Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Jeannot and his Little World

For Georgia and Oscar
Jeannot out after dark
Jeannot is a very young rabbit who lives in the Lot.
Jeannot is very curious and he is always doing things he shouldn’t. Once, without saying a word to anyone, he went all the way to Brittany to meet a pink rabbit, but it was only a big piece of granite.

One night Jeannot went out and crossed the road to try the vegetables in the neighbour’s garden. Around the vegetables there were some blue wires. He ignored them and thought he could wriggle his way through, but when he touched them with his nose he got a big shock. Bzzzzzzz! Zzzzzzzap!

It was like being stung by a big wasp and being banged on the head all at the same time!

Jeannot in the grass forest
 Suddenly Jeannot found that he had become very very small. He was in a forest of blades of grass which were all taller than him and it was broad daylight. It was such a surprise that he didn’t know where he was or where to go, but after a few minutes of hopping around between the blades of grass he heard something chirping loudly nearby.

Connor O'Connor
He hopped towards the sound and he met a conehead cricket. It was all bright green and it was chirping merrily away.

“Hello I’m lost”, said Jeannot. “Please can you tell me where I am?”

“Hello, CHIRP, CHIRP. My name is CHIRP Connor O’Connor CHIRP. Top o’the CHIRP, morning CHIRP to you! CHIRP, CHIRP”.

The chirping was so loud that Jeannot had to cover his ears.
Jeannot asked Connor again where he was, “Excuse me Mr O’Connor but where are we?”

“We are at CHIRP in the CHIRP of CHIRP CHIRP but if you are CHIRP looking for CHIRP, I wouldn’t CHIRP from here CHIRP CHIRP!”
The friendly cricket tried his best to answer but he couldn’t stop chirping and Jeannot couldn’t understand him.  So Jeannot thanked Connor O’Connor and hopped off.

Frou Frou Fritillary
He carried on and very soon he met a beautiful butterfly.

“Hello my name is Jeannot and I’m lost. Please can you tell me where I am?”

“Bonjour, my name is Frou Frou Fritillary. Do you like my black and orange markings? I don’t like blue, but creamy yellow is absolutely divine especially with black stripes! Oh aren’t those swallowtails just gorgeous!”

Jeannot said “black with orange is very fine but please Monsieur Frou Frou, where am I?”

Frou Frou didn’t answer and only asked him another question about colours. “Oh my dear! Don’t you think those peacocks are just too gaudy?”

Jeannot realised that he would get no answer from Frou Frou, so he said goodbye and carried on hopping through the grass.

Praying Mantis
Not far away he saw another green insect, which he thought at first, was a cricket, but this one was very still and silent with its forelegs lifted up and pressed together as if in prayer. It was the same size as Jeannot and it was a praying mantis.

As he got closer it turned its head to face him. Jeannot could remember that his mummy had said something about these creatures, but he couldn’t remember what she had told him. Although he was nervous, he decided to ask where he was anyway.

“Excuse me sir, but I’m lost. Do you know where we are?”

The praying mantis did not answer him but, very slowly and carefully, moving one foot at a time turned its whole body towards him.

Jeannot was very frightened and he ran away.

La Reine des Araigners
He ran and ran until he saw a spider with yellow and black stripes in a web above him.
Now the spider was bigger than Jeannot, she was clearly a queen among spiders, “une Reine des Araigners”, and Jeannot thought that he should be very polite.

“Excuse me Mme La Reine des Araigners but do you know where we are?” asked Jeannot.

She turned to face him and said. “Why don’t you climb up here into my web, my little one, and I will tell you where you are. I might even find you a special sweetie”.

Jeannot wasn’t very good at climbing, but he quickly found that there were lots of steps in the web, which made it easier. 

Just as Jeannot was getting closer to talk to La Reine des Araigners he felt a drop of rain, saw a big flash and seconds later he heard a big bang.
Suddenly he was awake again, he was the right size, it was night time and a storm was about to break.  He remembered that before he became very small, he was touching the blue wires in front of him with his nose. He was quite sure that he wouldn’t do that again.

