Wondering about Société Générale

I’ve been banking at SG for over 30 years and unlike many of the commentors I’ve been reading on various sites, I don’t have much to complain about. But then, I deal with my friendly, local branch where they offer me a café whenever I come in to talk serious business (which admittedly, is quite close to never. But it’s happened a few times.).

But like everybody else on the planet, I don’t really believe what we’re hearing about the Jérôme Kerviel/Société Générale affair. At a primary level, there is sufficient bullshit in the way the French conduct business normally, that suspicion is a reasonable response to anything. I realize that this sounds trite, that people everywhere are suspicious of everyone who operate in the Halls of Power, but, hey, France has elites like no other, and as any mother knows, elites will be elites. It will be fun to see how this all plays out in the coming weeks.

One of the things I’m curious about is: if I understand correctly, JKerviel’s trading position was positive or close to it, up to the weekend before when things hit the fan.

The losses occurred subsequently, on the first 3 days of the week of january 21-5, when SG’s boss, Daniel Bouton panicked and unwound the position into (malheur!) the worst three market days of the last several years. It was this panic sale that concretized the huge losses.

I imagine this selling was motivated by the moral values (corporate responsibility, dread, shame, etcetc) of SGs top management. Because this is France, transparency was never an option. Resolution had to happen secretly. But did it have to happen under the sign of total panic?

Conversely, what would have happened if the markets were going up those three days instead of tanking? The shame would have been the same. The elitist secrecy also. So, would we have ever learned about the ‘scandal’ of a rogue trader being responsable for 20 billion euros of illicit gains by the SG? I guess we would have, the day that SG announced record earnings for a bank of over 20 billion.

Echo of False Friends

It has just occurred to me that the word ‘start-up’, as it refers to a couple of geeks in a garage with an idea, so iconic of the froth years of the internet, creator of such success and so many failures, is such a powerful myth in France.

Here in France, it has become the word used to fill the unfortunate void created when the word ‘entrepreneur’, which was coined right here many years ago, was quickly abandoned by frenchpersonnes because of its irrelevance to anything that could ever actually happen under the French economic rulebook.

What fascinates about all this is that although frenchpersonnes talk, rather wistfully, about ‘start-ups’ all the time, most of them are actually thinking to themselves, ‘up-starts’.

So they got the syllables right but just reversed them. Faux amis, indeed.

Less and Less Service in the Land of No Service

In the months that have intervened since I wrote about the horrors of getting ADSL in France, the stories just keep coming.

M., a Brit expat lost all his phone service for 4 months when he signed up (on my advice…shudder) to Free, the second largest broadband provider in France. For the first few weeks he kept calling Free who said it was the fault of France Telecom, then calling France Telecom who explained that it was most certainly the fault of Free. These infructuous ‘support’ calls cost 96€.

After a few weeks of such merde de taureau, one learns to live without a telephone because the alternatives are all serious felonies, even here in France. Rest of story: several months later, M. happened to walk by a France Telecom sales office, which are generally located in lovely historic districts of midieval cities, right next to the MacDonalds. He thought, ‘What the hell’, walked in, exposed his tale of woe to a friendly salepersonne, who called up a webpage, grumbled ‘hmmm’, clicked a box, and then said to my friend, ‘Hmmm. Go home, see if your line works now’. And it did.

Another M. American this time, had her Freebox (Free’s ADSL modem that is supplied Free with each subscription), burn out during a lightening storm. A 3€ call to Free’s hotline helped determine that the modem was indeed fried and that Free would send out a replacement right away, but it would cost 190€. Rather shameful considering that Freeboxes can be bought at any openmarket in Taiwan for about 6¢/piece, but hey, that’s global capitalism for you. M. said ‘Send it on’. She also called me.

I went by a few days later with a spare Netgear modem that we have for cases such as these, tried it on M.’s line and it worked (I am skipping a few steps here for brevity). I suggested that she would be better off keeping the Netgear and that she tell Free to shove it. It was already 10 days since Free had promised a Freebox right away.

