Archives for September 2013

More about the French Economy

Some of the throngs of shoppers along the Champs-Elysées

Some of the throngs of shoppers along the Champs-Elysées

Although we have not reported much about the French economy, I do follow it. In the second quarter the French economy grew .5% after being in recession 3 of the 4 previous quarters. This was cause for rejoicing. In contrast the much maligned US economy grew 2.5% last quarter and has had 9 straight quarters of positive growth (and 15 out of 16 positive). France continues to miss the EU mandated public deficit goal of 3 %. 2013 will probably end up at about 4%. In contrast, the US has no such mandate and had a public deficit of 8.5% in 2012. Unemployment in France (March 2013) was 11%, a level not reached in the US during many of our lifetimes (though in the Great Depression US unemployment was 25%).

Trade union membership in France includes only 8% of employees, one of the weakest in Europe. There’s probably something I don’t understand about this – US membership in 2010 was 12.3%. What is curious is that with such a small percentage actually in the French unions, they have no problem mobilizing large numbers of people in support of protests and definitely are a force in making government policy.

Some other interesting facts about the French economy:

1. France has the 2nd largest economy in Europe and is 5th largest in the world by nominal GDP and the 9th largest by PPP (purchasing power parity – where cost of living and exchange rates are factored in).
2. France is the wealthiest European country.
3. France leads the world in the use of nuclear energy with about 78% of its energy coming from nuclear power.
4. France is the world’s 6th largest agricultural producer and 2nd largest (after the US) agricultural exporter. Nearly half its exports go to EU member states.
5. France is the world’s most popular tourist destination with over 81 million visitors annually, ahead of Spain (58.5 million) and the US (51.1 million) – so no other country is even close to France in tourism.

This week I saw an article that gives some broad perspectives about how business is done in France. We have personally encountered small business owners who abhor the intrusive government controls on business – one we met said his dream was to relocate to the US. The story is about the impact of the government forcing stores to close at an earlier hour as a result of union complaints, but the article does a good job of discussing the supporting and opposing viewpoints. It also points out other aspects of doing business here that would be very foreign in America. It’s apparent that the French have more tolerance for government control than we have in America. Government expenditures are about 56% of the economy, highest in the EU. By comparison our government expenditures in US are about 40% of our economy (GDP).

Here is a link to the article – I’ll post several quotes from it below:

France has a raft of regulations governing shopping, and its labor unions ensure that they are strictly enforced. As well as strict limits on opening and closing hours, the rules only allow sales during certain periods of the year, price promotions are circumscribed, loss leaders are illegal, store sizes are limited and even the types of shops allowed to open up are regulated.

This week a Paris court of appeal ordered the cosmetics chain Sephora to close its flagship store on the avenue at 9 p.m., rather than staying open until midnight during the week and until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

The cosmetics chain reckons it does about 20 percent of its business after 9 p.m., and the 50 sales staff who work the late shift do so voluntarily — and are paid an hourly rate that is 25 percent higher than the day shift. Many of them are students or part-time workers, and they have publicly expressed their indignation about being put out of work by labor unions. The judge refused to take into consideration a petition they presented to the court, saying the case was a matter of public order, so now they are taking their campaign online, including with a Facebook page.

Two big department stores near the Paris Opera, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, both very popular with tourists, have calculated that they could increase their revenues by at least $200 million per year and employ an additional 1,000 full-time staff if they were allowed to open more often on Sunday.

Retailing regulation is the most visible, but many other consumer-oriented businesses are also subject to rigidly-enforced rules. Taxis, hairdressers, public notaries and many others are governed by “obsolete regulation,” according to an official 2008 report on ways to open up the French economy, written by Jacques Attali, a writer, consultant and former top government official, who argued that it was time to blow up the rules and liberate producers and consumers alike in order to create jobs and give a boost to the economy. Among other things, he recommended eliminating a 1973 rule that limits the numbers of bars with alcohol licenses; enabling hairdressers with five years experience to open a salon without having to pass a special exam; dumping a quota system that limits the number of pharmacies, and breaking a taxi monopoly in Paris that restricts the number of cabs in the French capital and can make it hard to find one at peak hours or when it’s raining.

So far, President François Hollande and his socialist government have shown no signs of wanting to change the status quo. To do so would mean taking on the labor unions, a core constituency. But when jobs and growth are so obviously at stake, letting people buy lipstick at midnight seems a small price to pay.

