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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Forget the French fries - L'hamburger c'est magnifique non?

It's probably not the breaking news of the century, but it certainly gives food for thought as many French settle down for their traditional Sunday afternoon blow out here.

The hamburger - that sterotypical all-American food - is fast becoming a standard fare for many French.

There are over 800 branches (or franchises) of McDonalds in France, and fast food in general has been blamed for increasing obesity rates among both children and adults.

But this isn't about what the government is or isn't intending to do to slap taxes on fast food and teach the nation better eating habits.

Instead it's a look at what's happening to the burger à la française.

The French being French of course, aren't happy to leave the humble burger at that. And more and more chefs seem to be getting in on the act to serve up their own slightly more exotic Gallic version.

Think France, think food right? Almost every nook and cranny of what the French often refer to as the "Hexagon" has it's local speciality - many of them renowned throughout the world.

Delicious bœuf bourguignon, washed down with a regional wine - from surprise, surprise Burgundy. The thinnest and lightest of crêpes from Brittany in the west of France, accompanied of course by a great cider.

In the south how about a classic bouillabaisse, a mouthwatering fish stew (the French makes it sound one hundred times more appetising doesn't it) and a local Provençal rosé.

Or in the east of the country a crispy flammekueche or tarte flambée, an Alsatian gastronomical delight covered with crème fraîche, onions and bacon and helped down with yet more regional wine - a Tokay-Pinot Gris, a Gewurztraminer or basically anything that works for you.

Ah yes, France equals food and the list could go on and on. But you probably get the picture. It's a country with a fierce culinary tradition and a deserved international reputation, that has after all lent its name to cordon bleu cooking and dishes out Michelin stars every year to the very best restaurants.

So when you take the very "best" of US cooking and hand it over to the French to do their own thing. What do you come up with? That's right L'hamburger extraordinaire, and no more so than in the nation's capital it seems.

What's on offer isn't perhaps as costly as the world's most expensive hamburger to be found in West London. But some Paris chefs seem to have gone to extraordinary lengths to give the simple burger that Gallic twist, using quality ingredients and charging top prices.

So brace yourself for an appropriately fast food frenzy around some of what's on offer here.

At the Black Calvados (in the VIII arrondissement) for example you can, according to its menu grab a mini-burger dish (actually five of the little devils) as a starter for €18 and follow them up for a complete burgered-out experience with a main course BC burger (€39) made from wagyu beef.

If you want to eat your burger and maintain a social conscience, then the weekly news magazine L'Express recommends you head over to the IX arrondissement to Supernature. It's an organic cafeteria which offers alongside the extensive veggie dishes, what is probably the healthiest burger. Forget the ketchup and mayo though, this one is topped off with bean sprouts and served with lettuce. Price €8.60

Another recommendation from L'Express is what can only be termed the A-list burger at the swanky Regency bar of the Hôtel Prince de Galles just off the Champs Elysées. There for the "princely" price of €33, you can have the foie gras covered filet of beef burger or for slightly less (€27) an hommage to Elvis in the shape of the "Love Me" burger.

A final feeding station - this time from the International Herald Tribune - should your budget not be completely broken and you waistline expanded beyond reason, might be another hotel restaurant, this time in the I arrondissment.

There between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, you'll find Le Dali, "the casual restaurant" of the Le Meurice, with the not so casually-priced burger (€35) whose description at least doesn't seem too far removed from the original thing.

The list of possible places to discover what French chefs have been doing to the hamburger to make it "acceptable" to the discerning Gallic palate could go on for as long as it takes the French to eat their Sunday lunch.

But as it's exactly that time of day (here) it's time to put the out-burgered tastebuds away and head off for the more classic cuisine.

Bon appetit

Friday, 29 August 2008

Will Air France-KLM be tempted - again?

Don't hold your breath, but it seems as though the on-off-on-off again marriage between Air-France-KLM and the cash-strapped airline Alitalia could be on again.

The Italian government in Rome has put together a package that has had the seal of approval from the European Commission, and Air-France-KLM has given signs that it could once again be tempted to invest.

The principal actors in this ongoing saga that would surely be the pride of any US soap opera writer are of course Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the country's troubled national carrier, Alitalia, the Franco-Dutch consortium Air-France-KLM, the European Commission, 16 new investors and lots, yes really LOTS of money.

Alitalia is a business investor's nightmare. And it has been for quite a while now. It has a debt of around €1.2 billion, loses more than €1 million a day and hasn’t notched up an annual profit since 1999. Its shares have been suspended since June and it has lost a cool €400 million just since the beginning of this year.

If those figures were not bad enough, it also has a fleet of notoriously ageing, gas-guzzling aircraft and a 20,000 plus workforce that seems to spend as much time on the ground striking as it does in the air flying.

Little wonder then that the government in Rome has been so keen to offload it and has been looking for a deal to save it for the best part of the last 18 months.

In fact there have been two previous attempts to sell it. Both of them involved Air France-KLM and both failed.

The most recent one was in April, when the Franco-Dutch group threw in the towel frustrated over unions' refusals to accept proposed job losses. It had also discovered that the unions were still apparently trying to seal a deal with an Italian buyer – not that there was any sign at the time of one able to cough up the necessary cash.

The solution now on the table is perhaps a lesson on how to do business Italian style, as the government of Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has come up with a rescue package extraordinaire - as promised in his electoral campaign earlier this year.

The latest plan would see the existing airline broken up and bankruptcy declared for those sections that are losing the most money.

The Italian government has already pushed through changes in its bankruptcy laws this week to allow the rescue operation to take place. It involves dismantling the old company and creating two new ones.

One would have the backing of 16 domestic investors, a group put together by the Italian bank, Intesa SanPaolo. The other would take on all the debt and be put into liquidation.

There would be job losses of around 7,000 or 40 per cent of the workforce, although the government is hoping that any layoffs could be absorbed by other state-owned companies.

The new company that would rise from the ashes of Alitalia, would become a regional airline serving mainly southern Europe and would need investors to cough up a whopping €1 billion.

This is where Air France-KLM could come in. There is an alternative - the German carrier Lufthansa - but the Franco-Dutch group has always been the most likely possible partner according to industry insiders.

And at the moment it appears as though the company could be persuaded up the aisle - yet again - after the release of a statement on Thursday in which it announced that it would be "willing to take a minority stake in the new company of investors currently being put together by Intesa SanPaolo if that package was confirmed."

In other words if it sees that there's a realistic chance of its investment in the new company returning a profit.

Berlusconi's solution even has the thumbs up from the EU transport commissioner, Antonio Tajani, because it apparently it doesn't contravene stringent EU regulations of a country offering state support to a carrier. And instead it's being welcomed as a way to boost competition among airlines within Europe.

If all goes to plan and hands are shaken, contracts signed and the deal done, the "new" airline could be in operation by next month.

So, will Air France-KLM be tempted again?

Don't hold your breath too long, but it looks as though it's on the cards.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

And here's the latest news from France read to you by...

Laurence Ferrari. Who? You might well ask.

Ah well she's the golden girl of French news, the darling of the media here (for the moment) and the not-so-new face at the helm of TF1's flagship prime time news , Le Journal de 20 heures (JT)

Not so new in the sense that she's returning to TF1, France's largest private channel, after a couple of years at rival Canal +.

On Monday 8,3 million French (40.2 per cent of the viewing public) tuned in to watch her as she made her debut. The curiosity factor undoubtedly high as she stepped in to the role so long the almost exclusive property of veteran newscaster, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, (PPDA).

He made his last broadcast at the beginning of the summer, "resigning" from the channel after 21 years on the job following TF1's decision to replace him with Ferrari.

So how did she do? Was there really anything new that she brought to the broadcast apart from being a fresh face and a woman? Did she live up to the media kerfuffle and hype surrounding her appointment?

Well of course it's early days yet, but that hasn't stopped the press from taking a slightly partisan interest. After all, some would argue there's nothing more any profession likes more than discussing and analysing itself. So why should journalism be any different? And Ferrari has certainly filled more than her fair share of column inches over the past few days.

The website of one weekly news magazine, Le Point, has even gone so far as to promise to follow her progress over the whole of her first week on the job, and has invited readers to share their opinions.

Of course those opinions tend to be very much split, running the whole gamut from saying Ferrari "gabbles" is "too distant" and "lacks humility'" to a "breath of fresh air" and "youthful vigour."

Whatever the case, Ferrari undoubtedly has a hard act to follow as PPDA was something of a national institution here in France and for three decades on one channel or another had been virtually the face and voice of television news.

Part of the reported reason for his dismissal was the gradual drop in ratings over the past year even though hovering around an average share of 35 per cent plus, it was still twice that of its main rival on France 2, the country's public television channel.

TF1 has seen a drop in its general share of the audience across the spectrum, partly because there are a number of new (private) channels that have sprung up.

And when it comes to news, not only does it now find itself competing of course with other sources such as the Net, but there are also three other all-news channels to be taken into account (LCI, BFM and i-Tele).

