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Wednesday, 27 February 2008


He came he saw he conquered – oh yes and he ate and he drank a-plenty as well.

On Tuesday the former French president, Jacques Chirac, spent almost four hours at what he admits is virtually his home-from-home - the annual agricultural fair in Paris.

And what a contrast it was to Saturday’s bad-tempered outburst by his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

There was no false bonhomie, no rude jostling and moreover no foul language as Chirac, surrounded by cameras and microphones, strode the aisles smiling and chatting with what was clearly an adoring and somewhat nostalgic public.

This was a man in his element, a swig of French beer here, a quick nibble on a regional cheese there, a happy crunch of an apple and plenty of praise and slapped rumps for the fine beasts on show. Chirac displayed a firm understanding of all things so dear to the heart of many in this country and left more than a few wistful of a bygone era.

“We miss you Monsieur Chirac. It’s not the same now,” lamented a group of teenagers shortly after the former president had stopped to pose for a picture with them.

Such words brought a smile to his face as he continued on his way, refusing steadfastly to be goaded into answering the inevitable question of how he felt about Sarkozy’s “casse toi, pauvre con”. A lesson in itself on how a head of state should behave when confronted with the unexpected. Mind you, in his glory days, Chirac was not one to mince words. He just did it more “presidentially”.

Back in 1996 for example during an already controversial visit to Jerusalem, he famously lost his rag with Israeli security who were continuously shoving Palestinians, reporters and even his own aides to one side.

At one point he turned around to an official and shouted, “I’m starting to have enough of this. What do you want, me to go back to my plane and go back to France? Let them go. Let them go.”

Later the same day the then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a public apology and Chirac declared the incident forgotten. Sarkozy obviously wasn’t taking notes.

Of course it’s easy to sentimentalise about the past – we do it all the time – but Chirac’s presence at the agricultural fair and in particular the reception he received, was in stark contrast to Sarkozy’s visit.

It certainly helped that he was unencumbered by the shackles of office, but there was a humanity and sincerity about him that seemed to strike a chord with those around him.

All right, so admittedly this is the same man whose last years in office were characterised by a stagnant economy and whose political career was dotted with intrigue, claims of corruption and unspoken philandering. He’s still being investigated for dodgy deals during his time as mayor of Paris.

Hardly commendable by any stretch of the imagination. But that was – and perhaps still is – pretty much par for the course when it comes to French politics.

In contrast the new hyperactive, “Bling, Bling” incumbent runs a supposedly transparent but simultaneously stage-managed machine and that’s proving a little too hard a hard pill for many here to swallow. Open government has become a media deluge concentrating on one person firing on all fronts all the time.

In addition there’s none of the much promised economic prosperity on the horizon, prices are rising and belt-tightening being made almost a national requirement. And then of course there’s the overexposed private life that hits the headlines with an alarming frequency.

It might be a common trait of the French to forgive past presidents their failings once they leave office, but on Tuesday’s evidence, Chirac could teach Sarkozy a thing or two. Such as how to strike a more statesmanlike pose while downing a glass or two of wine rather than milk and showing a genuine interest in discussing the relative merits of a Charolais bull.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Speaking to the people

It’s possibly his way of avoiding talking to journalists and facing potentially awkward questions. But in his own fashion the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has lived up to his promise to speak to the nation when and how he sees fit.

In Tuesday’s copy of the popular national daily Le Parisien, there’s a full-length five-page transcript of Sarkozy’s meeting with a panel of the newspaper’s readers.

Although the “interview”, held at the president’s official residence the Elysée palace, was scheduled over a week ago, recent events changed its tone somewhat. It became clear that it would give Sarkozy the chance to reduce the temperature of the debate that has been raging ever since he insulted a visitor at the agricultural fair on Saturday. And on first appearances it seems to work

The readers’ panel – made up of eight men and women from across the political spectrum - had two hours to pose any number of questions on a whole host of issues. Those included purchasing power, Sarkozy’s relationship with his new wife Carla, his nosedive in the opinion polls; the president’s challenge to the country’s constitutional council (Supreme court) and of course first and foremost that blooper on Saturday.

So what did Sarkozy have to say of that incident, when he insulted a man who refused to shake his hand during a press-the-flesh session at the agricultural fair? Well apparently the president, although not issuing an outright apology or regretting his remarks, admits that he would have been better advised not to have responded.

So not quite “mea culpa”, but almost. Except it turns out that wasn’t what he told the panel.

Such a question and answer session is common practice here in many newspapers and magazines, as is the custom of allowing the interviewee to see the final draft before it’s published.

And that’s exactly what happened after the two-hour session on Monday morning, when Le Parisien whipped off the text to the Elysée palace for the presidential advisors’ perusal.

After a day’s worth of hot headlines, not just in France but around the world, Sarkozy’s spin doctors clearly decided it was time for him to show a little remorse, even if he hadn’t actually done so during the interview. So at the last moment, just as the printers were ready to roll, the paper received the “amended” version and went to press.

In a sense then today’s readers are being misled. And the headlines in many of the country’s other newspapers also give the impression that Sarkozy showed some remorse.

But as the editor of Le Parisien, Dominique de Montvallon, admitted in national television this morning, at no time did Sarkozy ever give the slightest hint that he regretted his behaviour – on the contrary.

Of course, such a revelation raises the question as to whether the paper came under any sort of pressure from the Elysée palace to print what had after all never been said. And it undermines somewhat its own integrity vis-à-vis its readers.

De Montvallon has promised that Le Parisien, recognised as a newspaper, which on the whole is not unsympathetic to Sarkozy’s politics, will publish a behind-the-scenes piece on the machinations of the interview, the intervention and the reasons for running with the story in the way it did on Wednesday. There’ll also be the original version in its entirety, presumably guaranteeing a boost in the paper’s circulation figures.

Of course the way in which the story has been handled casts a rather dubious light on how much of the rest of the interview readers should actually believe or care about. Maybe it also reveals how far Sarkozy and his advisors are prepared to go to seem to say the right thing or change what was said for the sake of popularity ratings. There’s nothing new there.

What is perhaps most astonishing though is that a man who has taken so much care to groom a thoroughly stage-managed image should so totally appear now to have lost the plot.

Meanwhile as the media furore rumbles on, over three million people worldwide have taken the chance to log and listen to the clip of the infamous presidential retort.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Fancy grub

It might seem rather strange that France, of all countries, should feel the need to have official international approval for its cuisine. After all it’s pretty much recognised as a gourmet’s paradise. But that’s exactly what the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is after.

On Saturday, shortly before issuing that now famous insult that has had the headlines buzzing ever since, Sarkozy gave his backing to a plan for French cuisine to be listed as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

As of 2009, France is going to slap in an official application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to honour this country’s food.

The somewhat extraordinary idea dates back to 2006 when a group of leading chefs in France, with not the slightest hint of gastronomic chauvinism, launched a campaign trumpeting that “cuisine was their culture”.

With 400 signatories garnered, they’ve now got the seal of approval from the head of state – a man, it must be said, not exactly renowned for his taste in haute cuisine, Indeed the Eurodisney-loving Sarkozy is often perceived as the kind of person who might be far happier wolfing down a juicy burger with fries.

But never underestimate a desperate president who’s looking for a boost in the polls. Nor a man who will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union later this year and fully intends to make reform of the common agricultural policy (in France’s favour of course) his crucial issue.

