April 23, 2014

Letter From Paris:  Van Gogh at the Orsay Museum

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

During the last four years of his life, Vincent Van Gogh produced a phenomenal number of works.  But it was also the time when he suffered episodes of madness, which were to lead him to suicide in 1890 at the age of 37.

The Orsay museum chose this period of intense creation and of psychological despair to present the current exhibit entitled,  “Van Gogh/Artaud. The man driven to suicide by society.”   This new approach to the genius of Van Gogh is through the eyes of Antonin Artaud, a poet, actor and artist, who suffered serious mental illness, was interned nine years and underwent shock treatment.  In 1947, he had a chance to see a major retrospective of Van Gogh’s works at the Orangerie museum.  He wrote, “Van Gogh was not crazy, he was saying a truth that society could not accept.”  He went on by denouncing the prejudices of  moral and science unable to fit genius and madness within the accepted norms.  Throughout the exhibit,the paintings and drawings of Van Gogh are commented in poetic terms by this  troubled soul mate.

Visitors study the Van Gogh paintings in the new exhibition of the artist's work at the Musee d'Orsay.

Visitors study the Van Gogh paintings in the new exhibition of the artist’s work at the Musee d’Orsay.

The exhibit opens in a very dark room, with incoherent sentences scattered on the black walls with a back drop of moaning sounds.  Forty six of Van Gogh’s strongest works have been selected along with some graphic works.  The visitor travels through four periods of the Dutch painter’s life – in Paris, Arles, Saint-Remy-de-Provence and Auvers-sur-Oise.

Several among the more than 40 self portraitsVan Gogh painted throughout his life are — for the public — like a brutal confrontation with the artist.  They certainly are not an exercise in complacency, but a harsh and almost merciless exercise.  American art historian Meyer Schapiro remarks that, for Van Gogh, creating a self portrait was a form of therapy and a way to reconstruct his inner self.  The artist used it to protect himself from crises of instability.

In contrast, portraits of ” La Berceuse”  and “Père Tanguy” express the peaceful and introspective mood of the models. In both paintings, the background — floral in one,  Japanese etchings in the other — show his attraction to pure decorative and aesthetic considerations reminiscent of Matisse’s.   The portrait of Dr. Gachet, at first his psychiatrist and then his friend, seems to radiate kindness, but also melancholy.  Van Gogh writes, “This man is in as bad a shape as myself.  He wears the sorry expression of our times.”

After the tragedy of the night of Dec. 23, 1888, when he had a fight with Gauguin, who was visiting him in Arles, Van Gogh sliced his left ear.  At his own request, he was admitted at the Saint-Paul hospital, near Saint-Remy-de-Provence.  However, he was  authorized to go out and, on those occasions, painted some of his most powerful  landscapes.

His trees are soaring into the sky and dwarf the silhouettes of people.  In “Cyprès avec deux femmes“, June 1889, the tormented volutes of the trees are an ominous shape hovering over two young women walking.  In “Arbres dans le jardin de l’hopital Saint -Paul” , October 1889, the twisted trunks tower over a barely visible woman carrying a red parasol.  His “Foret de pins au declin du jour ,” (pine forest at dusk) December 1889, is a frightening scene, where the trees are beaten by the wind.  They are outlined on an acid yellow sky and a smoldering orange sun.

During his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, he painted  farm houses with red tiles or thatch roof, giving them a quaint and welcoming touch.  Only the sky, scratched with jagged lines,  reveals the artist’s tension.

The most important work of the exhibit – “Champ de Ble avec Corbeaux” (wheat field with crows) – is projected on a screen, drawing the onlooker into the heavy yellow mass of wheat swaying under a stormy sky.   The tracks on the path combined with the birds everywhere create a harried movement with little time to spare.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Two Local Elections — Two Remarkably Different Outcomes

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Local elections have just taken place in Turkey and in France.  The outcomes of the elections speak a great deal about these two countries .

Primeminister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, already in power for 12 years, is showing no intention of stepping down.  His aura at the polls was barely affected by the scandals and accusations of wrong-doing.  Particularly the violent repression of the popular manifestations on Istanbul Taksim Square, the  allegations of frauds directed not only at him, but at his family, the murky circumstances of score settlings.

His recent strategy includes the taking over 85 percent of the main TV channel and the curbing of social networks like Twitter or Facebook.  Nevertheless  Erdogan’s party, the AKP  (Party of Justice and Development),  passed  the test of the polls with flying colors, not acknowledging the distress of the public opinion.  These events did not speak much for the democratic system of that country and should constitute a red flag for the 28 EU members next time Turkey knocks at their door.

In contrast, the French municipales (local elections) were a reflection of the French opinion’s strong disapproval of the policy  of the Francois Hollande government and brought on major changes.

The municipales,  are always an important and colorful event in France,  when mayors and  council members of 36,500 communes (towns) are elected for six years.  But this time they turned into a tsunami, which modified the political landscape of the country.  The vague bleue (blue wave ) showing the gains of the Right and even the vague bleue marine (navy blue wave ) named after Marine Le Pen, head of the far right Front National.  Just a few figures:  in 2008 in the towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants, the Left had 509 mayors and the Right 433.  In 2004, the Left was reduced to 349 and the Right grew to 572.  Emblematic  was the town of Limoges, which had voted socialist since 1912, and turned conservative.

Paris resisted this tidal wave and remained socialist.  Incumbent Mayor Bertrand  Delanoe had groomed his assistant Anne Hidalgo to be his successor.  Together, they engaged in an intensive and efficient campaign.  The Mayor of Paris is elected according to a special system of voting in three rounds.  The first two rounds each Parisian vote for the mayor and council in each arrondissement.  Then mayors and councils vote for the mayor of Paris.  The fight to the finish between Anne Hidalgo and her conservative opponent Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet , was fierce, to say the least.  The former won by 53.34 over 44.06 percent.

The map of Paris to-day is made up of two halves: a blue west, and a red east.   With 11 versus nine arrondissements,   Hidalgo leads but not as much as  Jacques Chirac did in 1983 when he won all of them.  These results will be important in the next senatorial elections since the members of the Senat (high chamber)  are elected by the mayors.

Barely 24 hours after the closing of the polls, president François Hollande appeared on TV.  He declared that he had heard and understood the people’s message of disapproval of the policy he conducted since 2012.  He reassured his audience that appropriate measures would be taken.

A day later he announced the remaniement (reshuffle) of the government.  The soft spoken, kind-looking prime minister Jean Marc Ayrault was replaced by tough and energetic Manuel Valls, former minister of the interior.  The number of ministers was trimmed down from 38 to 16 and the parity men/women respected.  The new ministers are more experienced and some of the “heavyweights” remained, like Laurent Fabius, at the Foreign Affairs desk.

The decision concerning Bercy (ministry of Finances and Economy)  was crucial given the urgency to reduce the budget deficit and increase the competitivité (competitiveness)  of the French industry.  The new prime minister Manuel Valls decided to split the responsibilities between two ministers: Michel Papin handling Budget and Finances , Arnaud Montebourg becoming minister of Economy.  This will be a “hot” area since France has to work in a partnership with Brussels.