Add to that the tradition here in France that both TF1 and France 2 have their flagship news broadcasts going head-to-head at 8pm and it's perhaps not surprising that JT has seen a drop in ratings over the past year.

Whatever media pundits might say - and they've been saying plenty - TF1 has hardly taken a gamble with Ferrari. Far from being simply a pretty face to fill the screen, she's also an accomplished and well-respected journalist.

The 41-year-old first joined TF1 in 2000 and for the next six years formed one half of the golden couple of TV news along with her former husband, Thomas Hugues. The pair presented a weekly fast-paced news magazine and were regular holiday stand-ins for the channel’s main news presenters - Ferrari for Claire Chazal at the weekends and Hugues ironically enough for PPDA on weekdays.

In 2006 she jumped ship for Canal +, which gave her less exposure to the public at large but couldn’t have been better timed professionally speaking as it came at the beginning of the campaign for last year’s presidential elections.

Her weekly political programme, “Dimanche”, gave Ferrari the chance to go one-on-one with some of France’s leading figures. And she won accolades for her pugnacity especially with the two main presidential candidates at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségoléne Royal.

Indeed the chemistry between Ferrari and Sarkozy certainly clicked – if only on a professional level rather than, as falsely rumoured later, the personal one.

The fact that TF1's CEO is Martin Bouygues, a personal friend of Sarkozy, didn't go unnoticed in the press, and there were suggestions from some quarters that more sinister powers were at work when news of Ferrari's appointment broke.

As for how she's really going to fare and what impact she will have, of course it's far too early to reach any solid conclusions. But there's unlikely to be a radical change in the near future - apart from there being a new face popping up in French sitting rooms.

Ferrari herself is quoted as saying that she doesn't want to bring about a radical shake-up in the way things have been done in the past.

"The only objective that TF1 has fixed is to produce a good news programme," she said in interviews before taking over. "I believe in continuity (of the programme) and I would prefer gradual changes rather than a revolution."

And to an extent that's exactly what she delivered. By Tuesday the curiosity factor had worn off somewhat and 7.4 million (38.7 per cent) tuned in for her second broadcast.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Delanoe throws his hat into the ring in the race to lead France's Socialists

As of yesterday it's official. The current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has declared he's running to become the next leader of this country's Socialist party.

It hasn't perhaps been the best kept secret here in France, as his name hasn't been far out of the headlines for most of this year as a potential successor to the current incumbent François Hollande.

At the end of July a poll in the national daily newspaper, Le Parisien, showed that party members put him ahead in the race to become their next leader.

So why then is Delanoë's declaration so important? And what are its possible implications?

Well to start off with it's the manner in which he made his announcement

There was no razzamatazz, none of the "bling bling" that seems to have pervaded French politics since the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, first came to office 15 months ago, and no apparent desire to resort to verbal fisticuffs (in this instance at least) with his main rival for the job, Ségolène Royal.

She, you might remember, was the party's defeated candidate in last year's presidential elections.

Mind you, that's not to say the Delanoë has been averse to making scathing comments about Royal in the past. We are after all talking politics here. Among other things Delanoë has accused her of running a directionless (presidential) campaign last year and holds her partly responsible for the malaise in which the Socialist party now finds itself.

Delanoë has prepared the groundwork for his long awaited official announcement very carefully.

He let one of his main political backers, the former prime minister and failed presidential candidate back in 2002, Lionel Jospin, do all the legwork earlier in the year on a national level, when he was prevented from doing so because he was running for re-election as mayor of Paris.

Then towards the end of campaigning in those local elections, the ever media-savvy Delanoë (and let's face it, that's a pretty important component of 21st century politicking) appeared head-to-head on national television with his main rival for the capital's top job, Françoise de Panafieu of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP).

And then the crowning glory (so far) with the release at the end of May of his book “De l’audace” in which he set out some of his visions for the future of Socialism in France.

While Tuesday's announcement probably didn't exactly come as a shock, choosing to do so in an interview with one of the country's most respected newspapers, Le Monde, perhaps sent a signal that Delanoë wanted to make a break from staged photo ops which have characterised French politics recently.

So why is Delanoë's declaration important? Well the malaise in which the Socialist party finds itself is undeniable - even they admit it, in spite of a relatively strong showing in March's local elections.

The Socialists are riven by political infighting (of which Delanoe hasn't exactly been guiltless) and there's a battle on for the future direction of the party. It's at more perhaps than a crossroads, and if it doesn't unite behind one leader, some political commentators have suggested there could be a split.

Part of that is probably down to Sarkozy of all people, who has done a pretty good job of dividing and conquering. He has invited prominent Socialists into government such as the foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and the junior minister for urban policy, Fadela Amara. Or he has successfully recommended them for high level jobs overseas such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the International Monetary Fund.

There's talk in the media that some factions of the party might consider a possible realignment with the Communist party which took a hammering in the national and local elections, and the far Left of Olivier Besancenot's La Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League, LCR).

And then of course there's Royal, who has spoken about perhaps moving the party closer to the Centre and a more populist “listening and hearing” approach to politics.

Delanoë firmly rejects any sort of alliance - even with MoDem, the centre party, and in recently outlining his vision for the future of the party called on it to embrace economic liberalism and to accept the principle of competition – long a taboo to many on the Left.

For many, especially among the party faithful, Delanoë represents the future of the Socialist party. The 58-year-old is often accused of having a somewhat autocratic style and often portrayed as a control freak, but some think those are the very strengths needed to hold the party together and provide an effective oppostion.

Finally and probably not most importantly, Delanoë is openly gay. Perhaps that's not an issue - it certainly hasn't been during his tenure as mayor of Paris - but it could become a point picked up by the international media should he become the party's leader and its eventual presidential candidate in 2012, for no other reason than it reflects a change in attitudes and acceptance towards sexuality within France and abroad over the past couple of decades.

So now he's thrown his hat in the ring, we only have to wait until November to see how he fares. There's a whole gaggle of pretenders to the crown - declared and yet to declare. But at the moment it seems that it's very much Delanoë who's in the driving seat.

Only party activists get to vote in November's election, and that's a fact of which he's very much aware.

But in four year's time, come the presidential race, it'll be the country that votes. And Delanoë will surely want to have the popular base of support, not only from which to launch a powerful campaign against Sarkozy (should he decide to run for re-election) but also to take him all the way to the Elysée palace.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

France's literary return to work

Summer is almost over here in Europe. All right so you would be hard pushed to be able to tell it from the weather, which seems certainly to have rejoiced in being almost one long wet spring shower with intermittent bursts of sunshine, at least in this part of northern France.

But the signs are aplenty that we're fast heading into autumn.

And every year a big fuss is made in France about la rentrée - the period directly following summer when the country kicks into action again after the long break.

Telly programmes resume "regular transmission" when once again the viewing public can settle back in their sitting rooms to watch a mix of home-produced series and favourite US imports

In the capital, the banks of the Seine are no longer covered in sand as they have been every summer for the past seven years, and Paris Plage is replaced by rush hour traffic and bronzed motorists fuming at the wheel.

Schools prepare to throw open their doors to a new intake and government ministers get back to the daily task of "running " the country.

But another, and peculiarly French sign that la rentrée is upon us in this country is the deluge of new releases that hits the bookshelves.

That's right, every country might have its return to normal service after the summer break, but as the French website Rue 89 points out, surely only France has what is called here "une rentrée littéraire."

It's basically the publishing equivalent of going back to school. The period from now until the end of October when publishers hope to capture readers' imagination by aiming to release as many new titles as possible before the slew of literary prizes starting in November.

This year there are 676 new titles from which to choose - admittedly down from last year's 727. In fact there has been a drop in all categories ( foreign - minus 10 per cent, French - minus 5 per cent, and first-time novelists - minus 10 per cent) for the first time in years according to Rue 89.

But the choice is still big enough to throw even the most eager bookworm into perplexed contortions.

And here's just an admittedly very limited selection of some of the titles the French newspapers are recommending.

One of the biggest hopes in terms of sales and with an initial print run of 200,000 is Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb's "Le fait du prince." It's her 17th novel and tells the story of a 40-something, taking over the identity of a wealthy stranger who drops dead outside his front door. It's described as "eccentric" and "intriguing" as the main protagonist does his best throughout the novel to maintain his "stolen" life.

Another potential best seller - which is after all what publishing houses really want - is Catherine Millet's "Jour de Souffrance" (Day of Suffering). It's her first novel in seven years, and tackles that age old literary gem "jealousy".

Yasmina Khadra's new novel "Ce que le jour doit à la nuit" (What The Day Owes The Night) is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited new releases. Khadra would probably make the subject of a post in himself. Yes that's right, although writing under a woman's pseudonym (which literally means green jasmine in Arabic) Khadra is in fact the pen name of a former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, and one he adopted to avoid military censorship.

He has lived in exile in France since 2001 and his latest novel is set in colonial Algeria and follows the tale of Younes-Jonas from childhood in the 1930s to the period just after the country's independence in 1962.

The 1986 Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel's new novel "Le Cas Sonderberg" focusses on the themes of Judaism, identity, Shoah, guilt and pardon, starting with a young German woman who is accused by the US justice system of having murdered her ageing uncle.