Sarkozy has now decided that not only does the France have the best grub in the world but that agriculture and the jobs that produce the food every day are the source of this country’s “gastronomic diversity”.

“It is an essential element of French heritage”, he told an already converted audience at the opening of the massive agricultural fair on Saturday.

Now Unesco is an agency that is supposed, among other things, to support projects to protect traditions in the developing world. And certainly another declared goal is also to encourage all countries to nominate sites within their own borders to ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage.

So where does French food fit into all of this you might wonder. Well in a nutshell and put rather simply, it’s probably a stab at good old protectionism.

On the one hand France wants to halt what many here see as the creeping influence of fast food in the daily diet – a noble gesture perhaps. But on the other hand, it also wants to prevent in particular the mass production of cheaper “fine quality” products, long the domain of the French, and the perceived threat of the global food industry.

Unesco’s seal of approval might give France the legal tools with which to protect its own way of producing certain foods and drinks – a sort of internationally enforced “patent” to put it crudely.

How the application will be viewed is questionable, although it will probably raise a few eyebrows even though Unesco is based in Paris.

After all a similar attempt by Mexico back in 2005 to have its cuisine registered was rejected and jury is still out on a current request from Iran to have the Persian New Year feast included.

Italy is also rumoured to be considering an application for its own culinary status. But perhaps the real test will be if Britain ever tries to convince the rest of the planet that its rich tradition of stodgy puddings should be declared part of the world’s heritage.


Sunday, 24 February 2008

Casse-toi alors, pauvre con

In case you were wondering, those delightful words dropped from the lips of the French head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy, shortly after he opened the annual agricultural show in Paris on Saturday.

Proof, as if ever it were needed, that the president sometimes has the common sense of a turnip and the mouth of a football hooligan

Sarkozy’s ”Get lost you dickhead” – and that’s the polite translation - is now ricocheting around Internet sites after being captured on video by a fellow visitor to the show.

The incident occurred as the president was tentatively patting and petting the bovine and equine stars, while at the same time trying to press the flesh with their proud owners.

Now Sarkozy is more than something of a townie and neither looks nor feels that comfortable with the sod beneath his feet so to speak. He therefore wasn’t exactly in his element. He’s also teetotal, which doesn’t go down that well with the farming community and he certainly doesn’t get the same sort of chummy but respectful welcome as his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

In fact as he muscled his way through the throng surrounded by his heavies, the cheering was matched by an equal amount of booing.

Undaunted Sarkozy jostled forth, ignoring the cries of “what about our purchasing power” and “what are you going to do about our pensions”, to hone in on one exhibitor and try to grab him by the hand.

Big mistake, and he might have been better advised to try the neck, as the man was clearly not having any of Sarkozy’s forced bonhomie and instead told the president not to touch him as he (Sarkozy) “would soil him”.

Hardly the most inviting of welcomes and far from polite and indeed Sarkozy was provoked into a reaction.

But this is not a gossip mag celebrity, who can afford to let fall the odd clanger, thinking it will only enhance his bad boy image. This is the head of state, a political figure that represents the country to the rest of the world and supposedly speaks the language of international diplomacy.

Ergo his words did not exactly come across as very statesmanlike.

If only Sarkozy could have shown a little decency and held his tongue, he wouldn’t have been able to provide the accompanying hacks with even more unnecessary and unflattering fodder for the week ahead.

So not a great day at the fair for France’s president and perhaps he should have stayed at home.

Actually the weekend only got worse for him as the latest opinion poll shows his approval ratings down nine points from a month ago to 38 per cent. Meanwhile his ever-popular prime minister, François Fillon, is up seven points to 57 per cent.

Maybe the president’s foul humour was down to prior knowledge of what the poll contained. In any case the only saving grace is that it was conducted before Saturday’s outburst.


And the Oscar goes to

February 23, 2008

Ah but not yet. The French of course have managed to steal the show just ahead of time by holding their own annual film award fest - the Césars - a few days ahead of the Hollywood extravaganza.

And perhaps it was no bad a thing. As while Gallic hopes are firmly pinned on Marion Cotillard in Sunday’s event for her performance as Edith Piaf in “La Môme” (La vie en rose), they’ve managed to take the sting out of any potential disappointment by giving her a trophy at Friday night’s ceremony.

Mind you the luvvies of French cinema have been yacking on about little else ever since Cotillard was nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category a month or so ago. They’re clearly desperate to add to the meagre toll of just two awards for French actresses over the years: Simone Signoret for best actress in “Room at the top” way back in 1959, and more recently Juliette Binoche for her supporting role in the 1996 film “The English patient.”

So now Cotillard has pocketed the César, it’s the first flight out to glitzy world of Glamour Pure, in that understated way only the Americans know how to do properly.

And that was perhaps the most striking absentee from the Friday night’s ceremony. It was after all a very staid affair with none of the razzmatazz, humour and music of the Oscars, but all the back-slapping, granny-thanking, tear-filled, seemingly endless speeches.

Sure the setting was sumptuous to the nth degree – the magnificent 19th century Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. And it was heaving to the gills with the oh-so-chic, super-nonchalant A-listers of the French cinematographic industry. But even though they might believe rightly or wrongly that they make the best cinema on the planet, it’s a very small world and an extremely close-knit community, and to be quite honest, who outside of the country “gives a damn”?

Interesting also to see the slant the French take on the best foreign film which, in an almost fingers-up gesture to Hollywood, included only one US production. That said, the winner was the very same film upon which those across the pond bestowed their honour last year, the German-made “The lives of others”, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

The evening was all in all more than a bit of a tear jerker. As one reviewer put it “without tears the Césars wouldn’t be real.” – and there were sniffles galore as the lachrymal ducts were pushed to breaking point.

When Hafsia Herzi staggered onto the stage to collect her trophy early on in the evening for best female newcomer in “La Graine et le Mulet” (which also beat out La Môme for best film) she blubbered for the best part of five painfully dead-air minutes, squeezing out the occasional “pardon”. She clearly set the tone for much of the rest of the ceremony.

Just for the record the other major winners in “and the award goes to” included Abdellatif Kechiche as best director (“La graine et le Mulet”), Mathieu Amalric as best actor in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Julie Depardieu (yes it really is a small world) as best supporting actress in “The Secret” and Sami Bouajila for best supporting actor in “Les Temoins”.


Friday, 22 February 2008

Back to basics

Every so often it seems, a new government comes into power and starts looking around for ways to change society and quite often one of its first impulses is to begin with what it considers to be “fixing” the education system.

When he took office last May, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, immediately charged his minister of higher education, Valérie Pécresse, with responsibility for overhauling the country’s overstretched university system.

Now it’s the turn of primary and secondary schools with that most ominous of phrases so beloved of those who think they know what’s right, “back to basics”.

Sarkozy’s promised objective is by 2012 to have cut by a third the 15 per cent of children who cannot read or write by the time they enter secondary education. And he’s hoping his education minister, Xavier Darcos, will be able to deliver.

So after months of behind-the-scenes study, Darcos, announced this week a detailed outline of just what changes schoolchildren can expect from the beginning of the next academic year in the autumn.

Priority on the syllabus will be given to French and maths, both of which get a mighty boost in the number of hours allocated each week.

Darcos insists that if children can master both these subjects during their first years at school, it’ll provide the basis for making learning in other areas later on a great deal easier.