Ségolène Royal

Ségolène Royal

The second spectacular move was the nomination of Ségolène Royal as the minister of Ecology, Sustainable Industry and Energy.  She will rank as number three in the new cabinet.  She is an old timer, particularly in the environmental field.  Her appearance in the courtyard of Hotel de Matignon made quite a splash.  Royal is a highly educated woman, used to be Hollande’s companion for 29 years, the mother of their four children and the last contestant for the presidency against Sarkozy in  2002.  Her appointment will be helpful to Valls’ government because she brings her strong connections to the lower working class with her.

The outspoken Housing minister Cecile Duflot left the Matignon in a huff and a puff , showing her overwhelming dislike for Valls.  Her colleagues in the Green party at the Assemblée Nationale, were upset by her move as they were willing to work within the cabinet.

The overhaul of the new government was greeted by salvos of criticisms and gibes from the UMP and naturally from the extreme parties – this is normal in France.   However, the composition of the new government was interpreted, by more unbiased analysts,  as the determination to follow the road map set out by François Hollande at the Jan. 14  press conference and to keep the course on the Pacte de Responsabilité, but to  implement it with more determination, more speed and more pedagogy.

Failure is not an option and Brussels  will not ease off the pressure.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Following a New Silk Road

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The presidents of the United States and of China were in Europe this week.  It was the first visit of a Chinese president to the European Union’s (EU) headquarters since 1975.  He will meet with the presidents of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, of the Commission, Manuel Barroso and of the Parliament, Martin Schuls, showing a nascent  interest in  Europe as a political entity.

However, Europe has been the largest trade partner of China for a decade, with German leading the pack.  Why then did president Xi Jinping choose France as one of his four stops in Europe in spite of  that country’s small trade and investment with the Middle Kingdom ?  The reasons are historical, cultural, the Chinese’s attraction to  gastronomy and good wine, and, finally, the desire to acquire more areas of French “savoir faire” and state of the art technology, heretofore unexplored.

Xi Jinping and his beautiful star singer wife Peng Liyuan opened his three-day state visit in Lyon, the French silk capital, and announced his intention to promote a “new Silk Road.”  Started with French King Francis I, the silk-making industry in Lyon was flourishing by the 17th century.  In the 1920s cultural ties developed between China and France.  Chinese students entered French universities, among them several future political leaders.  In 1964 General Charles de Gaulle was the first Western chief of state to establish full diplomatic relations with the Middle Kingdom.

In this file photo, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave to the crowd.

In this file photo, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave to the crowd.

Mutual interests in literature, cinema and art have created special bonds between Chinese and French intelligencia.  Chinese fans of the “Nouvelle Vague” films (new wave) are sometimes more knowledgeable about the names of the directors that the French themselves.  The 1992 film “l’Amant‘”(the Lover), directed by Jean Jacques Annaud, based on the 1984 novel by Marguerite Duras, was a huge success in France.  The plot is the affair a “Chinaman” struck with a young French girl on a ferry boat crossing the Mekong river.  French readers cheered on the high school “Joueuse de Go” (Go player) character created by author Shan Sa, whose courage symbolized the determination of the Chinese population fighting against the impending invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese in 1931.

But the objectives of the Chinese president and of his cohort of businessmen and investors who accompanied him were more down to earth:  they were here for serious business.  Both by making inroads into the French industry and by opening their own market to French goods in order to tilt the massive trade deficit between the two countries.  The car company Dongfeng just acquired 14 percent of the PSA’s (Peugeot-Citroen) shares.   The Chinese have been trying to take over 46 percent of  Club Med’s (touristic villages) capital.

Whether it is nuclear energy  or aeronautic technology, automobile industry, or fast trains, the transfer of technology has always been a touchy point for the French.   The most striking example of this situation is the TGV (Train à grande vitesse) or fast train which was designed by Alstom in France in the 1970s and was further developed  jointly with other Western countries.  Now the Chinese network is ten times longer than the French and in July 2013  “Harmony Express” surpassed the speed of the French trains.

On a televised program, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government was asked the question about transfer of technology.   She said that the Chinese now are pretty much caught up, ( which is certainly true with telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE) and that now their policy was veering toward “partnership and cooperation” – language to be expected from a government spokeswoman.

The Chinese love France.  Millions of tourists speed through the most famous halls of the Louvre.  The growing middle class and the wealthy are increasingly   fascinated by luxury goods.  They are not satisfied anymore by the pirated brands one finds all over the world.  Now they can find the real stuff 72 percent cheaper in France thanks to the system of “detaxe” and by avoiding import duties into China.

During the many years we lived in Africa with the American Embassy, in the 1960s and 1970s, I had a chance to observe that, in those days, the Chinese lived in spartan compounds totally secluded from the local population , working on Guinea tea plantations or building a soccer stadium in the Gambia.  They have come a long way.  To-day they visit France to do their spring shopping and buy Chambertin ou Chateau Lafitte wine, Hermes silk scarves or Vuitton bags.

Agribusiness is a field where improvements would be welcome.   One remembers the problems China suffered a few years ago with contaminated powder milk.  The Chinese are very fond of foie gras and cheese.  They have just discovered the “Jambon de Bayonne.”  It takes many hours of preparation and manual work to prepare the dark red ham meat.  The traditional “savoir faire” has existed since the 13th century in the south west of France.  Its commerce is labeled “IGP” (Indication Geographique Protegéee) or geographically protected.  Pork is one of the main food staple in China and there the huge market is promising.  Will the  transfer of “savoir faire” be followed by the loss of the brand?

During the elegant dinner at the Elysees palace and the following night at the  Opera Royal of the Chateau de Versailles, what was president François Hollande thinking of  – 18 billion euros of new contracts or the difficult political situation he is in right now after the disastrous (for him) recent local elections?

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Mr. Putin, You Have Much To Lose

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

At the foot of Mount Mithridates, in eastern Crimea, stood the ancient city of Pantikapeion founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists.  It is where King Mithridates killed himself in 63 BC by the sword since his body was immune to poison.

In 1992, I joined the archaeological expedition from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts led by Dr. V. Tolstikov, head of the department of near eastern antiquities, and Dr. Michael Treister, curator, in order to publish an article in Archaeology.  That season the Russian team was researching the acropolis and a vast architectural complex with a colonnade dating from the 2nd century BC.  Below the steep cliff, one could see modern Kerch and the Russian shore of the Krasnodar region across the five kilometer-wide Cimmerian Bosporus.

The scholars from the Pushkin museum were among the many Russian, Ukrainian and foreign archaeologists who have long been researching the rich strata of  human occupation on the northern shore of the Black Sea.  They have also studied the Scythian civilization, whose “kurgans” (tombs) contained the famous gold treasures.

The Institutes of Archaeology in the major cities, like Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev, the universities and most of  the museums, have their own expeditions.  For instance, Odessa conducts regular excavations in Olbia, one of the major “emporia”  (commercial trading post) for the export of cereals, fish and slaves to Greece and for import of Attic goods to Scythia.  On the outskirts of Sebastopol, the ancient Greek city of Chersonesus has been excavated jointly by teams from Ukraine, the University of Texas and the German Institute of Archaeology.

Archaeologists, historians and other specialists exchange the results of their finds and publish joint papers in scholarly journals.  The Center for Research on Ancient History, located in Besançon in eastern France, is an invaluable source for  the Black Sea region and has collected works from scholars, irrespective of their nationality.  Periodically, a Black Sea symposium, which attracts several hundred scientists, meets in Vani, Georgia.

After this long description of the archaeological scene in the Black Sea region, the question arises: what is going to happen to this fruitful scientific collaboration currently happening across the borders ?

