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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Travel troubles

Getting to and moving around France could prove to be a bit of a problem once again. Last November, train drivers brought the country to a virtual standstill for just over a week as they came out on strike against government plans to reform pensions.

This week though it has been the turn of taxi drivers and the national airline, Air France, to turn the daily commute for many into a not too magical, misery mystery tour.

On Wednesday thousands of cab drivers blocked major arteries in many cities across France in protest over a government-commissioned report proposing to deregulate the granting of licences.

The biggest demonstration was in Paris, where there is a particular problem with not just the number but also the availability of taxis at certain times of the day. The situation is especially critical during the early morning rush hour – as anyone who has tried to hail a taxi can readily testify.

It’s at exactly that time that most cabs are headed out to one of the capital’s two airports, Orly or Roissy. But from 10 o’clock onwards many drivers are back at the ranks, sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for business.

At the moment there are just 16,000 licensed taxis in Paris and its suburbs, far fewer than there were way back in 1920 when there were 25,000.

The report’s proposals currently under consideration are to liberalise the market by allowing anyone who registers with the local authorities to be granted a licence to carry passengers. Such a move would increase the number in circulation in Paris and its environs to around 50,000. In effect it would introduce a system of minicabs, which at the moment doesn’t exist.

But the taxi federation maintains the changes would in fact guarantee that many drivers, already struggling to make a living, would simply go bust.

Average earnings are around €7,60 an hour according to the president of the federation, Alain Estival, and cabbies are forced to work between 50 and 60 hours a week to secure a reasonable take-home pay and cover the costs of having acquired a licence in the first place - €200,000.

If the number of taxis were increased to the extent planned – it would simply mean a lot of qualified drivers would no longer be able to make a living.

The report also includes a suggestion that the Mayor of Paris buy back those licences already granted, thereby creating a truly level playing field. But that would cost a small fortune and the money just isn’t available, not even if the state were to chip in.

The government has promised that any eventual reforms, including the idea of a lane reserved solely for taxis on the motorways leading from Paris to the two airports, are just at the proposal stage at the moment. Any changes would only happen after a period of consultation with the taxi drivers’ federation. Ominously though, another day of blockades is threatened for next week.

And equally portentous perhaps was the way newspapers announced the strike at Air France on Thursday as being the company’s first of the year. By implication more can be expected.

Unions called for action to put pressure on the management ahead of a planned round of salary negotiations due to start next week.

They’re calling for pay rises bigger than the 2.3 per cent increase currently on the table and another look at the way cabin crew are remunerated for unsociable working hours.

Air France took some preventative measures in advance of the strike by cancelling 10 per cent of flights out of Orly – the airport deals mainly with domestic traffic – and booking passengers on to alternative flights. Its European and long haul routes from Roissy were unaffected.

But staff at the airline have a reputation for striking when it’s guaranteed to cause the maximum disruption. And unless management can bring something else to the negotiating table, the upcoming school holidays at the end of February, could prove to be yet another travelling nightmare for those trying to take to the skies.


Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Presidential pickings

“Chapeau” as they say over here, to France’s Socialist party. It has managed to put aside its internal spats for a moment and splash out a mere €10,000 on……a hat.

But it’s not just any old hat. It is in fact the symbol of a recent past when the party was still a credible political force and comfortably installed in both the country’s presidential and prime-ministerial offices.

It belonged to none other than the former president, François Mitterrand, and was one of the top bid items at Tuesday’s auction of his personal effects.

More than 300 people crowded into the Salle de Tajan in Paris to bid on the 368 items put up for sale by Mitterrand’s widow, Danielle.

The motley bunch included many party activists hungry for a bit of Socialist memorabilia and nostalgic for a bygone era. There were also the simply curious wondering what treasures Mitterrand had squirreled away during the years when he was France’s longest-serving president from 1981-1995.

Then there were of course the bargain hunters ready to make a killing on quality clothes, and antiques dealers looking for good deals which they could then pass on at marked up prices.

And there was basically something for everyone; shed loads of suits, apparently typically Mitterrand clothing paraphernalia and the usual books, pictures and furniture that might have been expected.

All going under the hammer for a good cause and, in the process, raising the princely sum of €150,000 for Danielle Mitterrand’s human rights charity, France-Libertés.

As well as THE hat – a recognisable emblem to many, of the Mitterrand years, and for which the party was prepared to pay 100 times the estimated price - another top seller was an ermine-lined barrister’s robe, a mere snip at €8,000 – kept in the profession so-to-speak by a lawyer.

Then was yet another hat – a chapka – which made actor/director, Alain Chabat “crack” and for which along with a box of personalised cigars, he was willing to cough up €5,000.

While Chabat was undoubtedly expressing the sentiment of many present that he was bidding because the Mitterrand years had been an important period of French history and he wanted his own little keepsake from that era, the motives of some others were far more questionable.

One young party member for example bought more than 30 suits so he could dress up his collection of wooden dummies – perhaps at some point to display them as a work of art, who knows?

Two more suits were scooped up by the municipal museum of the northwestern town of La Hay, which plans to show them at its “Ideal Man” exhibition at the end of July.
Then there was the woman who took home armfuls of hats, scarves and shoes, which she said she would pass on to Socialist-voting friends as future presents. With friends like that!

And isn’t there just something a little strange about shelling out €1,000 for a pair of slippers – even if they are Church’s. Maybe someone has pretensions of parading around the house with presidential footsteps.

