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Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Mixed news for Airbus

It might just be reading a little too much into a statement by Thomas Enders, the Chief Executive Office of Airbus, but there could be troubles ahead again for the company’s superjumbo, the A380

On Tuesday Enders said Airbus was conducting a major review of its delivery schedule for the A380 and admitted that the goal of four per month by 2010 wouldn’t be an easy one.

It should have been a great day for the company. First up, Enders was speaking at the opening its logistics centre in Dubai, close to the headquarters of its largest customer, Emirates.

And there was an order from Tunisia, where the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wrapped up a deal for 16 of the company’s smaller ‘planes.

"We are conducting a review right now and it might well be that we achieve that,” Enders said.

But his words, while erring perhaps on the cautious side, will have cast further doubts on the ability of Airbus to keep its deadlines, even though the company remains confident that it will meet its targets.

These include 13 more deliveries this year and 25 in 2009.

Even though Airbus has now delivered the first four of six ‘planes ordered by Singapore Airlines, the company has been hit with penalties for late delivery

The A380 has been beset with design and construction problems from the outset and there have been persistent delays.

The main problem now is that assembling the superjumbo has required a total rethink for the company, and the current doubts are based on how the changeover from individual production to full industrialisation will have a knock-on effect on delivery, and whether Airbus can keep to its revised schedule.

The giant of the skies made its first commercial passenger flight with Singapore Airlines in October last year and when at maximum capacity can carry over 850 people.

While it might be normal to carry out a major review of operations, as Airbus insists, the implication is that it has not ruled out changing its delivery timetable – again.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Sarkozy backtracks on human rights promise

When running for office last year, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to include the respect for human rights as a vital part of France’s foreign policy.

Yet during his two-day state visit to Tunisia, he has not only failed to live up to that promise, but also left international and local human rights groups aghast as he went as far as to congratulate his Tunisian counterpart, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, for the efforts he had made in improving his country’s human rights record.

It was a case of Sarkozy turning a blind eye to the facts and preferring to concentrate on Tunisia’s fight against terrorism, which he called the “true enemy of democracy.”

“I come from a continent whose recent history includes abominable tragedies,” Sarkozy said.

“ And I cannot see in whose name I have the right to start giving lessons especially to a country where I have come as a friend and where I am treated as one.”

Sarkozy went on to praise Ben Ali for the progress he had made in improving civil liberties and human rights, declaring that he was confident those efforts would be continued.

While Tunisia may well be recognised as one the north Africa’s most westernised countries, Ben Ali’s regime is constantly under fire from international groups for its abuse of human rights. And there are a few facts that Sarkozy cannot possibly have overlooked, even though he seems to have chosen to do so.

Ben Ali has been in power for over 20 years and elections are far from being free and democratic by any stretch of the imagination, with political opposition barely represented. Current estimates put the number of political prisoners in the country at around the 200 mark and opponents of the ruling regime have no access to the state run media. Human rights groups accuse the government of regularly beating and jailing opponents, accusations that it denies. It goes without saying that the press is not free

But all that seems to have escaped Sarkozy’s attention even though he declares himself to be a defender of human rights.

Once again business has won the day with the power of the chequebook proving the most persuasive argument for Sarkozy and his entourage of leading French industrialists. Deals worth billions of euros were signed by both Airbus and Alstom.

All eyes will now be on the outspoken French junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, to see whether she will fall into line with the statements of her boss or be more critical. Yade is due to meet representatives from Tunisian human rights groups on Tuesday.

France’s renewed bid to free Farc hostages

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, arrived in the Colombian capital, Bogota, on Monday in the latest attempt to negotiate the release of more than 30 hostages being held by that country’s rebel movement Farc.

But Kouchner faces an uphill battle especially after rebel leaders rejected a medical mission sent by Paris earlier this month to treat the most high profile of those captives, Ingrid Betancourt.

The French-Colombian, former senator has been held prisoner by the group since February 2002 when she was kidnapped while campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

She is thought to be in a weak condition, suffering from Hepatitis B and a tropical skin disease.

Any progress on her release or that of any of the other prisoners was dealt a blow last month after Colombian troops killed one of the group’s leaders, Paul Reyes, during an attack in neighbouring Ecuador.

Along with the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, Reyes had been a key player in the group’s agreeing to free six hostages back in January.

Farc has hardened its stance since Reyes was killed and has said there would be no further release of hostages.

Kouchner remained tight lipped after his meeting with the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, but he’s known to back a humanitarian proposal that would see an exchange of the hostages for jailed rebels.

The next stop for the French foreign minister will be Ecuador on Tuesday, before flying to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to meet Chavez.

Many see the Venezuelan president is seen as the main hope to any real progress in negotiations with the Marxist rebels.

For its part, France has made repeated requests to Farc for the release of Betancourt since the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, came to power last May.

He has twice sent recorded television and radio messages appealing directly to the left-wing movement’s leader, Manuel Marulanda.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Tunisian test for Sarkozy's human rights policy

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, begins a state visit to Tunisia on Monday during which he’ll once again be promoting French industry. He’s also expected to put the finishing touches to his pet project of a Mediterranean Union.

But there’s likely to be an uncomfortable undertone throughout the whole trip. Although human rights will not be topping the agenda, Sarkozy will face a stern test of both his stance on the issue and his recent promise not to tolerate any more controversial statements from some of his ministers

Over the years Tunisia has come in for a great deal of international condemnation for its abuse of human rights, and local non-governmental organisations are hoping the issue will be addressed during the visit.

But Sarkozy has often been accused of pursuing a foreign policy, which puts commercial interests ahead of considerations for human rights and his visit to Tunisia will probably follow a similar pattern.

He’ll be surrounded by a gaggle of leading French industrialists representing the usual suspects that regularly accompany him on foreign trips including Airbus and Alstom.

Also part of his entourage however, is Rama Yade, the junior minister for human rights.

The outspoken Yade has already embarrassed her boss on a couple of occasions. Last year she criticised the human rights record of Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi while he was in Paris on a buying spree – echoing the thoughts of many at the time.

And more recently there was her infamous interview with the French daily, Le Monde, in which she said Sarkozy had set a number of conditions on China before he would confirm whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing. She later claimed she had been misquoted.

Even though a fair amount of attention will be directed towards her and whether she keeps quiet, there’s no denying that the real purpose of the visit is trade yet again.

As well as being a consummate politician, Sarkozy is probably also one of France’s best salesmen. He’ll be looking to ease a deal with Tunisian airlines, which is looking to renew its fleet and jolly along the possibility of France exporting its expertise in nuclear technology. In the pipeline is an agreement to build a reactor for civil energy purposes along the lines of deals already struck with Libya and Algeria.

When Sarkozy meets the Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, he’ll also be looking to finalise plans for his own pet project – the setting up of a Mediterranean Union. Planned as a forum for boosting political and economic dialogue between the 27-member European Union and North African countries, details are due to be officially unveiled in Paris on July 13 after France takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.

Past evidence suggests that Sarkozy will aim to come home with an armful of contracts, but at what cost in terms of addressing the problem of Tunisia’s poor track record on human rights.

In spite of the promises he made just last week, he might once again find himself allowing Yade free rein to say what he feels, as head of state, unable to declare on the record.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Sarkozy convinces the converted

The French remained largely unimpressed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance on prime time television last Thursday according to the latest opinion polls.

But unsurprisingly the French president did manage to reassure the party faithful, which is at least a start in his attempt to re-establish his popularity among his core voters.

It certainly didn’t take long for the French press to grind out inexorably their analysis of Sarkozy’s marathon interview, broadcast live from the president’s Elysée palace.

Almost 12 million people tuned in to watch him face a barrage of questions from five approved journalists over 90 minutes on economic, social and international issues.

Viewers were also treated to the sound and sight of the president actually apologising for some of the mistakes he had made in his first year in office.

The first polls to appear – and there were three of them over the weekend – don’t make especially great reading for Sarkozy.

In one of them, published in the national daily Le Parisien, 52 per cent remained “unconvinced” with his performance in general.

And 72 per cent weren’t persuaded by Sarkozy’s explanation of his fiscal package. That’ll be a bit of a blow as it was at the heart of one of his major apologies. Sarkozy admitted that he had failed from the start to spell out the advantages of allowing employees to work overtime rather than claim the days off to which they were entitled.

If viewers didn’t buy that explanation then there was worse news for Sarkozy on rising prices and purchasing power.

In another poll in the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, those were the two areas in which viewers found Sarkozy’s arguments to be the least convincing – barely more than 20 per cent gave him the thumbs up.

Of course that might not sound as grim as it appears. It could also be an indication that the French have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that things are not going to change as fast as initially promised.

Once again, as with all statistics, it’s very much a matter of interpretation – a fact that another national daily, Le Figaro, overwhelmingly displayed in the way it reported the results of the third opinion poll.

Now Le Figaro is in general a supporter of both Sarkozy and his governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement UMP) party. So it was a lot gentler and kinder in maintaining that Sarkozy had “seduced” almost 49 per cent of the French, which of course is another way of looking at the same set of figures.

It was also without doubt, as the paper was at pains to point out, far greater than Sarkozy would probably have expected given that his current popularity ratings have been hovering between 30 and 40 per cent.

