Thursday, 29 November 2012

Night Ride Through Civilization

It’s rather convenient to have a palace courtyard in which to exercise at night. I don’t go to a gym. Usually I swim but the local Olympic sized pool is closed thanks to a hunk of concrete roof falling into the pool two months ago (see my blog “And then the Roof Fell In”). I have thus taken to riding Daisy Belle 2 around the Cour Napoleon and the Cour Carrée of the Louvre. Insulated from traffic sounds and sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain by the deep walls of this palace, I am doing my circuit training in the most extraordinary historic environment, far from modern banality.
Tonight was no exception. I powered through the Cour Napoleon, past the glittering glass Pyramid and up the slope that leads via a long arch into the Cour Carée. The Louvre itself dates back to the medieval times when Paris was confined largely to the Isle de la Cité. The stern towers and prison like walls of Philippe Auguste’s Louvre (meaning defensive fortress) situated to the West of the Cité were demolished in more enlightened times and replaced in stages by the glorious Renaissance edifice that is the Louvre today. The transformation from stark fortress to sumptuous palace dates back to Francois I whose own residence was a rather modest little mansion in what is now the south west corner of the Cour Carrée, one end of which overlooks the Seine. Marie Stuart played here as a child. Since her days, Henri IV, Louis VIII and Louis XIV added to that building to create the square called the Cour Carrée—meaning Square Courtyard—keeping to the Italian Renaissance style of the original François I palace.
This is where I speed around on Daisy Belle 2. Tonight a niggardly drizzle needles my face as we circle the central fountain and ride in a wider arc closer to the walls where the lighted windows of the ground floor reveal displays of antiquities. I pause to admire the eight black marble statues of the lion headed Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, who in her role as the destroyer goddess of ancient Egypt removed many an evil leader or exposed a corrupt practice.
As we circle over wet slabs (avoiding very bumpy cobbles) we are accompanied by the strains of a lone cellist whose classical repertoire enriches our ride. The lighted galleries around us (kept open for the cleaners) reveal painted ceilings where cherubs and buxom ladies drift against angelic turquoise skies. These Renaissance works of art are part of the building itself. But, inside and outside, the Louvre takes a lot of upkeep, which is why the North façade has been shrouded in scaffolding for almost a year.
Our views as we flash around the central space also includes glimpses through the arch that looks south towards the Seine, of the gold trimmed cupola of the Academy Français, poised on the Left Bank end of the Pont des Arts. Another, to the West, reveals the Pyramid, glittering with reflections from internal lights, and a third the delicate tower of St Germain d’Auxerrois whose carillon chimes the hour. Not now though because I am riding in the late evening. In a few minutes at 10pm the huge iron gates that open onto the Cour Carrée from the four arches will be closed.
Daisy Belle speeds me back to the Cour Napoleon, past the romantic cellist whose profound gaze and divine music follow us through the arch. We take a few turns around this vast wet space. The fountains are switched off as the hour of ten arrives but one can still hear the gurgle of the overflow via the artificial weirs that empty the black pools surrounding the Pyramid into who knows what Stygian reservoirs.
We pass under the small Arc de Triomphe going West towards the Tuileries, out onto the rue de Rivoli and past the gilded statue of Joan of Arc on her horse. In moments Daisy Belle is back her own stable in the Place Marche St Honoré and I walk the couple of blocks to my street. As during our ride through the palace courtyards, there’s hardly anyone around. A welcome glass of champagne awaits me after I pull off my damp clothes. A November night’s work out in the heart of civilization: it beats sweating it out in a stuffy gym.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Naughty Flanby and the London Scene

As you may know, ‘Flanby’ is one nickname of France’s Socialist President, based on a commercial crème caramel pudding thanks to his flacid photo images. Also nicknamed Noah, by me, thanks to the rainfall records accompanying his arrival at the Elysee, and continuing, you could also call him ‘Mr Tax anything that moves.’ He’s doing it and by now nothing is moving, other than backwards: but he’s still taxing. His pedigree as a Socialist includes the fact that he hates the rich and hates the Middle Classes, the ‘Bourgoisie’ as they call ’em ’ere.
Pay attention to what I’m going to tell you. I’m not new to breaking exclusives and if you want to be on top of French breaking exclusives, join this blog. I made my name as a scoop writer from South Africa in the 1970’s. No hacking.  I have my methods and I get to sources other people can’t reach.
The President of France proclaims that he owns no property. According to his biographical blagues (meaning lies or jests) he rents a modest apartment in the 15th (yuppie arrondissement) with his “First Umbrella Carrier,” Valerie Rottweiler. His former companion, Segolene Royal lives elsewhere and his four kids may or may not be renting apartments: we have no transparency about these arrangements. We know how its done here in France: the apartments will be owned through companies whose tax status will relieve the President of any direct connection or even fiscal deductions. It’s legal but invisible to the masses that vote for socialist representatives.
Here comes the real, exclusive, dope. Mr “Fatty Flanby, ‘hate the middle classes”, Hollande’ “owns apartments in two central London buildings. He has not declared them to the state for public scrutiny, which the rich are obliged to do. But the government does know that he owns them. It has not yet become public knowledge. Nor is it likely to do so since the activities of the “top” people are not usually reported in the media here who collude with the politicians (even to the point of bedding them and moving into the Elysee Palace) to conceal the hideous con trick being perpetrated on the average, heavily taxed individual.
Does that make him a crook?
Frankly, yes, but thanks to the French laws of privacy which I commented on today in a news item to Radio Wales, Cardiff, with reference to the Leveson Enquiry, the French media do not report matters of such seminal interest to the French public. Thanks to the political-media collusion, they remain silent about the financial and sexual aberrations of their political bosses. So, only insiders know the truth and it will stay that way in France because information about the secret activities of French politicians, sexual or financial, is suppressed and does not become visible in the media.
Books seem to be the way in which confidential information, i.e. scoops, become visible to public scrutiny. The media will report exclusive news that turns up in a newly published book. This may not go on. Who knows what new tricks the high up manipulators of public opinion will resort to next? It’s a pity that the more open media culture in the UK has not only condoned outright invasion of privacy for ordinary citizens or celebrities but has concealed historic sexual abuses now being uncovered.
In France, privacy laws that apparently allow photos of foreign celebrities (viz Kate Duchess of Cambridge) in private circumstances, to be published contrary to the law, (the publishers are fined modestly, but still make a world wide killing) and yet allow the secret financial manipulations or sexual aberrations and lies re top politicians (e.g. Dominic Strauss Khan’s sex life or Francois Hollande’s financial investments) to remain hidden, cannot be to the benefit of a democratic country.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

