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Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A slice of life in France - shopping on a Sunday

In case you're wondering you can't - shop on a Sunday. Not normally that is. Many of the big stores are closed, apart from some "home improvement" places, gardening centres and a chain of supermarkets (but only in the morning). For the most part, retail therapy is contained to popping along to the local market where there's a range of fresh produce on sale.

Oh yes, there's the run-up to Christmas of course when the exception proves the rule and everyone is shoulder-to-shoulder in the last minute rush hunting for "that" present.

Today was different though, as the nearby hypermarket threw open its doors for a Sunday shopping special. Hooray!

When looking for a house a couple of years ago in this part of France, just 50 kilometres south of Paris, we were told by the estate agent that the place we were going to look at (and would eventually buy) was just minutes away from the largest Carrefour in the country.

I did something of a double take as my literal mind translated back into English

"Carrefour (meaning "crossroads" in English) - You mean as in a motorway intersection?" I asked innocently.

"That's hardly a unique selling point. We were rather looking to escape the daily grind of the city for a bit of piece and quiet in the countryside, but still be within commuting distance of Paris," I continued, digging myself further into a hole.

"The idea of being right next to a major road junction doesn't seem very appealing."

There then followed a moment of complete blankness from the agent and she took a deep breath, obviously wondering which planet I had just arrived from. She then went on to explain that she meant the chain of hypermarkets - the largest in France, and pretty well-known around the world and NOT a crossroads.

Um.

Since then I've been an infrequent visitor to the place. Sure it has everything you could wish for under one roof; all manner of electrical appliances, DIY-til-you-die equipment, its own garden department, clothes, and a food hall that offers just about everything, including a whole range of organic produce and a section "produits du monde" which contains usually unobtainable goodies from back home that I've missed in my years living abroad.

But it's all just a little too large for my liking, and whenever I've been dragged there in the past, I've usually come away with far more than I had initially intended buying, a maxed-out credit card and a foul temper. I'm not the world's most patient shopper.

So when the store started posting leaflets through our door, advertising its "special" Sunday opening and low prices on a range of products for one day only, I wasn't too enthusiastic. And besides there were a whole host of better ways I could think of spending my free time rather than doing battle with the hoards of bargain hunters.

That was until I was reminded that there would also be a Foire aux vins, the time every year when there's a rush to fill up the wine cellar with some of the best this country keeps for itself - at reduced prices.

Plus Carrefour had helpfully pushed all the right buttons as far as I was concerned by providing us with a voucher for the princely reduction of €10 if we bought wine totalling more than a certain amount on this special opening day.

Remain restrained and focused - just wine


We've all been encouraged here in France over the past year to tighten our belts and watch our spending, especially as prices have been rising and there basically seems to be less money all round.

My mind did a quick bit of maths and it didn't take long for it to dawn on me that if I remained very focused and only bought what I needed, I could be on to a good thing.

That's when the alarm bells should have started sounding. Special offers and loss leaders, I knew were a ruse to get us all happily spending our hard-earned centimes. I mean it's not as though any hypermarket - let alone this one - had suddenly "seen the light" and decided to become a charity. They were hoping of course that once inside the cash registers would start kerchinging (or whatever it is they do in these electronic days) merrily.

Plus, I thought, there were probably plenty of others out there who had exactly the same idea as me. There again a bargain is a bargain, so why not go along and take a look? It couldn't do any harm and there might be some surprises. All that was called for was restraint.

Of course I wasn't far off the mark about the number of people who had come up with the same brilliant idea.

We pitched up at 11 o'clock, and already the car park was heaving. Once we had found a space and grabbed a trolley (how interesting that they call them "chariots" here - it almost describes how the French behave when put behind one) we made our way into the store where....the world and its mother seemed to have had exactly the same notion of the ideal way of NOT spending a relaxing Sunday morning.

Still I had only one thought in mind, wine - as I pushed my way past the music section.

"Ooh the latest by Carla. Yes. Why not?"
Well there were plenty of reasons but.

On through books. "Another on Sarkozy, Go on then, I'll add it to the other dozen or so that I've bought and not finished reading over the past year."

The automobile section. "There's that emergency triangle that became compulsory in all cars in July, but which I haven't been able to find yet. Oh it's good we came."

Household. "Are those GENUINE Laguiole knives? Wow. They're good value."

Then my nose paused in front of the bakery. " Ah the smell. Wonderful. Fresh bread and those gateaux. That'll be a treat for tea this afternoon."

A quick glance at the produits du monde. "Branston pickle. Yes. Oh and salt and vinegar crisps". In fact we hadn't even made it anywhere near to the wine section and le chariot was already half full. I had better get away from the food hall quick.

So I took a left at the next aisle.

And there it was.

Shelf after shelf.....

..... of computers, including that beautiful creature, the MacBook Air. I had been drooling over its photo for weeks in magazines. I had read every review. But I had never seen one up close. Breathtaking. Sexy. Gorgeous. The pictures didn't nearly do it justice. And now I was well and truly and lustfully in love. Cue romantic music and misty lens.

Except suddenly I had a blinding light, a revelation and an elbow shoved into my reverie.

"We are here to buy wine." I was informed from the one who knows better. "Not buy more equipment that you'll never be able to work out how to use properly."

That jolted me back to reality. And sheepishly I had to agree. So with a long last look over my shoulder at what was never meant to be, I bade a fond farewell to my dreams and soldiered forth to the wine.

Now I have to admit that we did in fact manage to pick up quite a few good bottles - er......enough to last us until Christmas (2009) and beyond probably. And it was by no means plonk.

But as we stood for what seemed like hours in a queue at the checkout with our heavily laden chariot and then paid (crikey where had that focus and restraint gone?) I couldn't help thinking back to that lovely little aluminium-clad number which obviously had my name written all over it.

Alas though not for now. In fact probably not for a long time.

And there's be no return to Crossroads in the near future as temptation might jut prove too strong.

But at least come next Sunday - when it won't be open - I'll be able to dream of what might have been as I crack open the first in a long line of bottles to drown my sorrows.

A miscarriage of justice?

Sometimes a country's legal system doesn't get it right. And that might well be the situation if a case currently making the headlines here in France is to be believed.

Has an innocent man been sitting in a French prison for the past six years for a crime that never happened?

A story covered in Monday evening's prime time news on TF1 and in several of the national daily newspapers, highlighted the case of 47-year-old Loïc Sécher, who has been behind bars perhaps for exactly that reason.

Wind back to 2000, when in November of that year police in the village of La Chapelle-Saint-Sauveur in Loire-Atlantique in western France, arrested Sécher, a farm labourer, and took him in for questioning following allegations made by a 13-year-old girl that he had sexually molested and raped her on three separate occasions.

She was the daughter of friends.

He proclaimed his innocence, but was later charged, and in December 2003 a court found him guilty and sentenced him to 16 years in prison.

An appeal a year later upheld that ruling and although Sécher has always maintained his innocence his cause seemed a lost one until April this year.

That was when the girl, now 22 years old, sent France's Chief Prosecutor a letter in which she said Sécher was "innocent and she could no longer live with the knowledge that he was in prison."