Le Figaro also went in for a bit of “stating the obvious” in reassuring its readers that Sarkozy had in particular convinced his own supporters – so all-in-all a real case of preaching to the converted then.

These are just the first in what is likely to be a slew of polls to appear in the next couple of days, weeks and months. The French media loves them and even though they might confirm at the best of times what many French had already suspected and didn’t really need to be told, at the very least they’ll give political spin doctors something to chew over.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Rogue trader is back at work

There’s good news of sorts for Jérôme Kerviel, the junior trader who lost France’s second biggest bank, Sociéte Générale, a pile of money back at the end of January. He has found himself a new job.

But the twist in the tale that's difficult to believe is that he has been hired by a software company, Lemaire Consultants and Associates (LCA), that as part of its total package of services, also deals with offering its customers risk and crisis management coaching.

Now some might think it a little odd that Kerviel should be offered a job in a firm specialising in areas not a million miles removed from those that allowed him to commit such a massive fraud in the first place.

After all the 31-year-old managed to lose a cool €5 billion of Société Générale’s money by placing bets on what direction the stock market would take. On that evidence alone he is neither a particularly good assessor of risk nor much of an expert on crisis management.

He might however turn out to be a master of fraud if the claims of his former bosses are to be believed. When they discovered that Kerviel had committed more than €50 billion of the bank’s money in purchases, they quickly cut their losses and sold massively incurring that €5 billion deficit.

It’s also slightly strange that that the courts have agreed to let him work for the software company.

He was released from police detention at the end of March, but had a number of restrictions placed upon him. Those include not being allowed to enter a trading room or engage in any activity related to the financial markets.

He also cannot leave Paris and its suburbs without permission and has had to surrender his identity card and passport.

While Kerviel’s new employer has refused to comment on exactly what his new job involves, and he’s only on a probationary period, it takes a fair stretch of the imagination to believe that he’s the company’s new tea boy.

Temporarily at least Kerviel seems to have landed on his feet thanks largely to the generosity of Jean-Raymond Lemaire, the owner of LCA.

Lemaire is the very same man who let kept Kerviel away from the prying lenses of the world’s media by letting him stay at his home just after the trading scandal broke. He has also advised Kerviel on his legal defence in the Société Générale case.

Clearly every rogue trader deserves a guardian angel.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Sarkozy’s triple mea culpa

In Thursday evening’s much anticipated television interview, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, admitted that he had made some mistakes during his first year in office, and that they might go a long way to explaining his tumbling popularity ratings.

But he insisted that he would continue the pace and direction of reform and reiterated the promise that the government would balance the budget by 2012.

It wasn’t exactly make or break time during the marathon 90-minute primetime interview, broadcast live from the president’s Elysée palace, but Sarkozy did have the humility to recognise the “errors in communication” he had made.

Facing a barrage of questions from the five “approved” journalists on economic, social and international affairs, Sarkozy was in fine combative form, reminiscent of the man who had led such an effective election campaign to secure office last year.

He admitted three times that mistakes had been made and, in a none too heavily disguised reference to statements from some members of his government over the past year - in particular by the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade - Sarkozy said he wouldn’t tolerate any more embarrassing faux pas.

Right from the start Sarkozy made it clear that the interview was not going to be a repeat of some of the Bling Bling tendencies that have characterised much of the media coverage he has received since coming to power.

“I’m here to talk about France and not my private life,” he said. “As far as that’s concerned, everything’s back under control.”

Thankfully for the millions of viewers, none of the five journalists pressed him further on the point, and for the moment at least the overexposure of his quick divorce and even faster remarriage just months into his presidency, have been relegated to the passage of time.

His major mistake, Sarkozy said, had been a failure to explain adequately the thinking that lay behind some of his policies, and in particular the fiscal reforms which had been introduced immediately after he took office.

They’ve often been criticised as only giving tax breaks to the already well-off without contributing to the much promised and certainly longed-for improvement in people’s purchasing power.

But Sarkozy insisted the reform had been not only appropriate but also timely, although he confessed that he should have been clearer in outlining the benefits from the start.

The policy had not just increased the personal wealth of a few, but had allowed those with modest incomes to pass on more of their lifetime’s savings to their children by easing inheritance tax, Sarkozy insisted. Furthermore the fiscal “package” – had been just that. A package, which had helped put the country back to work by addressing the crippling economic restrictions of the 35-hour working week. Employees were now free to choose between claiming the days off to which they were entitled or being paid for the overtime they worked. What’s more, Sarkozy insisted, it was a policy that had been copied and adapted by many of France’s neighbours.

Of course it’s always easy to blame global economic conditions for some of the problems a country is facing, and Sarkozy didn’t hesitate from trotting out the often-heard excuses from many a political leader.

The subprime mortgage crisis, the dramatic rise in oil prices and the climb of the euro since his election had presented particular difficulties over the past year, he maintained. But the measures his government had introduced so far had stood the country in good stead and would continue to do so should there be further uncertainty in the international financial markets.

Again he emphasised that the aim of the government was to balance the budget by 2012, undoing more than 30 years of continuous deficit. But he refused to say how this would be done stage by stage, as many of his critics have demanded, simply sticking to the promised goal even though growth for 2008 alone has been recalculated downwards at 1.9 per cent.

While he remained reticent about whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing – a matter which has been making headlines around the world for much of the past month - Sarkozy said he had been shocked by China’s security clampdown in Tibet.

Once again he called on Beijing to resume talks with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and said the 27-strong European Union needed to present a united front in encouraging the Chinese to reopen those discussions. Sarkozy will be particularly well placed to wield a little more diplomatic influence from the beginning of July when France takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.

Although in general he made no major policy announcements, Sarkozy stressed that reform would continue unabated. More than 30 reforms had already been passed, he said, and not even his harshest critics could deny that it would take some time for the full benefits to be felt.

He defended both his ability and that of his prime minister, François Fillon, to deal with any challenges that might occur, which could also be interpreted as saying that if things go belly up Fillon will take the blame and be replaced.

The true measure of the political success of this carefully stage-managed interview in the sumptuous setting of the Elysée palace will probably be seen in the results of innumerable opinion polls the French press is so keen in conducting over the next couple of of weeks.

For now the criticism from his opponents remains fairly muted, but there is still concern from the population at large that prices are increasing faster in France than elsewhere in Europe and purchasing power remains stagnant.

And then there is the likelihood of industrial unrest and how the government deals with it. There have already been a series of strikes in several sectors, including transport and education, and more are scheduled in May to protest against job losses in schools.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Sarkozy addresses the nation

Television viewers here in France will be treated to a double dose of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, this evening when he appears on both the country’s main channels simultaneously in his first live interview since November last year.

Over one and a half hours he’ll face a barrage of questions from five of the nation’s top journalists as he attempts to convince them and the rest of the country that he has got a coherent and effective plan to lift France out of the economic doldrums.

He’ll have a hard job given his current popularity ratings. In the latest survey to hit the newsstands, only 28 per cent of those polled thought Sarkozy was doing a good job.

His ratings started to tumble a few months ago when he was in the most manically omnipresent phase of his presidency.

The chief criticism at the time was Sarkozy’s inability to deliver on his election promise to increase purchasing power and the over-exposure of his private life.

Conventional wisdom certainly assumed that once he took himself off the front pages of the celebrity gossip magazines and turned his attention to things a little more presidential – such as giving the country political leadership – he would bounce back.

But that doesn’t appear to have been the case and instead Sarkozy’s approval ratings have gone from bad to worse.

And still his biggest failing as far as the French are concerned, remains that failed election promise coupled with the inability to tackle inflation.

Just to put into perspective how unpopular he is, it’s worth drawing a quick comparison with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, at the same point during his last term in office. Back in 2003 after almost a year into his second mandate, Chirac was boasting a healthy 58 per cent approval rating.

Thursday evening’s stage-managed invitation-only party political broadcast on behalf of himself is being touted by political pundits as Sarkozy’s chance to answer his critics on his own turf.

It’ll be broadcast live from the presidential HQ, the Elysée palace, and the “approved” journalists will be able to ask him everything and anything and be guaranteed frank and full replies. Let’s not forget that Sarkozy is the consummate politician and he cleared his desk over the past couple of days to prepare his answers carefully.

It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to questions about his perceived incompetence in managing the economy. Polls show that a majority of people believe that his plans for reform, although ambitious, are largely unrealistic. And the figures get worse when he’s assessed for clarity and coherence of purpose.

For many a major problem during what will soon have been a year in office has been Sarkozy’s tendency to present himself as a man in too much of a hurry to get things done. He has fired up people’s expectations to such an extent that they feel let down that little or nothing seems to have changed.

There is however one fascinating titbit in all of the statistics flying around, apart that is from the fact that the French are polling crazy. In the midst of all the apparent unpopularity, a whopping 80 per cent of people expect there’ll be a need for more belt-tightening.

To a great extent that could give Sarkozy the signal he needs to introduce what might turn out to be unpopular legislation. As he likes to remind everyone, he has a mandate for five years, and wants to be judged on what he will have achieved at the end of that time, not on a constant popularity contest held on the front pages of newspapers on an almost weekly basis.

