Since a cabinet reshuffle in August instigated by President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, France has had its most reform-minded government in 20 years. A new broom is doubtless a good thing – but is every break with past practice deserving of applause?

Take Fleur Pellerin, who was appointed culture minister in August. She revealed this week that she hadn’t read a book in two years. This is like a British health minister saying he or she can’t be bothered to visit a National Health Service hospital, or a Russian defence minister saying he has no interest in tanks and guided missiles. Read more

Hugh Carnegy in Paris

France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament on Wednesday, has never faced a greater terrorist threat than that posed by homegrown jihadis who have fought alongside Islamist militants in Syria and IraqRead more

Like anyone familiar with the French definition of budgetary discipline, I didn’t spill my coffee in shock on Wednesday morning when Michel Sapin, finance minister, disclosed that France wouldn’t bring its public finances in line with EU-set targets until 2017 – two years later than previously agreed.

From the day of the euro’s launch in January 1999, it’s never been any different in Paris. No grande nation worth its salt would balance its budget on the orders of some bumptious bureaucratic bean-counter in Brussels. Read more

For the past twenty years, I’ve spent every summer in the same village in South-West France. It is a beautiful place which would be a candidate to be a World Heritage Site in many other countries – but is just another rural village in France. The village (which I won’t name, to avoid embarrassing anyone) has also always seemed blessedly immune to the world’s troubles. You could sit in the local cafe and read all about the problems in the wider economy, or political turmoil in Paris - but it all seemed rather abstract, and a long way away.

This year, however, the mood had changed. The economic, social and political problems afflicting the country seemed all too real – even in la France profonde. Read more

It’s the fashion these days for outsiders to lecture France as if it’s a talented but obstinate schoolboy failing his grades. The idea seems to be that the more you tell the French off, the faster they’ll pull their socks up. This approach is wrong. We should, instead, smother France with love.

Like anyone, the French like to hear from time to time that they are clever, beautiful, funny, kind and successful. But for the past 10 years or so, the outside world has spoken fewer nice words about France than about any developed country.

It’s reached ridiculous proportions. Anyone would think, from all these foreign sermons, that French civilisation was falling apart. This is hardly the way to get the best out of any nation, not just the French. We need to stop finding fault and start smothering France with love. Read more

François Hollande has had to get used to dismal opinion polls, but the latest one is about as bad as it gets for France’s struggling Socialist president.

A survey by OpinionWay for Le Figaro published on Tuesday evening shows Mr Hollande would be easily knocked out of the presidential race by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, if a re-run of the May 2012 election were held today.

Then, Mr Hollande beat both incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen in the first round of the election and went on to oust his centre-right rival from the Elysée Palace in the decisive second round. Two years later, after an often chaotic presidency marked by big tax increases, rising unemployment and faltering growth, Mr Hollande would muster a mere 19 per cent of first round votes, according to the poll. Read more

There was good news for Europe’s farmers this week after a survey of EU citizens showed strong public support for the much criticised common agricultural policy. French farmers, who rely on EU subsidies for about half their income, will be especially glad to hear that Europeans polled by the latest Euro Barometer survey place an increasing importance on the challenges of developing agriculture while preserving the environment .

The French certainly believe the farmer is crucial to safeguarding the countryside as well as producing their food as the recent Salon de l’Agriculture showed. One of the world’s largest food and farm shows, it is held every year close to heart of Paris and this year drew a record 703,000 visitors.

People come here to revel in the best of the French terroir – the people, the food and the drink that make up rural France. The Salon is a mandatory stop for any politician with ambition, and this year everyone from President Francois Hollande to hopefuls in the race for Paris mayor made an appearance. Read more

By Richard McGregor

US President Barack Obama speaks during a joint press conference with French President François Hollande in the East Room of the White House on February 11 2014It has long been an article of faith that the so-called Anglosphere countries, the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, don’t spy on each other.