What next for President Vladimir Putin?

What is President Vladimir Putin’s next move?

During our sail along the Black Sea coast in 1991 (see the Feb. 8 Sochi article posted on this site), we saw dozens of wind turbines near Evpatoria in western Crimea.  Today, Ukraine and Russia have ambitious plans to create a wind farm of 3,000 sq. km. for a grid power of 16,000 MW.  Aeolian energy is readily available in this area, thanks to the shallow waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

On March 20, Le Monde published an article entitled, “Antonov mirrors the break between Russia and Ukraine.”  The article explains how the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing and services company, Antonov, builds planes with technology and software from Dassault Systemes and employs 16,000 Ukrainian workers, but 40 percent of the parts utilized in production are Russian.

On March 22,  a Moscow official announced that the extension of the capital’s subway had to be put on hold since they could not take delivery of some of the construction material  ordered from the Ukraine.

In the art world, a Paris galerist told me they also were expecting difficulties in the near future.

Human, cultural and economic ties between Ukraine, Crimea and Russia are so interwoven that the break up of the Ukrainian territorial integrity and the announced sanctions from the West are bound to have serious consequences.

Vladimir Putin is supposed to be an excellent chess player.  One assumed that each one of his moves was made according to a planned strategy.  This does not seem to be true anymore.  He has won the Crimea, but what about the long term waves he is making? Problems are going to catch up with him.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: A Week Like No Other in French Politics

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

It has been a week out of the ordinary in French politics, to say the least.  A summary of the sequence of events may help the foreign reader in deciphering the situation.

It all started March 2 with a few revelations about the UMP (Union for Popular movement) right wing party.  Jean François Copé, UMP president, was denounced in the weekly magazine “Le Point” of surfacturation (over billing) of expenses incurred during the 2012 electoral campaign.  A communications company had obtained the contract without preliminary invitations to tender.  Copé, looking wan and thin, reacted almost emotionally to the attack.  He announced that all the accounts of the UMP would be locked in a sealed room contingent upon the other political parties as well as the media, doing the same .

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Then, on March 3, the whistle-blowing satirical newspaper, “Canard Enchainé,” reported that Patrick Buisson, a collaborator of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, recorded the latter’s conversations.  Buisson was part of Sarkozy’s first circle and his closest adviser.  He made the recordings himself for hours on end, from morning to evening,  with an old-fashion dictaphone carried in his pockets.  Some of the recorded conversations took place just prior to a planned cabinet reshuffle — in other words, they were politically sensitive.

The question was: who gave the recordings to the press?  Buisson’s lawyer vouched that his client did not.  But what was suspicious was the fact that Buisson told his son (father and son have been estranged for two years) that those recordings were a “life insurance” and that cela peut toujours servir (One never knows, it might be useful someday)

But this was just the beginning.  An avalanche of revelations, which followed – all involving  the wiretapping of Nicolas Sarkozy to hamper his return to the political life -  was even more serious and  turned into a full blown political crisis reaching the top level of the Executive and of the Judiciary.

Four legal cases or “affaires,” which had been dormant, were resurfacing now:  the 2008 arbitrage-granting of 403 millions to businessman and former minister Bernard Tapie by the Credit Lyonnais;  the “retro- commissions” obtained from Pakistan after the Karachi terrorist attack in 2002 ;  the alleged financing from Libyan president Gaddafi in 2007 ;  the funds given by Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world and heir to the l’Oreal company.

These four affaires share the common factor of suspicion in involvement of the illegal financing of Sarkozy’s electoral campaigns of 2007 and 2012.  Last October, Sarkozy was cleared and received a non-lieu (no ground for public prosecution) in the Bettencourt affaire.

On March 6, the headlines of the daily “Le Monde” were a bombshell: the former president’s phone had been tapped since April 13 by orders  of the judges d’instruction ( investigating judges running preliminary inquiry) – a totally unprecedented occurrence in the French Republic.  In early March, the judges opened an inquiry for traffic of influence  and corruption against Sarkozy, his lawyer Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert, general counsel at the Cour de Cassation  (highest judiciary court in France).

An aggressive perquisition (search) was conducted in Herzog’s Bordeaux residence.  Ten police and judges showed up at eight in the morning.  The lawyer’s computer and his portable phone were seized.  The taking of the former president ‘s personal “carnets” (agendas) created a great commotion.   In a television talk show, the president of the Bar commented that these actions were reminiscent of the Stasi.

Up to that point it was all bad news for the former president.  The socialist government had remained prudently quiet.  The wiretapping of Sarkozy was legal (he did not have immunity any more) as long as there was a suspicion of infraction.  However, the accumulation of proceedings against him was  beginning to be seen as harassment.  By coincidence, Eliane Houlette  was appointed in the new position of “National Financial Attorney” on March 3 in order to deal with corruption and tax frauds.  The first case was to be Sarkozy’s.

Then the blame game seemed to move from the opposition to the majority.  As a journalist commented, the government turned this gold – Sarkozy on the run – to lead, with the government violating the independence of justice.  The Garde des Sceaux or Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a high-spirited and smart woman, born in Guyana, was put on the defensive and even accused of lying.

Did she know the content of the recordings?  When did the prime minister and the minister of interior (Secretary of the Interior) know?  Their evasive and even conflicting answers made them appear guilty when their main sin was probably just to be disorganized.

By the end of that memorable week, “Le Monde” published a letter, co-signed by the most eminent members of the judiciary corps, calling for moderation.  The letter praised transparency, but said that lawyers were not above the law, and that wiretapping was only legal if carried out by independent judges.  It also demanded a return to one of the basic rules of the French (and American) institutions – the separation of power between Executive and Judiciary.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: US Academy Awards Spark Thoughts on ‘Le Cinéma Francais”

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The ceremonies of the 86th “Oscars” and of the 39th “Césars” took place this week within two days of each other.  In comparison with the glamorous and giant show of the American Academy Awards, the French Césars seemed almost like an intimate affair.  But for the French it is very important as a way to evaluate the status of the film industry and for professionals in this field to reassert their contribution to the country’s Culture (note that ‘Culture’ is usually spelled with a capital “C” in France.)

In recent years – and this a very personal opinion – the French art of making films has been losing its edge as a leader in the industry, as it did for instance during the days of  the Nouvelle Vague associated with the names of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard in the late 1950s.  Nowadays, the subjects of the films are so specifically French as to be un-exportable.  Too often they turn into crowd-pleasers with simplistic plots and actors, who seem to have become the pet actors for the foreign market.

“The Artist,” which received multiple prizes in several countries in 2012, is the best illustration of this remark.  It catapulted Jean Dujardin from a second tier actor in France to a star.  Moreover, giving the award to a silent movie represents a negation of what makes French films special — that is, the thought-provoking ideas (such as Men and Gods, 2011) or the humor (such as the Intouchables 2012.)

Cecile de France, hostess of the 2014 Césars was most entertaining.  She kept the proceedings at a fast pace and had several funny quips.  She remarked, “Nobody’s perfect ” about the Belgians.  This obviously alluded to her own origins and also to the fact that the director of the best foreign film was Belgian.  Taking advantage of sexual orientation as the main theme of the evening, she addressed the audience thus, ” If there are any heteros in the theatre, it’s OK.  There are still a few among us who are.”