Despite all these negative sounding circumstances, we don’t see them – life here seems fine. Like some of what we don’t see in the US, there is beneath the tranquility and high quality of life some signs that the ship of state can’t keep this up much longer. The government’s next step to make things better is about as clear as our own government’s plans to reduce the long term deficit. We’ll see. On verra.

A Visit to the Sénat

Main staircase to the Luxembourg Palace

Grand Staircase of the Palais du Luxembourg

As part of the event called Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, we toured the Sénat, which is one of two legislative houses of the French government, similar to (but also different from) the Senate and House of Representatives in the US. The Sénat represents grass roots France, providing a voice for the governments of all municipalities. It also represents French citizens living abroad, who do not have a voice in the National Assembly. In France the government (the President of the Republic and his ministers) has priority in setting the agenda before the legislative assemblies, though members of the both assemblies may also introduce legislation and time is set aside in their monthly agenda for the discussion of member’s legislation.

There are 348 senators, each elected for a period of 6 years with elections held every 3 years to renew half of the members of the house. Senators are elected indirectly by electoral colleges made up mostly of delegates of municipal councils. The number of senators from any given municipality varies according to its population. The Sénate cannot make the government resign, but Senators can investigate and question ministers of the government. It also has a committee specifically dedicated to the review of legislation and regulations of the European Union. And  it also participates in various ways in the international relations of France. Although the President of the Republic can dissolve the National Assembly, he or she must consult with the President of the Sénat prior to doing so. The Sénate cannot be dissolved.

Until an election can be held, the President of the Sénat also is tasked with temporarily replacing the President of the Republic should he die or resign. The President of the Sénat is elected to a 3 year term. There is a managing committee of 25 senators, including 8 deputy speakers, 3 Questers who handle the management and administration of the Sénat, and 14 secretaries who supervise voting. There are 7 standing committees, one of which is assigned to review each new piece of legislation.

Our tour was of the Sénate quarters in the Luxembourg Palace (Palais du Luxembourg), built following the death of King Henry IV by his wife Marie de’ Medici starting in 1612. It was declared a National Palace in 1791 after the Revolution. Our tour started at the Petit Luxembourg, to the west of the Palais du Luxembourg, and connected to it through interior courts. The Petit Luxembourg was the sixteenth-century original hôtel of the duc de Piney-Luxembourg and was rebuilt during the construction of the Luxembourg Palace. It was once the home of Cardinal Richelieu. Since 1958, the Petit-Luxembourg has been the official residence of the President of the French Senate (président du Sénat). We saw the public spaces used by the Sénat President.

Then we proceeded into the Luxembourg Palace and up the grand staircase, through the various salons and offices, through the spectacular library with paintings by Eugene Delacroix and a fabulous view of the gardens, then into the Sénat chambers, then to the huge  golden Conference Hall and yet another spectacular space with Sénat Archives. Lastly we saw a short film about the Sénat and toured some of the media spaces. You can see some photos of our tour at this photo tour.

Hôtel de Ville


Hotel de Ville with beach volley ball court and palms set up in the square

Every year during a weekend in September the French government opens for public touring many buildings normally closed to the public. The event is called Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, and one way we took advantage of the opportunity was to see Hôtel de Ville (city hall).

Hôtel in French is used in the name of many different types of buildings. Some hotels are hotels, but the name can apply also to hospital buildings, private residences, police stations and government buildings. Hôtel de Ville is the standard term for city hall. I had no idea that it wasn’t a hotel the first time I saw it. Unlike City Hall in Poulsbo, Hôtel de Ville is not a place you can wander into to pay your water bill – each of the city’s administrative districts (called arrondissements), has its own building for the normal interactions between citizens and government. Hôtel de Ville is where city council meets and the mayor lives, though the current mayor Bertrand Delanoë declined to live there and opened up his flat as a nursery for workers children and for the display of public works of art.

Hôtel de Ville was established in 1357 by Etienne Marcel, then provost (mayor) of the merchants. In those days he would have had jurisdiction over the affairs on the right bank. Paris had separate administrations for the left bank (colleges and the University of Paris) and for Île de la Cité. The square in front was then called Place de la Grève (now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) and was used for public floggings and executions. You can see a good description in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. These days it is used for more mundane public entertainment – an ice skating rink, a garden show complete with tons of dirt, trees and grasses planted, & lawn chairs, a tennis court with big screen and lots of chairs to view the French open, a rock concert, or beach volleyball courts with tons of sand for Paris Plage.

