Hold on to Your Hat!

There’s a mistral raging here right now, that powerful wind that blows from the north. How strong is it? Let’s put it this way – if Julius Caesar had invaded France during a mistral, a lot of centurions would have ended up in the Mediterranean Sea.

A mistral usually blows for several days, getting stronger and stronger. Today is the third day and it’s fierce. We weren’t sure we wanted to go outside, but there were chores to be done so off we went.

We went to the phone store in Cavaillon and decided to have lunch in town. A favorite restaurant of ours looked like it was closed because the heavy outdoor furniture was all pushed together. But when we got closer we saw people eating inside and went in. We were lucky to get a table by the window.

As we ate, I watched a big plastic garbage can across the street. First the wind blew the lid off, then a few minutes later it knocked the can over. Then a big gust blew it into the middle of the street, where it disrupted traffic for a while. Finally another gust blew it back across the street and into an alley.

As we were finishing our meal I saw one of the heavy chairs from our restaurant’s terrace go skittering down the street. The two waitresses dropped what they were doing and ran out the door. After all, it just wouldn’t do to have the restaurant’s furniture injure one of the good citizens of Cavaillon. That would be a tragedy. And bad for business.

After a long chase, the waitresses captured the wayward chair and wrestled it back onto the terrace. As they came back into the restaurant, I happened to catch the eye of one. I raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Wow, that was something!”

She replied with one of those classic Gallic shrugs. “C’est le mistral, monsieur,” she said. “C’est normal.”

Biking in Provence: Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières

Val and I are back in France for the spring, in St-Rémy-de-Provence.

One of the things we enjoy most about this area is the biking. St-Rémy is right next to the Alpilles, a low mountain range with rocky outcroppings. Well, to call the Alpilles “mountains” is a bit of a stretch, they are more like big hills. But they rise up dramatically and look taller than they actually are, kind of like the Scottish Highlands.

There are lots of quiet roads over and through the Alpilles that are perfect for biking. One of our favorite routes is from Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières and back, a 20-mile round trip that takes us over the Alpilles twice.

The ascents are gentle, nothing that low gears can’t handle. Or occasionally walking the bike. And there are always electric bikes for those who aren’t feeling too energetic.

It’s a beautiful ride that takes us past olive groves and vineyards and the occasional flock of sheep. We usually stop partway through the ride for a nice lunch because, well, why not? One has to restore one’s strength, after all.   And what is more delicious than lunch in Provence?

Directions: If you are starting in Maussane, take the D17 a short ways out of town towards Mouriès, and then take a left turn onto the D5. You’ll pass some stone barns (hard to miss the smell). If you continue straight, the D5 turns into the D78. You follow this until it intersects the D24, which is about the halfway point between Maussane and Eygalières. Turn left here, towards Eygalières, and follow the signs for Eygalières.

Yesterday we did half the ride, from Maussane out to the halfway point and back. This winter has been so rainy in California that we didn’t ride as much as usual and aren’t in good biking shape. Or at least that’s our excuse.

Here are some more pictures from the ride. We’ll go the rest of the way next time!

Food Fight!

The French Presidential Debate

France will hold its presidential election in just over two weeks and last night was the big debate. These usually only pit the leading candidates against each other.   This tends to weed out the extremists and make for a more reasonable debate.

Not this time. And it sure was fun to watch.

I guess the folks at BFM TV decided that since there were already extremists among the leading candidates, what’s a few more? So for the first time, every presidential candidate was on stage together, all 11 of them, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right.

Want a Trotskyist? No problem, there were two – the candidates from the Worker’s Fight and New Anti-Capitalist parties. Plus there was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Undefeated, who had nice things to say about Karl Marx.

Want a proto-fascist? Ok, we’ve only got one, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, but she comes by it honestly – her dad is one, too. I guess it’s the family profession.

And what’s an election without a man of the people? My favorite was the guy whose main qualification was, “I’m the son of a shepherd and the brother of a shepherd.” He’s definitely got the shepherd vote locked up.

Eleven candidates on stage together reminded me of the early Republican primaries in the US. But unlike those debates, in France no single candidate can dominate the debate because each gets the same amount of time to speak. It’s a nice way to let the minor party candidates show their stuff. Except when some of them are crazy.

