La Rochelle and the Côte Atlantique

For the third of the 4-day weekends in May, my wife and I took a trip by car to the town of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast, going via Tours and returning via Nantes.

I have already written about the quality of the French autoroutes, although it should be mentioned that they do add to the cost of a journey.  This trip saw me rack up about 90 Euros in road tolls, which is not insignificant, although I made no attempt to avoid them and I use a device which lets me go straight through the barriers without stopping, thus avoiding both the queues and seeing how much it’s costing (until the bill comes).

One other thing is worth mentioning.  During this trip we stopped at several motorway service stations, and found them to be very nice indeed, and far better than those in the UK (or at least, how they were 10 years ago).  They are bigger, cleaner, more modern, and just more tastefully designed in France and competition between them is fierce.  I know this because I attended a presentation by one of my colleagues in that side of the business who told us that market research shows it is women, not men, who choose which station to stop at, and the men simply fill up wherever missus has ordered him to stop.  And women judge service stations on cleanliness and other criteria, and as the petrol companies can’t compete much on price, they compete on these.

Also, probably because of the longer distances and greater internal tourism in France (more on this later), the service stations are used slightly differently.  In the UK they are used primarily to stop for a piss: few British people fill up with overpriced motorway fuel, nor buy what passes for food at record prices in the Little Chef or whatever they have there.  A bag of crisps and a bottle of coke bought during a 5 minute stop is about the height of it in UK service stations.  (Maybe 10 minutes if you stop to bargain with the bloke selling dodgy watches or leather jackets out of the boot of his car, which was a feature of service stations on the M6 when I used to drive that route.)  By contrast, the French actually seem to stop for a while, and eat a proper meal.  Some of the service stations were more rest areas with nothing but an unmanned toilet block and lots of picnic tables, and these were very nice as well.  And however else you might describe the French motorway service stations, you cannot deny one thing: they are busy.  Every one I went to was seriously busy, probably unsurprising for a long weekend in France, but few families seemed to take the option of bringing sandwiches and stopping to eat in a lay-by somewhere.  We stopped at quite a number of these places during our trip – and not just the ones run by my employer – and all of them were pretty good.

So we left Paris at about 9:30 in the morning and got to Tours sometime around 1pm, to find it grey and raining.  Tours is historically important for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourselves (I’d not heard of it before, but my knowledge of French history is pretty poor), and the main feature of the town is an impressive cathedral (the same caveat applies here, too).

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We poked our heads in and looked around, and it was worth it.

IMG_2850 IMG_2851I like cathedrals of this style, whatever it is.

Then we went to look for somewhere to have lunch and we stumbled across a place done out in a rustic theme packed full of French enjoying what looked to be large, leisurely lunches.  Welcome to provincial France.  So in we went, and over the course of the next hour and a half had two rare steaks with Rocquefort sauce, a cheese platter, coffee, a coke, and half a bottle of wine with excellent service in a wonderful, lively ambiance for a grand total of 35 Euros (£28).  Try getting that anywhere in the UK.  Or Australia.

The weather had brightened up by the time we left the restaurant and we continued on our way to La Rochelle.  We didn’t spend any time looking around Tours, which may have been a shame because it looked like a nice spot to do so, but time was pressing on.  One thing I learned on this trip is that France is actually quite large and the distances a bit longer than you first think when looking at a map.  It was several hours later by the time we reached La Rochelle at around 6:30pm in glorious sunshine, but the long summer evenings meant nothing was lost.

La Rochelle is another place of historical importance about which I know nothing except that it was one of the locations out of which the Germans based their submarines during WWII, and a raid on the concrete pens was part of the Commandos 2: Men of Courage computer game which I played a lot in 2002-3.  The local tourism office is unlikely to snap me up.  Nowadays it is a very pleasant port town with an enclosed yacht marina guarded by two large fortified towers between which they used to run a chain to prevent boats from entering.

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It is known for its seafood, and the area around the marina was chock-full of restaurants which were in turn chock-full of people.  For a place to sit in the evening sun and get a beer, it couldn’t be beaten.

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From wandering around the harbour area it was obvious that La Rochelle is a sailing centre, based on the number of yachts and sailing schools.

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I intend to get back into sailing at some point, and part of the reason for visiting the Atlantic coast was to identify suitable locations for doing so.  La Rochelle may well prove to be one such possibility.

Having been turned away from a few restaurants because they were full, we eventually found one and had the type of meal that we’ve come to expect in France by now: good, inexpensive, and served with panache.  We did notice that the crowd – both customers and servers – were considerably less formal than they are in Paris, though.  I think there is a sizeable student population in La Rochelle, and whereas a waiter in Paris would be in a white shirt and black trousers, they tended towards jeans and t-shirts here.  We only stayed one night, which was nowhere near enough to see the whole town, but what we saw of it was great and we had a very pleasant evening.