In 1537 King François I established plans for a new building in the Renaissance style. He was also rebuilding the Louvre Palace in a similar manner. Work on the new Hôtel de Ville was not completed until 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII, but no further changes were made after that for the next 200 years. During the French Revolution in 1789, the mayor was killed by an angry crowd, and a few years later the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Terror that was such a destructive part of the Revolution, was wounded (prior to his execution) when he fled there after the National Convention had voted to execute him and other members of his Committee for Public Safety. In 1835 two more wings were added to allow more space for the government. During the revolt of the Paris Commune following the Franco Prussian War of 1870, the Communards burned the building down. Hôtel de Ville was redesigned and rebuilt from 1870 to 1892 using the same exterior stone walls but redesigning the interior in the 19th century style.

Our tour was fantastic. The city had employees on hand to explain many details about the building and promote some aspects of local government. The huge halls and staircases were spectacular. There were people to explain how the parquet floors are made, about the special hardware they use on doors, how the old furniture is maintained, how the heating system is maintained, and how they keep the clocks working. They showed how the city saves money on electricity by converting the chandeliers and other lights to LED lighting. They showed art work made from recycled materials, and other artworks displayed in the Mayor’s quarters. We saw the chambers for the city council, as well as their huge library. The extensive Mayor’s office was reserved for last. The art work in the mayor’s office is on loan from museums and private parties.

See more photos of Hôtel de Ville.

Food, Wine, Flowers and Music at Parc Floral de Paris

Parc Floral de Paris

Parc Floral de Paris

Saturday we went to Parc Floral de Paris, the same park where Brenda was locked inside last winter, to see the 11th Annual Seafood, Wine, and Gastronomy Exhibition. Our hair stylist Catherine Calvar had given us tickets the last time visited her. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we took the ever familiar Metro line 1 back to Vincennes and made our way to the park.

Parc Floral is about 75 acres – a very large public space with gardens, playgrounds, exhibition halls, an outdoor concert area, ponds, miniature golf, and all sorts of other amusements. The Tuileries Garden near the Louvre is nearly as large at 70 acres, but Parc Floral is surrounded by the Bois de Vincennes (woods of Vincennes), so it has the feeling of a much larger space in the countryside.

We were headed to the exhibition, but first we were distracted by the beautiful gardens, which we had not seen since winter. The grasses and flowers of many types were in full display – it made us regret we hadn’t made it back in the spring and earlier in the summer. We’ve included some photos in our slide show for your enjoyment. We also saw someone practicing for a free public concert to be held later in the afternoon, so we made a note to check back after the exhibition.

Brenda outside the sea and vineyard trade show.

Brenda outside the sea and vineyard trade show.

Then we proceeded to the “Salon, Mer, and Vigne and Gastronomie” at one of the park’s pavilions. What we found was a far larger and more magnificent show than we had imagined. There were literally hundreds of artisans selling wine, cookies, spices, escargots, cheeses, foie gras, smoked seafood, candied fruits, breads, dried meats, chocolate, spices, and much more. We spent a couple hours milling around – bought some wine, some chocolate, some spices – my pack was getting heavy. Les Jardins de Morgane was Brenda’s favorite-sampled many of the beautiful honey soaked fruits! The owner told us his plan to take his daughter on a visit to New York as a reward for her good grades in school. It had been her dream to go there since she was a child. The owner was a lawyer by trade, but had taken over the family business and was working very hard to keep it going. We had a nice lunch with roast duck and french fries. You can see more of the gastronomy in our slide show below.

So then we realized we were a bit late for the public concert so we hustled back to that side of the park. The seating was pretty full and a group with string quartet with piano was playing. You can view the Utube video to see and hear a bit of what it was like.

While we had expected that it would be good, it was better than that – professional at a very high level. The group playing, we later discovered was Ensemble Syntonia. This award winning ensemble has been together some 14 years and has produced 5 albums. Follow the link to hear some of their music.

After a couple pieces by the group, another woman joined them. I figured she was an amateur, perhaps a local university student, joining them to play a piece. She was dressed less formally and didn’t appear to be a veteran of such situations. I was hoping she’d hold up under the stress of playing before an audience. Turned out I had nothing to fear – she was totally awesome. After the fact we found out her name was Sarah Nemtanu. Here’s a little about her – be sure to go to the link and hear her play!