Francois Cluzet, the President of the Cesars, as he appears (left) in Les Intouchables,

Francois Cluzet, the President of the Cesars, as he appears (left) in Les Intouchables,

François Cluzet  (the lead actor who plays a wealthy quadraplegic in the Intouchables), who was the chairman of the ceremony,  made a few political comments to support the ongoing crusade of the intermittents du spectacle (show business workers) to defend the exception française (French exception.)  For them, special unemployment benefits are at stake.

Guillaume Gallienne’s,”Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table was voted as the best film and received five Césars.  Gallienne is a societaire  from the Comedie Française, the prestigious theater company founded in 1680.  He developed the idea of his film from the one-man show he created.  It is a funny, but mostly touching, story of a boy,  who was brought up as a girl by a chain smoking and insensitive mother.

Mocked at home by his two older brothers and ridiculed by all, he survives years in French and English  boarding schools.  He continues to be the suffering nice guy always wearing a  big smile on his face, until one evening at a roof party.  The hostess calls out,  “a table, les filles et Guillaume” (“dinner’s ready, girls and Guillaume.”)  He finally realizes he is not a girl.  The film is centered on the brilliant acting of Guillaume, who also plays his mother, using the same voice.

The day after the Césars, Alain Resnais, a monument of the French cinema,  died at age 91.  He will be remembered by many movies, including, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, 1958  (after a story by Marguerite Duras) and ” Last Year in Marienbad“, 1959 (after a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was the champion of the Nouveau roman.)

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: The Complex Conundrum of Ukraine

Editor’s Note: This piece was written prior to the invasion of Crimea by the Russians, but is still nevertheless topical.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The future of Ukraine remains uncertain and the problems multiple.

After three months of violence opposing the people of Kiev and the government of Viktor Yanukovich, the situation culminated in a bloody clash on Feb. 19, leaving over 60 dead and hundreds wounded.  Why did the confrontation last so long?  The West holds part of the responsibility.  Some voices from abroad were just throwing oil on the fire, such as an inflammatory piece of Bernard Henri Levy entitled “Vive l’Ukraine Libre”  in the Huffington Post.  Besides, the European Union’s (EU) position was unclear and some of its members made unattainable promises.

The EU may have been slow in acting but when it did, its stand was tough enough to force the Ukrainian government to back down.  Brussels mandated the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland, Germany and France to act as mediators, then announced immediate sanctions – cancelling visas of government officials, freezing assets of Ukrainian oligarchs abroad.  At the same time, Angela Merkel, the chief mediator, was on the phone with Putin, both of them conversing in Russian and German.

As early as five days after the peak of the violence, a few signs of appeasement began to turn the situation around. US secretary of state John Kerry said what needed to be said:  there should not be a partition of Ukraine;  the Ukraine should not be put in a position to have to chose between Europe and Russia.  Even more promising was the statement made by Sergei Lavrov , the Russian foreign minister:  “We want Ukraine to be part of the European family in every sense of the word.”

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The Yanukovich government collapsed overnight.  In rapid succession, the mayor of Kiev, the minister of defense, the whole police force of Lviv in Western Ukraine, the president of the parliament and 40 of its deputies defected.  Calm returned to Maidan square.  One thousand policemen were escorted peacefully out of the city by the insurgents.  An interim coalition government was rapidly formed and general elections were to be held before the end of the year.  As to president Yanukovich, he just vanished.

Ukraine is not an easy country to govern.  The politicians’ class is rampant with corruption and can be violent.  Since it acquired its independence in 1991, at the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been in a state of turmoil marked by the “orange revolution” of 2004.  The government’s way to deal with the opposition has been either to poison its members (everyone saw on the television the pock-marked face of former president Viktor Yuchtchenko allegedly poisoned by dioxine) or throw them in prison (Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was condemned to seven years behind bars in 2011.)  Fights in the Rada (parliament) are not uncommon.  Seats in that assembly are for sale to the price of one million dollars.  Deputies may be offered a large amounts of money to change camp.

Therefore it is not surprising that the people, who put their lives on the line during the civil war, refused to trust their politicians.  The reaction – or rather the lack of reaction – of the crowd when Yulia Timoshenko appeared in a wheel chair on Maidan square and made an emotional appeal, is very revealing.  One might have expected a wild clamor of support.  But no, it is not what happened.  The people stood, almost frozen, listened to her politically-clever words but did not seem to buy her message.

Many foreign pundits, apparently influenced by the continuous media coverage of the events on Maidan square, seem to forget the other half of the Ukrainian equation – the Russians.  It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the fact that Ukraine is part of the historical past of Russia and also of its culture.  Therefore it is not only Putin who refuses any interference in the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it is also the Russian people.

Historically and culturally Ukraine is the cradle of Russia.  The Russian nation started as a Kievan state.  In the 10th century AD, Slavic prince Vladimir ruled over a huge territory including Novgorod, was baptized in 989 and absorbed the Byzantium culture.  The magnificent mosaics and icons in St Sophia cathedral, completed in 1041, attest to those beginnings.

The cultural heritage of the Russians is also linked in many ways to the Crimea.  The great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva joined other writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Andrei Bely, in the writers’ colony of Koktebel, in the eastern part of the Crimea.   The short story “The Lady with the Dog”  by Anton Chekhov, which takes place in Yalta, is practically memorized by every Russian child in school.  Based on a Pushkin’s poem, the ballet entitled The Fountain of Bakhshisarai (a town in central Crimea) is part of the permanent repertoire of the Bolshoi.

The violence, which started in Simferopol only one week after the end of the uprising on Maidan square, is a reminder that the situation remains explosive in the area.

What will be the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis ?  A federation of autonomous republics, similar to the Crimea, whose status was recognized by Russia in 1997, but only for a period of 10 years?

Another thought.  Joseph Beuys, (1921-1986) is probably the best known artist in Germany today.  As he was flying with the Wermacht in 1944, his plane was shot down over the Crimea and saved by a Tatar “shaman.”  Beuys’ installations and other works are inspired from that unique experience.  This is what Ukraine may need – a Tatar shaman .

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Monsieur (le President) Hollande Goes to Washington

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

For the first time in 20 years, a French President was invited for a State visit to the United States. François Hollande was greeted with the highest honors, including a colorful pageant on the White House Lawn.

There was no better way to emphasize the historical ties between the two countries than a visit to Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.  Jefferson, ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789, was an ardent francophile.  But he was also a brilliant statesman — particularly when he bought Louisiana from France in 1808, which probably represented the best real estate deal of all time.

In happier days, French President Francois Hollande and then companion Valérie Trierweiler. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

In happier days, French President Francois Hollande and then companion Valérie Trierweiler. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

The logistics of the official dinner at The White House were the source of an intense “buzz” as to who would be sitting next to the American president in the absence of a French “First Lady,” after the recent break up of Hollande from his long-time companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler.

The meeting of the two presidents in Washington had a strong symbolic importance aimed at reinforcing their respective statures on the world scene.  France is one of the staunchest allies of the US today.  It has an aggressive foreign policy demonstrated by military interventions in Mali and Centrafrique and the essential role it played during the international, ongoing negotiations regarding Syria and Iran.

Last summer the attitude of Obama was widely interpreted a slap in the face for Hollande when the latter was left high and dry after his offer to provide military assistance to the US against Syria. Laying out the red carpet in such a manner on this visit might be interpreted as a form of gratitude toward France.