Every time the hammer went down on yet another symbol of the Mitterrand years there was a polite round of applause, much to the consternation of some for whom the auction lacked the appropriate solemnity.

Next up presumably, will be Jacques Chirac, but for the moment he’s alive and kicking so it could be a few years yet. And then there is of course the “bling bling” presidency of the current incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, which promises to throw up some gorgeous jewels – in say….30 or 40 years time.


Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Rough justice?

There’s many a story that makes the headlines that leaves just about everyone following it wondering what on earth it’s all about and certainly raising questions about the justice involved.

And such a case has to be the “child trafficking” story and the exploits of the French non-governmental organisation, L'Arche de Zoé (Zoé’s Ark).

It all began last October when authorities in the former French African colony of Chad detained 17 Europeans whom they accused of trying to kidnap 103 children and fly them out of the country. The 17 included six members of L’Arche de Zoé,

When the news first broke the immediate assumption made by much of the French media was that there had been a police swoop on a paedophilia ring. But as the story unfolded and the facts became clearer, it transpired that nothing could have been further from the truth.

The charity claimed the children were all orphans from the Darfur region of Sudan and it had organised host families for them in France to help them escape possible death in a region where more than 200,000 people have already died during a four-year conflict, and millions more have been displaced.

But investigations by local United Nations officials revealed that very few of the children were in fact orphans and most of them came from Chadian villages along the border with Sudan.

And the French foreign ministry also cast doubt on the charity’s insistence that its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to be certain the children were orphans. The French human rights minister, Rama Yade, even went as far as to say that L’Arche de Zoé had been warned months before that it risked breaking international law.

Chad’s president, Idriss Déby was quick to raise the temperature and flex more than a little muscle, letting fly with accusations of paedophilia and organ harvesting against L’Arche de Zoé, and promising punishment for those involved in what he denounced as “straightforward kidnapping.”

The whole muddled affair threatened to escalate into a major diplomatic nightmare for the French at a time when their president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was trying to push hard for the European Union to deploy a peacekeeping force in Chad and the neighbouring Central African Republic.

So Sarkozy to the rescue with a (quite literally) flying visit to the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, to meet Déby and negotiate the release of seven of the accused – three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants.

Several days later those negotiations bore more fruit when the three remaining Spanish flight crew and the Belgian pilot were also released, just leaving the six French members of L’Arche de Zoé to face the justice of the Chadian courts.

And what justice! After a trial lasting just four days they were found guilty and each sentenced to eight years of hard labour.

Under a long-standing offenders agreement between Chad and France they were allowed to return home earlier this month, where it had been hoped by their defence lawyers that the French authorities might show some leniency.

But that was in short supply on Monday as a court in Paris upheld the ruling, simply converting the sentences to eight years imprisonment under French law

In essence the members of L’Arche de Zoé were probably only trying to do what they felt was best for children they thought needed their help, in a region where the international community and established, more recognised aid and humanitarian organisations have been struggling to make an impact.

The charity’s sense of urgency and undoubted naivety perhaps only served to compound the feeling in Chad that it was in fact violating an African country’s sovereignty and traditions in spite of the obvious paralysis so far of international diplomacy. Its members operated outside the rules of what was considered to be “proper”.

Rightly or wrongly, the six will now pay the price for “breaking the rules” for the next eight years.


Monday, 28 January 2008

How not to make money

By anyone’s reckoning €5 billion is a heck of a lot of money for any company to lose, but that’s just about the sum – give or take the odd centime – that Jerome Kerviel reportedly cost his bank, Société Générale, last week.

The 31-year-old futures trader had been betting on what direction the stock market would take and committed more than €50 billion of the bank’s money in purchases.

Every times traders buy they are supposed to balance their activities with an equivalent sale but apparently Kerviel had the know-how to fool the bank’s safeguard system and run up acquisitions of gargantuan proportions.

Finding itself in deep doo-doo, and overcommitted to an extent that even surpassed the size of France’s annual budget deficit (€35 billion) the bank sold massively just days after the “fraud” was discovered and in the process had to face up to the largest single rogue trader loss ever.

Société Générale, one of France’s major banks, compounded the whole mess by trying to cut its losses on exactly the same day as global markets took a tumble and the value of shares plummeted worldwide.

Now it’s not the first time a bank has been massively fiddled by one of its employees. Briton Nick Leeson notoriously managed to bring Barings Bank to its knees back in 1995, doing much the same thing.

But the amount involved (four times that of Leeson’s losses) and the fact that it happened to a bank with a reputation for being such a stickler for security, has shaken the financial services industry this side of the channel and of course provided fodder galore for the country’s hungry hacks.

Even though Kerviel maintains he was working alone, many analysts are questioning whether it was in fact possible for him to run up such enormous risks without the knowledge of his superiors.

The general perception is that even if he were not exactly given the green light to act in the way he did, his bosses must have been turning the proverbial blind eye.
Not so, claims Société Générale’s chief executive, Daniel Bouton whose offer to step down was rejected by the bank’s board. He insists Kerviel was acting alone without anybody else’s knowledge.

Hmmmn. Interesting that the furore over the size of the alleged fraud conveniently detracted public and media attention from a sizeable hit Société Générale has taken in recent months in the sub prime mortgage investment fiasco currently cutting swathes into banks’ profits around the world.

If Bouton’s tendering his resignation was rejected, that of several other executives was accepted, surely implying an admission of the bank’s complicity in the whole affair.