So from the age of 6, children will be taught 10 hours of French a week, with the emphasis being on a return to the old-fashioned approach of learning by rote, for spelling, grammar and vocabulary. In addition, they’ll get five hours of maths a week to start off with, and once again it’s a blast from the past with mental arithmetic being given precedence.

As far as the teaching of history is concerned, Darcos wants to see a return to learning dates, times and historical figures. He maintains that the methods used up until now have not produced the right results, and children are simply out of touch with important past events

But the major teachers’ union has criticised these proposals as heralding a move away from children actually understanding what they’re learning in favour of encouraging them to repeat almost parrot-fashion what they’re being taught.

The union has also urged Darcos to look again at his own arithmetic, which they claim just doesn’t add up. He plans to scrap schooling on Saturdays thereby reducing the time spent in the classroom to 24 hours a week.

At the same time he’s going to increase to four, the number of hours of sport, and maintain one and a half hours each week for foreign languages. Once the new scheduling for French and maths have been factored in it’ll leave just three and a half hours a week for that new history syllabus, as well as geography, art, science, music and civic and moral education.

Either teachers will have to become magicians or children will have to learn at a breakneck speed. Or both.

And ah yes, civic and moral education. Now there’s a wonderful Sarkozy-inspired term to grapple with, designed presumably to make French children model citizens.

It means that from the age of eight children must know the values of the French republic, the meaning of the flag and the symbol of the statue of Marianne as well as the national anthem. They’ll also learn about hygiene, the risks of the Internet and be taught the “fundamentals” of morals, which include the rules of politeness and behaviour.

A year later they’ll be made aware of sustainable development and start having to master the intricacies of the European Union (heaven help them) – its anthem, flag and members. And of course by the time they’re 10, they’ll be ready to “adopt” one of the 11,000 French children killed in the holocaust.

By anyone’s standards that’s a heck of a lot to pack into a shortened school week. And don’t think teachers are being let off the hook either. They’ll be subjected to assessments every two years, with a legion of inspectors grading them on their ability to teach and have the class progress as a whole.

The premise of much of the hullabaloo over the need for reform in France is Sarkozy’s conviction that the country’s education system is somehow failing its children. But in fact a quick international comparison – for what it’s worth – shows that France is faring no better, and no worse than many of its European neighbours.

The three-year Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - a worldwide test of 15 and 16-year-olds educational performances - ranked France in 25th place in 2006 – a slip of three notches. That makes the country an average “student”. But there again so are both the UK and Germany.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Tom Cruise proposed as a French government minister?

There’s nothing like a good political spat to clear the air, especially at election time, and that’s exactly what France is being treated to at the moment with claim following counter-claim and a great deal of column inches to boot. And all that just as the country is gearing up to next month’s local elections.

It involves a little-known political figure, in the shape of Emmanuelle Mignon, and the weekly news, celebrity and leisure magazine, Vendredi, Samedi, Dimanche (VSD).

Mignon, who is a confidante of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his chief of staff, is reported by VSD to have told the magazine that the sects or cults – take your pick, depending on how you translate the word – are a “non-problem” in France.

In an interview published in VSD this week, Mignon also suggests we should question exactly what sort of danger movements such as Scientology actually represents.

Mignon claims she was misquoted. VSD is standing its ground and insists that’s exactly what she said.

And so beginneth the polemic in much of the French media.

While admitting that she’s not actually that familiar with Scientology, Mignon has insisted that cults in general should be investigated to determine whether they indeed pose a threat. For her apparently, either an organisation is dangerous and abuses the psychological weakness of certain people, in which case it should be banned. Or it represents no particular menace to the public order and should have the right to exist in peace.

In an attempt to reduce the backlash there has been against what she apparently never said, Mignon successfully fuelled more angered debate after granting an interview with the national daily newspaper, Le Figaro.

In it she attacked the “Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaries” or Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances (Miviludes) as nothing more than a government agency that since its first incarnation back in 1995 had faithfully produced its annual report and not much else. As far as she was concerned the list was “scandalous”

The government, she revealed, wanted to turn Miviludes into something much more effective than a lot of “bla bla” by bringing it under the auspices of the interior ministry and having it work more closely with the police and judiciary.

Clearly being “scandalised” was not just the preserve of Mignon’s as far as many were concerned and there was outrage from across the political spectrum – including many from within Sarkozy’s own centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) – at her comments.

The former (UMP) prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, criticised her for raising the issue in what is after all the run-up to next month’s local elections – a common cry to be heard over most contentious issues at the moment.

And another member of member of parliament for UMP, Claude Goasguen, said that if Mignon’s boss, Sarkozy, had given her the green light to broach the subject, it was perhaps a somewhat Machiavellian strategy to try to divert attention away from the debate surrounding his failed promise to increase the purchasing power of the French.

Disorder within the ranks was met with similar fury from opposition politicians. François Bayrou, leader of the centre-right Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) was appalled at the apparent attempt to “rehabilitate Scientology” and another prominent MoDem candidate in the local elections in Paris, Corinne Lepage, mused rhetorically if somewhat ironically on national television whether the intention was not to create a “junior ministerial post for Tom Cruise, Scientology and the development of cults in France.”

The Socialist party was also pretty damning of Mignon’s remarks, calling on Sarkozy to clarify exactly where he stands on her comments and say whether he approves. If he doesn’t, then as far as the Socialists are concerned, he should take the necessary steps and fire her.

All eyes and ears are now on Mignon who if she really insists she has been misquoted, has both the know-how and the chance to slap VSD with a legal suit. Somehow it’s unlikely to go that far.

Wife of

She’s well cheesed off with the recent media fascination for always defining her as “wife of” and Christine Ockrent just ain’t going to stand for it any longer. Quite right too.

Ockrent is one of the best-known journalists here in France. She has more than 35 years of experience and she was the first woman to anchor state television France 2’s prime time 8pm news slot.

So it was no surprise when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, appointed her as the director general of the newly created holding company France Monde. She’ll be the number two to the new company’s president Alain de Pouzilhac

France Monde will group together Radio France Internationale, the generalist television channel TV5-Monde and the rolling news broadcaster France 24.

The 64-year-old, Belgian-born Ockrent has in her time also been a top editor at the weekly news magazine, “L’Express” and since 1990 has presented a number of critically acclaimed political programmes on France 3, the state run regional television channel.

Over the years her face and voice have regularly popped up for commentaries on both CNN and BBC and she also spent 10 years in the United States where she collaborated on the CBS news magazine 60 minutes. So there’s no doubt that she has the track record and proven professional clout to justify her appointment

Oh yes, and she is also the wife of - or perhaps better put, her husband is - the current foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

And that’s the issue that has been making waves here since her appointment was made public, and is one that’s unlikely to go away.

Without openly saying so some (mainly men) within the profession claim that Ockrent’s appointment smacks of nepotism. How can a husband-and-wife team at the same time hold two of the most important jobs in representing France abroad?

Ockrent sees no conflict of interests though. Her reasons for taking the job, she says, are purely professional, and she cites her track record as proof that she’s up to it.

She’s also tired of women of her generation having to suffer the labelling of “wife of” even when they’ve a wealth of qualifications and experience in their own right. “Quite honestly,” she says. “I find it unjust and humiliating and I’m waiting for the moment when we start talking about men as ‘husbands of’, and when we ask them to sacrifice their identities, abilities and careers.”