Most of the difficult questions were asked during the press conference, but both Obama and Hollande chose to avoid contentious topics; criticisms were muted.  The resentment felt by France and the rest of Europe about the NSA surveillance was not brought to the forefront.  However, Obama did express his discontent about the untimely presence of a group of French businessmen in Iran even before any agreement was signed with that country.

Unlike Sarkozy, Hollande was not invited to speak in front of the US Congress.  This is not entirely surprising since the presence of a socialist leader could have ruffled too many conservative feathers.

Since the major press conference Hollande gave at the Elysees palace on Jan. 14, it seems that a government plan to turn around the French economy is developing.  The declaration of a “Pact of Responsibility” between the state and the private sector, by waving the obligation to finance social benefits (a reduction of 49% of the cost of labor), constitutes a substantial stimulus for the economy.

This new policy was reaffirmed by Hollande’s remarks made during his stay in California.  In fact, many thought he looked as if he were becoming more “Liberal Democrat” by the hour.  The exposure to Silicon Valley, dynamic French companies and start-ups, successful young French computer scientists, the stimulating atmosphere of flexible working conditions and the surprising remarks about “crowdfunding” were all, in the minds of many, like fresh air blowing from the West coast.

The French President enjoyed having lunch with the CEOs of giant internet companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Mozilla and Twitter.  In 1984, the French President Francois Mitterand similarly enjoyed meeting a certain Stephen Jobs, then 29-years-old.

The stay in California triggered a real “digitalomania” (my own neologism) in France.  The media offered multiple talk shows about robotics, artificial intelligence, bio genetics and the like.  Analysts pointed out that the information technology was the key to the restructuring of the French economy.

While a major snow storm impacted 49 out of the 50 American states, the French president, flying the northern route, ended his short, but definitely positive, visit to the United States.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: There’s Something About Sochi

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

xxii-winter-olympics-logoAfter a few weeks of a media coverage of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games saturated with predictions of terrorist attacks, confrontations and unpreparedness, it felt a relief to watch the opening ceremony on Feb. 6 proceed without any significant hitch.  The smiling and happy faces of the athletes parading inside the stadium before the beginning of the show were the promise of two great weeks on TV. (Close to four billion viewers watched the last winter games of Vancouver).

The sheer number and size of the national teams are astounding.  Compared to the 250 sportsmen from 16 countries who participated in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, today more than 3,000 people make up the delegations from 87 countries.  Women have come a long way since the 1900 games when their appearances were limited to tennis and golf.

The German president of International Olympic Committee(IOC), Thomas Bach, defused the feared boycott caused by the Russian government’s homophobic position.  He declared that no discrimination would be tolerated toward any group of people.  President Putin of Russia made the shortest -10 second – speech of his career when he declared open the XXII Winter Olympic Games.

The opening ceremony was a grand scale production – Russians have always been good at those – that evoked the nation’s history.  It started with a short film showing Slavic tribesmen in a small vessel.  Actually the scene looked rather like ancient Greeks on their mythical quest to find the Golden Fleece on the distant shores of the Caucasus.

After a romantic 19th century program exalting Russian literature, music and ballet , the post-1917 era was introduced by dozens of young dancers wearing costumes straight out of a Malevich painting.   The message was clear: the Russian establishment had reconciled itself with abstract art which had been vilipended for so long.

The host country of the 2014 games had to show its pride in the most glorious event of its history: the orbiting around the earth of the adulated “cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin.  The patriotism toward the country’s achievement intensified when five heroes of the past walked in, bearing the Olympic flag.

Among them was Valentina Tereshkova , the first woman in space in 1963 (she was a beautiful young woman when I met her at a reception given at the French embassy in Moscow in 1965).  The youthful appearance of tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who trained at the Sochi sport center until the age of seven, was obviously directed at the modern audience.

The Sochi games have been organized at a high human, financial and environmental cost: corruption, expropriation of local population, damage caused to the “Sochi National Park” and to the “Caucasian Biosphere Preserve”- a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Nordmen Firs, which are the tallest trees of Europe (close to 300 feet high) grow in those areas .

Some of the blogs against the Sochi project have been so vitriolic as to be uninformative.  It is better to read well-researched pieces like the one published by David Remnick.  Remnick was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s and now is the editor of the New Yorker.

Soviet and Russian leaders have cherished the sub-tropical coast of the Black Sea.  Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Yeltsin all had their summer residences in Sochi prior to Putin.  It was on his return from his dacha in Pitsunda, in what is today Abkhazia, that Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev on Oct. 15, 1965.  Gorbachev’s dacha was located west of Yalta in the Crimea (we were boarded by an armed patrol craft for allegedly sailing too close) .

We circumnavigated the Black Sea on our 44-foot ketch in the summer of 1991.  We had obtained visas for Sochi.  In retrospect, our visit to Sochi was a preview to the 2014 games.  In an outdoor theater, we happened to watch the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Rock Opera St Petersburg Theater.  It was the first Russian-staged production of that musical.  There will be a repeat performance during the games.

We stayed at the very busy new marina called coincidentally the Center of Sailing Sports or “Olympic Centre.”  Or was it a premonition on the part of the Russians that there would be Olympic games one day in their town?

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: All Things Braque and Beautiful

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The Georges Braque retrospective in Paris – the first in 40 years – just closed its doors after four months at the Grand Palais.  Braque is best known for being one of the creators of cubism.  But it would be an error to overlook the rest of his creative life, which was in constant metamorphosis from “Fauvism” at age 24 to his art studio and magnificent birds series from the 1930s onwards.  He was one of those rare artists to be recognized during his lifetime since honors were lavished on him.

Georges Braque (1882-1963) was a tall, handsome man with a quiet manner.  Instead of joining his father as a painting contractor, he left Normandy and moved to Paris to study art.  Soon he joins the Fauves (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck) and his paintings at l’Estaque, or La Ciotat, on the Mediterranean, are an orgy of colors.

Then, after a two-year period, with the same apparent ease, he absorbed the geometrization of nature approach that Cézanne was the first to introduce.  The old master had died just one year earlier. Braque turned houses and vegetation into stylized shapes, devoid of any detail.  His colors are muted.

In 1907, Braque went to the Bateau Lavoir studio of Picasso in Montmartre.  Since 1905, Picasso (two years his junior) had been feverishly working on the “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”  Braque sees the preparatory studies Picasso had done, and is stunned.

From that time until the beginning of the Great War, a relationship – unique in the history of art – is formed between the two artists, based on mutual stimulation without any trace of rivalry.  They were like mountain climbers roped together, to use Braque’s own words.  Braque’s “Le Grand Nu” of a heavy set woman, with a distorted body, the face like a mask, shows the same understanding of African art that Picasso imbued.

In 1908, art critic Louis Vauxelles commented that Braque’s painting were reduced to cubes — thus, the word “cubism” was born.  Braque and Picasso were about to create the most important aesthetic revolution of the 20th century.

In the next few years, cubism evolved through several phases: “analytic” with the de-multiplication of the object into facets, absent of perspective.  A second phase, called “hermetic”, followed.  It is austere, to the point of being illegible, with colors reduced to camayeux (monochromes) shades of grey and ochre.  During the final “analytic” phase, the artist introduced clues to help the onlooker: letters from wine bottle labels or newspapers, or parts from a piano, guitar or mandolin (Braque had a passion for music.)

