Saturday, 30 June 2012

Dominique Strauss-Kahn: the bigger they come....?

The last few years of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's life have seen him fall from the stratospheric heights of Managing Director of the IMF to him being accused of rape, participating in an organised prostitution ring, and, now, being ditched by his wife at a time when he is allegedly depressed about his future prospects.

It had been widely rumoured for a while that all was not well with DSK's marriage to richissime Huffington Post news editor Anne Sinclair, and it was finally revealed recently that they separated a month ago, with him moving out of her house ("she threw him out.." bitched people magazine Closer) to live elsewhere in Paris.

The news does not come as a surprise of course. Any marriage would be tested by the kind of events which have cascaded into DSK's life over the last few years. An affair with a UN staffer, allegations of attempted rape by a French journalist, the Diallo NYC Sofitel rape allegations, and more recently, accusations of his participation in a high-class prostitution ring and gang rape allegations by one of the 'girls', although the latter have not yet been formalised as charges.

And while all this was going on, his political and wealthy friends began to desert him, leaving the French press free to publish statements by female French politicans and others, equally freed from fear of powerful retribution from people in high places, about the boorish and aggressive methods they said he employed to try and seduce them.

There has been much speculation about the nature of DSK and Sinclair's relationship, but there has never been any formal confirmation of it by either DSK or Sinclair. Some say that she supported him for so long because they had an 'open' relationship, whilst others held that she was quite simply standing by her man at a time of adversity and when none of the allegations had been proved. But whatever the way they ran their marriage, all these events inevitably took their toll on it.

What are we to think of his downfall? I am certainly not rejoicing (I was a supporter of his bid for the French presidency before the Diallo affair wrecked it) but neither am I about to claim that he, and they, are victims of a witch hunt. As to the allegations, who knows what's true or not?

Perhaps the best way of judging him would need to take into account the words of those who know him, one of whom recently told Reuters that "He's in a bad way. It's very sad. [...] He's mostly just at home on his own while Anne is out and about with her new job. He's shunned by everybody."

Strauss-Kahn is known to be depressed about his future employment prospects, and it's hardly surprising. I can see no possibilities for him on the French political scene, he is persona non-grata for the vast majority of international organisations, and it would be hard to see how he could land a job in a major company. In other words, DSK is now in serious trouble in every sense of the word, and his future, both in financial and personal relationship terms, is extremely bleak.

Which is why I shall refrain from any reaction other than sadness. A ruined marriage, a ruined career, a ruined reputation and accusations of serious sexual crimes have led him to disaster.

But no judge could ever punish Dominique Strauss-Kahn with a heavier sentence than that which his recent life has already handed down to him.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

These elections have killed off the demagogues of French politics

Voting is now over in the French legislative elections, the results are in, and the collective sigh of relief is almost audible after the four months of relentless political campaigning which have finally ended with the election of François Hollande as president and a socialist government with an absolute majority.

So much for the bare results, but, political choices aside, these elections also show that after years of vicious political backbiting, scandals and personal spats the French have had more than enough of their more ego-driven political demagogues, and have thus rejected them more or less en masse.

The first victim of the public's backlash against politicians who ride roughshod over the public's tolerance was Dominique Strausse-Kahn, who fell from his pedestal even before the presidential campaign had officially begun.

Widely tipped to be the Socialist presidential candidate this year - and polls even made him the early favourite to win the presidency if he stood - his dreams ended with his arrest in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. The French press and public defended him at first, shocked as they were by photos of him in handcuffs. The sympathy was mainly inspired by the fact that the publication of photos showing handcuffed suspects is illegal in France, where it would be considered to be degrading treatment.

The mood quickly changed however when the French suddenly seemed to pinch themselves and wake up to the fact that DSK was widely reputed to be an aggressive and boorish womaniser as well as a champagne socialist. At the same time he was considered to have used his power and authority in order to try and get his way with almost any woman who took his fancy. The old story of his affair with a female IMF staffer resurfaced, as did the allegations of attempted rape by journalist Tristane Banon. The game was finally up, and he was forced to withdraw his candidacy after polls showed that over 70% of French voters no longer wanted him to be involved in public life. Strauss-Kahn has since slid into political obscurity, although he is still in the news because of his alleged implication in a prostitution ring.

The next victim of voter ire was the man with the biggest ego in French politics - Nicolas Sarkozy. Ironically, he was elected in part because of his pledge to put an end to the aloof and distant presidential style of Jaques Chirac, which had irritated many voters, but he mistakenly took his mandate to mean that he had carte blanche to do and say whatever he wanted. The result was that Sarkozy's bling-bling brashness, blunt words and vulgar attitudes quickly led to disenchantment, and it wasn't long before the public began to regret Chirac's departure.

