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Thursday, 29 May 2008

French “virgin obsessed” serial killer gets life

After a high profile trial lasting two months, a court in northeastern France on Wednesday found Michel Fourniret, the country’s most notorious serial killer in decades, guilty on seven counts of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

His wife, Monique Olivier, was sentenced to 28 years behind bars for complicity.

Between 1987 and 2001 Fourniret carried out a series of kidnappings in northern France and Belgium.

His prey were girls and young women aged from 12 to 21 whom he stalked to feed what prosecutors during the trial called his “obsession for virgins". Fourniret lured them into his car with the help of his wife before raping and then stabbing, shooting or strangling them to death.

Belgian police eventually detained the couple in June 2003 after a failed attempt to kidnap a 13-year-old girl. She was able to escape from their vehicle and later identify the car licence number. In 2005 both Fourniret and Olivier were handed over to French authorities for trial.

Fourniret admitted to the murders and offered no real defence as such at his trial, leaving his lawyers floundering somewhat as they tried to defend what even they agreed was the indefensible.

After confessing his guilt Fourniret basically refused to co-operate with the courts apart from offering some incoherent written statements from time to time and insisting that his crimes had been unpardonable. He even went as far as to describe himself as "an extremely dangerous individual.”

The relative silence from the defendant throughout the trial didn’t stop the media though. There were almost daily reports on both television and in the press over the two months the trial lasted detailing some of the most macabre aspects of the crime and the distress of those who had lost family members.

Such coverage of course led many to raise concerns about not so much the purpose of a trial whose outcome was perhaps inevitable from the outset, but the way in which it was reported by the media.

Although the trial undoubtedly gave the families of the victims the chance to face Fourniret directly and to an extent vent their anger and desire for justice, it also left many questions unanswered as he simply refused to allow himself to be defended or offer explanations of any sort.

Several of the families have declared themselves “satisfied” with the verdict, and perhaps after all the trial really was for their benefit, to help them achieve some sort of closure.

But it remains questionable just how effective that will have been given Fourniret’s constant refusal to speak or give any clues as to his motives.

Neither the 66-year-old Fourniret nor his 59-year old wife will appeal their sentences and as he’ll not be eligible for parole for another 30 years the life sentence should be just that – life.

Few – if any – would argue against that being the right decision, nor the fact that not only has justice been done but that it has also been seen to be done.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A Nouvel skyscraper for Paris

The French capital is to get just what it needs to set it apart from the rest of the globe’s major cities - a new 300-metre skyscraper set to challenge the world-famous Eiffel tower’s domination of the city’s skyline.

France’s very own Jean Nouvel fought off competition from four other world class architects to be awarded the commission to construct the new Signal tower.

Strictly speaking it’ll actually be built in the largely business district of La Defense on the outskirts of Paris as there are height restrictions on new buildings within the city limits.

Completion of the concrete glass and steel tower is due by the end of 2013.

It won’t quite match the height of the Eiffel Tower – which stands at 324 metres - and is unlikely to become a major tourist attraction, but it’s early evidence that the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to leave his architectural mark on the capital in much the same way as his predecessors.

In fact the thinking behind the tower’s construction is to spearhead an ambitious plan to breathe new life into the whole of La Defense – now more than 50 years old.

At 71 storeys the tower will almost be a town within a town with shops and restaurants on the ground floor, and above those the inevitable offices and a 300-room hotel, all topped off with a layer of luxury apartments.

Unlike many of the rest of the ageing skyscrapers in the district, it’ll combine those all-important energy saving features that simply weren’t around decades ago, including solar panels and wind turbines on the roof.

But when all is said and done it’ll still be a hulking 300 metres of concrete, glass and steel, probably with lights left on unnecessarily overnight (as is common practice in many office complexes).

And as critics have been quick to point out, without a corresponding update of La Defense’s infrastructure the new tower could signal added congestion for commuters in the future as more businesses and therefore more employees are tempted into the district.

It’s already used by 400,000 people daily and is home to 2,500 company headquarters as well as 20,000 residents.

The new tower won’t be the only mighty construction on the horizon when it’s completed.

There are already two other 300-metre projects under construction, both of which are due to be finished by 2012. And Nouvel’s building is just part of a larger renovation plan for the district under which 17 existing but ageing buildings are scheduled for demolition – and replacement.

Of course the choice of Nouvel has brought an awful lot of patriotic backslapping and congratulations here and there’s no doubting his credentials or international track record.

Earlier this year he won the profession’s top honour, the Pritzker prize, plus to gain the new commission he beat off competition from the likes of Britain’s Norman Foster and US architect Daniel Libeskind.

But there has to be a slight doubt lingering as to whether this latest venture will not simply turn into something of an eyesore – albeit it a very tall one.

Nouvel’s last project to be completed here in Paris, the Quai Branly museum of tribal arts, already looked pretty tatty from the outside when it opened in 2006 and looks set to age quickly.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A taxing day as Sarkozy goes walkabout among the fruit and veg

What a start to the day for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He was up and about before dawned cracked rubbing shoulders and pressing flesh with the hoi polloi at Rungis, France’s largest wholesale food and flower market just south of Paris.

And as soon as he was done with mixing with the masses it was off to the airwaves of a national radio station for his first broadcast away from the comfort of the presidential palace since taking office.

Along for the ride at Rungis, so to speak, was the inevitable pack of hacks recording his every move as he pounded from aisle to aisle meeting and greeting in a way only Sarkozy can manage. Ah yes they had been forewarned and must have been delighted by the early-morning press call.

Indeed it was pretty much a case of déjà vu, a harking back to the good old bad old days of just 18 months ago when Sarkozy was in full flow as he stumped up and down the country during his presidential campaign.

Mind you the major difference this time around perhaps was the presence of none other than the first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, looking disgustingly radiant so early in the morning as she seemed to glide ethereally alongside her husband.

Quite what she made of being surrounded by heaps of kidneys and tripe at five o’clock as the couple set off on their 90-minute mystery tour leaves the mind boggling. Blow the cynics, it really must be love.

One thing’s for sure, the media hounds looked a lot more bleary-eyed than she did as they shuffled along camera-toting and snap happy for lunchtime television news broadcasts and tomorrow’s front pages. Ah the blessings of stage management.

From the heaps of offal on to slabs of meat, then past crate-loads of fruit and veg before pausing in front of hunks of cheese. Bruni-Sarkozy allowing herself to spend the longest time wickedly nibbling the smallest piece, hardly gorging herself to Fatdom and pronouncing it “delicious.” Once a model always a model.