And Then The Roof Fell In

No, I am not referring to Flanby’s taxes announced in his 2012 budget. Nor to the seismic effects in high places of the revelations of his paramour’s convoluted love life. This roof falling episode is more seriously symbolic of current events than those. Perhaps you can detect a faintly mocking tone? Yes, thanks to Flanby, (President Hollande, nicknamed Noah by me for the floods accompanying his election) the rich are moving out of France. Chief among these is Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH who says he’s taking Belgian nationality. Evidently Belgium is bright enough to keep its taxes low enough to attract top earners. Arnault, who built his company himself—by aggressive mergers, acquisitions and asset stripping-- and is the world’s 4th richest man and Europe’s richest, has also been knighted in London (as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to the luxury goods industry in Britain where his company employs 3,000 people. Only three thousand employees to get a Knighthood? That’s really cheap! Come on you small business owners, get mobilized. You could be next.
But back in France the Captains of Industry are complaining. The current CEO of L’Oreal, the worlds biggest cosmetic company, says France will not be able to attract top talent to run its companies due to the tax of 75% on incomes over 1m€ per annum.  If the idea is that French top talent will migrate to other more lucrative locations would this government care? Certainly no foreign CEO would want to run a French company unless paid offshore. But does France want superannuated expatriates running its bigger companies? For decades L’Oreal was run by a Welshman, Owen Jones, who started at the bottom in Normandy as a traveling salesman for Dop shampoo.  He had to retire at 60, the French rule. That’s a lot more ridiculous than having to move to Belgium. But Arnault, already 63, does not have to retire. He owns the shop.
Perhaps the socialist Hollande doesn’t want powerful private companies with highly paid CEO’s who might start telling him what to do. He’d rather have state run companies like EDF or Areva whose CEO’s are paid less fancy salaries than is the rule globally for the private sector. Indeed, Flanby doesn’t like the private sector at all. Nor does he like the rich or even the middle classes.
Maybe I’m reading between the lines but did we expect anything better from Francois? These several months since he first had sight of France’s accounts, he has been sitting in the back room at the Elysee, working on his sums. He can’t cut unemployment benefit or civil service jobs without upsetting the unions and causing riots, but he can tax the very rich; always a popular move. They are few in number, although agile at guarding their fortunes from the taxman. But even if they make a great example of the President’s wish to show how much he is penalizing the better off, he is increasingly unpopular with the French public. From May to September Hollande’s support has declined 18%; 11% of that during September when the holiday mood wore off. When a friend who works at the Banque de France told me he’d seen the recent figures and was appalled, I simply nodded. Yup. And you can also tell the country is in recession from the number of boutiques that close, the fewer customers in my rather upmarket supermarket after office hours, the widespread public building works. And that brings me to the matter of the roof falling in. It’s all about public works in progress, and this is the reason:
French Government Bond Yield for 10 Year notes declined 3 basis points during August. From 1990 – 2012 the yield went from 10.7 per cent to a record low of 2.1 per cent in August 2012. Thus making it historically cheap for the French government to borrow: hence, the huge outbreak of publically funded works going on all over Paris.
It may be a case of Grabbit and Run, since the future looks less rosy, but, thanks to this cheap borrowing, the French government is digging up the roads, extending the tramway and the Metro, funding archeological digs in the Tuileries, repairing the external facades of the Louvre and rebuilding the ancient Palais de Tuileries. How much are they borrowing? I’d love to know the truth. Meanwhile, a long planned 120m€ restructuring of the Les Halles park and shopping centre in the very hub of central Paris is underway and this is why roof started falling down.
This roof in question is that of the Olympic size swimming pool I have used since the Ritz closed its doors (for a two year refurbishment). It’s a short trip away from my apartment on Daisy Belle 2. Alas, about one month ago I turned up for my swim and discovered it was closed indefinitely. It seems a large chunk of the concrete roof fell into the pool and everyone ran out screaming. Fortunately no one was hurt but it has not reopened and may not for months. The digging of huge holes for the rebuilding of Les Halles is the cause.
Who cares? This could be the biggest reconstruction period for Paris since Baron Haussmann swept away the rat ridden slums in the mid 19th Century. While the private sector starves; shops close or offer huge reductions, factories are shut down and mergers and acquisitions are stalled the government is spending like a drunken sailor. And the lenders may prefer lending a lot of funds at low interest when they know they’ll get it back on a programme of low inflation in a government dominated economy.
Forget the private sector, it’s not wanted on voyage. Nor is it even bankable compared to the Government of France.
So where am I swimming now?
In the Seine. Well not quite. I’m using a floating pool that filters river water, treats it with Ozone and minimal chlorine. A masterpiece of French technology, it works most of the time. And I get there, not on Daisy Belle 2, alas, but on the extremely efficient Line 14. It takes 6 minutes transit time between Avenue de l’Opera and Bercy. Another masterpiece of French engineering, it’s driverless so there are no strikes to interfere with traveling.
No private sector, no workers? Sounds like Paradise. As to who gets the profit from the higher taxes? Foreign buyers of French bonds.  Bi Bi Bernard Arnault. Sorry, I mean Sir Bernard Arnault. La France doesn’t need you, your money or your jobs. She’s borrowing in a market place that is frankly desperate to find a good bet, even if the rates are bargain basement low.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Postcard from Paradise