For the moment though Kerviel is being portrayed as a rogue trader. A computer geek who had somehow lost touch with the real world and was able to play out his betting fantasies in a virtual “futures” reality.

He had an in-depth knowledge of the banks rigid systems of controls as a result of several years spent working in exactly the department responsible for implementing those checks before becoming a trader in 2004. In other words he knew how to beat the system.

But Kerviel wasn’t even a high money earner, and reportedly not “gambling” for personal financial gain. With an annual salary of around €100,000 – far less than the millions earned by high-flying traders - he simply wanted peer recognition as being excellent at his job and boost his annual bonus. So his defence currently goes.

Somehow this story feels as though it has longer legs to it.


Thursday, 24 January 2008

Muhammad Ali storms into the final

France is in the grips of tennis fever at the moment following the exploits of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament in Australia.

The 22-year-old, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, has knocked out his fair share of seeded players along the way.

It all started out just under two weeks ago, when he claimed his first scalp, the great hope of Britain, Andy Murray, in the first round. And since then there’s been no stopping the previously unsung hero of the court.

In the fourth round he beat French number one, and eighth seeded Richard Gasquet in a four-set tussle, and in the quarterfinals put on a sumptuous power display to dump 14th seed Mikhail Youzhny out of the tournament.

And then on Thursday, Tsonga overturned all the experts’ expectations by crushing the world’s number two, Rafal Nadal, in just over two hours to claim his place in Sunday’s final, where he’ll face third-ranked Novak Djokovic.

Although ranked just 38th going into the tournament, Tsonga’s arrival at the top level should not really come as that much of a surprise to aficionados of the game.

He’s part of the same generation of talented young French players such as Gael Monfils and sometimes doubles partner Richard Gasquet, and first came to prominence in 2003 when he won the US Open junior title and reached the semi-finals of three other junior Grand Slams.

Although he turned professional in 2004, a string of back and shoulder injuries threatened to put a halt to a promising career and kept him somewhat in the shadows of the better known Monfils and Gasquet. By the end of 2006 he had only competed in eight tournaments, ranking outside of the world’s top 200 and only earning a wildcard into last year’s draw Down Under.

The turnaround began last year, when he won four Challenger series titles – a sort of second tier for professionals who don’t quite make the grade with the big money-earners. He also beat Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt to reach the third round of the Queen’s tournament in London and followed it up by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon.

Thursday’s win over Nadal was an awesome show of strength and precision, with Tsonga conceding just seven games as he took sweet revenge for his straight sets defeat by the Spaniard in the third round of last year’s US Open.

Commentators back home went ballistic as the Frenchmen thumped home a series of winners (49 to Nadal’s 13) and out-Aced the Spaniard 17-2.

Beaming from ear to ear the young Frenchman punched the air after his victory, earned a standing ovation from the packed 15,000-strong Rod Laver Arena and heaps of praise from a sporting Nadal.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s final, there’ll be a new name on the winner’s roll of honours. Tsonga’s father, the former Congo-Brazzaville international handball player, Didier, and his mother, Evelyne, - both teachers in the French town of Le Mans, will be making the trip Down Under to see their son take on Djokovic. The two men have never played each other before.

And the French public television channel, France 3, has cleared its morning schedules to broadcast the match live and capture what would be the first singles title for a Frenchman at the Australian Open since Jean Borotra in 1928.


Monday, 21 January 2008

Dumbing up

Advertising on public television is soon to be a thing of the past here in France. A couple of weeks ago the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced his intention to scrap commercials on the country’s five state-owned channels. He also wants to drop the English and Arabic sections of the fledgling international news broadcaster, France 24.

It’s hard exactly to follow the thinking behind Sarkozy’s decision. He claims he wants to raise the standard of programming and prevent the main public station, France 2, from becoming a carbon copy of its independent rival, TF1.

Seems a bit rich really coming from a man whose idea of a cultural highlight appears to be a day out at Eurodisney.

Still, Sarkozy has apparently discovered a taste for culture and clearly believes the rest of the country should share it.

But is that really the thinking behind his move or is there some other more sinister motive in play?

Just take a look at the manner in which the president revealed his plans. Two weeks ago at a press conference he surprised everyone with the news, especially Patrick de Carolis, the head of France 2.

De Carolis had been invited to attend, but cancelled at the last moment, which was probably just as well because it gave him a chance to collect his thoughts and avoid total public humiliation. That’s right Sarkozy hadn’t given him the slightest inkling of his plans ahead of time.

Personal payback perhaps for de Carolis who is a long time close friend of the former president, Jacques Chirac - not exactly Sarkozy’s favourite person in the world.

Then of course there is the extra revenue boost the move will give to TF1 – its share price has already soared – owned strangely enough by one of Sarkozy’s cronies. And the persistent rumours – fervently denied – that the government’s real aim is for the privatisation of France 2.

Whatever the reasoning might be, the financial repercussions cannot be overlooked and how exactly the government intends to fill the hole left by the loss of revenue is somewhat fuzzy.

Advertising currently brings in France 2 €800 million a year. The culture and communications minister, Christine Albanel, insists that there will be no increase in the licence fee. Instead the shortfall in revenue will be met by a new tax on all audio-visual equipment and other forms of media including computers, mobile phones and Internet providers.

So although there’ll be no hike in the licence, the general public will in fact be asked to dig deeper into their pockets. That’ll come as great news at a time when households will anyway be forced to buy new televisions as France follows the European-wide switchover to digital broadcasting.