And so the ambulant presidential cavalcade proceeded to the sweeter scents of the flower section, Not quite 6.30am and Sarkozy still smiling and exchanging banter – far removed from the ill-humoured scenes and insults back at the agricultural fair in February when he famously told a visitor who refused to shake his hand to “get lost” in no uncertain terms.

This really was Sarkozy at his best, driving home the impression once again that he was leading by example and paying tribute to the agricultural backbone of France – those who stirred themselves into action at such an inhumane hour every day of the week, 52 weeks a year.

And in case anybody had forgotten that these were exactly the same tactics that had endeared him to voters just over a year ago, he reminded them - in a pre-arranged impromptu press conference there on the floors of Rungis.

His message yet again was basically those who work hard would get their just rewards. A sort of “early bird catches the worm” variation on his “work more to earn more” mantra that he seems to delight in repeating.

So much for the early public relations exercise, this was always going to be a marathon of a day, with policy issues taking centre stage.

Sarkozy had an all-important radio interview scheduled, during which he would outline part two of his economic strategy to “save” the country, boost purchasing power (yes that again) and counter possible industrial action. So enough of enjoying himself at Rungis, time for more serious stuff as he headed back towards the capital.

With French fishermen still blocking ports in protest against rising fuel prices the government is desperate to avoid action spreading, especially to the nation’s 35,000 truck drivers who could bring France to a standstill as they have before.

Sarkozy needed to pull a rabbit from somewhere – not an easy trick to do when the state’s coffers are empty and the government can’t afford to decrease the price of fuel because it relies too much on the tax it levies – currently accounting for around 65 per cent of the price of each litre.

Somehow though the president announced that he has managed to magic up a special fund of between €150-170 million for every trimester. It’ll be used to compensate those who are most exposed to the recent world hike in oil prices - haulage companies, fishermen, taxi drivers - and will be financed by siphoning off some of the money from VAT on fuel.

So really it amounts to a numbers game that involves shuffling around taxes without addressing core issues of alternative energy supplies, which anyway would take far too long to be implemented and fail to address the immediate need for action. Ad hoc economics some would say.

Because the rise in fuel prices is not confined to France, Sarkozy can of course always blame global market pressure should his stopgap measure not work. Still top marks for finding some sort of bunny.

And still on the issue of taxes, and because he has proclaimed himself as the “president who wants to cut taxes not increase them”, Sarkozy also announced that there’s going to be no rise in the television licence.

That came as rather a surprise – he’s good a that – as it still leaves many wondering how the heck he is going to finance the state-owned television channel, France 2, when the planned ban on advertising kicks in.

Did someone say privatisation?

Monday, 26 May 2008

French triumph at Cannes but flop at Eurovision

For the first time in 21 years a French film has scooped top honours for best movie at the Cannes film festival.

“Entre les murs” (The Class) directed by Laurent Cantet won the coveted Palme d’Or on a unanimous decision by the jury.

It was only the fourth time a French production had triumphed since the gaggle of glitterati first started gathering for the annual film festival on the Côte d’Azur in 1946.

The film is a mix of documentary and fiction, following the lives of a class and their teacher in a tough inner city secondary school in Paris over the course of a year.

It was written by, and stars François Begaudeau – himself a teacher – with most of the other roles being filled by real students and teachers.

The president of the jury, US actor Sean Penn, was fulsome in his praise for the winner calling it an amazing film. Before the festival he had insisted that it was impossible to separate film from politics, and had promised that the winning film would be a reflection of the current climate.

Most would agree that “Entre les murs” is just that.

While the win might have come as something of a surprise given the relatively low profile of the film - mainly because it was shown on the last day of competition - there were beaming smiles all round as the French media gave itself a collective pat on the back for the win.

The national state television channel, France 2, was particularly pleased with itself as it was one of the main financial backers of the film and ran a live interview with Cantet, Begaudeau and some of the students at the end of its prime time news on Sunday.

The film isn’t actually due for general release until October this year, but already the culture minister, Christine Albanel, has jumped on the proverbial bandwagon and called for it to be screened in secondary schools throughout the country.

While Cannes attracts filmmakers and actors from around the globe, it’s also a special chance for some of Hollywood’s modern greats to bask in the sun and even more importantly their own glory as they give the assembled paparazzi more than their fair share of photo ops. And this year naturally was no exception.

There was the world premiere of the latest “Indiana Jones” movie with its star Harrison Ford showing up along with the director Steven Spielberg - who popped off to Paris to collect the Legion d’honneur. Of course “Brangelina” pitched up looking resplendently pregnant with twins – well at least one half of them did. Eva Longoria, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood and many, many others also tripped their way along La Croisette.

So the red carpet has been rolled up and another fun-packed carnival has come to an end.

While France might have triumphed at Cannes, there was no weekend “cultural” double whammy. At Saturday’s annual music jamboree, considered by many to be inappropriately called the Eurovision Song contest, the French contestant, Sébastien Tellier, could only manage 19th place (out of 25).

He notched up a miserly 47 points at the knees-up held this year in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, despite resorting to English lyrics and putting in a performance of his electro-pop “Divine” that by any critical standards was both professional and entertaining.

Still Eurovision, would not be Eurovision without the usual tactical voting as countries awarded top marks to neighbours and (former) political allies. Russia might have been victorious this time around and consequently won the right to host next year’s contest, but already there are calls for the “Big Four” (financial contributors), France, Germany, Britain and Spain to withdraw from future participation.

So no “douze points” for Tellier or France in Belgrade, but top marks at Cannes.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Sarkozy outs himself as Céline Dion fan

Thankfully nobody broke into song but emotions were running high on Thursday as the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, bestowed this country’s highest honour, the Légion d'honneur, on the Canadian chanteuse Céline Dion.

The ceremony took place at the president’s official residence, the Elysée palace; the day after Dion had opened a series of sold-out concerts in the French capital – the first time she has performed in Paris since 1999.

In what might have been a speech inspired by listening to a few too many of her songs, Sarkozy waxed lyrical in his praise for Dion who has released albums in both English and French. He thanked her for “making the French language shine abroad” and extolled the power of her music.

“Love has an essential place in our lives and has had a particular importance in your artistic career,” he said.

“There is only one way to love – totally – and there can be no embarrassment in sharing that. It’s a refreshing change,” he added.

