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Sarko Says

photo: restaurant, rue ray losserand

When open, good food.


Paris:– Monday, 10. May 2004:– Speaking to 350 journalists in the auditorium of the Ministry of Finance last Tuesday, the new minister Nicolas Sarkozy urged the French to go shopping. The French, the lucky ones who have work, save too much money. They were exposed to some new incentives to unlock their piggy banks.

To this end a carrot of 150€ deductible from taxes, limited to two years, was offered to consumers who put themselves into debt to buy, a new car, for example. Another carrot was the possibility for grandparents to give their children and grandchildren gifts of 20,000€, without the gift being taxed.

The first is a minuscule amount affecting only a tax–paying minority, and the second runs the risk that the children will simply place the gift in a savings account rather than spend it.

In a blizzard of proposals, another one was to allow shops to be open for business on Sundays. Perhaps the most interesting proposal was the idea to permit mortgaging property at its real value in order to get new loans – something the French might not care to risk.

As for lowering income taxes, further reductions are impossible. Rather, more money will be raised by eliminating special deductions and a host of loop–holes, which are supposed to number about 400. Some taxes, like the TV–tax, will be planned bring in more because it will be grouped with the property tax collection. The idea is, too many are watching TV for free.

The minister has also been talking about selling France's stock of gold. Compared to the national debt, the amount that mayphoto: resto, les tontons be realized from the sale of 500 to 600 tons over five years, is not great. Meanwhile the debt itself will not be allowed to increase – more or less like it hasn't been allowed to increase in the past, and has increased all the same.

More good food in this bistro.

So the state will sell some of the other goodies it has – like its controlling shares in the jet engine manufacturer SNECMA and two autoroute companies. Along with these, the state will also put 100,000 square metres of city–centre building floor–space it owns on the market.

An issue most people consider to be a given – the 35–hour work week – was also under the minister's magnifying glass. He said the measure would cost the state 10 billion euros in 2005 – and added that it needed 'discussing, one of these days.' By which he meant 'renegotiation.'

There were so many proposals that you'd think there wasn't time enough for pure politics, but there was. Jacques Chirac is Président of France and Jean–Pierre Raffarin is his appointed Prime Minister. Nicolas Sarkozy is not just the appointed Minister of Finance, but in France he is known as the 'number–two minister.'

He was this at the Ministry of the Interior too. It is like France has two governments – one is the regular one of the Prime Minister and his ministers, and the other is Nicolas Sarkozy – who would be the future head of the majority UMP party. He who would be this party's future presidential candidate – however, for both posts, self–appointed at this time.

While 'Sarko' was staging his show at the Ministry of Finance, the Minister of Health beat him to the TV–screens by appearing on TF1–news on Monday night – to talk about the 'reform' of the public health system. Another important minister, Jean–Louis Borloo was on France–2 on Tuesday morning, and ex–foreign minister now minister of the interior, Dominique de Villepin, was riding RTL's airwaves.

Even if it seemed at first like a concentrated effort by the government, it was an attempt by several government ministers to reduce the over–all media effect of the 'Sarko–show.'

France has had very few political figures in the past that exhibit the naked lust for power that Nicolas Sarkozy seems to radiate. But the major right–of–centre political party has been through the turmoil of 'reform' before, and was broken down by it – which resulted in a long period of Socialist government, in a co–habitation with Jacques Chirac.

Now they are trying to pull it off again, but with an extra dimension that is embodied by the present 'super' Minister of Finance. If they were working together in harmony they might be formidable. For all we know the 'Sarko–show' is really a show to keep the French distracted.

But if it is what it seems to be – three different ways towards Thatcherization – then I don't think the next elected Président of France is going to be the UMP's candidate.

Air France Swallows KLM

A large majority of KLM stockholders agreed to swap their shares for shares in Air France, which has effectively resulted in Air France's takeover of KLM to create to world largest air carrier for turnover – 19.2 billion€ in 2002.

When Air France dilutes its stock by issuing 46 million new shares, the French state's stake in the airline will become a minority one – at 44.7 percent, which is slated to drop to 20 percent of the airline's capital.

The new jumbo airline will be the leader in European traffic, and will be 4th worldwide, behind American Airlines, Delta and United. It is unknown whether Air France's partnership with Delta will continue.

The new Air France–KLM operated 2400 flights a day, to 250 destinations. The combined company has 540 aircraft and had 106,000 employees. Prime Minister Jean–Pierre Raffarin, in saluting the deal, said that the fusion would 'profit the users.'

Air France's president Jean–Cyril Spinetta has said that the objective of the merger was not to reducephoto: boulangerie flights, but to make the airlines' two networks compatible, and to harmonize their fares in the hopes of winning new parts of the market.

