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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bye bye Bruno - French interior minister quits amid “fake jobs” scandal

Well, well. Who would have believed it?

French politics delivers yet another dose of déjà-vu.

After little more than just over three months since taking office, France’s interior minister, Bruno Le Roux, has resigned.

Bruno Le Roux (screenshot)

And the reason? Employing family members as parliamentary assistants.

And not just any old family members - in fact far from being “old”. Rather his two daughters when they were still teenagers and at school, and later as university students.

“Of course, I employed my daughters during the summer or school holidays,” Le Roux admitted to Yann Barthès’ daily TV satirical programme on TMC “Quotidien” which broke the story on Monday.

“But never permanently.”

It was a defence he repeated when announcing his resignation on Tuesday.

Oh well, that’s all right then. Temporary contracts for a total of around €55,000. Not bad “pocket money”.

Does Le Roux’s story sound familiar?

French politicians taking advantage of a system which allows them to employ family members at the expense of the tax payer.

Um - think François Fillon and “Penelope gate”; the former prime minister and current presidential candidate for the rightwing Les Républicains, who apparently “employed” his wife, Penelope and children over a number of years for the modest sum of €800,000.

The inverted commas are required because Fillon is currently under investigation for “possible abuse of public funds” or in other words “employing his wife (and children) for potentially non-existent work”.

“Conspiracy”, “witch hunt” and “political assassination” are the terms that have been used by Fillon and his supporters over the timing of the revelations and the speed with which prosecutors have proceeded with their investigations.

But no such claims yet from Le Roux - who resigned within a day of the allegations being made public.

There again, he didn’t have much choice. As minister of the interior he would have been in the indefensible position of potentially having access to information relevant to the inquiry.

The problem in both cases is that neither man sees himself as having done anything illegal because employing family members as parliamentary assistants is…well, not illegal.

But what about the morality?

Oh's politics. How silly to think otherwise.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

French presidential election - leading candidates take to stage for marathon TV debate

So the first live TV broadcast presidential debate is over.

Only the “Big Five” or leading candidates were invited by TF1/LCI to take part; those ranking at more than 10 per cent in the opinion polls.

The leading candidates

It was  a move that prompted Nicolas Dupont-Aignan - one of the “little candidates” (there are six of them - yes a grand total of 11 aiming for the highest office in the Land) to stomp off in a huff during a television interview during a news broadcast over the weekend.

So how did the candidates perform?

Well, as the BBC’s Hugh Schofield rightly points out, trying to predict the winner of any presidential debate is pretty much “a mug’s game”.

And although Monday night’s three-hour plus marathon might have been a first in a presidential campaign here in France (normally the debating is left to the final two before the second round) it’s probably anyone’s guess as to who actually came across as the winner.

Over nine million viewers tuned in to watch and although the “conventional wisdom” of political commentators (those who “know” best) and the independent polls taken immediately afterwards judged centrist Emmanuel Macron as the “most convincing”, it would be unwise to read too much into that.

Ultimately each candidate’s camp was putting its own political spin on the evening with each claiming to have been “satisfied”, “happy” and “confident”. Nothing new there then.

For the record though, here’s a personal view as to how they came across.

Macron probably had the most to lose and was on the receiving end of several attacks. After a ponderous start, though he held his own and refrained from falling into the traps laid down for him.

Still, he needs to find a “defining” policy which sticks in the electorate’s mind.

At the moment he appears to be caught in the Centre’s dilemma of wanting to appeal to all sides.

The far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen was as bellicose as ever - only to be expected - and that won’t have done her any harm…among her own supporters.

But the shrugged dismissal of any criticism and an inability to come up with a response as to why she deems herself above the judiciary (only fleetingly addressed) and fa ailure to appeal outside of her own electorate will not have made her chances of widening her appeal.

Les Républicain’s François Fillon - was statesmanlike and serious (almost to the point of boring) but astonishingly reserved and restrained - almost as though he were, at times, absent. He too suffers from a difficulty of reaching out beyond his own “fans” - and oh yes, the foreign media should stop defining his candidacy as centre-right. It’s rightwing.

Benoît Hamon - the Socialist party’s candidate - was widely seen as having failed to shine. Sure, he was articulate and coherent but sometimes (too often in fact) saw his thoughts and ideas overshadowed by those of the man whose views most closely match his own - the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Make no mistake, Mélenchon (what was it with those very pink lips?)  was and remains an orator head and shoulders above the rest, able to inject more than a modicum of cutting wit at just the right moment.

But he’s also more of a troublemaker (especially for the Socialist party) than a serious candidate to be president.