For once a visibly moved Dion, who normally talks at nineteen-to-the-dozen, seemed almost lost for words. But don’t pause for breath too long as that obviously didn’t prevent her from being as effusive as ever in accepting the award.

“To receive this from your hands monsieur le president is a great honour. It’s very difficult to express exactly what it means to a simple girl from Champagne, Quebec such as me,” she gushed.

The Elysée was fair awash with Dions as the singer went on to thank her mother, her husband (and agent) René Angelil, their son René-Charles, as well as the whole gaggle of her brothers and sisters – all 13 of them – who were present at the ceremony. She also paid tribute to her father, who died five years ago.

“He would have been proud to see his little girl, his last child, acclaimed in this way by France,” she said.

The Légion d'honneur was created in 1802 by Napoleon as an order of merit to recognise "outstanding services rendered to France or a feat befitting humanity."

And in the past it was limited to intellectual greats, artists, and in general those who had made what was considered an “important” historical contribution.

But many of the more recent recipients have tended to come from the ranks of show business and Dion joins Sean Connery, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood and Johnny Hallyday to name just a few among – some would say far too – many other celebrities.

Purists naturally remain pretty sniffy about the award and some cynics in France have suggested that by bestowing this latest honour, Sarkozy was taking the opportunity to show that he has similar tastes to the masses.

That would not only be somewhat small-minded – after all he has held back somewhat on the Bling Bling glitz and glamour of his presidency recently – but also wrong.

In fact Sarkozy had nothing whatsoever to do with Dion’s selection. He was merely in the right place at the right time to confer the honour

Dion was apparently awarded it three years ago – but depending on which report you might believe she a) never had the time to pop over to Paris to receive it because she was too busy wowing her fans and playing to full houses in Las Vegas. Or b) didn’t find out about it until just over one month ago.

It was a busy week for Sarkozy in terms of handing out awards. On Wednesday he also upgraded US film director Steven Spielberg to the highest order of the Légion d'honneur.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The knives are out

The big guns within the Socialist party here in France are warming up for battle ahead of an election to choose a new leader even though that’s still over six months away.

Ségolène Royal officially announced her intention to stand last Friday. And now the man many consider will be her main opponent, Bertrand Delanoë, has released a book “De l’audace” in which he sets out his vision for the future of the party and also takes aim at Royal.

When she announced her intention to stand, the party’s old guard or so-called “elephants” – many of whom have been at the helm for a very long time and openly support Delanoë - were quick to criticise, saying Royal’s move would only further serve to split an already divided party and that she had declared herself too early.

They also accused her of ignoring party rules – even though she was by no means the first or the only one to have announced her candidature – and prematurely sparking a likely (media) confrontation with Delanoë. In reality her choice of timing was probably made to help take the sting out of the publication of Delanoë’s the book.

And in a sense the release of “De l’audace” is a rather disingenuous move by Delanoë, who in March won re-election for a second term as mayor of Paris.

He still hasn’t officially declared himself as a candidate to head the party, even though everyone expects him to stand. Instead up until now he has allowed many of the “elephants” to do his bidding, and especially his mentor and main backer, the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

While recognising that the Socialist party has been in something of a malaise for several years, Delanoë insists (in his book) that the party didn’t do itself any favours in choosing Royal as its candidate in last year’s presidential elections.

In levelling such criticism Delanoë is firmly aligning himself with those that many (including Royal) say were responsible for the decline in the fortunes of the Socialist party.

Delanoë accuses her of having run a directionless campaign and he firmly rejects any sort of alliance with MoDem, the centre party. Anyone even slightly familiar with French politics will recognise the words as ones echoing those of Jospin in his book, which attacked Royal last year.

In terms of policy perhaps the most surprising element of Delanoë’s book is his call for the Socialist party to embrace economic liberalism and to accept the principle of competition – long a taboo to many on the Left. Indeed Delanoë proudly claims to be a “liberal” himself in the true humanitarian sense of the word of course, and insists that it has long been a principle abused and misused by the centre-right.

The release of the book then is in effect just the latest offensive in a campaign, which gives Delanoë national exposure without requiring him to take the plunge and officially declaring himself to be in the running for either November’s battle for leadership of the party or more importantly nomination as its candidate in the 2012 presidential race.

For her part, Royal has admitted to mistakes made in last year’s presidential elections and said she wasn’t helped by the lack of real support she received from the party’s “elephants”. She believes in realigning the party with the centre and in the more populist “listening and hearing” approach to politics. In addition she has already made clear that for her, the leader of the party should also be the 2012 presidential candidate.

Other major differences between the two pretenders to the Socialist “throne” will become clearer once they have both officially declared.

For the moment though the knives are out and all the current incumbent, Royal’s former partner, François Hollande, can do is look on from the sidelines and keep his fingers crossed that the two don’t go for each other’s jugulars over the coming months.

A very public display of infighting is the very last thing the party can afford, especially after it has been weakened by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who successfully poached a number of its high-profile members and supporters for his government of “unity" last year.

A Foodie in St Barth - Le Gaïac

Le Gaïac promised to be a real treat - proper French gourmet dining at the restaurant of the four-star Relais & Chateaux hotel, Le Toiny. Following an afternoon spent drooling over the menu listed in the pages of the Saint-Barth Tables, we jumped in the car and headed towards the east of the island. Expectations were high, palates tuned, and appetites at the ready. Without giving the game away from the start, we were not to be disappointed.

The restaurant made a great impression from the outset. The classic décor and concealed lighting were just right and the welcome was polite yet warm as we were guided to our table, which was bedecked with a crisply starched white linen tablecloth and napkins, always a good sign.

We were also facing the open window and had the full benefit of the cool sea breeze.

Prices at Le Gaïac are in keeping with the menu; so don’t leave home without your credit card. Even though there is a €75 set menu – forget that and go for the full à la carte blow out. It’s well worth treating yourself and if you follow the maitre d’hôte’s advice – as we did – you won’t regret it.

Here it’s worth mentioning a word or two on the level of the service before going into raptures over the quality of the food.

Quite simply it was, what the French would probably call “impeccable”. The restaurant was only one third full and it was very late in the season, but this had no impact whatsoever on the professionalism of the relatively young team on duty. There was certainly no evidence of end-of season “service fatigue” we had encountered elsewhere in St Barth.

They remained unobtrusively in the background, but were always attentive just at the right moment. When a diner returned at a neighbouring table after having presumably been to “powder her nose”, there was a waiter on hand to push her chair gently back into place.