So the nation awaits tonight’s dose of political doublespeak with anticipation, although it’s unlikely the marathon interview will reach the 19 million-viewer mark of last November’s prime time broadcast. But there is certain to be one man who’ll be keeping a watchful eye and ear on what the president is saying.

When asked how he felt about what he expected his boss to say, the prime minister, François Fillon, responded that at the very least it would give the government a “road map” as to what direction policy would be taking in the future.

That was quite an extraordinary thing for the head of government to admit in public and a clear indication that he at least has been kept out of the loop.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Paris delivers blow to French Olympic charm offensive

The Dalai Lama has been made an honorary citizen of Paris.

On Monday the city’s council passed a resolution made be the mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, to bestow the symbolic title on the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.

The timing couldn’t have been more pertinent or sensitive. It came just hours after the arrival in China of the first of three emissaries to be sent this week by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He’s going all out - short of getting on a ‘plane himself – in a full blown diplomatic charm offensive to try to ease tensions after several days of anti-French protests in town and cities across China.

That job may well have been made a little more difficult by the decision back in Paris, which Delanoë - a leading candidate to win the race to become the national leader of the opposition Socialist party later this year – said showed support for the people of Tibet and their struggles.

Sarkozy’s centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party is in the minority in the French capital and had opposed the adoption of the resolution.

In a double whammy, unlikely to have been welcomed by Sarkozy, his emissaries or more importantly the government in Beijing, Paris councillors also bestowed honorary citizenship on the dissident Chinese political activist Hu Jia. Earlier this month Chinese authorities sentenced him to three years imprisonment for inciting subversion of the state.

Hours before the vote in Paris, the first of Sarkozy’s three emissaries had arrived in the Chinese city of Shanghai.

Christian Poncelet, the president of the French Senate, was in the city to deliver a personal letter from Sarkozy to the wheelchair-bound athlete, Jin Jing.

She has become a powerful symbol of anti-French sentiment in China ever since pictures were transmitted of pro-Tibetan protesters trying to grab the Olympic torch from her during her leg of the now infamous relay in Paris.

In the letter Sarkozy said he condemned the attacks that had been made on Jin Jing as she tried to protect the torch and understood why the Chinese felt hurt by the incident.

Later this week both former French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and Sarkozy’s chief diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, are due to arrive separately to continue the Gallic charm assault.

The president himself still hasn’t made the one gesture that would surely take the steam out of any of the “spontaneous” anti-French demonstrations, neither officially sanctioned nor condemned by Beijing. Namely making up his mind to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics games in August without setting any conditions for Beijing to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama.

That of course would require a certain loss of face as far as the French president is concerned, All he has said on the matter so far is that France would do everything to encourage talks, and that he would make a decision on what conditions he might attach to his attendance based “in light of the resumption of such a dialogue.”

Those words don’t seem to have worked their magic so far and given Sarkozy’s unwillingness to make a decision one way or the other, he is perhaps only succeeding in making a diplomatic spat even more complicated to resolve.

When divorce comes before marriage

Air France-KLM has thrown in the towel in its attempt to take over Italy’s strap-cashed national carrier Alitalia.

And yet again it’s for the last time – apparently.

On Monday the Franco-Dutch group released a short statement saying that as far as it was concerned the bid in its current form, was longer legally valid.

It was a response to a request from Alitalia for the legal situation to be made clear after the last round of talks in the soap opera to beat all others collapsed three weeks ago.

At the beginning of April the Franco-Dutch group walked away from the negotiating table 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 a sign of one able to cough up the necessary cash.

So Alitalia needs a buyer – again. And desperately.

By its own calculations it reckons it needs €750 million by June to keep its fleet of ageing, gas-guzzling aircraft in the air and its workforce of 20,000 plus busy.

Even though the Italian government might want to bail it out, European Union legislation prevents it from doing so, unless there are good commercial grounds. That would be hard for Rome to justify as Alitalia is crippled with €1.2 billion worth of debt and hasn’t actually turned an annual profit since 2002.

It’ll be up to Italy’s new government under Silvio Berlusconi, which takes over power next month, to find a solution. Berlusconi is known to be in favour of trying to put together an “Italian option” involving some of the country’s banks with perhaps the Russian airline, Aeroflot, holding a minority stake.

But even by his showman-like standards it would take a very large rabbit pulled from an enormous hat to really save the day. And Alitalia has been there just a little too often before.

The Italian government has been looking around for a potential buyer for its 49.9 per cent stake in the company for more than a year.

The Air France-KLM offer was generally considered to be the only viable one that would allow the Italian flag carrier to return to profitable growth quickly

While it might be curtains for the bid that was on the table, it doesn’t mean that Air France cannot be enticed to make a new one, and for many that’s the only hope Alitalia realistically has of surviving.

Industry experts say that the airline has weeks and at best a few months before it finally goes belly up and it's presently losing money at the rate of more than €1 million a day.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Hallelujah for the remote control. Zap

It must be hard work being a television addict in the US. Not only are there far too many channels to choose from, but you can turn on the box just about any time of the day or night and be guaranteed to find something that’ll keep you watching – even if you don’t really want to.

Mind you, much of it seems to be regurgitated reruns that weren’t that spectacular first time around. Of the more up-to-date stuff available there’s an unlimited supply of semi-talent shows that come in all shapes and sizes, endless reality programmes trying to out-vulgar one another and so-called complex cutting-edge dramas whose plots are so contorted it becomes impossible to decipher what’s going on.

On top of all that of course comes the constant barrage of commercials guaranteed to break whatever concentration was needed to follow what was happening on the small screen. They’re so invasively pervasive that it’s difficult not to shake off the feeling that perhaps there’s some subliminal undercurrent at play.

But the really disturbing thing about US telly is that as easy as it is to criticise what it has to offer, it makes compulsive viewing. And for this particular jet-lagged European traveller on a recent visit to the Big Apple there was only one thing to do ahead of a day that was to be spent tanking up on culture.

Grab the remote control and settle back for some wild zapping. All right it was only 3 o’clock in the morning local time. But this was too good an opportunity to miss and with more than 30 channels at the ready, a voyage of discovery was about to begin.

First up – and I kid you not – was one of those wonderful half-hour advertorials. Unwittingly I had got to the very heart of what makes US television tick without even trying. But boy was I surprised by the content, which was clearly only for adult consumption.

It was all about some product that promotes growth in the male “appendage." Yes that’s right. Here in what is normally considered to be one of the most puritanical Western nations, there was a whole 30 minutes devoted to advertising the fact that apparently “size does matter”, with the show’s winsome brunette hostess “spontaneously” vox-popping couples to discover the results of the “wonder drug.”

I was transfixed. Does this work I pondered? No not the product, but the sales pitch. To that question, I knew I would never find out the true response so after about 20 minutes (yes I’m ashamed to admit I was glued to it for that long) it was time to Zap…

…into a blast from the past as “Roseanne” made me question why on earth I had ever found it funny back in the 80s. Still, it didn’t take forever to drag me back in time and somehow I managed to catch the best part of two episodes-worth of gale force yelling before Zap...

…Some sort of CSI nonsense – Miami, New York or Las Vegas - whose plot I couldn’t fathom after five minutes. So as soon as the next commercial break came up it was Zap…

…At last, one of New York’s local news channels complete with mandatory over-coiffed anchors (one of each sex) and a rather orange looking weather forecaster who was surely wearing a wig that had seen better days.

This was just what the complete news junky in me needed. I had heard about the influence of Fox News on other television networks – its tendency to redefine journalistic objectivity into one-sided conservative rants. But I hadn’t really had the opportunity to experience it first hand. Now was the chance to witness for myself what stories Americans were being served up for breakfast on a regular basis, and make a decision for myself what I felt about it.

This is where I’ll have to own up to not remembering which of the local morning shows I was actually watching or when. Perhaps I saw them all. It’s hard to know as they sort of blurred into one another as I channel hopped, and appeared to have (for the uninitiated and unfamiliar) a lot of letters, which supposedly meant something to regular viewers.

But to me it seemed that whatever they were called WCBSTV, WABC, WNBC, WNYWFox, the bottom line was just about the same. Lots of fast-paced banter, grins and perfect teeth as crime, crime and more crime followed hot on the heels of one another to keep my attention well and truly grabbed.

“And this just in from our out on-the-spot reporter in Harlem, where a man was found stabbed to death this morning after three men allegedly tried to stop him from urinating in the vestibule of a building. A live report coming up.” Indeed. Zap…

…America’s Next Top Model series 9. Or was it series 8? Apparently the whole thing was going to be shown over the course of the day, so even if I flipped the remote now, the chances were that late evening I would still be able to discover who turned out to be the next Tyra Banks' protégé.