He rushed home to his mummy and hid at the end of the burrow. Now mummies always know everything about their own children. So his mummy guessed where he had been and what he had been doing in the neighbour’s garden. She knew all about the blue wires, and she also knew that Jeannot wasn’t frightened by storms, so she guessed why he had run home so fast.
“I told you not to go trying to eat things in the neighbour’s vegetable garden” she said. “One day you’ll listen to me and stop finding everything out the hard way!”

Jeannot stayed at the end of the burrow and kept very quiet.

Outside the storm was really loud and the rain was coming down in bucketfuls but Jeannot was snug and cosy. He decided that he wouldn’t go out again that night.

As he dozed he wondered what he would do tomorrow. He liked the look of the neighbour’s swimming pool it was so inviting on a hot summer night.…………..

You can read more Jeannot stories here:

Jeannot and the Pink Rabbit
Jeannot has a Narrow Escape

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Real Problem for Arab Countries

As privileged Westerners we tend to look at the Arab revolt with a certain detachment. Few of us have any strong connections with countries like Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. We applaud their fight against oppressive or totalitarian regimes because we believe in democracy but, although the West has intervened in Libya, it is unthinkable that it would do the same in Syria, Yemen or Algeria! 

Syria is an ally of Iran, it finances Hezbollah and it has a border with Israel.  Yemen is already an Al-Qu'eeda stronghold and its terrain is, like Afghanistan and unlike Libya, easy to hide in.  The generation of French soldiers who did their military service in Algeria is now in their late sixties and early seventies, they don't often talk about what they did there. In addition the Algerian terrorist campaigns of the 90's, when the inhabitants of whole apartment blocks were massacred, are still very fresh in the minds of most people. There would be no support in France for any intervention in Algeria.

But let’s assume that the populations of these countries are sufficiently courageous and determined to carry on demonstrating under fire, and that, like Tunisia and Egypt, they succeed in overthrowing their corrupt regimes and are capable of managing a transition to democratic rule. Then what?

They all share two fundamental problems that regime change will not immediately solve.

Click to enlarge
• Firstly, they have populations which are highly skewed towards young people,
• Secondly, after years of stifling government control, they have lost the entrepreneurial instincts and social infrastructure to enable the creation of new businesses, and hence employment for the young.

Some countries like Libya and Algeria have oil wealth, which they will be able to spend on infrastructure for many years to come. This could absorb a large part of the current generation of young people in construction and development projects, whilst others are training in softer skills or other technologies.

So, if one looks forward six or seven years, countries without oil, like Syria and Yemen, will face, head on, the difficult problem of how to find employment for their youth. Private foreign capital investment will be scarce, unless it originates from other sympathetic Arab countries; Western businesses are likely to feel that the political risks outweigh the potential rewards.

Against this background, further social unrest, stemming from ever increasing youth unemployment, is very likely. They can't all emigrate to Europe, so where will the young turn for solutions? Having rejected dictatorships and then discovered that democracy does not provide the answers, isn’t it possible that Islamists will appear, to the young, to present a viable alternative? Can we expect a wave of religiously inspired fervour to sweep though the Arab world in 2019 similar to that which launched the Iranian revolution in 1979?

Unfortunately, whilst it is clearly in the interests of the G20 developed economies to promote growth in the newly democratic Arab countries by capital investment, it's not easy to foresee the mechanisms for doing so!

One of Sarkozy's more far-sighted ideas in 2008 was a Meditteranean Union. Originally proposed as a grouping of countries having a Meditteranean coastline, it was Sarkozy's response to Turkey's desire to join the EU.  The idea was not warmly received in France or in Europe but it was reborn, in a different form, as an alliance of the EU with North African and Eastern Meditteranean countries.  Currently, it's not much more than a talking shop but, with sufficient political committment from member states, it could help to promote stability and economic development in the region. 

I'm not optimistic, however, that the EU will see this as an opportunity not to be missed, and react positively.  Apart from stringent budget cutbacks, which limit the politician's freedom of action,  there are far too many right wing politicians playing up fears about Islam and immigration!  Even if it is in the West's long term interest, basically there are no votes in helping Arab countries economically!