The subsequent multi-€ call to Free support revealed one of the least surprising surprises that can occur in daily french life: Free hadn’t any record of an [tag]ADSL[/tag] modem for M. If I hadn’t showed up with the Netgear, M. would still be waiting. To their credit, the first Free support personne put M. on hold while he ‘did research’. After about 4€ of phone time he came back online, confirming that no one anywhere in their support centers in India, Morocco, Poland, or Paris had a trace of a request for a new modem. Then asked rather politely, “Is there anythng else I can do for you today?”

If [tag]customer service in France[/tag] only sucked in the ADSL sector, it would be petty to criticize such an old venerable culture with great health care and really inexpensive wine. After all, we all choose to come here as a lifestyle choice (except me, I was kidnapped and woke up in a vineyard at dawn in December), so we have to assume the consequences.

But there’s more to the story of customer service. Stay tuned.

Two Views of the French Presidential Elections

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On Being a Service Provider in the Land of No Service

or, why getting ADSL in France really sucks…

(follow up to 5 Days Without and my ISP FAQs)

The French media is abuzz today with news that customer complaints against French broadband providers are up over 50% year-on-year for the 2nd year in a row.

In a land where there are 400 different words for cheese but none for customer satisfaction it is not surprising that French customer service has the reputation of being the worst in this quadrant of the galaxy. And, if there is any one industry segment in France that has worse customer service than all the others, it is arguably the broadband supply sector.

So we are talking really really bad. Which looks like this:

The French consumer, who until recently lagged behind the rest of the so-called Modern World in terms of Internet uptake, has finally discovered the benefits of Internet, ADSL and illegal downloads, and is rushing to a) buy computers and b) hook them into the network. To spite the ex-telco monopoly, France Telecom, (“Serving France badly for over 200 years“), the French are using their new-found consumer empowerment to choose new broadband companies such as Free, Cegetel, Alice, etcetc. to supply high-speed internet. (That many of these new companies are ex-monopolies from other European countries or Old France is an unworthy detail.)

Once a frenchpersonne decides to go for it, there are 2 ways to approach getting an ADSL connection. According to where one lives, one can either choose to keep one’s good old FT line and piggy-back third-party ADSL onto it (called adsl non-dégroupé), or, heh heh, one can renounce FT altogether, and have the ADSL supplier furnish a techno-enchilada — voice services, TV, and broadband (called dégroupé).

Whichever ADSL is chosen, it is always an FT technician (FT still owns the copper wires) who takes the consumer’s phone wires at the central station and plugs them into either blackbox A for non-dégroupé customers or blackbox B for dégroupé customers. Afterwards, the technician certifies the information to the ADSL supplier, who immediately starts debiting the client’s bank account for 30€/month.

This is when the complaints generally start. A huge proportion of new ADSL subscriber lines simply don’t work from the get-go, even though the customer is told that they do. To add insult to injury, many of these unfortunate victims lose their voice line in the process (which was working perfectly up til then, thank you very much).

All one can do then, is call the provider’s support line. You use a friend’s phone of course, because you don’t have a phone line anymore. You should be prepared to beg, plead, and whimper. This costs you up to 1€/minute for the call. You are put on hold for 10 minutes. You are told that you should call back another time because all the support staff has gone home for the day. Or, if there is anyone left to talk to you, you are told that a) it’s all some dumb-technician-who-works-for-another-company’s fault and you need to call France Telecom. Or, you are told that your line checks out perfectly.

You are asked if there is anything else that you wanted to talk about. Numb, you answer “But, but, but..” but it’s into a dead phone line.

Since it’s your neighbor’s phone, you don’t bang it against the wall until it’s reduced to plastic shards. You owe your neighbor 12€ for the call. You are mortified. Apoplectic. You’ll have to do it all over again tomorrow.

Dante never saw Hell so darkly as this.

Explanations?

  1. Well, we are in a country where the very words ‘customer service’ generate severe migraines.
  2. Phone calls to tech support generate a sizeable proportion of a broadband provider’s revenue.
  3. Some people theorize that the FT technician mentioned earlier plugs a certain number of the new lines into a hitherto unidentified top secret device, call it Box C, which is really made of styrofoam painted to look like a hi-tech ADSL DSLAM and is connected to nowhere. FT and the third-party supplier, split the support line revenue.
  4. I don’t know.

