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Thursday, 31 July 2008

French lottery winner ends up big loser - with bank's help

Who hasn't at one time or another had a passing fantasy as to what they might do if they suddenly came into a lot of money by winning the lottery? Give up work, get that new car, house, holiday, boat - hey perhaps even a 'plane. It's the dream of millions perhaps and then "bam" welcome back to reality.

Of course many lottery winners continue to lead "regular" lives, they invest sensibly and live comfortably off a monthly income with just a dash of madness thrown in for good measure.

There are plenty of feel good stories out there of what happened to former big winners.

But there are also those that, perhaps through little fault of their own, end up penniless or at least threatened with bankruptcy. And such is the tale of one man whose plight hit the headlines here in France at the beginning of the week.

His story was revealed in the national daily Le Parisien, and for the moment he's not being referred to directly by name, but simply as "Jacques".

Back in 2001, this family man in his forties won the handsome total of €900,000 and not being used to such a grand lump sum (who would be?) he went to the local branch of his bank for some solid financial advice.

A wise move by anyone's standards. And the manager encouraged him to invest €780,000 of his winnings variously on a savings account based on the performance of shares, life insurance and some stocks.

Then six months later after Jacques was fired from his job, his bank advised him to open another account to play the stock market on the Net - what the French call the "Boursicoter" - and provided him with a €100,000 overdraft limit. Even though he had little or nor previous experience of speculating, Jacques turned out to do reasonably well, "winning" nearly €100,000 over the next three years.

He reportedly seemed to have a pretty good relationship with his branch manager, backed up to a great extent by the fact that he was then allowed another loan in 2005 of €200,000 even though he was officially unemployed and didn't have a regular fixed income.

Fair game. After all remember Jacques still had assets of several hundreds of thousands of euros and he was being advised by his branch manager.

The game started to hot up and Jacques began speculating with serious amounts of money - up to €1 million a month at one point - always with the approval of his manager and even, so he now claims, with the manager stepping in and making those investments for him. In 2006 alone more than €10.6 milion was "played".

You know where this is going don't you?

Fortunes changed and Jacques started to lose money - BIG sackfulls of the stuff with an ever expanding overdraft being granted into the bargain. And then in September 2007 the bank manager - his financial advisor - was moved to another branch

His replacement took one look at the debts Jacques had accrued and immediately slapped a ban on him borrowing any more to play the bourse.

The bank didn't stop there though. Jacques was first requested and now has been taken to court to repay the outstanding €600,000 debt immediately otherwise face repossession of his house, and his other stocks, investments and life insurance policies.

For his part, Jacques has launched a counter claim of €700,000 in damages saying the bank failed in its duty "to offer advice and information".

And the bank in question? Well here's the rub to the whole tale. It's none other than the one, which in its advertising here in France says "On est là pour vous aider" or "We're there to help you."

Yes you've guessed it, the very same Société Générale, which earlier in the year hit the international headlines when one of its futures traders, Jerome Kerviel, managed to lose it a whopping €5 billion - give or take the odd centime. But that's quite a different story.

For the moment, over Jacques' case, it has made that most illuminating of statements "no comment".

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Delanoë leads polls ahead of November election.

No sorry, this isn't the US presidential vote scheduled for the autumn - perhaps it's time for a breather from that for a moment - but instead the decision by France's opposition Socialist party as to who's going to take over as leader of the party and be the likely candidate in the 2012 presidential elections.

It's a vote also slated for November, when the party faithful will gather in Reims to elect a successor to the current chairman, François Hollande.

And there are two "presumptive" front runners eager for endorsement.

First up of course is Ségolène Royal, last year's defeated candidate in the presidential election where she lost in the second round run-off to Nicolas Sarkozy.

And then there's Bertrand Delanoë, the current mayor of Paris, and he comes complete with the backing of one of the party's "elephants" or old guard, Lionel Jospin.

While Royal has long been seen as the likely "pretender" to that most uncomfortable of thrones - a party riven by internal bickering and not helped by Sarkozy cherry picking some of its best known figures for his government - a survey in the national daily Le Parisien, suggests that Delanoë is now (just) ahead in the race to succeed Hollande.

Delanoë, who is widely reputed to be authoritarian in his approach and something of a control freak, has in the past been highly critical of Royal.

While recognising that the Socialist party has been in something of a malaise for several years, Delanoë has insisted that the party didn’t do itself any favours in choosing Royal as its candidate in last year’s presidential elections, even going so far as to accuse her of having run a directionless campaign.

He also firmly rejects any sort of alliance with MoDem, the centre party, and in a recent book outlined his "vision" for the future of the Socialist party, somewhat surprisingly perhaps calling for it to embrace economic liberalism and to accept the principle of competition – long a taboo to many on the Left.

Indeed Delanoë proudly claimed to be a “liberal” himself in the true humanitarian sense of the word of course, and insisted that it had long been a principle abused and misused by the centre-right.

Having Jospin as a backer doesn't seem to have done Delanoë much harm so far. And that's saying something. The former prime minister and unsuccessful Socialist party presidential candidate back in 2002 (when he didn't even make it into the second round run-off leaving the country reeling as Far Right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen went head-to head with the then incumbent, Jacques Chirac) has twice "retired" from politics.

At 71 he now seems to have carved himself a rôle as "kingmaker" so much so that while Delanoë was restricted from being seen to campaign nationally earlier this year during the local elections (he successfully ran for re-election in the French capital) Jospin appeared on his behalf at rallies up and down the country.

For her part, Royal has admitted to mistakes made in last year’s presidential elections and has repeatedly said she wasn’t helped by the lack of real support she received from the party’s elephants, apart from the odd barbed comment and reluctant "pressing the flesh" sessions.

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.

Although they're the favourites, Delanoë and Royal don't have the field to themselves. This is after all the Socialist party, which seems to believe that "unity" and "discord" are far from being mutually exclusive. There are a whole host of other candidates - declared or not - many well-known here in France, if not abroad.

Foremost among them are two names perhaps worth mentioning. There's the ex employment minister, Martine Aubry, architect of the 35-hour-working week (currently being dismantled brick by brick by Sarkozy) and daughter of the former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. And Manuel Valls the 45-year-old mayor of the Paris suburb of Evry.

Born in Barcelona, Spain, and a naturalised French citizen at the age of 20, Valls is perhaps somewhat in the mould of Britain's Tony Blair when it comes to how he sees the future of the Left in France.

And then of course there's one very important figure within the party, who won't be standing this time around simply because he can't.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - another of the party's elephants - was neatly temporarily sidelined from national politics after he being nominated by Sarkozy - and approved - as head of the International Monetary Fund, IMF.

But he still manages to pop back from time to time to show his face among the party faithful, has a firm base of support among activists and, get this, his tenure at the IMF is scheduled to end just in time for the 2012 presidential elections here in France.

If a week is often quoted as being a long time in politics, then for both Royal and Delanoë, the next four months must seem like an eternity. At the moment neither has a majority of votes needed to become the next chairman - far from it - and there's likely to be a fair amount of behind the scenes horse trading especially after everyone returns from their summer breaks.

A very public display of infighting is probably the last thing the party can afford, but it's hard to imagine how it can reconcile its differences without airing its dirty linen in the full glare of the French media.

So if you need a break from Obama-McCain later this year - cast your gaze to this side of the Atlantic where there'll be another battle for the top (ish) - albeit perhaps on a slightly less grand scale although the outcome could be just as unpredictable.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Carla's number 1 - France's first lady really is tops

It has only been out a couple of weeks but already Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's new album is riding high in the charts here in France.

The model-turned singer-turned first lady confounded critics (and cynics alike) by notching up sales of more than 14,000 of her latest musical offering "Comme si de rien n'etait" (As if nothing had happened) in just the first couple of days according to her record company - perhaps not exactly the most objective of sources.

But now the Syndicat national de l'édition phonographique (SNEP), the music industry group that tracks record sales here in France has confirmed that Bruni-Sarkozy has actually made it all the way to the number 1 spot. And in the process she has knocked off the new album from the British band, Coldplay.