During this period, Braque and Picasso were also to invent totally new techniques to be emulated by many other artists: first the method of “collage ” using a variety of materials like sand, metal shaving, ground glass or dirt.  In his key painting titled, “Compotier, Bouteille et Verre, “(fruit dish, bottle and glass) of August 1912, he introduced the method of “papiers collés” (glued papers) serving as “trompe-l’oeil.”

In 1914, Braque is called to the European front.  In May 1915, he is seriously wounded in the Artois battle and undergoes brain surgery.  After coming out of his “trou noir” (black hole), he begins a long convalescence.  Not surprisingly, given his personality, he feels no bitterness, nor anger .

He returned again to cubism, but this time his paintings are vibrant with colors and, in spite of their abstraction, easier to read.

In the 1930s, his series of still life paintings in his art studio setting is so complex as to be called “studio landscapes.”  A charming chaos seem to lift fruits and objects and pile them on the ubiquitous “guéridon” (round table.)  An exuberant humor replaced the austerity of his pre-war cubism. American collectors, like MOMA or the Phillips gallery, are enthusiastic about his new works.

In the mid 1950s, the artists introduces a new theme : a bird floating above the apparent disorder of the studio.  In “Nid dans le Feuillage” (Nest in the foliage), the bird flies over an eerie mountainous landscape toward a nest lit in a frigid light.  The emptiness of his very last painting,”Sarcleuse,” is overpowering.  Under a black sky, golden wheat undulates in the breeze.  The metal wreck of the “sarcleuse” (agricultural machine) left on the beach is a final message of human activity.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: ‘French-Bashing’ Doesn’t Add Up If The Numbers Are Wrong

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The latest round of “French bashing” has been circulating on the internet, touching a nerve among the French social networks .  On January 3rd, Newsweek journalist Janine di Giovanni  published on the magazine’s website (Newsweek has ceased to appear on news stands for around a year) an article titled, “Fall of France.”  She is a successful correspondent covering the war scene in the Middle East, but her only qualification to write about France is that she has been living in Paris for 10 years.  Two days later, the Newsweek editor reiterated its attack on France in another article, this time, “How a Cockerel Nation became an Ostrich.”  That article, in fact, repeated the recommendations addressed by the European Commission to the nine countries of the EU (European Union), France among them.

Di Giovanni’s general message is that the decline of France has greatly accelerated under the Socialist government of François Hollande and that the “French model” of a providence state (the author calls it a “nannie state”) is not sustainable.  This is not an original point of view and the French themselves are frequently criticizing their own system and trying to modify it.  The American-born journalist has written an entertaining and clearly poorly researched article.  She backs her arguments with a mixture of true, false and, sometimes, outrageous information, which make the piece quite entertaining.

Challenges, a well-established French weekly magazine dealing with economy, and reliable web sites, such as Decodeurs.com, have gone to the trouble of analyzing point by point di Giovanni’s story.

The most glaring mistakes she makes concern the excessive taxes.  She writes: ” Since the arrival of the Socialist President François Holland in 2012, the income tax and social security have rocketed. The top rate is 75 percent and a great many pay in excess of 70percent.”  In  fact, in 2011 (that is under Nicolas Sarkozy) the top income tax bracket was 43.7 percent and today it is 45 percent.  The tax of 75 percent is only paid by the very rich with an income of over one million Euro.

By decision of the Conseil Constitutionnel, the tax of 75 percent  is not considered as a separate tax bracket.  It has only been paid by 11,960 households.  Furthermore, the tax is not paid by the individuals, but by the firm which employs them.   Finally the Newsweek journalist may have mixed up income tax with the amount paid by the employer  (including social benefits), which resulted in a doubling of the numbers.

Commentators had a field day with some hilarious statements made by di Giovanni.  There is no word for entrepreneur in French, she claims.  Apparently she forgot that the word entrepreneur is French!  Another is quoting the price of a liter of milk as being six euros when it is only 1.33.  An online reader commented that the author must shop at the most expensive gourmet Grande Epicerie of the luxury department store of Bon Marché.

From her bourgeois apartment near the Luxembourg garden in the 6th District - the most expensive in the capital – she has a strange perception of what real life is like for the working population.  Talking about nurseries, for instance, she writes that they are free, can be found in every neighborhood and provide free diapers.  In fact, only some 13 percent of the middle class can afford nurseries and they have to pay roughly 9 percent of their income for using them.

The French seem to regard such “bashing” as stimulating … and it certainly keeps them on their toes.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: A Popular Pope with Great Influence, Greater Responsibilities

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

After nine months as the leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics, what changes has Pope Francis made in the people’s lives?  That question can be answered on different levels.

On Christmas Eve, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was absolutely packed, with standing (and sitting-on-the-ground) room only.  Believers and visitors from around the globe wanted to share the most important time of the church year.  The senior prelate of the cathedral, who was celebrating the Eucharist, instead of standing solemnly at the lectern to give his homily, chose to walk through the nave all the way to the back of the church.  A photographer and a sound engineer followed the priest as he mixed with the people in order to record the event for the program, which was televised nationwide.

From the very start, Pope Francis has been reaching out to the people, with simplicity and a joyful manner.  His popularity was immediate and the crowds on Saint Peter’s Square multiplied.  There is definitely a heightened fervor among the faithful and his style is spreading through the churches.

To understand the impact of Pope Francis on more substantive levels, one has to study his exceptional background.  Born from Italian immigrants in Argentina, he is the first pope coming from the New World.  At the same time, he has strong ties with Europe since he wrote his thesis in German.  Besides that language, he speaks French English, Italian, Portuguese, and, of course, Latin.

But the most important factor is that he is the product of two intellectual currents existing in the catholic church: Jesuit and Franciscan.  To become a Jesuit, one has to study theology and philosophy for 15 years.  This Catholic order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, follows a strict obedience to the doctrine.  At the same time, as a significant departure from his intellectual origins, he chose to be called Francis – a first for a pope.

This symbolic choice made him the spiritual heir of St. Francis of Assisi.  This background explains why he combines an unshakable attachment to the traditional doctrine regarding, for instance, the celibacy of priests, the excommunication of divorcees or the rejection of abortion, with his intent to be the “Pope of the Poor” and his openness to others.

His first action is expected to be the reinstatement of order in the Catholic Church following a number of human and financial scandals, which have shaken it over many years.  Probably the easiest reform to implement will be to reorganize the Vatican’s administration and reduce the size of the Curie.  With his own dislike for ostentation, he, himself, will be the best role model.

Finally, he has an immense potential of influence in international affairs.  He seeks dialogue with those following Judaism and Islam devotees.  Vatican specialists describe him as the most charismatic and powerful personality in the world, particularly after Nelson Mandela’s death.

It remains to see whether — and how – he will exercise this influence.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: Germany’s Merkel Warms French Hearts

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Revised: 01/01/14  (Corrected sentence in red)  The integration of Europe moved forward this week following several important events.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

On Dec. 15, Angela Merkel was re-elected for the third time as German Chancellor.  Her victory was made possible through the coalition of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

The composition of her new government gives an indication on the future policies of Germany.  Among the nine CDU ministers, Wolfgang Schauble will remain as the indispensable minister of finances and as such will guarantee a certain continuity.  The crucial post of economy/energy will be occupied by an SPD member.  So will foreign affairs, to be headed by pro-European Walter Steinmeier.   It is interesting to note that for the first time a woman will be in charge of Defense:  Ursula von der Leyen, 51, is close to Angela Merkel, French-speaking and a mother of seven.  The ministry of immigration is also to be headed by a woman who, even more significantly, is of Turkish origin.

