Monday, 30 September 2013

Photos of the Vieux Port of Marseille

Readers of the French press will be aware that newspapers invariably jump on every gangland killing in Marseille and hold it up as an example of the city's chronic problem with drug dealing and violent crime in general. The articles are often given angst-ridden and dramatic headlines such as 'Marseille: the most dangerous city in France!!' Much debate then follows about the best way to resolve the issues. Equally predictable is the reaction to these stories of the people of Marseille. They hold that the press is exaggerating the phenomenon and giving the city a bad name. The truth though - as is ever the case with this kind of phenomenon - lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

Also true though is that despite the city's problems, the Vieux Port of Marseille is one of the most beautiful ports to be found not only in France, but in the whole of Europe.

So here are some photos of it that I took a couple of years back. The one here at the top of the page is the statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on top of the Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the port and is the highest point in the city. I'm posting these photos as a reminder that Marseille is not just about violence, it's about a historical past, grace and elegance too.


Humans have inhabited Marseille and its environs for almost 30,000 years, but the Vieux Port didn't begin to take on an international aspect until after the Greeks arrived there. There is testimony to that in the form of a commemorative plaque that is imbedded into the quayside. It reads;
It was here that Greek sailors who had come from the Greek city of Phocea in Asia Minor came ashore in about 600 BC. They founded Marseille, from where civilisation would illuminate the West.

The port is of the picture postcard variety and it's easy to understand why.

The Vieux Port is home to many sailing boats and smaller yachts.


Here is the perimeter of the commercial shipping port, which is of vital importance to the city's economy. I took this photo from a vantage point at which I could turn around and see the Vieux Port.

The port is U-shaped, with the top of the U representing the exit towards the Mediterranean, but if you're near the exit and want to visit the other side don't worry, you don't have to go back down and all around the U to get there because some bright entrepreneur once had the excellent - and very popular - idea of operating a ferry from one side to the other. Here's the crew, and as this photo shows the people of Marseille like to take things easy when they can. From whence this dual command post, at which one of these guys sails the ferry across, and the other sails it back. Very efficient.

The Vieux Port was heavily defended many years ago by forts on either side of the entrance. Here's one of them, St Jean.

Once beyond it you are in the Mediterranean, and from the moment this fort is no longer in view you are en route for the rest of the world.......

But beautiful though it is, there is much more to Marseille than its port, so I'll be back in a few days to post some photos of the downtown area and its attractions.

Have a good day, wherever you may be..

Saturday, 28 September 2013

French trade unions' opposition to sunday working: a throwback to the 19th century?

A Sephora cosmetics outlet in Paris
The Luddites were an organisation of 19th century English textile workers who opposed the introduction of newly-invented machines that were designed to improve output and reduce labour costs. The fors and againsts of their struggle have been the subject of much debate ever since, but they are still held up today as an example of either progress-stopping King Canute-style reactionaries or working class heroes, depending on one's point of view.

So what, in that context, are we to make of the current dispute which is pitting French trade unions against their chain store employers? The unions and Clic-C, their representative body in the chain store sector, have been taking legal action against a number of them in an effort to stop them opening on Sundays and late in the evening during the week on the grounds that the practice is damaging to workers' health and represents an erosion of their rights. The companies involved work in industries such as food supermarkets, do-it-yourself, furniture, luxury goods shops, and finance. They include Monoprix, Leroy Merlin, Castorama, Sephora, Bricorama, Apple, Uniqlo, Franprix, Abercrombie & Fitch and Marionnaud. Most industries in France are forced to close on Sundays, with the exception of those who work in tourism, transport and a few others.

Courts have come down in favour of the unions in many cases, and the chain stores concerned have been forbidden by judges to open on Sundays, with the penalty for not obeying being a fine of €120,000 per outlet for each Sunday worked.

But more and more of them have announced that they are lodging appeals and shall open on Sundays despite the ban, saying that not doing so would result in revenue losses of up to 25% and thousands of staff layoffs. They argue that most staff members are not obliged to work on Sundays and that those who do are volunteers.