Not bad going by anyone's standards, even if SNEP didn't actually release official sales figures.

The album is Bruni-Sarkozy's third and it hit the stores on July 11, accompanied by a blaze of publicity as the first lady took to the promotional trail giving "exclusive" interviews virtually left right and centre (not politically-speaking of course) - at least here in France.

Of course interest was especially high in how this album would fare in light of her whirlwind romance and marriage to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, which made all the international headlines earlier this year.

But that aside, Bruni-Sarkozy does have a musical track record - whether you're a fan or not.

She released her first album "Quelqu'un m'a dit,” back in 2002 to largely critical acclaim here in France and abroad - selling around 2 million copies.

Her 2007 follow-up, “No promises”, didn't go down well, but so far her third album seems to have caught the public's imagination.

It was launched simultaneously in France, Britain and Germany earlier this month and is now available elsewhere in Europe.

The official release date in the United States has been set for August 5.

Clearly Bruni-Sarkozy has taken to heart her husband's oft-repeated mantra of "work more to earn more" but at least she won't be pocketing any of the proceeds from the sale of the album herself.

They will be going to charity.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

French soccer star's evening nightmare

Just a short post on what by anybody's reckoning must be one of most parent's horrors and what the French sports daily L'Equipe, rather given to underestimation perhaps, headlined as "Mexès' crazy evening" ("La folle soirée de Mexès").

What should have been a simple family dinner at a restaurant ended rather dramatically for French football player, Philippe Mexès, on Thursday and is one he's unlikely to forget.

The AS Roma centre back was returning to his home after a meal in the Italian capital with his partner, Carla, and their two young children, when they were carjacked.

Two armed men stopped them in the street just outside their home, forced them out of their luxury vehicule and drove away.

What the carjackers didn't realise however was that one of the Serie A player's children was still sat in the back of the vehicule.

A police chase through the streets of Rome eventually ended when the two assailants abandoned the car on the side of the road. And a quick check in the back revealed Mexeès' 13-month-old daughter was unharmed and had apparently slept through the whole thing.

So a happy ending to what could have been a completely different tale.

Although not a regular in the French national side, the 26-year-old Mexès has eight caps for his country.

He moved to AS Roma in 2004 after six seasons at French first division side, AJ Auxerre.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

A French revolution in labour law as Sarkozy aims to get the country working

This week saw parliamentary approval for a change in France's labour laws and a potential beginning of the end to the country's 35-hour working week.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement UMP) party say the decision will loosen up the country's labour laws and provide a boost to the economy.

Opponents see it as a "step back in time" and a threat to social justice.

At the heart of the reform is the challenge to the France's 35-hour working week.

Many would agree that the original legislation - introduced just over 10 years ago - has had something of a stranglehold on the French labour market ever since.

The original goal of the then Socialist government was to decrease unemployment. But instead the results have been minimal, if not nearly impossible to gauge and, say many economists, cost the country millions of euros.

And while there has been an increase in people taking on second jobs in their free time, critics have claimed that small and medium sized businesses in particular have suffered from the inflexibility of the existing law, and it has made them less competitive.

Employment minister, Xavier Bertrand, one of Sarkozy's closest allies and a possible future prime minister, told national radio that the new law would make the labour market more flexible.

And there's certainly a case to be made for breaking the seeming rigidity of a system where work stops at a given hour regardless of whether a task has been finished - simply because that's the law.

But the new legislation won't actually get rid of the 35-hour-working week altogether, even if that might well be Sarkozy's eventual goal. It'll just allow companies to determine with their employees' consent how long the working week should last (maximum 48 hours) thereby bringing France more into line with its EU partners.

The latest move was probably inevitable as it's all part of Sarkozy's plan to get France back to work.

When asked at a press conference earlier this year whether he wanted to see the end of the 35-hour-working week, Sarkozy took most reporters' breath away by summing up his response in just one word - "yes".

Since then he has backtracked somewhat. In a sense he has had to, simply because his oft-repeated mantra of "work more to earn more" as a means of fulfilling his electoral pledge to increase the purchasing power of the average man and woman on the street, wouldn't function without it.

He still needs the 35-hour working week to be able to allow employers to pay overtime to employees who choose to take it. And he still needs employees to be able to choose between those extra days off they can accumulate or paid overtime. The two go hand in hand.

Sarkozy said as much in a televised inteview a couple of months ago when he admitted that he had not "communicated correctly" the thinking behind his so-called fiscal package. That has since been rectified with a million-euro advertising campaign.

Parliamentary approval is not quite the end of the road for the legislation as far as opponents are concerned.

They say the new law is "dangerous" and claim it increases the likelihood that employees will be forced to work longer hours without being properly paid for them, gives employers an unfair upper hand in allowing them to "dictate the rules" and will lead to an overall reduction in the number of days off.

A group of parliamentarians representing the political Left here in France, along with the Greens intends to challenge the legislation before the country's constitutional court.

For the moment though, Sarkozy finally seems to be delivering on some of the electoral promises he made last year. This latest reform follows hot on the heels of a general overhaul of the French constitution, approved at the beginning of this week.

If he can now be seen to be delivering on the one major area in which he has so far failed - increasing purchasing power - then the economy could well see the kick start it has been waiting for and been promised for over a year now.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Obama's whistle stop tour hits Paris

If it's Friday, it must be Paris - at least for Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for this autumn's US elections, just in case anybody out there didn't know.

And the French has an interesting take on his quick visit to the France and its capital the La Ville-lumière.

There'll be no repeat of the scenes and speeches that made the international headlines during his stopover in Germany.

Not because the man's not popular in France according to the national centre-right daily Le Figaro. Far from it in fact, and quite the opposite.

is very much alive and kicking - perhaps too much so, says the paper, at least for his campaign team. It has a watchful eye on how Obama's tour is playing with the media and the all important centre ground of the electorate back home on the other side of the Atlantic.

His extreme popularity in France, suggests Le Figaro, could actually do him a disservice back home - where after all it'll be the votes of the Americans that count.

It's also an issue taken up elsewhere in the French media with commentators pointing out that Obama wants to avoid the trap of already appearing to be the US president when in fact he is still (just) a "presumptive" candidate.

So his visit is being limited to a two-hour meeting with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, followed by a press conference.

He's here apparently to "listen to Sarkozy" and to "learn from his experiences" according to one of Obama's advisors.

Top of the agenda between the two men is Iran and future (US) foreign policy decisions based on multilateralism rather than George W Bush's almost go-it-alone strategy.

For his part, Sarkozy is as usual playing a clever political game, welcoming Obama in much the same manner as he did John McCain back in the spring. Thereby ensuring as far as he's concerned that relations between the Paris and Washington get of to as smooth a start as possible, no matter who's in the White House after November's election.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

A run-of the-mill case of radiation contamination?

Nuclear power has not been getting the best press recently here in France.

In the last month alone there have been two reports of uranium leaks - one at the Tricastin plant at Bollene, just a mere 40 kilmetres from the popular tourist city of Avignon. and the second at Romans in Drôme.

Now comes news that around 100 employees at a nuclear reactor at the Tricastin site have been exposed to low doses of radiation.

The latest incident occurred as maintenance work was being carried out on Wednesday and according to officials at the centre, the contamination had "no serious consequences." All those exposed had been immediately evacuated and checked for radiation levels, and maintenance work suspended.

The doses were apparently 40 times less than the average allowed exposure and the French nuclear safety authority (l'Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, ASN) classified the incident at level "0" on a scale of 0-7.

Although it doesn't normally publish information on incidents below level "1" ASN is expected to make a report, partly perhaps because of the recent series of safety issues concerning the nuclear industry that have hit the headlines here in France.

Authorities are saying that there is no connection between Wednesday's occurrence and the leak at the site on July 8 when non-enriched uranium made its way into the water supply.