Years later a Jewish journalist reveals the truth behind the case - the uncle was a former Nazi supporter who still lamented the fall of Hitler.

Among first time novels there's Tristan Garcia's "La meilleure part des hommes" (The best of man). Set in the 1980s gay community, it centres on the relationship between a former left wing activist and his younger lover.

It's apparently full of love and hatred dealing with discrimination and emancipation set against the backdrop of Aids. And the 26-year-old Garcia is quoted himself as saying of the novel, "It's not a made up story as such but a faithful record. It's a tale that I didn't live through myself about a community hit by Aids and a portrait of the very best and worst in mankind."

Of course it won't just be books by French authors hitting the shelves. There'll also be a fair selection of foreign writers releasing their latest novels and among them are the latest from 2007 Nobel prize laureate, Doris Lessing ("Alfred and Emily") and the former Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie ("The Enchantress of Florence").

And so the list could continue. But to run through them all would probably have you reading this post until Christmas and there has to be an end.

The numbers may be down, as are the print runs, and the publishing industry as wary as the rest of France about the amount of money it has to spend - in this case on promoting books that might only have a limited appeal.

But la rentrée littéraire, that seemingly peculiarly French phenomenon is far from dead, And neither, would it appear, is the country's love of a good read.

Monday, 25 August 2008

French aren't buying Sarkozy's purchasing power promise

When the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy's, came to power in May last year, one of his major campaign promises was that he would increase the purchasing power of the average man and woman on the street here in France.

And in all of his reforming policies over the past 15 months it has been one of the most often-repeated pledges.

With no sign of that actually happening, the French are beginning to question his government's ability to deliver on that promise. And the latest opinion poll published in one of the country's leading regional newspapers over the weekend, Dimanche-Ouest France, makes pretty grim reading for ministers as they get back to work after their summer break.

According to a survey carried out by the Institut français d'opinion publique (Ifop), 82 per cent of those questioned said they didn't have confidence in the government's ability to increase purchasing power.

And there's a general pessimism about things getting better any time in the near future, with only 37 per cent saying they remained "optimistic" as opposed to 53 per cent at the end of last year.

The general feeling also seems to be backed up by other figures. Those for example which reflect a change in the way the French holiday. This is a country which traditionally has a reputation for closing down for two months over the summer.

Although summer isn't quite over yet (in spite of what the weather would have us believe) there's plenty of recent evidence around that the French have spent it busily counting their hard-earned centimes. Another Ifop poll at the end of July showed that 42 per cent of them had decided not to go on holiday this year. And according to Protourisme - an organisation representing France's hoteliers - the usually buoyant domestic French tourist industry has also been hit with overnight stays during July and August expected to witness a drop of two per cent over the same period last year.

Of course opinion polls don't tell the whole story. There's always a margin of error, but in these days where spin is an important part of political life this latest "purchasing power" survey won't make the government's job any easier in convincing the public that its policies are working, even as it prepares to push through a raft of reforms for parliamentary approval in the autumn.

In June it launched a media blitz campaign spending €4 million of taxpayers’ money on a television and press campaign to explain how it was going to win the battle to increase purchasing power. But apparently people still remain unconvinced.

While some would argue that it's up to individuals to create their own wealth and not the role of the state, the French government has passed a series of measures that are supposed to create those very conditions for economic growth.

They've included a relaxation of the country's 35-hour working week, which many economists agreed had put something of a stranglehold on the French labour market ever since it was introduced 10 years ago, and a reform to employment laws making overtime possible and giving people the chance to (in the words of Sarkozy's often repeated mantra) "work more to earn more."

If the public remains unconvinced, the economic figures don't exactly help either. According to a report in the weekly news magazine L'Express, the gross domestic product is now expected to see a projected growth of one per cent in 2008 - less than had been hoped. And although the magazine says evidence from the European Commission points to the contrary, the prime minister, François Fillon, maintains France is on target to reduce the public deficit from 2.7 to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the year.

Still to continue process of reform and find the money to invest in social policies and transportation for example, the government needs money. Money that by its own admission it simply doesn't have and hasn't had since introducing a fiscal package costing a cool €13 billion in August last year, shortly after coming to power, which critics claim benefitted primarily the already better off by reducing inheritance tax.

Increases in the price of fuel and the consequent rise in the cost of a range of household products are of course not confined to France.

When it comes to public opinion people in this country (as in any other) don't really want to hear about global explanations to the problem. They want the government to address the everyday issues that effect them.

Little wonder then that with no money available to boost the economy and certainly none around for general tax breaks, the French are "feeling the pinch." And it's no surprise that they are also pretty gloomy about the future for a country in which half the population earns less than €1,500 per month when the best they're likely to be offered, at least in the short term, is more belt tightening.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

French nun with a past full of naughty habits declares she's "no saint"

It's hard to tell the tale of an amazing woman who has lived for almost a century in just one book. In fact it's probably impossible.

And although there have already been eight others written by one of France's most remarkable women, this is likely to be the last.

"J'ai 100 ans et je voudrais vous dire " (I'm 100 years old and I would like to tell you) published last Thursday, documents the life story of Soeur Emmanuelle, a remarkable woman by anyone's standards.

Born in Brussels, Belgium on November 16 1908, Madeleine Cinquin as was - now Soeur Emmanuelle, has a glorious past - both laic and religious - that has endeared her to the French over the years.

The 99-year-old no longer gives many interviews, which is not surprising given her advanced age and deteriorating health, but this volume of memoirs and reflections is the exception.

Co-authored by the writers Annabelle Cayrol and Jacques Duquesne, it's a series of interviews carried out by the two of them that reveal perhaps the naughtier side of a woman who is well known to the French and much loved throughout the country as a whole. In a recent poll of this country's most popular people, she ranked sixth.

While not exactly being an ecclesiastical bodice ripper, this book is not far from it, outlining the outspoken and controversial views that have often seen her at odds with the accepted doctrine of the Catholic church.

Everyone already knew for example that she had spoken out in favour of the clergy being allowed to marry. But in this book we also learn that she wrote to Pope John Paul II, telling him in no uncertain terms that she thought contraception should be allowed.

There are also some colourful disclosures of a slightly crazy young lady who clearly (back in inter-war years) lived life to the full while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, dancing, flirting and falling in love before in 1929 she took her religious vows and became a nun.

There is of course also a look at the time she spent in the slums of Cairo, Egypt - she went there in 1971 aged 63 and saw the poverty of many living there and decided to stay, which she did for the next 21 years returning to France in 1993.

Little wonder that she has often been referred to as this country's Mother Therese - a comparison she has always shrugged off with the repeated declarations that she is "no saint."

This book might well leave many thinking otherwise, especially given her own explanations as to why for example, she founded an association for single mothers and how well into her 80s after returning from Cairo supposedly to enjoy retirement in the south of France, she started helping the homeless in the village where she lives.

"I've had a good and happy life," she says in the book "I can only keep repeating that it's necessary to give others optimism , the will and love.

"Without helping others and without sharing, humanity cannot progress."

She's also not afraid to admit to faults, claiming that she can be both bad-tempered and vindictive. And according to Duquesne is still very much alert and aware of the impact her words might have on others.

"If you write that I've said I'm no saint," Duquesne told national radio in relating a conversation he had had with Soeur Emmanuelle during the writing of the book, " People are going to think 'what humility that woman is showing.'"

Friday, 22 August 2008

Carla meets the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama may for one reason or another not have got to meet the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy during his current trip to France, but on Friday morning he met the unofficial and undeclared stand-in of sorts, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

France's first lady was among the around 2,000 guests invited to attend the opening ceremony of a new Buddhist temple in the town of Roqueredonde in southern France.

Among the other guests were a host of personalities including French actresses Juliette Binoche and Line Renaud and the former model Inès de la Fressangeas. But also present were a couple of current and former members of Sarkozy's government.

Seated next to Bruni Sarkozy were the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, and the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade. Both had initially toed the government line and declared they would probably not be attending, but just last week they announced that they would be present at the inauguration of the temple - the largest Buddhist centre in Europe.

Bruni-Sarkozy's presence was interpreted by many here as a diplomatic solution for the French president to avoid upsetting the Chinese government, whom he has been pressing for several months to reopen discussions with representatives of the exiled spiritual leader after the crackdown in Tibet by security forces in March.

After the ceremony, Bruni-Sarkozy had a private audience with the Dalai Lama and was later joined by Kouchner - a declared personal friend of the former Nobel peace prize winner.

The attendance of both Kouchner and Yade was the first official contact the Dalai Lama has had with members of the French government during this trip although he met a delegation of parliamentarians last week.

Part of the problem with the Dalai Lama's 12-day visit, which ends on Saturday, and the reason it has been covered so much in the French media, is of course the fact that although it is strictly a religious one, there have from the outset been political undertones.

Sarkozy's office maintained before the visit that the timing made a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama inappropriate as the trip occurred during the Olympic games in Beijing. And that was reportedly also a choice accepted by both the Dalai Lama and the French president.