During the halcyon days since mid August, when summer finally arrived, I have been  picnicking with my pals in the Tuileries, sipping fizz and nibbling smoked salmon salads.
One glorious Sunday, I was on my way to share an early aperetif with a friend who had just returned form a week’s fashion course in London. As we walked towards the gate, she carrying some artisanal goats cheeses and the boxes of sumptuous fruit salad that she invariable brings to our feasts, and I carrying the bottle and glasses, we passed a mother who was hauling up the pants of a toddler who had just been peeing against a lime tree.
“Oh,” she sighed, “There is something so hopeless about Paris.” She added that in London she and her fellow students had been whizzed all over the city and the suburbs. In trains and tubes and streets from Shoreditch to Knightsbridge, they had not failed to be impressed by the energy of the Londoners. “Wherever we went, rich or poor areas, they were all getting on with it,” she said. In Paris, a city still, in these hard times, more dedicated to pleasure than pursuit of professional priorities, there is a marked difference of pace and one cannot help noticing an apparent lack of motivation. While in London one overhears snatches of mobile phone conversations as the speaker strides past--usually all about business, in Paris, the mobile phoners are talking about their last meal or holiday. One constantly hears the words ‘manger’ (to eat) or ‘vacances’ (holiday). Well I’m not against it but the flabbiness of the atmosphere zaps one’s energy.
Recently, I was returning from London where I had raced from one dynamic meeting to another and was still exhilarated: but as I emerged from my local Metro on Avenue de l’Opera,  (the Mayfair of Paris) it was raining, and the street deserted. Two sloppily dressed girls, one pushing a pram, were waddling along in my path. Immediately all my London energy sprang a leak and I felt tired out.
It was that same hopeless atmosphere upon which my friend had remarked.
I can’t say its universal but it is prevalent and some of it may be due to the 35 hour week which floods the streets with people who have more leisure than they know what to do with, no ambition and no motivation except the next rendezvous with their friends.
My neighbourhood attracts tourists in large numbers. Rue St Honoré, around the corner form my building is usually congested with strolling groups of Italians (yes, they are still spending!) or other tourists. They slop along gazing at the shop windows.
My quartier is a former residential neighbourhood that has been colonized by offices. Lately an extraordinary number of those have had “To Let” notices posted on their windows. Is this a sign of the times? Rents are prohibitively high and the cost of office space often includes a year’s rent in advance as a guarantee, not to mention legal deposits and refurbishment.  Businesses that can function in suburbs outside Paris such as Levallois, Courbevois and La Defence, find it cheaper to do so.
Empty offices don’t make it any easier to find an apartment, but, they do diminish the crush at my local Monoprix in the early evenings, except when the tourists outnumber the remaining workers.
Perhaps this contributes to the sluggish atmosphere that pervades the streets as day shoppers, pram pushers and 35 hour a week leisured classes take over from the dark suited business workers (some of whom now jog off their suppressed energy in the Tuileries).
Yes, there is recession in France--hidden in Paris due to the fact that over 40 percent of the city’s workers are government employees. They may not have much spare cash, but their spending masks the private sector’s decline. They have jobs for life. But, that hardly creates an exuberant economic atmosphere.
As for the sense of hopelessness, I am reminded of a visit to Washington DC, long before I met my American husband and lived there. A student on my first US trip, I met a man from Brazil. He said he was Austrian (a euphemism for relocated Nazi). He told me, wearily, “South America is the Continent of infinite impossibilities and North America is the land of infinite possibilities.” He exuded an air of hopelessness.
In France even the most talented and energetic find it hard to move forward, to advance professionally, to create or build enterprises—reminiscent of the UK in the 1970’s when socialism suffocated initiative. The tax system limits ambition and enterprise.
Meanwhile, my small apartment is a powerhouse of projects in progress. And there is still the joy of  meetings with my workaholic lover, who finds solutions to every problem.
Pour me another one, please!

Thursday, 12 July 2012


A few weeks ago, my lover phoned me from Sephora, an international make up supermarket on the Champs Elysees. Was there something I would like? I mentioned mascara. Black and waterproof, I said and mentioned a low priced British brand. The dazzling array of mascaras, some that make your eyelashes curl out like spider’s legs, others that make your eyelids droop with the sheer weight of their lash thickening, top price for Dior at 39€, defeated him: he arrived shortly after, bearing lipstick of his choice—one that does not come off all over your beau when he kisses you. That is made by L’Oreal.
I’m sorry if you were thinking of getting some tips about the best water-proof mascara or indelible lipsticks to wear in this summer’s incessant rain, but this blog is not really about mascara. It’s about L’Oreal, and, more to the point, about ex-President Sarkozy and his mix-up in a recent episode of “Dallas sur Seine.” This nickname for Neuilly sur Seine, where Sarko has been Mayor since he was 27 years old, refers to the endless political infighting that goes on there. Latterly it has included the infighting of the Bettencourt clan, majority shareholders in L’Oreal, one of the worlds biggest cosmetics companies.
Liliane Bettencourt’s father Eugène Schueller founded L’Oreal. He also funded fascist groups and supported the Nazis. Liliane married French politician, André Bettencourt, who was a minister in three French governments in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, including one of Général De Gaulle. Liliane  is one of the world’s richest woman with a fortune of 23bn USD, that’s 31% of the company her father founded. A French observer informs me, ”Political power has been the mascara of this family who hide their love of money behind glamour.”
The latest and long running episode of Dallas sur Seine, containing elements of the best soaps --a mix of political power with money-lust and feuding--refers to the Court battle to gain control of  Liliane Bettencourt’s fortune. The legal action by Liliane’s daughter resulted, in October 2011, in 89 year old Liliane being deprived of control over her own fortune on grounds of incompetence. A long running scandal with press reports based on her butler’s recorded evidence of conversations with her guests revealed that La Bettencourt had been handing out wads of cash to certain politicians to help them in their election campaign. Sarkozy was one of her visitors for elegant afternoon tea at her Neuilly sur Seine house, who allegedly went away with a fat envelope each time. 
The cash was supposedly for his 2007 election campaign. This is why,  last week (July 3rd) as I travelled to London on the Eurostar, the Paris police were raiding Sarkozy’s two homes (his own flat and the house of his wife) and his law company’s offices, in search of incriminating evidence in the case against him. The likelihood of the police finding any evidence at these locations of the alleged crime—illegally taking money for his 2007 election campaign--is slight. But the raid underlined the fact that the ex-President is no longer protected from the long arm of criminal law. How the mighty do fall! Humiliation and worse, haunt the horizon.
As there are strict laws about how election campaign funds are raised, the matter of the envelopes is very serious. Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor at the Elysée, is currently serving a suspended sentence for his own chicanery: misuse of public funds to pay 19  “staff” who were officially working for the Mairie, while he was Mayor of Paris, but unofficially working for Chirac’s campaign to be elected President in 1995.
Related to Chirac’s Presidential ambitions, another nightmare may descend on Sarkozy, More sinister and far more threatening to Sarko’s future liberty, that one is named “Karachi”. It involves a web of conspiracy in which Chirac is also involved and which led to the deaths of eleven French engineers in a bombing in Pakistan in 2002 at the time of Chirac’s re-election to the Presidency. The conspiracy, based on an arms deal to Pakistan, occurred while Sarkozy was Minister for Budget and treasurer of the then Prime Minister (1993-1995) Eduard Balladur’s campaign for the 1995 Presidential election.
An illegal retro-commission was to be paid back by the arms dealer into Balladur’s campaign fund. Chirac won the 1995 election, but as Balladur had reneged on a promise not to stand against him, refused to go on paying the commission. This resulted, after discussions with the arms dealer and his dubious allies (Pakistani military men close to Islamist groups which they finance), in the 2002 revenge bombing of a bus in Pakistan that took eleven French lives.
If the Eurozone crisis ever allows enough room for this in the headlines, the convoluted history of the “Karachi” conspiracy will play to packed houses while Dallas sur Seine and the wads of cash from the L’Oreal heiress that flowed into Sarko’s 2007 campaign will fade into insignificance. The ‘Karachi’ mascara, mixed with French blood, is indelible.

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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Thank God It's Thursday!