The second debate in a fortnight’s (April 4) on BFM TV will feature all 11 candidate when the likes of Dupont-Aignan, Jacques Cheminade and François Asselineau will get their chance to ensure that the electorate is even more confused afterwards than it was before with polls still showing that around 40 per cent don’t know how they’ll vote.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

French presidential election 2017 - The "Big Five" and a perplexed electorate

The French presidential election is turning out to be one of the most confusing and unpredictable of recent times.

And it’s really not surprising that,  according to many of the (innumerable) polls, there are a sizeable number of French who are still unsure as to how they will vote - at least in the first round April 23.

Of course, many of the leading candidates have their hard core supporters - but none of them is guaranteed a place in the second-round head-to-head.

What follows is not a (huge sigh of relief) poll and, admittedly, far from being scientific. It’s a recap of the five main contenders (in reality there are only three) to be this country’s next president. The comments are based on observations - something more than just a chat to the taxi driver on the way from the airport after being parachuted in to a country - from someone who lives among the French and hears their fears, confusion as to what might or might not happen in this year’s presidential elections.

The "Big Five" French presidential hopefuls: Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (collage of YouTube screenshots)

Perhaps the best-placed (again according to those omnipresent polls) to make it through the May 7 run-off is the far-right Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen.

Along with her faithful lieutenants (such as Florian Philippot), Le Pen has made a pretty good job of what the media calls “dédiabolisation” or “de-demonising” the party in terms of its image: giving it a veneer  of respectability, positioning itself as an anti-system alternative to “politics as usual” and broadening its electoral appeal.

In essence though, for all its nationalist and populist bluster about how it would do things differently if in power, the party would still be at the mercy of a political and institutional system (and all its inherent flaws and self—serving perks).  The FN also remains fiercely anti-immigration (a sugar-coated way of saying xenophobic and anti-Islam) implausible on economic policy and typically protectionist - although given recent global events such as Brexit and The Donald’s election in the United States, that might well be seen as an attribute.

The party is also a peculiarly “family business”.  Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was its founder, her partner, Louis Aliot, is one of its vice presidents and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of its two members in the National Assembly.

The right wing (although the party still insists on portraying itself as representing the Right/Centre-right) Les Républicains’ François Fillon was for many months the political pundits favourite to face Le Pen in the second round.

His overwhelming victory in the party’s November 2016’s primary provided him with a virtual “boulevard” to the Elysée: well that was the proverbial common wisdom. He would make it through to the second round and, even though he might have a hard time convincing those who had voted for leftwing parties in the first round, there was no way they would allow a Le Pen victory. In much the same way as Jacques Chirac had sealed success against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, so Fillon would be assured of doing (but less emphatically) in 2017.

But then it all well pear-shaped. The man who had always taken the moral high ground and presented himself as almost “whiter than white” found himself embroiled in “the Penelope gate” fiasco, suspicions that his Welsh-born wife and two of his children had earned hundreds of thousands of euros for “fake jobs” as his parliamentary assistants.

“If a presidential candidate is indicted - no matter for what reason - he (or she) cannot possibly maintain the trust of the electorate and must withdraw from the race” of his earlier campaigning became “I have become the victim of a media witch hunt and “I’m going to see this out to the very end”. A neat reversal of what he had said just months earlier. So much for consistency and integrity in French politics.

And then there’s Emmanuel Macron. His very strengths could also prove to be his weakness. He’s young (38) - perhaps too young for many to have that much needed gravitas of a Statesman. He not politically bound, even though he served as advisor and economics minister under the current president François Hollande, a man he is accused as having “stabbed in the back”. He has never stood for elected office before and his programme - yes he has one at last - for the longest time seemed vague: exciting but confusing - that mix of Centrist ideas that lack ideology (and dogma) and try to appeal to everyone and anyone (apart from the extremes).

Criticised by the Right as representing “Hollande redux” - and few French want a repeat performance of the last five years - and by the Left as not being Socialist enough, Macron has nevertheless managed to garner support from across the political spectrum with his movement “En marche” (On the move) - yes only the most confident (or arrogant) of people could give his political movement his own initials.

The media darling and golden boy of French politics has surprised many. His movement has gathered momentum but he lacks the structure of a political machine behind him. Sure, he could beat Le Pen if he makes it through the second round, but the transitory nature of his support - that so-called Centre - could also be his undoing.

So, what is the Socialist party up to? Well, it’s not so much fighting a presidential race as defining its own future as a party. In its primary it chose Benoît Hamon as the candidate. For many he’s “too Socialist”, too Utopian, offering the French what they want (to hear): no belt-tightening economic reforms (but no real guaranteed progress either). In fact more of the same as the country entrenches itself deeper in the beliefs of the past.

And Hamon is not drawing in the big crowds as he had hoped. The former rebel of yesteryear who resigned as Hollande’s education minister after just a few months in the job (what staying power) now finds himself confronted with his own rebels - hard-hitting party bigwigs who feel he is leading the lot of them into political oblivion and are (more than) tempted to throw their weight behind Macron. Result? Hamon has had to blow hot and cold on some of his core ideas such as universal suffrage.

