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French time change this weekend, go forward an hour

Just a note to remind you to advance your clocks and watches by an hour this weekend (the night of Saturday March 26 to Sunday March 27, specifically at 2am, when it will turn to 3am).

You can read more about this time change in French here. This follows the time change that took place in the US two weeks ago. So for the past two weeks, the time difference between New York and Paris was 5 hours. On Sunday, it will go back to 6 hours.

We’ll lose an hour of sleep, but at least these time changes take place on the weekend!

Bonjour Paris – French strikes update

October 30th, 2010 No comments

I write for Bonjour Paris and this week focus on an update on the French strike situation and the government pension reform. It looks like the strike action is down, after relatively low turnout on Oct. 28, but Nov. 6 strikes are still planned, and some public transport will still be disrupted. For flights, best to check with your airline company beforehand that your flight is still on schedule. I will update my blog accordingly too. Excerpts below:

from Figaro

Logistically, how is France faring now? Oil refineries are opening back up, as workers are heading back to their jobs after strikes blocked the refineries around the country. All 12 refineries will be open now. But as of Thursday there were still about 20% of service stations with a shortage of fuel, thereby impacting those taking the long Toussaint weekend for travel.

There were minor disturbances on the transport systems of the major cities in France and on the SNCF railways, but overall there was less action this time around. Indeed, even the liberal Libération conceded a weak turnout, saying the movement “was on leave” but that the unions would likely strike back again. But conservative Figaro says that given the low turnout, there are doubts about the momentum of the movement. Figaro also put out a great graphic comparing retirement systems across countries.

So far, strike action is still planned for Saturday Nov. 6. I will update my blog on the strike situation for transport, and you can also find information on SNCF here and other info from France 24. If you are flying, call your airline company for specific information on flight cancelations and delays. For public transport options from Paris airports to downtown, check out this site, knowing that during strikes, it is best to avoid the RER B and opt for another choice.

To end, I leave you with two insightful pieces – albeit from an “Anglo-Saxon” perspective – about the French strikes. The first one from BBC News compares strikers in France to those in other countries. Then The Economist writes that strike action is less powerful than it used to be: “Mr Sarkozy took a bet that there was a silent majority prepared to accept change, however much they disliked it. It looks like paying off.”

Bonjour Paris newsletter…in spite of strikes, come to France

October 23rd, 2010 2 comments

I write a piece in this week’s Bonjour Paris newsletter about how life continues almost as usual in France despite the strikes. So if you’re planning a trip, you’ll be glad to not cancel it.

France still under strike tension with increasing violence

October 21st, 2010 3 comments

Environ 1 200 personnes ont convergé vers la Guillotière. Certaines en ont profité pour se défouler / Stéphane Guiochon (Le Progrès)

So “la révolution” continues. More like an increasingly violent rebellion lead by stubborn individuals who do not seem to understand the principles of economics. But la vie continue, and the government will eventually win. I certainly understand frustration with Sarkozy and his administration, as they have not been exactly stragetic in their communications, and financial corruption within undermines their image (like l’affaire Bettencourt, etc.) but the underlying truth is that retirement reform is needed, and 62 is quite a modest start. Here is a guide about how the reform will likely affect you.

President Sarkozy is still planning on facilitating the labor market to boost employment, so those concerned with unemployment are right to raise their voices, but they should not be disrupting the economic activity and well-being of the country; there are other means of communication than provocation in the street and taking the country hostage. For now, here is an update on the situation…

Violent incidents continue between protesters and police in Lyon’s downtown Presqu’île district, and you can see more coverage of this here and here by the local Lyon newspaper Le Progrès. The TCL public transport system is still shut down in the downtown area, for security measures. According to a Lyon Le Progrès poll, 65% of respondents think that the strike movement will not end soon. You can see pictures of the Lyon action here.