After that incident the plant in question was temporarily closed down and a ban placed on people living in nearby towns from swimming, fishing or water sports on two rivers, and farmers from using river water on their crops. That ban was lifted on Tuesday.

Last week the French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, while insisting that all the recent incidents had been minor, ordered a complete overhaul of the way in which the nuclear industry is supervised and requested checks be made on the water tables surrounding all nuclear power plants around the country.

France is heavily dependent on nuclear energy with 78 per cent of its electricity coming from 59 plants scattered around the country.

Tricastin is a collection of sites run by French energy giants Areva and Électricité de France located in four different towns in two departements in southern France - Drôme and Vaucluse.

Both companies have come in for criticism from ASN for the way in which they have handled recent incidents and their lack of clarity in providing information to the public.

Of course the nuclear industry - particularly here in France - is at pains to point out that many of us are frequently exposed to higher doses of radiation than in each of the recent incidents - such as X-rays or even cosmic radiation in aeroplanes and natural radiation in the home.

And then there are the decades of studies showing that fossil fuel burning power plants emit more radiation than nuclear power plants.

But that will probably not allay the fears of many environmentalists and much of the general public alike, convinced that there are far better and safer ways of harnessing other (sustainable) sources of power to meet ever increasing global energy needs.

Let the debate continue.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

French parliament delivers on Sarkozy's promise

It's never easy following through on an electoral pledge, and if any politician knows how difficult it is, then it must be the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

So far he has failed miserably on last year's major presidential campaign promise to increase the purchasing power of the average man and woman on the street here in France and kick-start the sluggish economy he inherited.

But Hallelujah on Monday a minor miracle happened, when his plans to overhaul the French constitution - another key electoral promise - received the parliamentary seal of approval from the country's elected representatives.

Now this is far from being the stuff to whet the appetite of most readers, but bear with it for a moment because there's plenty of substance in what happened in the run up to the vote, and the far-reaching consequences for French politics.

Sarkozy's "victory" was not one easily gained. There had been weeks of arguing, back-room negotiations and comprises as the reform package passed separately through both chambers of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate.

But for any constitutional changes to be made in France, both had to meet in a joint session in the sumptuous setting of the chateau of Versailles, and a three-fifths majority of votes cast were required for the reforms to be endorsed.

Right up until the last moment the vote was too close to call. The opposition Socialist party had promised to vote "no" and there were even some members of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) who were less than happy with the proposed reforms.

In the end though, the bill got the backing of 539 parliamentarians - just one more than the three-fifths necessary - with only one high profile Socialist, Jack Lang, breaking ranks and voting in favour.

Lang's "defection" was perhaps not too much of a surprise as he had served as vice president on the commission charged with proposing many of the reforms. But his decision is likely to have made him even more persona non grata among the Socialist party faithful than he already is.

So what of those reforms - said to amount to the biggest shake-up of the Fifth Republic's constitution since it was first introduced by Charles de Gaulle back in 1958?

Well they include changes to make the president more accountable to a parliament. It'll be able to veto some presidential appointments and the government will be forced to seek parliamentary approval for a military operation (abroad) lasting longer than six months.

The number of terms a president can serve will be limited to two (periods of five years) and the process of allowing national votes or referenda on issues will also be possible if the requisite number of signatures are collected and it has political backing.

So in a very real sense the changes can be, and have been interpreted by many, as at the very least boosting the powers of parliament. Indeed a weekend opinion poll before the crucial vote showed that almost 70 per cent of the French questioned supported the changes.

But while many - and in particular Sarkozy himself of course - are claiming the vote to reflect a "victory for French democracy", critics and in particular the Socialist party claim that the reforms will further weaken the role of the prime minister - already appointed and dismissed at the head of state's discretion.

They fear in particular that the most controversial of the reforms included in the package - allowing the president to make an annual state address directly to parliament along the lines of the US president's state of the nation speech.- will blur the boundaries between the executive and legislative arms of government.

The separation of powers has been an essential part of French politics since 1873 and the president has been banned from appearing in person before the National Assembly or the Senate.

Opponents, and in particular the Socialist party, also claim that the reforms will help create a de facto "monocracy" in which the system of government will be reduced to virtually just one person - the president.

But the stance of the Socialist party itself hasn't been without its own critics even among parts of the media that would ordinarily give the party its backing.

The left-of-centre national daily Libération accused the party of opposing the reforms simply because they didn't go as far as it had perhaps wanted, and the paper warned ominously that the defeat and the "defection" of one of its most prominent members (Lang) would ultimately only bring a smile to the face of one man - Sarkozy.

So with one election promise upheld, Sarkozy will now undoubtedly turn his attention to yet another constitutional battle - that of trying to sort out how the European Union should deal with the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty in June.

And the political irony certainly didn't escape the attention of the French press as Sarkozy received news of his domestic victory during a visit to Dublin to discuss the future of that very treaty.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The ever so slightly worrying case of the stolen Semtex

There has been a fair bit of news coming out of France over the past week with much of it making the international headlines.

Of course a great deal of attention has been directed towards a certain two-wheeled sporting event that's slowly but surely wending its way around the country (note, no mention of the "D" word). And there was the polemic surrounding the case of a Moroccan woman, refused citizenship because her wearing of the burqa was deemed as evidence that she hadn't "assimilated enough into French society."

On the environmental front there have been the two uranium leaks in less than a fortnight. And of course in politics, that guaranteed cure for all insomniacs, constitutional reform, passed by a joint session of parliament on Monday by the skin of its proverbial teeth.

But sandwiched in between all of those, and barely creating a ripple in the international headlines was the story of the stolen Semtex.

On Friday, the French interior ministry admitted that anti-terrorist police had begun looking for 28 kilogrammes of the stuff, stolen from a security depot on the outskirts of Lyon, the country's third largest city.

Just to make matters worse - as if they could be - detonators were also stolen.

Semtex is an almost odourless plastic explosive and, as the French media was quick to point out when the news broke, has in the past been used by terrorist groups. Most notably perhaps back in 1988 when just half a kilogramme was used to cause the explosion which brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland.

Equally embarrassing and worrying to officials here in France is that since news of the theft was released, it has transpired that the site hadn't actually been upgraded to meet the necessary standards for storing such explosives. The disused 19th century fort was bought by the interior ministry three years ago and was due for a security makeover next year.

Xavier de Fuerst, the regional head of security, admitted as much on national radio on Saturday.

"The fort was a very good location for such a (storage) site," he said. "It represents no danger to the local population and was due to be made more secure in 2009."

"The management of the site had perhaps 'dropped their guard'," he continued. "It was a case of overconfidence."

Semtex is used in France to destroy bombs and ammunition left over from the two World Wars.

The only official word on the matter so far from the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has been that there had been "security failings" at the depot and that the head of the site had been suspended from duty.

An internal inquiry has been launched to discover how security could have failed so miserably to enable the 28 kilogrammes to be stolen, while police are remaining tight-lipped about their ongoing investigations.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Sarkozy set for a constitutional showdown

Hardly the sexiest headline by any stretch of the imagination. But there again when it comes to institutional reform and changes to the constitution, the subject matter is hardly guaranteed to instill much enthusiasm.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting constitutional reform on two fronts. There is of course the debate over how to deal with the Irish "no" vote in June to the Lisbon treaty. He'll be tackling further that issue on July 21 when he pitches up in Dublin in his role as the EU big cheese while France holds the 27-nation bloc's six-month rotating presidency.

And this week will see his attempts to update the French constitution receive either final parliamentary approval or a political slap in the face.

The vote is too close to call with some likely splits in the governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party and the opposition Socialist party promising to reject the changes.

The reforms themselves have already been passed separately by both chambers of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate. But for constitutional changes to be made, both have to meet jointly and vote together at a special session opening in Versailles on Monday. A three-fifths majority of votes cast will be needed for the reforms to be endorsed.

At stake basically is one of Sarkozy's electoral promises to change the way politics works here in France.