While the government insists that ratings shouldn’t be the defining mechanism for programme schedules, it remains something of a mystery as to how exactly France 2 will be able to afford the longed-for “quality” television.

The production costs for example of its much heralded recent dramatisation of a Guy de Maupassant novel cost the equivalent of €1.2 million per hour. The price tag for 60 minutes-worth of an imported sure-fire US hit is just €80,000.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that unless the government is able to magic-up money from its declared empty coffers, France 2 is going to be hard pushed to provide viewers with anything other than television on the cheap.


Friday, 18 January 2008

Bling Bling the bells are ringing aren’t they?

Perhaps they already are. Perhaps they aren’t. In any case speculation is rife as to whether the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his belle, former supermodel-turned-singer, Carla Bruni, have “pledged their vows”.

But we’ve been promised that we’ll probably be the last find out about it once it has happened, should it happen.

It has barely been three months since the couple first met, so by anyone’s standards it truly has been a whirlwind romance conducted at the breakneck speed with which Sarkozy does just about everything.

So before the roller coaster journey from the first public photo op at Disneyland ends with the alter of whatever temple the two choose to tie the knot, time to take a quick look at the president’s current girlfriend and potentially first foreign-born French First Lady.

Her life so far has been a real US-style soap opera, so much so that she totally out-Dallases Dallas. On the surface at least she would seem well-suited to hold court as First Lady at what many have termed the palace of France’s own Bling Bling presidency.

Certainly if press reports are to be believed, she has already made herself at home, dolling up one room at the president’s official residence, the Elysée palace, as her “pop music room” where she presumably at some point intends to put together ditties for a third best-selling album.

She has also been quoted as saying she’s ready to put aside her life as a seductress and would be perfect for the job of First Lady. That’s a far cry from the sentiments of Cecilia Sarkozy, who couldn’t get away from the trappings of being Mrs President fast enough.

The daughter of a wealthy Italian industrialist and composer, Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, and the Italian concert pianist, Marisa Borini, Bruni was born in Turin, moved to France with her family when she was just five and was “discovered” by the world of catwalks at 19.

She has long been considered one of the world’s most beautiful women – the kind who would make wearing a tea cosy not only fashionable but probably also sexy.

Over the years she has acquired the reputation as something of a “man eater”, not an image she has been eager to play down, even apparently going as far as to say once that “I am monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.”

In her 20s she had a much publicised on-off affair with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger – and in her time has also dated a long and eclectic list of A-listers including US billionaire Donald Trump, British rock star Eric Clapton, Hollywood actor Kevin Costner and even former French Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius.

And how’s this for a one-woman double act so to speak. Seven years ago, while living with the French publisher, Jean-Paul Enthoven, she met and fell in love with his son, Raphael.

Bruni and Enthoven Jnr had a son, Aurélien – now six – who was most recently snapped bouncing around on the shoulders of the French president on the streets of Petra, Jordan.

How she will actually fit into Sarkozy’s circles leaves quite a lot to the imagination. She’s privileged bohemian chic with political views more in keeping with those of the president’s opponents. Indeed just shortly before meeting him she publicly criticised Sarkozy’s plans to crack down on illegal immigration and introduce DNA testing.

At 40, she bears a striking physical resemblance to Sarkozy’s second wife, Cecilia. And since her birthday just before Christmas, is also the proud owner of a €40 thousand something ring – a present from the president and an exact copy of one he had already given to Cecilia shortly before the end of their marriage.

So the big question remaining is will she or won’t she, or perhaps is she already (Mrs Sarkozy III)? All right so that’s more than one question

Maybe after all Sarkozy will heed the advice of his 80-year-old mother, Andrée, who just two weeks ago said in an interview that she hoped her son would not contemplate a third marriage as SHE had had more than enough of brides.

But the man is visibly head over heels and maybe her advice has already come too late – who cares? No one and everyone!


Thursday, 17 January 2008

Faltering fortunes

If a week is proverbially a long time in politics, then eight months must seem like an eternity to some.

And so it would seem for a majority of the French, who according to the latest opinion poll – yes, yet another one – give the thumbs down to the way their president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is going about his daily business.

For the first time since coming to office last May, Sarkozy’s popularity rating has dipped into the negative.

While 45 percent of those questioned are still happy with their president’s “Bling Bling” style leadership, 48 percent aren’t.

Confirmation, as if it were needed, that perhaps the French are getting more than just a little tired with Sarkozy’s shenanigans.

Top of the list of complaints – and there are many – is his failure to live up to his election promises, and in particular the undertaking to increase peoples’ purchasing power.

Certainly Sarkozy has been firing on all cylinders for quite some time now, and his energy is immense. But there has simply been no evidence of an increase in the standard of living, and the euro in peoples’ pockets is not stretching as far as they had been promised.

His defence has been that things take time, there’s no money in the state coffers to finance reform programmes and that people need to “work more to earn more”. The mantra does not seem to have won him too many friends among the general public, especially as the only financial concessions Sarkozy has made so far are tax breaks for the already well off.

Of course his constant media presence outside the political arena hasn’t helped matters much either and in particular the way his private life has made the headlines.

Divorce, a new girlfriend and rumours of marriage – all in the space of just three months – are perhaps proving just too testing for the French. They’re not used to seeing their presidents hang out their laundry, and even though there is undoubtedly a huge voyeuristic element (gossip boosts circulation and viewing figures) it just ain’t what they expect from their politicians and certainly not their head honcho.