Meanwhile in Marseille, the airport was blocked this morning by strikers in addition to other disturbances throughout the city (public transport and ports blocked, garbage not collected…pictures from Marseille courtesy of BBC.) This action and others have disrupted daily life for many French, and even Lady Gaga has decided to postpone her Paris shows from Oct. 22-23 to Dec. 19-20. On the Paris RER suburban rail network, there were spontaneous disruptions throughout Thursday despite overall improvements on the RATP public transport system (with some disruptions, look under “traffic”) and the SNCF national railway system (though there are still delays). Fuel shortages still persist, with over 25% of gas stations empty, almost 2000 more short on products and this could disrupt Toussaint (All Saints) vacation weekend Nov. 1. But the situation is gradually improving with government forces intervening to gain access to fuel depots.

Meanwhile, national buffoon and desparately in need of a haircut, Bernard Thibault (leader of the CGT union) has called for a new day of strikes next week. They are planning to announce the 1st day for next week, either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and the 2nd day of strikes would be either Saturday Oct. 30 or Sat. Nov. 6. Now they’re striking on the weekends, that’s just great. If they strike on the holiday weekend, there just might be an insurrection against the SNCF.

Students, both university and high school, are becoming increasingly involved in the strikes and demonstrations (and violence), with hundreds of schools blockaded throughout the country and up to 10 universities blocked as well.

What is happening in the government?

They are trying to accelerate the reform currently being debated in the Senate, with the text to be reviewed by Friday evening, 254 amendments awaiting validation at the time of publication, and a commission of 7 National Assembly Deputies and 7 Senators, to vote on the entirety by next Thursday Oct. 28th at the latest. They have shown a willingness to discuss certain measures, notably a point system for pensions, to please unions like the CFDT, but this does not satisfy everyone.

Sarkozy remains firmly opposed to violent demonstrators, saying “they will not have the last word” and almost 2000 have been arrested since Oct. 12.

The New York Times covers this story well.

I’ll keep you updated.

French strikes: Paris CDG airport might run out of fuel next week…

October 16th, 2010 2 comments

This is just to share with you the latest news, courtesy of BBC News. The unions are continuing their policy of political terrorism, taking the country hostage for their own interests and to the economic detriment of the country. Let’s hope this ends soon.

Excerpts below.

France’s main airport, Charles de Gaulle, has enough fuel to last only a few days, the transport ministry has warned amid strikes against government plans to raise the retirement age.

A ministry spokesman said officials were working to restore aviation fuel supplies. Economy Minister Christine Lagarde urged people “not to panic”.

Oil refineries and fuel depots have been hit by the latest strikes. Meanwhile unions are holding fresh mass protests over the pension plan.

On Saturday thousands of students are expected to join a fifth day of demonstrations in less than six weeks. Unions have called for more than 200 marches nationwide. Trapil, the company that operates the fuel pipeline to the Paris airports, told French media on Friday that supplies had stopped and that Roissy-Charles de Gaulle could run out of fuel as early as next week.

All 12 oil refineries in France have been hit by the strikes. Ten have shut down or are in the process of closing. A number of fuel depots have been blockaded….A sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests is planned for Tuesday 19 October….”

French ongoing strikes Oct. 12, and perhaps more after

October 11th, 2010 1 comment

If you’re lounging in the sun at Jardin Luxembourg, know that heated debate is going on in the Sénat building next to you.

Following strikes and demonstrations Sep. 7, Sep. 23 and Oct. 2 against government proposals to reform the pension and retirement system in France (including raising the general age from 60 to 62), the main unions (CFDT, CFTC, CGT, FO, SUD, UNSA-GATC…) have called for yet another day of “action” on the streets.

Laurence Parisot, President of MEDEF (the National Council of French Employers, basically a CEO club), said these strikes would continue to undermine the reputation of France abroad as a reliable place to do business. Prime Minister François Fillon meanwhile said it could well take a “decade” before France balances its budget. As The Economist wrote, President Sarkozy is trying to pass this crucial reform in the midst of a reputation comeback effort at home and abroad.

Conservative daily Le Figaro presents a great special report on the retirement reform here. It also stated that this is a “decisive week” for the strike movement, but only 31% of French support a strike that could be extended during this week or longer but 71% support the reasons behind the social movement, nuances that match historical support for resistance to government reform that is badly needed to get the government budget in order. Many strikers want to see taxes raised on the wealthy, such as an elimination of the current ceiling of 50% tax rate on the wealthiest.