The two men will however meet in France later this year on December 10.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The day after a night at the opera - Verona

This year's outdoor summer opera festival in Verona may well be coming to an end, but even though the northern Italian town is world famous for its wonderful Arena it's not just a place worth visiting from June to August.

The town has a rich cultural year-round diary of classical music, ballet and theatre, as well as all the charm and historical interest you would expect from much larger Italian cities.

There's great food and wine of course, and - it goes almost without saying - virtually endless possibilities to shop until you drop.

And if you want to catch some breathtaking scenery, then the picturesque Lago di Garda is just under an hour's drive away.

One stop, non-stop culture

Of course, opera may dominate during the summer months, but plenty of people visit for other reasons.

The town might only be home to just over 260,000 people, but it has a long and rich history and more than its fair share of Romanesque and Medieval architecture to warrant its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Grab a guide and wander around the Basilica di San Zeno where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet were secretly hitched, or go it alone and join the rest of the tourists who flock to Juliet's famous balcony. Meander over the fortified 14th century Ponte di Castelvecchio or visit the Roman amphitheatre, the Arena in Piazza Bra during the day.

Verona is a place that impresses big time, and leaves you knowing that you've only just scratched the surface.

And if old ruins and warbling tenors are not really your thing then there's always the Teatro Filarmonico - also in Piazza Bra - most of it destroyed by bombs during World War II but rebuilt in the 1960s and now home to (more opera) ballet and classical music.

Retail therapy

Verona is quite simply culture "pure" but that's not all of course. If you want a break from exercising the grey matter and feel more inclined for a spot of shopping, you'll be spoilt for choice.

It's always a treat in Italy and Verona is no exception, although the main pedestrian streets of Via Cappello and Via Mazzini are heaving with tourists for most of the day.

Nipping in and out of the shops can prove very expensive, especially if you've brought along your "flexible friend" for a little bit of retail therapy and it can be easy, oh so easy to get carried away with the madness of all those gorgeous things to buy.
And when the stores are closed, it doesn't mean the streets are deserted. Far from it. Instead it’s time for that time-honoured Italian tradition of passeggiata.

It's the chance for the locals to stroll noisily and ostentatiously, strutting their stuff putting the tourists to shame. You know the kind of cliché for which the Italians are famous; "beautiful people" seemingly plucked straight from the pages of a glossy mag, who make we pasty-faced northern Europeans look, well pasty-faced.

Italians in general would make wearing a sack look figure-huggingly trendy as they stylishly sway down the street going nowhere and the Veronese are just as fashion conscious as their counterparts in Milan or Rome.

The espresso effect

As far as eating and drinking in Verona is concerned, you can basically never go wrong. This is after all Italy and there is a huge choice of feeding stations and watering holes for the hungry, thirsty and foot worn traveller.

Of course Italy means coffee - the real McCoy and none of that coloured water that might be passed off elsewhere as an unacceptable alternative.

Even to a non-fanatical coffee drinker there can be no denying the glorious effect a small shot of the rich, thick stuff the Italians brew up can have as it hits the back of the throat. It just has to be one of the simplest but most enjoyable pleasures of life and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

If you want to go native, prop yourself up against the bar and down one in double quick time before venturing forth revitalised. Should you wish to make the most of it though, simply plonk yourself down somewhere, order a drink and spend a moment just watching the world pass by.

Wining and dining

For a full blown evening meal you could try the delightful and elegant Ristorante Antica Bottega del Vino in the Vicolo Scudo di Francia. There are plenty of local specialities and an enormous wine cellar to fit anyone’s purse.

In fact Verona in general is a virtual lake of good regional wines with an international reputation – Soave, Valpolicella, Bordolino and of course sparkling Prosecco. And everywhere you eat you'll probably be offered a free glass of the bubbly stuff.

More great dishes can be found at the Cantina di San Rocchetto in Via Mondo d'Oro, and especially tench and (carpaccio of) trout caught from the area around the Lago di Garda.

If you don't have time for a meal because you have tickets for the opera (at 9.00pm) but fancy a pre-dinner drink, try the little bar (there's just one) in the Piazzetta Antonio Tirabosco. It's just behind the busy Piazza Erbe, and is much quieter - a wonderful place to kick back and relax before tripping off to the Arena for the performance.

And don't worry that you won't find anything to eat after the performance. Even at midnight there are a heap of places on the Piazza Bra itself, bang opposite the Arena, and they all offer a full meal and superb service. The best place has to be the Tre Corone, but reserve a table.

Small is beautiful

There aren't really any well kept secrets in Verona. The town is too small and nothing is really too far away from the centre.

Even if you slip off into the side streets to avoid the crowds, the chances are you won't have "discovered" anything that hasn't already been visited by thousands before. More than likely the people at the next table will be tourists themselves, Germans British or French - and there are a fair number of Italians too. But it is possible to get away from the heaving masses and relax.

Sure tourists are everywhere – that’s part of what makes the city tick – certainly in summer.

But most importantly perhaps, the townsfolk are friendly and welcoming. They're obviously well-used to tourists and there's none of the superior arrogance that you might find in some of the country's larger cities.

It helps if you have a smattering of the language, but even if you don't, the staff in shops, restaurants and hotels are more than willing to help you muddle through.

Verona as a town is Italy at its best. Not too large to be overbearing, and far from being too small to become boring.

So whether you're an opera buff, a history-lover, a shopaholic or in search of a great meal and drink, you could do worse than schedule a stopover in Verona.

Buon viaggio e benvenuto.

Monday, 18 August 2008

A night at the opera à la belle étoile

Summer for opera fans here in France means the delights of open-air concerts in one of the country’s most sumptuous outdoor settings, the théâtre antique in the southern town of Orange.

This year there was even the chance to catch one of France’s most popular tenors, Roberto Alagna, singing the principal role in Gounod’s Faust. A treat under the balmy mid summer night skies, guaranteed to tickle the fancy of any opera buff. For those not lucky enough to be there in person there was the possibility to see it on public television as it was transmitted live.

But arguably Europe's principal outdoor opera festival is to be found in the northern Italian town of Shakespeare’s immortalised lovers Romeo and Juliet at the Arena di Verona.

Now in its 86th season, the first summer festival of operas performed at Verona was in 1913 to celebrate the birth a century earlier of one of Italy’s greatest composers, Giuseppe Verdi.

The Arena itself is a Roman amphitheatre dating back to AD 30, and if filled to capacity could seat 30,000.


There is of course the official blurb about how the thing was built and how it’s just about one of the best-preserved sites of its type.

But nothing, no picture no film can really do it justice or beat the thrill of being there, seeing it, doing it, hearing it and just letting it all wash over you.

The backbone of the programme has of course been Verdi. The three-month season, which begins in June and finishes at the end of August opens and closes with his Aida and other mainstays include work by other Italian composers, Puccini and Rossini, along with Bizet’s Carmen.

Alongside Aida and Carmen, this year's selection also included Tosca, Nabucco and Rigoletto. And for 2009 the first three will be back again, joined by Turandot and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

So what of this year’s offering. Well this is not an exhaustive review of all the performances (you'll probably be pleased to discover) but just a taste of the one I managed to see - Nabucco.


As far as the plot goes - well if you want one, here it is. But as with any opera, taken out of its musical and dramatic context it seems quite implausible, especially when offered in a nutshell. You have been warned.

Nabucco, King of Babylon defeats the Jews. His youngest daughter, Fenena falls in love with Ismaele, nephew to the King of Jerusalem. Meanwhile his elder daughter, Abigaille, discovers she isn't really his daughter at all but that of a slave. She of course is also in love with Ismaele

While Nabucco's away at war, Abigaille attempts a coup claiming he's dead. In the meantime Fenena has converted to Judaism, just as Nabucco has ordered all Jews to be killed. He's hit by a thunderbolt and loses his senses and Abigaille grabs the crown.

When Nabucco awakens from his madness, he sees the error of his ways, rescues Fenena from certain death at the last minute, tells the Jews a temple will be raised to their God, which all proves too much for Abigaille who poisons herself - sings her final aria and dies. The End.

Denis Krief's staging offers metallic structures which might to some look more like "interestingly" lit scaffolding lying on its side. But it has won rave reviews and plaudits from the cognescenti over the years and is supposed to represent the settings of the court of Babylon, its Hanging Gardens and Jerusalem.

What is slightly disconcerting in this production perhaps is that most of the “action” seems to take place somewhat off centre, so that the audience is as one, slightly twisted left in their seats.

The choreography is at times rather creepy, especially the almost goose-stepping marching into war. And the hairdos (or hairdon'ts) of Abigaille's "henchwomen" (and her own styled locks for one scene) look something like a tribute to rock star Rod Stewart's 1970s static-electricity charged and challenged coiffeur.

Rules. What rules?

At the best of times, opera crowds can be notoriously badly behaved in the sense that if they don’t like a performance they’ll have no hesitation in booing and hissing their disapproval at the end. And it hasn’t been unknown for a performer to march off stage in protest.