Alternative viewing on one morning on the same channel I think (to be frank it became a little hard to tell) was the delightfully tasteful “Parental Control.” Mom and Pop were given the task of setting up their goofy son with two alternative dates to the foul-mouthed monster he had been “seeing” for the past eight months. Son has a great time with both lasses but of course when asked to choose he dismisses Miss Perfect and Miss Perfecter in favour of the tearaway his parents had been trying to steer him clear of. It was (in)credible TV with a vengeance. Zap…

…Straight into a commercial for a vacuum cleaner that the manufacturer promises sucks with the “power of a hurricane.” Pardon? And it comes complete with a 21-year guarantee. Why? Zap…

… Slap bang into yet another commercial this time for refinancing home loans and allowing up-to-their-necks Americans to “consolidate” all their credit in one place. Um is the US Advertising Standards Authority living on a different planet or has it simply not heard about the country’s subprime lending debacle that has sent shockwaves reverberating through the international financial markets? Zap…

…Back to the orange-faced guy still wearing a rug and waving his arms about energetically as he goes into raptures over Highs, Lows, Fronts and other magnificent meteorological marvels that await me outside.

A glance at the clock tells me it’s nearly 8 o’clock. I’ve been watching nothing and everything for almost five hours, armed only with my new best friend and constant ally – the remote control.

I’ve discovered that there’s forever something to watch and always nothing worth watching. And I’ve revelled in the delightful couch potato pleasure of serial zapping.

It has been the very best start to the day I could have imagined and at least I now know I’m not an addict. I’m a snobby, cultivated, intellectually superior European…who will be back same time, same place tomorrow for another healthy Zap…

Sticking plaster to heal Olympic row

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is to send not one, but two emissaries to Beijing this week in an attempt to heal the growing diplomatic squabble between China and France.

After the recent apparently non-orchestrated spontaneous anti-Western, and in particular anti-French demonstrations in China, Sarkozy seems to have decided that it’s time to bring a little calm into play.

Those demonstrations were against allegedly biased Western media coverage of the Chinese security clampdown in Tibet and in particular at the protests that took place in Paris at the beginning of this month as the Olympic torch made its way through the streets of the French capital.

Sarkozy has chosen a contrasting couple to do this country’s bidding in what for him is a somewhat unaccustomed mild-mannered counter attack.

Next weekend he’s sending his diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, to sweet talk the Chinese authorities. No great surprise on that front perhaps as Levitte is clearly the right man for the job. He’s a former French ambassador to the United Sates and a recognised “Sherpa” or personal representative of Sarkozy, responsible for preparing the president’s participation at international summits.

The other emissary however is something of a surprise. It’s the former prime minister and current vice president of Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who will be arriving in China on Wednesday.

On first sight that decision isn’t so extraordinary, after all the two men belong to the same party and were in government together under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

But Raffarin, while not exactly condemning the current president over the past year, has not held back in his criticism of Sarkozy’s personal style and some of his policies.

What’s more, Raffirin will also be delivering a letter from Chirac, apologising for his being unable to make a planned trip to China himself on medical grounds.

That should go down well with the authorities in Beijing, as Chirac remains immensely popular there. And it might bring an amused smile to the face of many commentators here in France who know how little love is lost between the former and present French presidents.

Further proof, if it were needed, of how canny a political operator the present incumbent can be when it suits him.

In fact the whole business of sending emissaries to China is something of an interesting departure for Sarkozy. If this had all happened a couple of months ago when he was still in his supersonic omnipresent presidential phase, he would more than likely have boarded the first Beijing-bound plane himself to try to sort out the problem.

This then is perhaps more evidence that the newly presidential Sarkozy is calmer, more measured and statesmanlike and actually allowing others to do the jobs for which he wasn’t elected.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Olympic war of words heats up

The French supermarket giant, Carrefour, once again found itself at the centre of anti-West protests as demonstrations took place in towns and cities across China at the weekend.

But the chain wasn’t the only specifically French target. There were also rallies outside the country’s embassy in Beijing and the French Lycée.

There are signs however that the Chinese government wants to put a brake on events getting out of hand by urging its citizens to express their “patriotism with calm and responsibility.”

Meanwhile on Saturday there was also a pro-Chinese rally in Paris, as well as several other major cities around the world, calling for solidarity with China and the Olympics.

While the protests were against apparent bias in recent Western media coverage of Beijing’s security clampdown in Tibet, the French seem to have been singled out over and above other countries - particularly in China itself.

The Chinese government while not overtly encouraging displays of nationalism hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in playing down the tensions. It didn’t try to intervene in a citizen-led Internet campaign to boycott Carrefour, and has allowed state media to carry stories and pictures giving the impression that Western coverage of China’s dealings in Tibet and Darfur has been totally one-sided.

At the heart of the matter are of course the upcoming Olympic games and China’s appalling human rights record.

Beijing was far from amused by the events that took place in Paris earlier this month as the Olympic torch made its way through the streets of the French capital. Protesters demonstrating against China’s policy in Tibet and its refusal to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama forced the organisers to cut short the route of the torch, turning the whole thing into a public relations fiasco.

While the anger is certainly not just confined to anti-French sentiment, this country is a relatively easy target -– and an important one.

To begin with it is sensitive to the number of billion-Euro contracts lined up with China for some of its major industrial groups including Airbus, Alstom and Areva. Paris won’t want to cause a diplomatic storm. And the Chinese authorities know just how vital those deals are to France.

Carrefour – France's largest supermarket chain - itself has already invested heavily in China and potentially has a lot to lose, making it a relatively easy and “soft” target. It has more than 120 hypermarkets and 280 discount stores throughout the country.

On the purely political front, France is likely to be a big player immediately before the games start in August. And that of course matters to the hosts of this year’s Olympics.

France takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in July. Any decision its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, might take about whether to attend the opening ceremony in Beijing could hold sway with leaders from the other 26 countries. And that’ll be especially true if – for once – they prove able to present a united front on an international issue. They’re not renowned for it.

Sarkozy’s popularity ratings are currently low in the domestic polls even after almost a month out of the celebrity headlines. And he’ll be eager to give his office a boost in July, by which time he will have been in power for just over a year.

Turning his attention to the leadership of Europe might just do that for him.

One thing’s for sure though. Anyone who had hoped that talk of an Olympic boycott in whatever form it might take, would simply fade into the background the nearer the games approached, would be sadly mistaken.

For the moment all eyes are on how far Beijing is willing to allow protests to escalate – just enough to “concern” the French even more probably. Meanwhile, many will be hoping that Sarkozy finally makes known his decision as to whether he’s going to turn up for the opening ceremony – one way or the other.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

A nightmare trip

It wasn’t so much the journey to hell and back as a 10-hour one-way train ride to nowhere.

And it was to be the longest of nights for the 650 travellers who boarded the Paris-bound Eurostar train in London on Friday evening.

What was sheer misery for the passengers soon became a catastrophe for the train operators, France’s much-revered SNCF, as technical blunders and wrong decisions followed hard on the heels of each other.

Sadly the tale of the tortuous train trip tells like a French farce.

It left London as scheduled at 8 o’clock in the evening local time, due to arrive in Paris just under two and a half hours later. A marvel of modern technology in which the high speed train reaches a top speed of 300kms per hour – when all goes to plan of course.

There were no problems entering France as it passed through the channel tunnel that separates the two countries, still on time. But then the gremlins had their say.

Another Eurostar train, but one bound in the opposite direction, had been halted in Lille in northern France after a warning light came on. That light meant it had failed the security requirements to enter the channel tunnel and couldn’t continue its journey.

So when the Paris-bound train pulled into Lille, passengers swapped trains - remember there was nothing wrong with the one that had arrived from London, so it could make the return trip without any problem.

That left the Paris-bound travellers now sitting in what they were soon to find out was a train straight from the pages of a Stephen King novel. Almost one and a half hours later it eventually agreed to get its huffing self out of the station.

Perhaps this was the point at which SNCF should have realised that this was a train with more than just a slightly off hair day. In fact it had an all round bad attitude, and was doomed never to complete its journey. But there again hindsight is never kind.

It was rolling along less than merrily some 120kms north of the French capital when it finally had a complete nervous breakdown and lost all power.

Stuck in the wee hours of the morning, the passengers were then asked to walk along the trackside to a third “rescue” train, because the broken-down one couldn’t be shifted.

Train number three finally made it into Paris Gare du Nord station at a quarter past nine local time the next morning. Even with the one-hour time difference between the two countries, that’s a humdinger of a delay.

The director of SNCF’s France-Europe, Mireille Faugère, apologised profusely and called it a “completely unacceptable situation in which the passengers had had a miserable experience.”

Now there’s a woman who doesn’t believe in understatement. The 650 had spent hours without any heating, light or sound and with absolutely no idea of what was going on.

Upon arrival they were offered a gratis breakfast, taxi rides to their final destination, full cash refunds on both legs of their return tickets and - as a crowning glory and probably just about what any sane person dreams of after such a trip - a free return ticket for future use.

Perhaps they would be happier flying next time.

Not surprisingly a full enquiry has been launched.

An Erotic Reading Room

When you’re looking for a hotel in New York, you’re rather spoilt for choice. The range can be mind bogglingly confusing and first-time or just occasional visitors might feel just a trifle overwhelmed.

Well here’s a tip. If you are looking for something slightly different, and are prepared to dig a little bit deeper into your pockets to treat yourself and your family, consider booking a couple of nights at the Library hotel.