Among the proposals are moves to make the president more accountable to parliament, allowing him (or her) to appear directly before both chambers. Another clause would require the government to seek parliamentary approval for a military operation (abroad) longer than six months. The number of terms a president could serve would also be limited to two (periods of five years) and the process of allowing national votes or referenda on issues would also be possible if the requisite number of signatures were collected and had political backing.

So in a very real sense the changes could be interpreted as at the very least boosting the powers of parliament.

So what exactly are the fears of the opposition to a reform which on the whole has also received fairly widespread popular support in France - if the most recent opinion polls are to be believed?

Basically the main opposition party, the Socialists, fear that allowing the president to address parliament directly will blur the boundaries between the executive and legislative arms of government.

The separation of powers has been an essential of French politics in all its republics since 1873 and the president has been banned from appearing in person before the National Assembly or the Senate.

In trying to reach a compromise, Sarkozy has suggested an annual state address to parliament along the lines of the US president's state of the nation speech. But even that has met with only lukewarm enthusiasm.

In the past couple of weeks Sarkozy has also made more concessions - proposing for example that opposition parties have equal (television) airtime to address issues raised by the president whenever he appears on the small screen over the course of a year.

But the Socialist party in particular has held firm in maintaining that it will present a united front in Versailles and vote "no".

While it might be hard to figure out exactly why the Socialist party isn't supporting the reform - apart perhaps from refusing to accept a centre-right inspired proposal - it must appear even more difficult to understand why some members of the governing UMP party might break ranks.

There again as the reforms have passed through parliament to the final vote, a number of compromises have been struck which leaves the reform package, as far as some of them are concerned, almost a shadow of what was first put forward.

To get the majority needed, the government is counting on - and indeed will need - some defections from the Left, and one such vote could come in the shape of a high profile former Socialist minister, Jack Lang, who has apparently still not made up his mind how he will vote.

Lang calls the changes modest and far from the wide-ranging proposals envisaged by a parliamentary committee of which he is a member, to look at the overall reform of France's institutions.

Even though the Socialists are calling for a united front in voting "no" in Versailles, which would certainly stop the changes to the constitution being made, there are also some waverers, and they could just tip the balance.

Critics of the Socialist party's stance have claimed that their opposition to the reforms is based more on principle than conviction and a simple look at the latest opinion polls would tell them that a healthy majority of French voters are in favour of the reforms.

In a weekend survey, almost 70 per cent of those asked said they supported the changes.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Sarkozy says Ireland should vote again

A week can be a very long time in politics as everyone knows, but at least it gives leaders the chance to neatly backtrack on, or revise what they've previously said.

Such is the case with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who just last week told the members of the European Parliament that he would use the next six month's of France's term at the helm of the European Union to find a solution to June's "no" vote by Ireland of the Lisbon treaty.

Now it turns out he's putting pressure on the Irish to vote again - and get it right second time around, or else.

"The Irish must vote again and I shall use a veto against any enlargement unless there's a reform of the (EU's) institutions", he said on Tuesday.

That's quite a development in the space of less than seven days - even by Sarkozy's standards.

Last week he said that a solution to the impasse had to be found, but gave no concrete proposals how that might be achieved

"I will go to Ireland on 21 July to listen and talk and try to find solutions," he told MEPs.

"The French presidency will propose a method and, I hope, a solution will be found by either in October or in December."

Perhaps his latest comments, which came during a lunchtime reception held at his official residence, the Elysée palace, for members of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) are Sarkozy's ideas of "proposing a method".

But many here in France and abroad will surely interpret it as cack-handed, bully boy tactics, forcing the Irish to vote again until they deliver the result that everyone else wants.

October and December are the two occasions on which the 27 heads of state and government will meet to try to find a more "diplomatic" solution to the dilemma in which the EU now finds itself.

On the table are possible concessions to the Irish such as a reassurance that the EU will not try to come up with any all-encompassing policy on abortion and also make a further assurance to guarantee Ireland's neutrality.

While the ratification process is proceeding (gradually) in the other 26 member states, the EU might have to wait until next June for the full endorsement of the Lisbon treaty

That's when voters throughout Europe will go to the polls to elect a new European parliament and some commentators here have suggested that it could be the ideal time for the Irish to piggyback another attempt at ratification.

The Lisbon treaty was the compromise to the proposed EU Constitution, rejected by both French and Dutch voters in 2005

Its purpose is to streamline EU decision-making following the enlargement of the bloc to 27 members, and create a new EU president and foreign affairs chief.

But before it can come into force, it needs to be ratified by all 27 member states.

Only Ireland is constitutionally bound to hold referendum on the treaty.

Sarkozy is due to visit Ireland on July 21.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

What value in France's top award - the Légion d'honneur?

Ingrid Betancourt might have been the most high profile recipient of the Légion d'honneur on July 14, but another less well-known woman has also hit the headlines after she figured in the list of the "Class of."

For among the names was that of the judge who granted the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, his divorce last year. And for many that "honour" has once again brought into question whether the award any longer has a true value.

Nicole Chaubrac is a name that probably doesn't ring a bell with many people here in France, let alone abroad. But she was the judge who discreetly and quickly granted Sarkozy and his former wife, Cécilia, that divorce last October.

"I believe he appreciated that I didn't speak (to the media)," Chaubrac is quoted as saying in today's newspapers.

"And God knows how many journalists wanted to interview me," she added modestly.

But there's more that'll raise just as many proverbial eyebrows as Chaubrac's elevation and leave the French wondering what has happened to the prestigious order that many a cynical commentator says "half the country wants and the other half already owns."

On Monday, Jacques Séguela was bumped up from "Knight" to "Officer (there are a total of five different levels of the order).

"Jacques who?" you might well ask. Well, he's the publicist to whom the world at large, and France most specifically, owes a great debt of gratitude for bringing us all the fairy tale romance of the last 12 months.

For barely a month after Chaubrac had officially pronounced the marriage of Nicolas and Cécilia "over" Séguela played host to an intimate soirée at which the president met his future first lady! So a gong for Séguela?

Monday's list of course included the usual hundreds of those good old French citizens who have rendered civil and military service in one form or another to the country.

But it also contained a host of French celebs from world of sport, entertainment, business and politics. Yep since Sarkozy came to office even politicians seem to have celebrity status in France with the best known often gracing the pages of the country's weekly glossies.

Among the famous names awarded the Légion d'honneur on Monday were the fashion designer Sonia Rykiel and the actor Jean Reno (best known abroad perhaps for his roles in Le Grand Bleu, Nikita and the Da Vinci Code among many others). Another French actor was also honoured in the shape of Dany Boon, whose comedy film "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" became France's biggest grossing domestic box office hit this year with over 20 million viewers.

And so the list continues.

But why, many are asking, when there's already the perhaps more appropriate Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Literature) first awarded in 1957 to recognise significant contributions to the arts (in all its multitude of definitions) to both French and foreign nationals?

And there would certainly appear to be room for the purists to remain somewhat sniffy.

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, the military and in general those who had made what was considered an “important” historical contribution.

But it's the apparent trend to broaden the scope that has many questioning whether it any longer has a true value. Even bestowing the award on Betancourt's has not met with universal applause.

So what are the French supposed to make of the decision to honour Chaubrac and Séguela with the order?

And who knows, if the current apparent trend continues, perhaps the next time the list is drawn up the names of a certain happy couple who have just had twins on the French Riveria could make an appearance.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Carla sings - and talks - everywhere

The publicity campaign to accompany the release of her third album is in full swing, and France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has been doing the rounds here to promote
"Comme si de rien n'était."

On Thursday, the eve of the album hitting the stores, she spent a punishing day talking to the press from home and abroad. And on Friday she gave an "exclusive" to a national radio station during the day and in the evening she popped up at the end of TF1's prime time news for a full 10-minute section with anchorwoman Claire Chazal.

It's not unusual for style or cultural pieces to appear towards the end of the main news bulletin on either TF1, France's biggest private channel, or its public television equivalent France 2, although perhaps the length of the segment was a little longer than is the norm.