Sécher's defence team put in a request to France's court of cassation (the main court of "last resort" in France) that the case be re-examined, their client released and the original ruling overturned.

Yvon Chotard, one Sécher's lawyers, said that it had taken a lot of courage for the woman to retract her original claims and that at the time the allegations were made there had been no real investigation into the background of a girl who even her own lawyers admitted was "psychologically fragile."

"Eight years ago she had been the victim of school bullying by a trio of boys older than her," he is quoted as saying in Le Figaro.

In addition, at the time of his trial there had reportedly been no DNA evidence to prove that Sécher had assaulted the girl, and indeed a medical examination was unable to prove that a rape had taken place.

On Monday the court of cassation met behind closed doors to consider Sécher's case, but it did not reach the decision Chotard or his client had been hoping for. Instead it delayed making a final ruling until mid October.

"He (Sécher) is a victim of a miscarriage of justice," said Chotard after the hearing. "Our hope now is that the French justice system will release someone who has been claimed innocent by the victim."

For the moment though Sécher remains behind bars.

Even if the court decides to release him next month the process of overturning and in effect annulling the original decision could take a lot longer and would require another appeal.

Monday, 29 September 2008

A French village meets woman who killed her father 19 years later

Ida Beaussart returned to the village of Salomé in northern France at the weekend for the first time in 19 years.

She was there to attend a special screening of a film that depicted the days that led up to her killing her father, Jean-Claude, in July 1989.

"I was frightened about coming back here, about appearing in front of you," Beaussart told the 500 or so people who had crowded into the village hall, which had been transformed into a cinema for the evening.

"I feared you might hate me and treat me like a murderess.

"All I ask is please don't leave before the film has finished. What you're going to see is what I lived through."

And what they sat through together with Beaussart for the first time, was a film that touched everyone present, as was clear from the report carried on prime time national television news on Sunday evening.

The film "Pleure en silence" from 2006 wasn't just an imaginary tale that would fail to touch the local population. It was the true story of how the then 17-year-old Beaussart finally broke down and shot her sleeping father, thereby ending years of misery, humiliation, terror and violence he had directed towards her, her four sisters and her mother.

In 1992 she was acquitted of murder - a verdict that might on the face of it appear shocking But the full facts behind the case revealed a childhood that was full of fear, beating and indoctrination.

The cruelty within the family had been common knowledge at the time, but nobody had tried to stop it, and even today Beaussart insists that the outcome had been "inevitable".

At her trial it emerged that most people in Salomé and the neighbouring villages knew about the violence to which Beaussart and the rest of the family were being subjected.

She and her sisters and her mother were hit, insulted and humiliated on an almost daily basis. Her father was a neo-Nazi who had been thrown out of the Far-right Front National and who kept weapons in the house. The girls were made to salute a picture of Hitler every morning.

It also transpired that the conspiracy of silence seemed absolute because everyone was afraid of Jean-Claude Beaussart. He had the reputation of being a violent man, and even though he was known to police and had served eight months in prison for inciting racial hatred, they too appeared to be frightened of him.

"We heard crying in the house. We were all terrified of him," one woman who used to live next door to the family told the regional daily La Voix du Nord immediately after the weekend screening of the film.

"One day we wanted to intervene but he threatened us with a gun. Even the local police were afraid of him."

Beaussart's teachers and the social services also failed to step in, even though they were aware of what was happening.

"When Ida came to school with a spilt lip, I told her to go to see social services," Véronique Trouwaurt a childhood friend who hadn't seen Beaussart for 19 years told the paper.

"But nobody reacted."

Almost 20 years later some in the village still don't really feel they were completely to blame for having remained silent. One man, when interviewed, said it should have been the job of social services to intervene, as they knew what was happening.

In spite of her ordeal then, and the psychological and psychiatric treatment she underwent afterwards, Beaussart doesn't seem to hold a grudge.

"I understand why other villagers didn't react," she said. "Many of them had children and they must have been frightened of my father.

"But if people had perhaps had been a little braver, then yes they could have done something," she added.

And that was really the message the now mother-of-two, with a third on the way wanted to get across by the end of the evening - that others, elsewhere, break their silence if they are aware of similar cases of abuse.

"I don't want any other child to have to cry out like that and not to be heard."

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Making a mountain out of a mole hill

For the green-fingered brigade among us, autumn is the season when it's time to get our hands well and truly dirty as the great garden clean up begins - if that's not something of a contradiction in terms.

Pruning, uprooting, thinning, replanting, and as the leaves are just about to tumble, the boy-toy joy of leaf-blowing will come into its droning own any weekend now, and of course there's the last mow of the grass before Jack Frost nips in.

In general gardening is supposed to be a rather genteel pastime. All right some heavy lugging is at times required and there's that obstinate flora that still lives by the old aphorism "there's no such thing as a 'weed' just a plant in the wrong place." But nothing really to get the temper-thermometer bubbling to maximum apart that is (in my case) from the Mole.

Now I'm not a violent person. My friends and family will attest to that. I marched in peace demos during my idealistic youth, there's no gun in my home (it's not exactly the fashion here in France unless you're heavily into hunting - I'm not) and I try to avoid physical conflict at all costs. The pen is mightier than the sword and all that.

I'm also as environmentally conscious as is possible to be - within limits. And I love animals - even the boars who come a gruntin' at the gate during the night, scaring me witless and making me rush daringly out with the dustbin twice a week for the overnight collection, half afraid of meeting them face to snout.

May all "sentient beings of the world be blessed to live happy and contented lives" could almost be a family motto.

But sometimes all good and honourable intentions go flying out the window as exasperation threatens to speed up the process of hair loss almost as quickly as advancing years are doing.

And the culprit for those of you who missed it first time around is the Mole - intentionally capitalised.

He's most definitely not that loveable and good-natured creature who graced the pages (with others) of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows from my childhood reading.

Instead he just has to be a conniving, forward-thinking, all-round bounder, hell bent on turning the garden into an Alpine landscape.

Oh - perhaps I ought to say here that I'm clearly being very sexist in anthropomorphising the Mole as a "he." Obviously I haven't had a close up look - in fact I've yet to see the blighter in the flesh. But in Grahame's novel "Mole" is most definitely a "he", even if in French interestingly enough the noun is female "la taupe."

But I digress.

The Hills are alive


I know there's a Mole about of course because a couple of days ago "the Hill" appeared.

An innocent little beginning at face value, but the start of my travails in reality.

When that Hill first formed, I asked neighbours what to do about it - prevention being a little late and a cure now required before the problem mountained out of control. And the reply always seemed to be the same (in French) "set up some traps and kill the little critters." But that doesn't really fit into the way things should be done as far as I'm concerned.

"Poison 'em," recommended another equally unhelpful and non-too tender minded person.

I couldn't. I mean apart from the fact that my dogs would probably end up scoffing any bait I laid, it's unethical. No chemicals on my grass, not for fertilizing purposes nor even to drive a “pest” away.

So the solution a couple of Hills later - a few centimes “well spent” at the recommendation of an assistant at the local garden centre, who most clearly read the words “Le Sucker” emblazoned on my forehead when I innocently asked whether there were any “humane” ways of getting rid of "Bert."

