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Monday, 31 December 2007

Lights out

There’s been so much hullabaloo, or as the French prefer to say polemic, here recently over the introduction of a total smoking ban in public places, that you could be forgiven for thinking that much of the population is about to man the barricades and storm the Bastille.

The most important element in the new law – which is due to come into effect on New Year’s Day is its “totality” because in true French style there has in fact been a partial ban in operation for the past 10 months. But while airports, railway stations, hospitals and offices all stopped smokers from lighting up, cafés, bars, restaurants and discos were given a period of grace to get their act together.

At the heart of the polemic has been the perceived threat to the traditional image of smoke-filled bars with crusty old French geezers sucking away on revolting Gauloises. Or even more horrifically the big cultural shift (at least in the eyes of those abroad) of a country whose cafés have apparently long been the haunts of fag-dangling-from-lips artists and philosophers.

Quelle horreur.

Now anyone caught lighting up in contravention of the new regulations will face a maximum €450 fine, while café owners and the like, who might be tempted to turn the proverbial blind eye to someone puffing away on their premises, could be required to cough up €750.

The French of course are a notoriously individualistic lot. If their reaction to seat-belt laws or drink-driving regulations are anything to go by the ciggie police could have quite a job of enforcing the law. Children for example can often still be seen rocking around unattached in the back of cars and many New Year revellers seem more than willing to take the risk of driving home well oiled.

And let’s not forget that there has actually been a legal requirement to provide specific smoking areas in bars and restaurants since 1991, which would lead any sane person to assume that non-smoking areas were also compulsory. But this being France, many proprietors (and as a result their clientele) ignored it completely, side passed the legislation and designated the whole of their premises being as “smoking”.

A recent march in Paris of more than 10,000 protestors – mainly tobacconists – could not change lawmakers’ minds, although the rather jolly health minister, Roselyn Bachelot, displayed a touch of humanity for which this government is so renowned, by announcing that smokers will be able to puff-in the New Year without fear of having a fine slapped on them.

The new ban does not include pavement tables or open-air terraces – yet – so perhaps we can expect to see the nation’s baccy addicts hazily huddled together on street corners inhaling diesel fumes alongside their nicotine fix.

While kicking the habit might be hard to legislate, statistics indicate there is work to be done. Official figures show that around one in three French over the age of 12 are regularly regular smokers, and more than 66,000 a year die from smoking related illnesses (including around 6,000 who have never smoked).

And if the Italians, Irish, Spanish and British can all do it, why can’t the French?

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Learning from Misstakes part two

More Ho Hums of a similar sort to the difficulties facing French swimming star, Laure Manaudou, surround the newly crowned Miss France, Valérie Bègue.

Just two weeks after strutting her stuff to glory, the 22-year-old reigning Miss Réunion is “considering her future” after being asked to hand back her coronet.

And guess what’s at the heart of the controversy. Yep. That’s right. More “private” saucy pictures. This time taken several years ago when the Indian Ocean beauty was putting together shots for her portfolio.

The beauty pageant’s organiser, the ever-sprightly 75-year-old hat fetishist, Geneviève de Fontenay, has been outraged by the pictures, which include depictions of Bègue licking yoghurt provocatively and of her floating on a cross in a swimming pool.

The “suggestive” snaps, which were sent anonymously to the monthly trash mag, Entrevue contravene a pre-competition contract that contestants sign to guarantee they have never been photographed in compromising positions.

And for de Fontaney, Bègue’s fully-clothed but nonetheless controversial snaps are just as offensive as the Playboy poses that forced the premature resignation of the 2005 Miss France.

Bègue is so far standing firm, claiming the photographs were only test shots and she had not authorised their publication. She told a hastily-convened press conference that she would “take time out” to consider her future, but the likelihood is that she will have to be shoved rather than go willingly.

Ah yes, but as always apparently there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Editors at Entrevue maintain that Bègue was not the only competitor with a portfolio containing potentially embarrassing photographs. There are apparently others, say the magazine, whose shots would have sent dear old Geneviève totally apoplectic had one of them got their mitts on the Miss crown.

And therein lies yet another twist in the tale according to the hacks at Entrevue. They claim “unidentified sources” informed them three weeks before the competition that Bègue had been slated to win.

Regular outbreaks of the potentially fatal viral fever chikungunya and damage after last winter’s cyclones, have hit the island’s mainly tourist-based economy hard. Begue’s victory, suggested the informant, was fixed to bring the island a much-needed boost and positive publicity.

Such cynicism of course could just be a ruse to sell yet more magazines, which has incidentally been banned from Réunion’s newsstands.

Should Bègue be forced to step down – and the whole sorry mess should be cleared up before the end of the year – then the Miss France title could still remain overseas so-to-speak, as the runner up was Miss New Caledonia, Vahinerii Requillart

Of course whether the 19-year-old Pacific Ocean beauty’s participation at the Misses World and/or Universe competitions would then be secured would depend on what revelations, if any, were unearthed by the ever-watchful French media.