This is borne out to some degree by the workers themselves, some of whom have held demonstrations in front of local prefectures over the last few days to protest both the unions' decision to have Sunday opening banned by the courts and the laws which govern it. Workers say that a ban would cost them anything up to 10% of their take-home pay, that they would lose bonuses for working on Sundays and that part-time workers who work on Sunday only would quite simply lose their jobs. Consumer organisations are also contesting the ban.

Both the workers and the consumer organisations are right, and for many reasons. The historical reason for banning work on Sundays was that workers used to work anything up to 80 hours a week over 7 days 200 years ago, often in very hard conditions. The ban was necessary and right at that time.

But the world has changed since those dark days. Whereas many women did not work 60 years ago and could thus do the shopping and deal with other chores, most families today need both parents to work in order to make ends meet, with the result that they have precious little time left at the end of the day to do their shopping and buy furniture, D-I-Y materials and other items.

Also, banning Sunday trading heavily penalises the tourism sector, as many tourists are used to being able to shop on Sundays in their own countries. That is why deluxe stores in Paris and other major cities are also to defy the ban, claiming that Sunday opening would create 5000 jobs in Paris alone. Supermarket chain store Monoprix is continuing to defy a ban on evening opening and claims that if they shut earlier they would be forced to shed 1500 jobs, again, in Paris alone.

From a wider perspective, France currently has the highest unemployment levels ever seen during the Fifth Republic, family incomes are under a sustained tax attack from the government, and the prospect of losing even more jobs for these reasons is therefore a highly unpalatable one.

French trade unions are antediluvian in nature. They are living in another era and their actions are based on ideological principles that are morally indefensible. The sad spectacle of unions attempting to all intents and purposes to get people thrown out of jobs and into the unemployment queue during the worst economic crisis the country has seen since the oil crisis in Seventies is an absurd and unedifying one. They deserve to fail, and fail they shall once the government finally gets off its backside and the fence and modernises the country's outdated Sunday trading laws.


(Update: The only sizeable trade union to support Sunday trading is the CFCT, whose representative for the Paris outlets of the home improvement and gardening chain store Leroy Merlin - Jean-Marc Cicuto - says today that he supports the company's decision to defy the law and open on Sundays. He adds that "95% of Leroy Merlin staff in the Paris area are in favour of working on Sunday.")

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

It's my birthday today, and I'm 60 years old. Hmmm.....

Older guy still dreaming he's playing Woodstock blah blah blah.. :)
It's just before one in the morning on Thursday September 26th as I begin writing this blog entry, which means that I am now officially sixty years old. Yup, 60. Sixty-Years-Old. The big Six Zero. Six-Nought. Call it what you will.

I read an article in The Guardian recently that said that we are officially "old" at 60. So I suppose I must be old then if they say so. Problem is, I don't feel old. Far from it.

I've never felt better in my life! My professional life is as enriching as anyone could wish for, I am lucky enough to know some wonderful people I love dearly and who appreciate me too, I'm happier than I've ever been, I'm more confident than I've ever felt, I'm in good physical shape for my age and, despite all my mess-ups and mistakes over the long long years, I don't think I've turned out to be any worse than the next person. And god knows I could - or even should - have been a total fucking loser.

Truth be told, and without going into too much detail, I should have been dead years ago. My childhood was cut short at the age of thirteen by the death of both my parents, and I was pretty much left to fend for myself, which means that I had all the characteristics and credentials it took to be a criminal. No parents, a shattered family (it took me years to find my two sisters again as we had all been scattered to the winds), and an errant lifestyle. Rapists, pedophiles, murderers and all sorts of other sundry villains and criminals use their ruined childhood as a mitigating circumstance before their judges, but I somehow - and thankfully - managed to avoid that fate (although I did spend one night in prison for picking a fight with a pub owner in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire on my 26th birthday. I was fined the equivalent of €60 the next morning and I thoroughly deserved it. It taught me a valuable lesson).

Drugs and alcohol? Oh, let's not talk about that but say we did okay? Lots of people I knew then are not here today because of their excessive intake of drugs and I'll not add to that. Suffice it to say that the drug and alcohol abuse that characterised my life until my forties should have killed me off, just as it did many people at that time. I can't even begin to remember how many times I woke up fully-dressed in the morning on the floor of my home with a massive hangover or acid, or opium comedown or whatever and asked myself  'how the fuck did I get home?' only to drag myself to the window to see my car, very badly parked, outside. How the hell I didn't kill myself, or, worse, kill other road users, is still, and shall forever, remain a mystery.