At the beginning of every course there was a brief but complete explanation of what we had ordered and an enquiry afterwards as to whether the food had lived up to our expectations.

Most extraordinary and simultaneously refreshing perhaps, was the procedure involved in the ordering and especially the opening of the wine.

There was none of that frantic sloshing it into our glasses and grinning inanely while we were expected to nod with approval. Instead it was the waiter who made sure that our choice was served at the correct temperature and not corked - by sampling it himself before allowing us to taste it. A simple gesture, which makes complete sense really - especially when drinking a wine priced at more than €60.

All the time, the service was carried out under the reassuringly watchful eye of the maitre d – just to ensure everything went smoothly.

Now to the food – and here is where it really is hard to find fault.

Even before getting around to ordering our meal we were presented with some delightful, home made amuses gueules and shortly afterwards a mise en bouche of tuna tartar with pumpkin purée. Both bode well for what was to come, but while taking the edge off our appetites didn’t really make the choice any easier.

A quick glance at the menu – after an afternoon spent pouring over it - sent the taste buds tripping into their own little fantasy world once again with the names of the dishes rolling off the tongue and leaving us wanting to try just about everything.

There was aubergine mille-feuille with grilled and marinated vegetables, black truffles and a Parmesan wafer. Or perhaps a fillet of red mullet in a Provencale tomato sauce, steamed vegetables and pineapple pearls. Then there was the lobster bisque lightly flavoured with aniseed-aged rum or golden fried fillets of sole with a citrus sauce and green salad. And those were just the appetizers.

In the end we plumped for crayfish and foie gras ravioli served in a chicken consommé seasoned with truffle oil, and home made foie gras served with fig wine aspic and a citrus walnut vinaigrette.

Needless to say the foie gras – totally politically incorrect but joyously delicious – melted in the mouth, and there was an accompanying peppered wafer than allowed me to decide just how seasoned I wanted it to be.

Even thinking about the food now, it’s hard not to smack my lips once again in appreciation.

A pause followed in the proceedings, filled with an individually tailored sorbet to cleanse the palate – chosen for us to ease the transition from entrée to main course.

And what a powerhouse, humdinger of a main course. For a full listing of what’s on offer at La Gaïac grab yourself a copy of the 2008 edition of Sainth-Barth Tables and flip to pages 12 to let your eyes do the walking.

Just for the record, we plumped for a skilleted beef fillet (best quality US import) once again mouth meltingly prepared, glazed in tamarind sauce and served with a vegetable tempura and sautéed potatoes. And the most amazing lacquered lime fillet of grouper with bananas and served with ginger sautéed potatoes.

I thought I had been so clever in ordering fish for my main course with the intention of leaving some space for a dessert, but sadly – or perhaps happily – I was perfectly full and happily passed on the crèpe suzette for another time.

After all this was just the first visit to Le Gaïac, and without doubt will not be the last.

Ratings: Ambience – 15.5/20, Service – 15.5/20, Food -16.5/20

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The First Lady sings

For some it’ll be a date to note in their diaries and one on which they’ll rush out in anticipation to the record stores. For others it’ll be time to clap their hands over their ears in an attempt to protect their hearing.

July 21 has been confirmed as the release date for Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s new album – her first since she took up residence alongside her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the president’s official residence, the Elysée Palace.

Bruni-Sarkozy launched herself musically on an unsuspecting public back in 2002 with the release of her first album "Quelqu'un m'a dit,” which received both critical and commercial acclaim. It sold 1.2 million copies in France alone and a further 800.000 abroad.

Her follow-up in 2007, “No promises” in which she set music to English-language poems was something of a flop by comparison, notching up sales of around 80,000 here in France.

Perhaps she has learned her lesson by only including one track on her new album where she sets a poem to music – this time by the French writer, Michel Houellebecq.

According to her agent – as if Bruni-Sarkozy actually needed one - the as yet untitled new album will include 14 songs, many of them penned by the singer herself. There’ll also be a remake of a Bob Dylan number as well as a song in her native Italian, proving that she remains ever the polyglot with an eye on the international market.

The album will be released simultaneously in France, Italy, Germany and Britain

It’ll be the third offering from the former model-turned singer-turned president’s wife, and music lovers won’t be the only ones curious to find out whether her new life as France’s First lady has had any influence on her artistic output or direction.

But those expecting some sort of presidential revelation or behind-the-scenes surprise could well be in for a disappointment as apparently 95 per cent of the material on the album was written before she first met Sarkozy.

Leaving little to chance and definitely not relying on the presidential stamp of approval, Bruni-Sarkozy is also rumoured to be negotiating a number of television talk show appearances on both of France’s main channels to coincide with the album’s release

One thing’s for certain, whether you relish the chance to hear her folksy ditties or consider her recordings as nothing more than unwelcome warbling, it’ll be hard to ignore her.

A Foodie in St Barth - Eden Rock

Eating almost back-to-back at gourmet restaurants was always going to be more than a little extravagant, but this is St Barth after all, renowned for its quality and breadth of its cuisine and a holiday is the best time for a self-indulgent blow out.

So following an evening tantalising our taste buds at Le Gaïac, we decided to bust the budget once again, this time at Eden Rock in St Jean.

This was a return engagement of sorts as we had eaten at the same restaurant the previous year, and quite enjoyed it. But at the back of my mind was the nagging memory that Eden Rock tried just a tad too hard to be trendy without necessarily having the real style to match.

The setting is breathtaking it has to be admitted - overlooking the bay at St Jean and offering a superbly illuminated view of the sea and the fish below. Without doubt it’s a magnet for honeymooning couples and there’s probably a certain romance to dining there. But even though it’s undeniably impressive, you know deep down it has something of Las Vegas about it.

It’s a little too easy to come away with the feeling that you haven’t really been offered the real thing – even though the remake is stunning.

Take the staff for example. Needless to say they all had winningly white smiles and wore the ever-trendy black you would (still) expect to find in a place that most obviously considers itself on the cutting edge of fashion.

But the waiters were in tee shirts one size too small to show off their pecs and the waitresses opted for the more classic look, the omnipresent little black number. They were efficient and polite but all the same seemed to be strutting and just a little too hip and sullenly distant to be waiting at tables.

And that was a feeling that sort of spilled over to the menu as well.