Viewers were treated to glossy promotional shots of "the making of" as well as a round up of her few short months at the president's official residence, the Elysée palace, and her trips abroad accompanying her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, on state visits.

The only references she made to her "Nicolas" as he has often been mockingly portrayed in the French media, was as "my husband" or "my spouse", neatly side stepping the fact that he also happened to be the president.

With the camera clearly adoring her finely chiselled features, Bruni-Sarkozy seemed perfectly at ease - as well she might for a woman who has spent a great deal of her adult life in the media spotlight - speaking in a breathless voice in almost accentless French.

No, there was no conflict in being first lady and releasing an album, we were told, and music had always been a very important part of her life.

When the now happily married couple were first spotted out together in public for the first time at Eurodisney of all places last December, and the rumours of a speedy marriage gathered pace, the media - French and international - went into hysterical speculative overdrive.

How, many wondered, would this woman with a past possibly be able to carve out a role for herself as first lady, retain her own career as a singer and be accepted by the French at large?

Well the answer seems to be on all counts so far, remarkably well in spite, or maybe because, of her colourful background. In an opinion poll here in France just last month, more than two-thirds of those questioned approved of the way she had conducted herself as first lady.

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

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

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

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

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

Bruni and Enthoven Jnr have a son, Aurélien – now six.

But most importantly perhaps in the equation, and the reason that she has been so readily accepted, is that Bruni-Sarkozy also comes with intellectual credentials. She has expressed views on many issues, is seen as Left-of centre and still publically disagrees with many of Sarkozy's policies - such as the mandatory DNA testing of immigrants.

It'll be interesting to see how this new album fares. When Bruni-Sarkozy launched herself musically on an unsuspecting public back in 2002 with the release of her first album "Quelqu'un m'a dit,” she received both critical and commercial acclaim. It sold 1.2 million copies in France alone and a further 800.000 abroad.

However 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.

Most of the 14 tracks have been penned by the singer herself although there's a remake of a Bob Dylan number, "You belong to me" as well as a song in her native Italian - a cover of Francesco Guccini's "Il Vecchio E Il Bambino." Proof perhaps that Bruni-Sarkozy remains ever the polyglot with an eye on the international market.

Anybody expecting some sort of presidential revelation or behind-the-scenes surprise will be in for a disappointment as 95 per cent of the material on the album was written before she first met Sarkozy, although there's at least one track that's open to interpretation of quite a different sort.

All proceeds from the sale of the album will reportedly be donated to charity.

Bruni-Sarkozy talks to Claire Chazal

Friday, 11 July 2008

Adieu PPDA

There was an end of a television era here yesterday as Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, affectionately known in this country as PPDA, made his final broadcast as anchorman on TF1's prime time news slot.

Think of a news anchor in your own country, someone who has been around for donkeys years and at a certain time of the day when the small screen is flickering becomes almost part of the sitting room furniture.

PPDA has been something of a national institution in France for the past three decades and has quite simply been the face and voice of news, first on public television in 1976 and then from the mid 80s on the nation's main private channel, TF1.

When you turned on the box to tune in at 8.00pm any weekday evening (holidays excepted of course) there he was in his own distinctive, laid back, gentle yet authoritative style, reading what you somehow just knew to be true - even if sometimes it wasn't, such as the fake "exclusive" personal interview with Fidel Castro that had in fact simply been edited material lifted from a press conference.

But recent events have forced 60-year-old PPDA into earlier than expected retirement - at least from what's considered to be the plum job in French television news. And from September he'll be replaced by Laurence Ferrari, who'll be making her return to TF1 after a couple of years honing her not inconsiderable skills on a rival channel.

Millions tuned in for PPDA's last broadcast, which as usual he read with panache, switching from one report to another and then effortlessly and seamlessly arriving at his farewell.

There wasn't a moment's hesitation, no sudden change, no melodramatic difference in tone as PPDA simply quoted Shakespeare by saying there was a time when everyone had to move on and the inevitable could not be avoided.

He thanked viewers for their support throughout the years, his production team and even his (now) former employer TF1

"Thank you for these past two magnificent decades. It has been an honour to be here and to have been able to practise this magical profession," he modestly said.

And then directly to the viewers, "I'm sure we'll see each other soon."

As the credits rolled, the clock went back over the decades to a time when PPDA still had a full head of hair.

There were clips of a much younger PPDA reporting live from Rwanda and more recently from New York after 9/11. Then a whole host of interview partners throughout the years including "spats" with former and current French presidents, Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy. Interviews with other international figures past and present, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and many, many more as television did what only television can by summing up a life or a career in less than 30 seconds.

His dignity made one particular viewer feel most humble.

PPDA's farewell

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Royally "barmy" or the only sane politician?

This is a political piece that by its very definition can only be filed under "Strange" on any website.

It concerns last year's defeated candidate in the French presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, and her claims that she is paying the price for comments she made recently about the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

On June 27 there was a break-in at Royal's ground floor apartment in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt - the third time in less than two years.

According to reports Royal returned to her home late in the evening accompanied by her bodyguard to discover that she couldn't get her key to fit in the door. The police were called and they eventually managed to force their way in, at which point Royal was faced with an apartment described as being in "complete disarray".

Investigations have since revealed that although there was indeed a forced entry and the place had been ransacked, nothing seemed to have been taken and nobody had tried to gain access to computer files. Oddly enough though the clothes of one of Royal's daughters had been removed from the wardrobe and neatly set out on her bed.

The shutters to the apartment hadn't been closed and the alarm not turned on. So a simple case of breaking and entering, case closed.

And so it would have remained.

Until that is.......Royal tried to make a connection between the forced entry and Sarkozy!

In a television interview earlier this week she suggested the break-in was in some way linked to her recent criticism of what she termed "the Sarkozy clan's grip on France".

And she followed up those comments on national radio this morning by admitting that although she had no proof of a link, she found it a "strange coincidence" that the break-in had occured at a "very politically sensitive time."

Now you're probably thinking this is just one woman's bitter rant against a system which denied her the chance of becoming this country's first female president. And you wouldn't be alone in making that particular assumption.

Even the normally restrained and mild-mannered prime minister, François Fillion, has suggested that Royal is "losing her self control." Other members of the governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) have been a little less charitable in suggesting that she has "blown a fuse" or "will stop at nothing to get attention".

As far as many are concerned it's much ado about nothing and an early summer media frenzy madness.

But let's just take a step back for a moment and look under what circumstances Royal is making the link - as far fetched as it might be.

She's one of two main candidates to take over the running of the Sociliast party when it meets to elect a new leader in the autumn - the other one is the current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë.

Royal wants to grab the party very much by the neck, get rid of all the old guard or so-called "elephants" who've long dominated its hierarchy and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century and closer to the Centre.

The autumn vote could well decide not only the future of the party but also who'll be its challenger in the 2012 presidential election. Royal has said on more than one occasion that she wants to be both.

She's also probably the only opposition politician who has regularly made repeated attacks on Sarkozy's policies. And let's not forget that although she lost in last year's election, she still garnered almost 47 per cent of the vote - that's over 16 million people.

Indeed recent polls (for what they're worth) show that if voters could vote again now, the tables would be turned and it would be Royal sitting in the Elysée palace rather than Sarkozy.

And even though she's by no means popular with those Socialist party elephants - she still retains a level of support among activists with more around 33 per cent saying that she would be the best choice as candidate in 2012.

So Sarkozy sees her perhaps as the biggest potential threat to a possible second term if he really is looking so far ahead - and let's face it he is a politician, so why shouldn't he? And the old guard in the Socialist party don't particularly want her upsetting the apple cart and denying their preferred "man for the job" - Delanoë.

And how does she make that leap to a "politically sensitive" time?

Well quite simply, in the long-drawn out process up to the autumn vote each leading candidate is handing in a set of personal proposals as to their "vision" of the party's future direction.