There was none of that at this performance, quite the opposite in fact as the Arena audience - a mix of those who love the music and those who come for the spectacle, or both - comes knowing what to expect and is seldom disappointed.

The organisers requests for the public to “abide by the rules” however only received in some circumstances, cursory acknowledgement.

While there was “no smoking” inside the Arena – it’s banned in public buildings throughout most of Europe – the appeal for mobile ‘phones to be turned off during the opera was only partially respected, as proven by the occasional muffled ring.

As for the request for no flash photography during the performance – well the organisers might just as well have whistled in the wind for all the notice that was taken.

Every time there was a scene change, it was accompanied by a barrage of flashing cameras. When a singer made an entry, it was to a flurry of clicking and mass beeping.

And the whole audience seemed to go into digital overload as the chorus shuffled eerily into place for “Va pensiero” before it launched into the enormous and celebrated rendition – complete with encore - accompanied by flash, flash, flash.

Even when a horse appeared on stage in Act II – yes the Arena likes live animals as it adds to realism apparently – there was another frenzy of shutters as though the audience had never seen a four legged beast before.

A voice to raise the roof

The whole principle of the Arena seems to be one of audience and performers alike enjoying themselves. In fact the whole atmosphere at an outdoor opera is not quite the same thing as at the great Houses, and the spectacle is far less rigid and more laid back.

So when Leo Nucci – appearing this season not only in the title role of Nabucco, but also Rigoletto – led the main singers hand in hand around the stage at the end of Acts I and II before each intermission, there was rapturous ovation and whoops of appreciation.

In fact it might seem unusual for the singers themselves to be orchestrating their own applause – that’s usually the prerogative of the lighting technicians – but it seemed to be very much par for the course during the opera.

Nucci might have had the biggest cheers of the night - he has had a long career as one of the world's leading baritones especially for his roles in Verdi operas. But the performance of the soprano Alessandra Rezza in the role of Abigaille, also had plenty of people sitting up and taking notice.

The 33-year-old has a large voice which would probably have been able to raise the roof off the place had there been one. And the sheer power was matched by the gentlest of touches in her closing aria as she died the inevitable death.

An event to relish

If you can stand the thought (or perhaps under the circumstances that should read “sit the thought) of numbed buttocks for a couple of hours then there are always the cheap seats on the amphitheatre’s stone steps. While you might feel a little like being up in the Gods of one of the major opera houses, the views are never restricted, even if you might be a little far away from the action, and you have a bird’s eye view. For a little extra comfort, you can also bring along or buy a cushion.

If you’re ready to break the bank (almost €200 a throw) and want some serious leg room on a padded seat, then you can be virtually sitting in the orchestra pit and feel almost at one with the singers.

You pay your price and take your pick, and certainly won’t be disappointed.

This version of Nabucco might not have had all the finesse that one of the world’s great opera houses might be able to afford a production, but that’s really open to discussion and a matter of opinion.

What can’t be denied is the sheer spectacle involved and how well the Arena does in producing an event to relish.. So much so that it could probably put on a musical version of a Japanese telephone directory and it would still be a delight to enjoy and savour. There really is little that can beat the atmosphere of opera performed à la belle étoile.

To follow: The day after a night at the opera

Proving politeness can go a long way

This might well read like one of those seemingly interminable reports often found in the French press, where all the pomposity and flowery language comes at the beginning of the piece, and somewhere towards the end the actual "news angle" kick in. There again maybe I'm giving myself too much credit for prose that simply isn't there.

Whatever the case may be, my apologies in advance. And for those wondering what the "Charles Dickens" I'm on about, maybe they should skip the beginning and head straight towards the last couple of paragraphs (A surprise in the post). Alternatively of course, they could pass on to the next story.

For anyone else with a little bit of patience, bear with me I'll get to the point - eventually.

I've lived in France for nigh on a decade now, and at the beginning tried to "fit in" by assuming that I could appear as arrogant and rude as at least those in the nation's capital are reputed to be.

Living the cliché

I took my chances, and priority, when crossing the road as oncoming traffic threatened to mow me down. Regular sessions of practising becoming fractious and enraged behind the wheel of a car when I negotiated the rush hour traffic home, made me feel almost as though I "belonged".

And then of course I did battle with shop assistants, many of whom are typically and often not inaccurately portrayed as believing the customer, far from being king, is only there at the sufferance of the staff.

Sure I found it helped to speak the language, but only to the extent sometimes that I was really able to appreciate when people were being rude.

Then of course I had to get used to what most of us would call "staring", but the French insist is just "looking interested".

Let's forget about the bureaucracy, as the way things are done here is justified as being "because that's the way things are done" and any sort of complaint is met with the hugest of shrugs.

Cliché following cliché perhaps, but there is some truth in it. And I quickly learned to accept, ignore, behave and observe as the situation required.

But things are changing apparently - so we're told - and sometimes there's the proof that makes you sit up and take notice as you're forced to re-evaluate all your prejudices.

The country of 350 + cheeses

Last October I celebrated my 40-something birthday. No, I'm not going to give away my exact age, but it's definitely the wrong side of the big four-oh. And no, that's not the "news" bit yet.

My birthday treat was a mystery trip somewhere not too far away. It couldn't be. I don't much like flying and limit myself to as few visits beyond the clouds as possible.

So I realised that anyone who knew and cared for me, would not spoil the surprise by making me haul myself inside that hunk of flying metal. After all, if we were meant to fly we would have wings - right?

Turned out I was correct (not about the wings) as the destination was none other than Venice, on the overnight train from Paris - First Class sleeper. Luxury. Extravagence. Bliss!

Except it wasn't any of those things. First class on what proved to be an Italian train, even though the booking had been made through SNCF - France's state-owned rail operator - was 12 hours of "four-to-a-cabin, cheesy feeted, non-communicative strangers" time.

A great start to a birthday weekend and guaranteed to blight my time in Venice at the thought of having to make the return journey in similar conditions.

Now I'm no snob - oh all right maybe a little of one then - but I like my creature comforts and I "did" all the budget backpacking, hauling my life around with me for a couple of months back in my teens, when I still had the energy.

Plus I've lived in France long enough to delight in what the first president of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, famously referred to as the country of at least 350 cheeses, not to want to spend my R&R cooped up in the smallest of spaces exposed to a smell reminding me of the very ripest of Bries, dripping off the plate.

So somehow even though the train was full, we managed to sweet talk the conductor into finding us an empty cabin, where I then spent the rest of the journey wide awake, cursing SNCF for having mixed up the booking, wondering how I would survive the return journey and feeling much, much older than my 40-something years.

When we pulled into Venice at nine o'clock the next morning, I had made a monumental decision. We would indeed - at huge expense - book a flight back on the Monday so that at least I could enjoy my time not worrying about another 12 hours spent in potentially intimate and unwanted contact with pieds du fromage. The alternative of girding my loins and full of alcohol-induced Dutch courage suddenly made the thought of flying seem much more "appealing"

Moaning politely

And that's exactly what we did, enjoying three fabulous days and two nights gorging ourselves on pasta, overdosing on culture, travelling everywhere and anywhere the excellent Vaporetto would take us and otherwise walking ourselves. silly.

On our return to France, I was determined not to let the matter lie - best to get these things off my chest immediately, I thought. And as politely as possible - as is my philosophy in life - I whipped off a letter to the customer services section of SNCF.

"Very disappointed", "My birthday treat" (thought I would play the emotional card and spread it with the thickest of knives) "Felt we had been misled" blah, blah, blah. Nothing mean. Nothing untrue and no "outraged of Paris" sort of stuff. Just a simple moan.

Once signed, stamped and delivered, we basically thought nothing more of it. After all there were still the fabulous memories, some great photos (none of them taken by me, I hasten to add) and a self-bought present or two I purchased along the way.

The months passed and we basically forgot all about it. And besides I've since attended another fear of flying course to get my act together and am almost able to remain sane when aboard a 'plane.

A surprise in the post

Imagine then last week, how completely floored we were when we received by recorded delivery the nicest possible response in the form of an apology.

"Dear Sir, we were sorry to read of any discomfort you may have incurred during your trip, blah blah blah.

"We apologise for the any unnecessary inconvenience, blah blah blah

"We appreciate and value your custom, blah, blah, blah."

All very proper and polite.

Even better, there was a voucher included for €130, "to be used on any SNCF train within France at your own pleasure."

Compensation, which we hadn't even asked for.

Now that's after sales service at its very best, and was quite a slap in the face for all those clichés about French businesses not really caring about their customers' needs.

So there you have it. One dissatisfied customer (well two actually) complaining politely about something and receiving a response. Perhaps it really is as my late ma used to say "manners (and clothes) maketh man."

Bon voyage et merci.

France – drunk, drugged and behind the wheel

Perhaps this short post should be tagged from the beginning as opinion. But surely nobody could disagree that what follows was from the moment the main protagonist turned the ignition key, a combination of a deadly cocktail and sheer stupidity.

More details have now been released about a tragic accident that occurred in Allouagne in northern France last weekend, which left a 38-year-old man critically injured and in a coma, and his three-year-old son dead.