The winner was Emmanuel Macron, who currently leads in the polls. He didn’t say anything remarkable but he didn’t make any mistakes, either, which was the most important thing. He came across as smart, centrist and ready for the big leagues.

The loser was François Fillon, the once-leading candidate who has been laid low by a corruption scandal. He has the most experience and has some excellent ideas about the French economy. He may still make a comeback. But last night he tried to look calm and above the fray and instead came across apathetic.

Plus he had to deal with the itchy hands guy.

The candidates stood at podiums at the bottom of an amphitheater full of their supporters. It was so steep that when a candidate spoke, you could see just a few of the people sitting behind them – the faces of people in the first row and the laps of people in the second row.

Unfortunately for Fillon, when he gave his opening remarks some guy in the second row decided to scratch an itch on his hand. And scratch. And scratch. So while Fillon spoke, you saw this pair of hands just to the side of his head, scratching and scratching. It was mesmerizing – you couldn’t look away. I thought maybe we should call a doctor for this poor guy.

The Trotskyists were the most animated candidates. The woman from Worker’s Fight had only one volume level – shouting – and blamed everything on capitalists who exploit workers “because it’s in their DNA.” The man from New Anti-Capitalists spoke so fast it was unbelievable. And he never seemed to take a breath. I’m pretty sure he had twelve espressos right before coming on stage.

The debate was less than edifying, with lots of finger pointing. Everyone and everything you can imagine was blamed for France’s ills. Except for the French themselves, of course.

It was the fault of capitalism, immigrants, big bosses, Romanians, “the system,” the European Union, globalization, Muslims, and bankers. There were so many scapegoats milling around on stage that at one point they had to shoo some off to make room for more.

A few solutions were proposed and some were, um, interesting. One was to reduce the workweek even further, from its current 35 hours down to 32. Another was to make layoffs illegal. A third was to “temporarily” nationalize some businesses.

And we wonder why the French economy suffers.

The high point came when the New Anti-Capitalist guy went after Le Pen. She’s a populist and presents herself as the “anti-system” candidate. She’s also caught in a corruption scandal of her own, accused of taking public money for fake jobs. But she can’t be personally prosecuted because she is a member of the European Parliament and has immunity.

Pointing his finger and talking even faster than usual, the Anti-Capitalist guy said, “You steal from the till. And then you, who are anti-system, protect yourself with Parliamentary immunity. But when we, the workers, are summoned by the police, we don’t have worker’s immunity – we have to go.”

“You’re anti-system? That’s bullsh*t!”

For once, Le Pen was at a loss for words. Which was nice.

Silicon Valley vs France: Corporate Culture

Photo by davidpwhelan at morguefile.com

“Don’t be evil” or “Wine with lunch”?

My wife Val and I were living in France and got a call from our friend Viviane, a teacher at a local high school. She sounded desperate.

Viviane explained that she and a group of fellow business teachers would be working in England during the summer. This would allow them to learn how companies there operate. But first they wanted to have some idea of what they were getting into.

Viviane had arranged to have one of her neighbors, a Brit working in France, come and talk to the teachers about what it was like to work for an English company. But he had dropped out at the last minute. The meeting was in three days and Viviane needed us to substitute.

We gently explained that while we shared a common language, we had never worked in England. No matter, she said, you know about Anglo-Saxon companies and that’s what’s important.

Anglo-Saxon?

It turns out that the French use this term to describe American-style business practices. It is shorthand for what we might call free-market capitalism. In France, this is definitely not a compliment.

It is true that Val and I understand American capitalism. Coming from the wild west of the Silicon Valley, we understand it in one of its more extreme forms.

So we agreed to make a presentation, explaining some of the differences between working for a French company and an American one. Luckily, all of the teachers taught at International Baccalaureate schools so we would be able to do it in English.

Then we did what anyone does to become an expert on short notice – we used Google. And we called some French friends in California who gave us a quick tutorial. Then we boiled our research down to a few key points.

Most were not surprising. For example, French companies are more formal than American ones, especially in terms of dress code and hierarchy. Business suits may be fading away on our side of the Atlantic (I can’t remember the last time I wore one) but they are still common in France. And while you might greet the president of an American company with a casual, “Hi, Bob,” that would be shocking in France. No, in France it is always, “Bonjour, Monsieur le President.”