Succour finally came for the French when François Hollande astutely decided that he would use the 'normal president' line as a campaign theme in order to highlight his belief that voters would prefer his style, and his victory demonstrated that the public had had enough of Sarkozy's I-me-mine way of presiding.

Next up for the chop was the hapless centrist François Bayrou, whose crime was his unwavering belief that he could continue indefinitely to flip-flop on his choice of policies depending on which major party he was supporting. Bayrou had no qualms about changing horses in the middle of a presidential election campaign if the polls showed that he was supporting the wrong candidate. His main objective became clear as elections came and went however, and it was nobody's secret that all he wanted was to be in the right camp at the right moment and be rewarded with a cabinet post.

It was not to be, alas, and he was eventually and unceremoniously dumped by voters in the first round of the presidential election with only 9% of the vote, which was a pitiful showing given that his 2007 score was exactly twice as big - 18%. His fall from grace was completed today when he lost his parliamentary seat after holding it for 16 years.

But at least Bayrou made it to today's second round vote, that which was not the case for maverick hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who made the fatal error of believing that voters wanted a man with not much more than a personal vendetta against Marine le Pen as policy.

His presidential campaign for the Front de Gauche was characterised by a vicious running battle with the equally vicious Front National leader Marine le Pen. When the first round results came in however he was shocked to find that he had completely misjudged the mood of the very working class voters he was hoping to seduce, and he was easily out-distanced by Le Pen, who had rightly estimated that working class voters were fed up not with her, but with politics and politicians in general. His disappointment was compounded by the knowledge that Le Pen had obtained a much higher proportion of working class votes than he, their self-styled champion, had managed to get.

But the worst was yet to come, and Mélenchon's hatred of Le Pen inexorably led to his irrational and suicidal decision to get himself parachuted into the 11th parliamentary constituency of the Pas-de-Calais, where she too was a candidate. He took Le Pen on in the enemy territory which was the small town of Hénin-Beaumont, where Le Pen is an opposition figure in the town council, and he was hoping for revenge. But the people were having none of it and, manifestly disgusted with Mélenchon's decision to foist his personal agenda upon them, voted massively against him and for Le Pen. It is always sad to see colourful personalities like Mélenchon go, but his massive ego finally led to his undoing.

Which leads us to another massive ego and controversial politician, the socialist Ségolène Royal. A bitter loser to Sarkozy in the 2007 election (she was angry enough to call for the French to take to the streets against Sarkozy the very night of her defeat) Royal has never been far from the front pages, and for all the wrong reasons.

She went on to contest the leadership of the Parti Socialiste in 2008 and found herself up against Martine Aubry, who eventually won what turned out to be a very close race. Not happy with the result however, Royal noisily announced that there had been malpractice and that she would contest the result in court. That decision, which threatened to result in the party's reputation being dragged into the mud in court, was not appreciated by voters. She has never to this day carried out her threat, but neither has she formally withdrawn her allegations of cheating. This episode was just one of many controversies which led to her failure to be nominated as the party's presidential candidate in the recent election, and she obtained just 6.9% in the primaries, which were of course won by François Hollande.

Hollande, Royal's former boyfriend, went on to win the presidency. She supported him during his campaign, a clear sign that her anger over the split was waning. But another reason for her apparently magnanimous support soon became apparent.

It emerged that Royal would most likely be given the post of Parliamentary president - indeed she had very publically expressed an interest in the job - and it was believed that Hollande had already promised her this prestigious position. But there was just one problem - she was not a parliamentary deputy, a prerequisite for any candidature.

So off she went to what she thought would be a safe place to get herself elected, La Rochelle. Accusations that she had been parachuted in, although technically well-founded, were tempered by the knowledge that La Rochelle is in the Poitou-Charente region, of which she is President.

But it was in La Rochelle that she finally got the political comeuppance that may well sound the death knell for any hopes she may have nurtured of becoming a national figure in French politics after years in the wilderness.

The cruel irony of her defeat was that during her doomed presidential campaign she had unsuccessfully defended the 'Tout Sauf Sarkozy' ('Anything But Sarkozy') campaign slogan, and it was precisely that slogan which was taken up today by right-wing opposition voters, who took the 'Tout Sauf Royal' line at its word and voted for her dissident socialist opponent, who came in miles ahead.

At the end of the day however, the big winner in these elections is François Hollande. He wanted to create as calm a political climate as possible in which to conduct his presidency, and he has largely succeeded. These results have removed some major political thorns from his side, they have given him an absolute majority, and there are no major demagogues in parliament to taunt him.

But this is France, where politics are volatile, and I'll bet that the demagogues, be they those who have lost out in the recent elections or others who may eventually start blipping on the radar, will surely be back one day....