It happened in the early evening as a young woman was driving back to her parents. According to eyewitnesses, the 20-year-old motorist appeared to lose control of her car and cut down the bicycle of the small boy - killing him on the spot - and then hit his father who was walking alongside him.

A heartbreaking incident under any circumstances, but it made the headlines here in France because the woman was not only drunk at the wheel of the car, but she also admitted later that she had been smoking cannabis the night before.

Tests by police afterwards revealed that she had a level of more than 2.17 grammes of alcohol per litre in her blood – the legal limit in France is 0.5 grammes per litre.

She too was injured in the accident and taken to a nearby hospital in serious condition. Investigators said she probably wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time. The woman herself doesn’t even recall getting into her car.

But the full story of her complete and total irresponsibility doesn’t end there – as difficult as at it might be to believe.

When police were able to question her later in the week, the woman apparently also confessed to having been in the process of writing a text message at the moment of impact!

Her memory perhaps too short to remember getting behind the wheel of the car, but apparently sufficiently alert to retain exactly what she was doing immediately before she destroyed a life.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

A beginner's guide to the (French) Olympics

There's nothing like attending a live event of any kind. The atmosphere, the noise, the buzz - just doesn't come across on the telly. But for most of us, that's exactly how we'll be "experiencing" these Olympics - from the comfort (or not) of our own sitting room.

It’s always fascinating being a foreigner living abroad, no more so perhaps than during the games.

After all you get a chance to see and understand a little more of the national psyche of your adopted land – especially as all the fair-weather sports friends suddenly seem to pop out of the woodwork to support their countrymen in the most unlikely of sports.

Unlikely, only in the sense that they might not be ones which receive much exposure back in your country of origin, but at which your host country seems to excel.

Such is the case with France – where the media has devoted a fair amount of time to the exploits of home grown talent in several sports, so much so that one particular foreigner has been left feeling more than a little perplexed.

Now there's no snootiness involved in the assessment of any of the sports that follow, but there's a distinct lack of television coverage at the best of times (even here in France) and some mind-spinning vocabulary to describe the moves and the rules of certain competitions. But during the Olympics these sports, it seems, come into their own.

Grabbing and grappling

Take judo for example, in which France has something of a recent rich tradition thanks especially to the exploits of David Douillet, now retired, but twice an Olympic champion.

Who, for example, knows what a "Uki Goshi" is - let alone what it looks like. Apparently it's a floating hip throw in judo, only to be matched in terms of the uninitiated viewer's inability to fathom out what's happening by the "Uchi Mata "- an inner thigh throw.

Both score points, or so the commentators insist, and neither looks anything more than one competitor grabbing hold of another and flinging them around the ring.

And grabbing seems to be a speciality in judo - at least among the men. What is it with the way they seem to spend so much time trying to pull off each other's "dressing gowns" (no that's probably not the right term, but that's certainly what they look like) as they do grappling on the floor?

That neat transition from grabbing to grappling of course leads in to Greco-Roman wrestling. For if it's a good bout of the latter you're after, then you need look no further.

Actually technically speaking, that's not true and even though it's yet again another of those sports that to the clueless seems to have few rules, it apparently differs from its cousin "freestyle" in not allowing any use of the legs to make contact. So not proper "grappling" then after all.


France won gold for the first time since 1924 when Steeve (yes there really are that many "e"s in his name) Guenot took the 66kgs title, while his brother Christophe took bronze in the 74kgs.

The boys must have had a very interesting childhood.


Anyone even slightly familiar with the fictional exploits of Alexandre Dumas' account of the real life Charles de Batz aka D'Artagnan will realise which sport we're headed over to next. Fencing.

But forget about the romantic duels with Athos, Porthos or Aramis. The modern day version is very state-of-art and surely one that nobody outside of the sport can possibly understand.

Down the years it seems to have worked pretty well for the French, many of whom are multiple medal winners, and the commentary team try their best to explain - if you can call excited shouting and yelling into the microphone when a French competitor is involved either "commentary" or "explanation".

Be it foil, épée or sabre class, to the ignorant it just looks like stabbing at your opponent and then gesturing in the air every time a red or green light goes off. You see, both competitors are hooked up to some electronic contraption that sets off a light when a hit or point is scored.

Makes you wonder what they did before in the old-fangled days.

Second chance

Then when you thought that you had seen the end of a particular competitor or that the competition had finished, you're forced to think again.

For another wonderfully complicated principle that becomes much used during the Olympics is that of the repêchage.

Apparently it's a procedure that allows a competitor or a team that has already lost a second bite at the cherry - a sort of chance to redeem yourself.

So in judo, wrestling or rowing for example, it's not unusual for someone to make a reappearance later in the competition - even at the bronze medal stage - who you probably thought had been knocked out long ago.

It's even written into the scheduling of the competition. Take a look and you'll see. Presumably the organisers decided that a simple knock out style didn't provide enough meat in some sports and decided to "beef them up" a bit.

Chauvinistic commentary

A classic example of French commentary, which is probably universal depending on where you're actually watching the games - is how once a French competitor is no longer in the running, the sport stops being of real interest.

Yes, chauvinism in all its glory raises its ugly little head with alarming frequency. Such was the case in the climax of the three day eventing on Monday evening (CET) here in France.

With just five horses left to jump, a French competitor lying in bronze position was hustled out of the medals by a rider from another country and the special Olympic coverage decided to switch sports - to wrestling!

Those left wondering who had won or even placed in the medals, were left to look elsewhere.

Aye. It can be grand trying to follow the Olympics with a definite French twist on the whole thing.

Perhaps though the icing on the Olympic commentary cake so far here in France came in the men's gymnastics. Once again the team of experts managed to scream themselves hoarse to the bitter end of a competition in which a Frenchman, Benoît Caranobe was unexpectedly placed to take the bronze medal.

When one of his few remaining threats, the German Fabian Hambuechen, took to the horizontal bar during the last "rotation" the babbling in the box increased (as though viewers would be unable to watch and see for themselves) and the obvious joy and smile in the commentators' voices as he fell, thus securing bronze for France was a sound if not a sight to behold - repeated quickly in slowmo of course.

Ah yes, it is fascinating being a foreigner living abroad during the Olympics. You do indeed get an insight into the psyche of your adopted country.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

French government split over Dalai Lama's visit

There was a double announcement on Thursday, which somehow contradicted much the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said so far about the 12-day visit of the Dalai Lama to France.

Two of his government ministers have now said they are eager to meet Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader before he leaves.

Rama Yade, the outspoken juior minister for human rights told national radio in the morning that her office was looking into the possibility of a meeting with the Dalai Lama and she wanted to take advantage of his presence in the country for a face-to-face.

And in the afternoon representatives of the Dalai Lama himself said that the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, had been in touch to try to organise a meeting with the former Nobel peace prize winner in the western French city of Nantes on August 20.

Both moves are quite a turnaround from the position taken by Sarkozy who has said he would not meet the Dalai Lama during his current trip but has announced a meeting later in the year on December 10.

Sarkozy’s office had said that the timing of the visit made a meeting inappropriate because it came during the Olympic games in Beijing, and it had been a choice accepted by both the French president and the Dalai Lama not to meet.

And the government line was also toed on Wednesday when the Dalai Lama met a delegation of French parliamentarians, but not as part of an official reception.

In a sense though the move by both ministers is not so unexpected. Both had previously said that they would welcome a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit, but remained quiet once Sarkozy had taken his decision.

Kouchner is not only a world famous humanitarian himself, he is also a declared personal friend of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.

Yade has expressed views in the past year which have at times seemed to contradict the official government line.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Sarkozy to meet Dalai Lama - in December

He might not be meeting the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, during his current 12-day trip to France, but the Dalai Lama will have the chance to come face-to-face with him in December.

Representatives for Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and Sarkozy's office have confirmed that the two men will meet on December 10, when the French president is due to hold a reception for Nobel peace prize winners in Paris.

That will probably be of some comfort to a man who has accepted with the good grace for which he is famous, the decision of the French government not to hold any official reception for him during his current visit.

That choice was made - and accepted by both sides - ahead of his arrival, on the grounds that it would be inappropriate timing during, coinciding as the trip does with the Olympic games in Beijing.

At a press conference on Tuesday, the Dalai Lama once again confirmed his full support for the Olympic games - reiterating his belief that China had always merited the decision taken by the IOC to organise the games.

Sarkozy has also been eager to avoid unnecessarily upsetting the Chinese government, although he has also made clear that is not for Beijing to "set his diary."

On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama met a delegation of French parliamentarians, although again it was not as part of an official reception as the president of the Senate, Christian Poncelet, toed the government line and slapped a veto on a formal ceremony.

From Friday, the Dalai Lama will give a series of teachings in the western French city of Nantes and on Saturday he's due to meet the defeated Socialist party candidate in last year's French presidential elections, Ségolène Royal.

Some critics are suggesting that Royal is perhaps using the meeting as a possibility for some political point scoring ahead of the Socialist party's vote in November on a new leader for the party.

