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Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Always Late In Takeoff and Late In Arriving

Hang about that’s an acronym for Alitalia. This has nothing to do with the Italians. But there again it IS an aeronautical story that has everything to do with failing to meet a deadline.

So the confusion could be forgiven.

No this time around it’s all about one company’s attempts to deflect attention from what is turning out to be a four-letter-word of a corruption cock-up à la Française with a triumphal tale of achievement!

The four letters are EADS. And the success story is the delivery of the first Airbus 380 - just 18 months behind schedule.

The A380 is the superjumbo set to take to the skies and revolutionise flying comfort – if we’re to believe the blurb. Change in the sense that it can carry over 850 passengers (if airlines decide to cram us all merrily into economy class) allowing us to relax more easily while we increase our collective carbon footprints.

France has a huge financial stake in the future of the A380 and the media here clearly decided that the Nation needed a morale booster when Singapore Airlines officially took delivery of the first of its 19 new ‘planes two weeks ago – just one and a half years later than promised. So what better way than trumpeting what France does best…..apart from striking of course…..corruption… sorry, that should read technological BIGness.

And we’re talking BIG here with more than a flourish of luxury.

The new giant of the skies will make its first passenger flight on Oct. 25. And Singapore Airlines has opted for a 471-sear version of the monster double decker. First class travellers will apparently be able to cut themselves off entirely from the rest of the world in their private “suites” while Business customers will have all the U.S.B. ports and in-seat power supplies for laptop computers the price of a ticket can buy. Even those in Economy will be able to swing their legs in more room than there is available for the proverbial cat.

Take off should come as something of a relief to all those concerned in the design and construction of the A380, which has been beset by persistent and costly delays, but there lurks a darker story in the background.

Airbus may well have delivered – and continue to do so at the rate of up to 45 a year by 2010 – but top managers at its parent company, EADS, are being investigated for insider trading.

Major shareholders in the Franco-German corporation sold massively just before news was released of significant delivery delays on the A380 back in 2006.

That news of course wiped billions of euros off the market value of EADS. The loss was a major blow to the taxpayer (the state holds a 7.5 per cent stake in the company) and a setback for Airbus.

An investigation may well be underway here in France, but so far everyone is denying everything and admitting to nothing. What a surprise.

The (now former) boss claims he didn’t pass on any information. The government was not informed. And nobody used prior knowledge for personal gain because everyone is innocent.

Meanwhile media attention has switched to the glories of French technology because apparently the two stories, although related, are not linked.

Once again French business practice flies high as it breathes new meaning into the term corporate responsibility and there will doubtless be plenty of under carpet sweeping before any truth is revealed – if it ever is.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

It’s Tammy Wynette day at the Elysée

Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy split!

While many may view October 18 as Black Thursday for the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, it did in fact have more of a ring about it of the late country singer Tammy Wynette’s two greatest hits.

True the nation was brought to a virtual standstill by a transportation strike over Sarkozy’s proposed pension reforms – a pretty murky day indeed. But that soon became the proverbial chip paper as far as most were concerned after the golden couple of French politics announced the end of their marriage.

Nobody was really surprised after weeks of media buzz. Evidently Cecilia no longer wanted to “Stand by her man” preferring Tammy’s other huge hit D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

So no JFK-Jackie O fairytale after all. Mind you their marriage (the second for both of them) can hardly have been a smooth ride, even though its end was by mutual consent.

HE is a consummate politician, fiercely ambitious, who has had his sights firmly set on the country’s top job from almost the outset of his political career. SHE shuns the spotlight, never wanted to set up house at the presidential residence, the Elysée Palace, and refused outright to slip into the traditional ornamental role of France’s First Lady.

It’s the second time they’ve split – but this time apparently it’s for good. Back in 2005, Cecilia legged it across the Atlantic, preferring the attentions of a New York-based French advertising executive to the hyperactivity of a man destined for high office.

Even though the Sarkozys reconciled in the run-up to May’s presidential election and many political commentators perceived Cecilia as an instrumental part of the campaign team, the rumour mill was rife with reports of another impending separation.

Remember, this was the same woman who failed to vote in the second round of that election and “shocked” the nation by wearing Prada at her husband’s inauguration. She also declared a sore throat as the reason for declining an invitation to tea with George W. and his missus, and was curiously allowed to who swan into Libya at the last moment to help negotiate the freedom of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor who had been sentenced to death.

A maverick who admitted to being neither politically correct nor cut out for the role of First Lady, Cecilia has been noticeable by her absence from her (now) former husband’s side over the past couple of months.