Ockrent retained her job at France 3 even when Kouchner accepted the post of foreign minister. But it proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

Women journalists who have either been married to, or lived with, prominent politicians have never had an easy time her in France. Their relationships have often brought into question their journalistic objectivity and they have either been forced to resign or eased gently to one side.

Former prime time weekend television presenter, Béatrice Schönberg, for example had to step down after she married Jean-Louis Borloo – a prospective future prime minister at the time and now number two in the government. Similarly, Marie Drucker over one France 3 found herself bumped off the main news because of her relationship with the then overseas and later briefly interior minister, François Baroin.

Ockrent’s appointment is proof perhaps that slowly France is waking up to the fact that it just ain’t always on to define a woman by her partner.


Wednesday, 20 February 2008


Cue the theme music and settle back into your armchairs for what looks set to be the Gallic version of that 1980s television soap – except this one threatens to run for longer.

No prizes of course for guessing the names of the main protagonists – Mr and Mrs Sarkozy. Although, - and here’s the twist – this time around it’s not the president, Nicolas and his wife of less than a month Carla. Instead, welcome to the Jean and Andrée show.

By word of explanation, Jean is the 21-year-old second son of the president, while Andrée is the 81-year-old mother of France’s head of state.

The setting for the latest episode of the Sarkozy saga unsurprisingly is the swanky Parisian suburb of Neully-sur-Seine, the personal fiefdom of the president for over 20 years when he was he was the town’s mayor.

And once again events are revolving around the upcoming local elections.

Neuilly is the sort of place where Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) could put up the proverbial donkey as a candidate and still normally be assured of a win.

You might remember that just a couple of weeks ago there was something of a furore surrounding the appointment of the UMP’s official candidate in the mayoral race. David Martinon, the spokesman at the president’s official residence, the Elysée palace and Sarkozy Snr’s own self-appointed successor, was parachuted into a supposedly secure seat.

Martinon had been flagging in the polls in spite of the sterling work that Sarkozy Jnr had been doing “on the ground”. With his long blond locks flowing behind him, Jean energetically and articulately pressed the flesh in much the manner as his father, proclaiming his firm and solid support for the embattled Martinon.

But politics is a nasty game and at the best of times and here in France allegiances are indeed built on shifting sands. Eventually Martinon was forced to withdraw from the race in the face of overwhelming local dissatisfaction with his lacklustre campaign.

That criticism was led by a triumvirate that included Sarkozy Snr’s long-time number two in Neuilly, Arnaud Teullé, and guess who? That’s right, Sarkozy Jnr, who proved himself once again to be a chip off the old man’s block.

Teullé was later shocked when the national party overlooked him and instead chose to throw its support behind another candidate, the non-aligned and perceived cause of Martinon’s eventual downfall, the “dissident” Jean-Christophe Fromantin.

In protest, Teullé then announced that he would be the new “dissident”, presenting himself as a candidate for the post of mayor.

Enter Mrs Sarkozy, Andrée into the fray. She’s the woman who stepped into the breach temporarily as a quasi first lady after her son’s former wife, Cecilia, did a runner.

She was also reported to have told him not to marry for the third time as she’d had more than her fill of Mrs Sarkozy’s over the years. So a formidable lady, who speaks her mind and isn’t too troubled by creating a stir.

And that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday evening, when the 81-year-old attended a soiree in support of Teullé and announced that not only would he make a good mayor, but she was also going to vote for him.

How wonderful for the president then, who has blown hot and cold over recent months about his involvement in campaigning for local elections before finally deciding to remain quiet. In the meantime of course, his own party has somewhat lost the plot in Neuilly, sacking the official candidate, supporting the unofficial one and cheesing off entirely one of the party’s stalwarts.

Meanwhile the scene shifts and it’s back to Jean.

Now in yet another layer of administrative overkill of which the French seem to be so fond, there are also local elections for some of the so-called cantonal districts taking place here in France in March.

Neuilly-sur Seine is in the district of Hauts-de-Seine and Sarkozy Jnr has now decided that he himself is going to stand for office to be elected to the cantonal council. He has the full and official backing of not only the UMP (for what it’s worth) but interestingly enough also his former ally and best friend, Teullé.

The two, it would appear, have buried the hatchet, albeit perhaps in each other’s backs as Teullé too is seeking election to the very same council.

With less than a month to go before voters make their choices, there’s still plenty of time for more Sarkozy’s to get involved in the action.

Carla has been quiet for almost a week now, and there’s an older son Pierre, who might like to have his say. Thankfully the president’s youngest son, Louis, is just 11 years old, so there not much chance of his getting involved for a while yet. Surely?


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Reality TV

It was not so much the force of Monday morning’s dawn raid by police in the Parisian suburb of Villiers-le-Bel that had the headline writers scribbling for fury. It was more the fact that they were accompanied by a virtual armada of journalists, all of whom had been tipped off as to what was about to happen.

More than 1,000 police took part in the sweep to target the ringleaders of last November’s riots, which left more than 100 officers injured after they came under attack from Molotov cocktails and gunfire. That unrest occurred after two teenagers died when their scooter collided with a police car.

While many here in France welcomed the police action, there were more than a few voices raised in alarm at the fact that it had received media saturation as it happened.

The chairman of the Socialist party, François Hollande was quick to condemn the unprecedented media presence as “unacceptable in a major democracy such as France.” And he was joined in his concern by both fellow party member Segolene Royal, last year’s defeated candidate in the presidential run-off, and the leader of the centre-right Mouvement Démocrate, François Bayrou.

Royal suggested that allowing cameras to cover police operations had been a way of trying to influence public opinion ahead of next month’s local elections, by spreading fear.

Somewhat hypocritically perhaps, the media also concentrated on the issue of how come journalists had been in on the action. Readers, viewers and listeners were tantalised with endless questions as to who had leaked information of the raids ahead of time. But of course, all in the name of professional integrity those same journalists simultaneously refused to divulge their sources. Quite right too, after all it keeps a story rolling.

The minister of the interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie (affectionately termed MAM by many here in France), of course preferred to concentrate on what she stressed was the success of the action – allegedly based on tip-offs from paid informers. The police took 35 people into custody and reportedly have leads on several others they suspect of arson and attempted murder. But all the same MAM has promised to launch an enquiry into who informed the media.

Perhaps the main lesson to be learned here is that there is no longer a need for French television channels in the future to buy the rights for imported detective series. After all they now have “authorised” access to insider information and the chance to record the action as and when it happens in real time.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Memory or marketing

It’s hard to know whether the latest brainwave to slip from the inner recesses of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy’s, grey matter is based on a fierce moral platform, or a ploy to appeal to the nation in the face of plummeting popularity ratings. But one thing’s for sure. It has sparked the ever-delightful polemic of which the French are so fond.

Sarkozy has proposed that every 10-year-old child in this country should “adopt” one of the 11,000 French Jewish children killed during the Second World War.

In a speech last week he maintained that nothing could be more moving for today’s generation than the stories of children their own age, and that they should be “entrusted with the memory of a French child-victim of the Holocaust.”

His proposal, which he wants to see come into effect from autumn this year, brought a swift reaction. And not all of it was in favour.

Most notable among those who have condemned the idea is the grande dame of French politics and a concentration camp survivor, Simone Veil.

