Today is April 23, just a month to go by date until the elections for the European parliament. Will they produce a political earthquake, as promised by Nigel Farage of UKIP and Marine Le Pen of France's Front National (not the best of pals!), or will it be another case of electoral ennui? For last month's municipal elections in France, earth shattering news was promised, but the elections came and went without too much lasting notice or impact being created.
Meanwhile in Paris, les gendarmes are having a hot time chasing gypsies, pickpockets and other thieves from one arrondissement to another. People using hole in the wall machines are at particular risk, especially close to well-known tourist sights. Tourists are being harrassed and robbed on a regular basis and it seems there's not a lot that can be done to stop this. So anyone going to Paris is well advised to take great care. The 6th arrondissement in particular has been overrun by Roma gypsies in the past few weeks; they couldn't have chosen a more upmarket place to camp out and create chaos. And it seems that the police can't do much more except move them on to the next district.
If you arrive by Eurostar at the Gare du Nord in Paris, you'll become aware of the problem very quickly, as the whole area surrounding this rather grubby mainline railway station is infested with gangs of pickpockets, often teenagers, as well as gangs of prostitutes. It's all rather unsavoury, but at least the station, which is exactly 150 years old, is getting a €40 million facelift. Among the new facilities being planned is a new restaurant, inside the station concourse, but it's not due to open until late next year.
In the meantime, as you'd expect, scandals rumble on in high places. Aquilino Morelle, an adviser to President Hollande and the man who wrote most of his speeches, has had to resign. There have been many allegations, which he denies, that during his previous job, at the social affairs ministry, he was taking kick-backs from pharmaceutical companies. One very odd fact about Morelle came to light during the recent controversy: he kept 30 pairs of hand-crafted shoes in the Elysée Palace and had them professionally polished every two months. Typical of the self-seeking vanity of those at the top, including in the Socialist Party! Meanwhile, Hollande himself, when he was visiting the huge Michelin tyre plant at Clermont-Ferrand the other day, said that if unemployment didn't come down before the 2017 presidential election, he'd have no reason to run as a candidate again. That aside, I'd say he has plenty more reasons for not running!
While all this was going on, a huge robbery took place at a duty free warehouse at Roissy airport last Wednesday. A dozen thieves broke in during the night and got away with a huge haul of duty free cigarettes.
As all this thieving is going on, a French professor of economics has cooked up quite a media storm and in the process, has sold tens of thousands of copies of the nearly 700 page long book he wrote. Thomas Piketty is a 42 year old professor at the Paris School of Economics and the book he has written is called Capital in the 21st Century. He argues that capitalism in its modern day format isn't working, that in fact it is creating far more inequalities than ever, with a tiny number of super wealth individuals increasing their net worth at an ever accelerating speed, while everyone else is struggling to survive. The book has created a sensation, not just in France, but in other countries, too, like the US, where he's being treated like a rock star.
But back at the ranch, ie Paris, the news from one hot cultural spot isn't so good. The museum dedicated to Picasso, in the 3rd.,has been closed for the past four years, for extensive renovations. It was meant to reopen this summer but now it looks as if it will be lucky to reopen during 2015. A ridiculous amount of delays in the work remain unexplained, in typical French style.
However, if you've got four million euros to splash, then I can recommend the absolutely gorgeous 18th century Chateau de Primard in the village of Guainville in the Eure-et-Loire department, 75 km west of Paris. This has been for many years the holiday of the doyenne of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve, whose Paris residence is in the 6th. Despite saying that she often needs to get out of Paris into the countryside, the 70 year old actress has decided to sell the chateau. It's a wonderful looking chateau, with gardens and a farm to match.
While this splendid chateau has come to market for a reasonable price, for those who have a mere €4 million to spare, I note from a recent property survey that the price of holiday properties has fallen quite dramatically. In many top resorts around the coast, prices for such properties have fallen recently by up to 20 per cent.
On a slightly diversionary note-must be thinking too much of all those French actresses! I was intrigued the other day to come across a reference to a little village in south-eastern France with a delightful name. It's called Pussy and it's in the Savoie department; it's small, with just 250 inhabitants. It's named after the Roman who created the settlement, close on 2,000 years ago; he was called Pussius. All the same, it'd be nice to live there and if asked where one lived, to be able to reply: "Oh,I'm permanently resident in Pussy"!
Outside Paris, as usual, there's plenty going on, not least among the ever-restive Bretons. Last Saturday, up to 15,000 people protested in Nantes and demanded that in the current reorganisation of departments, all the various Breton departments in Loire-Atlantique be brought together to form a single, reunited Brittany region. Just the other day, Bretons got another shock, when a five metre long shark was washed up on one of their beaches.
With summer approaching, so too are all kinds of festival delights. On June 21, the Féte de la Musique takes place in venues all across France, as part of World Music Day. The idea originated in France in the 1980s and it's been going strong there ever since.
Down south, in Orange, incidentally now a bastion of the Front National, the big arts festival will happen between July 9 and August 4, centred on the ancient Roman theatre; it's the oldest arts festival of its kind in France. Then down in south-west France, in Bayonne, there's a great festival on from July 23 to 27, with street performances and lots of music, as well as cow running. This is billed as an antidote to the bull running in Pamplona in Spain. Of course this is not to forget France's national day, Bastille Day on July 14.