Some in his party have claimed that the poor man has been “harassed” by a media, which has constantly reported every step of his private life. Clearly on current evidence, he has been a totally unwilling accomplice.

Meanwhile at a time when Sarkozy’s popularity is taking a dip, that of his seemingly long-suffering second in command, the prime minister François Fillon, is witnessing a resurgence.

Now Fillon might not exactly be the most charismatic politician ever to have made the big time – some might say he makes Britain’s Gordon Brown look like the life and soul of any party – but he is generally seen as trustworthy, cautious and dependable - in fact almost the complete opposite to the president.

And while he’s probably never going to hit the highs (or lows) of someone like Sarkozy in the popularity stakes, the latest figures have him fast catching up with his boss, with a 43 per cent approval rating.

Fillon’s self-effacing style may go down well with a public wearied by Sarkozy’s exhausting overexposure, but there is a certain false modesty in play by the prime minister.

When asked exactly what he thinks of what many perceive as the public excesses of his boss, he refuses to comment, maintaining that in his 30-year-long career in politics he has always been loathe to pass judgement on others’ private lives. A statement heartily repeated by most of his government’s ministers.

The problem for Fillon and of course the rest of the cabinet, is that they really are only secure in their jobs for as long as they remain in Sarkozy’s good books. He can hire, fire and tinker with, whenever he sees fit.

But as the latest polls shows even he will have to keep an eye on his ratings.

There’s a limit as to how prepared the French are willing to tolerate simple bad manners such as when Sarkozy was caught on camera writing a text massage during the welcoming ceremony of his state visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this week.

The president has made the local elections here in March a vote of confidence in himself, his government and his policies. He could be in for an unpleasant surprise.


Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Wannabe mayors and presidents

January 15, 2008

Campaigning for the local elections here in March has only just started, but already it’s promising to provide political fireworks, with a whole heap of cabinet ministers running to fill the nation’s town halls.

Everyone it seems just wants to be mayor.

It’s all part of a peculiarly French tradition allowing government officials to collect as many political mandates as possible – almost a case of the more the merrier.

But while it was frowned upon to a certain extent under the last French president, Jacques Chirac, the current incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have gone wild in his enthusiasm for encouraging his ministers to “go to the polls”.

Apparently it’ll allow them to keep in touch with grass roots politics, even if they won’t actually be able to spend any time in their local wards and are in many cases being parachuted into safe seats to gain political legitimacy.

Among those who have not held elected office of any kind and will be facing voters for the first time are three frontline ministers; Rachida Dati (justice), Christine Albanel (culture) and Christine Lagarde (finance). In fact when looked at as a whole, nearly two-thirds of the 33-strong government is running for election.

With the energetic and seemingly omnipresent Sarkozy at the helm, the governing centre–right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) is aiming high in the local elections.

Sarkozy himself has even promised to pay personal whirlwind visits to several cities and towns to provide his backing for some candidates, presumably squeezing in the time between trips to the Middle East, India, Eastern Europe and a quick job at the registry office (if it hasn’t already happened)

The strategy could prove embarrassing if the UMP doesn’t do well. It has promised to “politicise” the local elections, and in doing so has almost defined them as a poll on government policy. If huge chunks of the country – and especially the major cities - return Socialist councils, then the government (and Sarkozy) would have to engage in an awful lot of doublespeak to disguise the real meaning of the results.

And then of course there is the risk that some ministers might actually lose, in which case they would probably be expected to give up their cabinet jobs. It happened just last June in the country’s national elections when the newly appointed transport and environment minister, Alain Juppé, lost his parliamentary seat.

Meanwhile over on the Left, the local elections promise to be interesting for completely different reasons.

With nothing better to do and time on her hands, wannabe Socialist leader, Segolene Royal is marshalling her troops and throwing her not inconsiderable popular weight behind a number of candidates as she hits the campaign trail.

Royal is not actually standing for election herself, but that clearly isn’t stopping her getting involved as she has her sights firmly set on becoming the party’s leader and once again being its presidential candidate in the 2012 race.

As usual she is having to face some stinging criticism from within her own party’s ranks. She should be used to it by now, with the latest one coming in an open letter to the leftwing national daily “Liberation” from a former Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard.

He insists that the party is in complete intellectual and political disarray and needs to get its house well and truly in order before nominating a future presidential candidate. Royal, although blessed with plenty of charisma just isn’t up to the job of leading the Socialists, he maintains. And he would rather the party set aside the debate on a future leader until 2011.

While Royal is happily hitting the hustings at a national level and taking shots at Sarkozy and his government whenever she can, her main rival to her party’s top job is fighting other battles.

Bertrand Delanoë is the current mayor of Paris and as such cannot really enter the national fray until the local elections are over. Should he do well and gain a resounding victory in the capital again he will have a firm base from which to challenge Royal.

But if he doesn’t do as well as expected, it would be a major setback to any national ambitions he has.

Local elections can just be SO boring sometimes.


Monday, 14 January 2008

Putting the boot in

The French housing minister, Christine Boutin, has an odd way of lending her support to her cabinet colleague and junior minister for urban policy, Fadela Amara.

With just a over a week to go before Amara is due to launch her strategy for resolving the problems of the country’s deprived inner city suburbs, Boutin – her boss – has weighed in and said that she doesn’t really believe a plan aimed solely at those areas will work.