One Thursday, I gave a concert of jazz and love songs on a bar boat on the Seine. One of my audience brought a visitor from Israel who asked me if the weekend wouldn’t be a better time. “The weekends start on Thursday here,” I replied. “Oh but of course the French don’t work do they?” He slapped his forehead in recollection of the easy lifestyle of the average French person. Thanks to the 35 hour week Thursday is the new Friday in France and the voluble stress release seems to make Friday a rather quiet night in comparison. 
As I bike home from a Thursday session at the swimming pool, I pass bars bulging with whooping and squeaking “workers”. These bars have boards outside announcing “Happy Hour” from 17h to 20h, or in one case at Les Halles, from 15h to 21h. They list cocktails at 5 Euros. Cocktails you may ask? In the land of wine? ‘Fraid so: Margaritas, Pino Coladas, Tequila Sunrises and other exotic mixes seem to be the popular beverage. But are the Happy Hour drinkers happy? If noise levels are anything to go by, yes, they are ecstatic.
At El Tonel, the Spanish bar at the foot of my building, there is no ‘Happy Hour’ price discount but the customers don’t object to paying 8 Euros a glass for endless rounds of these brightly coloured, sticky innovations. And they’ll sit there for 2-3 hours swallowing them. A few stalwarts drink beer while others share jugs of Sangria. A simple glass of red , white or rose wine is an exception and no one seems to order a bottle of wine for two or three with which to wash down their tapas. A glance at the glasses of the drinkers could form the basis for a survey into the changing drinking habits of French people.
The 35 hour week gives the option of working four or even as few as three longer days to gain that extra day’s freedom from the boulot—slang for daily grind. But what are they doing with the extra time? It seems that drinking is taking up a lot of it.
Whereas the traditional French way of relaxing is over a three course meal among friends with wine, the changed lifestyle of single yuppies now involves bars and cocktails with or without the big screen for football matches that arrive with ever increasing frequency.
In France, time off almost exceeds time spent working. The other day I heard a girl wishing her friends a “Bon weekend” on a Wednesday.
Yes, leisure is the new opium of the people, of that there is no doubt, and while some of the yuppie population are using it to exercise--I’ll write about that later—many seem to use it for getting drunk. Due to the 35 hour week’s longer weekends, Thursday is now the night of big de-stressing. It’s not as though they’ve been working since Monday. No, the week for these people seems to start on Tuesday and end on Thursday afternoon. And half of them have Wednesday afternoons off as well. But this is not the case with everyone. Senior managers and other top professionals work extremely long hours and, my concierge, a warm hearted young Portuguese with a hard working husband and ten year old boy is devastated by the noise coming from El Tonel. She tells me that she is awakened before six by municipal garbage collectors who come to empty our bulging bins, charmingly called Poubelles. On Thursdays, she closes the heavy door to the courtyard that separates our elegant entrée from the street and El Tonel, which like many bars stays open until 2am. She goes to bed at 10pm but the screams and yells from the bar prevent her from sleeping. One of the worst aspects, she says, is girls laughing hysterically. Yes, I’ve heard them. Hyenas would be impressed. Screeching girls are also new in France, but that too is another story.
I confessed I had dropped a plastic bottle filled with tap water from my balcony onto the street adjacent to the bar whose terrace is sheltered from above by an arcade. This was at 2am when I had been bothered by the noise all evening. I’m a night owl but I like the peace of the night and don’t want to have to listen to drunken noises while I write or relax. I can’t play my piano after 10 pm so why should these mindless goons be allowed to disturb us? I jokingly asked her at what time she would prefer me to start dropping bottles of water. She laughed. “Whenever you like,” she said.
A couple of weeks later she cautioned me. Apparently the police had been told of falling bottles of water from my floor. “Be careful,”” she said. “Next time, make sure you switch off your lights first.“ I’ll be even more careful that that. I’ll pour water slowly in a steady stream. In fact I have just done so. It seemed to work. But tonight is only Tuesday!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Bruni Brouhaha!

Last Monday, French media were reporting that Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy were in a Moroccan palace as guests of the King. But Carla was in Paris, coyly sitting on the lap of a handsome guy in red socks. This was at the shooting of a scene for her sister Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s new film. She was playing an extra in an auction scene at Sotheby’s in the rue Faubourg St Honoré: the latter doubling as Sotheby’s London in which the scene is scripted.
I was there, also playing an extra and as the day’s work went on all afternoon and into the evening had ample time to study Carla. Wearing a faded print dress, and bare legged in open toed sandals (despite the thrashing rain outside) she posed for cosy photos with Mr Red Socks and later (after Red Socks had left) with a tall silver haired actor. Her technique was to cuddle her cheek up against theirs, pull her hair around on one side and pout into the camera.
The film tells of a rich Italian family in hard times, auctioning their antiques and the scene involves a dramatic interruption when the character played by Valeria herself (who was also directing) tries to withdraw a painting seconds after the auctioneer’s gavel has fallen.
Valeria's and Carla’s mother was in the film. Madame Bruni Tedeschi was seated next to Valeria with whom she clearly has a good relationship. But Carla sat far away from them and never once spoke to either of them. Nor was she ever on camera.
Valeria, a successful and award winning film-maker may be telling her family’s own story based on the tragedy of her brother’s death from HIV complications. Clearly stressed at the double role of directing the scene in which elegantly dressed English speakers played the audience, Valeria then had to deal with a violent outburst from a big name star who was playing one of the bidders for the painting.
Omar Sharif, handsome and distinguished in grey pinstripes suddenly began yelling at Valeria. He had already done some cutaway shots with the only camera and was now sitting some distance behind Valeria as she made repeated takes of her scripted outburst to the auctioneer (played by a handsome real life auctioneer). Sharif appears to have nodded off to sleep and someone had awakened him. He now yelled out that Valeria had had him sitting around doing nothing for five hours. When she tried to reply he yelled at her repeatedly to shut up and sit down.
As for Carla, she remained off to one side, head down for the most part. No doubt she was anxious lest her presence in Paris be too noticeable since she was supposed to be in Morocco with her husband and baby daughter. But about one hundred and fifty people can hardly have failed to notice her presence, or that of her double, at the Sotheby’s shoot.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Flanby Flambé