Paris will have its usual military parade along the Champs-Elysées, past all the fast food restaurants, and the Eiffel Tower will as usual be showered with spectacular fireworks.
The first signs that summer is fast approaching came the other day, on Thursday night and Friday morning at the start of the Easter weekend, when motorists were queuing for more than two hours to get through the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland.
In the south, just off the coast of Cannes, you can explore the lovely Lérins islands, all four of them. The two largest, Sainte-Marguerite and Sainte-Honorat, are inhabited, by about 25 people, while the two smaller islands are uninhabited. From their beaches, there are truly spectacular views of the nearby mainland coast. Sainte-Marguerite is best-known for the Man in the Iron Mask, who was held in its fortress for 11 years. On Sainte-Honorat, you can buy the Lérins liqueur made by the monks in the abbey; it's made from 44 herbs and is 50 per cent proof. Great stuff!
The islands are only a 15 minute boat trip from the harbour in Cannes and a new 22 metre long luxury boat, built in Bordeaux, has just been launched for travelling to the islands and their beaches in real style.
Talking about style, I see that Grenoble has become the first city in France with more than 150,000 people to have an environmentally friendly mayor, Eric Piolle. One of his first moves was to introduce sheep for grazing the Bastille hill that overlooks Grenoble, while he has also made a 25 per cent cut in the allowances for city councillors. Sounds like a good start!
And while we're on the subject of nature, I saw something very odd the other day. It turns out that the biggest co-operative unit ever found was discovered in 2002, a vast ant colony that stretched from the Italian Riviera, right through the French Riviera and south-west France to the north-west of Spain. It's one of the stories that's perfectly true but sounds quite unbelievable.
In international news, while so much attention is being focussed on the likely Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, little has been made of the fast sliding relationship between China and Japan. The Japanese have just started building a radar station off the coast of Taiwan, which will give them a clear insight into what's happening along this section of the Chinese coast. Then the Chinese retaliated, by seizing a Japanese owned container ship in reparation for two Chinese ships grabbed by the Japanese way back in 1936.
Something else I spotted while reading about California the other day – if you want to suss out future trends, this is a good State to begin in. It seems that doubts are now being raised about the development of self-aware artificial intelligence and the fact that once it has really got going, one of its first tasks will be to eliminate human competition. So the wars of the near future won't be between the US and Russia, or between Japan and China, but between humans and robots capable of thinking for "themselves".
Then something happened in Australia that would never happen in Ireland. The premier of New South Wales, Barry O'Farrell, who is of course of Irish descent, resigned because he had failed to declare a wine gift worth €2,000 given after a recent election. No politician in Ireland would ever be so foolish to do something so honourable as that!
We've just celebrated the 98th anniversary of the Easter Rising, an event that was in fact the first unpicking of the once great British empire. The proclamation of that 1916 Easter Rising is a wonderfully inspiring document, committed to equality and justice for all citizens. The reality of Ireland in 2014 is that it's all now little more than pr bullshit; no-one in Ireland has the rights they deserve, except for the super rich,in whose ranks must be included all those rank bankers.
Terry McGeehan is a splendidly vituperative columnist in the Irish Daily Star newspaper in Dublin. Recently, he described the present government in power in Dublin as a blueshirt (neo-fascist) junta. More sign of the rot came just on Sunday afternoon, when the head librarian at our local library was returning home from a family visit over Easter. At the gated entrance to the block of flats where she lives, she got out of her car, leaving the engine running, to key in the access code for the gate. As she did this, two hoodlums,one male, the other female, jumped into her car. When she tried to stop them, the male at the wheel of the car pushed her and she fell, hitting her head on the kerb. This knocked her out. The culprits then drove off in her car, which has subsequently been found intact. The librarian, who is a lovely, friendly lady, was rushed to hospital and as of this morning, it's reported that she didn't need surgery, is conscious and has been talking with her sister. So the many people who use her excellent library, myself included, wish her all the very best and a full, complete and prompt recovery.
Such is the lawless state of the country that happenings like this are all too commonplace. And in a brilliant explanation of the sheer lack of commonsense among those who are supposed to be running the country, the first three months of this year have seen 50 more people killed on the roads compared to last year. It turns out that to save money, severe reductions have been made in the number of police serving in the traffic division. It doesn't seem to matter an iota to the powers-that-be that so many more people can be killed on the roads; what's really important, for the IMF and the EU, is that a little bit of money has been saved from government budgets. But at least this week, I can end on a rather more harmonious note.Fr Ray Kelly officiated at a wedding in Oldcastle, Co Meath, on April 7. He's a very accomplished singer and his rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah was videoed. It went up on YouTube, has now been seen well over 30 million times and the singing priest is now in talks with Sony and other music labels about his possible future career. I've seen the YouTube video several times and it's a delightful antidote to the grimy news of the moment; if he wishes, it looks as if this singing priest has a global musical career in front of him.