In an interview with the Catholic daily, “La Croix”, she questioned the wisdom of proposals that would, in her words, for the umpteenth time, only address the problems of the suburbs without taking a look at the wider picture of the divisions that existed in the country’s towns and cities.

Instead she calls for a “global solution”. Any plan for real urban regeneration, according to Boutin, must take into account the needs of everyone in the local community – poor and wealthy alike.

She stresses that all barriers – physical, cultural, psychological and economic – have to be broken down, discrimination ended and everyone encouraged to “work together for a common future.”

The millions of Euros that have been poured into the inner cities over the decades have not helped resolve their problems. For Boutin, the distribution of financial aid has become far too complicated, public services, hospitals, schools and employment opportunities are lacking where they are mainly required and most importantly there’s a dire shortage of decent and affordable housing that needs to be at the heart of any urban regeneration programme.

She insists the solution lies in listening to the elected local officials and letting them decide how and where to spend the money.

Fine sentiments indeed and ones that Amara may well echo next week, when amongst other things she too is expected to call for an end to the ghetto mentality and create links between all social classes

Boutin might claim that the two women get on well together and compliment each other, but she has hardly thrown her support behind Amara’s proposals just as her junior minister is about to put the finishing touches to them.

Perhaps though it’s not so surprising as even though they are united in government, the two women could not be further removed from each other politically.

Boutin is a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right “Union pour un Mouvement Populaire”, an advocate of moral conservatism and founder of one of France’s largest pro-life organisations. Amara is a practising Moslem, an outspoken Socialist, anti-racist and feminist who has spent years campaigning for women’s rights.

The two will stand side by side at the launch of Amara’s “Equal Opportunities” programme on January 22, but Boutin has made it clear that the findings will be those of the junior minister to whom she has given a “free hand” in putting together the proposals.

Now that really is called putting the boot in.


Thursday, 10 January 2008

Sarkozy’s one-man show

When the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, took to the “stage” at his official residence, the Elysée palace, on Tuesday, it wasn’t so much the long-promised press conference as a chance for the man to address the nations and indeed the world’s media with his vision of what he felt they needed to know.

With his government’s ministers sitting silently in the front row like stuffed suits and suitesses – this is after all the era of parity within government – Sarkozy delivered a completely orchestrated two-hour, one man show. He was in his element and easily upstaged the assembled 500 or so hacks.

Mind you the international mob were only interested in one issue – and it didn’t take that long before Sarkozy gave them the answer he wanted. Yes his relationship with Carla was serious, he stressed. They had decided not to hide it from the world, and as far as wedding bells were concerned…..”well the press would probably find out after it happened, if it happened,” he smirked.

A challenge set, and one to be met, as the headline writers chase after both stories and the former top model-turned-singer herself over the next month or so.

Sarkozy handles the French media like a true professional and he loves to be in control of the news agenda. So on reflection it should perhaps not come as a surprise that he managed in a sense to out-scoop the very profession that should be doing the scooping.

His announcement that he planned to scrap advertising on public television and radio sent the assembled journalists and their bosses into fits of apoplexy and hurried non-statements for the rest of the day. Nobody, apparently, saw it coming.

The revelation was of seismic proportions if the navel-gazing column inches and airtime in the following 24 hours were anything to go by. Sure journalists love interviewing each other for “expert” opinions and even better adore stories about themselves and the media, but this time they appeared to go into overdrive.

The “shockwaves” went further. Shares in private broadcasters surged – one of them (TF1) is interestingly enough owned by one of Sarkozy’s cronies. And even the foreign press, albeit the business and technology sections, managed to drag its interest away from Carla for a moment to comment on the proposed internet tax – part of Sarkozy’s solution for meeting the shortfall in funding public broadcasting that will result from dropping advertising.

But such was the pique of the French media at having been outmanoeuvred that it all but allowed what might have been the president’s most important comment to slip by virtually unnoticed.

When asked directly whether he intended to get rid of the 35-hour working week by the end of the year, Sarkozy responded with a simple “yes” – and nobody asked a follow-up question as to how or why!

Perhaps Sarkozy was a little surprised by his own daring as a day later he back-pedalled slightly as journalists seemed to wake up to the potential enormity of the statement.

Such a move, he confessed, is unlikely. After all his whole policy of “working more to earn more” is based on the principal of employees being able to cash-in on their accumulated overtime – namely anything above the statutory 35 hours. At the moment they can’t and instead are forced to take them as days off.

As much as Sarkozy might loathe the existing law, an increase in the working week would make it impossible for him to keep his promise of helping people put more money in their pockets.


Monday, 7 January 2008

Not holding her tongue.

Fadela Amara might be a vital member of the French government and a potent symbol of president Nicolas Sarkozy’s desire to break with the politics of the past, but it hasn’t stopped her from speaking her mind whenever it suits her.

Indeed Amara has started the new year in the same fighting form that has characterised her first months as junior minister for urban policy, by making it clear that she wouldn’t be voting for her boss in the 2012 presidential race.

Now it might seem a little early to be looking so far ahead, but Amara – a supporter of the Socialist party although no longer a member – was weighing in on the debate surrounding the future leadership of a party which has been in disarray since last May’s presidential elections.

Her comments came in an interview in the most recent issue of the political weekly “Le Point” in which she had less than tender words for the way in which the Socialists had been tearing themselves apart since last year’s defeat.

