Moody’s must have it in for France. Sure, its economy is moribund. Sure, its trade unions are among the most intransigent in the world. But surely the socialist government deserves some credit for one of the most significant reforms in 200 years.
Until this summer, the government controlled when bakers of France’s beloved baguettes – crusty on the outside, like the French themselves, softer on the inside, unlike the French themselves – might close shop and head off on vacation, the goal being to make certain that no more than half of these bakeries close at the same time. That regulation was put into effect in 1790, one year after a spike in bread prices was one of the principal causes of the French Revolution. And until 1986 the price of bread was fixed by the government.
Now the socialist government had decreed that bakers can decide when to shut down, despite objections from many Frenchmen and women who say they were forced to rely on, ugh, sliced bread from, ugh, a supermarket. But these résistants are a fading breed: Sales of cellophane-wrapped, sliced bread without crusts, marketed under the brand name “Harry’s” and promoted as “American sandwich” of “American inspiration” to reflect “modernity and liberty”, are booming, according to The Economist. It seems this bread keeps better than the traditional baguette.
Despite the courageous deregulation of the bread market, and the unimpeded growth of new entrants and new forms of the staff of life, Moody’s refuses to give France’s socialist government credit for this major structural reform of its economy – partial repeal of an ancient regulation: Bakers still are told which weekday they can take off, and, reports the Financial Times, to be declared a boulangerie the dough must be kneaded, shaped and baked on the premises.
That might be because the ratings agency noticed that the government’s infatuation with deregulation is not even skin deep. French regulators are trying to put Uber out of business lest taxi drivers again tie up Paris traffic by burning tires to protest the company’s attempt to make life easier for Parisians, who have until now been forced to rely on cab drivers not famous for their welcoming manner. Uber offered to drop one of its two services – the one that uses non-professional drivers – but was told by Interior Minister Bernard Casaneuve, “You have made a mockery of the French Republic. There can be no conditions whatever. There is simply the law to respect. Period.” It is not known whether monsieur le ministre has an official car available to him. This official resistance to change, which included police detention and questioning of two Uber executives, comes despite a glowing report on Uber service by the FT’s Simon Kuper, “Online ratings are helping to bring about change. When you take an uber taxi here [in Paris], you have the otherworldly experience of the smiling driver getting out to great you, and handing your children sweets, whereas Parisian taxi drivers traditionally go purple with apoplexy at the sight of kids.” Of course, Parisian rudeness was anyhow in decline. A survey earlier this year found that the portion of travelers witnessing “incivility”, which a year ago stood at 97% has plunged to 95%.
France seems to be shedding its historic baguette baggage more easily than Germany is shedding its historic attitudes towards those of its neighbors who don’t appreciate the importance of not upsetting it. In a major retreat from its EU-nations-without-borders position, Germany realized that it had to do something to stem the tide of refugees it had invited by promising a warm welcome – housing, jobs and other benefits. But chancellor Angela Merkel, probably the most powerful European politician with the possible exception of the more thrusting Vladimir Putin, was not happy with Germany’s neighbors, who did not see the advantage to their countries of welcoming tens of thousands of Muslims, not a group that experience suggests is easily assimilable -- or without a disproportionate share of terrorists, actual and wanabee. So Germany inviting millions of Syrians to partake of the joys of European life, but overwhelmed by the response, Germany closed its borders, without notifying its neighbors, and refused to return their calls when they realized what had happened. “It is punishment by non-communication,” a Czech official told the FT. Mild compared to long-ago displays of displeasure by another powerful German chancellor with what was then Czechoslovakia.
While Europe dithers in the face of a refugee crisis, Barack Obama, shedding his usual Hamlet-like response to crises, promptly leaped unto the breach with a pledge to admit perhaps 100,000 Muslim refugees. John Kerry rushed to assure us that the vetting process will keep out terrorists, who are in any event unlikely to settle in the neighborhoods of his homes in Georgetown; Ketchum, Idaho; Nantucket; or Beacon Hill, Boston. Vetting of refugees, many of whom have destroyed their passports or have no papers due to losses at home, will probably be conducted by Homeland Security, which failed 67 of 70 attempts to detect explosive and weapons carried onto airplanes by inspectors.
Until mid-September, the half-million migrants who had been marching northwards into central Europe seemed like the Old World equivalent of Hurricane Sandy survivors. Families uprooted by the war in Syria were seeking safety, according to this view of things. It was sad to see little girls sleeping by the side of the road, but inspiring to see European volunteers, with their clipboards and their bags of snacks, their water bottles and Port-a-Potties, showing such compassion and logistical expertise.
Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Obama administration's decision to take the Iran deal to the United Nations before the U.S. Congress votes on it. Kerry made the remarks in an interview this morning on ABC News:
The ABC reporter, Jon Karl, asked, "But the bottom line, the UN is going to vote on this before Congress gets to vote on this?"
Two big deals were signed this week, with one thing in common – can-kicking. The Eurozone countries, more precisely Germany, kicked the Greek debt can down the road for three years by lending the already over-indebted country another €86bn.
Have you ever had two dinners in one night? I did, more than 20 years ago, in Budapest. My buddy Todd and I had gone backpacking through Europe, hitting 11 cities in 30 days. As students, we were careful not to overspend, staying at pensions and hostels and crashing at my former host family’s house in Germany. By the time we reached Budapest, our last stop, we’d saved more money than we’d anticipated.
April turns out to be “Remember-a-Nazi Month.” A 93-year-old Auschwitz guard, a former member of Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS unit, is on trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. He says he “morally” shares the guilt for taking cash and belongings from the prisoners as they entered the camp, but is innocent of any criminal act.
In Athens in mid-January, two weeks before the election that would make 40-year-old engineer Alexis Tsipras Greece’s new prime minister, a bunch of cleaning ladies explained to me why they planned to vote for his party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza, for its Greek acronym). We met where they had lived, at least part of the time, for the past 16 months: among tents on the sidewalk in front of the economics ministry in downtown Athens.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has cautioned that the adventurism of Russian president Vladimir Putin would not remain limited to Ukraine, or even to other countries bordering on Russia. Since Russia seized Crimea in February-March 2014, Putin’s provocative campaign has included imposition of phantom “governments” in two areas of eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, and harassment of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are members of NATO.
Condemnation of Israel for its conduct of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza continues unabated. The chief accusation, heard time and again, is that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have either been cavalier about civilian casualties or are intentionally inflicting them. Israel and its defenders, for their part, have been at pains to point out the great lengths the IDF has gone to avoid injuring civilians, while at the same time noting the innumerable ways in which Hamas has violated the laws of war.
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the foreign and domestic surveillance practices of the National Security Agency have inspired a great deal of anger around the world, but nowhere has the fury been stronger than in Germany. “Goodbye, Friends!” read the front page of Die Zeit last November, when it was disclosed that the NSA had monitored one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phones. Der Spiegel, which breathlessly published a report last fall alleging the U.S.