Fascinating stuff.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Learning from Misstakes part one

Two glamorous French lasses have hit the headlines this past week here in France, and not always for the reasons they might have wished. Perhaps as the New Year beckons both will have used the holiday season to take stock and learn from their mistakes.

First up involves Franco-Italian relations yet again. No not the French president’s new belle or even Alitalia’s attempts to waltz up the aisle with Air France-KLM. Instead it’s the storm surrounding French swimming sensation Laure Manaudou’s messy split with her Latin poolside lover, Luca Marin.

The 21-year-old is a marvel in the pool and a national hero with three Olympic medals, including one gold, and world records in both the 400 and 200 metres freestyle.

Her style is breathtaking and a punishing training schedule under former trainer Philippe Lucas worked wonders as she regularly powered her way off the blocks, ratcheted up the gears and left her competitors in her wake wash.

The golden girl of French sport could do no wrong. She was quite simply feted throughout the country, signed a €1 million-a year modelling contract with Gucci-owning French billionaire, François Pinault, and appeared on the front cover of the weekly glossy Paris Match.

But then in May this year Manaudou proved that once out of the water, she tended to leave her brain in neutral.

She ditched Lucas – a Gallic version of the Incredible Hulk a l’orange – and hopped across the border to train with Marin’s team in Turin. The girl was in love and didn’t mind showing it.

But the course of true love proved to be far from smooth and much shorter than anticipated. In true soap-opera style, she soon broke ranks with the Italian team manager, fended of accusations of “not trying” during training sessions and as quickly as she had fallen in love with Marin, fell right back out again.

Back in France, and without a trainer or a team, Manaudou has turned to the “expertise” of her younger brother, Nicolas, to get her back on course for next year’s Olympics. But the story was far from over and indeed worse was yet to come.

During this month’s European short course championships in Hungary, as Manaudou hauled in another four medals, “private” pictures taken with a mobile ‘phone of the formerly clinching couple and several topless ones of Manaudou herself surfaced on the Internet.

She reportedly accused Marin of releasing the pictures, and even his fervent denials could not stop the fury of the French swimmer as she confronted him during the meeting and rather publicly chucked his ring in the pool.

Ho hum. Hopefully she will be a little more careful where she points that mobile ‘phone with the new love in her life, French backstroker Benjamin Stasiulis.

Happy New Year Laure

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Sub-letting at sub-zero

As we all go about our last minute Christmas shopping, let’s spare a thought for a certain Jean-Paul Bolufer.

In the space of two days he has had his fine reputation picked to pieces by the national newspapers and now finds himself not only out of a job but also homeless – of sorts.

But hold back on the sympathy front a moment for Bolufer has got what many would consider his just rewards.

The 61-year-old (now former) high-ranking civil servant was until today the right hand man of none other than the French housing minister, Christine Boutin, and as such has been instrumental in drawing up government proposals for an overhaul of the country’s stock of HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré or low-rent council housing).

A noble task indeed at a time when there is a dire national housing shortage with an estimated 1.5 million people on the waiting list and more than 400,000 families with incomes above the official entitlement threshold reckoned to be occupying HLMs.

Except it now transpires that since 1981 Bolufer and his family have in fact themselves been renting a subsidised apartment in Paris and are currently paying €1,200 per month for accommodation with a rentable value four times that amount. Furthermore, when the highly paid career civil servant’s job took him to other parts of the country, he sub-let the property – for 17 years in total.

When challenged, Bolufer initially maintained that he couldn’t recall the exact amount he paid but believed it to be somewhere near the market norm, and besides he had done nothing to break the terms of his rental agreement. He was, he claimed, being made the fall guy. Others in similar circumstances to his own, he said, were and still are living in accommodation subsidised by the City of Paris authorities.

Sadly only too true, and it’s not the first time high officialdom’s abuse of complex housing regulations have hit the headlines. In 1996, the then prime minister Alain Juppé was forced to hand over the keys of luxury apartments he and members of his family were renting from the City of Paris authorities at reduced rates. And in 2005 the finance minister Hervé Gaymard was forced to resign over a similar scandal.

To an extent though Bolufer has been hoist by his own petard. Just last month he appeared on national radio to express his outrage at the number of families living in HLMs whose monthly income was above the threshold entitlement.

Clearly the man was speaking from personal experience.

With Bolufer now demanding that a list be published of all those currently benefiting from long-term rental agreements with the City of Paris, the timing of the revelations could not have been worse for his former boss.

Boutin is battling with organisations representing the capital’s homeless, who maintain the government has created only half of the 27,000 places in sheltered accommodation promised by the end of the year.

Bolufer was her special advisor in negotiations with those organisations.

Presumably with the money he has made from sub-letting his apartment over the years and the not insubstantial salary and pension he will have accrued, Bolufer will somehow be able to struggle through the holiday period without too much difficulty.