She accused leading figures of being more interested in their own political futures and stressed the need for the party to decide whether it wanted to define itself as Social Democratic or Left

Amara softened her remarks about her boss somewhat when she later faced the assembled throng of television cameras by insisting that Sarkozy was trying to introduce the social reforms the country needed, but she would only consider voting for a Socialist candidate next time around. If the party didn’t put forward the right person, she would abstain.

While Amara’s comments – especially about Sarkozy - might not play too well with some of her government colleagues, they do not seem to have harmed her reputation among the general public. She figured as the fourth most popular and capable minister in a recent poll.

But some members of the president’s ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, have questioned his wisdom in keeping firebrands like Amara in government as part of the “rupture” with the old way of doing politics.

In October last year for example, she described government plans to introduce DNA testing for immigrants as “disgusting”.

And she had a public war of words with the UMP’s spokeswoman, Nadine Morano, in November.

When Morano questioned Amara’s apparent silence the day after rioting broke out in a Parisian suburb, the minister’s hackles quickly raised to fire the salvo that “although Morano was a nice person, she got on everyone’s nerves and everybody wanted to try to avoid her.”

Echoing perhaps the sentiments of many within the party and probably more than a few within the government, Morano responded that Amara’s behaviour and language was inappropriate for a government minister. “If you don’t agree with her, you find yourself the target of insults,” Morano said. “It might be deplorable, but parliamentarians have got used to it.”

For the moment though Sarkozy seems to tolerate, and even appreciate, Amara’s outspokenness.

Rest assured though, his eyes, and those of many others, will be upon her when she delivers her-long-awaited proposals on urban regeneration later this month.


Sunday, 6 January 2008

The honeymoon is over. Let the honeymoon begin.

According to the weekend’s headlines here in France, the country’s love affair with its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, may be on the downturn, but his own affairs of the heart could see him about to trundle up the aisle once again.

Tumbling seven points in the latest opinion polls Sarkozy has dropped below the 50 per cent approval rating for the first time since he came to office in May last year.

While a majority of those questioned – 48 per cent - gave the president the thumbs up for his work so far, 45 per cent said they were dissatisfied.

No cause for immediate concern perhaps, but a notable dip from just a month ago when the balance was 55-38 and a whopping 17 per cent drop in approval ratings from the halcyon days of last July.

If anything is to be read into the latest figures – and plenty will be over the next couple of days – then on the professional front, December wasn’t really Sarkozy’s month.

He took an awful lot of flak for his handling of the controversial visit of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and came under fire for his inability to deliver on his major campaign promise to increase purchasing power – beyond repeating his stock answer “work more to earn more.”

And then of course there was the manipulated over-exposure of his personal life with the first public outing of Sarkozy and Carla Bruni in EuroDisney – of all places.

At a press conference this Tuesday he is likely to face some uncomfortably direct questioning on the (slow) pace of reform and especially where that increase in purchasing power is going to come from. Unemployment, pensions, labour relations and speculation on a ministerial reshuffle are also likely to be topics on which he will be grilled, especially as there are local elections due at the beginning of March.

But the burning question on everybody’s lips, and the issue in which the French are least interested apparently, even though it has been splashed across the media this weekend, is whether presidential wedding bells can be expected any time soon.

As yet, Sarkozy has shied away from making an “official” statement about his relationship with the former top model-turned-chanteuse. But after very public, private holidays in recent weeks, it’ll be hard for the president to avoid any mention of it – especially of he is asked.

And if the headline in the French national Sunday newspaper, “Le Journal du Dimanche” is anything to go by, a date has definitely been set for the pair to tie the knot….. apparently. “It’s February 8,” claims the newspaper. “Or most likely February 9,” it adds, wisely hedging its bets.

More speculation perhaps but it has been backed up by Bruni’s Italian mother, Marisa Borini, who told her country’s media a couple of weeks ago that Sarkozy had indeed already popped the question to her daughter.

One undeniable truth though in the romance has been its whirlwind nature, entirely in keeping with a president who has the habit of firing on all fronts simultaneously. Since their Disney appearance the sweethearts have been virtually inseparable, following up a Christmas break in Egypt with a quick trip to Jordan last week.

Bruni as First Lady at the Elysée palace would certainly help the president out in terms of protocol. State visits to Morocco and the United States saw him having to drag long one of his women ministers (usually Rachida Dati) to official functions.

And even combining political duties during his primarily private Yuletide trip to Egypt presented some tricky etiquette manoeuvring. As Madame Sarkozy (part III) Bruni would also have an official role – one that Cecilia (part II) was unwilling to assume.

Oh yes – and here’s a Twilight Zone-type twist of coincidence. Or is it?

Open talk of an impending Sarkozy-Bruni marriage has ratcheted up a gear since the sun-glassed couple were photographed each holding a hand of the “singer’s” young son, Aurélian, as they strolled happily along the streets of Petra, Jordan.

Exactly the same destination to which Cecilia, very publicly fled for a liaison with her amour, French advertising hotshot, Richard Attias, back in May 2005 – an act which marked the beginning of the end for her and Nicolas.

Mere coincidence?

“Deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle.”


Friday, 4 January 2008

And wallop goes another French tradition

Oh dear. The New Year has not got off to a great start here in France. First there was the apparent challenge to the country’s café culture with the introduction of the smoking ban in public places and now another Gallic bastion has bitten the dust with the cancellation of the Dakar rally.