To begin with, what was on offer certainly wasn’t what I had been reading hungrily in my “bible” of the island’s restaurants Saint-Barth Tables. It was instead a shortened end-of-season version presented in a super (here’s that word again) trendy metal packaging. Why? Search me.

And here’s a reflection of the kind of place you’re dealing with. Eden Rock is not just a restaurant, a place to go to enjoy a meal. It’s also a hotel and runs a timeshare property business, as one whole page of the menu reminds you with listings that include the offer of a one-bedroomed apartment at a mere €400,000. A snip.

On the food front, which after all was the real reason we went, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It has gourmet-style pricing, that’s for sure, but the chef apparently cannot resist the temptation to mess around with classic dishes that simply don’t need any improvement, and even the abbreviated menu had been altered to fit the day.

The sashimi and maki starter for example included sashimi that had been totally over marinated and maki with a layer of cream cheese. Huh?

And a main course that promised sea bass in a spicy lemongrass sauce was scrapped in favour of monkfish. Last minute changes according to the availability (or not) of fish are not uncommon in any restaurant, but for the prices Eden Rock charges such information should be available to the diner as they are ordering and not five minutes later.

More fiddling around with the dessert left me feeling a little disoriented. It was an admittedly delicious Black Forest gateau, but presented in such a way that it no longer resembled the original in any way. Four corners to the plate with each corner playing host to a separate ingredient.

It struck me as being a little like offering a bowl of ice cream with ice on one side and cream on the other. Why bother – apart from showing that you can be different? Apparently because the chef can I suppose.

For all my criticisms, Eden Rock is probably still worth a visit – perhaps lunch would be a better prospect. This is not a gourmet restaurant in the same league as Le Gaïac. The prices and the setting may be, but the food is just a little too silly and the service is just too slick.

It’s a place to see and probably be seen, a smoothly run enterprise that will clearly attract clientele because of its unique location, but not necessarily those for whom food really matters.

In short, it’s TRENDINESS writ big with food writ small.

Ratings: Ambience – 13/20, Service – 13/20, Food -13/20

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

A Foodie in St Barth - K’Fé Massaï

The K’Fé Massaï in Lorient is a restaurant-lounge bar decorated with an African theme offering three set menus ranging from €29 to €52 with of course an à la carte alternative.

As it’s the only restaurant we’ve eaten at every year, there’s a certain familiarity about it albeit on an annual basis and we went there with definite expectations.

Perhaps though we should have known from the moment we entered that we were going to be disappointed. The music had been turned up just a tad too loud to make conversation at a normal level possible.

A member a staff hurriedly seated us at our table and asked us whether we would prefer still or sparkling water, returning five minutes later to quench our thirst while one of her colleagues brought the blackboard with the day’s recommendations… another table of diners who had sat down shortly after us.

We were left for another five minutes before a similar board was brought and the waitress rushed through the “specials” at breakneck-speed French. Not a problem for me, but there had apparently been no recognition that at least one of the people at our table was a non native-speaker and would have appreciated a more pedestrian pace.

Be that as it may, no sooner had she finished her 60-second patter, than another black-clad member of staff hopped to attention to take our orders. And we had hardly had time to read, by the restaurant’s dim light, what was written on the blackboard.

We asked for, and were granted, five minutes more grace after which time back he popped

Now this is the mouth-watering part, even as I write what we ordered. It sounds delicious and it should have been. But to put it succinctly, it wasn’t.

For starters;

Lobster ravioli with champagne cream sauce – too sweet and not hot enough.
Three styles of tuna – Tahitian, sashimi and tartar rechristened by me rubber, gristle and boring in that order. The Tahitian tuna was simply inedible, the sashimi required a jolly good chew and the tartar was just tasteless.

Our main courses followed a similar pattern. Monkfish with chorizo, risotto and broccoli and
Seared tuna with soy sauce and wasabi – served with a side dish of rice, aubergines and broccoli

This was not so much fusion food so beloved apparently of many a restaurant owner (but perhaps not by many foodies) as it was mushy, overcooked, bland and oddly combined dishes often only lukewarm and served at such a speed that it was obvious they had not been prepared to order but probably lined and plated up in advance, blasted quickly (when necessary) in the microwave and hauled out in front of the diner.

So when I left at least a third of my (tuna) starter uneaten, and then most of my (monkfish) main course, it was obvious I hadn’t really enjoyed the food and the waitress bravely asked why.

“How was the monk fish?” she asked

“Lukewarm and tasteless,” I replied. “The hottest thing about the dish was the plate”.

“The risotto?” she persisted.

“Far too mushy, more like rice pudding and also barely warm,” I responded.

“What about the broccoli?” was obviously her last attempt to salvage some praise from me for the meal.

“I love broccoli,” I replied. “It’s one of my favourite vegetables – normally. Unfortunately this was almost puréed. So no it wasn’t very nice either.

“But apart from that the meal was perfect,” I added kindly

I politely declined her offer to bring me a new portion.

Dessert and coffee followed – profiteroles and pistachio ice cream – relatively safe territory although if I were being exceptionally critical I could say a few words on the choux pastry. But I’m feeling generous.

Maybe we jut made bad choices, although I don’t think that would have improved the welcome we were afforded – very end of season, “let’s get the guests fed, watered and out of here as soon as possible so we can all go home,” was the feeling I was left with.

A group of Americans at a neighbouring table seem to be relishing the burgers and steaks they had ordered. Maybe that’s a safer bet at the Massaï, although it’s not really what I had come to expect from the kitchen.

Overall impressions then were disappointing – staff and especially the food, even if we didn’t end up paying for my main course. We shan’t be returning, which is a shame as obviously this meal has overshadowed memories of all those we’ve eaten there in previous years.

Ratings: Ambience – 5/20, Service – 5/20, Food -5/20

Monday, 19 May 2008

St Barth foodie special - La Mandala

La Mandala, Gustavia

Being told that the restaurant was under new ownership sent alarm bells ringing as I took the plunge and made a reservation.

But my fears proved to be ungrounded as both the food and the service lived up to expectations. The place might have change hands, but the food is still good and the location of course well worth the effort.

La Mandala is in the island’s capital, Gustavia, perched above the harbour, so parking will be a bit of a hassle, especially in high season. And be prepared for a steep last 50metre legs akimbo climb, which at least will help you work up an appetite.

It’s also probably a good idea to leave any fancy shoes behind unless someone’s prepared to drop you off right outside the door.

