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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Tour de Drugz

There’s not really an awful lot to say.

A national treasure that should be this country’s Tour de Force has once again pitifully degenerated into the annual Tour de Frauds. But no end of pathetic puns can relieve the shame and dishonour that a bunch of cheats has brought upon a sport that grips the nation every summer, yet refuses to deal with the problem that lies at its very core.

Rider after rider denies any involvement in drug-taking until they prove positive. And then they compound their deceit by claiming the tests were inaccurate. Last year’s winner for example, Floyd Landis, still maintains his innocence and one French cyclist several years ago, Richard Virenque, hotly refuted his involvement in “banned substances” until it was proven without a doubt. And he remains a hero to many followers of the sport, in spite of his EPO-enhanced exploits in the Alps and Pyrenees.

The Tour’s organisers and the sport’s governing body, ICU, defend themselves, claiming the very tests they carry out prove how much more of an effort they are making to rid the sport of its shame.

And while on the subject of shame, let’s take a quick look at what happened across the border last weekend. Belgium is often the butt of many a joke for the French, in much as Ireland is for England (for example where’s the biggest chip shop in the world? On the border between France and the Netherlands).

After recent elections, party leaders are trying to cobble together a coalition government and the most likely leader is Yves Leterme, the head of the Flemish Christian Democrats.

Last Saturday was a chance for Leterme to stamp his mark on a country traditionally divided along linguistic lines. And STAMP he did. July 21 is National Day in Belgium, and when asked by one of the country’s main TV channels what the day commemorated, he was unable to give the correct answer, mumbling incoherently about it “being the day the constitution was founded”. Wrong – It actually celebrates the day back in 1831 when Leopold 1 took the oath to become the first King of Belgium. Mind you it transpired that Leterme was in good company as a survey revealed that four out of five people had no idea why Belgians observed the day.

But Leterme was far from being finished. When reporters asked him to sing the opening lines of Belgium's national anthem, 'La Brabanconne', he broke into……….”La Marseillaise”. A bad joke as some suggested afterwards as he embarrassedly scuttled into the cathedral? Or more likely an ignorant oaf?

After all this is the same bloke who last year told a French newspaper that French speakers living around Brussels seemed "intellectually incapable" of learning Dutch. He has also in the past said the only things uniting the country were the King, the national soccer team and beer.

Ho hum.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Talking about a Velo-rution

Pedal power comes to Paris

After the celebrations of Bastille Day and another show of French Republicanism – very important to the National Identity apparently – there was more revolutionary activity on Sunday as the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoé, marked his latest attempt to boost the French capital’s green credentials, this time with the launch of Velib.

It’s a copy of a scheme launched two years ago in Lyon, whose idea is to encourage motorists to leave their cars at home – or at least at an out of town car park – and make use of rented bikes. In Lyon (metropolitan population 1.6 million) it captured the hearts of the townsfolk where 60,000 temporary or permanent subscribers have made use of the city’s 4,000 bikes since the launch.

In Paris (metropolitan population 9 + million) the authorities are renting out an initial 10,000 bikes (set to double by the end of the years) at around 750 “stations”. The first half hour is free and then a complicated sliding scale of rates kicks in (Delanoé is clearly a child of French bureaucracy) which admittedly shouldn’t hit the wallets of users too dramatically. You can pick up a bike at one point and return it to another.

But can such a scheme in Paris– as well intentioned as it might be – really mirror the success it has had in Lyon?

Parisian drivers are famous for their lack of respect for the rules of the road in general and other road users in particular. They are Italians – just living further north in a city whose beautiful boulevards give priority to traffic from the right – a rule which some respect and some don’t. Having a dent or a scratch on your car is almost a badge of honour and as anyone who has ever tried to navigate around l’Arc de Triomphe in a car can testify, it requires a degree of madness and supreme will in an area in which even insurance companies won’t honour claims resulting from accidents.