We learned that Americans are generally more risk-taking. We change jobs more often and it is not a scary thing to join a startup company (well, not too scary). By contrast, it would be a major risk to join one in France. If it failed, as startups often do, it would be a black mark that could follow you for the rest of your career.

Similarly, American companies are more risk-taking. If a company sees an attractive business opportunity, it is more likely to invest and hire and go for it. If things work out, the company grows and new jobs are created. And if things don’t work out, the company can cut its losses by downsizing, as painful as that is.

In France, by contrast, it is extremely difficult and expensive to downsize. So companies are less likely to hire in the first place.

The most surprising thing we learned was that there is much more mixing of professional and personal lives in France. In the US, we might have lunch with our colleagues or the occasional drink after work, but that would be about it. Mostly we keep our home and work lives separate.

By contrast, when you arrive at work in France you shake hands and say hello to each person in the office. You spend a half hour chatting at the coffee machine before starting your workday. You see your colleagues socially on the weekends and even go on vacation together!

When I think about some of the people I’ve worked with, then imagine us vacationing together, my head hurts.

The big day arrived and we met Viviane in a conference room at her school. She introduced us to her colleagues, who seemed nervous at the prospect of taking a trip all the way across the English Channel.

We began by giving some background on ourselves and our careers. We talked about having worked in different companies, in a variety of industries. We described our jobs in areas like finance, marketing, and human resources.

This turned out to be a showstopper. Apparently, it is uncommon in France to move around as much as we have. This led to a long discussion of why and how we had done this and whether it would even be possible in France.

Then we gave our presentation and the teachers asked questions. The discussion got heated on the subject of companies pursuing growth but taking the risk of having to downsize. No one likes layoffs and the French have a history of violent action opposing them.

One teacher asked us, pointedly, how the Anglo-Saxon system could possibly be superior to the French one. We didn’t think it was a good idea to start an international incident so we fell back on our experience of living in Switzerland. In other words, we stayed neutral. We pointed out that each system has its advantages and disadvantages and then quickly moved on to another subject.

In the end, the teachers appreciated our presentation and felt better prepared for their summer abroad. And we felt like we had gained a little insight into the role of work in French people’s lives.

Best of all, after the meeting Viviane rewarded us with lunch at a restaurant that had a nice long wine list.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Many of us have heard of Lascaux, the cave in France with its prehistoric paintings of pot-bellied horses and other strange animals.  But did you know that even older prehistoric paintings were discovered in 1994, in a cave just north of Avignon?

The Grotte Chauvet was made famous by Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and has recently been opened to the public.  Well, not the real one, but an almost perfect re-creation.  Like Lascaux, the real cave is closed to the public to prevent damage to its delicate artwork.

I recently wrote an article about it for the excellent website The Good Life France and you can find it here.

 

Cheesy Lessons

Photo by MaxStraeten at Morguefile.com

The Good Life France is a great blog about all things French. They also do a quarterly magazine – check out the current issue for my article on what I’ve learned about French cheese (page 88.)  You can also enter your name to win a copy of my book (page 86.)

You can check out the magazine here

Can the Radical Centrists Win in France?

A wave of populism has been washing over the political world – first Brexit, then Trump, and soon perhaps the Netherlands.

But the big country to watch is France, which has long had a strong populist party in the National Front. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, currently leads in polls for the upcoming French presidential election. France was one of the founding members of the European Union and today is arguably the lynchpin. If Le Pen wins, it could signal the end of the European project.

Most people are focused on the French presidential election. But the legislative election, which happens right after it, could be even more important. Let’s look at both.

The Presidential Election

To start, it helps understand how the two-round French electoral system works. Phineas Rueckert recently wrote an excellent article about this in Frenchly, which you can find here.

There are four candidates who could plausibly win the presidency. Arrayed across the political spectrum from left to right, they are: Benoit Hamon of the Socialist party, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche !, François Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Normally, the election would feature a runoff between the candidates of the two main political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. But this is no normal year.

The Socialists are the party of current French president François Hollande. He is widely considered a failure, with the lowest ratings of any French president, and is not standing for reelection.