Friday, 22 April 2011

A Constitutional Monarchy

In common with Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Norway, Spain and Sweden, the UK has a constitutional monarchy. This means that we can enjoy all of the ceremonial functions of a British Head of State, including royal weddings, without any risk of the Queen waking up one morning and deciding to announce a policy without consulting anybody like our present French President appears to do.

The French President is the head of the Fifth Republic, which was born out of necessity in a period of crisis.  It replaced the Fourth Republic (1946 to 1958) which by 1958 was a byword for ineffectiveness, paralysed by instability. In ten years under the Fourth Republic there were twenty governments, which proved to be incapable of making effective decisions regarding decolonization.

The demise of the Fourth Republic came to a head in the Algiers crisis of 1958, when the current government suggested that it would negotiate with the Algerian nationalists. Right-wing elements in the French Army, led by General Jacques Massu, seized power in Algiers and threatened to conduct a parachute assault on Paris unless Charles de Gaulle was placed in charge of the Republic. De Gaulle did so under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be De Gaulle, ruled for seven-year periods whilst deputies were elected for 5 years. These changes were introduced and the Fifth Republic was born.

Following a referendum in 2000, the terms of office of the President and the deputies were aligned so that they both serve 5 years and are elected at the same time. This avoids periods of “cohabitation”, in which the President and the government are of different parties, during which no significant reforms are likely.  The first President to be elected under these new arrangements was Nicholas Sarkozy in 2007. At the time I thought that this was a good idea and would lead to a structure more like the UK, where the Prime Minister is also the leader of the party and governs with a cabinet of ministers having collective responsibility. I had forgotten that the essential check on the power of the Prime Minister is that he or she governs by the consent of Parliament and by extension his party, since that normally has a majority. This means that if an important piece of legislation fails to achieve a majority in the House and he or she subsequently loses a vote of confidence, then he or she has to resign and a new government is formed.

There is no such parliamentary control over the actions of a French President who is directly elected. He or she can’t be made to resign over matters of policy, although a process of impeachment could be invoked should the President have failed to discharge his duties in a way that evidently precludes the continuation of his or her term.

In practice what seems to happen under Sarkozy, who has acheived record lows in the opinion polls, is that he announces a vote-winning policy (like a proposal to give a 1000 euro bonus to everyone who works for a company that pays dividends to its shareholders) without consulting his ministers. Everyone, from the employers to the unions, then point out the problems and difficulties associated with it, his ministers then hurriedly paper over the cracks by announcing the caveats and conditions (up to 1000 euros, but only for companies having more than 50 employees, who have paid the same as or greater dividends than last year etc) and the media then point out that what this really means is that very few people will actually benefit from this vote winning idea! Sarkozy then slips further down the opinion polls and the role of President is undermined.

Christiane, who is a convinced republican, says that he is abusing his powers and that a French President should act as the Head of State, representing the whole of the nation and not just his narrow party political interests. The constitution of the French Fifth Republic is not, however, written like that and there is no separation of roles between the Head of State and the Head of the Government. It is quite possible that it may have to be changed yet again but nobody is discussing that so far.

Personally I don't like elected Heads of State.  I'm a traditionalist. I think that writing constitutions is best avoided, since it can’t compete with about 900 or so years of tradition (including, of course, the occasional unfortunate execution) but, judging by the opinion polls, and the degree of interest in the Royal Wedding amongst our French friends, I think that after Sarkozy, the French may be ready for a constitutional monarchy! Or they could try another idea, why not elect a Queen!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

US National Debt

Yesterday the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s flagged a warning on the USA’s long term credit rating. 
Basically they said that it remains AAA at the moment, but in the future it won’t unless the US government takes action to reduce its National Debt. The announcement has sent shockwaves around the markets, but someone had to say it sooner or later. The level of US National Debt has been rising steadily since George Bush Jr was elected (some still say that he wasn’t)!

When my doctor asked me yesterday (I've got gout again) whether I was pro-Bush or Pro-Obama I hesitated, not being sure that I had understood him. He explained that he had recently had an American in his consulting room who was strongly anti-Obama. He must have been a Republican or a member of the Tea Party!