Everyone has by now had a chuckle at the news that Francois Hollande, the newly elected President of France was almost lost to history when his plane was struck by lightning last Tuesday some five hours after his Inauguration. He had barely had time to swallow his valedictory lunch when he was on his way to confer with Angela Merkel, a Valkyrie who appeared before him as Valkyries do appear before warriors when they are about to die. Hollande, aptly nicknamed “Flanby” after a brand of caramel custard pudding (bland, slippery and syrupy) was flying with unseemly haste to meet the Iron Chancellor, thus perhaps inviting the anger of Thor the Thunder God.
Why, one wonders, would he not have waited to have a quiet word with Merkel during the following weekend’s G8? Coupled with his announcement of a German scholar and former teacher as his Prime Minister, does this not seem like bending over backwards to please the Germans? Surely we have been here before?
There is something about this leader that made me enquire, before his election on May 6th if there were any way by which an elected President could be replaced under the French constitution. Not only due to his plane being struck by lightning.
If a President dies in office the President of the Senate takes charge of the government while new elections are organized.  But, what of unconstitutional methods of replacement?
One evening in April before Round 1 of the Presidential vote, I was returning from a minor late night shopping trip on the Champs Elysées when the most almighty row broke out in the street. Some 100 police cars were jamming the avenue with their sirens blaring, lights flashing. I rode my bike down the pavement and into the park that separates the Champs Elysées from the Avenue Gabriel, where the lush gardens and ornate rear gates of the Elysée Palace, and the American and British Embassies are routinely guarded by uniformed police.
To my surprise, rue Marigny, leading to the rue Faubourg St Honore and the Elysée’s front entrance was also blocked by a line of police cars, lights flashing and sirens screaming. All routes to the Presidential Palace were cut off and surrounded. Sneaking along among the trees without lights, I saw silhouetted uniformed figures carrying guns lined up behind the Elysée’s tall garden gates. Golly, I thought, is this a Coup d’Etat? Even before the first round of the Presidential election, could fears of who might be elected, either the extreme left Mélenchon or the extreme right Le Pen with riots to follow have prompted a ‘leave nothing to chance’ military takeover?
It seems the police were protesting about the prosecution of a colleague for shooting dead a runaway thief, and the Army were guarding the Elysée against the rebel cops. Further down the leafy Avenue Gabriel near Place de La Concorde, the blue vans of the Police National were lined up in case they needed to reinforce the military defenders of the President’s palace.
It was spectacularly alarming. But not perhaps as disquieting an omen as the Biblical style meteorological phenomena in the hours before Hollande’s election, or those that occurred before, during and immediately after his inauguration on May 15th. The night before the election a torrential three hour storm led to a night of steady rain so that when I walked by the Seine as the election results were announced the following evening, I had to dodge the waves sloshing over the side of the quai. The river had risen three meters and was about to burst its banks. Meanwhile, the celebrants of Hollande’s victory who danced the rest of the evening in the streets around Bastille did so without any sense of foreboding.
Perhaps they were right? I think not. Hollande, or Flanby, the apt nickname by which I prefer to call him, is no Moses. He does not possess the gifts of foresight, eloquence and leadership to guide his country through the coming crises of the European Union. Perhaps Noah would be a more useful President. Flanby’s idea of economic growth is one based on government spending and taxation, shored up by more debt. This loony idea is now spreading. And Obama, King of the Big Spenders is holding Flanby’s limp hand on this whizz of a notion. The torrential rainstorm during the Inauguration and the lightning strike on the flight to Germany seem omens of a future fraught with dangers as yet unknown.  Pie in the sky or fries in the sky: no difference. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

The One Who Got Away!

While François Hollande may be pinching himself to find out if he really is the new President of France, Dominique Strauss Khan must be kicking himself for getting into that scrape in the Sofitel in New York. He would undoubtedly by now be President of France, and there must be many who feel Hollande is a poor substitute for the former Director of the IMF. Others are frankly relieved at the narrow escape thanks to the courage of a hotel maid, since other horrors are now coming to light.
Sarkozy may also be kicking himself for having kicked so many other people during his Presidency and before. But the one man who would have made the best choice yet for the French electors is wondering whether he will have a better chance in five years and preparing the ground now for the future after the legislative elections on June 10th and 17th.
François Bayrou believes he is destined to be President if France; but to be elected he may have to change his tactics. For the moment however, he remains the one candidate who brought intelligence, truthfulness and statesmanship into a scurrilous campaign in which the two second round candidates scrambled for the votes of the extreme left and the far right, some 30 per cent of all votes cast in the first round. Neither of them sincerely revealed the true state of the French economy to their voters. Neither showed themselves to be capable of solving the great problems of our era. Neither deserved election. For Hollande it was a win by several defaults, the first being DSK’s elimination from the PS leadership contest, the final one being the loathing of many voters for Sarkozy. One must regard him as weakened from the start by the fact that many voted against Sarkozy rather than for Hollande.
Bayrou, is leader of the Centre Party, MoDem. (Democratic Movement). His message during the campaign for Round 1, in which he won some 10 per cent of the poll, after which he was eliminated, was far to close to truthful reality. He was disappointed to have scored fewer votes than in 2007, but having read some of his interviews I wonder if it was because he painted too frightening a picture of the economic road ahead. His Paris meeting attracted more than 6,000 and many more were turned away. Clearly there was enormous interest in a way forward that does not depend upon polarization to the extremes. The extremes, however used simplistic messages such as one would expect in an appeal to class based voters more driven by fear and hatred than by an intelligent interest in solving national problems, and thus pulled voters’ attention away from the rational liberal centrist viewpoint.
Following Round 1, on April 25th, Bayrou sent a thoughtful letter to the two contestants of Round 2. Its gist was an appeal, on behalf of those 3 million people who had voted for him. He wasn’t looking for a job in government and had already ruled out the idea that he could become Prime Minister whoever won. He appealed to Hollande and Sarkozy “to refuse the resort to violent opinions such as those that are perpetually present in political life, to respect ethnic and cultural differences and accept pluralism, to search for equilibrium.” These views are characteristically liberal but against the trend in which the Front National could gain almost 20 per cent of the poll in Round 1 on a dominant issue of reducing immigration to 3 per cent of its present rate.  In the days following Round 1 Sarkozy increasingly adopted Le Pen’s racialist policies and this was why Bayrou announced that he would cast his Round 2 vote for Hollande.
He is also alarmingly honest about the economic future for France, saying “ I don’t believe that the financial crisis is behind us. On the contrary, I think it is ahead of us and will be very tough.” He added that he believed “the goal of a balanced budget cannot be attained by either Hollande or Sarkozy’s pledges to create growth in the short term. He added a demand for credible measures to avoid the perils ahead including social democracy within companies, and a new contract between schools and the nation to create skills needed for modern society.
His appeal for a moralization of public life went beyond anything expressed by other candidates. Perhaps more than any other of his views, this one is the clue to his own moral and ideological stature, which is far above that of either Hollande or Sarkozy.
“It’s urgent” he wrote. ”This moralization is vital in order that confidence is restored between citizens and the elected.”
In Round 2 the French voters split evenly into two opposing camps --Hollande (52%) Sarkozy (48%). Many voted more against than for either candidate, more against than for a specific future for France: voting on their fears; voting for yesterday’s dreams rather than tomorrow’s realities. Bayrou will have to do a lot of convincing to get them to adhere to his views before the next Presidential. That five years seems too short a time span for a change from Mickey Mouse politics to intelligent choice: unless France goes through a serious crisis during Hollande’s watch. That could be the force majeur that triggers the election of a President who tells them the truth about their prospects in the future world rather than one who indulges their old illusions of a worn out past.
His self appointed mission now is to pull together a confused centre into what he calls an independent pole. He appears to be feeling his way and for good reason. The National Assembly elections on June 10th and 17th will decide the representation of the parties in the National Parliament. Sarkozy’s UMP have announced they will field a strong local candidate (Chairman of local hunting and fishing societies) against Bayrou in his Pyrenean constituency where Hollande’s PS are fielding a first timer but have strong support. It could lose him his seat. While that will leave a vacuum in the parliamentary centre, that will not prevent him from pursuing his presidential ambitions from outside the legislature: but it will be a setback for his plan to create a coherent focus for a centrist thrust under the banner “Le Centre Pour La France,”(“The Centre for France.”) In a country so riven by extremist views and inequalities of opportunity, it seems a monumental task. But sometimes all the winds of change need to do their work is a funnel through which to pick up speed and find direction. Monsieur Bayrou, I am watching you.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Dinner at the Crillon