The next morning we headed over to the nearby holiday island of Île de Ré, which can only be described as magnificent.  The island has an interesting history but…oh, you know what I’m going to say!  Anyway, you get there via a long and elegant toll bridge that was built in the late 1980s, and even crossing the bridge we could see this place would be busy.  To cut the description short, it is a largely flat island about 20 miles long and 3 miles wide, and stuffed full of holiday homes and campsites.  The French flock there by the tens of thousands, park their cars, and ride around the island on the miles and miles of cycle tracks that have been installed, visiting the beaches and small towns.  The weather was bright sunshine and roasting hot when we drove through, and hundreds of cyclists were out enjoying themselves.  We didn’t stay long, but the road took us through the quays at Saint-Martin-de-Ré and out towards the northern coast, providing ample evidence that the place would be superb for a family holiday.  No wonder the French love it so much.  As we were to see in the other coastal holiday towns that day, huge supermarkets have set themselves up to serve the influx of holiday makers, and their size and frequency gives you an idea of how the population must explode in the summertime.

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We stopped at one beach and found the tide was out and people were picking what I assume were cockles from the sands.  No stranger to the Atlantic coast having grown up in Pembrokeshire, I recognised this kind of beach at once.

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We left the island without really stopping, using this trip as a sort of reconnaissance mission for taking a proper holiday somewhere later on.  We drove back to the mainland and then headed northwards following the coast towards La Tranche-sur-Mer.  We drove through a series of small holiday towns, spotlessly clean but with barely a soul in sight, with hundreds of signs for campsites and caravan sites, and holiday cottages set back off the road in the trees adjacent to the beach.  It reminded me a lot of the small towns (Sorrento, Mornington, and Frankston) that I drove through last Christmas Day on my way to Point Nepean.  Throughout the day I found myself in places which reminded me of the coast around Point Nepean and Cape Woolamai: long stretches of beach fronting an ocean that spends as much time grey and angry as it does tranquil and blue, with footpaths and cycle tracks running along large sections of the coast.

We pressed on northwards up the coast, stopping for lunch in a seafood buffet place filled with pensioners, stopping every so often to look at a beach or two, and arrived in a town I’d never heard of before called Les Sables-d’Olonne.  We stopped on the coast a few miles south where small rocky cliffs pushed into the sea, with sandy beaches a little further along which continued right the way into the town.  My wife and I agreed that this spot looked like the one a short distance along the Bass Highway from Phillip Island, and noticed how similar some of the other villages were to those we passed through on the Great Ocean Road.

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The road took us right into the centre of  Les Sables-d’Olonne, but veered away from the beach which ran right across the length of the town creating a promenade of 2-3km in length.  We drove around to the northern side and parked the car up opposite a huge marina sporting hundreds of yachts and giant signs of the two best-known French yacht makers, Beneteau and Jeanneau.  This was obviously a huge sailing centre.  It was also very busy, packed with tourists who, judging by the looks, language, and car registrations were almost all French or Belgian.  The boats entered the marina area using a sort of creek alongside which a long promenade-cum-pier had been built, and we walked along this to the end, where a concrete breakwater stood with a lighthouse on the end.  All of this taking place in brilliant afternoon sunshine beneath blue skies, watching the yachts motor in and out of the marina, I was impressed.

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As I said, I had never heard of this place, which surprised me.  This was a sizeable town and looked a fantastic holiday spot, but which seemed to be kept somewhat of a secret from foreigners (Belgians and, I was told afterwards, Dutch excepted).  It later dawned on me that the French internal tourism industry is enormous, probably bigger than anywhere else in the world outside the USA.  Almost all of the places we’d visited on this trip were set up for French tourists, mainly coming from Paris and the Île-de-France region, and probably don’t advertise for (and probably don’t want!) foreign tourists, who generally head for the Mediterranean coast.  I am sure that as we continue to explore France we’ll discover more nice holiday towns that are off the map for foreigners, as internal tourism seems to be pushed heavily in France: travel programmes on TV are often showing the various regions of France, which seem to compete with one another for visitors and (judging by the slick advertising as well as the smartness of the actual places) probably receive considerable state funding.  I believe the result of the competition between the regions and the fact that the visitors are domestic is standards that cannot be found in the foreign holiday resorts, where visitors are only likely to come once and if they do complain, it’s in a foreign language on a website weeks later.  If a French holiday town lets its standards slip, especially in terms of food and drink, this will be all over Paris by the next weekend.  Sadly, the same effect did not apply for the British holiday destinations such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, and Skegness.