Yep, having decided that the Mole had to be male, I had also made the mistake of naming him too. Don't even ask why.

“This is just what you’re looking for sir,” he said pointing to a rather innocuous green plastic toadstool-like thing.

"The new 'virbrasonic' mole deterrent – complete with a sonar signal guaranteed to drive them away.

“You simply stake them into the ground where you spot a fresh molehill, and within a couple of weeks they will be gone.”

He then proceeded to give me all the scientific explanations as to how I would be rid of my problem (Bert) with no pain to the animal.

I was sold. All right so I would just be moving Bert to someone else’s garden, which wasn’t very socially responsible of me I know, but he and friends (I refused to believe there was only one) were severely testing just how neighbourly I was feeling (the Hills were alive), and I would quite happily have them move on to pastures new (the Moles not the neighbours).

So complete with rechargeable batteries(eco-friendly) and planted firmly at strategic positions - (in the centre of the newest Hills) hopes were high.

The high pitched intermittent wailing that both 'toadstools" emitted became all the more noticeable in the still of the night when the bedroom windows were flung open. It was certainly unpleasant enough to give me a pretty restless sleep.

Still at least I had the consolation that the sound must seem equally disturbing to "les taupes" (they're French after all, so let's call them by name), and it was with that expectation that I looked out the next morning to see.....

.....the Hills had spread and multiplied - again

Welcome to Mole paradise

The sonar deterrent seemed to have had no effect on Bert et al, well not the desired one at least. In fact rather the opposite as they appeared to have spent the night busy tunneling and constructing to their hearts' content.

And (as you can tell from the photo) the alarms, far from discouraging them seemed to be rather Attractive.

I've since read up on Moles and discovered to my horror, they don't actually hibernate as I had thought. They just dig deeper for food as the cold sets in.

That in itself might mean fewer mounds appearing over the next few months, but of course the problem will still be there - underground, waiting, lurking and threatening to turn a rather wild and natural looking garden into (in their minds only) a beautifully bumpy topography.

In fact should they not decide to move house and garden and if France as planned, or more specifically la région parisienne (nowadays known as Île-de-France), were to bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics - I know just the spot where the moguls competition could be held.

Suddenly those smoke bombs, poisons and traps are beginning to look like an ugly attractive option.

My only hope for salvation is a few months of torrential downpour as that would flood the burrows and drown Bert.

Somehow though that doesn't exactly make me feel any happier.

Friday, 26 September 2008

A French actress who "no longer knows who she is" - update

There's good news of sorts for those who for one reason or another missed the first screening here on French television of the moving documentary of the actress Anne Girardot last Sunday on TF1.

You might remember that "Ainsi va la vie" made by Nicolas Baulieu (see previous story), followed the life of the actress, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, over the course of eight months.

It included interviews with stars and directors with whom the actress had worked, and showed her at home with her daughter and grandchildren and also at public functions.

Far from being voyeuristic, it was a moving and delicate portrayal of the private hell that accompanies the illness, both for the sufferer and those surrounding her.

Baulieu's intention, as a close personal friend of the actress, was to pay homage to a giant of the French screen who had also become an unwilling symbol of the illness.

And even though it was broadcast after 11 pm on a Sunday evening, it still managed to attract viewers, with over 2.7 million households tuning in.

To give it credit, the channel, TF1 has decided to show the documentary again on October 14.

But in its infinite wisdom has chosen a slot even less likely to draw an audience than when it was first broadcast - namely 3 o'clock in the morning. Yes that's right 3 am.

While that might be a a suitable viewing time for insomniacs, it hardly seems to do either the subject matter or the documentary justice. The alternative, for those who remember, would seem to be to set their video recorders or await the release of the DVD.


Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Entre les murs - French winner at Cannes finally hits the big screen

Wednesday is the day of the week when new films open here in France, and among those on general release today is this year's Cannes film festival winner, Entre les Murs (The Class).

There was a great hullaballoo when the film unexpectedly won the Palme d'Or back in May - after all it was the first time in 21 years that a French film had scooped top honours.

And it won fulsome praise from the jury president, US actor Sean Penn, who called it "amazing" and had from the outset of the festival insisted that it was impossible to separate film from politics, and had promised that the winner would be a reflection of the current climate.

Most who either saw the film in Cannes or have been treated to special screenings since would agree wholeheartedly that Entre les murs is just that.

By today's budget-busting standards it's a small film - it cost less than €3 million to make - and over the 2 hours and 10 minutes follows a year in the lives of a class and their teacher in a tough inner city secondary school in Paris.

Director Laurent Cantet's film is a mix of documentary and fiction written by, and starring François Bégaudeau – himself a former teacher – with most of the other roles being filled by real students and teachers.

Actually we're pretty luck to have the film this early. It wasn't officially due to be released until October 15 but the distributors brought the date forward apparently because it was scheduled to hit some foreign cinemas - in particular in Italy - at some point this month and it would have looked plain daft, according to the film's producers, if France had dragged its feet.

Oh yes and there's another rumour doing the rounds. Entre les Murs is reportedly being considered among the shortlist of films which France wants to put forward for next year's Oscar nominations in the best foreign language film category. To be able to qualify, a film needs to have been released before September 30.

It'll be tough for the film to have the same sort of commercial success as the home produced comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis earlier this year, which broke all box office records to become France's biggest grossing domestic production ever.

But Cantet's movie has already received a lot of critical acclaim and although it's primarily aimed at adults, the French minister of culture, Christine Albanel, has recommended that it be shown in all secondary schools throughout the country.

If you're interested in France and life here, and especially what makes much of today's youth tick, then this is definitely a film to go and see. And as with any good film, it doesn't just tell a tale that's restricted to the setting in which it's made - doubtless that's why it won top prize at Cannes, which is after all a showcase for international cinema.

It's packed with universal themes that will probably resonate in many other countries - race, truth, individual relations, social problems - and there is of course much, much more to say about it. But that would be giving away too much in a review, which should never be the case.

Perhaps though two very different approaches to how the film has been described by others that have seen it will also provide a taster. First up there's the national daily Le Monde, which says the workings of a classroom are a puzzle to those removed from the system but the film sheds light on that mystery using direct experience in the form of fiction.

"Initially it appears as a series of scenarios which don't necessarily appear connected, but as the film progresses their relevance becomes apparent and they flow to increase the dramatic intensity," runs a perhaps rather convoluted professional assessment of the film.

And then there are the amateur reviews and perhaps proof of how Entres les murs is likely to go down certainly here in France and probably abroad, coming in the form of the reactions of some 13-14 year olds in the western city of Nantes.

They were treated to a screening of the film a day ahead of its general release and their comments reported in this morning's edition of the regional daily Ouest France

And they summed up what they felt in a way the jury back in Cannes probably couldn't have put better.

"My father was beginning to have doubts about what classroom life was like," says one.

"I would say it's a bit exaggerated, but it's also a pretty good reflection of what we're like," says a second.

And perhaps most tellingly for the film's likely success from another, "Parents should go and see it. That'll help them understand us."