To his credit, during his tenure in office, Delanoë has implemented a general overhaul of the roads – building a maze of bus lanes that manage to clog up the streets and setting up one-way systems that completely bypass some quarters. Driving has, in short, become a nightmare but it hasn’t helped reduce the number of cars or improve tempers and a dearth of separate bicycle lanes does not bode well for his new venture.

Now he seems to have thrown caution completely to the wind and decided to help unsuspecting tourists risk life and limb as they tackle the mild mannered driving skills of the Parisian motorists armed with nothing more than two wheels. And he hasn’t even made the wearing of helmets compulsory.

Velib is undoubtedly eco-friendly, nobody can dispute that, and could be a hit with the tourists – many of whom already use the excellent public transport system. But how much of an impact will it have on the behaviour of those that actually live and work in the city? How useful is it for a mother (or father) -of two, off to the local market for a spot of shopping, or a suit-clad banker hot-pedalling it from one meeting to another – enjoying the pleasures of a November monsoon?

The banks of the Seine are vehicle-free over the summer – frequently creating Sunday afternoon jams throughout the rest of the Paris. And in this bicycle-crazy nation, the Champs Elysees will be closed to traffic when the Tour de Drugz rolls into town for its climax in 10 days time. But it’s hard to imagine cyclists standing much of a chance there – or anywhere else in the city – on any other day of the year.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

The pheasants aren’t revolting.

And they probably are eating cake

It’s July 14, a day to celebrate the storming of the Bastille and a stand against the tyranny of absolutism. A day of national celebration, pomp and military might here in France. After a night of fireworks, there’s a televised military parade along the world’s self-proclaimed Greatest Avenue with “les enfants de la patrie” remaining glued to their telly screens early afternoon in eager anticipation of The Wise One’s words.

But wait. Something’s not quite right here. Where’s that programme schedule?

Ah there it is…..Saturday….Saturday. Right TF1 08h55 - 12h05 “July 14 parade”. OK OK everything normal then. 12h05.a GAMESHOW. Huh? That can’t be right. Wait a mo’. France 2. 08h30 – yep “July 14 parade,” 11h55 – a DOCUMENTARY. France 3? Tour de France. What has happened? Where’s the President? Where’s the call to the hearts and souls of this nation’s folk? Where’s the trumpeting pride and call to the barricades that unites this European powerhouse? Where’s the French equivalent of the Queen’s Christmas message?

That’s right. He’s at it again. Breaking with tradition Nicolas Sarkozy has said there is absolutely no need for him to continue the ridiculous nonsense of “addressing the nation” on this day in particular. When he has something to say, he’ll pitch up on telly and say it BASTA.

Sounds like a wonderful piece of autocratic intervention perhaps whenever the mood suits him and it’ll undoubtedly give more grist to the mill in the cafés on the Left bank where the intellectuals are already pulling the man apart over his “unseemly and demeaning” habit of going for a morning jog. In their view it’s one apparent national scandal piled on top of another. And all the while he’s threatening to disrupt the status quo even further by a general overhaul of the institutions that define the very character of the country. He has set up a new all-party commission charged with making recommendations for constitutional form. By November 1!

Gulp. This “hyper presidency” is cracking along at a staggering pace. Will we all be able to keep up? Looking at the reaction of the opposition parties – probably not, especially as the whole country is about to go AWOL for two months. And all this “consultation “over university, health, environment and labour reform is bound to throw a spanner in the works of any credible opposition. Not to mention the fact that he keeps appointing opposition leaders to important domestic posts and recommending them for jobs abroad.

Still there’s always the July 14 Garden Party to look forward to. He hasn’t scrapped that and the weather’s good. And for sure Cecilia will look as radiant as ever in some stunning frock. Only hope there’s a little more than lemonade and iced tea on the drinks trolley as Sarkozy is a confirmed teetotal. Yikes a Frenchman who doesn’t drink. Thankfully he’s not vegetarian. Wonder what’s on the menu?