As with Tours, La Rochelle, and the Île de Ré, we left Les Sables-d’Olonne thinking we’d not spent anywhere near enough time there and it would be well worth coming back for a proper visit.  It was getting late by this point and so I left the coastal route and took a main road to Nantes, but it still took a couple of hours.  France really is a bit bigger than you think.  Unfortunately, by the time we got to Nantes it was pouring with rain and the best we could do once we checked into the hotel was to find a restaurant.  As expected, this one was absolutely packed but they managed to squeeze us into a two-person table on the upper floor, and they food and drink predictably didn’t disappoint.  By the time we finished we had only enough time to briefly look at the Château des ducs de Bretagne in the drizzle before we’d had enough of getting wet and exploring and went back to the hotel.  As with the other places, Nantes is probably worth looking at in more detail.  It supposedly scores the highest in the French quality of life index due to its relative cheapness compared to Paris, its ease of access to the capital via the direct TGV link, and its proximity to a wide selection of beaches and resorts on the Atlantic coast.  The bits we saw in the rain didn’t look particularly inviting, but another time we might see it in a different light.

The next morning we drove back to Paris in about 4 hours, arriving mid-afternoon…and then I went on the piss with an Angolan until 5am and awoke the next day at 1pm too drunk to drive my wife to the airport to catch her flight to St. Petersburg.  So I bundled her into a taxi instead.  As you can tell, the haute culture of France is rubbing off on me.

Overall, I was mightily impressed by the small section of the French Atlantic coast that we visited.  A return trip, and further exploration, are a must.

Posted in France, Photos, Travel | 10 Comments

Another World Cup, Another English Defeat

I did not watch all but the last 10 minutes of England’s inevitable defeat at the hands of Uruguay last night, which effectively ends their world cup campaign after only 5 days.  Instead I found myself at a bar with a Scottish colleague who is leaving for distant shores, and weighing up the options I decided it was better to remain with him than go home and watch the football.  After all, I might not see him for a while but a “heroic” England defeat comes along at every major championship.

And so to save time, I’ll merely repeat what I said after England bombed out of the last world cup:

Theories abound as to why England are performing so badly, but I believe I know why and the answer is frighteningly simple: the players are simply not good enough.  And that’s about it.  There are many factors which go into making a player good: fitness, skills, mental strength, etc. and James’ site is an excellent source of discussion on sports psychology, but the sum total is failing England’s players and has done so for years.  An old boss of mine in Manchester who had been watching live football every weekend for years told me this over ten years ago.  See those world class players?  They’re not.

See also this post from around the same time, and Chris Waddle’s remarks:

Why don’t the FA look at other countries and say ‘how do they keep producing this talent?’ Where is our Plan B? We haven’t got one. The back four can’t control the ball, can’t pass, we lack so many ideas it’s frustrating.

Has anything changed since then?

Of course, the problem is compounded by the English media, which I can only assume is a reflection of the population, having expectations which far exceed reality.  Like the BBC and NHS, the England football team is one of those institutions which is considered world class – inside the country.  Outside, they are regarded with a contemptuous “Hah!”  You will know when England stand a chance of winning a major football competition when foreigners start talking about the likelihood of England winning, not just the English press.  And that hasn’t happened in my lifetime.

Posted in Sport | 10 Comments

Two Road Systems Contrasted

For the second of the 4-day weekends in May I decided to go to London to visit a couple of mates who were in town.  Such trips are possible from Paris, but weren’t from Lagos and Sakhalin.  I decided to drive, having checked the Eurostar prices and found it an absolute fleecing (being a bank holiday, and me having left it late in any case), and driving had the added bonus of being able to visit a British supermarket and fill up with tonnes of stuff that you can’t get easily in France (e.g. Shreddies, custard creams, Branston Pickle, Colman’s packet sauces, Jaffa Cakes, Ambrosia rice pudding in a can, etc.).

I also wanted to give my car a proper run-out, as since buying it almost from new (it was an ex-demonstrator) I’d only really bumbled about the outskirts of Paris in it (but enough to cop a speeding fine, which was thankfully only 40 Euros).  For those that are interested, it’s a BMW 330d M-Sport, and goes like shit off a shovel.  In France diesel is cheaper than petrol by around 20 cents per litre; I think this is a consequence of the French having been pioneers in diesel engine development decades ago, and as a result most cars in France are diesels.  I looked at buying an M3 (and becoming a drug dealer in Rusholme), but I’m not a speed junky and a car like that would be wasted on me, plus the fuel consumption would have gotten very expensive.  So I opted for a top-end diesel, and so far I’m very happy with it (except when I spy an M3).