I was passing the Hotel Crillon the other night when I was apprehended by a young journalist. Brandishing a microphone, he asked me if I knew what was going on at the Crillon. I did not. He told me a dinner was being held there and he, a freelance journalist, had watched top politicians, leaders of industry and executives of TV companies go inside.
“ They won't talk to us” he said, indicating a number of others who were hanging around the Crillon’s front door. “What should they talk to you about?” I asked.
We then held a discussion about the election, the aspirations of ordinary French people and the “fixit quick “show of  a “Power Clique.” What were they going to talk about at this dinner?
“Perhaps they are trying to decide the best way to work with Hollande?” he suggested.
“Or try to ensure Sarkozy is reelected?” I ventured.
I told him that it has been my opinion since last autumn that Sarkozy will not be reelected. My correspondent said he thought there was little difference between Sarko and Hollande since both were supporters of the “undemocratic EU government”
I had to agree with him there. However there are a number of other serious differences between the results of continuing with Sarko, or of electing Hollande.
Hollande has a much cooler temperament than Sarko (who can't agree with anyone about anything without hysterics--if at all). Hollande is said to be charming, a bon viveur who has a weight problem and who dyes his hair. He needs a tailor too. His suit jacket buttons at a stretch over his belly, his trousers settle in folds over his shoes. I'm told his speeches are marred by a poor use of the French language. He is certainly no firebrand. It's just as well, we have seen some flashy oratory in the run up to the first poll and that was from Jean-Luc Melenchon the far left candidate. In contrast, Hollande seems someone who will do what everyone wants provided no one else puts too much pressure on him.
As to what he believes? When he looks in the mirror he hopes to see a reflection of François Mitterand looking back at him. My analysis is that he believes in the most convenient way of running the country following the status quo.
He is not a leader. One hopes he is not be quite as dull as he looks, but it would be optimistic to expect much from him. He has had a privileged upbringing and education, is trained as an administrator at the top French establishments, including l’ENA, from which come most of the directors of France’s State controlled companies. Many of them have been dismal failures at their jobs. Take a look at Credit Lyonnaise, Vivendi and other nationalized companies and see how the earnings graph descends to catastrophe. L’ENA boys were running these companies and took big golden parachutes as they collapsed. As I mentioned in my last blog, the Old Etonian Mafia has nothing on this old boy network. It will be interesting to see how many elite ENA buddies get jobs in a Hollande administration and what solutions they will find to change the business culture of France.
Hollande is too lazy to look for original solutions, too unimaginative to consider innovative fiscal reforms to stimulate growth for new enterprises, to, for instance restructure the tax regime that cripples France and her private enterprise. No, he prefers the method of job creation by the State paid for by the middle class taxpayer, usually the salaried executive. As for the rich, they have their tax loopholes and the march of private capital over the French borders into Luxemburg, Monaco, and other cozy havens will continue and even accelerate after Hollande's election.
But Hollande wont be making any sacrifices. He will earn the usual Presidential salary but his security comes from the right wing doctor father who supported Jean-Louis Tixier Vigancour, presidential candidate and a forerunner of Le Pen the father of the present FN leader, Marine Le Pen.
Holland’s mother was a socialist counselor and a social worker by profession who may have had more influence on her son’s political direction. But Hollande and his brother inherited comfortably from his father’s investment in medical clinics and real estate. In actuality Hollande, who is accused of hating the middle class, hating the rich, lives not too modestly in a 3,000€ a month rented apartment with his companion, a French journalist since his official separation in 2007 from his former companion Segolène Royal (Socialist Presidential candidate in 2007) with whom he has four professionally qualified children. He rents another apartment in his constituency and owns a villa in the sought after hillsides above Cannes supposedly worth a modest 800,000€ but probably more since the real estate price inflation for the past two years. His career lacks lustre: he is a lawyer as well as a graduate of prestigious universities; he has held a series of posts in the Parti Socialist, among which his tenure as chargé of mission for  economic affairs at the Elysée after the election of his hero Mitterand, showed some promise as well as the strength of his supporters, Jaques Attali and Jaques Delors. Otherwise, there is nothing to excite. Indeed his CV makes ones eyes glaze over. He is a Deputé (MP) for a department that has more cows than people and where the per head public spending figures for 2010 (the most recent published) are three times the average for any other department in France; he has never held major office except as Mayor of Tulle, a little town in his constituency. Twenty-one years ago I published a biography of John Major, a Prime Minister widely advertised as being "The Grey Man" but who turned out to be marvelously colourful under the camouflage. Perhaps Hollande will surprise us by being found out to have been hiding his colourful side throughout his career as a dull administrator?
If he wins, and I believe he will sneak past the winning post on Sunday, he will be President by default. Many people are voting against Sarkozy in an election where the choice is between the devil you know and someone who may be a steady hand on the wheel, who may still be surprised to find himself in the position of President in Europe's second largest economy. He was a reluctant candidate in this election—the socialists were floored at the ruin of DSK as candidate presumptive-- Martine Aubry said she did not want the job but ran a contest with Hollande to see which of these two mediocrities would draw the short straw of standing against Sarkozy.
As for the latter, you may have to wait until next week for my views on him. And this will probably be, after Sunday’s poll, an obituary.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Avant Moi, Le Déluge