The same, sadly cannot be said for the homeless man found dead in this morning after another night on the capital’s streets in subzero temperatures.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Defending the indefensible

Oh dear. There’s a tremendous polemic in progress here in France at the moment as journalists get their knickers well and truly twisted over the coverage of the nation’s most prominent sweethearts.

Cameras may have been a-clicking and headline writers a-titling after last weekend’s romantic photo op at Euro Disney as the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his latest belle, Carla Bruni, took to the roller coasters, but one broadcaster is adamantly refusing to air the story.

TF1, France’s main private television channel, has so far not mentioned the happy couple in any of its news broadcasts.

On Monday evening, after all the national dailies had carried front page pictures and radio ‘phone-ins had jabbered on about little else all day, the five million or so viewers of TF1’s prime time news could well have expected a comment or two.

After all at the same time, over on the country’s main public television channel, France 2, the news team’s head honcho, David Pujadas, was happily anchoring a 10-minute wrap of the Disney fable, including a video taken by a happy member of the public.

But no, TF1 had decided that the Sarkozy-Bruni day out was not newsworthy. In fact it wasn’t even a story.

The channel’s main news presenter, Patrick Poivre D’Arvor (PPDA), has since been popping up everywhere else defending the decision. Apparently his, and the rest of TF1’s thinking is that as there has been no official comment from the president, there is nothing to report – ergo there isn’t a story. The private life of the president, PPDA maintains, is exactly that, and should not be covered.

Somehow though those claims seem to be full of holes and they certainly don’t wash with the rest of the media’s thinking.

Most editors - television, radio and press – consider Sarkozy’s very public appearance with Bruni to have been sanctioned by the president himself as a chance for pictures to be taken of the two together. No statement may have been made, but the photos were authorised in terms of when and how they were taken.

There was no long lens involved, no secrecy and there have been no attempts to prevent publication.

The photos are in the public domain, and while it’s certainly open to question as to whether they are actually interesting, they are of interest. They were authorised and they are therefore news.

Still TF1 stands by its decision, claiming that the president’s private life is of no interest (to its viewers) and Tuesday evening’s programme was equally void of any mention. Of course it all raises the question as to how journalists decide what is newsworthy – a process seldom open to great viewing public.

It surely cannot be simple payback time as PPDA, his lunchtime equivalent Jean-Pierre Pernault and the weekend anchor, Claire Chazal, have all had their private lives plastered over the front pages at one time or another. And they all have a significant role in deciding the contents of the news broadcasts.

The invasion of privacy argument is even harder for TF1 to justify in light of the fact that just a couple of months ago the channel led its new programme with Sarkozy’s divorce on the same day that the train drivers brought the country to a standstill on the first of their national strikes.

And of course the delightful twist in all of this is the extra coverage the (non) story is getting everywhere – except TF1 of course.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Waiting in the wings

If the recent rumours of a blossoming love affair between the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian-born former top model Carla Bruni, prove to have any substance, they won’t be the only Franco-Italian couple to be hitting the headlines this week.

Air France – KLM has outlined its offer to buy Italy’s troubled national carrier Alitalia. A daring move perhaps as when it first announced that it might be making a firm offer back in late November, shares in the Franco-Dutch airline fell by more than six per cent – their biggest drop in more than three years.

But that apparently hasn’t put off the company’s interest in proposing a deal which would see it inject around €750 million into the virtually bankrupt Italian flag carrier.

If successful it would involve a share swap, while allowing the Italian government to retain a stake in the new company.

The attraction for Air France has to be control of the profitable Milan-Rome route and the likelihood of encouraging Italian passengers to use its Paris and Amsterdam hubs for long haul flights. But nonetheless you have to admire the business nerve of any company willing to take on the risk of rescuing the Italian airline as the statistics speak for themselves.

Alitalia has a debt of around €1.2 billion, loses more than €1 million a day and hasn’t notched up an annual profit since 2002. And as if those figures were not bad enough, it also has a fleet of notoriously ageing, gas-guzzling aircraft and a 20,000 plus workforce that seems to spend as much time on the ground striking as it does in the air flying. Little wonder then that the government is so keen to offload it.

And it’s not the first time this year Rome has tried to find a buyer. A previous attempt failed after all the bidders withdrew, mainly over concerns as to the airline’s precarious financial situation.

Furthermore any potential buyer can hardly have been encouraged by comments either from the chairman describing Alitalia as “comatose” or the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, remarking that the company was “completely out of control.”

This will not be the first time Air France has made overtures towards Alitalia. It first started talks of a merger back in June 2001 but abandoned them opting instead to join forces with KLM three years later.

By anyone’s reckoning turning around the Italian carrier will be a hard task. But many economists rate Air France – KLM as the best bet for a long-term restructuring of Alitalia as it has far deeper pockets than either of its main competitors.

The financial risks involved could be considerable for all sides involved, but time is running out and Rome has set a Christmas deadline for the sale.