What’s most interesting perhaps about the whole sad affair is not that they’re getting divorced at all, but that the rumours, the announcement and the after-the-fact analysis have made the headlines at all. For sure it’s a first in modern French politics – a divorcé as head of state, but private matters of public figures have traditionally remained exactly that – private.

Perhaps it’s an indication that Sarkozy is now paying the price for his obsession with blanket media coverage of his every twitch.

There again a sceptic would say that it’s nothing more than cynical and calculating politicking. After all the timing was spot on. The transport strike may have been headline news in the morning, but by lunchtime the couple’s divorce was the lead story.

So after releasing the news at the moment guaranteed to make the most impact what does the (un)happy couple do?

HE flies off to Portugal for a pow-wow with other EU leaders – business as usual then. And SHE retires gracefully from public life by granting an exclusive interview to a regional daily, claiming she has been unhappy being in the limelight, wants to take care of her son and pursue her own career.

Oh yes, and she mentioned her fling in New York last year when she fell in love (again). A real withdrawal from the media glare.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

54 percent for, 55 percent against – DUH

Oh good. The French are back to their usual habits, pursing their favourite pastime. Striking.

Thursday promises to be a real joy for anyone trying to struggle into work, or anywhere else for that matter, as there will be a virtual shutdown of the country’s transportation system – yet again.

Trains, buses, the metro and ‘planes will all be providing less than the “minimum service” with the busiest places most likely to be the nation’s roads as people go nowhere not very fast.

It’s the first real test of government’s attempts to reform pensions for some public sector workers’ “special privileges”, but opinion seems to be divided as to whether there’s really public support for the day of inaction.

Of course it all depends which newspaper you read, but it’s more than slightly curious that two surveys carried out at the same time by different market research companies come out with results that are quite literally, poles apart.

And naturally nothing should be read into the fact that the one claiming a “resounding majority” against tomorrow’s strike appears in the centre-right daily Le Figaro. Or that the Communist daily L’Humanité tells us that in fact public opinion is behind the action by more or less the same margin.

Whatever the level of support everyone is going to have to face the same chaos and probably the best way to cope will be to stay at home.

Although politicians across the spectrum broadly agree that there’s a need for an overhaul of the pension system, union leaders want workers to hold on to “special privileges”, which allow some state employees to retire at 50 or 55 – on full pension – even though the official retirement age is 60

The privileges are something of a sacred cow to the unions here in France. Many date back to the early part of the last century as part of labour agreements to compensate for (what were then undeniably) dangerous working conditions or protect workers in sectors considered vital to the “National Interest”.

These include train drivers, utility workers in the energy giants EDF and even theatre staff at the Comédie Française! They’ll all be on strike tomorrow.

And that’s perhaps the most important factor. The last attempt to reform the “special privileges” back in 1995 brought the country to a three-week standstill and forced the government to abandon its policy.

This time around the unions have managed to organise just a one-day strike in spite of having almost a month to prepare - although they are balloting members on possible further action.

Meanwhile the president, Nicolas Sarkozy is apparently unfazed and maintains that he was elected on a reform platform. And he even has tentative support from what’s left of the political opposition, which has so far managed to muster up the mind-boggling response that it’s not exactly saying “no” to the need for change, but hasn’t exactly thrown it’s collective weight behind the strike either.

With such clarity it’s perhaps not surprising that the polls have decided that public opinion is both for and against but more importantly decidedly DUH.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Rugbymania – the replay

And now the end is here, and so they face the final curtain.”

So England and South Africa will battle it out at the Stade de France this weekend for the glory of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy and being crowned winners of the 2007 Rugby World cup.

Who would have thought? The Springboks presence has not raised too many eyebrows this side of the channel, but England’s narrow defeat of the French in the semis after beating the Wallabies in the quarters is something of a understated surprise.

Meanwwhile National Pride here has been seriously dented and the inevitably excruciating post mortems have dumped a fair deal of the blame on the poor old coach, Bernard Laporte. All he has to look forward to now is a career as sports minister in Sarkozy’s government. Oh that and the prospect of a meaningless playoff for third place.

But let’s not carried away with false pride or unspoken dreams. Instead now’s the chance to take a look back at some of the highlights from the past six weeks.