The new owners haven’t really done anything to spruce up the interior – they didn’t really need to as it’s pretty much modern and classic for its setting. The roof is a sort of stretched beige canvas over an exposed wooden frame. There’s decked flooring with the occasional water feature – so mind you step.

There’s a light and airy feeling to the whole restaurant even in the evenings as it’s open on two sides. And be sure to try to book a table overlooking the town as you’ll benefit from any sea breeze, which can be something of a relief especially when the humidity rises.

Background music is kept low, so conversation at a normal volume is possible although it’s more than likely that once the place gets really busy, and you’re sitting right in the middle, it might get a little difficult to make yourself heard.
So the location and the decor haven’t changed and neither has the food – it’s still good quality and there were no unpleasant surprises awaiting us. La Mandala is yet again one of those places describing its dishes as “fusion food” – clearly THE culinary buzzword of the moment.

Bur fear not, you won’t find anything too “off-the-wall” on the menu as its real specialities remain sushi, sashimi and Thai cuisine, and that’s really what it excels at.

We shared two starters one from the chef-recommended €39 set menu, offering freshly made crab and shrimp spring rolls, with noodle rice,Thai sauce and seaweed. And the other à la carte selection of sushi, sashimi and maki – all good quality.

The main course was fish curry, grilled fish and chicken – all part of the set menu and much tastier and belying its simple description. A la carte was chicken served in a coconut, mango and lemongrass sauce and Thai rice – a tasty and harmonious combination and definitely a generous sized portion. So often in these sorts of dishes you have poke around a while to find any hint of meat on the plate. This was certainly not the case – a scrumptious choice with no place left for dessert.

The set menu though included the wickedly delicious moelleux au chocolat and somehow I managed to sneak a spoonful - and that hit just the right spot.

The restaurant was not exactly heaving the night we were there. That’s perhaps not surprising really as the season is definitely drawing to a close. Nonetheless we were still given a warm welcome and the service was friendly, smiley and efficient. A definite thumbs up.

One thing worth mentioning perhaps is that La Mandala also does sushi, sashimi and maki to go – yum yum.

Ratings: Ambience – 11/20, Service – 13/20, Food -12/20

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Second class service at first class prices

Travelling first class on the Eurostar from Paris to London (or vice versa) isn’t really anywhere close to the romantic vision of a more genteel bygone era. It certainly isn’t luxury by any stretch of the imagination and is in fact much more oriented to the business traveller eager to cut down journey time and cram in a couple of hours work on the computer – or God help us all – shouting into the mobile ‘phone.

The trip becomes even less of a luxury and more of an indulgence if you’ve bought a discounted ticket to treat yourself to a hoped-for touch of comfort. There are definite shortcomings.

For the not inconsiderable sum of more than €200 you’ll have a non-exchangeable, non-refundable ticket, so woe betide you if you miss your train.

There’s not even the chance of jumping the queue to go through either ticket control or both sets of passport control before entering the huge waiting hall in an attempt to find somewhere to sit before boarding.

In addition you can’t use the business-premier class lounge at Gare du Nord station. It’s reserved exclusively for those who have coughed up the full asking price.

So right from the start then there is a sort of Orwellian selectivity even among first class trippers – ie; they’re all equal but some (full-payers and Eurostar employees) are more equal than others.”

You won’t be allowed to enter the hallowed halls for free drinks and nibbles – them’s the rules and there’s absolutely NO bending room.

Still in theory at least the service aboard the train should be in keeping with the price tag. But London-bound May Day early morning travellers were in for a disappointment.

First class was not exactly packed and the crew – charming to the nth degree it has to be admitted – were able to be terribly attentive. In fact sometimes it was just a touch too much.

As the train started its journey they came rattling through the carriage with the drinks trolley. Now although it’s never really too early in the day for a glass of champagne, even this far from teetotal passenger had to refuse several of the repeated offers to top up his glass over the next hour.

Perhaps it was a ploy by the staff to ply travellers with as much booze as possible so that they wouldn’t notice the paucity of the food on offer and the lack of choice.

When the meal tray arrived we were presented with a sad-looking salad embarrassed presumably at being undressed. Moments later a rather self-conscious steward looked even more ashamed than the salad as he offered us the CHOICE of salmon or cheese for the main dish – but obviously NOT both as would befit the normal course of a meal in France.

Dropped jaws all round as we plumped for the rubber-soled salmon and the beautifully British-stewed vegetables.

And even more astonishment when the steward had the gall to ask whether we had enjoyed the meal – or the literal French translation “Did it please you?”

Maybe the lack of food was simply a public holiday aberration as on the return trip three days later at exactly the same time of day we were offered a full lunchtime choice of rubber lamb or rubber salmon.

Finally one rather curious fact is that travelling first class does not actually get you through the barrier at the other end any faster as for some reason the carriage always seems to be the furthest away.

And you quickly realise that the extra cost hasn’t just failed to give you very much more comfort during the two hour 15 minute trip, it has also given you no time advantage you had hoped to gain over fellow passengers as you pigeon-step your way slowly to the exit.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Sophie’s voice

It should have been clear from the very outset after Sophie, our train manager welcomed us all aboard the London-bound Eurostar from Paris that this was not going to be a regular, uneventful trip. There was something just a little too sing-songy in her tannoyed “bienvenue”, wishing us a pleasant journey and volunteering to answer any questions we might have had, to augur any thing other than premonitory misgivings. But those were easily ignored.

Although it’s generally meant as a polite yet ultimately meaningless platitude, such an invitation awakes the pedant in even the most mild-mannered traveller, especially one with a low concentration threshold, and to whom questions spring to mind which would tax the genteel patience of the undoubtedly delightful Sophie, even if she were a Saint.

Did the woman really know what sort of Pandora’s box she was opening I mused to myself. After all to anyone with even the slightest smidgeon of sophistry, Sophie’s was an incitement to full blown pedantry.

Dangerous territory indeed, particularly as the burning question on my lips that morning - after I had been roused from my slumber by the dawn chorus, - was why do cuckoos cuckoo? And nobody had as yet been able to provide me with a reply.

Staring out at the scenery as we hurtled through northern France at a mighty 300km per hour, I was mulling over the possibility of seeking out Sophie to find out whether indeed she had any idea of the answer. But before I could give it another thought, the train unexpectedly ground to a halt.

Now the Paris-London Eurostar trip is something of a modern marvel. It only takes two hours and 15 minutes to complete the around 400km trip, city centre to city centre. That’s thanks largely to the British finally having got their act together after more than a decade to build a new high-speed track running in to St Pancras.