On 12th April 2000, 12 years ago, I moved to Paris. In advance, I came to celebrate the Millenium, arriving a day after Cyclone Lothar had devastated parks, gardens and forests within and around the city. Parisians told me how they had seen whole chimneys flying across the sky and how they had huddled in their apartments while the hurricane roared through the streets reaching speeds of 150kph to 260kph at the Eiffel Tower. “Avant Moi, Le Déluge” I thought, paraphrasing De Gaulle’s “Après Moi, Le Déluge.” delivered in Montreal in 1967. The quote originated with Louis XV or his official mistress the Marquise de Pompadour and may have referred to the coming French Revolution. Pompadour might have meant the rush of women that would compete for her place in Louis’ bed after her death. De Gaulle meant that political chaos would overtake France when he left office, which he did on April 28th 1969. He had already created the Fifth Republic in October 1958, but the chaos he predicted may yet happen following the Presidential elections on April 22nd and May 6th 2012.
The first poll establishes the two main contenders who qualify for the 2nd round. The carve up of votes cast for the remaining candidates happens at the vote two weeks later. At the time of writing it seems likely that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will be the two contenders in the second poll on May 6th, a relatively simple polarization between left and right. But the real polarization will be demonstrated in Round 1: opinion polls show double figure support for Marine Le Pen and her Front National on the extreme right, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche on the extreme left. As the latter is now running 3rd in the polls he may damage Hollande’s chances in Round 1 and oblige him to negotiate before Round 2. Le Pen, running 4th can eat into Sarkozy’s vote but is unlikely to be offered a government post in a Sarkozy administration.
The centre candidate Bayrou is now running fifth. His speeches and interview texts show intelligent solutions on French economics but make no secret of the grim reality ahead: his candour may even be frightening voters away. A socialist win can only reverse gains made for business under Sarkozy. Mélenchon would lower the retirement age to 60 and reinstate the 35 hour week, taxing salaries of over 360,000€ a year for top executives at 100%. No wonder Hollande looks frightened as he desperately tours poorer suburbs trying to convince abstainers to vote for him: he doesn’t believe he can win alone. That means a deal with the extreme Mélenchon and, Le Déluge.
Sarkozy has the smug air of one preaching to the converted. But he will also certainly be obliged to negotiate after Round 1.
With whom? The Ecologists are weak; but minor parties and ex-Front National voters can add to his margin. Bayrou is his best bet and France’s only hope for the avoidance of Le Déluge some months after a Hollande/Melechon win when their short sighted policies provoke economic catastrophe. Sarkozy could offer him a major political post (e.g.Prime Minister) in return for his support in Round 2.
The reason Bayrou is the answer to the longer-term problem is that his appeal is to the centre, to the young and upwardly mobile, the new—for France—yuppie class. He is the solution because France has been deeply divided historically since before the Revolution. 
During that Millenium weekend I borrowed the 8th floor studio of a political science student. His books drew me away from the storm tossed views of Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. One I could not resist was “La Societé Bloquée.” Written in the Fifties it describes with penetrating candour the impossibility of switching classes in France. Not only class but clique barriers have been insurmountable. One has only to count the number of graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, who run top state companies to realize that the old boy network in France is as good as any that Eton ever produced. Cliques thrive because one cannot get anywhere without the right introduction. People hang out all their lives with their classmates from the lycée and fail to be admitted to other similar groups. One friend (already successful) recently said that he had been told it would be hard for him to progress in Paris since he was not himself from Paris. Another friend (now a multi-millionaire) told me he had to seek his future outside France because he did not have the right family connections. The same applies if one has ambitions be a Metro driver. Contacts are everything but networking is mainly within the clique.
To describe this further would be to write another La Societé Bloquée.  So I’ll stop here and wait for the election results. Power to the centre would be the first ray of hope that France can climb out of its highly institutionalized class war and build a country where success and prosperity are based on talent, merit, ambition and hard work, one looking to a class mobile future rather than a gridlocked past.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The King Is Dead. Long Live the President!

Soon after my move to Paris in April 2000, I was hunting for an apartment.  My agent sent me to see a place on the fifth floor of a building exactly across the street from the Élysée Palace, official residence the President of France. The view south from the apartment terrace took in the whole spread of the Élysée and its gardens. It was so close across the narrow space of rue Faubourg du St Honore that I would have been able to toss an apple or for that matter an explosive, into its forecourt. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had taken the flat. One problem would have been the constant circus of vehicles and police coming and going through the ornate gates and I doubt if I would have felt comfortable eating my petit dejeuner on the terrace, let alone in a bikini, my habit in Montagu Square, weather permitting. Indeed there are rules of etiquette if not laws about that sort of thing in Paris.

In those days the occupant was Jaques Chirac, as decorous a ceremonial President as one could wish for, fulfilling the role of Head of State with some of its lingering monarchic functions, and living at the Élysée with his respectable wife. Small by palatial standards (one only has to look at the Louvre just up the street) the Élysée was not originally a home of kings. It was built as the Hotel d’Evreux for the Compte d’Evreux. Later, Louis XV bought it as a residence for his beloved mistress the Marquise de Pompadour. After Pompadour’s death the house reverted to the crown but changed hands several times and was eventually named the Élysée. Some dodgy years followed: it was confiscated during the Revolution, and some rooms used for gambling. Later Napoleon bought it and from then on it became more and more often the home of the French ruler of the day. 

One of the more amusing stories about it is that, in 1917, an orangutan escaped from a nearby menagerie and tried to haul the wife of the then President, Poincaré into a tree. The next President, Paul Deschanel is said to have taken to climbing the Élysée’s trees during State receptions until he retired due to mental illness. Despite these minor aberrations, the Élysée has been the official residence of the President of the Republic since 1873 and today, the Élysée and the Presidency are jointly a focus of the power and prestige of the Head of State who symbolizes La France, the Nation. It is because of this symbolic significance and the dignity attached to it, that Nicolas Sarkozy is deeply out of favour with many of his countrymen. One reason he may lose the 2012 Presidential Elections is the perceived absence of dignity and respect for the office shown by Sarkozy himself during the previous five years.

