Then last month came the Russian annexation of Crimea. On March 29, 1939, Hitler annexed the free city of Danzig, which today is in northern Poland; before that, he had annexed the Sudetanland because its population was overwhelmingly German. The comparisons between what Russian president Vladimir Putin has done in Crimea and what Hitler did in the runup to the second world war are uncannily close. The Russian actions have totally upset the balance of power in Europe and introduced a new instability into world affairs. Many now consider Putin to be Hitler Mark 2, and there are uneasy speculations by those who know his form well, that many other territories will be on his "shopping" list, like Belarus, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, not to mention Finland, which was once part of Russia. Putin has had a hugely destabilising effect on world politics and the rule of international law - expect more episodes like Crimea!
At the end of January, the Chinese New Year, Chinese astrologers were predicting a very rough ride ahead for 2014, with lots of international aggression and disputes as well as an abundance of freak natural happenings, and so far, they have proved absolutely right!
There's been something of an upset too in the French municipal elections last month, but this had been long predicted. It didn't take too much foresight to see that the Front National was going to make big gains, although those of the right wing UMP party were rather less predictable. It was no surprise at all to find the Socialist Party of President Hollande doing so badly. Today sees a new French government inaugurated, with Manuel Valls, the former Interior minister, as prime minister. Whether the new government can stop the rot and encourage the re-emergence of a little hope in France remains to be seen-my scepticism as always remains deep seated! But what is clear is that the Front Nationale is probably going to cause a major upset in the European parliament elections next month. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, has already done a deal with Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch freedom party. Between them, they have pledged to wreck the European project, now despised by two-thirds of the European electorate, and slay the Brussels monster.
It's not hard to see why the Front National is doing so well, if the small town of Le Luc in the Var in the southern France is anything to go by. It has a population of 10,000 and the reputation of being the sunniest spot in summertime anywhere in France. But such is the effect of the recession that most of the shops on its main street have closed down. So it was no surprise to find that the Front National took nearly 40 per cent of the local vote last month, ending up with 16 seats on the local council. Other right wing parties took a handful, while the left lost out completely.
I couldn't help but smile at the very black cartoon in Le Monde the other day. It was by Plantu, one of the best cartoonists around, only matched by the likes of Martyn Turner in The Irish Times in Dublin and Matt in the Daily Telegraph in London. This cartoon by Plantu showed the tailfin and other wreckage from the missing Malaysian aircraft floating in the sea; the pieces were decorated with the symbol of the Socialist Party. President Hollande was depicted sitting in a rescue boat and the caption read: "We've found some of the wreckage of the Socialist Party". Brilliant!
Meanwhile, on more pleasant topics, the French Tourism Development Agency is currently promoting tours of the wine regions of France as the perfect holiday getaway, 17 regions in all. They include Bordeaux, Aquitaine, the Loire region and the Dordogne, to name but a few. The largest wine region, in terms of its annual production, is Languedoc Roussillon. Not only are the vineyards and the wine makers fascinating to inspect, but all of these regions have so many cultural and historical artefacts. The Dordogne region is one of the best and I have distinct memories, from when I was staying there years ago, of going to see the Lascaux cave paintings, created in prehistoric times, and long since closed to public view.
The best way of doing such a wine tour is of course to bring your car, whether you're travelling from the UK or from Ireland. With the right size of car, or better still, an estate car, you can bring back enough wine to keep you going for six months and in the process, recoup the cost of your travel to France.
Something else that's coming up this summer should be interesting, the start of the Tour de France in Yorkshire on July 5th and 6th. In advance, there's going to be a festival of cycling in Yorkshire, the first time that such an event has happened before the great race starts. I hope the proud people of Yorkshire aren't too underwhelmed. When the Tour de France started in Dublin in 1998, we saw the race go past, just down the road from where we live and it wasn't remotely interesting. Shortly afterwards, a big doping scandal broke and ever since, doping and the Tour de France seem to have become inextricably linked.
Looking into the future is always interesting, even if it's more uncertain than ever in 2014. I liked the forecast made the other day by a French bank, Nataxis, that by 2050, French will be the most widely spoken language in the world, ahead of English and Mandarin. This won't be because of any impending baby boom in France, but because of an expected population explosion in sub-Sahara Africa, which will mean that by 2050,750 million people will be speaking French, compared with around 210 million at the moment.
Meanwhile, back in France, Nice airport was closed last Saturday, because of bad weather, the third time that this has happened this year. There was also a frisson of suspected terrorist activity near Cannes the other day after a young man who had recently returned from Syria was arrested and a small quantity of explosives was found in his flat. In Paris, much was made, on April 1st, April Fools Day, that the bridges of central Paris are festooned with 700,000 love locks, so many in fact that a campaign is allegedly starting to get them removed before certain bridges fall into the Seine! One of the best ever April Fool jokes in Paris happened in 1998, when the Disney theme park was being built east of the city. Le Parisien newspaper reported on April 1st that year that the Eiffel Tower was going to be dismantled, girder by girder, and re-erected at the Disney site. It's surprising how many people thought the story was actually true! Funnily enough, this April 1st has seen an absolute outbreak of rather good April Fool stories in the media in both Ireland and the UK. But none can ever surpass the report that Richard Dimbleby did on Panorama on BBC television about farmers harvesting spaghetti - it still lives on and it was broadcast in 1957!