My best advice

1. Don’t go with FT’s service, Orange. It is expensive and dull.

2. When choosing amongst the other contenders, never ever ever order ‘dégroupé’ (which means that you’re giving up your France Telecom phone line) straight away. Not because FT is good or warm or fuzzy (they’re not) but you’ll need the voice line to call tech support for the first few months while your ADSL doesn’t work.

3. As a corollary to ¶2, if you live in a part of rural France that has only just received ADSL service, you have probably been using RNIS or Numéris phone service (ISDN in english) for your internet. In your joy about finally having broadband possibility, DO NOT cancel your RNIS line at the same time that you order a new analog line to carry your ADSL. You will probably find yourself without telephone service for months or years.

Order the analog line with ADSL, then when it all works fine, cancel the RNIS.

4. I have recommended Free for many years, and it is true that their service, when it’s up and running, is the most technologically correct. But over the last year, I have noticed that new lines ordered through Free rarely work for the first few months. You spend 50, 100€ on tech support phone calls and all the while, they’re debiting you 29.99€/month. It can’t be allowed anymore. Choose someone else.

The Lines Are Drawn

It was the comments that blew me away in a recent Charles Bremer blog post.

One says:

France is a great place to live if you are white and have a job. Non white and jobless, it’s probably as enlightened and as much fun as Alabama in the 1950s.

or

Today France is synonymous with an aging polity embedded in a very bureaucratic culture and structure. Its economy is stagnant and France has fallen behind in those areas where it used to lead the world – Wines, haute cuisine, haute couture, car design, and luxury goods generally.

In its foreign policy France is synonymous with a very narrow and self-interested approach to the development of the EU and even its “principled” stance on Iraq can be explained in terms of its economic interests in the region.

French people may like to think that they still lead the world and that others aspire to be like it. They may actually believe what they were taught in school (“Children learn at school that France is regarded by the world as “the home of human rights” and model for civilisation”) but no one I know outside France actually thinks of France in that way. It is seen as a very pleasant tourist destination and perhaps a good place to retire to, but no longer a leader in World terms.

Another replies:

In xenophobic France, one in four has a grandparent of foreign origin.
Racist France welcomes and gives citizenship to people of every race on earth.
Islamophobic France has the largest muslim community in Europe.
Anti-semitic France has the second largest jewish community in the world and has been governed by several jewish PM during the last century.
And so on…
But as usual War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.

In my humble opinion, there is truth in all of these affirmations. But where does one hang one’s hat??? If you don’t mind what happens to your hat, try here.

Climaticide

I have just learned a new word.

It rhymes with genocide, homicide, insecticide, fratricide, infanticide, matricide, regicide, or suicide.

I discovered this new word in a French newspaper article describing French carmakers Peugeot and Renault’s belated entry into the lucrative SUV gas-guzzler market. The word is how several environmental groups describe the inevitable effects of the carmakers’ initiative. Given the way Frenchpersonnes drive, other words ending in ‘icide’ might also apply.

But back to climaticide. It is an interesting word.

Now, who can tell me what it means?

Toulouse, We have a Problem

Airbus, the flower of pan-European industrial cooperation and, importantly, nearby Toulouse’s largest employer, is in major disarray. The results are pretty sad, definitely shocking: Airbus has gone from world #1 aircraft builder to industrial basket case in an amazingly short time. Layoff of 12000 workers in France, Germany, England and Spain is announced. Some heads are rolling, others are making the usual silly noises.

The problems, it seems, boil down to an innovative type of mismanagement over the years, whereby Airbus’ major players, European countries working together in apparent and noteworthy harmony, have actually been working together in petty old-European (read French vs. German) rivalries and these have kept Airbus from honestly and frankly confronting the challenges that any major global business confronts on a daily basis. (Disclaimer: I am not a major global business, but I’m pretty sure that they face challenges on a daily basis.)

Segolène Royal, socialist candidate for president, who did not mention ‘Industry’ or ‘Economic Development’ once in her 100-point platform for modernising France, has called for a moratorium (ie, cancellation) of the French layoffs.

It is Martin Malvy, though, President of our local Regional Council here in Midi-Pyrénées, and pure non-reconstructed socialist (and incidently, brother of my late companion’s first husband), who takes the prize for political silliness. He has just proposed that the various French regions should each take a stake in the capital of Airbus.