When staying in such a great city of course you don’t want to spend all your time stuck in your room. But by the same token you do want and need somewhere welcoming and relaxing to kick back your heels after a day pounding the streets. And of course there’s that sensational service for which the Americans are so famous.

The Library delivers on all fronts, with the added bonuses that it’s a fabulously unique place to stay, is an essential stopping-off point for any bookworm and won’t leave you bankrupt.

Billed as a concept hotel and bordering on the boutique, the worry is that it’ll fail to live up to expectations.

After all both are rather catch all phrases to which many hotels aspire, but few achieve. They can often leave travellers not only disappointed, but also wondering why on earth they shelled out so much money for so little.

This is so clearly NOT the case of the Library hotel.

First up it’s situated in midtown Manhattan on Madison and 41st (it’s easy to slip into the foreigner’s wannabe impersonation of NYC locals). That means it’s perfectly central for everything and anything. Broadway and the theatre district are a very un-American walk away, and the major museums, stores, opera, tourist sites, trendy quarters - in fact you name just about everything for which the Big Apple is famous – are just a few stops along on the subway.

Then of course there’s that “concept” – worrying perhaps to the uninitiated. But it works – 100 per cent.

The whole place is stuffed to the gills with over 6,000 books and each of the 60 well-sized rooms has its own theme. Those range from classics to fairy tales, music to fashion design, maths to dinosaurs, political science, journalism, ancient history, health and beauty, medicine…. and so the list continues. Oh yes and of course not forgetting that erotic literature! Everything’s organised using the Dewey Decimal System of classification practised in libraries around the world.

In short there’s something for everyone’s tastes, and you’re guaranteed never to be bored. If you are, then just flip on the flat screen TV, borrow a DVD or go surfing the Net. At long last, a hotel that doesn’t charge for Wifi access.

OK so no matter how “neat” the idea of the hotel might be, guests also want to feel pampered and looked after. A good hotel needs to balance efficient and friendly service with a smile and obvious pleasure.

And again, for fear of waxing just a little too lyrical and sounding like a commercial for the place, the Library hotel delivers.

Front desk are charming and delightful, responsive to the jet-lagged needs of a couple recently arrived Europeans and pointing them in the right direction for restaurants, shows, shopping and just about anything else that can be packed in to a long weekend.

Breakfast is only a letdown if you’re looking for an American-type fried-up blow out. But as that’s available just about everywhere else in the city seemingly at any time of the day, what the Library has to offer doesn’t really come as a disappointment.

Fresh pastries, proper real coffee or tea while leisurely browsing through the New York Times set just the right tone and don’t leave you feeling bloated and sleepy before venturing forth into the rest of the day.

Drop back in mid-afternoon and there’s another extra special treat awaiting guests on the second floor – wine and cheese - something this particular resident of France was not going to pass up on lightly.

And in the evenings there’s a great bar on the top floor, the Bookmarks Lounge that mixes some killer cocktails including the Great Gatsby, the Capote and this particular guest’s favourite Tequila Mockingbird. Of course if your tastes run to the more genteel then there’s always the Writer’s Den combining all mod cons with the luxury of quiet comfort. Bliss.

Let’s be straight up about this – it all comes at a price – and it ain’t cheap. But there are deals available and let’s face it, you get what you pay for. The service, quality, food, décor – in fact the whole package is top notch. And it’s definitely a hotel to recommend.

Go along and find out for yourself - just keep it a secret and don’t tell anyone else.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Death of a poet

How to honour a giant of French literature who has had a unique place in the hearts and conscience of the country for the best part of the last 50 years? That's the question that many are posing after the death on Thursday at the age of 94 of the poet and political activist, Aimé Césaire.

There have been calls for him to be interred at the Panthéon in Paris – the final resting place of many of this country’s Greats. While many are in favour, it still needs to be clarified what Césaire himself would have wanted, and whether he should be buried on his native Martinique, where his funeral will take place on Sunday.

Césaire’s was the voice of black consciousness for successive generations and he held a no holds barred approach to challenging the political establishment. He was recognised as a free and independent thinker, a poet, playwright and politician who embodied the fight against the injustices of colonialism and was revered throughout the French-speaking world as a crusader for West Indian rights.

His "Discourse on Colonialism" which questioned the role of imperialism and slavery was published in 1950 and became a classic in French political literature. It also helped the concept of “negritude” and the need for black people to be proud of their pride heritage.

Born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 1913, Césaire moved to mainland France to complete his high school education and study at one of the country’s elite universities the Ecole Normale Superieure.

It was while in Paris in the 1930s that along with the late Leopold Senghor, who went on to become Senegal’s first president, he co-founded a literary review called “The Black Student,” a journal that would later give birth to the concept of “negritude.”

From 1945 until his retirement in 2001, he served almost continuously as mayor of the capital of Martinique, Fort-de-France, and as a member of the National Assembly in Paris.

He earned the respect of politicians from all parties, even the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he originally refused to meet in 2005 when Sarkozy was interior minister. Césaire objected to Sarkozy’s support for proposed legislation that emphasised the positive nature of French colonialism, but agreed to meet him a year later after it was repealed.

In a sense Césaire has for decades been the moral and political conscience of a nation and that goes a long way to explaining why there is now a move to have him interred at the Pantheon.

His political activism was matched by his literary importance, with the current minister of culture, Christine Albanel, describing his work as making the French language “beat to the rhythm of his spells, his cries, his appeals to overcome oppression, invoking the soul of subjugated peoples to urge the living to raise themselves up.”

His early poetry included Return To My Native Land and among his best-known works is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".

For many he is as significant to French culture as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola – all of whom have been buried at the Pantheon.

May 10 has already been suggested as a possibility – a symbolic date, as it would commemorate the abolition of slavery in France in 1848 and the adoption of legislation recognising the slave trade as a "crime against humanity” in 2001.

But the final decision will probably have to be with his family and depend to a great extent on the wishes of the people of Martinique who are justifiably proud of their island’s son.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

France nul points

It’s fast approaching that time of year again, which many music aficionados dread. The Eurovision Song contest takes place on May 24 and already some French are getting their knickers in a twist over their entry.

For the first time since the competition started in 1956 the song representing this fiercely proud country will be sung in – horror of horrors - English.

France 3, one of the country’s national public television channels, chose the 33-year-old electro-pop singer, Sébastien Tellier, to defend the nation’s colours in this year’s annual jamboree to be held in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The song, “Divine,” is entirely in English apart from the chorus

And already, even before the competition has started, there’s been an outcry from some quarters over his decision to abandon the time-honoured tradition of warbling his way through the entry in French.

François-Michel Gonnot, a member of parliament from the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party even went as far as writing to the minister of culture, Christine Albanel, asking her to comment on the choice.

A clearly outraged Gonnot said the it sent out the wrong signal to the whole of the worldwide francophone community and went against the grain of all official statements of the importance of protecting and promoting the French language.

Albanel admitted that she thought it was shame the song wasn’t in French, but said the whole country would still be behind Tellier when he took to the stage.

Gonnot was joined by another equally indignant UMP parliamentarian, Jacques Myard, who has urged France 3 to reconsider the decision to allow Tellier to sing in English.

Perhaps though the two men are a little befuddled over the importance of the choice of language and the impact it will have on France’s international reputation.

Few would insist that the Eurovision Song contest is a platform for culture of any sort. Indeed the yearly knees-up is generally considered to be a celebration of the very worst that each nation has to offer musically and it comes in for a fair amount of ridicule.

It’s a competition in which television audiences are subjected to one another’s singing non-entities for more than three hours before each country takes its turn to vote. And recent trends have shown that the whole contest has turned into something of a farce with political and more importantly geographical blocs forming to ensure the “right” country wins.

Under the rules of the competition, countries are free to choose in which language their entry will be sung and almost half of this year’s 46 entries have chosen that of Shakespeare – or at least something approaching it. So France will not be alone.

While giving the song a trial run in the studio, Tellier tried it out some French lyrics, but apparently they didn’t work too well so he abandoned the attempt in favour of English, which will help him, in his words, achieve his artistic goals!

And just for the record, those fabulous goals include the following lines:

Looking for a band today
I see the Chivers anyway
Through my eyes

OH oh oh I'm
I’m alone in life to say
I love the Chivers anyway
Cause Chivers look divine

Sounds like a winner.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Olympic boycott squabble escalates

threat against French business interests in China is gathering steam after the launch of a campaign to boycott the supermarket chain, Carrefour.

In a message circulating on mobile 'phones and the Internet, the company has been accused of providing financial backing to the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama.

Carrefour has denied the rumours as "false accusations" and has stressed that it has always supported Beijing's candidature for this summer's Olympic games.

Although the campaign doesn't have official backing, China’s government hasn’t exactly condemned it either.

On Tuesday Jiang Lu, a spokeswoman from the foreign affairs ministry, said France should pay attention to how Chinese citizens felt.

"We hope France will listen carefully to the voice of the Chinese people on a number of recent problems and take an objective and impartial position, respecting the facts and distinguishing between right and wrong, as have a number of countries that understand and support the measures taken by the Chinese government," she said.

"Friendship requires an effort from both sides," she added. "The people can express their opinions if they respect the law, and recently they've been doing just that. It all has a reason,"

For its part, the French foreign ministry has downplayed the threats saying the call for a boycott of French goods wouldn't have an effect on economic relations between the two countries.