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A French actress who "no longer knows who she is"

There's no attractive way to show how Alzheimer's can destroy a person's life and that of other family members. And it's without doubt hard to produce a television documentary that doesn't in a way smack of voyeurism.

But somehow, Sunday night's screening on French national television of Nicolas Baulieu's "Ainsi va la vie" managed to bring home the full force of the illness and remain a tender, loving homage to a star of French cinema.

Annie Girardot may not be a name with which many people outside of France are that familiar - especially if you're not a lover of this country's cinema.

But she was a giant of the big screen here in France during the 1970s, and had a career that spanned five decades and included more than 200 films. She has been described as "one of the most popular screen actresses in modern French cinematographic history."

Since going public in 2006 with the news that she was suffering from Alzheimer's, Girardot has become a symbol of the illness here in France.

Baulieu's documentary followed the actress and her family until filming stopped in February 2007 when he said that Girardot was no longer aware of the presence of the cameras.

And even though it was shown after 11pm, more than 2.7 million households tuned in to watch.

It included interviews with stars and directors with whom the actress had worked, and over the course of the eight months the cameras showed her at home with her daughter and grandchildren and also at public functions. But never once intruding into areas that were too private, There were no appointments with doctors or sessions with medical staff.

"She was perfectly conscious from the outset that we were making a film about her because we had talked about it," said Baulieu in an interview with the national daily Le Parisien.

"Everything was done with her complete consent, that of her family and TF1. I didn't want to be a voyeur. There was no question of filming at the doctor," he added.

It was by its nature a programme that made uncomfortable viewing, especially the moment which showed her still working but needing to have the words spoken to her through an earpiece. Girardot, although not really aware of what she was saying, still managed to deliver them in a disturbingly convincing fashion.

Equally distressing was to watch this once fine alert actress - whose professional life had been so dependent on the camera - become completely reliant on those around her to be able to define herself, and at the same time see those moments of fierce pride and fleeting lucidity shine through.

Public appearances when the obviously frail and confused woman battled to remember the names of people she knew well, were interspersed with reminders of her at her prime; clips of some of the films in which she had appeared and words of tribute from many in the French film industry including most notably director Claude Lelouch, with whom she worked on several occasions.

It was Lelouch who brought her back to the public's attention after 15 years out of the limelight when he cast her in his 1996 version of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables - a role for which Girardot won a César for best supporting actress.

Perhaps it's only someone in Baulieu's position that could have made such a documentary. He has known the actress for more than two decades and is a close personal friend.

But of course there have been many questions asked as to whether it was really necessary to show the descent into a private hell of a woman who had been such a public figure for so many years. And there's probably no real answer to that.

The intention was to pay homage to a giant of the French screen who has also become an unwilling symbol of the illness.

It was done with her initial consent and also that of her family and entourage. But still the last image of her sitting on a bench - a moment of complete disorientation and apparently feeling that she had been "abandoned" - not even aware of the presence of the camera or the team who were with her, is a haunting and troubling one.

The 76-year-old actress now lives in a home - and as Baulieu says "Annie Girardot no longer knows who Annie Girardot is."

Monday, 22 September 2008

Not quite a French "Cold Case" - but almost

One of the most watched programmes on French television at the moment is the US import "Cold Case" in which each week Detective Lilly Rush (played by Kathryn Morris) reopens an investigation into a previously unsolved murder.

Perhaps events over the past couple of days here in France could do with a little of that "fictional" help if the truth behind what actually happened in the following tale is ever to surface.

For sure there was no homicide involved, but it resulted in a death nonetheless. And there are questions and issues that remain unanswered and unresolved.

The events concern what did or perhaps did not happen between a teacher and a pupil at the César-Savart secondary school in Saint-Michel near the northern French town of Laon, last week.

The science teacher was taken in for questioning by police after the parents of a 15-year-old boy made an official complaint.

The boy reportedly had told his father that the teacher had asked him to remain in the classroom at the end of the lesson, and reprimanded him for having turned up late. And at some point during the discussion the boy alleged that the 38-year-old man turned around and hit him.

When detained the teacher denied the charges and according to the public prosecutor of Laon, Olivier Hussenet, as far as the police were concerned there didn't appear to have been enough evidence to press charges.

"The alleged incident was in a classroom," he said. "There were no witnesses and it was one person's word against another's."

That might have been the end of the media interest in the case, had the 38-year-old not hanged himself a day later.

He left a letter but one which contained no mention of why he had decided to take his life.

And Hussenet insists there didn't appear to be a direct connection between the alleged charges, the police investigation and the man's suicide.

Instead he offers the possible explanation that it was a combination of personal factors involved.

"His house had been put up for sale and he was going through a divorce," Hussenet told a local newspaper. "The detention and questioning by the police could have been the trigger that led him to take his life."

But for the regional branch of the national teachers' union, Snes-FSU, accusations - whose veracity was unproven - had been made that would inevitably have had an impact on the teacher's reputation.

In an official statement it questioned whether the investigations by the police had been disproportionate to the allegations made.

"It illustrates a deterioration of the situation in which all teachers find themselves on a daily basis," the statement said. "Their numbers are not sufficient and they are sometimes not qualified to deal with the problems they face."

This latest case is not an isolated one of course and highlights problems that have received a fair amount of media coverage in France this year - namely discipline in schools and how or whether teachers should react when provoked. And just as importantly how the police handle claims of force used by teachers against pupils.

In August José Laboureur, a 49-year-old technology teacher from Berlaimont in the north of France, was fined €500 for having slapped an 11-year-old boy.

The incident happened back in January when Laboureur lost his temper after the boy insulted him during a lesson.

There was no disciplinary action taken against the teacher at the time, but the boy's father - a policeman - pressed charges.

The boy was suspended for three days but Laboureur had to wait months for the case to come to court, with parents of children at the school and teachers gathering more than 60,000 signatures in support of the teacher, who many thought had been provoked by a boy looking for confrontation.

The case raised questions as to whether the incident had been taken more seriously by police because the charges had been brought by one of their colleagues.

It also caused the education minister, Xavier Darcos, to step in remarking that the boy had not been suitably punished.

"Without defending the teacher's actions," he said "in a great majority of cases it's often the teachers who are the victims."

"They should not be insulted in public."

Whether the 15-year-old boy in last week's incident was telling the truth may never be known.

He's sticking by his story and his father is backing his version of events.

Interviewed on national radio on Saturday, the boy's father said although he regretted having made the decision to make a complaint, he still felt he was within his rights to have done so.

"He shouldn't have done what he did," he said. "We don't hit children, and that's that," he added.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The brighter side of French village life - it exists

A couple of weeks ago I reported on how a young farmer in central France had faced a systematic hate campaign from someone in his village bent on trying to ruin his attempts to build a successful organic cheese business.

It was a miserable tale that showed the darker side of the French rural mentality and can probably be found in communities large and small in many other countries.

For the sake of balance though, I thought I would also take a look at how village life, or living in a small community can have its up side of course.

This is also a simple tale of how just when you need a hand, you find "good". Someone steps in to help out others, and it's proof perhaps that what makes the world go around is not money or self satisfaction but good old "helping a stranger in need."