There is no deep ideological difference between the CDU and SPD parties.  French analysts stress that it would be a mistake to assimilate the German social democrats to the French socialists.  The former are “center left” rather than “left”.

According to tradition, Merkel’s first official visit abroad was to France.   Her next stop was Brussels to attend the summit meeting of the European Council.   Arduous negotiations led to important decisions – as important, some experts say, as the creation of the Euro currency.

Merkel will likely not abandon her general policy of financial discipline, but rather relax her hard austerity line.  Germany’s economic policy will be slightly less liberal.  A minimum wage of 8.5 euros is to take effect within three years.  The new program will reduce the number of “poor workers” and should give a boost to the domestic consumption.  It will also alleviate criticism expressed by other European countries of unfair competition on the labor market.

A banking union and the European defense were the main topics of discussion.  The creation of a banking union is intended to put a stop to the bailout of failing banks at the expense of taxpayers.  So far, financial support for countries in trouble, such as Greece or Spain, has been funded primarily by Germany (27 percent) and France (20 percent.)

Merkel has always been against the “mutualisation” of the sovereign debts.  The new directives give greater power to the Banque Centrale Européenne (BCE – Central Bank of Europe) over the banks  in order to prevent speculative investments.  The BCE will also oversee the creation of a “funds of resolution,”  financed by the banks, which will amount to 55 billion by 2026.  Brussels will only intervene in case of urgent crisis.  Obviously it will be hard for many of the states to lose sovereignty over their own budget.

The other subject of discussion in  Brussels was the European defense.  For Germany, defense is almost a taboo and most European states – except France – are unwilling to interfere in foreign military conflicts.  Some progress though was made in specific areas such as cyber security, refueling of planes in the air, the use of drones by 2025 and controlling piracy along the Somalian coast.  A limited amount of logistical and financial support is likely to be welcomed,  particularly by France, who acted alone in both Mali and the Republic of Central Africa.

The Franco-German ” couple” appears now to be returning to center stage.  As seen from France, the new developments are generally well-accepted by economists and other specialists.  Overall, they seem to be impressed by the pragmatic behavior of the Germans and believe the German vote was a smart one – indeed, a rare mark of approval to be found in French opinion of German politics.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Seasonal Signs in the City of Light … and Beyond

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

France is very festive at this pre-Christmas time.  I just returned from a short visit to the village of Sanary Sur Mer on the Mediterranean.  The grandiose gold and silver decorations contrasted with the bright colored “pointus” (small fishing boats) tossing about in the port.

Our next stop was Aix-en-Provence, which was also getting ready for the holiday season.  It is a pleasure to look for shops wandering through the pedestrian streets of the old town and discover the 17th century architecture  with its elegant courtyards and stairs.  Rows of prefabricated chalets selling glühwein and regional pastries lined the Cours Mirabeau (the heart of the city) ending in an illuminated fountain.  A hot chocolate in the old fashioned terrace of the Grillon cafe was a must.

If  Paris ever deserves its name of the “City of Light,” it is at Christmas time.  Each arrondissement  has its own style of illuminations.  They range from the elegant avenue Montaigne where trees and lights match the costly look of the main fashion houses to the more popular Bastille (where I live), which turn into an amusement park offering a stomach -curdling ride in the highest contraption of Europe.

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights.

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights (file photo.)

The sight of the Champs Elysees is spectacular.  This year the decorations consist of blue lights circling  the  trees.  The computerized lighting of the Grande Roue (ferris wheel) overlooking the Place de la Concorde makes it look as if it is exploding in the sky.  For many years, it has offered the best view over the city, .

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

The Eiffel Tower stands aloof and sparkles for a few minutes every hour on the hour.

Borrowing a tradition which used to be more common in Germany and Central Europe, Christmas markets are now found every where in Paris.  Their alpine look make up for the absence of snow.  The esplanade of the Hotel de Ville attracts visitors with free skating ring and merry-go-round.

And, of course, there is the Christmas shopping, including the most popular toy of the year: the clone.  I thought it was a good time for me to discover the latest and largest shopping mall in downtown Paris.  The modernistic glass facade of Beaugrenelle is part of the group of skyscrapers  built in the 15th arrondissement by the Seine river.  As a sign of times, the budget of many families been has been reduced to 300 euros per person.  As a result, shopping online and the use of newly-created second-hand supermarkets have exploded.

Oysters, foie gras and a good bottle of champagne are still the favorite with the French for their reveillon (meaning ‘the eve.’)  On the 25th itself, the celebratory meal will be planned around a goose and end up with a bûche de Noel (Christmas log.)

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: ‘La Conversation’

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

La Conversation” is the kind of play Parisians love:  a brilliant exercise of actors just talking and conversing on all the subjects of their time.

The scene takes place in the Tuileries palace in 1802 between First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Second Consul Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès.  Bonaparte is a young general of 34, impatient to acquire more power.  Vladimir d’Ormesson, dean of the Academie Française  (a learned assembly of  40 “eternal” members, whose role is to perfect the French language), wrote an imaginary dialogue carried out in an elegant style.

The tempo of the conversation is rapid.  The topics move from the mundane to the lofty.  At first, Bonaparte discusses food, then becomes animated when telling a funny anecdote of a family fight over a shawl.  The conversation touches on Bonaparte’s relations with women, including a beautiful blonde he met in Egypt during the 1798 campaign.  When he speaks about Josephine, it is with a tangible emotion.

Although Bonaparte’s seven siblings are hard to manage, he acknowledges how much they serve his ambition of becoming a ruler over Europe.  A current exhibit at the Marmottan museum shows the striking personalities of his three sisters.  Elisa, grand duchess of Tuscany, is an enlightened patron of the arts and a powerful brain.  Caroline, the wife of dashing general Murat, is the ambitious and plotting queen of Naples.  Princess Pauline Borghese was so incredibly beautiful as to be called the “Venus of the Empire”.   She was also very generous and sold all her assets to accompany Napoleon during his exile on St. Helena.

The conversation flows along revealing Bonaparte’s  personality, his ambitions and his accomplishments.  Cambacérès just acts as a sounding board.  Meekly he expresses opinions which are swiftly bulldozed by the first consul.  Bonaparte  is proud of his military victories like the Pont d’Arcole, or Marengo.  He considers himself at the service of the French and for them has created a legal and administrative system (which still exists today.)  He brought down the monarchy of the Ancien Regime and wants power, but not as a king.  He looks at Rome, and what does he see?  Ceasar and the Empire. Yes, this is what he wants:  be the emperor.

In the small theater, a captivated public savors the references to their common historical past.   The uninterrupted conversation is  a refreshing break from the modern world of texts and smart phones.

About the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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A Letter from Paris: Art Déco in the Air

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

“When Art Déco seduced the World” is one of the most popular  exhibits of this season in Paris.  It celebrates the artistic movement which bloomed in the 1920s and the 1930s.  Monuments of that period can be seen around the world — from Moscow to Shanghai or Brussels and particularly in New York City.

What is Art Déco?  In the lineage of late 19th century Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, it is a celebration of “total art” forms with the use of multiple materials:  glass, wood, ceramic, wrought iron, and the introduction of reinforced concrete.  The style even included the production of furniture featuring textiles and fashion made famous by designer Paul Poiret.