From 1996 until November last year, the trains used existing lines into Waterloo and after zipping through northern France, the Eurostar would then trundle along the remaining 90kms the other side of the channel at an embarrassingly almost 19th century speed.

Thankfully that’s all been confined to the pages of history, although the recent opening of the new link hasn’t been without its hiccoughs. In April passengers from London to Paris spent a night discovering the joys of low speed travel on the high-speed link when the journey turned into a 12-hour nightmare with two changes of trains.

So when the unscheduled stoppage was followed-up moments later by Sophie’s dulcet tones, a warning bell rang out.

She informed us ominously that the train had not yet been cleared for entering the tunnel – exactly the same explanation that had eventually been offered to passengers of that 12-hour marathon. In fact Eurostar’s operators, must have learned something from that incident, because Sophie promised she would get back to us with more news as soon as possible. The lack of information had been one of the major criticisms levelled at the company back in April.

And sure enough, moments later, she was on the tannoy to say that there had been an “incendiary incident’ – obviously Eurostarspeak for a “fire” - in the service tunnel, and the train would be held in position until cleared to go through – estimated to be around 50 minutes.

More insincere platitudes followed but delivered with such heartfelt apologies that clearly Euroastar must be doing something right in its recruitment policy for train managers. And then we were left with deafening silence.

The seconds quickly yawned into those promised 50 minutes with murmuring passengers wondering why the train hadn’t been stopped at a station rather than in the middle of nowhere. At least then the nicotine-hungry would have been able to pop out for a quick cigarette break or others could simply have stretched their legs in the fresh air.

Ah no, obviously Eurostar couldn’t possibly know what was happening further down the line as the hopeless lack of communication had proved back in April – especially in these days of instant messaging. And if to prove such a point, an initial call to those waiting to meet me at the other end, resulted in my discovering that according to the notice board the train was still scheduled to arrive on time.

Time up and waiting over, the incendiary incident appeared to be under control and we were on our way again. Minutes later our train manager piped up to confirm that we were moving – just in case we had had any doubts presumably. “Attagirl Sophie, there’s nothing like telling us what we wanted to hear and already know.”

Sadly the sing-songy note had disappeared from her voice to be replaced with a slightly embarrassed tone and the offer to contact her if connections had been missed. The implied and fervent hope seemed to be that passengers wouldn’t prevail too much for the proffered information.

As the train pulled into St Pancras just 70 minutes after it had apparently already arrived, Sophie was back on the tannoy for a final time to thank us for our understanding – as if we had been given any choice in the matter – and not to offer us any compensation.

Thanks Eurostar, and thank you Sophie. And by the way, why do cuckoos cuckoo?

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Sarkozy sees sense on Blair presidency

It has not been made official yet but it’s already doing the rounds of the media both here in France and across the channel in Britain. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is apparently not going to back former British prime minister, Tony Blair, as a candidate to become the first president of the European Union.

Instead Sarkozy is thought be ready to throw his weight behind the prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.

That should come as a relief to many a committed Europhile. During his decade in office Blair did little to move Britain any closer to the heart of EU policy making. On the contrary, if anything he pandered to a domestic public that had been force-fed euroscepticism for far too long.

Blair showed no political will for adopting a common currency, dragging his heels to such an extent that Britain still remains outside of the Eurozone – a position which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

He also resisted adapting Britain’s justice system to meeting European standards and kept the country outside of the passport-free Schengen zone. In other words Blair hardly had the credentials of a truly committed European,

Then of course there was his perceived “poodling” to US president George W. Bush during the invasion of Iraq, which saw him out of step with the EU’s other two political and economic powerhouses, France and Germany

It might seem somewhat extraordinary that Sarkozy should have put Blair’s name forward in the first place and on the surface at least this latest move marks an about turn for the French president. Just last year he declared Blair’s possible candidacy as a “smart move.”

But that might have been a combination of the rush Sarkozy had from being newly elected – remember he was very much in his omnipresent, firing-on-all-fronts-simultaneously stage - and an attempt to flex his muscles as the new kid on the block.

Dropping support now for Blair though isn’t necessarily a “new” Sarkozy in action. Ever the consummate politician, he would have realised from the outset just how unlikely he was to succeed with proposing Blair. And his apparent about turn could also be interpreted as a calculated move to assert his authority at just the moment when France is preparing to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on July 1.

Sarkozy will be eager to get the timetable rolling along before the end of the year and wrapping up agreement of a common candidate could well help remove hurdles to the process whereby all 27 EU member states have to ratify the Lisbon treaty.

It’s a watered-down version of an earlier proposal for a European constitution, which was rejected by both French and Dutch voters.

Under its proposals a new president would be appointed for two –and –a half years, chairing EU summits, and taking on some of the functions of the current presidency, held on a rotating six-month basis by EU heads of government.

The president would also represent the EU on common foreign and security policy.

Although Sarkozy is now said to favour Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Baroso, cannot be ruled out either.

There’s likely to be a fair amount of horse-trading over the coming months with perhaps a compromise candidate being the final option. That is after all the way things have always happened in the past in a smaller EU and enlargement is probably only going to make it a more vital component for reaching an agreement.

Whatever happens, Sarkozy will have his work cut out.

The holiday that was, then wasn’t and now is

This is the rather muddled tale of the public holiday that disappeared from the French calendar four years ago when it became a quasi-working day. But lo and behold, and hallelujah, everything’s back to normal at last and lundi Pentecôte, or Whit Monday, is once again a day off.

Up until 2004 it always was. Whit Monday was Whit Monday clear and simple – and nobody worked (just for a change).

The seeds of confusion were sown in 2003 though as the government sought a knee-jerk response to the fatal heat wave in June of that year, which killed more than 11,000 (mainly) elderly people. Some bright spark hit on the idea of scrapping Whit Monday as a holiday and replacing it with a “Day of Solidarity.”

No more public holiday and instead people would work and income generated from that day (estimated at around €2 billion) would boost the (tax) coffers to care for the elderly and handicapped.

Good idea – Right? Only on paper, and perhaps not even on that!

What mustn’t be forgotten is that much of the country’s workforce was already struggling with the 35-hour working week and the requirement to take a certain number of “enforced” days off (RTTs) a year to keep to the letter of the law.