I find it hard to say anything positive about George Bush Junior. On the false pretext that Iraq and Al-Quaeda were allies, he led the US, and I am ashamed to say the UK as well, into a pointless war in Iraq, the consequences of which are still with us today. He also reversed Clinton’s good work in reducing the US National Debt by lowering taxes and increasing military spending just like Reagan and Bush Senior did in the 80’s and 90’s.

Obama on the other hand has continued to increase the National Debt in the belief that he needs to prevent a recession. It does seem that he lacks a certain decisiveness and tends not to lead from the front, preferring to join the rest of the politicians and bury his head in the sand. Unfortunately, just like with your own domestic finances, there are limits to the amount a nation can borrow. At the moment no one is saying that the US can’t meet its interest payments but the market will react by increasing interest rates to reflect the perceived risk and it will get more expensive to service their debt if nothing is done to reduce borrowing soon.  In Greece, Portugal and Ireland we have already seen the results of unrestrained borrowing and yet on average European National Debt is only half that of the US.

click to enlarge
At present the Federal Reserve is printing dollars, it’s called “Quantitative Easing” and it’s intended to increase liquidity in the real economy. This has the short term effect of preventing banks collapsing, and it keeps the economy growing, at least temporarily, but the dollar’s value against other currencies declines. Eventually, if you continue to print money you end up with hyper inflation. This is what happened in the past in Germany and some South American countries. Under the Weimar Republic, in the twenties, you needed millions of deutschmarks to buy a loaf of bread.

The US dollar is, however, a Reserve Currency and, at present, countries with surpluses like China, Russia and Brazil are still prepared to buy dollars and hold dollar bonds. If the rating agencies downgrade the USA’s credit rating, dollar interest rates could easily double in a very short period and the dollar could lose its reserve status. The US would then be faced with finding the extra short term cash to service the National Debt, which would mean increased taxes and spending cuts, which would have a devastating effect on Federal programmes, including the defence budget.

The problem is that a first term president is always looking to the next election. Quite simply raising taxes and cutting spending is bad for votes. If Obama is re-elected in 2012 then he will have nothing to lose by tackling the National Debt, but he will still have to persuade Congress and the Senate to vote for tax rises and spending cuts!

My doctor and I both agreed, however, that when the USA sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold, so the prognosis is bad! A stronger Euro will make it even more dificult to export and will reduce still further our UK pensions!

Mean while take a look at the US National Debt Clock and try to find some numbers which are reducing!

Monday, 11 April 2011

La Pronunciation Française

I went on another singing workshop this weekend. I'd chosen ”La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” as one of the three pieces that I'd prepared, the other two, "Voi che sapete" and "Una furtiva lagrima", being in Italian. I'd told the teacher what I'd chosen and on the way to the venue on Saturday she recommended that I listen to the version of "La fleur" by Jonas Kaufmann, who was for her the best Don José.

At the workshop everybody sings in foreign languages and not many of the songs are in French. I suppose I was foolish to offer such a well known French aria from Bizet’s Carmen. But I do like singing it because, once you have transposed it down, it’s not too difficult and yet it’s full of drama and changes of mood.

The teacher didn’t like my French pronunciation. She is usually very tolerant of the singers’ various shortcomings and politely suggests areas they need to improve, but not in this case. First she paid me a strongly backhanded compliment by saying that at my level of musicianship my pronunciation of French is not good enough and I would do better singing in English or Italian! Next, in front of the group, she started to give me a lesson in how to pronounce French! Well I suppose that does mean that she thinks I'm musically adept, even if my French is sub-standard, but whilst she's happy to let English songs be sung with faulty pronunciation that is clearly totally unacceptable in French.

After learning French at school, I took it up again at the age of 40 and that is too late to learn to speak a language perfectly. After arriving in France, six years ago, it took about two years before I was confident enough to have an extended conversation with someone in French. I am frequently frustrated by not being able to find the right words and I know that I make lots of mistakes. Most people are too polite to point these out.

On Sunday morning I woke up at 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep for thinking about it all. So I decided to check on the pronunciation of some world famous tenors.