She criticised the plan as “unimaginable, dramatic and above all unjust.” Veil, who is the honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust, said her blood had run cold as she listened to Sarkozy’s speech and she maintained that asking today’s 10-year-olds to identify with a dead child was far too heavy a burden for them to carry.

Veil was joined in her opposition by a number of medical and education experts who argued that requiring children to identify with victims of the Holocaust could lumber them with the guilt of past generations.

But leaders of the Jewish community have not been unanimous in their condemnation – quite the contrary.

Serge Klarsfeld is a prominent Jewish historian and president of the Association of Sons and Daughters Deported from France. He has also spent years documenting the names and biographies of the country’s Holocaust victims. So his support for Sarkozy’s suggestions as, “courageous and profoundly moving,” added weight and confusion to the debate.

Other historians would beg to differ however. Some for example have suggested that it could be interpreted as a rewriting of the country’s past by distorting the extent to which France collaborated with the Nazi occupying forces.

Similarly while there has been some political opposition, with accusations that Sarkozy is trying to court public opinion ahead of next month’s local elections, opinions were once again divided. And that was especially true, yet again, within the Socialist party.

It was unable to form a coherent and collective opinion with the chairman, François Hollande giving his seal of approval, but the party’s defeated candidate in last year’s presidential election, Segolene Royal, saying the proposal showed a complete lack of respect.

Most striking then perhaps in the whole polemic is how once again Sarkozy has managed to divide opinion.

It’s also not the first time since coming to office that the president has sought to, at the very least, air his views on religious affairs.

Not only is that an especially sensitive issue in France where there is a strict separation of state and church, but for many it is also questionable how a three-times married, twice-divorced head of state – no matter how spiritual he may be – can lecture on morality and religion to the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, and again not for the first time in his nine month’s as president, Sarkozy seems have underestimated the strength of the opposition to an idea.

He failed to inform or consult before making the announcement and his office is reportedly considering a degree of back-pedalling by having a whole class, rather than each individual child, “adopt” a holocaust victim.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Big guns join forces

Divide and conquer seemed to be the motto of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, when he first came to power, cutting swathes into the opposition by appointing “the most able” to government regardless of their political persuasion.

It was a break with the past. Out with the old way of doing politics and reaching out to those who wanted real reform for the country.

But now it seems a previously weak and divided opposition has managed to join forces on at least one issue – the behaviour of the man himself.

In an actually quite astonishing move, 17 leading figure from across the political spectrum signed an open letter in the weekly news magazine “Marianne” condemning what they considered to be Sarkozy’s presidential rule as an “elected monarchy” and calling for France’s proud republican traditions to be upheld

Now this was not just a bunch of political nobodies from some splinter group putting their names to a tirade of accusations.

The most notable signatory was perhaps unsurprisingly Segolene Royal, last year’s defeated Socialist party candidate in the presidential run-off. There was another former candidate, the so-called “third man” and leader of the recently formed centre-right Mouvement démocrate (MoDem), François Bayrou, as well as Dominique de Villepin, the last prime minister under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

So in French domestic political terms these are definite heavyweights. And they were joined by the current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, a former leader of the Greens, Noël Mamère, the Communist André Gérin, a member of parliament for the right wing nationalist party, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and even Pierre Lefranc, a former cabinet secretary to the Fifth Republic’s founder, Charles de Gaulle.

They all criticise his blurring of the separation of church and state as well as his too-close relationship with some giants of the media, which they say threatens to undermine the freedom of the press. They also call for a foreign policy with a true morale backbone, founded on the basis of the defence of human rights, driven by the national interest but determined also by the need to help build a Europe able to face the challenges of the 21st century. That, they say, is at the core of the French republican tradition.

Ordinarily this story wouldn’t really be the stuff of headlines, but with Sarkozy free-falling in the public opinion polls, the tide of protest is growing, and as the magazine itself says, a letter from a group representing such diverse political opinions is a first in French politics.

There’s been little reaction from Sarkozy himself. Instead he has left it to his government ministers to lead the charge in his defence. First and foremost among them was the man most French seem to think is doing a pretty decent job - in spite of the president – his prime minister, François Fillon.

Out on the stump for the upcoming local elections, Fillon called the attacks anti-democratic and a real case of sour grapes from those who had in any case failed in last year’s presidential elections.

He also quite pointedly lashed out against de Villepin – a fellow member or Sarkozy’s centre-right ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – who has himself never actually run for elected office of any sort.

The letter, said Fillon, represented an “unprecedented violence” concentrated on the president himself by those whose only aim was to halt the pace of reform.

Sarkozy also of course received the backing of the UMP’s spokesman, Yves Jego, who dismissed the declaration as an attempt by the opponents to gain the upper hand against a man they had all lost out to already at the polls.

And the cabinet minister for higher education, Valérie Pécresse, also rallied behind the president, saying the letter was a scandalous way to mask the sheer lack of ideas and vision among the opposition.

So the case has been made by those wary of both Sarkozy’s style and policy – really the first time in nine months that they’ve managed to reach a general consensus.

Meanwhile Sarkozy’s supporters not unsurprisingly dismiss the claims as mere hogwash.

This is a debate that’s likely to rage for a while yet, and it’s also interesting to note that even when he’s not saying or doing anything himself, Sarkozy still seems to provide headline writers with more than enough material.


Thursday, 14 February 2008

With her foot firmly in her mouth

She will do her best, promises France’s new first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in the headline of her exclusive interview with the weekly news magazine L’Express. But unfortunately she has got off to a somewhat less than flying start, which hardly augurs well for the future.

Bruni-Sarkozy told the magazine that one of its competitors, the centre-left weekly Nouvel Observateur was nothing more than a gossip mag after its Internet site published, what it alleged was, a text message sent from her new hubby, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to his former wife, Cecilia, just days before he got hitched to Carla.

In the message, Sarkozy apparently said that he would “drop everything if she returned”.

Last week’s story might have been that Sarkozy is suing, but this week’s is surely his new wife’s outstanding talent to show the tact required in her newly-elevated role from model-turned singer-turned president’s wife,

Bruni-Sarkozy went straight for the undiplomatic jugular by asking rhetorically what would have happened with the denunciation of Jews if a similar kind of site had existed during the war. A tender little slur on Nouvel Observateur for which she later apologised.

The magazine in turn offered its own apology for publishing the message, but still maintained the president was to blame for bringing his private life into the open so much himself.

So apologies all round, but a hefty majority of the French would seem to agree that Sarkozy is to blame for the whole sorry episode. According to the most recent opinion poll in the national daily, Le Figaro, a mighty 82 per cent of those questioned deemed the president’s behaviour and private life to be inappropriate to his role as head of state.

Be that as it may, he and his new wife are big sellers, as proven by the decision of L’Express to run an eight-page special on the thoughts and views of Bruni-Sarkozy, complete with a misty-lensed front cover shot and several “I’ve spent years posing for the cameras so I’m a dab hand at this” pictures to accompany the exclusive.

And what gripping stuff, what marvellous revelations we’re treated to in the piece. It’s essentially “Carla according to Carla”, worthy of any serious news magazine and incisive to the nth degree.

We learn for example that it was love at first sight when the couple clapped eyes on each other barely three months ago.

Apparently the former model and regular of the gossip columns would also have us believe that she was more than surprised by the media attention her whirlwind romance and marriage received – in fact she was submerged. Years on the catwalk had apparently familiarised Bruni-Sarkozy to media attention but not to the extent that she has experienced since first stepping out with the president.