The break-in to the apartment occurred on the day before Royal was to hand in hers.

So for her that's enough to draw some kind link between "coincidence," "political sensitivity" and Sarkozy.

All that having been said, the story does smack of the ridiculous as far as much of the media in France is concerned - although that hasn't stopped it either from reporting on the story or interviewing her.

No word yet of course - nor is there likely to be - from Sarkozy, who is in Strasbourg outlining to the European Parliament his - whoops sorry - France's plans for the next six months at the helm of the European Union.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Sarkozy's "astonishing" Olympic announcement

So it's official. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will be attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing,

After a "productive" 30-minute meeting with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, Sarkozy's office officially released the news on Wednesday that it had already leaked to the French media last Friday.

To many in France, the news will have come as much of a surprise as suddenly discovering that the Pope is Catholic.

Basically it was always on the cards right back in March when Sarkozy first started digging himself into something of a diplomatic hole by saying he was shocked by China's security clampdown in Tibet and urging Beijing to re-open discussions with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

That of course opened a Pandora's box of speculation and thus began for the next month a huge domestic debate in the media as to "whether he would/should" or "whether he wouldn't/shouldn't" attend the opening ceremony.

Sarkozy didn't really help matters that much by staying silent and letting the rumours rumble along.

He remained tight-lipped in early April when his junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said in a newspaper interview that Sarkozy had set three indispensable "conditions" for Chinese authorities to meet before he would confirm his attendance.

Yade later backtracked, maintaining she had been misquoted. That led to (even more) speculation from some quarters that Sarkozy was playing a clever game of testing the political waters without actually getting his feet wet himself.

And then of course a few days later there was the disrupted passage of the Olympic flame through the streets of Paris, when demonstrators forced its journey to be cut short - right there in the glare of the world's media. Not a peep was heard from Sarkozy's office at the Elysée palace.

It wasn't until forced by circumstances that later the same week Sarkozy finally broke his silence and officially linked his presence at the opening ceremony with the resumption of talks between Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

He had moved on from March's "all options are open" approach to something resembling more of an ultimatum.

"France will do everything to encourage such talks," he said. " There are still several months to go (before the opening of the games) and there's no time to lose.'

"It'll be in light of the resumption of such a dialogue that I'll decide what will be the conditions for our participation."

That re-opening of a dialogue has been promised, so Sarkozy is - as far as he's concerned - off the hook.

Part of the problem in all of Sarkozy's manoeuvrings of course has been not so much what's at stake politically or diplomatically, but most importantly economically.

And that has brought with it into question the far wider issue of what constitutes French foreign policy and whether it's based on principles or pragmatism.

Sarkozy came to office assuring the former, but so far has shown himself only credible in delivering on the latter.

His election promise was to make respect for human rights the focal point of this country's foreign policy. But instead there has been a string of billion Euro deals done with trading partners no matter how questionable their human rights records might be; countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and of course the biggest one of all......China.

On a visit there last November Sarkozy clinched contracts worth €20 billion to French industry and he doesn't want to do anything to endanger those deals.

It also leaves his foreign minister - yes there is one in the shape of the much respected humanitarian and hugely popular Bernard Kouchner (who incidentally has found himself rather at odds with his track record as a man who has always been a firm supporter of Tibetan rights and counts himself as a friend of the Dalai Lama) in rather a weak and unenviable position.

French foreign policy has long been established as the domain of the president. And (for once) Sarkozy has stuck with tradition, proving himself to be the country's greatest salesman along the way.

Of course the story is far from being finished. There's still the thorny issue over whether Sarkozy will meet the Dalai Lama who is due to visit France between August 12 and 23.

What might have been all right for US president, George W. Bush - who will be at the opening ceremony, or for Germany's Angela Merkel - who won't, might just prove unacceptable as far as China is concerned, should Sarkozy decide to follow both leaders' example and greet the Dalai Lama officially.

There have already been less than veiled warnings of "serious consequences" from the Chinese embassy in Paris, which will doubtless require some interesting diplomatic tip-toeing à la française over the next couple of weeks to get around that particular conundrum.

For the moment though, Sarkozy is all set to take his place in Beijing among the invited dignitaries on August 8 wearing both his French presidential hat and that as the representative of the 27- nation European Union, of which France currently holds the six-month rotating presidency.

Whoever said that sport and politics don't mix? They seem a perfect combination almost made for each other.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Poppy's plight

She first came to our attention after we had visited a local show at the village hall organised by a nearby refuge for abandoned dogs and cats.

At the ripe old age of eight Poppy, we were told, had been "rescued" from owners who had over time collected more than 30 dogs, many the result of interbreeding, and who understandably had found themselves no longer able to cope.

A little less easy to comprehend perhaps was how come these people had never heard of the possibility of spaying their animals and instead had kept an ever-increasing pack in the most miserable of conditions. When Poppy arrived at the rescue centre, she was undernourished, unhealthy and desperately in need of some TLC.

Over the next three months she was nurtured back to good health, neutered and vaccinated, but time and time again passed over by curious visitors as a likely pet because of her age and her less-than-generous helping in the looks department. Even by canine standards Poppy is no beauty.

Surrounded by larger and more aggressive dogs at the shelter, this mild-mannered dog, who apparently never barks, had even sustained a nip in the rump which had required a few stitches.

We've kept dogs for several years now, always buying puppies with pedigrees longer than your proverbial arm and pampering them as befits any of man's best friend and perhaps oftentimes more than a little OTT.

Although harbouring some doubts, we both felt it was about time to return some of the affection and joy we've received over the years to a dog less likely to find a home - in other words one entering dog dotage.

After first contacting the shelter directly a couple of weeks ago, we had spent hours discussing the pros and cons of another dog - especially one whose past and character were still a little fuzzy to us.

We poured over the sites of all the nearby rescue centres, looking at one "I need a home" face after another, reading the profiles of dogs who had spent far too many years chained to a post, kicked, beaten, abused and neglected, or whose owners had died and there was nobody willing to take them on, or pedigree bitches thrown on to the scrap heap after years of factory breeding, or puppies that as adults had outgrown, outchewed and outeaten their initial cuteness, or simply those handed in because someone in the family had discovered after a couple of years that they suddenly had an allergy.

Each story seemed more chilling, more moving and certainly sadder than the last.

So with more than a little reticence, we made the one hour journey to Poppy's shelter - just for a visit - and although we didn't exactly "crack" for her on the spot, her plight certainly tugged at our animal-lovers instincts.

Still there was the unresolved issue of how she - or any other adult dog for that matter - would fit in with our "pack". So we bid farewell and promised to return a week later with a couple of our hounds for the sniff 'n tell session.

And return we did, taking Poppy and our two beasts for a spin in the car to see how they all travelled together, followed up by a romp in a nearby field. All seemed hunky dory, even if Poppy looked more than a little confused by our imploring requests to "come" "sit" "heel" and "lie" (she is French after all) but after half an hour of doing only what dogs can reasonably do in public, all three appeared to be happy with the natural order of things and we decided in the time honoured tradition to say, "We do."

Poppy is now settling in to her new home, probably still completely confused as to what has happened and who the heck those two jibbering idiots are who insist on interrupting her sleep and barking gentle commands at her that she has never in her life heard before.

It's early days yet, and it'll doubtless take time for her adjust and to join in all the fun, but the early signs are encouraging.

Still we can't help sparing a thought for the thousands of other dogs here in mainland France (and of course elsewhere), abandoned through no fault of their own. And apparently it's especially a problem in Summer, as owners suddenly discover they have nobody with whom they can leave their pet during the holidays and instead decide to abandon them at motorway service stations.

Even worse is the fate of abandoned dogs in some of this country's overseas departments, such as La Reunion, where they're used as shark bait, as the person in charge of Poppy's shelter reminded us after she had received a consignment of half a dozen dogs from the Indian Ocean island.