RATP, the Parisian region transport authority, has posted updates for tomorrow’s traffic here. Metro lines 1, 11, 14 should have no problems. Line 6 will have 75% traffic; lines 3, 4 , 8, 13 will have 66% traffic; and line 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 will have 50% traffic. For RER suburban rail lines, RER A will have 50% traffic, RER B will have 20% traffic (so for CDG airport, I’d advise you to take alternate transport: Roissybus to/from metro Opéra, a taxi or Air France shuttles). Orly transport options are listed too.

SNCF, the national railway operator, has posted information as well here on the possibly ‘ongoing’ strikes (so, which could be repeated over several days). You can find information for other metro areas transport below, mostly in French. You can see the status of departures and arrivals in the main train stations at Gares en Mouvement website, one of the few things I like at SNCF (though overall I wish the U.S. had an impressive HSR system)

Aéroports de Paris (which runs Orly, Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais airports) said to expect possible delays, cancellations and other inconveniences on Oct. 12, notably because of Air France workers on strike. Air France posts information here on the strikes.

Other major cities and their transport systems below with relevant updates:
Lyon, Grenoble, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille, Nice, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Brest, Caen, La Rochelle, Le Havre, Montpellier

Bon courage to everyone. Just take a deep breath, buy a baguette, drink some vin rouge, and complain against strikers. You’re becoming French by the moment. There are many wonderful things in this country, try to enjoy your time here!

U.S. terror alert raised in Europe

October 4th, 2010 1 comment

New evidence has come forward recently on the European terror plot, leading the U.S. State Department to raise its level to an official terror alert.

There is information that Osama bin Laden has been linked to the financing of a terrorist plot in Europe in high-tourist density area (danke, Der Spiegel):

German Islamist Ahmad Sidiqi has delivered new details about the apparent new terrorist plot against Europe and the United States. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, he has told his interrogators that al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden approved the attack plans and also provided financing…He met with Sheik Younis al-Mauretani early this summer under conspiratorial circumstances in the city of Mir Ali in Pakistan, the German claimed. He said he discussed possible attacks in several European countries, including France and Britain. He allegedly claimed that Osama bin Laden had given his personal approval for the plans and that he had also provided some of the money that was needed for the attacks.”

So now the American authorities are urging citizens to be “vigilant” in Europe (BBC). So much so that the State Department is likely to raise this from travel alert to travel warning, the most serious level.

French authorities have detained a man who is suspected of threatening to bomb Paris St. Lazare train station, but no connection has been found to terror plots or networks. But European authorities have stated their approval of American warnings, saying that they too are being vigilant and increasing security presence in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and Berlin’s central train station have been said to be among targets for Mumbai-style commando executions. Stay safe and alert of your surroundings, but don’t let this hamper your travel plans; I just had a great weekend in London and now back to work in Paris.

US travel tax angering EU, which could react with similar policy

September 28th, 2010 2 comments

In German news magazine Der Spiegel, European Union officials are responding negatively to a travel fee ESTA that the US is imposing on residents of countries that are currently not required to obtain visas to visit the US, “36 countries worldwide including every EU country except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania.” Although the $14 fee is small, $10 of it goes to promoting tourism in the US. While the US economy is certainly not at its strongest point, it is the #2 travel destination in visitors (France is #1) and already pulls in the most revenue. This fee, combined with notorious US customs and immigration officials, make for a very unwelcoming and unattractive image of America abroad as a travel destination. This is undermining our global image and respect. I certainly hope this policy is repealed and that the EU does not retaliate with similar measures.

Excerpts below.

European Union Up in Arms over US Travel Tax

“European Union officials are furious with a new US fee mandatory for most travelers from Europe. Calling the charge tantamount to a new visa requirement, the EU is now considering introducing a similar fee for American travelers. Fourteen dollars may not sound like a lot. But this autumn, the sum — in the shape of the new fee being charged by the United States to some overseas visitors coming into the country — is proving enough to inflame tempers in the European Union. This month, an increasing number of members of the European Parliament and other EU officials are blasting the charge for being both incongruous and for running counter to US-EU agreements.