But there again a decision was due last week, was delayed – again. So expect more news this week for a marriage not quite made in heaven – perhaps.

Manipulating the media – a Christmas fairy tale

Yet again the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proved himself a supremo at hogging the news agenda here in France and deflecting the headlines away from what maybe really should matter.

This time it’s his affairs of the heart that are once more all over the front pages of the national press.

But the lady at the centre of today’s media maelstrom is not the much-touted French television journalist, Laurence Ferrari, with whom Sarkozy had been spotted enjoying cosy tête-à-tête dinners in recent months, but former top model turned chanteuse, Carla Bruni.

The two were photographed over the weekend enjoying the attractions of a visit to Euro Disney – much in keeping with Sarkozy’s penchant for mainstream culture.

Odd though, that in a country which usually shies away from reporting the private lives of public figures – especially political ones – that the Sarkozy-Bruni story should make such a splash.

Could there be just a smidgeon of media manipulation going on?

After all, Sarkozy has regularly insisted – most notably when it has suited him – that his private life should be of no interest to anyone else other than himself.

As if to underline that point just a few months ago when the persistent rumours of a possible split with his former wife Cecilia were rife, he even stormed out of an interview with an American television programme, when the subject was broached.

Sarkophrenic behaviour - as one journalist has termed his sometimes seemingly contradictory reaction – as a few days later he confirmed that indeed he and the enigmatic Cecilia were divorcing.

Interestingly, although not surprisingly perhaps, that announcement came on the very day that the transport workers launched their first national day of (in)action. No prizes for guessing what made the biggest impact on the front pages and prime time news.

So let’s turn back to Sarkozy-Bruni’s day out. How much of a scoop is the story?

Well it was no long-lens stuff. The “official” paparazzi had clearly been forewarned and although there were no shots of the pair smooching, the happy couple didn’t exactly try to scarper from the cameras.

In fact it was almost as though they had themselves chosen a very public place in which to be photographed.

Of course there’s been no official comment from the president’s spokesman – which is enough to set the rumour mill into overdrive at the best of times.

But this time around, unlike the recent speculation that Sarkozy was dating Ferrari, all the national dailies have full colours photographs plastered over their front pages. And radio and television bulletins are all leading on only one issue.

So it must be true and even the warbling 39-year-old Bruni – no stranger to the front pages of the glossies herself – has reportedly confirmed the rumours to the editor of one of the leading weekly news magazines.

Whether it’s the simple truth or mere speculation really doesn’t matter. In spite of their normal reticence to report private affairs, the French media has shown itself more than willing to jump at the chance of a truly grand story.

And what better way for Sarkozy to ward off criticism after the five-day visit of Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, or the lack of promised funding to provide emergency housing for the homeless, or the faltering progress of the French economy, or……or…..or.

Far better to provide the country with a feel-good photo-op in the run-up to Christmas.

We await the first official fairytale kiss with baited breath.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Building for a better future

In a week when the visit of Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, made most of the headlines for many of the wrong reasons here, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has still found time for a spot of domestic politicking.

His campaign promise to review from top to bottom the country’s stock of HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré or low-rent council housing) hit the news on Tuesday when he outlined his plans for reform.

An estimated 10 million people in France live in HLMs, so any change in the way they’re managed or allocated could potentially hit a sizeable chunk of the population.

At the heart of the issue is a waiting list of more than 1.5 million households who, according to government figures, qualify for subsidised housing but there’s just not the accommodation available for them.

To reduce that waiting list, Sarkozy wants to take a two-pronged approach: make sure that those who most need subsidised housing actually get it, and encourage local authorities to build.

If the government figures are to be believed then the way council housing has been allocated certainly needs to be changed.

More than 400,000 families who are currently living in HLMs have an income above the official entitlement threshold. Basically this has been allowed to happen because when families are allocated housing their income might well be below that limit but there has been no way of checking whether there has been a change in earnings.

Sarkozy wants to reintroduce “transparency” into the whole process by means-testing entitlement every three years. Such a review would not just look at income but also a change in family circumstances (where the children leave home for example) a factor that means that an additional 800,000 HLMs are apparently currently “under-occupied”.

But Sarkozy admits that the size of the waiting list is not just down to occupancy being gridlocked. Local authorities, he maintains, are often reluctant to build new subsidised housing.

His solution is to have the state lead by example by selling off land owned by different ministries – most notably by the defence ministry around Paris – to build new HLMs. Sarkozy’s goal is 60,000 new homes by 2012.

In other parts of the country, where local authorities may well lack resources, he wants the State to chip in to boost funds and simplify the process of granting building permits.

Of course all these proposed changes will require a mass of paperwork at exactly the same time as the president is looking to rationalise the French preoccupation with administrative red tape.

And where’s the money going to come from to help local authorities? After all as Sarkozy himself admitted recently in a television interview, the State coffers are pretty empty at the moment.