Pheasant perhaps?

Friday, 13 July 2007

I’ll ‘aff mine wees Fransch moutard pleese

Omborger ou Ot dog?

Hard really to work out what this country’s esteemed leader is playing at. He usually seems such a smart guy, making all the right moves and generally projecting a populist image which of course goes down well with all but the Parisian left bank intellectuals.

He has forced through a raft of fiscal policies (benefiting mainly the wealthy of course) during an extraordinary summer session of parliament, as well as some tougher transport labour laws and education reforms. It was undoubtedly a great idea to strike so quickly after a convincing electoral victory especially as he’s riding his “bubble” pretty well.

His timing is also spot on as most of the country is of course “en vacances” and unlikely to protest too strongly until it’s really time to go back to work. And that leads nicely into President S’s own choice of holiday destination……shock, horror…..the good ol’ US of A.

Come to that he’s chosen not just anywhere the other side of the Puddle. Oh no, the one who looks just a little too orange for it to be anything other than a PERMATAN has conveniently made his way to a little pad just down the road from the family “compound” of a certain George Dubbleyou. Raised eyebrows all round.

After zipping back to Paris to attend the funeral of a former Catholic Archbishop, President Orange rejoined Cecilia and the kids to continue his highly televised “look at me I’m jogging all the time” PR campaign.

Previous French presidents may have opted for discretion but that’s obviously a thing of the past. Now the Elysée’s man simply can’t resist being in the spotlight and creating waves – sometimes quite literally. Immediately after his election in May he spent a couple of days aboard a friend’s luxury yacht just off the coast of Malta “ chewing the cud” apparently – which brought howls of protests back home.

Now he has chosen to hot dog his way into the heart of a man whose political career is thankfully almost over. Surely Sarkozy must realise just how much of a liability Bush has become on the world stage. After all look at the reputation Our Tony has earned in the eyes of many internationally because of his perceived poodleness.

Sarkozy may have admitted admiration for Blair in the past, but there’s no need for him to mimic his mistakes.

He could simply have taken a leaf out of Gordy’s book and distanced himself from the Whitehouse. After all he had such a marvellous headstart in inheriting Chirac’s much-applauded stand in the past couple of years against Washington’s hegemony.

Why doesn’t he – bright guy that he is – try smooching with Hilary or Obama – or any one of the possible future leaders who, let’s face it, have got to be an improvement on the current brain dead incumbent.

Mind you, while Sarkozy was grinning at the cameras and GETTING IT WRONG, Cecilia was definitely GETTING IT RIGHT.
The enigmatic wife of the president is hard to ignore. She’s the unqualified one who swanned into Libya at the last moment to help negotiate the freedom of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor who had been sentenced to death. Madame Sarkozy – and by association hubsie – thereby took much of the glory and acres of newsprint for year’s of behind-the-scenes work by the European Union. Clever PR once again.

Anyway Madame Cecilia María Sara Isabel Sarkozy née Ciganer-Albéniz – she definitely deserves to have her noble lineage recognised – exercised her wiles and guile in deciding to give the Bush family bash a miss. Apparently she and the kiddywinks had sore throats. Ho hum.

Bit of an arrogant snub really as it was the US First Lady herself who had extended the original invitation to Cecilia, with President Orange plainly highjacking the plan for his own ends. Or perhaps that was the idea all along. Surely he cannot have been so cynical.

Interestingly enough Mrs S was seen meandering down Main Street the following day, full of the joys.

Sarkozy’s only saving grace in this sad story is perhaps the fact that he turned up late. That will have gone down a storm.

You can already the typewriters on the Left bank clattering away in disdain at the little upstart’s behaviour.