Putting this in perspective, the French central government (aka, the Republic) has long held the title for worst/sleaziest business management in the known universe. Bull, Credit Lyonnais, Air France, France Telecom, Total were, during their state-owned stints, but a few breathtaking examples of how badly a company can be run.

What Martin Malvy is grandly suggesting is, given the dire straits that Airbus is in, and the dismal private sector management record of the Republic, why not give the bickering, conflictual regional governing bodies, who have no experience managing an enterprise of this weight, a shot?

Embarrassing.

The Eternal Lightness of French Taxes

In an article in this morning’s Le Monde relating to a french rocker’s (Johnny Hallyday) defection from France to Switzerland for fiscal reasons, a new poll and analysis has been released. Among the notable factiods contained therein:

  • 29% of the owners of french enterprises with less than 20 employees have thought of leaving France because of the weight of the tax structure on businesses.
  • 68% of these same people ‘fully understand’ why Johnny left France, and ‘would do the same thing in his place”.
  • The total ‘charge fiscal’ in France, ie, the percentage of annual private production that is transferred to the state in the form of taxes is 44% (EU average 39%).
  • Although the highest tax bracket on personal income tax has dropped from 48% to 40% over the last 5 years, the total weight of taxation has increased, as taxes on businesses and new social charges have more than taken up the slack.

I mention all this because as much as I love the ‘art de vivre’ in France and appreciate that I don’t have to lock my doors when I’m away, I have experienced the french attitude toward business first-hand and know it has to change if France’s youngest and brightest are to stop fleeing to friendlier countries in search of livelihood.

Opinion Poll

In this morning’s Le Monde, one of the reader’s comments to an article on the latest twists and turnings in the upcoming French presidential elections proposes the following as a reader’s poll:

Amongst the possible candidates to the presidentials, which ones would you most like to see disappear forever from the French political scene?

France’s Problem #114c

[tag]Johnny Hallyday[/tag], the french rocker and Gallic institution, the one with Elvis sideburns and shovelhead Hog, has rattled the political elite here by announcing that he is moving to Switzerland to escape the crushing french tax burden. He is the third in a recent spate of french ‘stars’ who have gone elsewhere in the hope of keeping a little more of what they earn.

Johnny is an old pal of Sarkozy, which has given the Left elite a made-for-primetime excuse to express its numbing existential shock at this stab-in-the-back perfidy.

François Hollande, head of the Socialist party and Ségolene Royal’s partner (some would say her ‘insignificant other’) declared, “Sarkozy should be careful of who he counts as his friends.” Wow. This is powerful stuff, worthy of the very best french political punditry.

Sarko’s people of the right elite are expressing all the usual hand-wringing regrets but are fond of pointing out that rocknroll is a left-wing cultural phenomenon which proves that their main man embraces all sides of the spectrum.

Jean-François Copé, the center-right press secretary, came up with “ah oui, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, until one discovers that it’s artificial grass”. Wow!. These guys are good!

The Budget minister remarked that “it is hard to compete with certain countries on tax matters”.

And the minister for Employment and Social Cohesion was very very sad. Johnny has been one of his favs for a long time.

Everyone else in France, especially those small businesspersonnes who give 70% of their revenue to the state and submit to regular tax audits to make sure they understand the dynamics and moral worthiness of the [tag]French economic model[/tag], are wondering how Johnny lasted this long before deciding to go to where the artificial turf is greener.

On Good Conversation, Diaspora, and Jobs

In this morning’s NY Times there is a cute little article entitled “Talking the Yanks Under the Table” which is about how much cleverer the British are perceived to be than we Americans when it comes to conversation. At least, that’s how us Americans tend to see it.

I for one, dutifully admit that conversation over dinner with a bunch of Brits or French is usually more fun than with Americans (happily, there are notable exceptions) because the conversation will almost certainly be more daring, the range of admissible ideas much broader, and hey, the food will be better than meat loaf or pizza with ‘everything on it’. The French have the art de vivre down pat while the Brits I know living in the south of France are usually foodies, so sitting down à table will usually be a treat.

But back to the NYT article. One American living in London who was interviewed says

People are more relaxed here and they’re not thinking, ‘I’ve got to get home because I’ve got to get up to work.’ It’s looser here; there isn’t that grind.