Ah well that’s where a dollop of 80s-inspired Thatcherism might well help out. Fulfilling yet another campaign promise, Sarkozy wants to allow tenants the right to buy.

The target is an eventual 40,000 council houses to be sold a year. But tenants will have no automatic right to buy their house or apartment – that will be determined by the independent organisation running HLMs. And local authorities can only sell if they agree to build two new HLMs for every one sold.

Yep sounds like a classic case of bureaucracy a la française.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Christmas shopping and chequebook diplomacy

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is in town for a five-day visit, camped in the centre of Paris in his luxury Bedouin tent and with a mere 400-strong entourage.

But more importantly he’s here on a pre-Christmas spending spree and has already signed deals with French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, worth €10 billion.

The agreement includes an order for 21 Airbus aircraft, 14 Rafale fighter jets, which incidentally nobody else wants to buy, and a nuclear power plant – for civilian purposes of course.

France, which prides itself as being a standard bearer for human rights and actually has an internationally recognised humanitarian in Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, has under Sarkozy, studiously ignored Gaddafi’s appalling human rights record.

Indeed Sarkozy has justified his chequebook diplomacy by asserting that France must “speak with all of those who want to return to the road of respectability and reintegrate the international community”.

Oh well that’s all fine and dandy then. Business comes first and clearly €10 billion helps make it easier to ignore the often-alleged torture of prisoners and Gaddafi’s former support for terrorists.

And what great planning to have the Libyan leader’s ‘plane touch down on French soil on International Human Rights day.

The loudest voice of dissent came from Sarkozy’s junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade. Mind you she hasn’t exactly been in the president’s good books recently as witnessed by her being dropped at the last minute from the official delegation during last month’s billion-Euro-contract trip to China.

On Monday, Yade complained to the press about the timing of Gaddafi’s visit and her comments quickly had her hauled in to the presidential HQ – the Elysee Palace – for a severe 20-minute talking to.

Yade left promising to remain quiet and determined not to resign in protest. And that has led some cynics to suggest that in fact Sarkozy himself orchestrated the whole outburst.

It is suggested that he is content to play the boo-man to Yade’s good gal image as long as it helps rake in the contracts for France. Pure fiction?

Well perhaps not. Interestingly enough Yade’s immediate boss, Kouchner, has been noticeably silent about Gaddafi’s visit even though given his track record he cannot be that enthusiastic. Meanwhile the prime minister, Francois Fillon has been shipped off to Argentina for the inauguration of that country’s newly elected president, Cristina Kirchner.

The Socialists and some centre-right politicians have threatened a boycott of parliament on Tuesday when Gaddafi is due to address them. But it’s all really a little half-hearted – and more than a little late.

Slightly odd isn’t it that the loudest voice of dissent comes from within the government itself, from a minister who is no longer talking?

The only conclusion is that once again Sarkozy has trashed human rights and taken complete control for done deals.

A Merry Christmas indeed.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Fadela Amara – Dornröschen?

Actually Fadela Amara is far from being a “Sleeping Beauty” of any kind but she could well prove to be both the real thorn and rose in French president’s Nicolas Sarkozy’s government.

Along with justice minister, Rachida Dati, and the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, Amara forms part of the triumvirate of women of immigrant origin to be welcomed into the government.

But of the three, Amara’s appointment as junior minister of urban policy has been by far the most unexpected and intriguing. And unlike the other two she is the only one to have been given a portfolio related to her origins.

The 43-year-old “ghetto warrior” as she has been dubbed by one newspaper is one of 11 children born into an Algerian Kabyle family and has built up a reputation for her work as a feminist in France’s immigrant suburbs.

She’s a committed Socialist whom Sarkozy has charged with the delicate task of putting together an action plan to deal with problems in the country’s deprived inner city suburbs.

And if anyone has the credibility, drive and integrity to get things moving, it has to be Amara.

Her career has been unconventional in French terms, as it has been built upon her experience as an activist in several pressure groups, rather than the classic route of higher education.

A fierce anti-racist and feminist, she has spent years campaigning for women’s rights and although a practising Moslem has sometimes drawn severe criticism from within her own community.

Some claim she has helped “demonise” the public perception in France of young North African men and she came under fire for her support of the ban on wearing headscarves in state schools. Amara defends her stance by claiming that the headscarf has less to do with tradition, as other French feminists might insist, and is instead “archaic and a clear visible symbol of the subjugation of women”.

Obviously Amara is not one to mince her words and her fighting talk is also matched by action.

Back in 1983, she took part in the landmark equal rights march for the second generation of North African immigrants. It started in Marseille with a handful of activists but by the time it reached Paris it was almost 100,000-strong.

And Amara was back on the streets in 2003 following two high-profile cases of violence against young Muslim women in the suburbs. This time the march, which she organised, was to highlight the plight of millions of women in inner city suburbs. By the time it reached Paris more than 30,000 were demonstrating under the banner “Ni Putes, Ni Soumises” (Neither whores,nor slaves) – a movement which has since become one of the most vociferous feminist movements in the country.