This has thrown his party into disarray and led to the election of a candidate who represents the left of the left. Hamon campaigned on a platform of a universal minimum income and a 32-hour workweek. While this thrills the activist base of the Socialist party, it marginalizes him with the larger electorate. Hamon will be lucky to get 15% of the vote.

The Republicans would normally be expected to profit from this turmoil in the Socialist party. Their candidate, Fillon, is a respected former prime minister. He is deeply conservative and moved even further to the right in the Republican primary.

Fillon was positioning himself to appeal to supporters of the extreme-right National Front in the general election. It was a reasonable strategy when he was the favorite to win the presidency. But then the Pénélopegate scandal engulfed his campaign.

Pénélope is Fillon’s wife. Fillon has presented himself as a kind of Mr. Clean, but then evidence emerged that Pénélope and two of their sons have been paid over $1 million in government funds for possibly fictitious jobs. The ensuing scandal has tarred Fillon as “just another corrupt politician” and he has plummeted in the polls.

With both major parties in bad shape, this should be Le Pen’s moment. She is an outsider at a time when conventional candidates are disdained. She is a populist at a time when populism is ascendant. Her party has been gaining in strength over the last several national elections and she currently leads in the polls. But three things will probably cause the presidency to elude her grasp.

First, while she has a solid base of support – approximately one third of the electorate – the opposing parties tend to team up against National Front candidates in the second round of elections. This has cost her party victories in the past and is expected to do so again in the presidential election.

Second, Le Pen is facing her own fake job scandal. Her party has a history of corruption and has been the target of numerous government investigations. Le Pen has been able to shrug these off in the past by arguing that it’s just “the system” out to get her.

But that tactic won’t work this time because of Pénélopegate, which has entrapped a leading member of “the system.” The more news coverage Pénélopegate gets, the more it reminds voters that Le Pen, as well as Fillon, is just another corrupt politician.

Third, Le Pen is no longer the new new thing. Since taking over her party in 2011, she has benefited from being the fresh face in French politics. But that role is now being played by our last presidential contender, Emmanuel Macron.

At 39, Macron is young for a presidential candidate. He has had a limited political career, serving as Economy Minister for just two years under Hollande. He has never held elective office.

While this thin resume would normally disqualify Macron, it is helping him in this year of outsiders. He is independently wealthy and does not seem to have been touched by the usual political corruption. And the French find his personal life fascinating, as he is married to his former high school teacher – who is 24 years his senior.

Most importantly, Macron benefits from the political space left vacant by his opponents. The leftist party has moved to the left and the rightist party has moved to the right, leaving a gaping hole in the political center. Macron is a classic centrist, a pro-business former banker who served in a Socialist government. He doesn’t have to contort himself in order to stake out a position between the major parties.

Macron has recently joined forces with François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist MoDem party, further cementing his position in the political center. Macron has been climbing in the polls and is pulling close to Le Pen. The combination of his political positioning, his clean record and his status as the shiny new face of French politics make him the current favorite to win the presidency.

Then What? The Legislative Election

France has a political system that is kind of a cross between those of the US and UK. Like the US, it elects its president directly. Like the UK, it has a prime minister who is elected by the legislature. Together they run the country, with the president playing the role of CEO and the prime minister the COO. The prime minister runs the government and the cabinet reports to him or her.

French parliamentary elections take place a few weeks after the presidential election. Normally, the party that wins the presidency also wins a majority in the parliament. When this happens, the president nominates a prime minister, who is then approved by parliament. The prime minister then names a cabinet, in consultation with the president.

But sometimes the president and the prime minister come from different parties, creating “cohabitation.” Cohabitation is usually a recipe for conflict and inaction, as our own experience in the US shows.

What is interesting about Macron is that he is an independent candidate. There is no party behind him. He has created what he calls a “movement,” En Marche !, that functions like a party. But it is still immature and is not yet organized enough to win a national legislative election with hundreds of seats in play.

While Macron is actively recruiting candidates and will win some seats, it is hard to see En Marche ! gaining a majority in parliament. And given the state of the other parties, it is hard to see one of them winning a majority, either. This opens the path to a functioning parliamentary coalition.