Then there are all the people I knew who died prematurely because of illness or accidents, those who died in car and motorcycle accidents, and even some children, who died for reasons ranging from contracted disease to unsuspected heart anomalies.The latter killed a girlfriend of mine in fact. We were both nineteen and were just picking up our coats on our way out of a discotheque when she dropped down dead on the stairs in just one second. It turned out that she had been born with a time-bomb heart condition that meant that she was condemned to die young.

When I was younger I used to think that people of sixty years of age were finished. They were old. They had nothing more to say or contribute to the 'modern' world which I thought belonged to me and me only. In a word, they were irrelevant has-beens to be put out to pasture. I thought I knew it all.

But now that I'm 60, I know that I still know nothing much. I learn new things every day. World events such as war and the cruel things people do to each other still shock and sadden me, and I have not, thankfully, become become blasé and cynical about the realities of life.

I still love people, I still love life, I still love living on this humble little planet, and I still feel that life has so much to offer me.

In other words - and truth be told - this, my sixtieth birthday, is the best birthday I have ever had. I shall enjoy every moment of it, and I can only be grateful for having been born and still being alive. The future? Oh, I'm old enough now to know that Tomorrow Never Knows.

Anyway, enough of all my ruminations and blatherings, so have a good day all.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Kenya massacre and the most shamefully Chamberlian article the Guardian has ever published

I have been a faithful Guardian reader for 43 years, during which time I have seen many of the good, the bad and the ugly episodes that have illustrated its history. But never have I read such a crass piece of shamelessly opinion-pandering nonsense to equal that which was posted on the paper's website today by Simon Jenkins, former Times editor and current National Trust chairman.

Jenkins analyses the ongoing crisis in Nairobi, Kenya, and in his conclusion he deploys the well-worn - and arguably justified to a certain degree -  opinion that;
"The "war on terror" has failed on its own terms. It had made dozens of countries not pacified but terrified. By deploying violence against a succession of Muslim states, the world's leading powers have made their business its business and invited retaliation. They have not crushed al-Qaida any more than they have suppressed extreme Islamism. They have refreshed rather than diminished that extremism, and made the world less safe as a result."
Fair enough, although I shall not allow myself to be innocently tempted into developing the futile chicken-and-egg answer that 9/11 demanded a response, but was itself due to western aggression, which was in turn a response to other threats against the west etc and ad infinitum, but what does Jenkins think should be done faced with the mindless slaughter of about seventy civilians of many nationalities in a shopping centre by religiously and ideologically-motivated terrorists?  He says that the British Prime minister should, despite the fact that four British citizens are said to have been slaughtered in Nairobi as I write these words, ignore it, just as all western leaders ignore all incidents in which;
...the Somalian al-Shabaab sect merely shot up a street in Mogadishu...
He goes on to add that because large gatherings of people are vulnerable to terrorist attacks that....
It might be sensible to discourage like-minded crowds from gathering in one place, be they co-religionists or party faithful or merely the wealthy; 
...and that
The modern urban obsession with celebrity buildings and high-profile events offers too many publicity-rich targets. A World Trade Centre, a Mumbai hotel, a Boston marathon, a Nairobi shopping mall are all enticing to extremists. Defending them is near impossible. Better at least not to create them. 
In other words, Simon Jenkins is advocating that Britain and the West should appease terrorists by abandoning the beliefs and principles which hold that the free association of like-minded individuals in public is an inherently necessary right and an essential component of a democratic society, that western society should decree and enact a bland and anonymous social landscape in which neither rich, poor, religious, ethnic, political or other societal groups  may congregate, and that it should abandon or adapt its fundamental principles of freedom of movement because a terrorist organisation says so.

The Guardian is not to be criticised for publishing Jenkins' article - after all, 'Comment is Free' and that's how it should be - but Simon Jenkins' article is nothing more than an abject sop to terrorism and a rehash of the naive cowardice of Neville Chamberlain's paper-waving-in-the-wind capitulation to Adolf Hitler.