The architecture and sculpture were characterized by geometric and stylized forms.  Completed for the 1937 international exhibit,  the Palais de Chaillot,  also called Trocadéro  is probably the most imposing monument of Paris and is built along classical, but very sober lines.  It replaced the much-maligned neo-moorish former Trocadéro.

Art Déco was the artistic expression of modernism.  It was emblematic of the relief felt after the end of World War I. Artists had a field day applying their creations to the most visible buildings of urban life like swimming pools or stadiums.

But what they enjoyed most were the department stores.  Their elegant cupolas, grand staircases, decorated with colorful ceramic, their crystal chandeliers dazzled the new consumer class.  In Paris, the department stores multiplied, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine or Le Printemps.  Les Galeries Lafayette even orchestrated the  publicity stunt of a small plane landing on its roof.

Modern times meant an ever faster pace of life.  Nothing was more dashing than a Bugatti sports car surrounded by elegant “flappers” ready to take the wheel.  The new era also meant traveling the world.   On May 29, 1929,  the Normandie, the largest, most luxurious ocean liner ever built, made its maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York.  The ship turned into a “floating embassy” — a showcase for the diffusion of French art around the world.  Lalique, the master of glass carving,  created the panels of the Normandie’s first class.

In New York, the 14 original Art Déco buildings of the Rockefeller Center still stand.  One cannot miss the Alfred Janniot’s sculpture  placed above the entrance of the Maison Française.  The gilded bronze bas-relief represents the meeting of the American and the European continents.

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Letter From Paris: Immigration Woes, Thanksgiving in France

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The pressure of immigration into Europe is growing.  Thousands of immigrants are seeking refugee status for economic or political reasons.  The television showed an incredible scene of young men climbing over barbed wire like swarms of insects, falling down, being shot, to be followed by hundreds more.  It was not a scene from the July 2013 Brad Pitt’s science fiction film “World War Z,” but of the electrified fence erected by the Spanish government to protect its borders from African migrants.  Other walls exist around Europe.  The next one will run along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

The tragic drowning of 300 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October shocked the European opinion.  The problem of immigration, if studied case by case, and not in terms of statistics, triggers strong emotions.

It was also the theme of “Welcome,” a 2009 French movie .  A well-educated and determined 17-year-old boy from Kurdistan wants to join his girlfriend in England.  For weeks he is stranded in an inhospitable refugee camp near Calais, in the north of France.  During his first attempt at crossing the Channel hidden under a truck, he is caught by the police, almost asphyxiated by CO2 fumes, his head inside a plastic bag.  His next plan is to swim across the English Channel.  With the help of a compassionate coach, he learns how to do the crawl.  At his first attempt, he is pulled out of the water by fishermen and brought back to France.  He tries again, but, just in sight of the British coast, a police boat spots him.  He drowns, while trying to escape.

Western Europe represents an Eldorado for all these asylum seekers.  By granting various allowances to the new migrants, France has become particularly attractive . But its social structure is becoming unable to absorb the ever growing numbers.  This year there were 70,000 requests for asylum as compared to 60,000 in 2012.

In October, the Affaire Leonarda (the case of Leonarda) illustrated the problems with the immigration policy in France and caused a political crisis.  Leonarda is a 15-year- old daughter of a Kosovo national (Kosovo is located in the Balkan Peninsula of Southeastern Europe and recognized as a sovereign state by 106 member states of the  United nations, though its status is still disputed.)  After living in Italy for 17 years, with his Italian wife and seven other children, the man decided to move to France in 2009.

Since then he has made four attempts to obtain refugee status, all of which were rejected.  The work load of the French judicial courts make the process so slow that the family had plenty of time to settle in France and put the children in school.  Time was on the side of Leonarda’s family given the rules on naturalizations: children born in France of foreign parents become French automatically at age 18 after spending five years in France.

In mid October, as Leonarda was getting off the school bus, the police arrested her and sent her back to Kossovo with the rest of the family.  The public opinion reacted in a fury, blaming the Socialist government of breaking the sacred rule of non-violation of the schools.

To the surprise of many, President Francois Hollande was the one to address the nation on TV.  He started by saying that the police had broken no law in arresting Leonarda, nor used any violence.  Then, during the last two minutes of his speech, in an unexpected switch, he concluded that, because of humanitarian considerations, he would let Leonarda return to France, but alone – an impossible situation for a 15-year old.  His position satisfied almost no one.

A brief word on a more cheery subject — American expatriates in France are very attached to Thanksgiving and celebrate it between friends and relatives, usually on the weekend

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Letter From Paris: Taxing Times in France

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

In spite of lively street scenes in Paris, crowds strolling in the Tuileries gardens, restaurant terraces full of people enjoying a copious lunch and long lines at museums and movie theaters, the ongoing austerity measures imposed by the Socialist government contribute to a morose mood in France .

In the past two years, new taxes have multiplied.  More people have to file income taxes, some retirees are struggling to survive on their pensions, the Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée (TVA – the equivalent of sales tax in the US) on restaurants — after being lowered — is going up again to reach 10% next January.  Corporate taxes have also increased.

The population was encouraged to invest its savings into special accounts.  Promises of a guaranteed interest of 3 percent on these savings accounts have gradually vanished.  It is today below 1 percent.

The northwest region of Brittany is in in uproar following a new “eco-tax” imposed on truckers, fishermen and farmers.

A tax of 75 percent on annual incomes higher than one million will hit particularly the stars soccer players, who threatened to go on strike for one week-end in November.  When one knows how fanatic the public here is about its soccer matches, one might expect violent scenes.

The TV series called “A Village Français,” now in its third season, continues to enjoy top ratings.  It shows how the average French people behaved during the German occupation.  It depicts the whole spectrum of the population, ranging from despicable collaborators to courageous “resistants” with — in between — the vast majority just trying to survive and protect their families.  The show is done with honesty, avoiding black and white judgments.  By 1943 the French became more daring , as their spirits were lifted by the London broadcasts.

This is a great idea: for a small fee, courses in the English language are offered to the passengers riding the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV – high speed train) from Rheims to Paris – a facility to be extended to other railroad lines.

Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Introducing a Letter From Paris

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

We are delighted to introduce a new columnist to LymeLine today.  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.

Logan is the author of Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s thirty Years in the Foreign Service, an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

The End of an Era

By Nicole Prévost Logan

The International Herald Tribune - so familiar to American expatriates in Europe – is no more.  After 125 years of existence,  the newspaper lost its name, to become the International New York Times , on October 15 of this year.  The change marks the end of an era.

Hemingway’s hero in The sun Also Rises read it  and Jean Seberg, the journalist student in Jean Luc Goddard’s 1960 film Breathless, sold it on the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

Sold in 160 countries, the newspaper stood out as the most international of any daily publications.  Being printed in Paris, it was anchored in its local culture.  But at the same time,  for we Americans visiting or living in the French capital, it represented a life line to the home country.  Over the years it became the property of the New York Times and later of the Washington Post,  allowing its op-ed page to offer a wide spectrum of opinions across partisan lines.

It was an entertaining paper to read.  Some of us would go straight to the last page, looking for the crossword puzzles and the cartoons.  The columns of humorist Art Buchwald were an institution.  Syndicated in hundreds of  newspapers, he had a special talent to make people laugh, particularly by poking fun at politicians.  Every year at this time, the readers would look forward to the repeat of his column entitled “Merci Donnant” (literal translation of  Thanksgiving).

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