So many companies saw the new “non holiday” as a chance to oblige employees to use up one of those RTTs and closed for business. Meanwhile others chose to remain open, leaving it to individuals to decide whether they went to work or claimed the day as an RTT (which they were of course entitled to do).

The result on an annual basis was nothing short of a fiasco. Schools closed, but many parents were at work; a couple of government ministries reported for business as usual but others put up shop for the day. And so this list continues. Bedlum pure and simple.

Last year saw the election of a new president, a new government and perhaps one of the simplest jobs anyone in politics has ever had to do – reinstating Whit Monday as a holiday. After all it’s not as if anybody is really going to take to the streets to protest.

And as if to herald the fact that Whit Monday is officially back with a vengeance, the French will be taking an extra long break this year.

May 8 of course commemorates Victory in Europe day – needless to say another public holiday here in France – and this year it falls on a Thursday. Never shy of making the most of a good thing, many people will be “making the bridge” and skipping work on Friday.

As Whit Monday falls on May 12, France isn’t likely to reopen for business properly until Tuesday. In other words a great chunk of the population will be celebrating a mere five-day weekend.

Not bad going in a country whose president is always stressing the need to work more to earn more and where economic growth for the year is regularly being revised downwards.

Happy holidays.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Sarkozy’s first year in office

No prizes for guessing what’s filling the column inches of many a newspaper editorial here in France today. It’s the first anniversary of the election of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the media is having a field day to mark the occasion.

Much of the comment addresses Sarkozy’s staggering tumble in the popularity polls and what seems to be generally accepted as a turbulent first year in office. There’s no denying that a drop from 65 to 32 per cent approval ratings in the space of just one year doesn’t exactly sit easily with a man who came into office with such high hopes.

But it’s worth taking a moment to look at how Sarkozy is faring in comparison with his predecessors.

He has been accused of being omnipresent, stepping on the political toes of many of his ministers, yet by comparison with the founder and first president of the Fifth French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, he has kept an almost low profile.

At the end of his first year, de Gaulle had not only rewritten the constitution – something Sarkozy is trying to update – he had also taken the country to war in Algeria. In spite of that his approval ratings were at 58 per cent.

In 1970, one year into office, Georges Pompidou had poured money into the arts and commissioned the building of a national museum in his honour and still had the enviable level of 67 per cent approval.

Sarkozy could also look back longingly at the first year of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who in a sense might be termed the precursor of an action-packed president, if not with glamour and glitter then certainly in policy reform.

By 1975 Giscard d’Estaing had appointed the country’s first minister for women, pushed through abortion legislation and increased taxes within the space of a year. And still he managed to retain 59 per cent approval ratings.

After entering office François Mitterrand didn’t hang around and by the end of his first year in office in 1982 had abolished the death penalty, opened up radio airwaves giving rise to a media boom and introduced wealth tax. Admittedly he witnessed a drop in popularity to 51 per cent, but he still hung around for another 13 years.

Sarkozy’s immediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was the president whose first year in office the present incumbent’s most closely mirrors. In 1996, just one year into his first tenure, Chirac’s approval ratings had dropped from 59 to 36 per cent, but by the same token he didn’t really achieve very much apart from ending compulsory military service.

And the true lesson for Sarkozy to learn – and part of the reason expectations were so high when he was elected in May 2007 – is that much of Chirac’s time in office was characterised by political inertia.

That brings us back to Sarkozy's first 12 months into the job. The truth of the matter is that his style has raised more than a few eyebrows and left many feeling decidedly uncomfortable with his ability to be “statesmanlike”.

His quick divorce and even faster remarriage certainly made too many headlines for a nation used to a “private life” remaining exactly that. Sarkozy is undoubtedly a gifted orator, but sometimes his infamous temper and almost petulance has seemed to get the better of him such as when he coarsely insulted a visitor to the agricultural show in February.

Aside from style, policy has been Sarkozy’s biggest problem. He has so far failed to deliver on his election promise to increase purchasing power, there are ongoing talks with trade unions to introduce pension reform and he’s struggling to kick start the economy by tackling the 35-hour working week.

It’s not enough to keep promising that results will come – the French want to see the proof.

Even Sarkozy’s admission that he failed to “communicate” by getting the message across from the very beginning doesn’t seem to have stemmed his drop in the polls, nor does his oft-repeated reminder that he has five years in office and results should be judged at the end of his tenure.

In spite of the grumblings Sarkozy does have some factors on his side.

First up of course is the rotating presidency of the European Union, which France takes over for six months at the beginning of July.

That could give him the opportunity to shine on the international stage and relieve some of the pressure he’s feeling on the domestic front – a common ploy of many a beleaguered leader.

He still has a healthy parliamentary majority, which might prove vital if there’s more industrial action. Already there’s a national education strike planned for the middle of this month and the jury is out on how unions will react to civil service cuts or how those pension reforms will pan out.

In addition the opposition Socialist Party is still licking its wounds after last year’s defeats in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, even if it did better in March’s local elections. There’s likely to be even more infighting later in the year when the Socialists choose their new leader with every week seeming to bring a new candidate into the reckoning.

All those factors combine to give Sarkozy what many political observers consider a certain amount of leeway. After all the bottom line is that he still has four years to go and nobody ever said that being president meant having to be popular.

France honours Kylie

It’s official, as if anyone had any doubt. The Aussie pop chanteuse, Kylie Minogue, is now a cultural icon, at least as far as the French are concerned.

On Monday Minogue became a chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (a knight of the order of Arts and Letters) in a ceremony presided over by the French minister of culture, Christine Albanel.

In bestowing the honour upon the singer Albanel proved her pop and fashion savvy credentials by proclaiming Minogue to be the “princess of pop and an uncontested queen of the dance floor who had a Midas touch on the international music scene and transformed everything she touched into gold – from records to micro-shorts.”

She also praised Minogue’s decision to go public three years ago after she received the diagnosis that she had breast cancer.

“In doing so,” Albanel told the 39-year-old singer. “You have raised public awareness.

“Doctors even go so far as to describe a ‘Kylie effect’, which encourages young women to go for regular check-ups,” she added.

L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres was established back in 1963 to recognise significant contributions to the arts and literature – not just in France, but also throughout the world.

Minogue now joins the ranks of an eclectic mix of other notable foreign recipients including among others TS Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Clint Eastwood, Sharon Stone and Jude Law.

Minogue, a former soap star turned singer who has had more than 30 hits over the course of the last two decades, kicks off her latest world tour in Paris on Tuesday.
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