I booked a ticket on the Eurotunnel in advance and left Paris early on the Thursday morning, and got onto the A1 towards Calais.  The road was fantastic, virtually empty of traffic, with a surface like silk and a speed limit of 130kph (81mph), with only a few speed cameras that came with ample warning in advance.  Driving the route was a pleasure, and I made the Eurotunnel terminal with an hour to spare.  I had never taken the Eurotunnel before and was curious to see how it worked.  Very efficiently, is the answer.  I approached the barrier, it read my number plate and the screen welcomed me by name and asked if I wanted to take the earlier train or wait for the one which I’d booked.  I chose the earlier one, the machine printed me out a label to hang from the mirror, and then…we hit the bottleneck of British immigration, as usual (the French just waved everyone through: they don’t care who is leaving).  After that we all queued up in ranks and each rank drove up to the train in turn, drove onto the actual train, all the way along on an upper or lower deck, until you come to a stop as the train fills up from the front, then they close some doors and within 20 minutes you’re on your way.  You can stand in a narrow walkway beside your car or remain inside it, but either way you pop out the other side after 33 minutes and a few minutes after that you drive off the train in the same manner you drove on, almost straight onto the M20 without stopping.  I was impressed.

Which is more than I can say for the state of the M20.  The road was patched tarmac for some stretches, rough concrete for others, and chock-full of lorries.  British (and foreign) lorries successfully turn 3-lane motorways into 1-lane roads by having one of them travelling at 55mph overtake another doing 54mph and thus taking several miles to do it.  They used to do this way back when I lived in the UK and the practice still continues.  Bumping along on a crappy surface, continually braking behind lorries and being squeezed into the outside lane, the comparison with the French autoroutes I’d left behind was not favourable.

There are likely several reasons for this.  Firstly, French autoroutes are toll roads and operated by companies (either state-owned or private) which collect the tolls and are responsible for their maintenance.  For a country which thinks dance lessons and venues for adults to play Scalextric (seriously) are services for which the state should pay and the public enjoy free of charge, it is highly surprising that the major roads should be pay-as-you-go.  But I guess the concept has been there for so long that everyone is used to it.  And they don’t have a vehicle tax.  As a result, the money French road operators collect goes on maintaining the roads.  By contrast, the money collected from vehicle and fuel taxes in the UK gets spent on diversity outreach coordinators in the Ministry of Sport and Culture, and road maintenance is kept at an absolute minimum, if it’s done at all.

Secondly, the French have a different attitude about roads altogether.  If somebody suggested putting a decent road down in the UK, a vocal minority would start protesting that the roads should be kept shit to “discourage driving”.  Such people think everyone should travel by train instead, but they are also shit.  In France, the trains are fantastic (assuming there are no strikes, which admittedly is a big assumption) and so are the roads: they don’t deliberately keep one shit to encourage everyone to use the equally shit other.  There seems to be no taboo about a lot of people driving a long way along the roads in France.

Thirdly, the French seem to keep the lorries off the roads.  I don’t know how, but French roads are not clogged up with lorries.

Fourthly, with toll roads you get rid of all the knobbers who are going nowhere in particular and are just “out for a drive”, sitting in the middle lane on a Sunday afternoon doing 60mph and listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.  Everyone who is on a French autoroute has paid money to be there and is going somewhere for a purpose.  The traffic reflects that.

And thus I discovered that driving around in France is a pleasant experience, and I will write more on that shortly.

Posted in France, General Observations, UK | 15 Comments

A Trip to Barcelona

I haven’t been posting much on here of late, for the simple reason that I have been enjoying myself in the real world too much.  The month of May saw no less than 3 public holidays falling on a Thursday, allowing me to take the Friday off and having a 4-day weekend in each case.  Then there was another public holiday on 9th June, meaning I think I worked 3 full weeks out of the past 7.  Nobody ever accused the French of working overlong hours.

The first weekend I spent in Barcelona, which was nice but I felt a little overrated.  The weather was superb, and that in itself went a long way to demonstrate why it is such a popular city to visit and reside in, and there was a certain charm to the tree-lined streets which I saw in Madrid but nowhere else in Europe.  The harbour area was nice, especially for this yacht enthusiast, but getting there required fighting through densely packed tourists who had arrived by the million on budget airlines from all over Europe.  People just like us, then.