Poor Carla, we learn, might find the reaction and the tone of the coverage overwhelming, but she has never been tempted to take flight, a barbed reference maybe to the former Mrs S, and rich from someone who has only been married for a couple of weeks. Here speaks an old hand indeed.

The main thing, Carla insists, is that she is in love, and no amount of pressure or scrutiny can change that. Right. Now is not the time probably to list all of her numerous high-profile past liaisons.

This one’s for real because she’s Italian (her words) and therefore doesn’t believe in divorce. Yikes it’s a marriage to last a lifetime -– a word of warning to her other half perhaps who seems to make it a pretty regular habit of exchanging vows.

She’s first lady until the end of her husband’s mandate (does she already worry that he’ll not be re-elected?) and wife ‘til death us do part’.

So what exactly is she going to do in her new job? Well, “her best” she asserts, but basically has nothing planned, which will be reassuring to the rest of the country, who will now know that she hasn’t got a clue what she is going to do – or so she says.

Of course she maintains how much she respects her immediate first lady predecessors (apart from Cecilia that is, who was hardly around long enough to be counted) such as Bernadette Chirac and Danielle Mitterrand. Both were long and silent sufferers of their respective husbands’ philandering it should be noted.

Bruni-Sarkozy aspires to maintain the dignity of the role, while keeping her own personality. Right.

Supposedly that also includes keeping up with her music – there’s a third album unfortunately due for release shortly. And for those who cannot get enough of her, there’s also the regularly featured commercial in which she appears for an Italian car maker currently doing the rounds of the television stations – complete with her dulcet tones.

With the first state visit not due until the end of March, France’s new premiere dame has a chance to try on a few designer frocks, pamper her already finely chiselled features and perhaps practise her curtsey before she heads off to the other side of the Channel.

Yes she’ll be draped from her husband’s arm (or maybe it’ll be vice-versa) during an official trip to Britain.

Better still maybe she would be well-advised to polish up the suit of armour and tape up her jaw to avoid any faux pas in front of the British paparazzi who, let’s be frank, make their French colleagues look like pussy cats.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Eastenders comes to Paris

Britain has its helping of Eastenders and Coronation Street and the United States has (among others) daily dollops of General Hospital and Days of our Lives. Even Germany has its weekly wonders of Lindenstrasse. But stand aside perennial favourites, over here in France they’ve come up with a scriptwriter’s dream.

It’s the most staggering political soapbox imaginable in the form of the race to be mayor of the swanky Parisian suburb of Neuilly. The stuff to grace the front pages of all the tabloids and a storyline that almost beggars belief. But astonishingly it’s all true.

So hold on to your hats, this is one whirlwind of a story quite befitting of its “author”, none other than the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yes him again.

Municipal elections take place in France in March. Nope, not the most gripping reading it has to be admitted. But – and there’s a big BUT, Sarkozy has turned one potentially dull local affair into headline news.

It’s all taking place in the terribly staid, blue-rinse and fur coat stronghold of Neuilly-sur-Seine, For donkeys years, well from 1983-2002, it was Sarkozy’s own person fiefdom and he spent many a happy day ensconced in the town hall, politicking to his heart’s content.

With not the slightest touch of arrogance, he decided that his centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement or UMP) party’s candidate for the upcoming mayoral vacancy should be, not his long time number two in Neuilly and party stalwart, Arnaud Teullé, but the young and fiercely ambitious, David Martinon.

Now, Martinon – a close friend of the now former never-really-fancied-the-idea-of-being First Lady, Cecilia, just happens to be Sarkozy’s official spokesman at the presidential palace, the Elysée. And the clear parachuting of an outsider over and above dedicated local politicians ruffled more than a few ostrich feathers and shimmering chignons.

So much so that one non-aligned centre-right politician decided he would run in opposition to the official UMP candidate, and so was born the campaign of the until now virtually unknown Jean-Christophe Fromantin.

Martinon has been wobbling in the polls for some time now, not helped much by the Blue Rinsers running a “Martinon, non, non” push in the press, and not even the efforts of the presidential prodigal, Jean, could prevent the inevitable from happening last weekend when the Elysée spokesman finally threw in the towel and withdrew from the race. Mind you that only happened after both Sarkozy jnr (Jean) and Teullé had publicly criticised the way he had conducted his campaign. So much for party unity.

So back to the drawing board and a crisis meeting followed at the local UMP offices who looked all set to nominate the ever-faithful (back-stabbing) Teullé as their candidate. But at the last-minute a directive came from the national UMP committee deciding that the previously “dissident” Fromantin should have their backing.

But the story clearly and really ain’t over until the Fat Lady finishes warbling and so into the running came a new dissident in the form of a mightily cheesed-off Teullé, who has now decided he’ll run against the person his party wants to see become mayor.

And of course Fromantin, still riding high in those polls, is not actually a member of the UMP.

You would be forgiven for thinking that it’s a right Laurel and Hardy of a mess, because that’s exactly what it is. And the source of the “cacophony”, as he has termed it, is none other than the president himself.

The only sure bet, in a town where a centre-right candidate is a shoe-in for elected office, is that the next mayor will not come from the ranks of the Socialist party.

Meanwhile there are murmurings from one of the Paris wards that a similar internal rebel campaign might be launched against a much bigger parachuted Sarkozy buddy, the justice minister, Rachida Dati.

The local elections could prove to be more interesting than ever imagined and the headline writers might have a field day.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

At it again

The highest office in the land might give the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, immunity from prosecution, but it certainly doesn’t prevent him from suing whenever he sees fit.

Sarkozy is suing the Internet site of the left-of-centre weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur

It reported that the president had sent a text message to his former wife, Cecilia, just eight days before he got hitched to his new wife Carla saying “Si tu reviens, j'annule tout,” or “If you return I’ll cancel everything.”

He apparently never received a response.

It’s the first time ever an incumbent president has taken a civil case against the press to the courts but as of Thursday that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Two cases in two weeks is not bad going for a president who surely has better things to do with his time and keeps bemoaning the fact that his private life is getting too much coverage.

Earlier this week he won the symbolic sum of €1 in damages in a case he and his new wife, Carla, brought against Ryanair for the infringement of their personal image after the budget airline used a photograph of the couple in one of its advertisements in a national daily.

This time around Sarkozy is suing for forgery and use of stolen goods. According to his lawyers the information is a forgery, an alteration of the truth and punishable by three years imprisonment and a fine of €45,000.

Surely forgery would imply that the apparent text message is a fake and never actually existed, which opens up the question of course as to how something that never existed could be stolen. But that’ll be one for the courts to decide.

A win would presumably help Sarkozy top up his piggy bank.

Now it might seem unusual that a serious weekly such as Nouvel Observateur would publish such a story, albeit on its website. While it’s perhaps partially a reflection both of the changing face of the media and the influence of the Internet, it’s also indicative of the new celebrity status of politicians here in France, especially since Sarkozy came to office last May.

The simple fact is that if editors slap a picture on the front cover of Sarkozy, Carla, Cecilia, or even the Socialist party opponent he defeated in last year’s presidential elections, Segolene Royal, it’s guaranteed to increase circulation. Even more so if it’s accompanied in the inside pages by a racy story about their private lives.

Everybody it seems is interested and yet nobody is.


Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Long justice

It is an almost forgotten medical scandal that killed 111 people here in France, all treated with infected growth hormones in the 1980s.

After a 17-year wait the families of those who died will finally get their chance to face the accused in court, and perhaps be given the answers to the questions as to not only why but also how it was allowed to happen.

In the dock are seven doctors and chemists – now mostly retired – who are charged with gross negligence and involuntary manslaughter.

Those who have brought the case, which opened on Wednesday, are the families who sought treatment for their children’s below-normal growth patterns, but instead lost their loved ones to a needless and agonising death from Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome.

The first victim died in 1991 at the age of 18. The last victim died in August last year at the age of 29.

It is hard to pinpoint which has been the biggest disservice done to these families over the years. They were subjected to deceit and flagrant disregard for what should have been considered norms of ethical medical practice, even at the time.

When they questioned some of the symptoms their children were displaying or even started suggesting the possibility themselves of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, they were at best fobbed off with excuses, or at worst completely ignored.

United States researchers at the time had already alerted their French counterparts of the risks that might be associated with using growth hormones extracted from corpses. They preferred to follow the practice of using synthetically manufactured hormones – now a medical standard.

But for some reason, the French ignored the warning and compounded their error with unacceptable procedures.

It transpired that the conditions for extracting, maintaining and distributing the growth hormone were by any standards, literally criminal, with the process being carried out in conditions far from sterile and from sometimes putrefying corpses.

So without knowing it the parents, rather than providing a solution to their children’s below-normal growth pattern, were in fact allowing them to be injected for years on a daily basis with the very hormone that would prove to kill them. And none of the medical professionals responsible prevented it from happening.

The seven accused have all pleaded not guilty and in there defence has been the claim that there was insufficient monitoring at the time of the often closed and secretive world of scientific investigation. They plead innocence through ignorance of the potential dangers.

The state, and in particular the ministers responsible, are not being held to account, even though they allowed the association responsible, the France Hypophyse, to operate as a monopoly without it being independently monitored. There were no external controls

Today – the only growth hormones offered are synthetic ones – the medical profession has learned from its lesson – but at what cost.

Low cost justice

They don’t really need the money but it’s the principle that counts. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his new missus, Carla, have won damages in a case they brought against the budget airline Ryanair.

The normally publicity-shy couple sued the airline for using a photograph of them without their consent in an advertisement that recently appeared in the French daily newspaper Le Parisien.

It showed the pair looking towards the sky with the former model-turned singer-turned First Lady saying, “With Ryanair the whole of my family can attend my wedding.”

The ad’ only appeared once shortly before the couple married, but that was apparently reason enough for them to sue.

Carla sought the sum of a meagre €500,000, claiming it was the fee she would normally pocket for appearing in such an advertisement – so at least we know her true value.

But a Paris judge decided that was a slight exaggeration and instead ordered Ryanair to pay Mrs Sarkozy €60,000 for “patrimonial and moral” damages and the “infringement of a personal image.”

Generous soul that she is, Mrs S has donated her winnings to a national charity.

Meanwhile her husband was awarded the symbolic amount of €1 – no reflection on his true value perhaps. But as he already earns a packet after awarding himself a hefty 172 per cent pay increase last November for an annual salary of more than €240,000, it’s unlikely he’ll be seeking anything more.

Maybe he’ll squirrel it away in a high interest earning account for a rainy day. After all he has spent much of the past nine months as president telling the French that they’ll have to tighten their belts.

A strange case really though for a couple who, since they met, have stage-managed every possible photo opportunity to ensure maximum public exposure on their own terms. And the impending marriage was possibly one of the world’s worst kept secrets, with rumours and speculation splashed across front pages since the relationship first became public last November.

Ryanair was also ordered to publish the court’s verdict in “Le Parisien”, and the airline has promised not to run the advertisement again.

Shame really as they’ve already paid for it.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The lady with the sweets

Ah, Roselyne Bachelot is such a nice lady. The minister of health doesn’t follow the usual pattern of iron-fisted politics clothed in a velvet glove. Instead she prefers the softly-softly approach.

So when she outlined plans on Monday to help fight child obesity, it came across not so much as draconian policy proposals but more like a friendly push in the right direction.

Bachelot wants television channels to drop advertising for a range of products during children’s programming. She has targeted of course food and drink high in sugar and fat content, but has given networks and advertisers the initial chance for self-regulation.

In other words they are to work out for themselves what should and shouldn’t appear in commercials, and Bachelot will retain the option of banning certain products completely if she’s not happy with the outcome.

She has set a deadline for April 1.

It’s what is being referred to in the French media as the “light” alternative, with Bachelot hoping that her call will be heard and heeded and that she won’t need to draw up official legislation.

A ban on telly advertising is just part of the multi-pronged approach Bachelot is taking to cut down on child obesity.

She also wants to withdraw sweets from check outs in supermarkets and has called for a meeting at the end of this month to determine how such a move should be implemented.

Also in the pipeline is a Gallic-style Food Quality Agency to monitor a complete overhaul of what’s on school menus with new dietary and nutrition plans due to come into effect at the beginning of the next academic year in September.

For some here in France it’s not quite the nanny state gone mad, but it’s fast approaching. There’s been a fair amount of debate on national radio about how far government can legislate such social change or whether it should be left to parents to be responsible for their children’s eating habits.

Others, such as the pressure group “Obesity – protect our children” welcome Bachelot’s proposals and want even more legislation as proof that there is a real political will to fight the flab.

It might seem strange that in a country with a terrific reputation for good food and haute cuisine that such a problem should exist. But it does.

The bottom line is that in France, as in many other countries, there has been a marked increase in the number of overweight children. Research shows that 18 per cent of 3-17 year-olds weigh too much – that’s around two million children - with 3.5 per cent defined as clinically obese. That’s up from 14.5 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in just two years.

And if the figures are correct it’s a problem that lasts well into later years with more than two thirds of overweight children remaining so as adults and life expectancy reduced by 13 years.

Faster bigger cleaner

The French manufacturing giant, Alstom, unveiled its own self-proclaimed train of the future today in the presence of none other than that other famous French speed merchant, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The freshly remarried Sarkozy bolted back from a day trip to Romania to attend the launch of the prototype Automotrice à Grande Vitesse (AGV) or high-speed self-propelled carriage at a ceremony at La Rochelle in western France on Tuesday. Sarkozy must have been a very happy bunny as he was responsible several years ago when he was finance minister, for securing state intervention to prevent Alstom from collapse.

As the name at least in English suggests, the AGV differs from its high speed predecessor, the TGV, by having a motor attached to each individual carriage, rather than one at the front and back of the train. That allows a maximum speed of 360kms/h – a full 40 kms faster than the current rolling stock.

But according to Alstom, it’s not only faster; it’s also more ecological with energy requirements being reduced considerably. At its maximum speed for example, it’ll consume 20 per cent less power than a TGV running at only 260km/h. And the manufacturer maintains that noise pollution levels will also be lower at just 90 decibels, which compares to 100 for the Paris-Marseille TGV, or 120 for a an aeroplane taking off.

So faster, cleaner and able to carry up to 650 passengers, the aerodynamically designed AGV is being touted by Alstom as the railway equivalent of the recently launched giant of the skies the Airbus A380.

Certainly the manufacturer is off to a flying start, with a firm €1.5 billion order on the books from the Italian private rail operator Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori for 25.