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Spare a thought for your French holiday waiter

...Tishoo! All fall down and you've got a major mess to clean up, and quick.
I was contacted recently by a young friend of my sister's who wanted to know if I thought he could, or should, try to get a summer job as a waiter in a French Mediterranean resort. He says that a couple of other people he knows are thinking of doing the same thing to escape Britain for a while and earn some money at the same time. So, for those people and any others who may be considering becoming a waiter, here are a few reflections and realities of the job to help you decide.

It does seem like an attractive prospect, which is probably why I became one when I first came to France. God knows how I managed it, but I stuck it out for four summers and winters (ski resorts) before I was forced to stop as I was absolutely burned out.

There are a lot of jobs going right now for those who may want to go down to the Med and try their luck. You might have to ask in a lot of places, but with a bit of luck and a bit of French you may just get a job for the summer.

Here's the kind of daily routine you should expect if you get a job in a mid-to-large brasserie.

Up early in the morning on your first day, one of your first jobs is to set up the terrace, which often involves carrying all the tables and chairs outside as your brasserie opens to the public. It's fairly physical but nothing excessive. Then you will start serving clients.

That means taking their orders, going to the bar and ordering the drinks (much coffee in the morning) and beginning to master the art of the serving tray, which is a big one in most big brasseries and bars. You need to master this quickly and have a knack for balancing a tray full of drinks using just one hand, because most pro restaurants do not permit waiters to carry a tray with both hands.

Try doing that when it's full of drinks
At around 11 you will already have served, cleared and cleaned off a lot of tables and walked a couple of kilometres or more, depending on the size of the terrace. There's also a chance unless you keep an eye on clients that one, maybe two, will leave without paying unless you cash them up upon serving. Don't do that with the locals though, they won't like it. It's already getting very hot.

Then there's a welcome lull just before lunch, which allows you to set the tables. More trips with trays of glasses and boxes of cutlery etc. But this is just the calm before the storm, or should I say hurricane. It may be at this time that you will stop and eat lunch, although some places serve their employees after the midday service.

In the space of less than half an hour and starting from midday the terrace will be full of clients all waiting to be served. It's a curious fact of life that it's not because people are on holiday that they are not in a hurry to be served, and some of them can be quite impatient. So you take orders, usually two at the most at a time, and scurry inside to give the order to the kitchens. Then, don't forget to take out the drinks you have ordered earlier because the golden rule here is never go out or come back in with your hands empty or else you will find yourself panicking in the knowledge that you are falling behind.

It's a whirlwind of activity and tempers quickly become frayed. Take out dishes as soon as they are ready or the chef will bite your head off, and the same thing goes for drinks and desserts. Bread, water, drinks, food, cashing up, clearing tables off, seating new clients and starting all over again, your head will be full of things to do, not do, and not forget. There's so much to do and keep an eye on that it comes as a shock at first, so try and anticipate events and the progress of your tables. Stay calm. Also, the boss will be watching you with a keen and experienced eye, and if you can't hack it, well, it's a cruel and instant "thanks but no thanks, and au revoir." When will things slow down?!

After two whirlwind hours, and just when you're desperately wondering if it will ever end, the pace finally and thankfully slackens and you wonder how you're still able to stand. You've walked the equivalent of anything up to about seven or even eight kilometres during the many dozens, hundreds even, of toings and froings to the terrace and back. But then there's another nerve-racking moment when, just before taking a few hours off at around 14:30, you hand over the cash, cheques and credit card reciepts. Did you remember to cash everyone up? Maybe you didn't cash table 16 up? You'll know soon enough, and any shortfall is docked from your pay. Then it's off to rest and, probably, sleep a little. With anxious dreams of keeping hundreds of angry clients waiting.

Back on duty at about 6'ish, you will probably eat first. Then you will begin serving again, except this time it will be even harder than it was at lunch. First it's the helter-skelter madness of the evening meal service, when orders are often more complex and complete, which means even more toing and froing than you did at lunchtime. Try not to forget which dishes go to which tables. Remember to look after the more distant tables on your section. And try to get the balance right between exchanging a few quick and friendly words with clients and not speaking at all because you're hard-pressed for time. This is the worst part of the day because of the wide range of products you have to order and deliver. And, it lasts longer too.

Things finally do calm down a little however, at around 10pm, but no sooner do they do so than the terrace fills up again with people out for their evening stroll around, during which they stop for a cooling drink and/or ice-creams. Your tray is now full of tall glasses, bottles and ice-creams. It has to be full because if it isn't you're wasting time. The tray seems to weigh a ton and your arm aches.