Highlights indeed from the Tonga team – unfortunately of the follicle variety. When they took to the field in their first match against the United Sates, their players looked as though they had all just popped down to the local salon for something more than a shampoo and set. One burly character sported an Afro any Motown singer of the 60s would surely have been proud of. Another, carefully plucked eyebrows raised in readiness, wore cutesy-pie bunches which were surely donned to give the opposition the wrong impression.

In spite of that, the hairdon’ts deservedly got a rousing standing ovation following their brave performance against the mighty South Africans in their final group match. Maybe there was something in the hairspray!

The Americans of course all looked like clean-cut, square-jawed hunks with decent, proper haircuts, which alas didn’t help their play. Four matches, four losses and one measly bonus point.

Looks and colour co-ordination seemed to be high on the agenda of many of the top teams – a far cry from the good old days!

The Italians and the French looked liked models in homoerotic outfits as they strutted on to the field in their tightly fitting cossies.

And talking about sartorially elegant cloning, why were the Scots and the Kiwis wearing virtually the same strips when they faced each other – a sort of figure-hugging blueish-greyish affair? In fact the only way to tell them apart from a distance was dash of white on the Scottish shorts – oh yes that and the fact that they were getting pulverised.

A special mention of course to the Georgians, who managed one win in spite of wearing shorts that left little or nothing to the imagination.

But the last word on what to wear has to be left to the polemic the French created around the choice of strips for their quarterfinal clash with the Kiwis. It reached gargantuan proportions in the media and only at the last moment were they allowed to don their blue shirts, settling for red shorts and white socks. The All Blacks meanwhile went All Grey yet again, which must explain their defeat.

Another feature of the Coupe du Monde was undoubtedly the pre-match prancing that went on,

While the blood-curdling antics of the All Blacks Haka was enough to put the fear of God into anyone on or off the field (although admittedly the French looked suitably unimpressed) similar attempts to appeal to tradition by Samoa and Tonga fell on largely deaf ears. There simply wasn’t the stature or the follow-through on the pitch.

But perhaps the other countries could learn a trick or two to confuse their opponents in the future. Just imagine the English breaking out the bells and tripping along merrily in a Morris dance – perhaps that would have helped them to score against South Africa in the group match. Ah a strategy for the final!

Or better still, the Irish could show a pretty foot with their own rendition of Lord of the Dance. Now that would really set the pulses racing and, let’s face it, couldn’t really harm their performance.

Off the pitch it was lovely to see one of the world’s major healthcare companies taking such an interest in the game. Commercial breaks during the televised coverage here in France featured two of the country’s most recognisable players promoting the products of one of the official sponsors. And the same company even created a special McRugby burger on sale at all of its eateries. Yum, yum.

Fans who wanted to quaff a quick half at Stade de France had no choice but to cough up €7 or £4.80/$9.70 a bottle. Either that or go without as that sponsor had exclusive rights, although it later had its wrists gently slapped by the organisers for breaching the ban on stadium advertising of alcohol. But just a slight tap as those guys bring in mega-bucks in revenue for any sporting event.

And in this case what an event. After all that’s what the competition was really about and it didn’t disappoint. There were sporting highlights a plenty. Half man half mountain totally awesome - Sébastien Chabal forced his way through a timid Namibian defence (who wouldn’t be frightened of him) as he powered his way to a try. Chabalamania reached new heights throughout the nation (we were informed) and onwards strode the French until it all ended in tears – even for the big man himself.

The pummelling New Zealand gave all their opponents in their group matches notching up 309 points and conceding only 35 – breathtaking. Sadly they ran out of puff in the quarterfinals.

Depleted to just 14 men for just over half the match. Fiji scored a heart-stopping try in the dying minutes of their group decider against Wales. The win saw them squeeze into the quarterfinals, where they held their own for most of the match against the Springboks until the fairy tale ended

But this toughest of games also displayed an elegance and sportsmanship so sadly lacking elsewhere in the sporting world.

The players may be twice the sideways size of their soccer counterparts and the game may be rough, but their behaviour was impeccable. When Peter White, the English referee in the France-Ireland match, found himself caught up in the action, he good-humouredly shook off the bruising shove in the back and got on with the job in hand, looked on by concerned players.

Everyone seemed genuinely moved and proud to be representing their countries- no matter their chances of winning – giants and minnows often tearfully belting out their national anthems before games and winners lining up to applaud losers afterwards.

But the biggest winner after Saturday’s game – no matter whether it’s a repeat for the Roses (don’t bet on it) or an on-field mashing by the Sprinboks – will probably be the capacity crowds who have so often been treated to the glories of the gentlemen’s game and shown their appreciation with standing ovations.
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