Macron is uniquely qualified to make this happen. Running as a centrist, with relatively weak ties to the Socialist party, he can make deals without fear of treading on party orthodoxy. Together with Bayrou, I expect him to build a cabinet with members from multiple parties. This team would then drive a legislative agenda with support from centrists from all parties.

This will require both skill and luck. With his limited government experience, Macron will need to team up with someone who is skilled in the dark arts of legislative sausage making. And there is always the risk that a fractured legislature falls into bickering and stasis.

But the people of France, like those in the US and other countries, are tired of division and extremes. People want to see policies enacted that are reasonable and are not driven by ideology. There is a real chance that France will be the country where the populist wave dissipates and a radically centrist government shows a new way forward.

Provence Starter Kit

Thinking of visiting Provence, the land of glorious lavender fields and charming hilltop villages?  Good for you!

But planning a trip to a new destination can be challenging. Where do you begin?

What you need is a Provence Starter Kit!  And here it is.

A Week in Provence

Provence has so much to see and do that you can be overwhelmed with choices. I’ve put together a one-week itinerary that hits many of the top spots. It allows you to stay in one town the entire time, rather than moving from place to place. You can savor Provençal life in lovely St.-Rémy-de-Provence while taking short trips to enjoy the wide range of what Provence has to offer. Here’s the link.

 

Favorite Restaurants

Want to try traditional Provençal dishes? Or maybe have a big, delicious salad for lunch? Perhaps you’d like something exotic, like Moroccan food. Peruse my list of favorite restaurants and pick whatever strikes your fancy. Here’s the link.

 

 

Informative Blogs

There are a number of excellent bloggers who cover all aspects of life in Provence – things to see, places to eat, special events that are going on, and more. These blogs give you a way to find out what’s going on in Provence from people who are in the know. I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Here’s the link.

 

Parlez-Vous Français ?

Even a little French can help you get around and connect with the locals. I’ve put together some of my favorite language websites. Here’s the link.  At a minimum, you should definitely put the Larousse dictionary app on your phone!

Book Review – But you are in France, Madame

Catherine Berry has a dream, to live in France with her family. And it is no small endeavor, as this family of 5 start out half way around the world, in Australia.

It is inspiring to share their story as she and her husband put work on hold and organize the family move. We feel part of the adventure and of overcoming many obstacles, such as finding a place to live, getting proper driving permits, and dealing with the French school system for the 3 children. And, somehow, the one-year stay turns into four.

Berry provides a realistic view of the ups and downs of daily life and trying to navigate in a foreign culture. And while sharing these difficulties, she does so with a healthy perspective and an eye for appreciating cultural differences.

Berry and her family exude a joy for life and for trying new things. They hike many trails in mountains of the Haute-Savoie region where they live. They learn to water ski on the lake and become good friends with the instructor. They come to appreciate the joy of cooking and eating local specialties, and they use the school holidays to explore the many, diverse regions of France.

From participating in local festivals and shopping in nearby “garage” sales, the family demonstrates how one can have meaningful experiences without them being expensive.

They come to appreciate their lifestyle in France and are enriched by it. And so are we, by reading this book.

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A Great Way to Travel

Why the big hurry?

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com

When I first started traveling, it was rush, rush, rush to see all the sights. I wouldn’t stay more than a couple of days in any city before I was off to the next. So much to see! Go go go!

But while I saw a lot, I didn’t fully enjoy it. Over time, I figured out what many people do – slower is better. It isn’t just about the sights; it’s about savoring the place. Sometimes less really is more.

Now my wife and I try to stay in a place for about a week. We rent an apartment if we can, so that we can shop at the local markets and eat some of our meals at home. It’s fun to go to the bakery every morning for fresh bread, eventually being recognized by the baker when you walk in.

We linger in the cafés, people watch, and get a sense of the rhythm of a place. We chat with the locals and get their perspective on life. We do less but experience our destination more fully.

Of course, we still like to see things. So we try to stay in a town with some interesting sights, and from which we can take short day trips. That way we only have to unpack and pack our suitcases once – heaven!

A favorite destination is Provence, where we now live part of the year. For those of you thinking of spending a week there, I’ve written a short article on how to experience Provence in seven days. It’s centered on the lovely town of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, with plenty of beautiful and interesting things to see and do within an hour’s drive.

Here’s the link.

Bon voyage !

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com