As an aside and a complete non-sequitor, it must be somewhat disconcerting back in Blighty for people of a “certain age” every time the latest report on foot and mouth hits the airwaves. Not only has the meeja seized on the story with a tenacity seldom matched by similar outbreaks here on the “Continent”, but listeners have to do a double take every time the government’s Chief Veterinary Officer is asked for her comments.

She may well spell her first name differently but how many people expect her suddenly to burst into “Aba daba daba daba daba daba daba said the chimpy to the monk. Aba daba daba daba daba daba daba said the monkey to the chimp. All night they would chatter away.”

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Super Pres, DSK and the Bikini Babe - the magnificent three

We see him here. We see him there. We see him almost everybloodywhere. Sarkozy in Algeria - refusing to apologise for France’s colonial “misdeeds” (thanks for that particular interpretation go to al Jazeera). Sarkozy in Tunisia cosying up to reportedly one of the most “open” and “liberal” north African countries with (according to Human Rights Watch) an appalling human rights record. But we didn’t see him in the region’s other former French protectorate, Morroco. “Scheduling problems” according to Rabat, otherwise to be construed as being miffed that the tour had started in Algeria, and throwing a little hissy fit in protest.

Meanwhile back home he’s still helping to set the agenda for what’s hitting the headlines. This time around it’s with three magic letters. DSK.

No, not a French luxury goods brand but rather the commonly used, affectionate (?) abbreviation for former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He’s one of the so-called Socialist party’s “elephants” who went up against Segolene Royal for the presidential nomination and very reluctantly rallied behind her (knife in hand) afterwards.

We’re talking MAJOR political opponent for Sarkozy here – and a possible contender in the 2012 presidential race. So what does our divide and conquering/all embracing (take your pick) Mr S do? He puts DSK’s name forward as a candidate to replace the outgoing head honcho at the International Monetary Front – and quickly seals the agreement of all the other EU members….well apart from Britain, whose 101 dalmation namesake looked a bit taken aback at a press conference that the deal had been struck so quickly.

By tradition, the World Bank is traditionally headed by an American, while the IMF post is given to a European (although there are calls to change the system), so DSK looks like a shoe-in. And guess when his tenure would finish? 2012 – just in time for you know what.

DSK is a consummate French politician, complete with all the usual baggage. He “resigned” as a minister back in 1999 after he was suspected of corruption in two financial scandals (same old, same old here on the continent) although he was later completely acquitted. And then there was the incident of “the tape” – a kiss-and-tell recording exposing all the sleazy details of the Social Housing scams Chirac had been running while mayor of Paris. Somehow it found its way into DSK’s office, until police raided it.

Oh yes and let’s not forget that he was one of the architects of the 35-hour working week, which has single-handedly propelled this country into the economic powerhouse that it has become!

Hallelujah that he’s likely to be put in charge of deciding how all that lovely lolly is distributed to those that really need it. Does anyone else find it just a teensy bit frightening (and, given the state of the economy, odd) that the French will hold the purse strings of three of the world’s major financial institutions - IMF, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Central Bank – if his nomination is ratified, as well as top job at the WTO?

But the real political story at the moment is much more surprising; It’s Segolene in a bikini! The glossy weekly, Paris Match, snapped piccies of Ms Royal on the beach while on holiday and slapped them in its front cover. She tried unsuccessfully to stop them being printed, so now she’s fuming once again. And rightly so. The news coverage of the story is surprising in the sense that this country’s privacy laws are pretty stringent and usually respected. How, she asks, does a snapshot of her enjoying a private moment in a public place serve the anything other than national curiosity? Indeed in whose interest is it, other than the magazine’s circulation figures of course.

Her lawyers are suing the rag and have condemned the photos as “vulgar voyeurism”. Meanwhile the magazine’s defence is just risible, claiming that the holiday destinations of major personalities are a legitimate subject of information, particularly as Ms R is as the very heart of the news at the moment. Presumably because she’s trying to get those damned pictures banned.

Coming (too) soon…..”Talking about a velo-rution”
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