The place was packed.  On our second day we took the open-top bus tour around the city and had to queue for half an hour just to get on the thing.  When finally we did, we decided to stay on it for the full 2 hours until the bus had come back to its starting point in the main square, to avoid losing our spot.  It was a nice tour, but we came away with the impression that there was not quite enough in Barcelona to justify such a comprehensive commentary.  The way they spoke about the Barcelona Olympics was as if they were held last year, and not 22 years ago.  And not being into architecture I didn’t quite get why the place was so popular.  Sure, it’s a nice city, very nice…but I don’t think it comes even close to Paris.  Being an engineer, one of the things which annoyed me was the reverence in which the construction site more commonly known as the Sagrada Família is held:

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As Wiki says:

Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Which says more about the UNESCO criteria than the Sagrada Familia, which is basically a grander version of those loft conversions you see on TV programmes where the man of the house tears apart half the property before putting the project on hold after realising it’s not as easy as it first appeared, leaving the place looking as though a bomb’s hit it for the next 10 years.  The church was designed by Barcelona’s most famous architect Antoni Gaudí, whose designs can be seen all over the city.  This was supposed to be his masterpiece and he supervised the construction personally for the last 43 years of his life – leaving it a quarter finished when he was hit by a tram and killed.

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Now I’m sorry, and I realise I sound like a bit of a heathen here, but I’m not impressed.  Any idiot can come up with a grand design or a project that is not able to be realised, either through impracticability, lack of funds, or other reasons.  The damned thing only passed the halfway mark in 2010, with the latest estimates being 2026 as the finish date.  Although privately funded, why nobody – even the Spanish government or EU who has pissed away untold millions on airports nobody uses – could not have bunged them the necessary cash to get the thing finished is beyond me.  If this was a loft conversion, either a TV station would have sent a crew in to finish things off or the wife would have issued an ultimatum to either get the bloody thing finished by Christmas or expect divorce proceedings.  The building is impressive enough, I suppose, but is it worth having a giant building site in the middle of the city for nigh-on 150 years?

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To be fair, Cologne cathedral took something like 600 years to complete, leaving a crane dangling over the unfinished construction for 400 years, so maybe the Catalans are getting off lightly?  But then again the Sagrada Familia is in relative terms a modern building.  The French built the bulk of Notre Dame in 90 years or thereabouts and Wells cathedral took about 300 years: but these were knocked up in medieval times and, crucially, were actually fucking finished!   Looking at more modern cathedrals, St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg is extremely impressive and took 40 years to construct.  London’s St. Paul’s, a hundred years older, took 45 years.  So what’s Gardi’s excuse?

Sorry, but the engineer in me says designs need to be feasible if they are to be considered any good, and a design which, in the modern era of construction, takes longer to complete than those of two centuries before fails to impress me.  If I was heading the UNESCO panel, I would have turned up, taken one look, and told them to call me again when the damned thing’s finished.  Otherwise any Tom, Dick, or Harry could lay a foundation stone and claim it will be a floating palace one day.  Meh, I know everyone raves about Gardi, but I wasn’t impressed.

I was more impressed with the Nou Camp, which I visited to watch Barcelona draw with Getafe FC, which effectively cost them the league title.  The stadium was magnificent, but looks a bit dated up close: seats faded, paint chipped, and the egress stairways narrower than you’d find in a modern venue.  But it remains a great stadium nonetheless.

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So that was Barcelona.  Worth the visit, and the tapas food and sangria was excellent, but don’t hire me to write the tourist brochure.

Posted in Photos, Travel | 12 Comments

The Coup in Thailand

Everyone, including the UN, appears to be getting their knickers in a twist over this coup in Thailand.

Me, I’m not so worried (I have an apartment in Phuket, so I have an interest of sorts).  This is not like a coup in some parts of the world where the military leader seizes power with the intention of running the country permanently (usually by declaring a state of emergency, which remains in force for the next three generations).  Indeed, the Thais have seen multiple coups within living memory, the most recent being only 8 years ago.

Democracy in Thailand has not been an overwhelming success, and the past several years have seen deep divisions between two opposing sides (the reds and the yellows), each of whom vociferously protest against whichever one is in power that week.  The situation appeared to be intractable with no progress or compromises from either side in years, and it looked as though things were going to take a turn for the worse and become violent.

So on the face of it, it looks as though the army has assumed the role of parent to two squabbling kids, whacked their heads together, and told them to sort out their differences or else forget about holding office in any capacity.  I am confident the generals do not want to establish themselves as the permanent head of a military dictatorship, and I am equally confident they envisage ceding power to an elected civilian government as soon as one which is adult enough presents itself.  I am not so confident this will happen any time soon, or the military intervention will not somehow make things worse, but I don’t think there were many alternatives which would have lead to a happy outcome.  Taking all this into account, I’m not sure that blanket, universal condemnation of the coup is warranted just yet.

Posted in Politics, Thailand | 4 Comments

Here we go again

Isn’t this always the case, though?

Preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympics are the “worst” ever seen, according to International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates.

The news comes as Brazil faces a race to be ready in time for the Fifa World Cup, which starts in 44 days.

He said that, in his opinion, this was “a worse situation” than in 2004, when there were concerns about preparations for the Athens Games.