The roots of much of Amara’s self-admitted “anger” at social injustice can be traced back to the death of one of her brothers when she was just 14. Malik, five years old at the time, was the victim of a drunk-driving accident. Amara looked on as the police, rather than charging the motorist, sided with him and blamed her parents, “able to mistreat them because they were Arabs,” she says.

The trappings of office have so far not changed Amara’s lifestyle. She has refused to accept the apartment that goes with the job, preferring instead to remain living in the suburbs of Paris. And somehow it’s hard to imagine her posing for the front cover of the weekly glossies as Rachida Dati did for last week’s issue of Paris Match.

Her formula for resolving the causes of the problems that set the inner city suburbs alight in 2005 and saw them flare up again just last month – is eagerly waited.

The extent of the problem and how to break the cycle of chronic unemployment, poverty and a marginalised youth may seem insurmountable. But it could prove crucial in the long run to Sarkozy’s presidency.

And if anyone is up to the challenge, it has to be Fadela Amara.

Let’s hope so.


Saturday, 8 December 2007

MISSed France

Ah the marvels of prime time TV scheduling. Saturday night here in France promises to be pure ecstasy for those couch potatoes in control of the remote with some major zapping required.

While public television will be broadcasting its annual telethon to raise millions for medical research, TF1, the country’s top (private) channel will be going head-to-head – or perhaps better said breast-to-breast - with its yearly pandering to male chauvinism.

Yes it’s time to elect Miss France – an event that never fails to pull in the audience with more than 11 million viewers expected to tune in.

This being France of course, the jamboree has a much more global aspect than beauty pageants in the rest of Europe. Competing for the crown will be 36 lasses from all the French regions. That includes of course Misses Alsace, Bretagne and Languedoc – all perhaps familiar and recognised to those outside of the country. But also strutting their stuff will be Miss Guadeloupe along with her Caribbean neighbours Misses Martinique and Guyana as well as the Pacific Ocean charms of Misses New Caledonia and Tahiti and Indian Ocean stunner Miss Reunion.

With so much international beauty on stage at the same time, it’s almost a wonder the winner bothers with the Miss World competition.

Yes the joys of France and its Departments and Territories overseas. The former of course are all officially part of the EU too, so get heaps of money from Brussels for redevelopment. But that of course is another story.

Saturday’s extravaganza promises to be something of a departure from the rather demur set–up of previous events. And it could well mark the end of the involvement for the hat fan Madame Genvieve de Fontenay, who seems to have been organising the thing for most of its 80-year existence.

Admittedly de Fontenay has managed to maintain the rule which bans two-piece swimsuits in her belief that a Miss must personify beauty and not vulgarity.

But that’s unlikely to stop sex raising its ugly little head.

This being the age of reality TV when many a twenty-something (male or female) seems ready to do just about anything to flash their wotsits or display dubious morals in front of discerning viewers, some of this years Miss France contestants are already rumoured to have TV deals lined up and shock-and-tell stories waiting to hit the weekly glossies the day after they lose.

One departure though from previous years is the equal weight given between the official judges’ preference and that of the viewers – a straight 50-50 cut this year.

Apparently if the same voting system had been used last year, it would not be Miss Oise (Rachel Legrain-Tragnini) who would be handing on her title this year, but the runner-up and audience favourite Sophie Vouzelaud, who captured the nations hearts when it was revealed in the closing stages that she was deaf.

How much longer the current format can hold its own is doubtful especially as there are a string of similarly highbrow contests planned for next year.

An alternative Miss France 2008 is slated for late January – organised by a competitor to Madame de Fontenay. And another private TV channel, W9, has announced plans for its own sexier more contemporary version of the pageant.

Meanwhile this year’s contenders include two women who stand out for very different reasons. Poor Miss Guadeloupe has already hit the headlines because apparently she cannot find a swimsuit big enough to cover her amply proportioned figure.

Meanwhile Miss Cote d’Azur has been touted as a pre-competition favourite who seems born and christened to lift the title.

Azemina Hot – yes her real name – just about encompasses everything a Miss France should be. She fits the country’s international definition of being French as both parents of this “sultry Mediterranean” came here from Montenegro in the early 1980s. And she is bright - a student of modern languages with an ambition is to work in the diplomatic service.

Victory tonight for Ms Hot would seem a natural launching pad.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Grand gestures and big business

If there’s one thing that has characterised the recent change in French foreign policy, it’s the increase in pragmatism since Nicolas Sarkozy became president in May.

Shortly after he came to office he called for a new way of thinking, a New Deal for the world – economically and ecologically – with France taking a lead role. But is Sarkozy’s vision really one of foreign policy that includes the necessary recognition of human rights and principles of democracy? Or is it rather full of grand gestures, showmanship and pandering to the needs of big business? In short what are his principles?