Jonas Kaufmann consistently makes a serious mistake by pronouncing the é as an i “(the difference, if you are an English speaker between ay and ee). For example “jetée at 7s”, “restée at 16s”, “flétrie 19s”. This is completely incorrect and, if you know French, gives rather comical results as you can hear in the video. It’s amazing that nobody has corrected him.

Domingo quite incredibly shares the same fault at 26s and 33s. Perhaps they both had the same non-French teacher. He also mispronounces “heur-es” as ér-es (err-ez not air-ez in English) at 56s.

Pavarotti not surprisingly has a strong Italian accent and at 1m 25s he mispronounces je with the italian vowel sound as j’ai.

Jose Carreras strongly rolls his r’s like a Spanish speaker normally would, e.g.”gardait at 53s.

So I feel that, amongst these great tenors, I am in very exalted company indeed!

Roberto Alagna is authentically French and, although he has an Italian name, he was born in Clichy-Sous-Bois. His is my performance of reference.

When the members of the group sing in English there are sometimes major mistakes as well as minor mispronunciations or lack of correct articulation. During these workshops I have restricted myself to only correcting serious errors and not even all of those. This weekend I briefly intervened twice in total.

During Sunday’s session I didn’t feel inclined to sing”La Fleur” again. After the fifth or sixth time, I also got very tired of joking remarks about “the English” from one of the older members of the class. Finally, when the teacher pointed out one of my mispronunciations in spoken French to the rest of the group, and later jokingly suggested that one of the ladies should sing "Voi che sapete" with an English accent, I got really pissed off. She, of course, sang it in the way that she had been taught. I listened very attentively and couldn't hear any difference between her pronunciation of Italian and mine. When she had finished I couldn’t resist congratulating her on her very correct English pronunciation of Italian. I am not sure whether anyone fully understood the point of my remark but maybe one or two did!

I am quite slow to react emotionally, which explains why it was only in the evening, as I reflected on the day, that I became very angry indeed. The teacher should never have undermined my confidence in the first place and she should most definitely not have made jokes about my pronunciation of French on Sunday. For the first time, in six years of living in France, I was made to feel ashamed of my French and I felt that I was not a full member of the group because I am English.

The teacher has certainly taught me things about vocal technique but if, and there is a serious doubt in my mind, I continue with her in the future I will never sing songs in French!

The teacher, by the way, is German.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Propositions for Sale

François Mitterrand
 Today the Socialist Party are officially publishing their programme of 30 propositions for the presidential election in 2012.  Ever since Mitterrand put forward “110 Propositions for France” in 1981, French political parties don’t publish manifestoes containing policies; they make propositions which are more specific than manifesto policy statements. The media are then left to pull together the main themes and select four or five of the most salient propositions. The rest get swept under the carpet, at least temporarily. You could be forgiven for thinking that this means that, when they get elected, the politicians’ room for manoeuvre is limited, but this is France.  If something proves to be unpopular it is rapidly dropped and disappears without trace! In serious cases the unfortunate minister who made the formal proposal is buried with it.

It’s very easy to be cynical about politics, but it’s clear that certain French politicians are so arrogant that they think that the public is stupid and won’t be able to see straight through their political schemes and ploys, even one so blatant as “Le Debat sur la Laïcité”.

The UMP is also publishing today its 26 propositions for a debate concerning a change in the law of 1905 about “laïcité”.  Since 1905 it has been a principle of the Republic that religion and the state should be kept separate. This translates into banning any expression of religion in schools or public organisations but also guarantees the rights of individuals to practice their religion without hindrance.

The debate about laïcité is a political gambit to attempt to attract potential National Front voters back to the UMP. The logic starts from the assumption that French people are all racist and will agree with propositions which restrict the rights of muslims to freely exercise their religion in the manner that they choose. The UMP also hopes to move the agenda away from the economy, and the gradual reduction in the standard of living of the average French person, as inflation causes prices to rise faster than salaries, and growth is always lower than predicted.

Jean-François Copé
 I have to say that not all of the UMP agrees with this attempt to move the party to the right. François Fillon has refused to take part in “Le Debat sur la Laïcité”,  which is strongly supported by Jean-François Copé, the General Secretary, and behind him in the shadows, Nicholas Sarkozy.