“It’s the worst that I’ve experienced,” he added. “We have become very concerned. They are not ready in many, many ways. We have to make it happen and that is the IOC approach. You can’t walk away from this.”

Preparations for the 2004 Athens Games were marred by delayed in construction and service delivery, but the venues and infrastructure was ultimately delivered in time.

A city is awarded the Olympics, lump-sum contracts are awarded for the infrastructure development, delays both deliberate and unintended occur, and the situation becomes “critical”.  Then the wallets are opened, those lump-sum contracts become reimbursable, all those additional sticking points become lubricated with cash, and the construction bosses, unions, material suppliers, and politicians who have gone to considerable lengths to ensure a crisis occurs in the first place are rolling in gravy as the money cannons roar with no oversight.  The facilities get finished in the nick of time and everyone is happy, except the local taxpayers who are stiffed with a bill that will take generations to pay.  The only difference between places is the degree to which this occurs, which is usually a factor of the residual corruption levels and culture that existed before the award.  And this time its Brazil.

Is anyone surprised?

Posted in Sport | 8 Comments

Où est la Thatcher française?

This article speaks volumes about the French government’s understanding of global business practices:

French President Francois Hollande has met the boss of General Electric’s (GE) to discuss his firm’s interest in buying part of engineering firm Alstom.

It follows reports the US company is preparing a deal to buy Alstom’s power turbines business.

Alstom, which also makes TGV high-speed trains, is one of France’s biggest private sector employers.

Alstom is one of France’s biggest private-sector employers, with 18,000 staff across the country.

Its share price jumped by 11% on Thursday after reports of the interest from GE, but the firm said on Sunday night that its shares would remain suspended from trading on the Paris stock exchange until Wednesday.

The French firm has suffered from heavy debts and a fall in orders over the past decade, and was bailed out by the French government in 2004.

So, a struggling private French firm looks to be taken over by a more successful foreign one, and the French government sees fit to stick its beak in.  But to what end?

France’s economy minister has already said the government would block any deal it sees as unfit.

“We are working to improve the offers to make sure that French companies…do not become prey,” said Arnaud Montebourg, before Monday’s meeting.

Erm, fella.  Alstom already is prey: it’s struggling, and ripe for a takeover.  What you mean is “we want to make sure any potential buyer doesn’t make any changes that we don’t like.” Such as make the necessary changes to turn the company around.

“On the other hand we are open to alliances that help to equip us for globalisation.”

Right, but is GE interested in such “alliances”?  I suspect not; my gut feeling is they intend to buy Alstom and manage it however they see fit with the aim of turning a profit, and are not much interested in helping equip Frenchman for globalisation, whatever that means.

But Mr Montebourg has ruled out nationalising the firm if neither the Siemens nor GE offers go through.

No, you just want to interfere and veto any proposal you don’t like in the vain hope that a competitive and successful foreign company will plough capital into a politically sensitive French company without making any changes which will upset the management and workers.

Obviously Mr Montebourg hasn’t learned much from his previous experience of dealing with potential American buyers of French companies:

The head of US tyre manufacturer Titan International told the French government Wednesday that his firm will not take over a loss-making Goodyear factory because the unions there are “crazy” and its employees “only work three hours a day”.

“How stupid do you think we are?” Titan Chief Executive Maurice Taylor asked French Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg

“I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works for three hours.

“They get one hour for breaks and lunch, they talk for three and they work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that’s the French way!”

Taylor was responding to a proposition by Montebourg to see if Titan, which makes tyres for agricultural vehicles, wanted to invest in the plant in Amiens, northern France.

Titan had approached Goodyear Dunlop Tyres France in 2012 to discuss a possible takeover, but negotiations were blocked by the Communist-backed CGT union.

Montebourg’s appeal to Taylor was a last-ditch attempt to woo Titan back and save the plant and its employees after Goodyear announced at the end of January that it was definitively closing the plant – which employs 1,173 workers – following a long struggle with the unions.

Poor sales at the plant resulted in a loss of 61 million euros in 2011, according to company figures.

Taylor warned Montebourg that despite his tougher stance toward EU trade protection, the French manufacturing sector was doomed if the government did not face up to the realities of Asian competition and deal more effectively with troublesome unions.

And sure enough, the Goodyear plant in Amiens is now on course for closure this year.  One would have thought that Mr Montebourg would this time around be standing well clear and allowing a foreign company to take over Alstom, but his meddling is likely to scare off any suitors.

Which is a shame, because the French make for extremely good engineers and technicians and there is probably an enormous residual value in Alstom in the form of personnel, products, and patents which GE could put to use without destroying the company or its presence in France completely (which is presumably why they wanted to buy it in the first place).  But should the actions of the French government and the unions prevent such a takeover, it increases the likelihood that the company will cease to exist altogether within a decade, as we’ve seen with the Goodyear factory.  And how does that help anyone in the long term?