But the competition for what’s considered to be a booming worldwide market in high-speed trains is pretty tough, and although today’s unveiling has been accompanied by the usual French media hullabaloo, Alstom has been rather late getting off the mark.

One of its major competitors, Germany’s Siemens, mastered the same sort of individual carriage motorisation technology a decade ago and its Velaro is already zipping along the tracks in Spain – although not to its maximum potential.
With an eye on exports especially to Argentina, Brazil, China and India, Alstom will also face stiff competition from the Zefiro from the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier.

And there won’t be any special treatment on the domestic front either.

When the TGV was launched in the 1980s it was basically a joint enterprise between Alstom and the French rail operator SNCF.

This time around though Alstom has gone it alone and cannot expect any favours from its former partner at the end of the year when it is expected to open tenders to replace its existing TGV rolling stock – a contract reported to be worth up to €9 billion.

Indeed when SNCF was recently looking to replace some its trains in the Paris region, it chose Bombardier ahead of Alstom.

Another potential problem for the AGV is that the French rail operating network itself is due to be open up to competition in 2010. That could provide just the opportunity a company like Siemens needs for example to supply and run its own stock in France.

For the moment though the French are basking in their own glory. There was plenty of backslapping and smiles and the launch made the top of most of the day’s television and radio news bulletins.

Deservedly perhaps as boy, does the train look good, with a sleek design worthy to grace any science fiction film.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Stifled jaw jaw time

Constitutional reform is hardly a matter to whet the appetite, but that’s exactly what’s on today’s political agenda as both chambers of the French parliament get together to twiddle with the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic.

It’s all in aid of yet another mouth-watering issue guaranteed to make anyone choke over their early morning cornflakes, ratification of the European Union’s constitution; The so-called Lisbon treaty.

Stifle the yawns and pay attention. This is important stuff – so we are told.

The Treaty would replace the current six-month rotating presidency of the EU with a two-and-a-half year fixed term as well as introduce qualified majority voting on a number of policy areas, which at the moment require a unanimous vote. It’s all in the name of institutional reform, designed to cope with an ever-larger EU.

You might remember that it was France that put the kibosh on the last attempt to introduce an EU constitution when 55 per cent of voters rejected the proposals in a national referendum back in 2005.

A lesson learned as far as the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was concerned. When he came to power last May, he not only presented himself as the saviour of Europe by proposing a revised “mini treaty” but he also promised that a vote on the issue here would be put to the French parliament rather than to the people.

Both chambers of parliament voted separately in favour of the new treaty last November – with hefty majorities on each occasion, and Sarkozy put his signature to it, along with the leaders of the other 26 EU countries in Lisbon a month later.

But this is where the whole process gets a little complicated and typically French.

Some elements of the EU treaty deal with national sovereignty and as such contravene the existing French constitution. The only way around the problem is to change the French constitution, which can only happen when both parliamentary chambers meet in a joint session, or congress, and approve the required amendments.

That’s what’s scheduled for Monday afternoon. A three-fifths majority of votes cast will be needed for that change to be endorsed.

Once that’s done, the National Assembly and the Senate will both have the green light later this week to discuss the actual terms for making the alterations in the constitution and that will pave the way for the treaty to be adopted finally into French law.


The chances of opponents to the Lisbon treaty stopping the process of its ratification in its tracks are minimal – at least here in France. Congress will not be a chance to debate the issue – that has already been done - but simply an occasion for each of the nine parliamentary groupings to state their case for or against a constitutional change. They’ll get a maximum of five minutes each before a vote is taken.

All the same, there are likely to be a lot of long faces, especially on the Left of the political spectrum. The Communist party has not minced its words with its criticism of the way in which it claims Sarkozy has ignored the democratic process here in France, by stifling any debate, taking the final decision away from the French and pushing it through parliament.

But their cause hasn’t been helped much by a divided Socialist party, which wants to avoid a repetition of the internal infighting that occurred back in 2005. It’s still divided over the issue but has recommended in Monday’s vote, that its parliamentarians abstain against the process or the way in which ratification is taking pace – without actually preventing it from happening.

Opponents of the treaty trot out the same arguments that will doubtlessly be heard in many of the 27 EU countries as it goes through its stages of national ratification.

Those include claims that it doesn’t differ substantially from the original plan put to the vote for constitutional reform - and rejected by both the French and the Dutch in national votes,

Whatever the case may be throughout the rest of the EU, it looks as though this time around at least the French are not going to block the process.

A process that Sarkozy hopes will be completed by the end of this year – during guess whose presidency of the EU.

Sunday, 3 February 2008


Well he promised the media would only find out after the event, and so it turned out. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, must be as pleased as punch that he once again managed to scoop the press as he took the former model-turned singer, Carla Bruni, to be his lawfully wedded.

Saturday lunchtime – a full week ahead of the much rumoured “surprise” ceremony, Nicolas and Carla – for the past two months now there has been no need for surnames here in France as everyone knows who is meant - officially tied the knot, with Bruni becoming Mrs Sarkozy mark III in a service at the president’s official residence, the Elysée palace.

Not bad going for a couple who met less than three months ago and a huge sigh of relief all round for protocol as Nicolas no longer has to drag along his justice minister, Rachida Dati, on his state trips abroad because he now has a proper First Lady.

It’ll also surely please France’s quietly-suffering prime minister, François Fillon, who has been privately complaining recently that his boss did not have his mind on affairs of state and had somewhat lost the plot in the whirlwind of his Bling Bling courtship.

A dramatic drop in popularity in yet another opinion poll released last week would certainly seem to back up the widely-held belief that Nicolas has had other matters on his mind. Add to that his declared on-off involvement in next month’s local election campaign and his complete lack of progress in delivering on his own election campaign promise to increase spending power, and it’s not difficult to see why his approval rating has plummeted to an all-time low.

It would be easy to criticise the courtship as a form of presidential speed dating followed by speed marriage, but it’s typical of the breakneck pace at which Sarkozy seems to run both his personal and professional life.

Divorced from Mrs mark II, Cecilia, last October, Nicolas only met his Carla in November, and a month later the two were famously spotted and snapped at their first stage-managed public outing at Eurodisney. An equally media-friendly photo opportunity of a holiday followed in Egypt and Jordan. And at a press conference in January, the president confirmed that he and Bruni were a serious item and marriage was more than likely on the horizon.

There has to be some doubt as to whether the weekend’s nuptials will help stem the momentum of growing public dissatisfaction of the French with their president. In fact it could herald the beginning of a difficult period for him.

His new wife is known not to share some of his political beliefs and comes with a past, which is there in black and white, and often very vivid colour.

Glossy magazines will probably keep dragging up pictures of her exploits for as long as they continue to boost circulation figures – and all the evidence is that plastering a picture of either Carla or Nicolas on the front cover can do just that.

And there’ll also be the inevitable questions about what will happen to her singing career. She reportedly has a new album scheduled and a tour was in the planning.

Since coming to office last May, Sarkozy has changed the rules of politics by opening up the government and inviting in the opposition. At the same time he has reinvented the public role of the president to such an extent that his private life is very much part of the public domain – a novelty for the French.

And it is clearly a fact that the country is now going to have to live with.

If nothing else, and highly appropriate given their first public outing together last December the Sarkozy’s are proving that the “world is really turning Disney and there’s nothing we can do”. Sigh
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