On August 22 it'll be the turn of France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, to meet the Dalai Lama when she attends the opening of a Buddhist temple in southern France.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

France's Olympic silver lining

While US swimmer Michael Phelps is busy swimming up a storm in the Olympic pool and adding to a haul any Klondike pioneer would have been proud of, spare a thought for the French.

Their gold rush hasn’t even achieved l’escargot pace and far from chest-swellingly listening to the strains of la Marseillaise from atop of the podium, they’ve so far had to settle for silver, silver, silver, tears, long faces, and yet more silver.

As radio and television commentators here in France never cease to point out, the French appear at the moment to be the Olympic champions at being runners up.

“Always the bridesmaid and never the bride” after five days of competition, and seven silvers it’s beginning to irk just more than a little, and national pride seems to have been seriously dented.

Of course that may all change. By the time you’re settling back to read this, the very first golds could have started a-tricklin’ in, and the country may well be back on track to repeat the medal toll of Athens four years ago – 33 in total, including 11 gold.

But so far, it hasn’t been the brightest of starts.

Mind you the French themselves haven’t exactly helped matters as the only thing they’ve been sporting after a second place finish have been collectively long faces. Worse still many have broken down in tears in front of the microphone.

And all because they only finished second.

It’s not so much that the country has turned into a nation of losers – nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that they seem to be so bad at not winning.

On Monday, former Olympic swimming champion and one-time golden girl of the pool, Laure Manaudou, threatened to hang up her goggles (or whatever swimmers do) after finishing seventh of eight in the final of the 100 metres backstroke.

That followed an earlier disappointing (to say the least) finish in the final of her speciality the 400 metres freestyle, in which she is the world (short course) record holder. She finished plum last.

Disappointment for Manaudou for sure, but at 21 it’s far from being the end of the world surely. She still has more than enough time to get her act together and recover from a year, which has seen her training schedule interrupted by a series of disastrous personal decisions.

All the talk since in the French media has been “Will she, won’t she, should she, shouldn’t she?”

In fencing – normally a sure bet for French gold, Fabrice Jeannet and Corinne Maitrejean both had to “settle” for silver. And both looked disconsolate, inconsolable and tearful in front of the inevitable post mortem interviewer, bemoaning their fate and never once turning round to say that “hey perhaps the opponent was actually better on the day and deserved to win.’

When Lucie Décosse took silver in one of the women’s judo competitions, she remained stoic in “defeat” until she reached the off-camera corridors, where she reportedly broke down crying.

The double Olympic champion and France’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony, Tony Estanguet, didn’t even make it to the finals in canoeing, but his compatriot Fabien Lefèvre did, finishing – you’ve guessed it – second.

While clearly none too pleased, Lefèvre at least had the good grace not to snivel in front of the cameras, leaving it to his wife to bawl her eyes out in front of millions, talking about the disappointment, the hours of training and in “going for gold” how little recompense silver was.

And there probably, you have the crux of the matter. Sports and especially the Olympics, has become much more than a simple competition. It hasn’t been that for a long time now.

There are sponsorship deals, before, during and after a career, and the good old bad old days of amateurism have been replaced by hard nosed professionalism, corporate deals and big money.

That might just be the way it is. But at the same time it’s the individual competitors who to a large extent end up paying one heck of a price.

All that money, effort and time expended in training, mixed with a lethal dose of hype surrounding their chances of winning, and it’s perhaps not surprising many of the French athletes (this time around, although the same story could probably be repeated around the world) feel so deflated.

But in this particular case let’s not forget that it was a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, to whom we all owe thanks for the revival of the modern Olympics as we have come to know them, and indeed he was the very first general secretary of the International Olympic Committee.

It might also help the French in particular to remember that the medal awarded to athletes who “demonstrate the spirit of sportsmanship” during the games also bears his name.

Whatever happened to the spirit of competition, with the glory of representing your country being an end in itself, rather than a failure to live up to inflated expectations?

Whatever happened to that famous Gallic shrug?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

French Extreme Right looks to Shanghai for financial bail out

In what has to be just about one of the strangest financial deals, France’s Extreme Right party, Front National (FN), looks set to be rescued in a manner of speaking by a Chinese university.

According to the weekly news magazine L’Express, the FN is to sell the building it has used as its headquarters since 1994 to the university of Shanghai, which has signed a so-called promesse de vente – the first step in the process of buying any property here in France.

The completion of the sale – should it go through – would be within the next three months.

Located on the outskirts of Paris, the building – nicknamed the “Paquebot” or “liner”– is for many as much of an eyesore as the FN has been on the political scene for the past couple of decades.

For once the party’s leader, 80-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, is remaining tight-lipped and unusually discreet about exactly how much the university has offered for the building. But it’s rumoured to be somewhere in the region of €12-15 million.

That kind of sum would come in handy for the cash-strapped party, which has been in debt for the past year since taking a hammering in the 2007 parliamentary elections. A number of its candidates failed to secure the five percent threshold of votes in constituencies to ensure that their election expenses would be reimbursed.

And the party has recently been ordered by the courts to repay outstanding debts of around €8 million in unpaid bills.

While not wanting to be drawn on the price offered for the Paquebot, Le Pen was more forthcoming on what use the university intended for the building, insisting that it would be “transformed into a school which would essentially organise courses for Chinese to come and perfect their French.”

The FN was founded by Le Pen back in 1972. It has around 75,000 members and achieved its greatest electoral success back in 2002, when Le Pen made it through to the second round run-off against Jacques Chirac for the French presidency.

Although the FN holds no seats in either chamber of the French parliament, it has seven representatives in the European parliament.

Monday, 11 August 2008

French politicians give Dalai Lama’s visit the cold shoulder

On Monday Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, starts a 12-day trip to France and in what could be interpreted as heavy-handed diplomacy, French politicians will all but shun him during his stay.

All right, so the visit is largely religious and the Dalai Lama himself is reported here in Monday’s press as not wanting to poison relations between Paris and Beijing, but at first sight it does seem rather extraordinary that he won’t be meeting a single member of the government.

After all the 73-year old former Nobel peace prize winner is widely respected and recognised as the incarnation worldwide of non—violence.

Take a closer look though, and there could be some other factors in play as to why he’s not being greeted officially.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has already said he won’t be meeting him, although in a neat move he’s sending his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, to attend the opening of a Buddhist temple on August 22.

While Sarkozy might appear not to want to anger the Chinese, whose ambassador to France said just last month there would be “grave consequences” if he met the Dalai Lama, he may also be trying to play a delicate behind-the-scenes diplomatic game.

That would go some way to explaining why he has so far felt unable to follow the example of other world leaders such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Britain’s prime minister Gordon Brown, or US president, George W. Bush all of whom have officially greeted the Dalai Lama on visits to their countries.

Sarkozy hasn’t left the door completely shut, and isn’t ruling out a meeting with the Dalai Lama at some unspecified date in the future – perhaps even by the end of this year. He’s also known to want to get the Chinese talking again at least to representatives of the Dalai Lama and that could well be what he’s working towards.

And a representative of the Dalai Lama in France, Wangpo Bashi, has intimated as much in his statements to the press here, confirming that a meeting between the two men during the Olympic games wouldn’t exactly be the most appropriate timing.

Discussions are still underway apparently to fix a meeting between the two men at some point, just not now.

So this is perhaps the reason nobody from the government is meeting him.

Not even the French foreign minister and world-renowned humanitarian, Bernard Kouchner, who has failed to pencil in a face-to-face with a man he has often in the past declared to be one of his friends. Nor has the usually outspoken junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, planned a meeting, even though she had previously said it might be a possibility.

The only political element of this obviously non-political visit, coming just as the Olympic games are in full swing, will be a meeting with members of one of the French chambers of parliament – the Senate – on Thursday.

Apart from that, the Dalai Lama will visit Buddhist centres and give a series of conferences and teachings from the western French city of Nantes from August 15-20, which will be retransmitted in the Internet and translated into eight languages.

On August 22 he will open a Buddhist temple in the town of Roqueredonde in southern France.

There are around 600,000 practising Buddhists in France, three quarters of whom are of Asian origin according to the Buddhist Union of France

Since 1982 the Dalai Lama has been to France on at least 12 occasions, and the last time he was officially received by a French president was in 1993, by François Mitterrand.

A quick look at the weather and time for a happy ending

There has been a fair bit of furniture moving upstairs if the weather in France over the past month is anything to go by.

And as usual “la meteo” has been making the headlines here. Rain and yo-yo-ing temperatures in the north, near heatwave conditions in the south.

There was of course the “freak” tornado, which struck northern France last week, bringing devastation to the town of Hautmont, killing three and injuring 18 others. Another storm in the early hours of Wednesday morning in the centre of the country left two young girls dead at a summer camp, after a tree fell on the tent in which they had been allowed to sleep.

And all the while, there has been a series of babies being left in cars – the toll is now four, with two deaths and two last-minute rescues.

But among all the bad news, there has also been some good – although that’s not exactly how it was first reported by prime time news on the country’s main private channel, TF1.