Posted in Business, France, Politics | 7 Comments

Crimea’s Water

Assuming the BBC hasn’t made a hash of it by making its usual basic factual errors, this is a fairly interesting article:

Russian officials say a water shortage in Crimea is threatening to become acute as Ukraine has reduced the supply via a key canal.

The North Crimea Canal delivers water to Crimea from the River Dnieper, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. The canal accounts for 80% of Crimea’s water.

_74442504_crimea_water_supply_624map2One or two of my regular readers had mentioned Crimea’s water supply as being critical earlier, and I’m surprised it’s not being talked about more.  I’m also surprised that Ukraine hasn’t cut the supply off altogether, or at least threatened to:

The canal authorities in Ukraine say Crimea has accumulated a huge debt for water supplied last year. The dispute is aggravated by the breakdown in relations between Kiev and Moscow.

Perhaps the government in Kiev are using this as leverage to prevent the Russians cutting off the gas supplies, as they are threatening to do?  Turn off the gas, and the Crimea goes thirsty.  In this regard, Ukraine has the seasons on its side:

Crimea’s harvest of grapes, rice, maize and soya will be ruined if it does not get more water soon, officials say.

The current water shortage is threatening 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres) of Crimea’s crops, which rely on irrigation, Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fedorov said.

A ruined harvest across that area would mean losses of up to 5bn roubles (£83m; $140m), he told the Gazeta.ru news website.

Although I have an inkling that the long-term prospects of Crimea’s farmers are not going to be that rosy anyway: their main local market will soon be harder to reach:

Russia says the Crimea-Ukraine border is now officially a state border.

The Russian government plans to establish permanent checkpoints there, as well as new rules for entering or leaving Crimea, Ria Novosti news agency reports.

With all the inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption that accompanies a Russian-controlled border anywhere, this cannot be good for those who previously would have driven their produce straight to Kiev overnight.  It has now become a lot harder to reach a major population centre, of which there are none in the Crimea itself.

Of course, I think there are valid reasons why Ukraine didn’t retaliate by switching off the water to the Crimea.  It might well have been used by Putin as an excuse for a full-scale invasion, or to switch the gas off.  But more a more likely explanation is that the government in Kiev is incapable of making bold decisions and/or doesn’t want to be seen by the west to be deliberately inflicting hardship on a civilian population, some of which still consider themselves Ukrainian.  Or if they’re really smart, they’ll realise that a gradual lack of funding and effort in maintaining and operating the canal system to the Crimea will put the squeeze on the Russians anyway:

A BBC reporter in Crimea recently said the water supply was one of the chief concerns of local people, ahead of the controversial March referendum on joining Russia.

To deal with the shortage, new wells could be dug or water could be brought in from Russia, but such options are expensive, officials warn.

Indeed.  As I said before, I think the annexation of Crimea could turn out to be a very expensive welfare project for Russia, with little tangible benefit.

But there’s a more important point to be made here.  I’ve always thought that Putin was a master at playing a strong hand very badly; his country could have been much richer and interacted more favourably with the rest of the world had he left his ego, and those of the electorate, at the door.  But on this occasion it’s actually the opposite: he’s played a weak hand very well, albeit against an opposition who is hapless (Obama) and compromised (Germany).  The problem is that he doesn’t realise his hand was weak, he probably thinks – along with most Russians – that he has pulled off a military coup which puts him up there with Napolean and Spartacus in the ranks of military geniuses.  Now how many military geniuses of yore would have annexed a peninsula whose water supply lies in the hands of the enemy?  Exactly.  I’d not be surprised if Putin and his army had no idea where Crimea’s water supply came from until the annexation was complete and the Crimean “leader” was banging at the Kremlin door asking for a few billion roubles worth of infrastructure.

But it’s the non-response from the west that is most dangerous, because it will have convinced Putin that his hand is much stronger than it is, that he actually is some kind of Machiavellian genius, and that the west will continue to grumble but otherwise do nothing.  In such circumstances the potential for a miscaculation is enormous, and should this whole situation escalate it will likely be because Putin crosses a line in eastern Ukraine that nobody told him was there.  Putin’s not a complete idiot, he just thinks he’s smarter than he is, but leaving him to judge for himself exactly how far he can go before the west is compelled to intervene is a very dangerous game indeed.  Both sides could end up dragged into a nasty confrontation over an incident which would never have taken place had the Russians known what the stakes were.  At the moment, the Russians don’t know the stakes, and we’re leaving them to guess.  This is stupidly and unnecessarily dangerous.