Yes I know there are probably more important things in the world, and I'm not advocating that animals be put above human beings. But as the supposedly superior species on this planet, we have an obligation to protect and treat our environment and all creatures accordingly and it's a sad fact of life that we so often fail.

And I'm not looking for back-slapping praise nor do I intend to come across as all sanctimonious.

But if there's anyone out there thinking about getting a dog - or any animal come to that - why not take a trip to the local pound and see what really requires a home. And listen to some of those heart-wrenching stories of exactly what we're capable of doing while remembering if you have even the slightest doubt that - in the words of that campaigning slogan - "A dog (or a cat) is for life.

Sarkozy's G8 ennui

He was bored, the poor man. You coul see it in his eyes and his body language. Miles away from home in a country he's not madly keen on, talking the talk and little else with a bunch of other G8 leaders.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, didn't really enjoy himself at this year's G8 yak-fest in Hokkaido, Japan, if French commentators are to be believed.

There was certainly none of the buoyancy or tactile back slapping of last year when Sarkozy floated into Heiligendamm, Germany on his presidential cloud, fresh from an electoral victory and smiled away as he handed over his mobile 'phone for then Russian president, Vladimir Putin to have a chat.

Instead he was rather low-key with his efforts thwarted from the outset.

He mooted the idea of increasing the whole shebang from a G8 to a G13 to include some of the other major world economies. But nobody else in the Old Boy's (and one Girl's) club seemed to be up for it.

So bang went Sarkozy's big idea. And India, China, Brazil and others will have to wait their turn until the rest of the leaders actually wake up to the fact that they probably can't continue meeting to make no decisions without some of the world's other major players. Or there again perhaps they can. Clearly Sarkozy is and was in the minority on this.

Most of the other leaders turned up at Hokkaido with their better halves among their entourage. Not so Sarkozy, as Carla stayed behind poutingly putting the final touches to her third album, due for release in a couple of weeks time.

Equally important for Sarkozy of course was how the G8 was playing back home in France. Simple, it wasn't - well not very much. Apart from the time difference, which always puts a bit of a dampener on these things in terms of news reporting, nobody was really interested.

Ingrid's still in town, the Tour de France wheeled into action last weekend and there's "real" work to be done back where Sarkozy thinks he knows he's needed.

There's the launch of the Mediterranean Union in Paris next weekend, with a fair number of Middle East leaders pitching up followed by Bastille Day celebrations to enjoy.

There's his first address as EU Big Cheese to the European parliament in Strasbourg to be delivered. France has just taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.

There's a country to run and a whole continent to be knocked into shape, and instead Sarkozy has been banging heads and getting nowhere fast as far as he's concerned.

Sure the G8 may have renewed their commitment to reduce global emissions, but that won't really have grabbed many people's imaginations back home in France, a country which has invested heavily over the years in low/non (choose your camp, choose your definition) carbon-emitting nuclear power.

And even though they called for "swift action" on oil prices which they've - surprise, surprise - realised are "having a negative impact on the world," Sarkozy was still left wondering where the oil producers had been in the discussion.

Then of course there was the food thing. While his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, never passed up an opportunity for a trip to the Far East and relished his time there, Sarkozy is in contrast the most American of French presidents (as is often pointed out in the press) and there's nothing he reportedly enjoys more than a burger and fries.

Quite how he managed to brave his way through a shoeless meal of sushi and sashimi leaves the imagination somersaulting.

No, by Sarkozy's action man, power-packed, let's get things done standards, Hokkaido won't have perked his spirits much.

Perhaps though he had the chance to wheedle out of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi a blueprint for taking over a country's media. Maybe he's done some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing with Russia's recently elected president, Dmitri Medvedev. Or better still come up with a plan to resolve the "Irish-EU-Lisbon no" problem with Britain's EU-ponderous prime minister Gordon Brown.

Who knows? Roll on G8 2009 in La Maddelena, Italy, Carla's country of birth.

Betancourt's unsung hero

Since the dramatic rescue last week of 15 hostages held by Colombia's leftist rebel movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, much of this country's attention - if not the world's - has been focused on Ingrid Betancourt.

Finally though one of France's leading national daily newspapers, Le Figaro, has caught up with reports that have appeared elsewhere around the globe.

In today's issue it carries the story of the man without whom we would probably not have been able to share in Betancourt's joy as she stepped out of the 'plane on to the tarmac and into the lenses of countless cameras last week.

William Perez is the man Betancourt has herself described since her release as her "guardian angel." He was the one who fed her like a child when she was going through the darkest of her dark days during more than six years in captivity.

When Betancourt gave up the will to live and refused to eat saying she wanted to die, it was Perez who urged her to remain strong, who spoon fed her, who constantly reminded her she had to stay alive with "a spoonful for her daughter Mélanie, one for her son Lorenzo and one for her mother Yolanda."

A corporal in the Colombian army, 36-year-old Perez was taken captive back in March 1998 in the southern region of the country where he was stationed at the time.

He had basic medical knowledge and was able to use it to good effect to nurse Betancourt and his fellow captives with whatever supplies the rebels gave him.

The two might have come from very different backgrounds, Perez was the young soldier from a humble family, Betancourt the privileged daughter of a diplomat, and a presidential candidate. But their time together in captivity created a bond that few of us are likely ever to understand.

And that bond is likely to last no matter how different their experiences might have been since their release.

It's hard to switch on the radio, turn on the television or pick up a newspaper here in France at the moment without hearing, seeing, or reading the very latest news on Betancourt.

Feted by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on her arrival back "home" in France, Betancourt underwent a series of medical tests at the weekend at the Val de Grace hospital in Paris.

She has since been filmed having breakfast with her friend and former French prime minister, Dominique, de Villepin, has received an invitation to visit the Pope, and is expected to be decorated (by Sarkozy himself) with France's highest order, the Légion d'honneur, during the country's national celebrations to commemorate Bastille Day on July 14.

Back in the Colombian capital, Bogota, Perez underwent a similar series of medical checks before being awarded a promotion and a free family holiday that the Colombian government has reportedly promised all the released soldiers.

Sadly it'll be a holiday without his father, who died just a few weeks ago weeks, or his grandfather who had a fatal stroke on hearing of his release.

There are rumours that Betancourt will write a play and perhaps return to Colombia to run for political office.

Perez has apparently said he only wants to remain in the army and has volunteered to join rescue missions for the 700 hostages still held in the jungle.

Somehow their paths are likely to cross as it's hard to ignore the powerful statements both have made in interviews since their release.

Either Betancourt's, "He was my nurse in moments when I was in very bad health. I want to recognise him specially, because if it were not for William, I would not be here today."

Or from Perez, "We helped each other. My strength was hers and her strength was mine. When I was down, she was the one who lifted me up."

Monday, 7 July 2008

Sarkozy's union-bashing barb

Sometimes a politician can believe his or her own spin just a little too much that it leaves many onlookers gasping in disbelief and checking their ears to make sure they've heard correctly

Such has been the case here in France since Saturday when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, came up with what surely has to be the most unlikely interpretation of recent events in this country.

Speaking to a gathering of the governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party faithful, Sarkozy had the temerity to declare that strikes were of no consequence in France any longer.

"France has changed so quickly and much more deeply than we can imagine," he said with a huge smile on his face.

"From now on whenever there's a strike in France, nobody notices it," he maintained.

Evidence, as far as he was concerned, of the success of both his politics and that of the UMP.

It was a remark which of course received thunderous applause from the gathered party faithful, but has left many observers wondering which planet Sarkozy has been living on for the past year, let alone which country.

What was commonly known as the British disease in the 1970s has over the last couple of decades become something of a French malaise. And even since Sarkozy took over the reins of power 14 months ago, the French have been going about their daily business - work - and their seemingly national pastime - striking - with alarming regularity.

Forgotten it would seem was the week-long mayhem throughout the country last November as France was literally brought to a standstill when transport workers went on strike to protest against planned pension reform.