The ‘Five Eyes’, as they are known, came together as an intelligence alliance after the second world war, initially bringing together the US and the UK, before they were quickly joined by the other countries. Read more

When President Francois Hollande steps up to the podium in the splendid Elysee Palace at 16.30 Paris time, 15.30 GMT on Tuesday for the third formal press conference of his 20-month old presidency, the first question on everyone’s lips is likely to be about the revelations of his apparent affair with a film actress.

How he deals with this embarrassing issue –Valerie Trierweiler, his partner and France’s first lady, remains in hospital recovering from the shock – will inevitably overshadow an event originally intended to concentrate on the economy.

But the financial markets, business leaders and France’s European partners will nonetheless be watching most closely what Mr Hollande has to say about his New Year resolution to inject some much-needed vitality into the French recovery, which is lagging behind those of the country’s biggest neighbours. Read more

By Luisa Frey

Back-channel conversations between the US and Iran paved way for the historic nuclear agreement and broke 34 years of hostility, writes the FT’s Geoff Dyer. Read more

France's Benzema celebrates after scoring the second goal for the team during their World Cup qualifying playoff match against Ukraine at the Stade de France Reuters

If any country is in need of a morale booster, it is surely France. President Hollande’s popularity ratings are in the low 20s. The economy is shrinking. The country’s credit-rating has just been downgraded again. The far-right is on the rise. And a crazed gunman is on the loose in Paris. But amid all this gloom, something good has happened. And the positive news has come from an unlikely source, the national football team. Last night “les Bleus” overcame the odds and notched up the 3-0 victory they needed to defeat Ukraine and get to the World Cup in Brazil. Even the high-brow “Le Monde” had the footballing triumph as its banner headline, this morning. Read more

♦ Gillian Tett speaks to Alan Greenspan and finds he is prepared to admit that he got it wrong – at least in part.
♦ The White House glitches have gone further than Obamacare, as the administration has been continuously caught off guard by recent crises from Syria to spying, says Edward Luce. And the president gives few signs of having found a learning curve.
♦ France’s central bank governor, Christian Noyer, says Europe’s financial transaction tax poses an “enormous risk” to the countries involved.
♦ Spain’s mini gold rush in the country’s north is part of a broader movement by foreign investors seeking to turn Spain’s woes to their advantage. It also shows some of the difficulties of investing despite a more positive outlook.
♦ Ikea has sent self-assembly huts to Ethiopia to house Somali refugees – and they could soon be used as alternatives to tents elsewhere.
♦ Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, looks at the history of top-down capitalism and wonders whether China can sustain its astounding growth.
♦ The art world may be marvelling at China’s booming market, but many transactions have not actually been completed and the market is flooded with forgeriesRead more

Where does President François Hollande go from here?
In this edition of World Weekly, Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief and Ben Hall, world news editor and former Paris correspondent, to focus on France, where President François Hollande’s approval ratings have dropped to a sorry 23%. The President’s plummeting popularity comes against the background of a weak economy and controversy over the deportation of a Roma schoolgirl. So where does Hollande go from here, and should we be worried by the momentum building behind the National Front ahead of the municipal and European elections next spring?

By Catherine Contiguglia

♦ Civil activism in China is becoming a force the Chinese government can no longer ignore as activists increasingly unite to rally with broader demands, largely through the growing platform of social media.
♦ Following the initial applause for getting Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table for the first time in four years, US secretary of state John Kerry is facing deep scepticism about the two-day talks in Washington D.C.
♦ Borzou Daragahi argues that in the wake of Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in Egypt, Islamists should investigate their own role in contributing to the tensions in the years leading up to the coup.
Alexei Navalny is hitting the streets “western-style” to revamp his mayoral campaign in Moscow six weeks before the vote.
♦ France’s culture minister Aurélie Filippetti has survived a tough first year in office, representing her party by bringing “extravagant” French culture to the level of the people, while still fighting for France’s “cultural exception.”  Read more

Can President Hollande turn things around?

This week the French government announced a multi-billion euro programme of investment, designed to boost the economy and President Hollande’s flagging poll ratings. In this podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief and Ben Hall, former Paris correspondent, to discuss a turbulent few weeks in which Mr Hollande has had to fire a cabinet member for dissent, the French government has clashed repeatedly with the European Commission in Brussels and Nicolas Sarkozy has made a flamboyant re-entry into French politics.