Finally among those that really matter (and apologies for any other candidates who might obtain the necessary signatures to enable them to stand) there’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

If only this former Socialist party member could pull his act together and get over himself to join forces with Hamon, the Left might actually have some say in determining the outcome of the 2017 presidential elections.

But no, the angry old bloke of French politics (who has admittedly calmed down a fair deal since his campaign managers discovered social media) has an ideological path that doesn’t sit well with many inside the Socialist party. Oh yes - and an ego.

You see, and this is actually unusual in French politics - or any politics come to that, Mélanchon actually has (don’t say this too loud) principles. Employment rights, welfare programmes and a real redistribution of wealth to tackle existing socioeconomic inequalities actually mean something to him. And oh yes, he’s very anti-EU.

No wonder the French are perplexed. There’s no clear “leader” to guide the country over the next five years. Le Pen might well score highly in the first round but there’s still (hopefully) - at least on the Left - enough French who would do the “right thing” and vote tactically to keep her from winning the run-off.

Should she face Macron, it would be easier for those - Left and Right of the political spectrum - to swallow their pride and help the young pretender into office…no matter what their qualms might be about his leadership qualities.

But Fillon versus Le Pen casts quite a different picture. Distasteful Right against even more distasteful Far Right…and some might just be tempted to let the latter win simply by abstaining.

And that most unlikely combination of Macron against Fillon…heck, that’s just introducing another unfathomable element into the equation.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Friday’s French music break - Alma, “Requiem"

And so the decision has been made. Alma will represent France at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Kiev in May with the song “Requiem”.

None of the beating about the bush, endless domestic competitions or public voting to determine who would fly the tricolor. No, that’s not France’s style.

Instead it was a simple announcement by the public service broadcaster France 2, that Alma (Alexandra Maquet) would represent the country.

Alma (screenshot “Requiem” official video)

Flushed with the “success” of last year’s sixth-placed finish (yes only the French could deem sixth as a “success”) all hopes are that Alma will be able to go one - or even five - better than the 2016 contribution from Amir (Haddad), “J'ai cherché”.

Keeping to a tried and trusted recipe (sort of) “Requiem” has been written by  Nazim Khaled, the very same person who composed the 2016 entry and who has penned a number of hits for the likes of former Voice winner Kendji Girac such as “Andalouse” and “Conmigo”  or Popstars’ season 2 (2002) participant - and now mainstay of the French music scene - Chimène Badi with “Mes silences”.

So, Khaled’s ability to write a catchy little ditty isn’t really in doubt, even if “Requiem” reflects the same sort of musical heritage as many of the hits he wrote for Girac (Spanish-gypsy-north African flavours) and has just the slightest hint of Belgium’s electro-pop music maestro, Stromae to it.

The weak link perhaps will be the 28-year-old Alma’s ability to perform. She doesn’t have the greatest of voices (on reflection, maybe not a pre-requisite for doing well at Eurovision) and, as you can see from her live performance during Ukraine’s televised national final to determine its representative, lacks stage presence.

All that set aside,

The omens are good(ish) even if the song isn’t particularly (and since when did that matter at Eurovision) and  2017 could well prove to be France’s year.

The presidential election campaign (how on Earth did that make its way into a piece about “music” - stretching a point is what it’s called) has been pulling the attention of political pundits from around the world. That’s a rare occurrence during the campaign stage and perhaps due to the presence of a) the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and her chances of making it through to the second-round run-off, b) the dour refusal by the right’s candidate François Fillon to admit there was anything wrong earlier in his career in employing family members - wife and children - as parliamentary assistants for the modest sum of almost €900,000 and c) the 39-year-old golden boy of the moment Emmanuel Macron, who has never held a politically-elected position in his life but has quickly become the “darling of the nation”.

Then there’s the chance of Paris being awarded the 2024 Summer Olympics. All right, so it has at least a 50 per cent chance as there are only two cities (Los Angeles being the other one) left in the race. And, if it doesn’t convince International Olympic Committee members in the September 2017 announcement in Lima, it could still see itself appointed as the 2028 host city - although that remains but a rumour.

Something that is more than speculation and indeed a fact, is the country’s triumph at Miss Universe 2017. That title was claimed by the 24-year-old Iris Mittenaere, Miss France 2016, in February although it somehow slipped under the radar of the French president, François Hollande, who neglected to send his congratulations or even acknowledge the win.

Mittenaere though, along with Amir’s “success” (really, the inverted commas are obligatory), Khaled’s songwriting “skills” and Alma’s “singing” talents all bode well for possible victory in Kiev…n’est ce pas?