This is when you will see how good, or bad, your memory is because table turnover is quicker and a lot of people want to order at once, so not only do you need to remember the orders of, say three of four tables when you go back in, you also have to decompose them into hot drinks, bottles, beers and ice-creams when ordering them to make the bar staff's job possible. Then, once out the door with yet another tray, you have to remember who ordered what, serve and cash them up, take new orders, clear off tables and go back in again. And you repeat this cycle over and over and over again. In busy places, all of this is done without you putting your tray down, or hardly.

It's now one in the morning thank the lord, and if you're lucky you can start taking all the tables and chairs in again. They seem to weigh even more than they did this morning. Next comes washing and cleaning the terrace and, often, the interior too. It's still very hot and you are dying to get your clothes off because they smell of food, and get under the shower. God knows how many kilometres you've done. Finally, you turn over the money, hopefully the correct amount, and leave. Back in your apartment you fall onto the bed, absolutely frazzled and wiped out. A shower is a must though, so you take one and go to bed, because you are getting up early tomorrow, just as you did today. You will sleep like a log.

This routine is repeated day after day, six days a week, week after week, and month after month. Under a hot sun. The first couple of weeks are very hard indeed because you're still learning the ropes and are still inefficient, much to your annoyance and embarrassment. As the weeks drag out however your system gets used to the pain and you begin to go to late-night bars with colleagues. Many waiters adopt the 'work hard play hard' principle and some nights can finish late. Which means not only do you not get enough sleep, you may have a hangover the next morning too. But what can one do? It's almost impossible not to want to relax and wind down after a long hard day. It becomes a vicious cycle.

It's a punishing job, and as the months go by you end up losing weight, your temper too occasionally, you look like a ghost, and life is one long tired daze. You get more and more irritable with clients and other staff. The job's no pleasure at this stage, and you're only staying thanks to a steely determination not to give up and walk away, head bowed and your tail between your legs.

It can be very tempting to pack it all in during the first month or so, and many first-time waiters who simply can't take the workload do just that. But if you can just hang on in there you will, at the end of the season, become a proud if totally exhausted member of the bona-fide summer servers fraternity. And after that you will go on a much-deserved holiday yourself and start looking at waiters with a professional eye and a different attitude.

So, think you can handle that, young friend of my sister's? If the answer is yes, then go for it, and good luck to you mate.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Welcome news on France's abusive stop and search laws

French police check the ID of a man with suspicious-looking glasses
The manner in which stop and search checks are carried out in France has long been a matter of serious public concern, because not only can the police stop and search anyone they wish, they do so with an almost total lack of accountability.

Police officers here are not currently required to identify themselves to those they are searching or whose ID they are checking, and nor do they wear their numbers or any other identifying insignia on their uniforms. This means that should they abuse their position of authority during checks it is very difficult to trace them afterwards. This has led to accusations that some officers may have the impression that they can get away with abusive behaviour.

Another major concern is that stop and search checks are carried out almost uniquely on the basis of racial profiling, despite police claims to the contrary. I have lost count of the number of checks I have witnessed over the years, but I cannot recall a single instance where the person being controlled was anything other than someone of Maghrebi, African, or other manifestly foreign origin.

But all this may soon be a thing of the past with the news, announced by Interior minister Manuel Valls and publically supported by Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, that legislation is being prepared which will require police to issue a receipt to the person being controlled. Mandatory information would include the officer's name, number, details of where and when the check took place, and the name and racial origin of the person being controlled.

Police unions and other representatives are of course furious at this prospect, although they shouldn't be. They claim that they are being stigmatised as racists, but the introduction of this system will mean that they will have the chance to either prove that they are not, or change their ways if they are. Either way it will improve their image in the long term, given the results of trials carried out in other countries.

The statistical results of testing in other European countries clearly demonstrate that whereas checks clearly targeted ethnic minorities as a priority at first, tactics slowly changed over time, to the point where checks on indigenous members of the population are now more common than they were before, and they actually result in a higher conviction rate for offences than do checks on ethnic minorities.

This was a very courageous announcement for Valls to make, and not only because he admirably chose to state clearly that he had been directly inspired by Anglo-Saxon laws on the matter (French pride and politicians are normally loath to admit that they are influenced by anything Anglo-Saxon.)

The proposed legislation is also to be applauded because of its timing. The way in which French elections are organised - with just a few weeks separating the presidential and legislative parliamentary elections - means that that the country lives in a sort of legislative limbo during this period. This explains why President François Hollande has not yet unveiled some of the more controversial economic belt-tightening policies that he will be forced to announce once the elections are over.

Both he and Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault are to be admired for their willingness to take an electoral risk vis-à-vis centrist and floating voters by backing Manuel Valls in his efforts to impose more police accountability for stop and search checks. The French police have, up to now, been relatively free to act anonymously, and I for one am happy that this era may soon be over.