This quote was fascinating to me in light of an article I came across just yesterday on the BBC website that analyzes the current state of the British diaspora. (For conversationally-challenged Americans, a diaspora is the migratory spread of a people out from their homeland into what we Americans affectionately call the Rest of World). It is always astonishing to discover how many Brits feel that Life is probably better on the other end of an Easyjet flight.

Many British expats are interviewed by the BBC, and when asked why they left Britain, the responses are breathtaking:

I don’t miss the rushed pace of life and I definitely don’t miss the British government.

or

I lived in London for 12 years and spoke to my neighbours three times. Fed up with the stress of my job, long days and expensive cost of living, I left the UK to see the world.

A first conclusion is that dumbed-down Americans can reasonably look to Great Britain’s dinner parties for the intellectual stimulation that is missing from American life. And that alienated Brits can reasonably look to anywhere to the south to flee alienation, dysfunctional healthcare, and long periods of bad weather.

II.
In the BBC article, we learn that 2 million Brits are living permanently in Australia, 700,000 live in Spain, but only 200,000 have settled down in France.

(This last factoid is surprising. Here in southern France, it often seems that every third person is British. What can it be like in Spain? Is every third person Spanish?)

Just after reading the BBC article, I happened to speak with a knowledgeable English friend living down here and learned yet another astonishing fact: apparently, there are more Frenchpersonnes living in Britain than there are Brits in France!

However, it is a sad reality that explains this fact. The French who go to England do so because they can’t find work in France. They are generally young, dynamic, and definitely not part of the 75% of French youth recently polled by Le Monde whose priority is finding a job for life in the civil service with a solid pension at 60. The French in Britain are generally involved in the finance and IT sectors, parts of the modern economy that are not joyously recognized in France. They are part of what is called the fuite de cerveaux (‘Brain Drain’) that is a common subject of conversation at french dinner parties.

The Brits in France on the other hand, are generally pensioners, coming down here to live the good Life. Few attempt to become part of French economic activity, because the difficulties of doing so are starting to be well-known. I suppose that those wanting to continue working account for the larger expat populations of Spain or Australia, places where work is not frowned upon..

Tuesday Thought

Doing nothing in France is the one activity that does not require filling out endless forms. Doing anything in France usually gets so complicated that it is little wonder that so many people get worn out, decide to ‘do nothing’ as their life’s work.

The “Paris Syndrome”

France is the world’s #2 consumer of antidepressant drugs, eg Prozac or Deroxat (AKA Paxil). Japan is the world #1. Does that help explain this morning’s story from this Reuters news release?

Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday.

“A third of patients get better immediately, a third suffer relapses and the rest have psychoses,” Yousef Mahmoudia, a psychologist at the Hotel-Dieu hospital, next to Notre Dame cathedral, told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche. (Continued)

New Wine Woes for France

In general, the French do not like change. So it is safe to assume that the French wine industry, pummeled as it has been of late, will not like the late breaking news about a looming change of major proportions, which in agricultural circles is affectionately called ‘climate change’.

Agence France Presse reports today, in an article in Seed, that because “a rise of one degree Celsius by 2035—as predicted by one United Nations model—would see winegrowing regions shift, on average, 180 kilometres (110 miles) northwards“, it looks like the best French wines will be cultivated, in 2025 at least, in lands that are 180 km x number of degrees C. of climate change toward the north.

According to my calculations, this puts New Burgundy somewhere near Manchester and New Bordeaux in London’s West End. (Continued)

Bonds of Holy-Wedded Employment

From this morning’s Le Monde:

[tag]Laurence Parisot[/tag], head of the French (Big Bad) Bosses association, the [tag]MEDEF[/tag], recently proposed a novel new way for French bosses and employees to terminate a working relationship when the circumstances seem to call for it.

Her idea is that contract termination could be done by “friendly negociation pursued in the best interest of both parties, followed by indemnisation.” Friendly negociation is not really an option under [tag]French labor law[/tag] which long ago decreed that all modification of working relationships must be preceeded by conflict, agitation, strikes, and if required, violence.

“Amicable divorce between married man and woman has existed in France since 1975. Isn’t it time that we do the same for employer-employee relationships?”, Mme. Parisot said.