As summer winds down into autumn and the days noticeably shorten, the village where I live - just 50 kms from the French capital - throws open its doors to the rest of the world to celebrate its annual "la fête du village".

Actually although only 1,500 people live here, it's generally an all-round hospitable place. It sits on the edge of one of the largest forests surrounding Paris, is home to a well-known school of painting, has numerous artist's ateliers, restaurants and hotels and is a regular stopping off point for those visiting the stunning town of Fontainebleau and its chateau - just a stone's throw away.

Enough waxing lyrical about the village, enough to say it's beautiful and I'm very fortunate to live here. Back to the fête.


It took place last weekend, everyone was welcome, the main street was closed off to traffic, restaurants moved tables outside, there were stalls for those who wanted to stock up on local produce, organic honey, goats cheese and most of all Brie as this is also the heartland of that particular type of cheese.

The local butcher even put on a spread - two sittings, lunchtime and evening - and cows from one of his suppliers were tethered to a spot in the centre of the action as he ran a "guess the weight" tombola. The prize - free prime cuts for a year - not from the cow on show I hasten to add.

And to top it all off the weather remained gloriously sunny.


Among the visitors was a young American couple with their two small children. They had arrived early morning (I later learnt) and left their rental vehicle in a car park on the outskirts of the village to spend the rest of the day wandering up and down the main street sampling everything that was edible and drinkable and generally enjoying the festive atmosphere.

On returning to their car in the late afternoon, they discovered that it had been broken into and some of their belongings stolen. Not speaking much French, they asked around for help "Who should they contact?" "Where was the nearest police station?" "We don't speak the language what are we supposed to do?"

There was soon a cluster of local people, many speaking less than perfect English, but eagerly gesticulating and willing to help out the family with suggestions. This was after all big news in such a small place.

To the couple's relief there was one man who spoke perfect English, and after quickly understanding their predicament, he took matters in hand.

Pulling out his mobile 'phone, he called the nearest police station (10 kilometres away) explained what had happened and afterwards informed the couple that they would have to go and file a report for insurance purposes at the station.

They looked appreciative but still a little concerned, and the man, sensing their apprehension said, "I'll drive ahead of you to the police and act as an interpreter if you like.

"And in the meantime if you need to contact the car rental company to tell them what has happened, you can use my phone."

A simply gesture, a little time taken out at the end of the day to help a family who were clearly somewhat out of their depth linguistically and bureaucratically (this is a country ruled by rules) and what could have been a miserable memory was turned around into something they probably won't forget - for all the right reasons.

I know all about this, not because I was the good Samaritan on the day (although I would wish to have reacted in a similar way had I been around) but because the person who came to the couple's assistance in their time of need, is a close friend of mine - a local. He didn't tell me himself what had happened, but someone else did. After all this is a small community and news (of any kind) travels quickly.

So to him, and all others who have the presence of mind to think about helping those out without a second thought, I say "chapeau".


It leaves a warm glow in the heart.

By the way, I entered the tombola, but didn't win the year's supply of prime cuts. My guess of 526 kgs for a Charolais cow was way out. She actually weighed in at a whopping 738 kgs.

Maybe next year I'll fare better.

A double dose of Brazilian dance for France

Ladies and gentlemen readers welcome to a couple of minutes of dance floor magic.

For the men, put aside any juvenile images you might still harbour of male dancers being nothing more than "men in tights." And for the women (and the male of the human race who appreciate dance) feast your eyes on the accompanying videos and remember it as you read the following review.

For here we go. Brazil meets France "en dance" - just for a couple of days - and the result is ASTOUNDING.

Nope, it's not the world renowned samba or even capoeira, that mix of martial arts and dance whose roots are African but was developed in Brazil's regions centuries ago. There are doubtless those better placed out there to tell us more about those particular delights.

Instead it's the "sensual and generous" - so the blurb runs - performance of the Brazilian dance troupe Companhia Sociedade Masculina.

And believe me - that description wasn't far off the mark

It’s an all male dance company (just eight of them) from the Brazilian city of São Paulo and it was making a return engagement in France at the weekend, appearing at Lyon’s biennale dance festival, which is running at venues throughout the city from September 6 until the end of the month.

In total 42 different companies are performing from 19 different countries, and I had plumped for the Companhia Sociedade Masculina after reading the rave reviews it had received during its last appearance in Lyon in December 2007.

Now anyone who read a previous piece I posted on “Tanguera” – an Argentinian musical currently running in the French capital tracing the origins of tango and performed throughout almost exclusively in that dance style – will remember that I “outed” myself as one of those talentless back-to-front footed no-hopers with little sense of rhythm and no dance floor timing.

But that certainly doesn’t stop me, or anybody else out there in the same position from being able to appreciate “poetry on legs.”

In fact that’s probably not even doing the performance given by Companhia Sociedade Masculina nearly enough justice.

It was an hour’s worth of being transported from the trials of everyday life into a completely different world – that of dance.

The mainly French audience must have known they were in for something special before the performance even began. Apart from the company coming with a reputation from previous visits, there was also a large contingent of Brazilians in the orchestra seats, chattering animatedly and even for those who couldn't speak a word of Portuguese, it wasn’t difficult to understand that they were all waiting, excitedly, impatiently. That had to be a good sign.

The lights dimmed and a hush descended upon the audience to be replaced by the strains of an immediately recognisable Latin beat.

First up was the 30 minutes of Um Olhar, created by the man who is considered by many to be one of his generation’s most talented choreographers, the 44-year-old Brazilian born and bred Henrique Rodovalho. It's his interpretation of the work of Hélio Oiticica.





The piece is basically a look – through dance – at the musical scene in Brazil during the 1960s when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship.

But forget the politics – that’s really just to place Rodovalho’s creation in its historical context.

The tunes are familiar and what the eight dancers actually do with the choreography and to the music is in the words of one local newspaper critic ”complete engagement” combined with ”technical prowess". And it certainly makes them a marvel.

Actually it’s hard to believe that there are only eight men in the company. They’re not always all on stage at the same time, and it’s not easy to keep track sometimes as in this piece in particular they all seem to be dancing different routines at the same time.

Even when they form couples there’s little synchronisation among them. But far from being distracting, it all seems to blend together marvellously.

And as for the sheer power and masculinity of the performance, well any doubts anyone might still foster that an all-male troupe would somehow seem effeminate, are soon dispelled.

That power is also tempered with a grace and an athleticism that would put many better paid professional sportsmen to shame. They leap, gyrate, tumble and turn through a series of moves that show the diverse roots of the company.

Founder Vera Lafer said when she started the company at the beginning of 2000 that she wanted it to challenge the clichés that surrounded males dancers by choosing them from a number of backgrounds (classical, modern, jazz and even capoeira) and having them tackle pieces created by daring contemporary choreographers.

And that’s the ethos that has been maintained by the company’s artistic director Anselmo Zolla in both pieces presented in Lyon.

After 30 minutes it was over – well the 100 per cent Brazilian part of the evening anyway. There was the inevitable rapturous applause as the lights went up allowing a short pause to recover – for both the dancers and the audience.