Recent events though won't really have helped those relations, at least not as far as Beijing is concerned.

First there was the attempt to disrupt the ceremony in March to light the torch in Greece at the site of Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient games.

That protest over China's human rights record was orchestrated by members of the Paris-based Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without borders) and its outspoken general secretary, Robert Ménard. He quickly found himself on a 'plane back to France, while the Chinese, broadcasting events back home with a slight delay, hastily slotted in some still shots of ancient ruins to avoid exposing the domestic audience to the edited "live" kafuffle.

Then there were demonstrations in Paris as the torch made its way through the streets of the French capital. Once again human rights, China's security clampdown on Tibetan monks and its refusal to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama, were at the heart of the protests.

And matters have certainly not been helped by the refusal of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to rule out a boycott of the opening ceremony. His policy of "it's too early to take a decision" was made even more confusing by claims and later denials that he had set reopening of talks with the Dalai Lama as a condition for his attendance.

Anti-French sentiment has also been stoked up by the domestic media in China with pictures of pro-Tibetan protesters trying to grab the torch from a disabled Chinese athlete during the Paris relay juxtaposed with a reminder of how good Franco-Sino relations were under the former French president, Jacques Chirac.

Carrefour is not the only French company that has been targeted by Chinese Internauts, but with more than 120 hypermarkets and 280 discount stores throughout the country, it certainly has potentially the most to lose.

Other French companies coming under threat from similar campaigns include luxury goods firm LVMH and cosmetics giant L’Oréal.

The great and the good might insist that sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed as they take the moral highroad, but that's going to require a hard sell to convince the French business community and appease what appears to be a growing portion of the Chinese public.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

For a better world

Apparently sport is not the right arena in which to express concern for human rights according to the French national Olympic committee (CNOSF). Its president, Henri Sérandour, has banned this country's athletes from wearing a badge with the slogan "Pour un monde meilleur" (For a better world) during this summer's games in Beijing.

Sérandour, told L'Equipe television that such a move would contravene the Olympic charter, which he said, "Precluded any tangible demonstration of any kind during (Olympic) competition and the opening and closing ceremonies."

It's a sad reversal of a statement made by the same man just a couple of weeks ago after French athletes decided to adopt the badge, which depicts the slogan above the five Olympic rings.

Back then Sérandour said he would fight for the sentiment for a "better world" not only within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) but also "as a message for the 2008 games and beyond."

But he now seems to have caved in to pressure and changed his opinion to fall in line with that of the IOC, which has assured Chinese authorities that although athletes are free to express their personal views in public, they won't be allowed to under the aegis of the games.

While Sérandour's decision might be binding on French athletes, it's far from receiving universal support from others who have spoken out about the need to separate sport from politics.

France's junior sports minister, and former national rugby coach, Bernard Laporte, called the move regrettable and said he didn't find the badge at all aggressive in its declaration.

"It doesn't attack China and on the contrary it borrows from the declared objectives of the IOC itself,' he said in a radio interview.

The badge was a compromise as originally the organisation representing France's Olympic athletes had proposed wearing a green ribbon in support of human rights. But that was considered too overtly "political" by the CNOSF and scrapped.

Some might see an interesting difference of priorities at play here. The preamble to the United Nations charter guarantees the right to freedom of expression, as does European and French law.

But a private money-making organisation such as the IOC has a different set of rules and principles, in which the logos of sports equipment manufacturers who help finance the games clearly carry more weight than an expression of support for human rights even in the mildest of forms.

So on the one hand while the Chinese will be allowed to pursue a largely propaganda-inspired ceremony having greatly ignored international wishes for reopening a dialogue with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and improving their human rights records, freedom of expression won't be extended to individual athletes.

Sérandour's decision means that French athletes will in effect be forced to toe the IOC line that rejects political, religious or racial propaganda.

France's part, and in particular that of its sportsmen and women, in this whole masquerade is probably far from over even if the country's political leaders have been more than diffident in deciding whether to attend the opening ceremony.

Let's just hope that the gagging of athletes doesn't extend to any French gold medal winners who choose to belt out the national anthem, which includes a line to rise against tyranny.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

No Guns, No Drugs and Not a Terrorist

It can be a bit of a gruff experience trying to enter the United States as a tourist, and there’s one thing certain on arrival at New York’s JFK airport – a surly welcome awaits the visitor.

And unless you’ve been lucky enough to make it off the ‘plane at double-quick speed, the chances are the first sight of the good old US of A will be from the back of a mighty queue agonisingly snaking its way back from passport control.

There’s no chance of line hopping. This is democracy at its most intense. Everyone seems to be a potential alien and is treated with the same suspicion. Young, very young, old, very old and of course all those in between, patiently awaiting their turn.

Odd really for a country that prides itself as a cultural melting pot and service at a speed. Somehow rather than greeting holidaymakers with outstretched arms, the US seems to have gone to the other extreme and it’s easy for the infrequent traveller to feel unwanted or even guilty for no reason whatsoever.

Without doubt September 11 has left its mark – not that immigration and customs was a cakewalk beforehand. Now however, there’s a tinge of the slightly offensive - at least to continental Europeans used to having their individual rights enshrined in data protection laws - all in the name of Homeland security.

The procedure is fairly straightforward, but be warned, these guys are not ones to be messed with. Clearly one prerequisite for becoming an immigration official is to have a low humour threshold.

Not even a winsome smile or tapping into the charm factor can raise the glimmer of good intent from these guys. They are serious with a capital “S”, so it’s best to say as little as possible and follow the posted instructions to the letter.

“Left index finger on the digital fingerprint screening pad, followed by right index finger. Look into the camera and don’t smile too hard. And when asked the purpose of your trip, don’t even think about a clever reply.”

And woe betides if there’s an error on the visa waiver application form or the customs declaration. No mistakes, no crossed-out corrections – otherwise it’ll simply be rejected; no questions asked no appeals accepted.

Everyone has been forewarned before disembarking from the ‘plane and there have been several chances to check and double check just in case.

All these regulations certainly made the news when they were introduced, but it has been fairly easy to dismiss them as just another daft US idea - along with the constitutional right to own a firearm, which is basically just unfathomable to most the other side of the Atlantic.

But when confronted with them for the first time, the realisation hits home as to just how seriously they’re being taken here.

While getting in to the States might require a struggle with patience, leaving is in wonderful contrast made so much easier.

Is the traveller being told something here or is that just paranoia setting in? But there was just a tad too much pleasure from the ground staff as they checked passports and boarding passes. Smiles all round and a delightful “Y’all have a good day” send-off.

Of course the security strip-off check is a bit of a palaver – no shoes, no belt and laptop, coat and carry-on all shoved through the scanner. Then with trousers making their own way southwards, it’s a hasty stagger through to the other side.

When all is said and done, even though the security checks – especially on arrival - might be a real pain and not an entirely pleasurable experience to say the very least, there is a point to them. And this is one visitor at least, who’ll bite his lip and patiently wait in line next time around.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Sarkozy's Olympic message

Up until now the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has remained pretty reticent about whether he's planning to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing in August. But on Tuesday, he finally broke his silence and tentatively called on the Chinese authorities to reopen discussions with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

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

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

By explicitly linking his presence at the ceremony with the reopening of talks, Sarkozy has moved on from the only statement he had made on the matter so far a couple of weeks ago, when he said that "all options were open."

That's a slight change in rhetoric perhaps, but not exactly encouraging to those who have been urging a boycott in protest over China's security clampdown in Tibet.

Sarkozy remained silent over the weekend as his junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said in a newspaper interview that the president had set three indispensable "conditions" for Chinese authorities to meet before he would confirm his attendance. Yade later backtracked, maintaining she had been misquoted.

And there was not a peep from his office at the Elysée palace on Monday after demonstrators cut short the journey of the Olympic flame as it chaotically passed through the streets of Paris.

Commenting for the first time on those protests, Sarkozy said that although the sight of the athletes and the torch being whistled and jeered had saddened him, it was normal in a democracy that people should be allowed to express their opinions. The solidarity shown with the Dalai Lama and Tibet was understandable, and that was proof, as far as he was concerned, to call on China to reopen discussions with the Dalai Lama to "find a political solution."

While Sarkozy played down the impact Monday's demonstrations might have diplomatically and above all economically on relations between Paris and Beijing, his sentiments were not necessarily being shared elsewhere.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said the protests had made diplomatic relations between the two countries a little more complicated. A somewhat extraordinary declaration for some of Kouchner's critics, who view it as rather at odds with his track record as a man who has always been a firm supporter of Tibetan rights and counts himself as a friend of the Dalai Lama. Besides, who ever said diplomacy was easy?

There was also some anxiety from within the business community over potential fallout from Monday's incidents. French industrial giants such as Airbus, Alstom and Areva all have billion-euro contracts lined up with the Chinese, but know that Beijing can always take its custom elsewhere.

Sarkozy has given himself some breathing space, upped the ante just a tad and, without promising anything, not excluded the possibility of boycotting the opening ceremony.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

What a flaming fiasco

Calm has returned to the streets of Paris after a Monday afternoon, which saw the Olympic flame chaotically make its truncated way through the French capital.