Predictably this proposal set off violent reactions from the syndicats. [tag]Jean-Claude Mailly[/tag], the big boss of the [tag]Force Ouvrière[/tag] union replied that the Civil Code (which applies to marriage) is not at all like the Work Code. In the former, the partners are regarded as equals, in the latter, there is a role of subordination. Speaking of the boss-worker relationship, he said, “To divorce one first has to married. And, the worker is not married to his employer.”

Haha.

Hahahaha.

Anyone who has ever hired someone in France quickly discovers that the simple act of hiring someone, ie, creating an employer/employee relationship, is far more constraining and convoluted than a simple marriage contract. Or in other words, the employer is indeed married to the employee. Says so right there on page 14,437 of the Code du Travail.

Hahahaha. I think I’m gonna cry.

French Post Office Goes High Tech

The French Post Office’s (La Poste) premium overnight parcel service, Chronopost, competes with UPS, DHL, TNT, Fed Ex, etc. for the coveted high-volume business user. Like their competition (which La Poste has only recently discovered from behind the 20-meter thick bubble wrap security of their statute of an official French gov’t monopoly), they offer their own software to automate labeling, tracking, and expediting of packages. This is good.

A friend of mine, who runs a hugely successful ecommerce site, learned the rest of the story, however, when he decided to offer Chronopost delivery as an option to his clientele. He asked La Poste for the special software, so that he could install it on the dedicated computer that already manages the 600-1000 packages that he sends out every day. La Poste replies that that wasn’t a good idea because their special software only functions with Windoze 98.

Ah, oui, of course.

To their credit, they made him an offer that was hard to resist: they would come to his warehouse and install, at their expense, a separate computer of their own, running W98 and their software.

Wow! Who says the French aren’t into customer service!

A few of us have been spending idle moments the last few days trying to figure out how much it costs La Poste to troll Ebay and bankruptcy auctions, buying up every 32M RAM / 250M hard drive CPU they can get their hands on in order to obtain whatever W98 licenses are still out there. Probably a bazillion gazillion times more than it would cost them to simply rewrite the application for 21st century users.

5 Days Without

Our ADSL went down for 5 days. Pretty awful occurrence. (Worse still is the realization of how important our high-speed internet connexion has become for mental well-being. But that’s another tale.)

Anyway, we’re back now, thanks to the intervention of an old friend who works at France Telecom. If not for his efficiency (3 hours from first panic call on fifth day without to final resolution) we would have been three weeks without! We would have spent those 3 weeks, making endless calls to FT and to Free (our ADSL provider), who would each, in turn, say it was the fault of the other.

By a strange coincidence, my neighbor, a graphic designer, got his ADSL back on the same day as we did. But he, who didn’t have a good friend up in the FT hierarchy, had spent the full 3 weeks without.

How Many Amendments Fit on the Head of a Pin?

Translating from Le Monde this morning:

In an extraordinary plenipotentiary session of the French National Assembly devoted to drafting a law governing the privatization of [tag]Gaz de France[/tag], the various parties of the left added 137,347 amendments to the text of the original law. 43,693 of these were added by the Socialist Party, 93,654 by the Communist Party (which is still alive and well in France).

137, 347 separate, bulleted phrases. Imagine that! Have the 25% of working frenchpersonnes who are civil servants been put to the task of writing amendments?

I offer this information to those in the US who don’t read French, who wonder if anything could be worse than American politics, American politicians, and in particular, the Democrat Party’s ongoing feebleness in responding meaningfully to Great Evil perpetrated by Morons. Here we perceive the French equivalent: admittedly no bull-in-the-china-shop warmongering, no torture, no vote rigging, but pretty [tag]lame lawmaking[/tag], great cynicism, great amounts of bluster. This seems to be the way [tag]France[/tag] deals with important problems of late.
Sigh…

How to Fire in France

Back in 2001, when it was fully dawning on me that starting a business is France was about the stupidest way to position oneself for living in this beautiful country, I stumbled onto that pure French moment that all entrepreneurs dread, the Firing Ritual.

Four months earlier, my system administrator had had a stroke while we were in the middle of an office conversation. It took me a few moments to realize that his glazed look and low droning noises were not his typical ones and, fortunately, I had the wits to bundle him into my car and drive the four minutes to the emergency room where he was immediately taken in and cared for.

(Continued)