When reading about Sarah Nemtanu’s many musical accomplishments in 2012, it is hard to believe that she is only thirty-one years old. At the age of twenty-one she became the joint leader and violin soloist of the Orchestre National de France, and in 2007 she won the French classical music industry’s Instrumental Soloist Revelation award.

In 2009 she was the ‘real’ violinist in Radu Mihaileanu’s film Le Concert. Before all this, however, Sarah Nemtanu began violin studies with her father, Vladimir, the leader of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. She then studied with Gérard Poulet at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating with first prizes in violin and chamber music when she was sixteen.

Following the awards she won at the Saint-Jean de Luz and Antonio Stradivari competitions, she was introduced to the public in Brahms’ Double Concerto with Gautier Capuçon, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Her solo appearances with the Orchestre National de France, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Orchestra, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have earned high praise, and she has performed with such conductors as Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis and Riccardo Muti in some of the world’s most prestigious venues.

Her repertoire encompasses the solo and chamber literature, and she enjoys revisiting the ‘classics’, as her recording Gypsic (Naïve) shows. She also appreciates a variety of non-classical music, as demonstrated by her performances with Richard Galliano, Chilly Gonzales, Ibrahim Maalouf, and the singer Juliette. Sharing her expertise is important to her, and she participates in a variety of causes including the French association Musique et Santé. She also teaches young musicians in master classes and other pedagogical settings.

The violin she plays, made by Giovanni Baptista Guadagnini in 1784, is generously loaned by the prestigious Zilber-Rampal Foundation.

After the concert we headed home on the Metro – all of our expectations had been exceeded.

View slide show.

Visit to the Arc de Triomphe

Hugh and Brenda at Place de l'Étoile - Feb 2013

Hugh and Brenda at Place de l’Étoile – Feb 2013

What we term as a visit to the Arc de Triomphe actually consisted of several visits. Many of our visitors have wanted to see it. There is a tunnel under the wide circle around the monument so you can avoid having to cross the street in the chaotic traffic of this huge round-a-bout, and the view from the top is stunning. On one visit I spent a wonderful evening there watching the city lights come on.

The Arc is one of the most famous monuments in the world. It has a longer formal name, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. Étoile is French for star, and the famous round where streets join at the Arc is called Place de l’Étoile. There is another smaller but similar arc at the Louvre called the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

The Arc was commissioned in 1806 by Emperor Napoleon I following his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz (fought in the modern Czech Republic), one of Napoleon’s most daring and famous victories. The Arc honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), basically corresponding to the periods of the First Republic and then Napoleon’s First Empire. These wars were complex. At the time of the revolution, other imperial governments wanted to support France’s fallen monarchy and feared that similar populist uprisings might occur in their kingdoms. The Holy Roman Emperor was also the brother of French Queen Marie Antoinette, so he had an interest. The Austrian Empire, Prussians, Russians, and English, as well as others at various times, opposed the French and their allies. These conflicts occurred for nearly 25 years in various seemingly interminable phases throughout Europe and North Africa, until first Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and then his subsequent loss at Waterloo put an end to the conflict.

After a long period of construction, the monument was completed in about 1835 during the reign of King Louis Phillipe. It is about 165 feet high by 150 feet wide and 75 feet deep. The arch is so large that in 1919 a daredevil pilot flew his biplane through it. Four main sculptures depicting the Departure of the Volunteers (1792), the Triumph (1810), the Resistance (1813), and the Peace (1815) adorn the legs of the monument. Six reliefs on the upper facades depict famous battles (including Austerlitz) and the funeral of the famous Revolutionary War General Marceau. Shields across the top are engraved with the names of significant victories. The names of Generals and battles won are also engraved on the inside of the monument. At the base is the French tomb of the unknown soldier. The eternal flame for the unknown soldier was the inspiration for the eternal flame at John F Kennedy’s grave. Also mounted at the base are brass memorial plates honoring soldiers from various more recent battles in French history.

The arch is a focal point of many events, Bastille Day ceremonies, the return of Napoleon’s remains to Paris (he is buried at Invalides), the funeral of Victor Hugo, the celebration of the end of WWI and WWII (as well as by the Nazi’s when France was occupied). Every year the Tour de France bicycle race ends here.

See some photos of the monument and the view from the top.