Jean- Louis Borloo
I am filled with contempt for the organizers of this blatant attempt to appeal to the racist instincts and fears of the electorate. It will almost certainly backfire to the benefit of the National Front, just like Eric Besson's debate on National Identity did. It allows the National Front to set the agenda and leaves the UMP running behind them. It stigmatizes French muslims and furthermore it opens up the centre to be occupied by other groups or individuals like Jean-Louis Borloo. If these gain sufficient momentum they could marginalize the UMP and split the centre-right vote allowing Marine Le Pen to profit the most.  She is a disturbingly capable politician, less provocative, with more credibility than her father and with more appeal to female voters. If Nicholas Sarkozy is the UMP's presidential candidate then the risk of marginalizing the UMP is even higher.

It really would be better for France if the presidential election in 2012 was between François Fillon and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who both seem to be reasonable and decent people and who would both make good Presidents.

Friday, 1 April 2011

A Wandering Seal

Spotted by Fishermen on the Banks of the Dordogne
The wandering seal found yesterday in the Dordogne would have by now found refuge near the proposed bridge of Prigonrieux (24) . Last week it was seen on the Port Sainte-Foy side.
As all fishermen will tell you, you find everything in the Dordogne including things that you shouldn’t find there. As proof, this grey seal, weighing about 80kg and about 1.8m long, was seen, at the beginning of the week, on the banks of the river. The first person to have alerted the press was Marc Broquaire, a fisherman from Bergerac who lives on the left bank of the river. Retired for four years, he never goes out without his camera. Monday morning as he walked along the river bank the sixty year old found himself face to face with a seal “grey and as large as a man” that he quickly snapped, “without that, people would have asked themselves if I hadn’t gone mad!”, explained Marc Broquaire. “From a distance I thought it was a piece of wood washed up on the bank, but gradually as I approached there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt. It really was a seal.”

“It has swum up the river”
A seal! On learning the news the fishermen of Bergerac thought that it was an April Fool’s prank “, you are pulling our legs aren’t you?” But no, because the very serious director of Epidor (1), Guy Pustelnik, admitted that “he had had wind of the presence of an animal like a seal at Sainte-Foy-la-Grande last week”. “Personally I was inclined to think it was a coulobre (2), a species which we have recently re-introduced into the Dordogne, but the idea of a seal doesn’t surprise me. Three or four years ago one was found in La Vallée de L’Isle.” But a photo taken last week on the Port-Sainte-Foy side (published on the front page of the newspaper) confirms its presence in the area.

So how has this marine mammal arrived at the doors of Bergerac? There the mystery persists. After recovering from the surprise, “hold on, they’ve found what in the Dordogne?” – Frederic Dhermy, the director of the tourist complex of Eaux de Queyssac, suggests a tentative explanation: “As far as I’m concerned, the seal has swum up the river from the Gironde estuary. The reduction in fish numbers in the sea may have pushed this seal to follow the shoals of shad which spawn in the Dordogne. ” A possibility considered plausible by Laurent Corbel, the director of the aquarium of Perigord Noir à Bugue, who remembers having seen on the television a six metre whale swimming in the Thames. “As long as an animal is able to continue to feed itself, there is no reason for it to stop”, stated this connoisseur of fresh water fish.

Or has it escaped from a zoo?
A courageous seal? Fit enough to swim 150km? On that point M Frédéric Delmarès, professional fisherman and fish farmer is rather sceptical. “The presence of the seal doesn’t surprise me. Fifteen years ago a seal had found refuge on a rock in Creysse. It had escaped from a zoo perhaps that’s the case again.”

How long will it stay in the waters of the Dordogne? Only the seal knows. To see it closely it’s best to join the visit organised for Sunday afternoon on the banks of Prigonnieux. Between now and then the naturalist Yannick Lenglet will have prepared the way.

(1) Établissement public territorial du bassin de la Dordogne,
(2) Un coulobre, a species associated with certain poissons d’Avril

Translated from the article in Sud Ouest by John Preedy