Just a quarter of an hour later though the troupe was back, this time to perform Palpable by the Greek choreographer, Andonis Foniadakis.





This was from the opening note far less accessible and a real challenge to both the dancers’ abilities and the audience’s ears.

The “music” was what some might unkindly consider quite a generous term for the accompanying “sound” that belted out of the loudspeakers.

It was a clanking, mechanical and industrial noise that initially irritated but through the brilliance of the choreography soon won you over.

All right so it’s never going to be the sort of thing you’ll flip on to your CD player in the comfort of your sitting room. It certainly wouldn’t help you relax. In fact it’s perhaps more likely to make Bjork sound decidedly old hat and completely in tune.

It was simply one continuous grinding, thumping, intensely disturbing combination of sounds that built to a crescendo. And somehow, sitting there watching and listening, it all seemed to make perfect sense as once again the dancers leapt and spun through the performance.

Sometimes individually, often in couples and occasionally all together. And every move was executed with incredible speed and finesse as the music and the dance flowed and married.

Then once again it was all over – this time for good.

A standing ovation, beaming smiles from the Brazilians in the audience, even more animated chatter than at the beginning, and the French seemed to have lost any inhibitions they might have had as they cheered what they had just been treated to.

And one particular member of the audience picked himself up from an exhausted heap in his seat and headed out into the night to savour and recapture in his mind exactly what he had just seen.

As (I think) the Brazilians would say, "Um abraço."

Friday, 19 September 2008

The brighter side of French village life - it exists

A couple of weeks ago I reported on how a young farmer in central France had faced a systematic hate campaign from someone in his village bent on trying to ruin his attempts to build a successful organic cheese business.

It was a miserable tale that showed the darker side of the French rural mentality and can probably be found in communities large and small in many other countries.

For the sake of balance though, I thought I would also take a look at how village life, or living in a small community can have its up side of course.

This is also a simple tale of how just when you need a hand, you find "good". Someone steps in to help out others, and it's proof perhaps that what makes the world go around is not money or self satisfaction but good old "helping a stranger in need."

As summer winds down into autumn and the days noticeably shorten, the village where I live - just 50 kms from the French capital - throws open its doors to the rest of the world to celebrate its annual "la fête du village".

Actually although only 1,500 people live here, it's generally an all-round hospitable place. It sits on the edge of one of the largest forests surrounding Paris, is home to a well-known school of painting, has numerous artist's ateliers, restaurants and hotels and is a regular stopping off point for those visiting the stunning town of Fontainebleau and its chateau - just a stone's throw away.

Enough waxing lyrical about the village, enough to say it's beautiful and I'm very fortunate to live here. Back to the fête.


It took place last weekend, everyone was welcome, the main street was closed off to traffic, restaurants moved tables outside, there were stalls for those who wanted to stock up on local produce, organic honey, goats cheese and most of all Brie as this is also the heartland of that particular type of cheese.

The local butcher even put on a spread - two sittings, lunchtime and evening - and cows from one of his suppliers were tethered to a spot in the centre of the action as he ran a "guess the weight" tombola. The prize - free prime cuts for a year - not from the cow on show I hasten to add.

And to top it all off the weather remained gloriously sunny.


Among the visitors was a young American couple with their two small children. They had arrived early morning (I later learnt) and left their rental vehicle in a car park on the outskirts of the village to spend the rest of the day wandering up and down the main street sampling everything that was edible and drinkable and generally enjoying the festive atmosphere.

On returning to their car in the late afternoon, they discovered that it had been broken into and some of their belongings stolen. Not speaking much French, they asked around for help "Who should they contact?" "Where was the nearest police station?" "We don't speak the language what are we supposed to do?"

There was soon a cluster of local people, many speaking less than perfect English, but eagerly gesticulating and willing to help out the family with suggestions. This was after all big news in such a small place.

To the couple's relief there was one man who spoke perfect English, and after quickly understanding their predicament, he took matters in hand.

Pulling out his mobile 'phone, he called the nearest police station (10 kilometres away) explained what had happened and afterwards informed the couple that they would have to go and file a report for insurance purposes at the station.

They looked appreciative but still a little concerned, and the man, sensing their apprehension said, "I'll drive ahead of you to the police and act as an interpreter if you like.

"And in the meantime if you need to contact the car rental company to tell them what has happened, you can use my phone."

A simply gesture, a little time taken out at the end of the day to help a family who were clearly somewhat out of their depth linguistically and bureaucratically (this is a country ruled by rules) and what could have been a miserable memory was turned around into something they probably won't forget - for all the right reasons.

I know all about this, not because I was the good Samaritan on the day (although I would wish to have reacted in a similar way had I been around) but because the person who came to the couple's assistance in their time of need, is a close friend of mine - a local. He didn't tell me himself what had happened, but someone else did. After all this is a small community and news (of any kind) travels quickly.

So to him, and all others who have the presence of mind to think about helping those out without a second thought, I say "chapeau".


It leaves a warm glow in the heart.

By the way, I entered the tombola, but didn't win the year's supply of prime cuts. My guess of 526 kgs for a Charolais cow was way out. She actually weighed in at a whopping 738 kgs.

Maybe next year I'll fare better.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Jean Sarkozy sues for "invasion of privacy"

It's a case that raises the problem of how far the media has the right to pry into the private lives of public people. And the issue is rearing its head once again here in France - with a Sarkozy at the centre of legal action.

No, not the president, Nicolas, but the younger of his two grown up sons from his first marriage, Jean.

He's suing two of the country's weekly magazines specialising in celebrity news "Voici" and "VSD" and there's a fair chance that there will be more law suits to follow.

Sarkozy is upset at the publication of photographs published in both magazines taken without his consent at his recent marriage to Jessica Sebaoun.

And on his political blog the 22-year-old also puts the record straight about some "facts" that have appeared in the French media lately - and especially celebrity news magazines.

"As you can probably tell recently there have been stories based on rumours concerning my private life," he writes.

"I have never agreed to give any interview (on the subject) nor given my consent to the use of the photographs.

"All I have done is to simply deny - officially - the desire that I have supposedly expressed to want to convert to Judaism."

Those reports began circulating after it was suggested by a French cartoonist that Sarkozy was about to convert. His wife, Jessica is Jewish and the daughter of the heiress to the large electronics retail company, Darty.

Photographs of the couple were taken after their marriage on September 10 and published in this week's edition of "Voici" and republished in other magazines.

Speaking to AFP, Sebaoun's lawyer Bruno Illouz said that the pictures had been taken without the couple's consent.

"There are public places that become private under certain circumstances and especially when access is reserved ," he said.

"This was a private ceremony and photographs were not supposed to be taken for publication."

Defending itself, an editor in charge of the two magazines maintained that they had been well within their rights to publish.

"It's a journalistic subject because all the media was talking about it," Philippe Labi told AFP.

"We have done our job in the most professional and calm way possible without any aggression."

Part of the problem here in France is that although privacy laws are in theory very strict, there have been many cases of the line being blurred.

Weekly celebrity news magazines have over the years often published stories and photographs of "stars" and when sued, simply coughed up the fine.