As a final thought, I’ll say on here what I said in the comments of another blog.  Incredible though it is to believe, the current crop of western politicians have – via Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and others – managed to make George W. Bush look like one of the finest statesmen of his generation.  This alone is quite some achievement.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Ukraine | 6 Comments

The BBC: Inventing new oil companies since 2014.

I knew that this BBC article would be bollocks as soon as I saw the headline: Halliburton reports $622m profits. The first thing you see is this picture:

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With the caption: Halliburton was one of the contractors involved in the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010″

And you know immediately that the point of this article is to say “evil, polluting American company makes enormous profits” and allow all the assorted lefties who think the BBC is a national treasure to nod smugly at this further proof that capitalists are raping the planet.

Naturally there is no mention in the article that the US Department of Justice closed its investigation into Halliburton’s role in the Macondo blowout over 18 months ago, imposing a fine of $200k for no more than the unauthorised deletion of a computer record.  Now personally I think this was a complete whitewash on the part of the US government protecting one of its own and dumping as much blame as possible on BP, but the BBC doesn’t say that either.  It just doesn’t mention anything, possibly in the hope that its readers will assume Halliburton continues to shoulder responsibility of some sort.

But the article doesn’t even get the basic facts straight:

US oil exploration firm Halliburton has reported better-than-expected first quarter profits, helped by robust drilling activity in Russia, Saudi Arabia and Angola.

Oil exploration firm?  Halliburton is an oilfield services provider, it does not carry out any exploration of its own, as a brief glance at its corporate website would tell you.  Secondly:

The world’s second-largest oil company said net income for the three months to the end of March was $622m (£370m).

God only knows where they got this from.  Aside from Halliburton not being an oil company, even if it were, with a market capitalisation of about $53bn it is an order of magnitude smaller than ExxonMobil ($436bn) or Chevron ($237bn). I’m not even sure it’s the world’s second largest anything, being as far as I know the world’s largest oilfield services provider.  But then this is the BBC, so who knows what they’re waffling on about?  Still, the narrative fits: polluting American oil company makes giant profits.

People are threatened with jail to pay for this shite.

Posted in Macondo, Media, Oil & Gas | 10 Comments

The Korean Ferry SInking

In the BBC’s report of the ongoing Korean ferry sinking, this line stood out (in the analysis, off to the side):

The speed with which it flipped over and sank is a major concern.

This is a well-known problem with car ferries.  In order to make them economical you need to have fairly open car decks without any watertight bulkheads dividing the decks into compartments as you would on any other type of vessel.  You want all your cars to be able to drive unhindered into what is effectively a large floating car park and then drive off the other end when the ferry reaches its destination.  The problem with this is that water sloshing about on an open deck makes a vessel extremely unstable.

Back in the late ’90s I found myself stuck at home in Pembroke with a computer but no internet (it wasn’t widespread in homes back then) and an assignment to write for my engineering degree on engineering risks.  I had very little material to base an essay on, but there was a stack of old New Scientist magazines of my sister’s lying about, and one of them (dated August 1990) had this article in (subscription required), which is introduced as follows:

The risks of ferry travel: Many car ferries are built with a fatal design flaw. If the vehicle decks flood, the ferries are likely to capsize rapidly.

The article said that an inch of water covering a car deck was enough to cause a ferry to capsize, due to the enormous momentum of the sloshing action.  An inch isn’t much when you have the sea pouring in.

This is why ferries tend to sink so quickly, with both the Herald of Free Enterprise (March 1987) and Estonia (September 1994) disasters being the two that I remember happening; the first because it involved a lot of Brits in what seemed to be a spate of home-grown disasters (the Kings Cross Fire in November 1987, Piper Alpha in July 1988, and the Marchioness in August 1989) and the second because of the harrowing accounts of the ship listing severely before disappearing into the freezing Baltic Sea.  I’ve since been on a ferry from Finland to Tallinn, and ending up in the water doesn’t bear thinking about.

The New Scientist article has stuck in my mind since, probably because I had to write an essay on it in the absence of any other source material.  I got a good mark by the way, mainly because I actually wrote a good essay, but the lecturer did remark that my basis was somewhat limited!  The other aspect of ferries mentioned in the article which contributed to their poor safety record – on some measures, ferry travel is the most dangerous in the world – was that the operators tend to get complacent.  You can imagine, doing the same, normally short, route day after day would breed complacency among the crew in terms of safety equipment inspections, evacuation drills, etc.  Also, a lot of ferries, especially in the developing world, are operating on a shoestring budget whose owners aren’t much interested in spending money on things like maintenance and inspections.  Add in poor training and experience of crew and you have, well, a recipe for disaster.

For all of these reasons, underpinned by the fatal design flaw described in New Scientist, I fear ferry disasters – like air crashes – will always be with us.

Posted in Engineering, Korea | 18 Comments