What should have been a good natured celebration ahead of the sporting event of the year to be held in Beijing in August, turned into a heavily policed pantomime as protestors interrupted the progress of the torch.

The relay was cut short, the flame extinguished several times by security officials, stage after stage cancelled and the flame arrived at its final destination 30 minutes late.

The afternoon didn’t get off to a good start as the first of the scheduled 80 athletes taking part in the relay descended the Eiffel Tower. Within minutes a pattern was set that would continue for the duration of the torch’s journey as demonstrators protesting at China's security crackdown in Tibet made their presence felt.

They made several attempts to put out the flame, lay in the path of the runners to stop their progress, held banners aloft and jeered as the torch passed.

The city’s authorities had taken warning from the previous day’s protests in London and 3,000 police lined the route and accompanied the runners on motorcycle, jogging or on roller blades. A helicopter kept watch from overhead, and French riot police, never renowned for the lightest touch at the best of times, were forced to intervene on several occasions.

At times the torch itself was barely visible to the spectators that had gathered in the wintry temperatures and the hoards of television cameras following its painfully slow progress, captured the bewildered faces of athletes who clearly didn’t understand what was happening.

Many of those scheduled to take part simply didn’t get the chance as they were herded back on to a bus along with the torch as Chinese Olympic officials attempted to make up for time lost.

At the last minute those officials cancelled a ceremony at the town hall, which was supposed to have welcomed the torch, and where a black banner with handcuffs replacing the symbol of the Olympic rings had been hung. The bemused mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and a host of celebrities were also left wondering what was happening.

There were similar banners hung from some of the city’s other landmarks including the Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel Tower.

But the relay did pass the National Assembly, where a number of parliamentarians had gathered to voice their protest.

When the torch finally arrived late at the Stade Charlety, it was by bus, with only the final hundred metres or so being completed on foot at snails pace, the bearer virtually lost from view in a sea of security.

It was all a far cry from the celebrations of four years ago when thousands lined the streets to applaud the torch’s progress as hopes ran high with Paris still in the running to host the 2012 Games.

The next stop for the Olympic flame is San Francisco in the United States – unless the International Olympic Committee decides to abandon its 20-country journey.

Monday, 7 April 2008

A hateful act

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, didn't mince words in issuing an official statement denouncing the vandalism of 148 Moslem graves in the country's largest First World War military cemetery this weekend.

Racist and sexist abuse was painted on the graves, a pig's head was left hanging from one of the headstones and there were also slogans directly insulting the country's justice minister, Rachida Dati, whose parents are from North Africa.

"This is an act of unacceptable racism and the president of the republic shares in the pain of all the Moslem community in France ," Sarkozy said in the statement.

"This hateful act is also an affront to all First World War combatants irrespective of their religion," he added, stressing that he wanted the perpetrators to be caught and punished "as they deserved it."

The desecration of the graves occurred on Saturday evening in the Moslem section of the military cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette à Albain-Saint-Nazaire near Arras in northern France. It was built in 1925 on the site of one of First World War's largest battles and contains the graves of 40,000 including 22,500 unknown soldiers.

The section with 576 Moslem tombs is situated at one end of the massive cemetery with the gravestones facing towards Mecca.

Sadly it was also the scene of a similar racist attack in April 2007, when Nazi slogans and swastikas were painted on some 50 Moslem graves. Two men were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for that act.

Although the word "graffiti" crops up in many of the reports describing what happened at the weekend, it has proven in fact too mild a word for the hate-filled slogans discovered on Sunday morning.

There was nothing decorative or artistic in the act. It was a case of vandalism pure and simple expressed in terms of the most abusive and revolting language imaginable.

Politicians were unanimous in their condemnation and a junior defence minister, Jean-Marie Bockel, quickly made his way to the cemetery on Sunday at the request of the president, where he held a one minute's silence in the name of the government.

A police probe has been launched with about 100 officers being sent to investigate the incident.

An estimated five million Moslems live in France - or eight per cent of the population - making it the largest Moslem community in Europe.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A minister’s word

How satisfying it must be to sit back and watch members of government apparently trip over their tongues. It’s all the better when you’re trying to stay out of the limelight a little in an effort to revamp your image and improve your popularity ratings.

That might be the cynic’s interpretation of what has been happening here in France over the weekend, and what the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been doing. But it might not be too far off the mark.

First there was the interview the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, gave the French national daily, Le Monde, on Saturday. In it, she’s quoted as saying that Sarkozy had set out three conditions which the Chinese authorities had to meet for him to attend the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing.

They had to open talks with the Dalai Lama, free political prisoners, and put an end to the violence against Tibetans and launch an investigation into recent clashes there. These conditions were “indispensable” she told the newspaper.

Then Yade backtracked on what she is reported to have said, claiming she was misquoted and insisting the word “conditions” was never used.

But the paper is sticking to its story and maintains that it accurately reported what was said. So it’s the word of the junior minister against that of one of the most respected newspapers internationally. That could be a tough call especially as neither politicians nor journalists are blessed with the best reputation in the world.

Although it’s hard to imagine that Yade spoke (or didn’t) without the full knowledge of her boss, let’s not forget that she has been in trouble before. When she criticised Libya’s human rights record during a visit to France last year by that country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, she was hauled in to answer to Sarkozy, but held on to her job.

During his short term in office, Sarkozy has been criticised for putting economic concerns and billion euro contracts ahead of human rights, both with China and Libya. In “allowing” Yade to speak out and then do an apparent volte face, Sarkozy manages to give the impression that he is indeed concerned with humans rights without actually having to make a statement himself. In a sense Yade plays the role of a spokesperson, saying and retracting without damaging Sarkozy’s image.

There has been no comment from the president’s official spokesman at the Elysée palace regarding Yade’s interview – a fact that for many speaks volumes.

But Yade’s immediate boss – the foreign minister and internationally respected humanitarian, Bernard Kouchner, was quick to react. He insisted that France would impose no conditions on China about whether Sarkozy would attend the opening ceremony, as that would be counterproductive to keeping a dialogue going over human rights.

“The president will decide according to how the situation (in Tibet) turns out,” Kouchner told French television. “ How that evolves must be followed but all possibilities remain open.”

The chances are this story will still be making the headlines on Monday when the Olympic flame is due to pass through Paris. It’ll be interesting to see whether Yade joins protesters in the streets of the French capital, or whether she feels she has said more than enough for the moment.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Taking a lead - sort of

It has taken a fair bit of time for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to decide as to whether he's going to boycott the opening ceremony of this summer's Olympics in Beijing.

And contrary to what headline writers here in France and around the world are saying he still hasn't actually made up his mind. But he is a little further along in the decision-making process if we're to believe his junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade.

In an interview with the French daily, Le Monde, on Saturday she said that Sarkozy had set down a checklist of three conditions that the Chinese authorities needed to meet. They had to open talks with the Dalai Lama, free political prisoners, and put an end to the violence against Tibetans and launch an investigation into recent clashes there she told the newspaper.

Yade insisted that meeting the three conditions was "indispensable" in ensuring the French president attended the opening ceremony, although she admitted that Sarkozy would only take his final decision after having consulted other European Union leaders,

So in a sense Sarkozy has almost declared his position, but not quite. He still has a "get out" clause because of course some of his European partners might not agree with his stand. And let's not forget he hasn't actually made a statement himself, even if allowing his junior minister to put his position in a newspaper interview is tantamount to doing so.

There's no denying that the French president has some potential clout to wield with Beijing - morally and politically if not necessarily economically.

France will take over the rotating presidency of the 27-state European Union at the beginning of July - one month ahead of the games. If he could persuade the rest of the EU to present a united front in boycotting the official opening unless his conditions are met, it would be a major personal political coup for him.

The Chinese will also be keen to avoid the embarrassment of having little or no political representation from the bloc and perhaps only a token presence of athletes from those countries at the opening ceremony.

Pressure groups have been lobbying Sarkozy to take the opportunity to wield a little more influence and he looks set to grab it - almost.

The Olympic flame is due to pass through Paris on Monday and already protests are expected as it makes its way along the streets of the French capital.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Reining in spending

It’s good to know that the French government’s plans to reduce its budget deficit by €7 billion by 2011 isn’t an austerity programme, but a series of reforms.

At least that's what the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his ministers would have the country believe after Friday's announcement of "150 ways to cut spending."

"It's not by economising that we will be able to reform, but instead reforms will allow economies to be made," Sarkozy said in a wonderful doublespeak sound bite.

His plan is to modernise the State by introducing reforms aimed at cutting the deficit to zero by 2011. Last week the government raised it projected deficit for 2008 from 2,3 per cent of GDP to 2,5 per cent.

But the problem as far as many of his critics are concerned is that Sarkozy didn't actually give details of how those cuts are to be made. Instead he defined the problem - as if anyone really needed telling - and gave a broad outline of want he wants to have achieved in three years time without specifically saying how he expects to get there.

There's no annual timetable for cuts for example, an essential gauge of how on target the state would be in getting rid of the deficit.