His latest foray has all the markings of yet another potential media circus about it, albeit a rather delicate issue. Sarkozy has taken the unusual step of appealing directly (on television of course) to the leader of the Colombian rebel movement for the release of a French-Colombian hostage, Ingrid Betancourt. She has been held prisoner since February 2002 when she was kidnapped while campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

Sarkozy’s direct intervention came just days after a video was released showing Betancourt in a weak and gaunt state. The French president has made her release one of his priorities and if he pulls it off it will undoubtedly be racked up as a major political coup.

Of course it will also be fully (over) covered by the media here in much the same way as his intervention was a few months ago in the release of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor in Libya who had been accused of infecting children with HIV, or the repatriation of a Spanish cabin crew from Chad in November following the outcry over a French non-governmental organisation’s alleged attempts to “traffic” children.

Sarkozy is clearly a great showman and revels in grand gestures. Such symbolism though loses its impact when the major driving force behind foreign policy turns out to be economic.

There’s perhaps nothing new in a country’s leader setting out to pursue a foreign policy in terms of what is perceived to be in the national interest. Everyone does it. What is so different about Sarkozy is that he is far less subtle about it.

Every official state visit so far has been a chance to sign contracts worth billions of euros to French companies – high-speed trains to Morocco, ‘planes and power plants to China or energy deals in Algeria.

He has preferred to downplay any mention of human rights issues, even going so far as to stop the minister responsible, Rama Yade, from joining him on his trip to Beijing. And there was no attempt to put pressure on French oil giant, Total, to ease back on its investments in Burma during last month’s violent government crackdown on democracy protestors in Rangoon.

His remarks during a speech in Algiers that France’s colonial system had been “profoundly unjust” and contradictory to the founding principles of the French republic, liberty, equality and fraternity were commendable.

In a twist of doublespeak, he also raised the issue of how Algeria was as unwelcoming of some of its sons and daughters as France was often accused of being. A reference to the plight of Algerians (known as Harkis) who had fought for France during the North African country’s long war of independence from 1956-62.

The Harkis that fled to France after the war were held in internment camps and have suffered decades of discrimination, while those who stayed in Algeria were massacred or imprisoned.

While France’s present and past in North Africa will always be full of contradictions – for which Sarkozy cannot be held completely responsible - the same cannot be said for his exact understanding of the term democracy.

It came in from some serious questioning from European neighbours after last week’s parliamentary election in Russia.

Collectively the European Union queried the very nature of the ballot with Germany’s Angela Merkel going as far as to describe it flatly as neither free nor democratic.

Sarkozy, it appears had no such qualms, personally calling the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to congratulate him on his party’s victory. An odd move perhaps from a man who, since coming to office, has already been much more critical of Russia’s human rights record than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

Opposition politicians in France have suggested that Sarkozy is perhaps once again putting economic interests first, paving the way for more deals, such as one Renault has finalised with Russian car manufacturer Lada.

Similar interests also figure high in criticism of next week’s planned visit to France by Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi for the first rime in more than 30 years. Gaddafi will meet Sarkozy twice during his five-day trip with yet more trade contracts on the table.

Back in July the two countries announced an arms deal worth €275 million – Libya’s first with a western country since the EU lifted an embargo in 2004

Clearly Sarkozy is a man of many principles.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Time for a Hallyday – finally.

It’s official. A dinosaur of the French music scene is knackered. The 64-year-old Johnny Hallyday is finally packing away his vocal chords and retiring.

But hang about – not so fast. He’s apparently not quite finished and certainly ain’t going out without a bang.

Jean-Philippe Smet – to give him his full name – announced his retirement plans on Sunday’s evening news. And what plans – a farewell tour with the kick off at Stade de France (maximum capacity 80,000 people) in May – 2009!

That should leave plenty of time for the release of yet another album (or more perhaps) to follow the success of his latest one “Le couer d’un homme”, which is currently topping the charts.

And tonight there’ll be a general love-fest as Johnny, along with buddies galore, celebrates more than 40 years of rocking the nation with a two-hour prime time special dedicated solely to his music.

So what makes this ageing crooner (whose father was Belgian) such an icon of the French music scene? Well to begin with he has a powerhouse of a voice and can still belt out a tune.

Simply put, he was from the start of his career France’s answer to Elvis and hit the big time in the early 60s as the first rock n’ roller to sing in French.

Since then the statistics speak for themselves. Over the decades he has notched up 400 tours, performing in front of 15 million people had 18 platinum albums and sold more than 100 million records.

Mind you professional success has come at a price. His personal life has rarely been out of the headlines. In the mid 60s he married Sylvie Vartan – another mainstay of the French music scene - and the two were the Golden Couple of their generation until they divorced in 1980.

His second marriage in 1981 to model Babeth Etienne lasted barely two months and then there was a highly publicised four-year affair with the actress Nathalie Baye. A two-year marriage to Adeline Blondiau in the early 90s was followed by a fourth tying of the knot at the age of 53 in 1996 to the 21-year-old Laetitia Boudou.