Cough, cough. Splutter. “Enjoy”.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

French journalist Vanessa Burggraf gives Philippe Poutou a lesson on how to humiliate a presidential candidate…without trying too hard

Media bashing has, in the wake of The Donald’s tediously repetitive “fake news” and “alternative facts” diatribe, become something of a recurring theme in the French presidential election.

Some supporters of the centre-right (although there’s not too much “centre” about him) candidate François Fillon, have been only too keen to lay the blame for the so-called Penelopegate affair (charges that Fillon had employed his wife, Penelope,  as a parliamentary assistant for the modest sum of €900,000 for work that was perhaps never done) at the proverbial door of journalists. The controversy has highlighted the shameful (but, it has to be said, not illegal in France) practice of disabusing tax-payers’ money and prompted the judiciary to get involved.

And the far-right’s Marine Le Pen…well, she’s more in the mould of The Donald in launching regular barbs concerning biased reporting or insufficient media coverage for the Front National while at the same time popping up whenever invited on prime time news to polish and preen her electoral image.

Journalists in cahoots with the political classes? Well, it makes for good fodder and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true (or fake or even an alternative fact). Most pundits would agree that the French are generally pretty cheesed off with their elected (national) representatives as a whole (and who can blame them?)

Vanessa Burggraf (screenshot "On n'es pas couché")

And an event on Saturday evening, will surely for many, only “add grist to the mill” (love a good cliché) that journalists and politicians are in their own little Parisian bubble - far away from the concerns of the general electorate.

It happened during a segment of Laurent Ruquier’s weekly talk show on France 2, “On n'est pas couché”.

The invited political guest was one of the so-called “minor candidates” in a field that currently boasts a total of 49  (although not all of them are expected to be able to gather the required signatures to be able to stand) Philippe Poutou from the far-left Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste.

Philippe Poutou (screenshot "On n'est pas couché")

One of Rouquier’s regular interviewers, Vanessa Burggraf, proved her full journalistic credentials in posing a question about the role of company bosses in preventing redundancies but somehow never managed to wrap her lips around what she really wanted to ask, especially after she was interrupted by the show’s host.

There then followed over two minutes of buffoonery from Burggraff, Ruquier and others as Poutou looked on, bemused and evidently uncomfortable. After all, his party - and it doesn’t matter what you think about its policies - is one the declares itself to “look after the little guy”.

Complete humiliation for Poutou, totally shameful on the part of Burgraff and Ruquier and simply unnecessary.

After all, the recorded segment could simply have been edited. But it wasn’t.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Friday’s French music break…on a Saturday - Victoires de la musique 2017 (with Calypso Rose)

Phew. That was a close one. It’s surely a sorry state of affairs for French popular music when a potential winner of its most prestigious annual music awards is an also-ran from the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Thankfully though sense prevailed and on Friday, Amir (a product of the TV talent show “The Voice” in which he finished third) failed to secure best original song at Les Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Grammys.

Instead it was the 25- year-old Vianney, winner of Best Male Artist in 2016, who scooped the prize with “Je m’en vais”.


Je m’en vais

Relief all round then as it proves there is some hope for the future of French popular music beyond talent show also rans who fail at Eurovision (hardly the arbiter of good musical taste), a belief further reinforced by the cleverly marketed (and undoubtedly talented) 25-year-old Jain picking up Best Female Artist.


Perhaps that was something of an orchestrated shoe-in as oddly enough someone had forgotten to include Canada’s global screamer Céline Dion in any category in spite of the commercial and critical success of her latest album “Encore un soir”. Love her or loathe her, the decision not to include her among the shortlist was…er…strange.

While Vianney and Jain (oh all right then AND Amir) were securing the future of French popular music for years to come (along with the excellent 20-year-old DJ Kungs - Valentin Brunel - Best electronic and dance album) some of the country’s Golden Oldies were marking their territory.

Unsurprisingly Renaud - who last year made a long-awaited comeback with the album (his first since 2009) “Toujours debout” - added to his career collection of gongs with Best Male Artist, although he missed out in the Best Album category to Benjamin Biolay’s “Palermo Hollywood” and after a decade apart, Louise Attaque marked their get together with Best rock album.

Calypso Rose (screenshot “Calypso Queen” official version)

As far as the most magical moment of the night…well apart from Imany calling for justice and equal treatment of different races during her gospel-inspired (and inspiring) performance of the superb “Silver lining (all clap your hands)" it had to be Trinidad and Tobago’s Calypso Rose (Linda McArtha Monica Sandy-Lewis) singing “Calypso Queen”.

An encore - the “stuffed suits” of the audience doing their thing and a declaration from the 76-year-old that she was now the ^Queen of France” after winning the Best World Music award was quite simply the highlight of the evening.

So here you are… this week’s Friday’s French music break - Calypso Rose with “Calypso Queen”.

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