Instead he presented a wish list of what he thinks will help, and his government ministers will now have to come up with the actual policies.

Sure he says one way to cut spending would be to overhaul France's civil service by only replacing one of every two retiring civil servants. That's an election promise he made.

But it'll be an uphill battle even if a majority of the French think it's a good idea. Around a quarter of the country's working population, or five million people, are employed as civil servants.

And they're not likely to sit back and see privileges taken away (such as early retirement or annual pensions based on the last six months of employment) that might actually help reduce the deficit. Perhaps that's why Sarkozy didn't go in to specifics.

There is of course already the spectre of that other (failed) election promise - increasing purchasing power - that has simply not materialised. Reducing the number of civil servants could well go the same way.

Another plan is to cut defence spending - no not on weapons, before any pacifists out there start getting excited. Instead Sarkozy maintains that the armed services could be administered more efficiently. At the moment each of them, the army, navy and air force, is regulated separately.

But even though it might make common sense, again there is no mention of how he is going to change that. Something presumably for the defence minister to be getting on with.

Sarkozy also wants to revamp the diplomatic service without actually saying how but simply by pointing out some of the many anomalies that currently exist.

"Is it normal," he wonders "to have 721 people working for the diplomatic service in Senegal while there are 271 in India?" Nobody would disagree with the absurdity of such statistics, but again Sarkozy neglects to say how it should be changed. That'll be a job for the foreign minister.

Friday's announcement was the second in a series of three major policy declarations. The first was in December when he summarised plans to cut back red tape in government.

And the third tranche is scheduled for May, when welfare benefits and social spending are due to come under scrutiny, with Sarkozy ominously confirming that "we are just at the beginning."

As far as today's declaration is concerned it would seem a case of the outline has been sketched and now it's up to the various ministers to do their bit and make savings. And to that end the president wants to set up an audit, presumably staffed with more civil servants.

The fear must be that as with pension and education reforms which the government has pushed through with mixed success, the opposition will protest loudly about the latest plans and the country will respond in its usual fashion with strikes and demonstrations.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Up in the air - again

It has been an almost never ending story ever since the Italian government started looking around for a buyer to bail out the country’s troubled state airline, Alitalia.

But it looks as though the end is in sight – yet again. How often those words have been said in recent months does not bear repeating. Unhappily it’s unlikely to be the outcome Rome would have wished for.

That’s because Air France-KLM has abandoned its plans to takeover the airline.

Talks collapsed on Wednesday when Air France boss, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, walked away from the negotiating table after discovering that Alitalia’s unions were trying to seal a deal with an Italian company instead.

The French-Dutch group’s offer of €139 million would have meant the loss of 2,100 jobs, the phasing out of Alitalia’s cargo service and part of its maintenance facilities – all of which would have needed the approval of the unions.

When they refused to budge, Spinetta threw in the towel saying that the impasse was regrettable especially as far as he (and many others) were concerned, as the takeover represented the only long-term chance for the airline’s survival.

Alitalia has a debt of around €1.2 billion, loses more than €1 million a day and hasn’t notched up an annual profit since 2002. Just to add to the woes, the company also has a fleet of ageing, gas-guzzling aircraft and a 20,000 plus workforce that seems to spend just as much time on the ground striking as it does in the air flying

The Italian government had been looking around for a potential buyer for its 49.9 per cent stake in the company for more than a year until it finally agreed to the Air France offer.

Before the talks collapsed, the Italian economics minister, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, had said that the Air France deal was the only lifeline for Alitalia. He had warned beforehand that if the planned purchase failed the only alternative would be to put the airline into emergency administration, with the likely outcome that any restructuring would be even more painful than the consequences of an Air France takeover.

The double whammy was completed on Wednesday when Maurizio Prato resigned. He was the chairman of Alitalia and the man Rome had charged with finding a buyer.

The whole mess leaves the airline even closer to the brink of bankruptcy less than two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections and its shares have been suspended.

One of the principle opponents of the government's sale of Alitalia (to a non-Italian company) has been prime ministerial candidate Silvio Berlusconi.

He and the unions could now well get their wish, with Alitalia indeed not falling into foreign ownership - but instead going under completely.

Hard to keep the staff

Nothing seems to be going right for the justice minister, Rachida Dati, at the moment.

After admitting at the weekend that she had already used almost two thirds of this year’s entertainment budget allocated to her department, Dati is in trouble again.

This time around the party girl is having difficulty holding on to her staff and is now having to face yet another resignation from her ministry – the 11th since she took office

It’s probably worth remembering that Dati only took over the job 10 months ago, so at present her department is managing to haemorrhage at the rate of at least one person every month.

The latest to throw in the towel is her diplomatic adviser, Pierre Boussaroque.

There were already rumours afoot on Tuesday of his departure in the latest edition of the weekly satirical le Canard Enchaîné, and a day later it was the job of Dati’s spokesman, Guillaume Didier, to confirm the story.

It must be a bit of a thankless task for Didier to have to give credible explanations every time someone jumps ship, certainly in light of the high turnover of personnel within the department.

But he made a sterling attempt by insisting that Boussaroque had resigned to pursue a professional project, which he wanted to oversee in the coming weeks.

Didier also maintained that there was nothing unusual in people coming and going within a ministry. Unfortunately for Dati and her spokesman that might seem a little hard for many outsiders to swallow, as there seem to be an awful lot of “goings”.

One of the most notable departures in recent months was François Guéant, the son of Claude, who just happens to be one of the closest advisors to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

When seven people left following the resignation of her department director, Michel Dobkine, last summer, Dati responded to claims that they had walked because they had found it impossible to work with her by saying she “wanted a team that would follow orders.”

On past and current evidence that’s exactly what she’s getting – only they’re not apparently very keen to follow her orders.

Still there remain 19 brave souls who have so far stuck with her. But that’s unlikely to remain the case for much longer if we’re to believe le Canard Enchaîné – usually a reliable source of information even if it delights in regularly ridiculing the justice minister by criticising her methods as rushed and uniformed, and her behaviour as authoritarian.

At least two more members of her team are thought to be considering leaving, which, if they do so within the next few weeks, would at least increase her monthly rate of getting rid of people if not her popularity.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Missing the deadline

It can’t be an April Fool surely, as the news broke a day too late for that.

But according to a scoop in the weekly satirical, le Canard Enchaîné, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, created something of a political blunder when he voted in last month’s municipal elections.

Apparently, says the paper, even though he cast his ballot he shouldn’t have done because he had missed the deadline to appear on the electoral register.

It was only the fact that the local mayor, François Lebel, who just happens to be from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party, had turned a blind eye in return for a bit of quid pro quo that the president was able to trundle on down to the local polling station to exercise his democratic right.

When Sarkozy was elected in May last year, he upped sticks and moved from the ritzy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine to the president’s official residence, the Elysée palace in the capital’s VIII arrondissement. As such he was supposed to have registered with the local town hall by December 31 if he wished to vote in this year’s municipal elections. Yes even the president has to bow to bureaucracy here in France.

Now Sarkozy is a busy man at the best of times and certainly in the first few months of office, before he settled happily into married life, he seemed to be on hyperactive overdrive – omnipresent almost. So it’s probably not much of a surprise that he didn’t get around to registering himself.

Instead, according to le Canard Enchaîné, he left it to two of his staff from the Elysée, and they did in fact pitch up at the town hall complete will all the necessary paperwork, and their boss’s identity card. But that wasn’t until January 3. In other words hey had missed the closing date and in theory deprived him of his right to vote.

In theory only, because of course he did vote thanks largely to a little bit of pre-dating on the forms that were filled in.

Now this is where the tale gets a little confusing because there seem to be contradictory reports – from the very same source – Lebel.

One has it that the mayor, who would surely have known whether such a high profile voter had been along to register, knew nothing about the apparent stretching of the deadline – along the lines of “it’s all a bit of a mystery to me guv." And he has promised to look into the matter with his own internal inquiry.

The other version is that Lebel discovered what had happened a day later on January 4, he rang the Elysée palace and had a little tizzy fit down the ‘phone. But evidently Sarkozy was able to offer him a sweetener to help him forget the matter by asking him to officiate at his marriage to Carla barely one month later.

Lebel has dismissed such a conversation ever occurred as pure invention – but he would, wouldn’t he. After all it does nothing for the integrity of either man.

Meanwhile one of the president’s closest allies – and generally least liked in the media – Claude Guéant, said that all he knew about the matter was that the paperwork had been completed in time and that was all he was going to say.

What the story really reflects is probably the attempts by Sarkozy’s detractors to ridicule him at exactly the time when he’s trying to brush up his image and take on a more presidential demeanour.

Perhaps then it’s not surprising that it was le Canard Enchaîné that started the buzz. After all it enjoys getting a rise out of any political figure, from whatever party.

Nor is it particularly shocking to see the national daily, Liberation, and the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, pick up and run with it, as both are centre-left.

All a bit of a proverbial storm and brings back memories of the fun the media had when it discovered that his former wife, Cecilia, hadn’t bothered to vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.

And little was made of the fact that a former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, didn’t bother voting in last month’s elections.

But this is Sarkozy of course – always good for a headline or two. And maybe after all it was an April Fool.
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