

But rather telling on a number of levels about the state of the opposition Union pour un mouvement populaire (Union for a popular movement, UMP).

First some background.

Last weekend saw the first round in voting in a by-election in the département of Doubs in eastern France.

It was to contest the seat made available by the forced resignation of the former finance minister, Pierre Moscovici who has since gone on to a cushy number at the higher European Commission level.

A "safe" Socialist party seat in theory.

But, as we all know, the governing Socialist party (PS) isn't exactly "flavour of the month" and the French president, François Hollande...well, although his popularity ratings increased recently after his handling of the Paris attacks in January) the road to a possible second term in 2017 remains a difficult one.

Add to that the disarray that still exists within the UMP and the far-right Front National's (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen's, strategy of combining disaffection with the two major parties with her own populist appeal, and it wasn't suprising that the FN's candidate, Sophie Montel, topped last Sunday's first round of voting in the by-election.

What was unexpected though - certainly for the UMP - was that its candidate, Charles Demouge, only finished third behind Montel and a couple of points adrift of the Socialst party's Frédéric Barbier.

UMP eliminated and Montel to face Barbier in a second round run-off.

And that has put the UMP in something of a quandary - although it shouldn't really.

Its recently-elected leader (a certain Nicolas Sarkozy - you'll surely have heard of him) had promised "unity" in an attempt to resolve party divisions of recent years.

But his slow reaction to the first round vote in Doubs, coupled with some of the party's leading members clearly stating the very opposite of what he is most likely to propose, has once against highlighted the UMP's discord.

The party's number two, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, appeared on BFM TV on Monday morning to give her reaction to the Doubs ballot and how would recommend UMP supporters cast their votes in the second round.

"I would choose to vote for the candidate that opposed the Front National," she said, admitting that it was probably a minority position within the UMP but one she defended nonetheless.

"The Socialist party leaves the country 'desperate'," she said. "But the Front National would disfigure France."

And joining her - even though he had maintained before the first round that he wouldn't comment on the outcome, was Alain Juppé.

Writing on his blog, Juppé clearly called for UMP supporters to cast their vote in the second round to the Socialist party's candidate to "block" the FN.

"Our main political rival now is the FN.," he wrote.

"Whether it can reach power is no longer a hypothetical question and in my opinion this would be a catastrophe for our country.”

Actually his words were much more powerful that that - you can read the full text here.

Alain Juppé (screenshot Europe 1 interview)

Juppé, of course, is a declared candidate in the UMP's primary to determine its 2017 presidential candidate.

A likely opponent and his main one - if you believe political pundits - is expected to be Sarkozy who so far seems to be in favour of the "neither, nor" policy of refusing to endorse any of the two remaining candidates and instead allow (UMP) voters to decide for themselves.

Yes - the courage of convictions and political principles is astounding.

And he's taking plenty of time to come up with a grand design which might well be ignored by those (few) who bother to vote anyway.

Montel might have officially come top in the first round of voting but the big winner was the 60 per cent abstention rate.
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