He should be ashamed of it.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A lazy Sunday afternoon bike ride down the banks of the Rhône river

A Star Trek spaceship base... a municipal swimming pool on the left bank of the Rhône
It's autumn and most of us are enjoying the beginning of the Indian summer which seems set to last for a week over much of Europe. That's why I decided to get on my bike this afternoon and ride southbound along the left bank of the Rhône here in Lyon from the northern end of the city centre - which is a peninsula hemmed in by the Rhône on one side and the Saône on the other - to the southern suburb where it ends, and where I live. The weather was gorgeous!

Most of us go down to the river to potter about, but some people live on it in houseboats like this one. The centre of the city is on the other side.

Some of the Rhône's finest bridges were blown up by the German army in WWII in an effort to hold up its Allied persuers during its retreat from France in late 1944 and early 1945, but thankfully some of them were left untouched. Here's one of them.

Some people go jogging by the river...

...others hang out and play music under the trees....

...but whatever they do, they all appreciate the bar-barges which sell the cold drinks they need in weather like this.

Heading south out of the centre and towards where I live, there's less activity and people, but much more greenery and nature.

This swan is one of a couple which has lived here for a long while now and they are well known to the locals.

Can anyone tell me what this strange structure is? It has a door at the top and reminds me of a public toilet, although I'd rather take a leak behind a bush than swim out to that. And there isn't even a ladder!

The quayside disappears towards the end of the peninsula and gives way to grassy slopes upon which people can relax in the sun and drink in the peace and quiet.

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen couples canoodling here in this little haven of peace and tranquility.

And this is where the peninsula, and the bike track, ends.

If you were to get on a boat from here and continue on down south, you would sail through the valleys of the Ardèche region and onwards to the charming towns of Valence, Montelimar and Avignon before reaching the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille, and, if you wanted to go further still, you could continue on to Northern Africa and the rest of the world......

Friday, 20 September 2013

The immigrant's story

Photo credit: Chareles Platiau/Reuters
My girlfriend works in a school in a poorer area of Lyon in which almost 90% of the children are of immigrant origin. It's a hard job. Violence is never far away and social problems are rife, but the staff does their best to educate their pupils against the odds.
The school recently hired a secretary to the headmistress. She is a young woman of Algerian origin who arrived in France from Algeria not long ago to join her husband, who earns a small salary. She too is on a low salary and they have a young child.

The secretary does her best and has many qualities. She is kind to the children and has earned their respect, she has an agreeable personality, she gets to work on time and she dresses impeccably.

But there's a snag. She was hired on a 'Contract of Insertion', a kind of contract which is destined to integrate immigrants and poorer people into a working environment despite what may be considered as being rather inadequate qualifications and abilities. Her level of French is very poor, she has problems writing from left to right - she was educated to write Algerian Arabic from right to left - she is very bad at taking messages by phone, and she refers to those who do so by saying things like 'an important person called who is called Mme Dupont', when Mme Dupont is just a teacher like everybody else. In other words, she is overawed by it all.

Not only that, she may be good at dealing with children but her social skills with adults are, shall we say, of a finite nature. The regional School Inspector turned up the other day and she welcomed him with a cheerily offhand 'hey hi, how're ya' doin'?' NOT what is expected in a socially rigid country like France, in which hierarchies are rigorously and respectfully respected.

Error after error, gaffe after gaffe, it has got to the point where emails she writes are checked and changed before being sent and in some cases the staff do her work for her. The staff feels for her and tries to help her as much as possible, but it's an uphill (losing?) battle and everyone, including the young woman concerned, knows it.

My girlfriend says that the secretary recently pleaded, begged, her and other staff to try and ensure that the school don't fire her after her trial period. She said that she would do her very best to improve her French and her ways of dealing with people in the context of French culture. My girlfriend answered that she would try to get her enrolled for free French lessons. 

Everyone likes her a lot, but it is as plain as day that she is just not up to the job. Despite that however they are trying to rally round and help her.

The poor girl is petrified of losing her job and ending up on a state pittance for doing nothing to contribute to the country. She wants so much to succeed and she is desperate to do so. But even with the best will in the world of everyone concerned, it is by no means certain that she will still have a job in a few weeks from now.