Good bread to go with the good food.

It is expected that Air France will announce a 'ten percent' rise in available seats for summer, with KLM increasing its capacity by nine percent. No announcements have been made yet about the duplication of commercial and operational jobs in Paris or Amsterdam. But the new company is 'consolidating its alliance,' so 'rationalizing' some of its employees out of their jobs should come as no surprise.

This Is Your Captain Speaking

With an initial "I am the pilot of the government Airbus," Prime Minister Jean–Pierre Raffarin took off on a flight around France's political horizons following the TV–news on France–2 Thursday evening.

More a 30–minute press conference than a question and answer session, the Prime Minister drove home his point that there aren't two sets of politics in France. He said there isn't 'one of Nicolas Sarkozy' and another of the Prime Minister. "It's the same," he said.

As for the government party's recent defeat in the regional elections and possible difficulties in the coming European elections, he noted that his government's national mandate lasts until 2007. For this, we are supposed to be as optimistic as the Prime Minister.

He touched on many thorny issues – health coverage, pensions, unemployment – 'it will ease in the second half of this year' – and the unemployment benefit conflict of the entertainment workers. One bit of solid news for those with minimum jobs was the announcement of a five percent boost for the minimum wage on 1. July – which is something the government can do with a decree rather than cash.

Then a surprise. The Prime Minister announced that speeding offenses would no longer be treated with zero tolerance. For the future, for a little excess speed, just a little fine – for a lot of excess speed, a big fine. The government backs down from minor issues nobody was moaning about.

But I guess I have not been paying attention. I thought the government was proud of its radar robots and happy with the numbers of speeders they are catching and fining without mercy, and thus paying for the robots quickly. Polls must have indicated that some fast drivers are voting for other parties on account of this.

Cannes – On or Off?

Angry unemployed entertainment workers have been meeting with the directors of the Cannes Film Festival to work out the concessions the festival will have to make to avoid being struck. So far it seems like the direction is willing to accept demands which will allow the festival to proceed – 'almost normally.'

However, the unemployed entertainment workers are more radical than their union representatives, and they have been disrupting TV programs by occupying the studios. After a year of action they say they are 'very well prepared' to make people listen to them.

The new Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Varbes, has offered to throw 20 million euros into the pot – but the entertainment workers want last year's 'reform' of the unemployed benefits annulled.photo: old print shop Even some UMP deputies think the minister's offer was timid – especially after the government's concessions to the researchers, the restaurant trade, and the other unemployed whose benefits were stopped on 1. January.

A bit of 'found' Paris from another era.

There are about 100,000 part–time entertainment workers who have a specific set of rules concerning unemployment. Some 35,000 work mainly for television and the other 65,000 work in the theatre or for concerts and festivals.

Besides actors, dancers and musicians, there are all the technical workers, such as cameramen, sound engineers, lighting experts, the costume people, as well as the logistics and administration workers. Without part–timers available to do these jobs, the show will not go on.

Unemployment rules and benefits in France are managed by the UNEDIC, which is jointly managed by the employers' federation and the major unions. For the entertainment workers, the conflict centers on a specific UNEDIC decision that increases the minimum number of hours per year that must be worked before an entertainment worker is eligible for unemployment benefits.

The Minister of Culture has no direct way of resolving the conflict, but thinks the UNEDIC should make a 'gesture' to match his own ministry's gesture of 20 million euros for 'urgent situations.'

The Cannes Film Festival is programmed to begin on Wednesday, 12. May.

Cohabiting With Sarkozy

Whether it was programmed or not, at a general meeting over the weekend the UMP called for a referendum to decide whether France will adopt the European Constitution, instead of a parliamentary vote. The idea was presented to 1500 UMP leaders by Minister of Finance, Nicolas Sarkozy, somewhat to the surprise of other party leaders who has spoken before him.

Having France's parliament decide about the constitution is the choice of Président Jacques Chirac, who is the nominal boss of the UMP party. And the party as a whole has been leaning towards the parliamentary method, perhaps to done on the same date as Germany.

Alain Juppé, who is soon to be the ex-boss on the UMP, endorsed Sarkozy's position and when a vote was held, it passed with a majority of nearly 72 percent. After Sarkozy's turn to speak, but before Juppé, the Elysée Palace let it be known that the time to make a choice had 'not arrived.'

It is starting to look like the president is without troops, without a party. Nicolas Sarkozy is slated to take over the UMP leadership later this year when Juppé steps down. Sunday was not a happy day for Jacques Chirac, who founded the RPR party, which has evolved into the UMP.