Since (Nicolas) Sarkozy came to office in May last year, politicians have increasingly been subjected to that celebrity status, none more so perhaps than the French president himself.

His divorce from Cécilia and whirlwind romance and subsequent marriage to Carla, was the stuff guaranteed to increase magazine circulation figures both at home and abroad.

This latest case involving a Sarkozy and the law is far from being an isolated one. Over the past few months the family has been no stranger to legal action.

In June, the Paris public prosecutor recommended charges be dropped against Jean in the case of a hit-and-run scooter incident.

And in February his father and the first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, won damages against the low-cost airline, Ryanair, for the unauthorised use of a photograph of the couple in an advertisement.

No date has yet been fixed for a hearing over this latest action but Sarkozy and his wife are reported to be seeking damages of €30,000, and if they win their case the money would be donated to charity.

The 22-year-old is the second son from the French president's first marriage and has already carved out something of a name for himself in local politics.

He won a seat on the regional council of Haut-de-Seine in March in June and was elected president of the centre-right grouping of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party - Nouveau Centre in the same regional council.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Royal makes surprising appeal in race to elect new French Socialist leader

The battle to find a new leader of the French Socialist party took an unexpected twist on Monday evening, when one of the candidates, Ségolène Royal, called on all potential contenders to put aside any ambitions they had for the position and instead concentrate on policy issues.

Speaking on prime time news on French television Royal said the country was in need of a credible and united opposition to the current government's policies.

"You would have to be both blind and deaf not to realise that disillusionment is increasing among the French," she said.

"Things are not going well in France and where are the Socialists?", she asked.

"What are we doing? We're having a battle for different positions within the party.

"I would like to put a stop to this slow but sure descent of the party and the level of debate," she added.

"And I propose that everyone 'shelves' questions of their candidature at the Congress (in November) or worse for the presidential nomination because there are still several years until that happens."

Now this might seem a somewhat surprising move by Royal - as it is she who has always linked both leadership of the party with a future presidential bid.

Indeed after her defeat to Nicolas Sarkozy in last year's election - she was the party's nominated candidate - Royal made it clear that she had almost 47 per cent of the electorate behind her and would make the natural successor to her former partner François Hollande as leader of the party.

He's stepping down after 11 years in the job, and at the party's congress in November activists will get to choose a replacement.

Royal has also in the past maintained that the leader of the party would make the most obvious choice as the candidate for a presidential bid in 2012.

To some then - especially her critics, and there are plenty of them both within the party and outside - she seems to have done something of a U-turn.

And even her declaration or call doesn't exactly appear to be lacking in doublespeak, which the country's media has been quick to point out.

How, many wonder, can she request "pretenders" to Hollande's post put aside their differences for the moment and not appear to be campaigning for the leadership race, but at the same time not rule herself out completely?

Well that's all part of her strategy, it has been suggested, in trying to appeal to the grass roots of the party. After all, it's the members, and not the country as a whole, who will be deciding the party's future leader.

Royal has seen her popularity slip over the past couple of months, and is well behind the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and even Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, according to the most recent opinion polls.

By appealing directly to the grass roots membership of the party and presenting herself as "being above the fray" Royal is perhaps hoping instead that she will be seen the symbol of unity in a party that has been divided by internal bickering for several years.

In spite of the head scratching her comments may have created, she's not being as inconsistent as might at first appear. In May, Royal said that she would be a candidate to succeed Hollande, "If party activists showed they also supported the proposals we are putting forward."

And that's exactly what she repeated on Monday - first the party would vote on a number of motions put before Congress (on November 6) and based on those results she would decide whether to stand for the leadership.

The (apparent change in) strategy will probably not win her many friends among the party's old guard, but there again Royal has never been one to run shy of a battle with them.

But if she wanted a sign that her call would probably fall on deaf ears, Royal only had to wait 24 hours as Hollande threw his backing behind Delanoë after the two men met on Tuesday evening.

France's former first lady - Cécilia - breaks her silence

Cécilia Attias, the former first lady of France until her divorce from the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, last October, has spoken to the press for the first time in almost nine months in an interview that appeared in the Swiss daily, La Tribune de Genève last weekend.

She's not a woman who talks much to the press, but was honouring a longstanding promise she had made with Alain Jourdan, a journalist from the paper.

It could be seen as rather an odd sort of interview really. While far from being a "kiss and tell", on the surface at least it appears to be rather gentle, neither too probing nor revealing about her feelings towards her former husband.

But there are some nuances that certainly could be construed as reflecting a degree of bitterness depending on how you read them. And there's some indication that she blames Sarkozy for what happened (professionally speaking) to her current husband, Richard Attias, and the man for whom she twice left the French president.

When asked why the couple had recently moved to Dubai, where (Richard) Attias now works, rather than remain in Geneva where he had offices for more than a decade, she describes what happened with a certain degree of irony and none-too-subtley disguised finger pointing.

"All right, what has to be said has to be said," she says and explains how her husband (the couple married in March) had organised the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland for its founder, Klaus Schwab, for 13 years.

"The day of our marriage he (Schwab) gave us a wonderful present," she told the paper.

"He said he wouldn't be needing Richard's services any longer because he didn't want to create a conflict with the French government.

"My husband was very disappointed. Since then I've learned that the French president will probably attend the next Davos, even though he never has before," she added.

Of course what most will probably be hoping for is a degree of "dishing the dirt" on her former husband and in particular the reasons behind the break up of their marriage.

But once again, Attias can appear slightly evasive, admitting that being in the public eye was not exactly what she had wanted, even though it went hand-in-hand with being married to the French president.

“From the moment you marry a political figure you realised that you have to accept the negative side of media coverage," she tells the paper.

"One moment you’re one of the seven wonders of the world and the next you’re having your reputation dragged through the mud.

"It’s almost impossible to avoid such intense media coverage. You have to accept it but also be able to manage it – which is something I couldn’t do.”

While accepting that interest in her private life was inevitable especially after her divorce and subsequent remarriage, Attias also says that at times she felt like "prey hunted down by the media."

She also insists that there's no sense of acrimony to some - previously close friends - who appeared not to stand by her side when she was in the full glare of the media.

"I felt betrayed by some close friends but don’t hold any grudges," she said.

"It’s human nature. I understand that the politics and power can be very attractive and several people were tempted.

"Finally I won in terms of serenity. I have kept about 70 per cent of my friends. True friendship have stood the test of time and I left behind those who tried to take advantage of me."

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

French minister throws a party for his "Facebook friends"

It's a feel-good political story surely guaranteed to warm "les cockles" of any politically hardened cynic's heart brought to you directly from France.

Eric Woerth, France's budget minister - all right so it's not the most glamourous of government jobs by anybody's reckoning - is having a bash this evening.

And not just for anyone as you've probably worked out from the headline.

It's for 200 plus of his "closest" Facebook friends according to the national daily, Le Parisien, and confirmed by a spokeswoman from the ministry's press office on national radio on Tuesday afternoon.

To be precise, Woerth currently has 1,318 people who've signed up as his "friends" and 264 have accepted the invitation to the knees-up at the ministry - the first of its kind here in France.