And if she loses her job? Oh, her husband may well abandon her and her baby because they are a financial liability, and she may well end up living in poverty. 

An awful dilemma this. Not all immigrants want to milk the system, but not all are able to find and keep work either. What can be done about it? That is for the movers and shakers of France to decide.

Meanwhile, her immigrant's story, that of a courageous young woman who wants no more than to earn an honest living, shall remain unheard and unread, except for those who have just taken the time to read this little blog post, parked up as it is, anonymously, in a tiny corner of the Internet........

Thursday, 19 September 2013

French Heritage Day at the Malartre Car Bike and Motorbike Museum in Rochetaillé

Hello, and I'm back after a summer break from blogging. I'm keen to find out what those bloggers I follow have been up to but before doing so I thought I'd post some photos I took recently at the Rochetaillé Museum, which is on the banks of the River Saône about 11 kilometres from Lyon. There are lots of vintage, classical and veteran transport vehicles of all kinds to be seen there, and the museum's star attraction is Hitler's parade car, which it acquired a few years ago. As you shall see, it's a really mean machine.

We went there on Sunday, which was the second day of France's National Heritage weekend. The museum is housed in several buildings, with the vintage car, bike and motorbike sections being housed in a Chateau at the top of a hill which offers some splendid views. Here's the chateau (please note that I didn't take this photo, although the rest are mine);

 This photo was taken from the second floor of the museum;

I would imagine that many people - well, me in any case - think that foldable bicycles are a recent invention. But they're not, as this example, from the beginning of the 1900s, attests. The photo also demonstrates that punctures aren't a recent invention either;

The large majority of the exhibits are of French origin of course, although there are some notable exceptions, particularly in the motorbike section, which includes some pieces of British and Italian origin. I'm not sure where this one was made. Not that it matters, because it's a beautiful example of early motorbike engineering, and that's what's important;

Vintage cars were much in evidence, including this one, which, from memory (I didn't take notes) is a Peugeot. The yellow suspension unit looks very robust. Mind you, it needed to be robust given that car tyres were made of solid rubber with no inner tubes at the time;

This classy number (the car) has tyres with inner tubes, and the mix of shiny white paint and brass is very elegant in my humble view. The steering wheel is on the right, which is rather curious given that the car is a Renault. Perhaps it was an export model destined for the British market?

Car engines and drive assemblies in vintage cars have always fascinated me. Consisting essentially of brass, copper and forged steel, they were beautifully crafted. Here are a couple of examples;

There are hundreds of bikes, motorbikes and cars in the museum, but the star of the show is, of course, Hitler's personal parade car. It can be seen in thousands of photos and newsreel film reports from before and during the Second World War at rallies from Nuremburg to Hamburg and Berlin. It's a stunning piece, if only for its sheer size, and it's menacingly massive presence must have been frightening and intimidating to see as it drove by with Hitler standing up in it and giving his Nazi salute;

The car's technical specifications are just as impressive as the car itself. Hitler had thousands of enemies both inside and outside Germany from 1930 onwards, many of whom plotted to kill him, so the car was built with that threat in mind and it offered him as much protection as was possible at the time. Its manganese-treated 18-millimeter armour plating meant that it weighed a mighty 4780 kilograms when empty and it also had a 400 HP engine, 20-cell tyres, spare wheels which were placed on the sides of the engine to protect it in case of attack and electro-magnetic door-blocking mechanisms;

The car's designers were also aware that the windows and windshild were a source of potential risk, which is why they were made of 40 millimeter-thick bulletproof glass. Could it stop bullets? The answer is a resounding yes, as this photo shows. The weapon used to fire at it on this occasion was probably some sort of machine-gun, given the roughly linear line of the bullet impacts;

These are just a few of the many vehicles on show at the museum, and other categories include racing cars and motorbikes, trolleycars, classical 50s and 60s cars and authentic engine and other parts taken from well-known vehicles, such as the machine in which Donald Campbell broke the existing land speed record in Australia in 1964. The museum is a big favourite for car enthusiasts as well as anyone interested in seeing the results of man's creative engineering history over the years. Highly recommended, 10/10, a gold star, and have a nice day!