AAPA meeting with the Hungarian Ambassador in France, H. E. Georges de Habsburg-Lorraine

The ambassador commented off the record on a number of timely topics, including Hungary’s stance on the war in Ukraine; the Ukrainian refugees in Hungary; Hungary’s strong anti-immigration policies; energy issues; Sweden’s entry into NATO; and Hungary’s relationship to the European Union

Who will rebuild Ukraine?

In a two-hour, on-the-record meeting at Bloomberg on May 26, France's Odile Renaud-Basso, the first female head of the London-based Bank for Reconstruction and Development, provided a detailed inside view of plans for rebuilding war-torn Ukraine once the war ends. While current spending on rebuilding heavily-damaged infrastructure stands at some 3 billion dollars annually, she confirmed that some 411 billion dollars, at least, will be required to rebuild the entire economy, with the participation of other governmental bodies such as the World Bank and private companies.

Declaring “unwavering” support from the EBRD's 71 member states, including the US, she said that one of the major goals is preparing Ukraine for EU membership, which will take years. This extends to ensuring “good governance”, meaning, among other things, implementing enforceable anti-corruption policies.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes talks among Western nations are continuing, she said, regarding suggestions that Russia be made to help pay for reconstruction by tapping its billion-dollar reserves currently frozen in Western banks. That thorny issue will be discussed at a major international conference on Ukraine rebuilding, which the EBRD will attend, to be held in London June 21-22.

- Axel Kraus

The Paris Opera’s General Director Alexandre Neef talks performances, budgets…and the Chagall ceiling

Paris Opera General Director Alexander Neef has clear ideas about all issues affecting opera, ballet and the arts in general, except for one: artificial intelligence. Like much of the world, he is in “awe and terror” of it, he told 16 members of the AAPA at an on-the-record meeting in Palais Garnier May 4.
Neef’s biggest challenge since arriving at the three years ago of the National Opera de Paris National three years ago, he said, has been "getting out of Covid." He was referring to the numerous efforts to re-open theaters safely, only to have to close them again between March 2020 and September 2021, when both the Palais Garnier and Opera Bastille were once again fully operational.
Now, Neef and his team are dealing with the changing post-Covid economic model for the two houses in its domain. Government subsidies are one example. In 2008, when Neef was casting director in Paris, government support represented 65% of budget. Today, they represent only 40% of the annual €240 million at his disposal. The rest comes from ticket sales (of which there were none during Covid closures) and various marketing and sales efforts. Added to budget concerns is pressure from inflation. Energy costs alone consume some €30 million a year.
Pension reform upheavals in France have had no impact on the company. It has its own separate retirement regime. Dancers, for example, retire at 42. Many don't make it that far. “It is very, very rare for a dancer aged 40 to 42 to be able to do a 3-act ballet,” said Neef. Moreover, the pace is more hectic than that of any regional opera house in France, with an annual 180 performances each of opera and ballet in the Bastille and Garnier houses.
Audiences have returned in force since the middle of last year. American and other tourists play an important part of that, accounting for some 20% of the seats sold. The average age of Paris audiences is 45, compared to an average of 56 for Europe as a whole. This, said Neef, is probably due to the tourists, the presence of several universities in the French capital, and the fact that the Paris Opera is an “anchor” in the community.
He stressed the new season’s “panorama” of operas and ballets, ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde, noting it is just as important for artists to want to perform in cutting-edge productions as it is for audiences to want to watch them. The star system, however, has had its day. "Gone is the time when tickets for stars like Luciano Pavarotti would sell out in minutes," said Neef. Star salaries are no longer as high. The top end of the scale at the Paris Opera is €16,000 per performance, "and that hasn't changed in the past ten years," said Neef.
Pragmatism is a key for him, as is the need to show that "the door is open,” and to help new opera-goers come in. But the success of summer music festivals could be a threat in the long run if they lead to the collapse of regional houses as these develop the talent on which Paris can draw eventually.
Social media puts cultural institutions in direct contact with the public, enabling them to bypass the press, but the disadvantages, Neel opines, are fake news and “everyone considering themselves to be a critic.”
Asked about so-called cancel culture, he said Rigoletto is now seen as a metoo# opera. "No change to the original version is needed," he said. "The message was already there, —abuse of power — so it was just a question of 'reading' it." The same reasoning applies to other classics, he added.
Turning to Russian performers and the war in Ukraine, Neef said it was a case-by-case issue and noted that a Ukrainian performer in Paris turned down his offer to display a Ukrainian flag on stage in Paris when the war broke out, for fear of endangering their family in Ukraine.
Neef appeared perplexed by the demand of the heirs of Jules-Eugène Lenepveu (painter of the original ceiling of the Palais Garnier grande salle) to remove Marc Chagall’s huge floating ceiling in order to reveal Lenepveu's work, hidden since Chagall’s painting was unveiled in 1964. We would need to build a museum to house it, Neef said. “I don’t think it will come down any time soon.”