Mind you, the former Paris-Dakar as was, and then from 2002 consecutively and confusingly Arras, Marseille, Clermont-Ferrand, Barcelona and two times Lisbon – Dakar, only dates back to 1979 so has far less to do with the traditional image of France than the Evil Weed.

The annual race across the desert was abandoned just a day before it was due to start after the French foreign ministry advised against tourists travelling to Mauritania. That warning followed the murder there on Christmas Eve of four French tourists.

As 15 of the eight stages were due to pass through Mauritania plus a rest day in the capital Nouakchott, it seems that wisdom has prevailed. Organisers also reported that direct threats had been made against the race itself. The security of the participants, hoards of journalists and team technicians had been paramount, they said, in their heeding the French government’s advice to call the whole thing off.

The rally has had scheduling problems in the past. Two stages were dropped last year because of terrorist threats. And in 2000 and 2006 organisers arranged for the rally to rerouted to avoid the North of Mali and Niger.

But it’s the first time in its relatively short history that the Dakar will not take place at all.

Of course not everyone thinks that it’s much of a loss that there’ll be no fume-belching vehicles careering though some of the poorest parts of Africa.

Critics – and there are plenty of them – accuse the rally of being a mere circus reserved for the rich. A sort of off-road version of Formula 1 with cars, motorbikes and trucks criss-crossing their way across the desert dunes, while a collection of jet setters including singers, actors and models “helicopter” in their wake.

Just take a moment though to think about what we’ll all be missing this year.

First up of course is the impact on the poor old environment. No rally means no desert dust will be thrown up by those 500 or so gas guzzlers and there’ll be no accompanying convoy of fuel, food and water to sustain the competitors while locals look on. Those same locals also won’t be able to complain about their livestock being hit or killed in accidents.

And while on the subject, no rally also means no chance to add to the death toll – currently put at 48 over the years according to organisers’ figures. That number includes at least 17 locals and 25 competitors, as well as the rally’s founder Thierry Sabine.

Thankfully though the organisers have reassured everyone that this year’s abandonment doesn’t mean the end of the rally. Apparently it is a “symbol that cannot be destroyed” even if terrorist threats seem to have done a pretty good job of it this time around.

But just how much of a symbol it is, was perhaps summed up by – of all things - the Vatican’s official newspaper last year, which described the event as “a bloody, irresponsible, violent and cynical attempt to impose questionable Western tastes on the developing world.”

Anybody want to second that?


Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Pay more to say less

There were several firsts when France’s Nicolas Sarkozy made the annual New Year’s presidential address to the nation on Monday evening.

To start with of course, it was his first since taking office as the country’s head honcho. And never one to miss a show-stopping opportunity, Sarkozy also went “live” rather than opting for the traditional pre-recorded “Blessing” as his predecessors had done.

Ever the Action Man, he delivered his eight-minutes worth at breakneck speed which might have left many viewers bewildered and the poor dear signing for the deaf and hard of hearing (another first) rather limp wrested.

So what did the Omnipresent One manage to pack into his speech? Well very little if the general reaction of the press and public is anything to go by.

There was basically a minute of backslapping self-praise for each of his months in power with some stage-managed humility in admitting that he had perhaps made a few mistakes along the way, but not outlining what they might have been.

They may have included shying away from the cameras on board a luxury boat just after the elections with his oh-so-faithful wife; Or allowing a rich French industrialist to pick up the tab for his two-week summer holiday in United States; Or his five-star Christmas break with the latest love of his life, Carla Bruni, as they strolled hand in hand from a borrowed private jet; Or the 172 per cent pay rise he allowed himself to be awarded in the autumn.

All of course ensured circulation figures for the weekly glossies, but hardly appropriate even for a Bling Bling president who demands all round belt tightening and steadfastly refuses to increase the minimum wage for those at the other end of the income scale.

Or maybe he was referring to his astonishing reinterpretation of the morality of foreign policy and the fundamental need to ignore respect for human rights as he signed billion Euro deals with Beijing and Tripoli.

Hard to know really what Sarkozy meant by mistakes, as he is unlikely to put himself in a position to be asked directly.

Be that as it may his Sarkozy’s speech also gave him the chance to prove himself as much a master of the political phrase as previous French presidents by maintaining (just as Jacques Chirac had done) “not everything could be resolved in one day”.

But he stressed his sincerity and honesty in serving the nation – just the words to console anyone when heard dropping from a politician’s mouth.

Last year had been, he declared, one of “Urgency” when reforms that had been hanging around for several decades were forced through. Phase two, beginning January 1, would herald the beginning of a period when the impact of those changes SHOULD make themselves felt. Rather too heavy on the conditional tense for many.

He was silent over his failure so far to deliver on the campaigning promise of increasing purchasing power. Instead there was the guarantee that 2008 would witness the continuing break with the past and even more far- reaching political changes (poaching more opposition politicians) that would touch the very core of French society and culture, values and identity.

Apparently this was all the sort of stuff that went down well with focus groups during pre-presidential election campaigning. Obviously Sarkozy’s well-oiled political machine has its eyes on March’s local elections.

And the cost for all this bonhomie as the country swings into the New Year? A paltry €72,000 – for just eight minutes. A bargain really and only seven times more than the cost for Chirac’s speech at the same time last year.

As the television rights were bought by France 2, the country’s public broadcaster, it meant in effect the taxpayers were coughing up to be told what they already knew.

Perhaps it really was Sarkozy at his best as he transposed his oft-chanted mantra “Work more to earn more” into “Pay more to say less”.

Happy New Year.

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