Diesel Is Bad for You

In two reports published last week, France's environmental agency said that air pollution in urban areas last year was directly responsible for the deaths of 6453 to 9513 victims. The AFSSE laid the blame on fine particles expelled into the atmosphere by factories, heating systems, and automobile exhausts in particular.

Experts said that the fine particles get into the lungs and stay there. Spending weekends in the fresh air out in the countryside isn't going to change anything. And neither will protection masks.

Doctors said there wasn't anything that can be done about the problem of dirty air except to reduce the pollution at its source. This means reducing or eliminating car and truck traffic.

The environmental agency had little in the way of solutions to offer, other than suggesting that consumers demand clean cars, while waiting for government action. Meanwhile, everyone else is urged to walk, ride a bike, rollerskate, or use public transport.

The direct target of the reports – according to TV–news – is the massive use of diesel motors both for trucks and cars in France. There are filters that can reduce the emission of fine particles considerably, but these aren't installed on many existing vehicles.

The two reports were supposed to be made public last Monday, but the Prime Minister's office and the Minister of Health were rumored to have opposed publication of the 'embarrassing' – for the auto lobby – reports.

Signs of Nazis

In the night of 29–30. April an unknown person or persons entered the Jewish cemetery at Herrlisheim near Colmar in Alsace, and spray–painted Nazi symbols and slogans on 127 tombstones. There were no witnesses. However TV and press reports gave the fact ample publicity, and there were some copycat desecrations elsewhere in France in the following days.

The prosecutor in Colmar has started criminal proceedings, and gendarmes are looking for the 'usual suspects,' as well as coordinating their efforts with police services in Germany and Switzerland. New Nazi slogans were found on the wall of a synagogue in the northern city of Valenciennes during the past week.

Neo–Nazis have previously carried out similar actions in Alsace. At the end of the '70 a group calling itself the 'Black Wolves' destroyed the cross of Lorraine at Thann and vandalized the museum of the concentration camp at Struthof.

Last October, the mayor of a small village in Alsace was unable to stop 800 skinheads from gathering for an evening of 'identity rock.' They were from France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.

Like a contagious illness, the Jewish memorial at the WWI Verdun cemetery at Fleury–Devant–Douaumont was attacked in the same manner in the night of 6–7. May. Nazi broken crosses, 'celtic' crosses,photo: concorde fountain the symbol for the SS, and Nazi slogans were sprayed on the Jewish memorial that marks where 300,00 soldiers on both sides were pulverized in the 1914–18 conflict. Charges were laid with the gendarmes at Nancy.

There was a lot of water everywhere last week.

In the past ten days, three Christian cemeteries were also attacked. These were at Amiens, Mâcon and Foucart in Seine–Maritime. Nazi slogans were also found at the Christian cemetery at Niederhaslach, and Muslin cemeteries were also touched by racist slogans. The military cemetery at Cronenbourg near Strasbourg was also profaned.

All of this has relaunched the debate about anti–Semitism in France. To date in 2004, there have been 60 violent acts against persons or property in France, compared to 42 for the same period in 2003.

Président Jacques Chirac has spoken out against the racial attacks, as has Michèle Alliot–Marie, the Minister of Defense. Anti–racist leaders and leaders of Jewish groups have also condemned the outrages, as have many political leaders of all parties.

Police investigators do not think the attacks are by any organized group. Their reasoning is that any group that might be militant enough to do it, wouldn't be stupid enough – because they are known to the police.

But the problem for the police is the number of the 'groupettes,' not all of whom are known. At the beginning of April, 14 Nazi sympathizers were under investigation by the prosecutor at Châteauroux for playing 'war games.' In the past six months the police have seized hundreds of illegal arms.

For the neo–Nazis the end of April is an annual time to remind the world of Adolph Hitler's death in 1945.

On Thursday, 29. April, the Minister of Finance Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking in the Assembly National after returning from a trip to the United States, declared that Jewish leaders he met there had come to believe, 'after five years of the Jospin government, that France was an anti–Semitic country.' This caused fierce indignation by Socialists.

Minor Ed's Note

There certainly was a lot of other news here last week that did not concern France's superminister Nicolas Sarkozy, but placing him in this column with a faction of his press notices will give you an idea of what we're going through.

One wouldn't think that any human person could have the energy necessary to have his finger in every cooking pot around, even ones in other people's kitchens. But when 'Sarko' moved into the Ministry of Finance building that pokes its nose into the Seine, his wife moved into the building's apartments with him.

Madame 'Sarko' is an unpaid member of the minister's staff. Not only this, but she is the 'number two' in the ministry. It is her we thank for arranging for Monsieur 'Sarko' to be on time in so many different places during an average week. I forget how big the ministerial apartments are, but they are not shabby. I take comfort from the thought that Monsieur 'Sarko' spends very little time in them.

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