General Jean-Paul Palomeros: Will Ukraine have the manpower to win the war?

Ukraine may have the will, but it may not have the men — or the munitions — to win the war, France’s former Air Force chief of staff, retired General Jean-Palomeros says.

“I’m not sure that the Ukrainians have the human potential in the long term to sustain this war,” Palomeros told AAPA journalists Wednesday (March 14) at a press conference hosted by Bloomberg.

It was not a prediction, added Palomeros, but his sense as a veteran military commander, which includes time he served as a supreme allied commander for NATO.

“They say they have a large reserve, but this war has taken a heavy toll,” he added of the Ukrainians.

Palomeros’ remarks covered France’s military intervention in the Sahel — where it had lost the “the battle of information” to Russia’s private military group Wagner — to President Emmanuel Macron’s push for a stronger, more autonomous European military, to China’s growing influence.

Much of the discussion zeroed in on the war in Ukraine, where Palomeros suggested Russia was clueless about how to run an air campaign “I don’t call it targeting, it’s mass murder,” he said. For their part, the Ukrainians lacked aircraft and trained and experienced pilots, he added.

Palomeros also addressed the complications of sending fighter planes to Ukraine — building an airforce, Palomeros said, demanded far more than delivering aircraft.

On Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin might be tempted to open a military front, but it would be too much for him right now.

A big question was how far and long NATO allies are willing and able to support Ukraine. “I can’t see the Russians overthrown and disbanding,” he said, describing Putin’s “quite successful” information campaign in Russia.

For his part, President Volodymyr Zelensky faces a big challenge in trying to claw back Ukrainian territory and save as many Ukrainian lives as possible.

“It is a terrible responsibility,” Palomeros added of Zelensky. “And at some stage he will have to make up his mind about when and where it’s too much.”

French health minister François Braun: many health care systems are faltering

French health minister François Braun: many health care systems are faltering

Public health care systems are faltering in many parts of the world, especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19, Health and Prevention Minister François Braun told the AAPA on February 21.

Meeting more than 20 members—some at the ministry and others on Zoom—he said the problems varied from country to country, but all in developed countries the systems were built after the Second World War on the basis of availability of health care rather than needs. This has to change, he said.

France’s plan to overhaul its system includes an end to competition between the public and private sectors. Instead, it will be based on collaboration among practitioners. The system will remain national, but be adapted to regional and local conditions. North Marseilles’ solution to the “medical desert” problem was for the University Hospital to create a practice of salaried GPs.

France now admits 11,000 students to medical school a year, instead of 3,000 to 3,500 in the 1990’s. Braun dismissed the claim that doctors are underpaid. Doctors in Switzerland are often said to be paid more than in France. But according to the OECD, they earn 3 times the average national salary in both cases.

The government is committed to abolishing the fee-per-act in public hospitals. Many young people want to become nurses, but some 20% drop out because of poor pay and training that is no longer relevant to their work. He stressed the importance of primary care, doctors’ wish to work in group medical practices and the spreading culture of prevention in France. This includes sport, vaccinations and healthy eating.