♦ The BBC visits two Goodyear-owned tyre factories in Amiens, north France, to look at how the country is getting to grips with labour reform.
♦ The nuclear stand-off with Iran can be resolved now that Hassan Rohani has been elected, writes Ayatollah Seyed Salman Safavi.
♦ Thousands of mainland Chinese have permanent residency in The Gambia – as the fastest and cheapest way for a Chinese citizen to gain right of residency in Hong Kong is to first gain permanent residency in mainland Africa’s smallest country.
♦ For the first time in human history, overweight people outnumber the underfed, and obesity is widespread in wealthy and poor nations alike.
♦ The US scrambles to save Taliban talks after an Afghan backlash. Also, take a look at the Taliban’s new Doha office.
♦ With protests continuing in Brazil, it’s a good time to take a read through our São Paulo correspondent’s feature on BBQ activists. Read more

Qusair, in Homs Province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.

What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand. Read more

♦ All change in Europe? French labour market reforms start to bear fruit, with signs of movement in industrial relations and eurozone austerity might be on its way out.
♦ India’s economy grew at the slowest rate in a decadehampered by electricity shortages and poor infrastructure.
♦ Mexico’s highest-grossing film is still filling multiplexes 10 weeks after its release. The NYT looks at whether audiences just want to see rich people humiliated, or whether they are actually looking for a form of middle class catharsis.
♦ Neal Ascherson reports on the state of German politics: “They are pissed off with Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, but reluctant to let go of Mutti’s hand. In short, the public are in one of those sullen, unreasonable moods which make politicians despair.
♦ Ethnic strife in Xinjiang, northeast China, is worsening with the growth of immigrant-dominated settlements – Uighurs are resentful of such powerful entities dominating the region and employing so few of their own ethnic group.
♦ And here’s something to chew on this weekend. When you’re having your morning pastry spare a thought for New Yorkers who have been lining up at 6am, or paying as much as $40, for a delectable new pastry – the cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid. It seems the bakery has a scaling problem, which is driving cronut-craving customers to the black market. Read more

By Aaron Hagstrom

♦ An isolated village in northeast China has adopted an “eldercare” model, in which the old look after the even older.
Richard Beeston, the courageous Times correspondent who covered the 1991 Kurdish massacres in Halabja, has died of cancer at 50.
Pakistan’s “crumbling” railways have become an emblem of a troubled past.
Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid has returned to the limelight, in the wake of his unpopular austerity budget.
French chefs are turning from fresh to frozen ingredients, in the face of rising costs.
Researchers have shown the invention of the “humble” shipping container in 1956 explains a 790% rise in bilateral trade over 20 years.
Greece shows rising fertility rates, despite rising unemployment.
In the highest level of US-China military talks held for nearly two years, cybersecurity was the focus.

 Read more

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty)

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty)

About ten years ago I visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux. Paul Pontallier, the chief winemaker there, told me that prices for the most sought-after red Bordeauxs had already reached such stratospheric levels that it had become almost embarrassing. “My friends can’t afford to buy Margaux,” he lamented. Since then, it’s got even worse. Now it seems that even the president of France cannot afford to drink the top clarets. The Elysée has just announced that it will sell off about 10% of the presidential wine collection – and restock the cellars with cheaper wines.

It is an understandable decision. I don’t know if there will be any Margaux sold at auction, but I see that a bottle of Margaux 2000 now goes for about £700 (€825). The auction will also apparently include some Petrus 1990, which the FT this morning reckoned would go for €2,200 a bottle. (Actually my research suggests that would be a bargain and that the market price is now closer to €3,000).

But it is important that the restocking exercise should be carried out carefully. That is because a stellar cellar can be a genuine diplomatic asset. There are diplomats who attribute Britain’s success, in persuading France to make the fatal decision to reverse its opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community (now the EU), back in the 1970s, to the magnificence of the wines that Sir Christopher Soames – the then British ambassador to Paris – poured down the throats of key French decision-makers. Read more