On Thursday two-year-old Louis went missing from the home where he was holidaying with his parents in the village of Verclause in Drôme in the south of the country.

Apparently he was playing with his five-year-old brother and their dog in the garden and somehow when the parents weren’t paying attention Louis “went missing.”

The authorities were immediately informed, a local and national appeal for information on his whereabouts launched, and 160 police mobilised along with 60 additional military and dozens of volunteers to comb the local area looking for the young boy.

France has a system in place inspired by a similar one in the US where as soon as a young child is reported missing an amber alert goes out nationally.

Then the bombshell more than 24 hours later on TF1 at 8 o’clock on Friday evening – his body had been found.

And so now the investigation would switch from the search to the circumstances of his death.

Except it wouldn’t, because he wasn’t – dead that is. Instead, Louis was safe and sound back home with his family. He had been found under a tree, a little dehydrated and more than a little tired, but otherwise full of spirits.

So a happy ending for Louis and his family and a shame-faced apology from TF1.

But it also raises the issue of how these mistakes happen, how in the rush to get the news out there in these hyper-competitive days of multimedia, some of us are too willing to go with what we believe to be the truth, the facts, the story, without actually checking it out first or taking time to verify sources.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

"All the world's a stage"

“And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

Ah yes the Bard’s words indeed. So rushing through childhood into middle age, if “life begins at 40” what happens a decade later?

Well if you’re a play it would seem, not only do you have some sort of cultural backbone, but it also means perhaps you can go on a world party.

And such is the case with the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story, currently in mid run at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

It’s a pretty weird feeling watching something that was first performed over half a century ago with the creeping realisation that in a very real sense it’s still bang up-to-date.

But that’s a sensation hard to get away from at the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story, currently in mid run at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

It has all the potential on paper at least, to be spectacularly dated. After all it’s a modernised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the 1950s in New York’s Lower East Side. Hardly the stuff of the 21st century.

But in a very real sense that’s exactly what it is.

Yes it’s American – very much so. Yes it’s a musical, from which some more “discerning” theatregoers might conclude it’s not really highbrow enough. And yes it’s full of songs to which probably many of us could in our finest Karaoke moments do a pretty fair caterwauling injustice.

But all that said, it also tells a universal story that of course still resonates today and is as frighteningly bang up to date in the saddest of ways.

Violence, street gangs, recent immigrants fighting territorial battles, and deprived inner city suburbs are after all not confined to New York in the 1950s. And the same old problems still exist in cities around the world.

But one thing couldn’t have escaped the attention of the London audience, and that was how much the plot revolves around two tragic incidents; a shooting at the end of the second act, and more poignantly perhaps for a British audience, a knifing in a gang battle between the Jets and the Sharks in the first.

That will surely have struck a nerve among a public, which has become all too used to reading or hearing reports of a spate of senseless stabbings in the capital and around the country over the past year.

Romance of course is as integral a part of the plot as violence, and just as in Shakespeare’s “original” there’s no happy ending.

Much has been written over the years about Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. They are and remain simply a joy.

What perhaps sets this musical aside from others though is the choreography, which is simultaneously classical and modern, pushing bodies to perform over two-and-a-half hours a series of moves that shouldn’t be humanely possible – but clearly, somehow are.

West Side Story is well into the European leg of its world tour and after stops in Vienna, Paris, Zurich, Leipzig, and Baden Baden, it’s now playing to packed houses at London’s Sadler’s Wells until the end of this month. Extra matinee performances have recently been added, but the chances are all the tickets have already been gobbled up. Still, if you’re visiting London and have the right contacts, you might be lucky.

If not, fear not as it’s then scheduled to go on tour around Britain, playing in half a dozen or so towns and cities, ending up in the northeast of England in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in February 2009.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Sarkozy spin or a cave in to Chinese pressure?

It’s hard enough for any of us to stick to our principles at the best of times. Imagine how much harder it must be then for a politician, regardless of his or her political hue.

Of course it can help assuage guilt and shed a completely different light on your own decision when your partner holds opposing views and is able to exercise “independent’ actions over which you apparently have no control.

And as he beamed from the stands of the Olympic stadium in Beijing on Friday at the opening ceremony of the Games, similar thoughts could well have been passing through the mind of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

You’ll perhaps remember that the poor man had problems deciding whether he should pitch up at all. Back in March he said he was “shocked” by China's security clampdown in Tibet and urged Beijing to re-open discussions with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

He then ummed and aahed for a couple of months, all the while not making it clear what he would do. Finally he ignored the decision of Germany’s Angela Merkel, who took the moral high road by refusing to attend, and said he would indeed show up. Which he did.

Sarkozy could have been forgiven for brimming with Gallic indignation a couple of days later though, when the Chinese ambassador to Paris, Kong Quan, told the French media that there would be "serious consequences" for Sino-Franco relations if he decided to meet the Dalai Lama personally during the exiled spiritual leader’s visit to France in August.

Instead Sarkozy remained quiet – seemingly a recently-discovered tactic in his diplomatic armoury, although it could also be interpreted as simply being “vague.”

Quiet that is just before his “appearance” at the opening ceremony, when his office at the Elysée palace released an official statement that showed once again he is a master of wheedling himself out of a conundrum

The solution to the dilemma? Twofold. First a carefully worded announcement from the Elysée palace that Sarkozy wouldn’t be meeting the Dalai Lama, while making it look as though it was the latter’s decision but cleverly not expounding on the reason.

And then phase two and the real answer to his dreams: Enter stage Left, politically and socially in the form of none other than France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

For it is she and not he, who will be present as the Dalai Lama opens a Buddhist temple in southern France on August 22.

A cave in from Sarkozy, a jiggling of the first lady’s calendar or some deft diplomatic footwork that appears to keep all sides happy and prevents any loss of face?

Whatever the case may be, it sure hasn’t done Sarkozy any harm having Carla at the Elysée palace.

Friday, 8 August 2008

France is already working

Forget all those stories you’ve read that the French are apparently a nation of the work shy, spending as little time as possible on the job and instead enjoying more days off than their counterparts in other European countries.

A new study out this week puts paid to that myth and actually reveals what many who live and work in this country probably already knew.

There are a fair number of people who work longer than the official 35-hour week.

So many in fact according to l’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (the national statistics office, l’Insee) that the average working week of Monsieur le Français et Madame la Française is more in the order of 41 hours a week.

The survey was carried out among more than 72,000 people and, described as a so-called snapshot of the job market here in France, reveals some perhaps surprising and significant trends.

While the average working week of the French turned out to be 41 hours, there were of course a number of employment sectors rating far higher.

Farmers top the list, working on average almost 60 hours a week, the self-employed around 55 hours, management (all levels combined) 44 hours and even blue collar workers almost 39 hours.

Of course it rather raises the question as to who, if anyone, is actually benefiting from that 35 hours a week.

The simple answer would appear to be the five million or so “fonctionnaires”, or civil servants, employed in the public services or former state-owned companies that have been partially or fully privatised, but where the same employment protection laws are still very much part of the “way things are done.”

The survey also reveals that unemployment is at 2.2 million, or eight percent of the working population of 27.8 million.

That’s still pretty much well short of the target the government has of five per cent by 2012, but figures can be massaged of course and there are other tendencies revealed by l’Insee, which might help the official level “drop” by then.

For example if the current trend continues, the number of those working on a short-term contract (contrat durée determinée, CDD) is likely to increase and that could have a significant impact on future figures.

Those on CDDs now account for 12 per cent of the working population (up from 11.1 in 2004) and there has also a rise in part-time work.

Those trends also present a somewhat double-edged sword for future unemployment figures. Yes they’ll allow more people to come off the official register, but they also reflect that the French job market is becoming more precarious and that even without government intervention, it’s moving away from the long-established model enjoyed for decades of “jobs for life” in the shape of the contrat durée indeterminée.

So where does this latest report leave the 35-hour working week and the promise of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy promise to shake up the French job market?

After all he’s known to be less than enthusiastic about a policy introduced by a Socialist government just over 10 years ago, which he claims has cost the country billions of euros, created few job opportunities, made French companies less competitive internationally and on whom he blames a fair share of the country’s economic woes

Well first up of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice here how fortuitous the timing of the study is for the government. It comes less than a fortnight after changes in the employment laws were hustled through parliament; changes which will in effect signal the beginning of the end of the 35-hour working week.

In law the 35-hour working week will continue to exist. It needs to so employees can choose between being paid for overtime or taking days off they’ve accumulated.

But Sarkozy’s oft repeated mantra that the French be given the opportunity to “work more to earn more” will also have more credence now that “proof” exists that for the past decade, during which the current legislation has been in operation, many people have in fact been prepared to work much longer hours than the law allows.

It’ll also undoubtedly help in his stated goal of reducing the number of fonctionnaires and weaken the opposition’s claims that there’s no popular sentiment for his proposals.

Perhaps most importantly what the study reveals is that there is already a degree of flexibility in the job market – at least among a high proportion of those in employment, and that the French are more willing to adapt than previously thought.

In other words, France is already working.
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