Braun acknowledged that any reform needs more explanation in France than in other countries, if the population is to accept it. He is waiting for opinions from two official bodies before recommending whether to allow the “few thousand” unvaccinated health care workers to go back to work

Winter is coming

On November 16, the Anglo American Press Association had a meeting with energy specialist Dr. Thierry Bros in a Zoom session attended by a dozen or so members.

Bros, a professor at Sciences Po Paris, has 30 years’ experience in energy and climate, from the policy side to trading floors.

He gave us a layout of the energy situation across Europe as we head into this crucial winter. Of the industries temporarily shutting their doors because of high energy prices, Bros said, “Quite a few of these industries will never reopen in Europe. It makes no sense to have all those extremely energy intensive industries in Europe when we’re never going to get enough energy anyway.”

Bros said many European industries would be attracted to the US, with its plentiful and cheap energy supplies.

A possible upside to all of this is that European policymakers may manage to decouple the price of electricity from gas, which would bring the price down significantly. Electricity is traditionally indexed to the price of gas because it is the most volatile energy element.

Bros helped us to understand the complicated energy situation and markets, and what to be on the lookout for in the coming months

Discovering a Renovated Parisian Treasure

The newly restored BnF Richelieu is more than a library. It’s a repository -- described as “a vast archipelago of spaces” – for art history and culture, containing manuscripts, prints and photography, coins, medals and antiques. The AAPA met with Laurence Engel, the library’s director, on November 24 and toured these historical rooms and their priceless collections: the scores of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata in the composers’ own hands, Dagobert’s folding throne, and an astonishingly bad 19th-century copy of the famous 17th century full-length portrait of Louis XIV, showing off the Sun King’s well-formed legs. Two hours were not enough to visit the library’s collection and savor the rooms themselves, such as the Mazarin Gallery, the Mansard Gallery, the Oval Room, and the Louis XV Salon, with decorations painted by Romanelli, Boucher, Van Loo and Natoire.

Climate Change Targets in Jeopardy, says IEA

The AAPA met with IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol at the organization’s headquarters (and by Zoom) on November 23 to discuss the current acute energy crisis. Dr Birol said that, in his opinion, because of the invasion of Ukraine, “Russia has lost its EU clients for good.” He also said that without cutting the use of coal, oil and gas, the world will fall well short of its climate targets. But it is energy security, he thinks, that will be the main concern in the near term as Western Europe scrambles to replace Russian energy and the rest of the world copes with escalating energy prices.

OECD Outlook: Bad Times Ahead

“If you think energy prices are bad now, winter will be worse,” Alvaro Pereira, acting Chief Economist for the OECD told us by Zoom on November 21, the day before the Paris-based agency released its annual economic outlook. Pereira said the confluence of the war in Ukraine, Covid supply chain disruptions, and resulting inflation have created the worst energy shock since the 1970s. The crisis isn’t limited to energy, he added: there are likely to be shortages of food, labor, and lower wages in the coming year. Coupled with an increasing indebtedness -- particularly in developing countries – this already tense situation, he admitted, could lead to political unrest. While the OECD outlook for 2023 was less than optimistic, Pereira predicted some improvement in 2024 as these negative factors begin to ease

The World According to Plantu

Members of the AAPA met with the editorial cartoonist Jean Plantu, whose political cartoons have illustrated the pages of Le Monde newspaper for the last fifty years, at the Maison des Photographes in Paris.

Himself accompanied by a security agent, Plantu discussed the threats to the freedom of expression faced by cartoonists, not only from authoritarian regimes or religious fanatics, but also within our own Western "liberal" societies.
The art of caricature and humoristic expression has become increasingly difficult, he opined, with the advent of social media where the diffusion of drawings is no longer constrained by national or language barriers.

He confirmed the adage expressed by French comic, Pierre Desproges: "We can laugh at everything, but not with everyone."

Following the controversy surrounding the publication of caricatures of Muhammad by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Plantu co-founded in 2006, with Kofi Annan, Cartooning for Peace, a world-wide organization that promotes freedom of expression and dialogue between diverse cultures.