“I think it is a bit bizarre to introduce a tax to promote tourism,” intoned Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of European Parliament with Germany’s business-friendly Free Democratic Party during a recent debate on the issue in Strasbourg. In addition to pointing out that such a tax could actually dissuade people from traveling to the US, Lambsdorff also said “it seems a bit absurd that the US of all countries would tax people who are not represented in this debate. Taxation without representation, I believe, has played a certain role in American history.”

At issue is the so-called Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a $14 fee which travelers from 36 countries now have to pay prior to visiting the US. While $4 dollars of the fee is to be for ESTA administrative costs, $10 is to pay for US efforts to promote the US as a tourism destination. Travelers to the US, in effect, are being asked to pay for the advertising aimed at encouraging them to travel to the country…Now, the EU is exploring the possibility of introducing a similar system for travellers from the US, according to the European Commission for Home Affairs. A “policy study” is currently being undertaken to investigate the feasibility of such a fee…

…The US fee applies only to travelers from countries not currently required to obtain a visa prior to travel — a list comprising 36 countries worldwide including every EU country except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania. In a parliamentary debate last week, several members of the European Parliament (MEPs) complained that the fee was simply a different kind of visa, particularly given that those travelers who do not pay the fee can be refused entry into the US…

…The fee, part of a tourism promotion package pushed through primarily by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has been controversial in the travel industry as well. “It’s like inviting a friend over for dinner and then charging them a fee at the door,” Steve Lott, a representative for the International Air Transport Association, told CNN earlier this month. “If the idea is to make the United States more welcoming and to increase tourism, raising the entry fee seems to be counterintuitive to what you’re trying to do.”

European Commission officials have promised to take up the issue in upcoming meetings with their US counterparts. Speaking on behalf of EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton, EU State Secretary for European Affairs Olivier Chastel insisted that “the EU places great importance on the issue of reciprocity” when it comes to trans-Atlantic travel. He said his office “will pull out all the stops to work with the Commission to establish the principle of reciprocity on travel…”

Rick Steves: “Become a temporary European”

This article was originally posted on Expatica’s website, written by renown travel author Rick Steves.

It’s targeted more towards travelers abroad but has relevant implications for expats as well, especially those recently settling in. Excerpts below. How do you think it is best to adapt to your new country?

…Once you figure out where the locals hang, check out where they live. Ride a city bus or subway into the suburbs, then wander through some neighbourhoods to see how residents live when they’re not wearing lederhosen and yodelling. Visit a supermarket. Make friends at the launderette. Or mill around area schools and universities, checking out the announcement boards and eating at the cafeteria. Be alert and a little bit snoopy. If you stumble onto a grade-school talent show, sit down and watch it. You can even visit a university’s English-language department and ask about hiring a student (who’s learning English) as a private guide.

Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, consider attending a European worship service. An hour in a small-town church provides an unbeatable peek into the community, especially if you join them for coffee and cookies afterwards. I’ll never forget going to a little church on the south coast of Portugal one Easter. A tourist stood at the door videotaping the “colourful natives” (including me) shaking hands with the priest after the service. You can experience St. Peter’s by taking photographs, or you can do it by taking a seat at Mass…

“Why everyone loves France”

August 1st, 2010 1 comment

I found this piece on Expatica very interesting overview of what makes France attractive to foreigners. Among the reasons: rich culture, history, modern transport, gastronomy…and this piece focuses on Futuroscope, a theme park near Poitiers… What are the reasons you like (or perhaps dislike) France? It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly attracts me to the country, but I’d have to say it relates to an appreciation for the pleasures of everyday life, a more healthy work-life balance than in my home USA, a cultural history that is a wealth of pride to the French and leading innovative companies and high-tech transportation links. Also the diversity of the regions.

Excerpts below..

The world’s top tourist destination
It’s official, and, although visitor numbers were down in recession-hit 2008 from 2007 (79.3 million as opposed to 81.9 million the year before) France is still the world’s top tourist destination. Most of us would be surprised to discover that France gets more than 20 million more visitors than both the USA and Spain, 50 million more than the UK and almost 60 million more than Turkey, according to the world tourism organisation WTO…

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