January's demonstrations by taxi drivers in cities up and down France over a government-commissioned report proposing to deregulate the granting of licences, or fishermen blocking ports to demand compensation for rising fuel prices seem to have slipped Sarkozy's mind.

There again it's easy to ignore the uncomfortable as in both cases the government caved in to pressure.

Maybe Sarkozy had a case of selective recall following the series of protests in spring by schoolchildren, teachers and parents against planned job cuts in education. Or the day of (in)action by civil servants over similar job losses. And let's not forget that just last week lorry drivers yet again blocked major arteries around Paris, causing massive tailbacks as they continued their demands for compensation in the face of rising fuel prices.

Perhaps there was supposed to be a certain irony in Sarkozy's comments. He is after all in supremely confident mood at the moment and undoubtedly on a certain wave of euphoria after welcoming "home" Ingrid Betancourt - regardless of France's questionable (non)role in her liberation.

And of course he's head honcho in a manner of speaking of the 27-member European Union for the next six months as France holds the rotating presidency, and he'll oversee the launch next weekend of the Mediterranean Union in spite of opposition from many of his European partners.

But probably his comments should be taken more as a simple case of remobilising the troops on the domestic front ahead of the long summer break and before the autumn politicking recommences. That'll be just the time incidentally when the Socialist party should be making the headlines as it tries to "pull together" and overcome its own internal divisions by electing a new party leader.

Sarkozy's remarks might not have played well with the man and woman in the street, but as his approval ratings have shown - currently stuck in the mid-30s - he seems to have decided that popularity isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

Plus it cannot have done too much harm preaching to the converted and taking pot shots at the perceived inefficacy of the unions and the opposition Socialist party in the face of a government that seems determined to crush both.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Ingrid Betancourt - a heroine's homecoming

When the 'plane carrying Ingrid Betancourt touches down on French soil later this afternoon she can expect to be welcomed "home" as a heroine.

Quite simply put, Betancourt has become a symbol of endurance in France during her years of captivity and the statements she has made since her release will only have added to her stature.

The reports first started filtering through on Wednesday afternoon here that Ingrid had been released from over six years of captivity and the France had what can perhaps only be termed as its own Kennedy or Diana moment.

The news had many people glued to their screens as the story was later confirmed and the first pictures appeared. There were reports of people "'crying with joy" and comments of a "general feeling of relief" for Betancourt and her family. Indeed those were the very words used by the French prime minister, François Fillion.

Regular programming was interrupted on both the major national TV channels, experts hauled in for their analysis and there were blow-by-blow accounts of the six plus long years of Betancourt's time spent as a hostage of Colombia's leftist rebel movement The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.

It's not difficult to understand why Betancourt has become something of a national heroine here in France. Since she was first kidnapped back in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency of Colombia in a Farc-controlled area of that country her plight has never been far from the news.

Her two children - recently based in Paris - have been tireless campaigners for the release of their mother, as has her sister.

There have been marches, demonstrations, vigils and appeals from celebrities for her release over the past six years. Large posters of her face have hung from the entrances of dozens of French city and town halls - most notably Paris.

While not always making the headlines of the national press or television there has been constant behind-the-scenes pressure from consecutive French governments for her release. And there has been a persistent media campaign.

Before this week's events it's probably hard to imagine that people in any other European country would have so easily made the connection between Betancourt, Farc and Colombia.

And to a great extent the campaign for her freedom was increased when the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, took the unusual step of making her release one of his foreign policy objectives when he first came to office in May last year.

He backed up that promise by making two broadcast appeals directly to the Farc leadership, sending his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, to Colombia, and having medical 'plane on standby here in France ready to leave at any moment.

France might not ultimately have been involved directly in her eventual release, but Betancourt's gratitude for the role the country had played was evident from the very first statements she made from the tarmac shortly after her release.

She thanked both the former French president Jacques Chirac, and one of his prime ministers and her close personal friend, Dominique de Villepin.

Neither man can be counted as one of Sarkozy's favourite people. On the contrary de Villepin is currently embroiled in the Clearstream affair in which it is claimed he tried to defame the character of Sarkozy in the run up to the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party's nomination of a candidate for the 2007 presidential election.

But differences aside, each man has undoubtedly played an important role in keeping the campaign for her release very much alive.

French interest can also be explained in the family ties Betancourt has to France. She has dual French-Colombian nationality through her first marriage, and her own family is of French origin. She and her sister, Astrid, spent many of their formative years in Paris, where they were brought up and educated, and Betancourt completed her studies at the prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (commonly referred to as Sciences Po) in the French capital.

Of course there has also been the inevitable backlash against the almost blanket news coverage since Betancourt's release. Some - perhaps mean-spirited people - have complained about the number of column inches and air time given to the story since Wedesday. And certainly in this age of rolling news with everyone desperate to find a new "angle" there seems to have been little else making the headlines.

But the long and the short of it is that the French do care. This is a story that they have been following for many years now. "Betancourt" and "Farc" have probably meant a great deal more to the average person on the street here in France than throughout the rest of Europe simply because the story has never really gone away.

Those who have called radio 'phone-ins to bemoan the amount of air time the story has received have in a sense simply added to the story by providing a new - albeit somewhat distasteful perhaps - angle in suggesting that Betancourt knew the risks she was taking in the first place when she entered the Farc-controlled area of Colombia.

Last year's defeated Socialist candidate in the presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, probably won't have done herself many favours on either the Right or the Left after she suggested that Sarkozy has been milking Betancourt's release for all the media publicity it's worth.

While it's certainly true that Sarkozy could do with a boost in his approval ratings - he's currently hovering at the mid-30s level - he has been hogging the limelight a lot less than he did when he helped secure the release of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor from a Libyan prison at the beginning of his presidency.

Admiration for Betancourt in France runs deep and there's no doubting that the country views her as a modern-day heroine, in particular for the way in which she handled herself during her captivity and the humility and dignity she has shown since her release.

She has not the world forget that there are still 700 hostages held by Farc and her statement that "It's time for me to thank the French, to tell them I admire them, that I feel proud to be French as well," will guarantee that welcome "home" she so richly deserves.

Ingrid Betancourt, interviewed on French public television, France 2, on her captivity, release and joy at seeing her family again.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

'Allo Raymond, goodbye Raymond?

It's crunch time today for Raymond Domenech, the coach of this country's national soccer team.

He has been called in to meet the leaders of the French Football Federation (FFF) to discuss his future and the plans for the team in its campaign to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Should he stay or should he go is the question on many sports fans' minds this morning and opinions are divided, even among those in the "know".

Leading the campaign to get rid of him are a number of players from the French side that won both the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000, such as Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu, and Christophe Dugarry. They're all calling for former team mate, Didier Deschamps to take over.

Surprisingly perhaps, given the obvious divisions there were within the French camp during last month's humiliating run at Euro 2008, a number of the current team are actually standing behind Domenech. But as one commentator said this morning on national television, that might just be a clever case of hedging their bets in case the FFF decides to give Domenech the nod once again.

He hasn't exactly won friends among the press here in France, but there again that's the fate of many a national team's manager in any country.

Dugarry has even gone as far to tell one magazine Domenech's main preoccupation seemed to be with himself and that it was easy to get the impression that "his image is more important (to himself) than that of the team."

Since France's disappointing showing at Euro 2008 there have been rumblings about his style of management, his perceived over-reliance in the campaign on older players to the detriment of younger talent and his preference for a defensive style of play.

Add to the mix the rather embarrassing proposal of marriage he made to his girlfriend, sports presenter Estelle Denis, live on national television shortly after France's final (losing) match to Italy and there would seem to be a rather potent argument for his dismissal.

But his contract doesn't officially run out until 2010, and there was nothing apparently in the one he signed shortly after France finished runners up in the 2006 World Cup which says his tenure is performance related - perhaps just as well.

France's first match in the qualifying campaign for that 2010 World Cup in South Africa will be in September 10 - against Serbia.

We'll know later today whether Domenech will still be the man in charge or whether the FFF decides to hand over the reins to someone else.
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