Nearer to home, I see that as the Scottish independence debate gathers pace, the Shetlands, the Orkney islands and the Western Isles, have now weighed in; they too want much more autonomy-from mainland Scotland. There's even talk that London should break away from the rest of the UK and become an independent state!
At least, one piece of political friendship seems to be gathering pace, that between Ireland and Britain. For years, this was seen as an impossible rapprochement, but especially since the Queen's visit to Ireland three years ago, matters have improved to the stage where the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins,is about to start a State visit to the UK. He and his wife will be getting b and b in Windsor Castle and last week, the Queen hosted a party for leaders in the Irish community in Britain at Buckingham Palace. It's great to see such a friendly coming together of the two countries; only a few short years ago, it would have been unthinkable.
In the really bad old days, ie in the 17th century, Cromwell's idea of befriending Ireland was to murder as many of the inhabitants as possible. These days, the British conquest of Ireland is almost as insidious, but at least it doesn't do anyone any physical harm. Various corporate concerns from the UK, the likes of Tesco, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Sky are firmly lodged in the Irish economy. They are not to everyone's liking, but they can usually make vast profits here without anyone minding, although the Royal Bank of Scotland is slightly different - it has been making vast losses in Ireland.
Talking of these rich and powerful corporate entities brings me to a really outspoken reader comment on The Irish Times website the other day. This reader said that the Roman Catholic church has also deferred to the rich and powerful. Its main objective is preach fairy tales to the gullible to keep them servile and docile, saying that their reward will come in the next life. Meanwhile, in this life, the Church and the rich and the powerful will continue to live off the fat of the land.
But don't depend on conventional media outlets to explain all this. I've been astonished over the last few days by comparing the 6pm news bulletin on BBC Radio 4 with the output of Euronews based in Lyon. It's quite amazing to see just how many news stories the BBC doesn't bother covering. Listening to its new bulletins will only give a partial account of what's really happening. Just to give one example, the 25th pan Arab summit has been taking place over the past few days, but if you were depending on the BBC or indeed read the mainstream British papers, you'd never even have known it was on. A typical example of sloppiness at the BBC came last week when it reported as breaking news that a plane had crashed off the Canaries. The story was false; a tug had been spotted out to sea carrying part of a ship that from a distance looked rather like an aircraft fuselage. The BBC rushed into reporting this false story, something no other media did, then had to beat an equally hasty retreat.
Back here in Dublin, I was equally astonished at what I saw in Dublin city centre and yet no-one seems the slightest bit bothered. Not only are lots of construction projects going on, but the city centre is full of homeless people. It's become like a dosser's dump, yet the people who seem least concerned are the ones who had do something about it, the politicians in power. But judging by their current performance, they seem unable to right any of the current wrongs in society, in other words, they too are a useless crowd of dossers. I got a good example the other day about how things aren't working here. It's almost as if slapdash incompetence in all areas of Irish life, public and private sectors, alike has become so pervasive that it's like an airborne infectious disease.
One of our former neighbours was once an actress; she is now in her 80s and has a lot of mobility problems. She was getting so little help from the dysfunctional and inefficient health service here in Ireland that she moved to Birmingham to live with one of her sons there-you're never too old to emigrate from Ireland - and I met her other son the other day. He was telling me that his mother is now managing quite well, since she is getting all the help she needs from the much maligned NHS in England.
I must return to France for my final comment this week. I was reading all about Montpellier in south-west France. It's years since we were there but we were very taken even then by its progressive approach. Coming in to the airport, it was amazing to see all the pink flamingoes in the next door lagoon, while the Sofitel we stayed in, right in the city centre, was an amazing piece of architecture.
Today, Montpellier is seen as the best city in southern Europe in which to do business and it's also a great place to stay. Lots of new hotels are opening up and Le Grand Hotel du Midi, a 19th century structure, right in the city centre, has just completed it refurbishment programme. All the fine old architecture in the city, especially around the enormous central square, the place de la Comedie, is outstanding and it is well complemented by some of the most striking contemporary architecture in Europe, as seen in the new city archives and city hall. The city also has 80,000 university students and a very vibrant arts and cultural life.
What's more, the Mediterranean beaches nearby are just 11km distant and you can get there by tram. The nearby seaside town of Sete, on an island, filled with so many canals that it's like the French equivalent of Venice, is also worth a visit. Sounds just the antidote to the current malaise here in Ireland!