All those years of touring and record sales have of course boosted his coffers to an estimated princely personal annual income of than more than €6 million. But such riches are heavily taxed here in France and Hallyday caused a storm of publicity last year when he upped sticks and moved his official residence to the Swiss millionaires resort of Gstaad.

So far not even the election of his close friend Nicolas Sarkozy as president or the recent drop in the level of French wealth tax have tempted him to return.

His fiscal flight and attempts to seek Belgian nationality (now abandoned) might have disappointed his legions of fans, but there’s no denying he has maintained his popularity.

Over 40,000 tickets for the opening dates of his 2009 concerts were scooped up when they went on sale yesterday.

The tour should be a fitting climax to the career of an ageing rocker, whose concert at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in June 2000 (in front of 800,000 fans and 10 million television viewers) rated as one of the most spectacular music events ever in France,

Johnny deserves his retirement.

Monday, 3 December 2007

“My most beautiful story IS YOU.”

No not the latest historical romance from Mills and Boon, but the title of the long-awaited oeuvre from the former Socialist presidential candidate, Segolene Royal.

The blurb for the launch of “Ma plus belle histoire, c’est vous” promises readers a mix of tears and laughter, pages packed from start to finish with humour and plenty of emotion.

Grappling to find a news angle last week one respected Internet site, clearly supplied with a teaser from the author herself, claimed that Royal was in fact about to dish some real dirt. The book, the site maintained, reveals that during a secret meeting Royal had offered the post of prime minister to the already beaten centre-right presidential candidate, François Bayrou. Their “assignation” apparently took place before her head-to-head debate with Nicolas Sarkozy just days before the final vote.

Ah but remember this is the wonderful world of often unsubstantiated and usually contradictory journalism and politics. So it’s hardly a surprise that a similar speculative story as to what was actually in the book, appeared on another even more respected news site with a slightly different angle.

The offer had indeed been made Bayrou is reported to have responded, but never accepted as there was no way he could have agreed to it believing, as he did, that Royal could not win. And of course the two had never met in private.

Ho hum lovely to see supposition and rumour shedding light on what we shall all be able to find our for ourselves on Tuesday.

So no story then? Well not quite. It’s rather an indication that even though journalists have perhaps been scratching around trying to throw some titbits out to the hungry masses, Royal has been playing her cards very close to her chest and not given them a chance spoil her comeback.

And that’s the real story - she’s back – and she’s back in charge of her own destiny.

She has shaken off the shackles of the Socialist Party’s old-timers – the so-called elephants – to whom she had been virtually manacled in the closing stages of electoral campaigning. Real emancipation at last, as evidenced by the few remarks she has made in recent months that her campaign had suffered because she had been forced to accept the impracticable sacred-cow policies of the 35-hour working week and a minimum wage of €1,500 euros a month.

The book, according to Royal’s own official website, is her attempt to set the record straight in so far as it details the months leading up to her failed attempt to beat Sarkozy in May.

The (centre-right) political weekly “Le Point” says the writing of the book was itself cathartic for the former candidate - not a time to fire salvoes at critics, but more a way of drawing that proverbial line under the past.

While Lionel Jospin, a fellow failed presidential candidate and one time Socialist prime minister, took aim at what he termed Royal’s incompetence in his own version of events a few months ago, she is said to have spent time taking stock and learning from her mistakes.

Of course the pre-Christmas timing of the book’s release could not be better planned and will probably help boost interest and sales. It also clearly hauls Royal back to centre stage after months of relative silence.

She has maintained a discreet distance from the political infighting within the Socialist party but still commands healthy support and has preserved close contact with some very influential
party activists

Her revamped inner circle of advisors is in part an answer to her own admission that Sarkozy had a veritable war machine in place during the presidential election campaign. And since she booted her former partner and likely competitor for the leadership of the party (for the presidential nomination in 2012), François Hollande out of their apartment, she has also installed herself in new offices away from the party’s headquarters.

And with local elections just a few months away, Royal is busy painting the town Red – quite literally – making regular appearances at the theatre, concerts and dance performances

She has rediscovered her professional and private life – rising beyond what must be bitter lessons of being called the “mother the country never needed” or the misogynist mocking of former colleagues as being a woman who castrated men.

But Royal has worryingly kept that disturbing staccato style of saying something one day, and then almost appearing to backtrack on it the next. She initially gave her support for example to the government’s policy for changes in the funding and administration of universities and followed it a couple of days later with the qualification that she wasn’t backing reform with her eyes closed.

While “Ma plus belle histoire, c’est vous” might not send too many pulses racing or pick up accolades for literary distinction, it is important because it marks the return to frontline politics of a presidential candidate who had the backing of 17 million voters at the polls.

And in the almost seven months of a hyperactive president firing on all fronts simultaneously, the voice so far of any reasoned opposition has been all but stifled. Perhaps French democracy will decide that it needs Segolene Royal after all.
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