Elements of a circus and echoes of the cries of rough Cossacks, who took the house over during their occupation of Paris in 1814, have been evident to the dismay of many who voted Sarkozy into office in 2007. From the earliest days of his Presidency, he has shown a lack of respect for his position as Head of State and for those he meets in the course of his duties. His comment to a journalist at a recent Toulouse press conference, "Qu'est-ce que ce que vous voulez que j'ai à foutre de ce que vous me dites ? Espèce de couillon, va" (‘What the f*** do you want me to have done about what you are telling me? Go, you castrated specimen’ is a rough translation. "Couillon" is a way to say "no balls" but in Southern France, I am told, this is the familiar way you would address anyone of your relatives so it is not necessarily a personal insult. But it’s a vulgarity that does not sit well with Presidential dignity and its streetwise references to the male genitals is typical of the words and style that have put Sarko out of favour with his own supporters. His personal life is another cause.
In 2007, immediately after Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrival at the Élysée, his first embarrassment was his (long expected) divorce from his second wife Cecilia, (who had left him but returned for the elections) and his next was to marry into show business. The mainly pro-Sarko press on the Cecilia divorce was carefully stage-managed but when Nicolas espoused the notorious Carla Bruni, the press went wild with stories about her scandalous past. She then proceeded to turn the Élysée into the set for photo shoots to  revive her former career as a catwalk model. I am told that the marriage was a deal, enabling Sarkozy to have a legitimate bride on his arm at State functions and visits such as those to Windsor Castle, while she would take advantage of her position to promote herself. Blatantly using the Presidency for her self promotion, she cavorted before the media with the help of PR, facial reconstruction and her family money. Thus, the whole style of the Sarkozy Presidency was tinged at the outset with a brashness and vulgarity that offended the conservative political class from which he derives his support.
Disapproval ran deep among Sarkozy’s colleagues. The rift that occurred between Sarkozy and his Prime Minister François Fillon, early in the presidency was due to Mr and Mrs Fillon’s aversion to sharing a dinner table with Sarkozy’s third wife, who says she knows and cares nothing about politics and whose goals and values seem to be far from those of  her husband’s political world.
A political associate of Sarkozy’s told me that the reason for the marriage, was that “Nicolas can’t bear to be alone.”  But Sarko’s obvious love of money and nouveau riche symbols, from gold Rolexes to Gucci Glasses (the Bling Bling) go with his choice of consort and they are seen as distasteful in one who holds office as the elected successor of kings. One observer commented that the role of the Presidency derives from a line stretching back before Francois I, and his Valois and Bourbon successors. Being elected rather than anointed does not diminish the dignity and respect due to the office, rather it may increase it since the elected Head of State also has political  accountability.
Example is the other factor. Sarko’s disrespect for others seems to have spread like a virus. Since Sarkozy’s Presidency began, the general behaviour in France, a country whose elaborate social codes and manners have long been legendary, seems to have deteriorated. Respect towards women has been undermined perhaps thanks to the image of a President’s wife that seems unworthy of respect. But the lack of respect works both ways. Perhaps the fact that one of Sarkozy’s sons recently had to be reprimanded after throwing a missile at one of the Élysée Palace police guards reflects the lack of respect for the Élysée and the symbolic significance of the Presidency that exists behind the scenes in the Sarkozy household.
For these reasons as much as the political ones, the electoral guillotine is more than likely to fall on Sarkozy’s neck.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Paris à la Mode

Temporary pavilions are going up in the Tuileries. All year round, these prefabs are going up in the few open spaces this city affords, and then a few days later being torn down. For now, the reason is the Pret à Porter Fashion Week. We’ve had the Haute Couture shows: they take place in more august settings. For instance, The Ritz swimming pool, a Pompeian styled double height space with a grand staircase at either end which models descend. But the fashion houses and their twice-yearly Collections are only the tip of the fashion iceberg, the show biz end of a hugely profitable industry where perfumes and cosmetics dominate and ‘Collections’ are for hyping Brand. Money is the key and as financial pressures mount on top designers, nervous breakdowns among their executives are not uncommon. When the then Editor of Harpers and Queen some years ago told me, “Fashion people are not like us,” she spoke with grim feeling.
In Pret à Porter the stakes may seem less elevated but high stress is linked to the bottom line. Getting a Collection ready to show the buyers is fraught with delayed delivery dates or production crises. A friend who works for an Haute Couture designer who also has his own Pret à Porter label has been toiling late evenings and weekends since before Christmas. He’s a perfectionist and the limited editions of his latest models must be exact to his cut or done again. He already has a big name and a vast salary in Haute Couture and his future and financial survival as a big name in Ready to Wear depend on maintaining that standard.
When Pret à Porter people flock to Paris twice a year to show or to buy, we cant avoid knowing they are here. The ready to wear mob are more practical and more numerous than their Haute Couture cousins. Many rent space in the pavilions that stretch along the Rue de Rivoli side of the Tuileries Gardens. Some take boutiques. Last autumn I passed a temporary showroom in the Palais Royal’s ‘Galerie Montpensier.’ I heard an English voice in a doorway say, “Oh so you’re showing from here. How clever of you.” Many also show in apartments on the Rue de Rivoli where, suddenly, one can be confronted by an ultra chic figure in a black trouser ensemble, coiffed and made up à la Coco for a Noel Coward play.
Fashion is theatre and fashion people are actors.  Sometimes models are snapped against the backdrop of the Louvre, the Palais Royal or the Tuileries. Last year, I saw a model shivering in a little summer number on stone steps while a snapper snapped. The background was a wall. They could have done the shoot somewhere warmer.
Buyers come more warmly clad. Some of the most fabulous furs I’ve seen, the most stylish and original designs have been on my quartier’s streets during 2011’s cold spring Fashion Week.
Sadly, Parisians no longer play a visible part in fashion. The recession has made it harder for ordinary women to dress well. Also, it’s harder to buy something original. Chains have taken over from the privately owned boutiques that made shopping in Paris a paradise. Globalization and the Euro are to blame. Not only that, but the weather and prevalent styles. Last summer one wearied of podgy little girls in denim shorts waddling along the streets. As the weather chilled, they donned opaque tights with their shorts. The alternative is leggings or jeggin’s. Few wear them with style. When I arrived here, women were enviably able to take jeans or a well cut skirt and accessorize them into seductive chic. Now, that art seems to have been lost except among older women. There is a generation gap in the dress codes but also in the sense of style. French schoolkids have it drummed into them to conform. No one wants to look ‘different’. And prevailing fashions are drab. Business women create a monotonous stream of black on the streets. One friend who lectures in fashion schools, and invariably wears bright colours, complains that “Traveling on the Metro is like going to a funeral.”
If it’s ok for younger women to dress down in torn denims and Ug boots, it’s also ok to get fat. Many French girls are built skinny, but fast food has entered the French diet and too many girls wear skin-tight jeans, leggings or shorts that accentuate their figure faults. It also takes all the sex appeal out of a short skirt when someone is showing all but their anal fissure and wearing it with flat shoes; or worse, clomping along in ultra high platforms like a cowgirl just dismounted from a fat horse. Try walking along behind them!
Is there worse to come? While fashion models have been getting skinnier for decades there is a movement to bring on so called curvaceous models. Think Monroe, Bardot, Sophia Loren, and we might say, yes, why not make curves fashionable again? But, in order to promote the idea, February’s French Elle featured a hefty female on its cover. Yes, hefty, with walloping great thighs and unbalanced proportions. Wearing a navy blue body reminiscent of grandma’s navy gym knickers, she shows a belly bigger than her breasts. English Vogue is to follow in October with plump singer Adele on its cover. She has a great voice but does she have a waist? Many fat as opposed to curvy women don’t. Corsets could become the rage once more! But today’s image is more androgyne, slim hipped, long legged, small breasted. It reflects the changed role of women as providers not nourishers.
I’ve always thought fashion and good figures were about pleasing the eye, but it seems we’ve lost all sense of the beauty of a woman’s shape if the only alternative on offer to the anorexic bodies that lazy photographers and fashion designers find so easy to use in place of coat hangers, is some lumpen lass who makes one wish she would wear a burka—or lay off fries.
My ideal female model is in the Tuileries. She’s a statue of Diana the Huntress: and aesthetically pleasing.  If you visit Paris, take a look at this classical image of female beauty by Louis Auguste Leveque, and imagine her dressed by Saint Laurent. Yves, you should be with us at this hour.