In fact the story so fascinated one host of a national radio chat show, Laurent Ruquier, that during his show on Tuesday afternoon he actually rang the ministry to find out whether the story was a huge hoax or the truth.

The receptionist who answered his call had the inevitable "fit of the giggles" finding it hard to believe that she was actually live on air, but she was eventually convinced that the show's host was who he said he was and put Ruquier through to the minister's press office.

"Yes the story was true," a spokeswoman confirmed to listeners. "And the get together was being organised by the minister for this very evening."

Asked who would be footing the bill, the spokeswoman said it was all coming out of Woerth's own pocket and not that of the tax payer.

Perhaps that's not so surprising in these days of belt-tightening as although each ministry has an entertainment budget of €200,000 per annum, Woerth had more than a wee bit of diplomatic tongue-biting to do earlier this year when one of his colleagues (Rachida Dati at the justice ministry) admitted that she had already blown two thirds of her department's allowance in just the first three months of this year.

Woerth is not the only minister in the government expected to be present at the "soiree". The labour minister (and possible future prime minister) Xavier Bertrand is also expected to put in an appearance, as is the agriculture minister, Michel Barnier.

And on the glamour side, former Miss France and Miss Europe, Elodie Gossuin is also due to pitch up.

And all that to meet les "amis d'Eric."

Isn't politics wonderful - sometimes?

Sarkozy urges multi-lateral action to stop piracy at sea

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called on the international community to find a solution to the increasing incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, which he described as "organised crime".

Sarkozy was speaking at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday after confirming that two French hostages held by pirates were "safe and sound" after being rescued by an elite commando team from this country in the early hours of the morning.

The couple, Jean-Yves Delanne and his wife, Bernadette, were taken hostage by pirates who boarded the yacht they were sailing on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden.

They had demanded a ransom of over $1 million dollars and the release of six men currently in detention in France, who were seized by French commandos in a similar operation back in April after they had been paid to free the crew of another French yacht.

Sarkozy said that the overnight mission had by necessity been a military one to secure the safe release of the couple, and one pirate had been killed and another six captured in a "risky" operation that had taken place in open waters.

"It's a great relief to all of us that this operation was successful and that the couple will be able to be reunited shortly with their family," he said.

"We intend to bring the six pirates to France where they'll be held in detention with the others (from April)," he added.

He also said that the men would only be sent back to Somalia if the government there could guarantee they would be tried and sentenced for their crimes.

Sarkozy also launched an appeal for multi-lateral action to prevent further cases, saying that most acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden actually took place in international waters outside of the jurisdiction of the Somali government. And it was therefore up to the international community to seek a co-ordinated solution.

In this case France had stepped in, he said, because the lives of French citizens were at risk.

Delanne and his wife have lived in Tahiti for years, and he had been hired to sail the yacht "le Carré d'As IV" from Australia to Rochelle in France where it was to be sold.

He's a professional sailor with years of experience and is paid to deliver boats. His wife was accompanying him on the trip.

On September 2 pirates boarded their boat which had been "easy prey" according to the French media, because of its reduced speed

In April a similar commando operation was authorised by Sarkozy to capture six pirates who had seized a luxury boat, "Le Ponant" whose 30 crew also included 22 French nationals.

According to the International Maritime Bureau the waters off the Somali coast are among the most dangerous in the world. There have been 24 attacks by pirates in the first six months of this year.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Sarkozy's women in government - MAM, a rough ride for even the toughest

Time for another in the occasional series looking at some of the women in the French government who are making their mark on politics here in France.

It's the turn of France's interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie (or MAM as she is commonly known here) who hasn't had an easy week over her project to introduce "Edvige" - a centralised database to store information on those who might be considered to pose a threat to national security or likely to "breach public order".

She had a very public falling out with one of her cabinet colleagues, the defence minister, Hervé Morin and then her knuckles severely rapped by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The controversy over Edvige has been rumbling on for the best part of the summer. It's basically an electronic centralised database to store information on those who might be considered to pose a threat to national security or likely to "breach public order".

It would also allow records to be kept on those as young as 13 - youngsters who perhaps have no criminal record but whose activities and social milieu leaves them "susceptible" to becoming members of gangs.

Things reached a head last week when Morin publicly challenged MAM's project by saying he shared some of the doubts of opponents to the scheme.

A couple of days later the interior minister was forced to backtrack somewhat - she had to after the groundswell of opposition to the project and Sarkozy's intervention. And now she has agreed that "lifestyle" details (read sexuality) won't be included and there'll be a review of exactly how far records should be kept on children as young as 13.

The furore is far from over - there are nationwide protests still planned against the project, there's an online petition and the country's supreme court is to rule on the legitimacy of Edvige in December.

But MAM, a seasoned politician and a usually calming influence, is likely to weather the storm.


Photograph by Remi Jouan (from Wikipedia)


And it wasn't really too much of a surprise when she was named to the government of Sarokzy's prime minister, François Fillion, last year. The only question on most political commentators' minds was which post she would be offered.

She's by far the most politically experienced of the seven women in senior position in the cabinet, entering politics back in in 1983 as a local councillor and three years later winning a seat in the national assembly - the lower chamber of parliament here in France.

By the end of the 90s MAM had worked her way through the ranks of the centre-right Rassemblement pour la République party, the forerunner of the modern-day Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party, to become the first woman to lead a party.

In 2002 there was another first for MAM, when she was appointed defence minister – a post she held until May last year.

She considered standing as a candidate for the UMP presidential nomination (against Sarkozy), but eventually threw her backing behind the now president in the hope of being suitably rewarded.

And in a sense she was, becoming (once again) the first woman to hold the office of interior minister. But her role and influence was seriously diminished by Sarkozy’s decision to move immigration to another (newly-created) ministry, headed by one of his closest allies and personal friend for more than 30 years, Brice Hortefeux.

So MAM, who under Sarkozy's predeccesor, Jacques Chirac, was in charge of one of Europe’s largest defence budgets and took the occasional trip in a Mirage fighter ‘plane, now finds herself drawing up laws against dangerous dogs and accompanying the president whenever he pitches up in front of the cameras to comfort families whose loved ones have died in fires.

While the Edvige fiasco might just be a hiccough in a what has been a long career, MAM is generally seen as a safe pair of hands and discreetly efficient.

When rioting broke out in the northern Parisien suburb of Villiers-le-Bel last November after two teenagers died when their scooter collided with a police car, it was MAM who took charge.

Her manner of dealing with a situation which threatened to escalate out of control was in marked contrast to her predecessor at the ministry (Sarkozy) in 2005 when there was a similar outbreak of violence in another of the capital's suburbs.

Back then Sarkozy had described young troublemakers as "thugs" and famously promised to "Kärcher" (a well-known brand of high-pressure cleaner) them.

MAM's approach was more measured, visiting and revisiting the scene of the incident, assuring police, fireman and local community leaders and calm was eventually restored.

Perhaps it helped at the time that Sarkozy himself was out of the country, allowing MAM to take the heat.

As for the future. Well of course that's pure speculation.

But the 62-year-old is much respected across the political spectrum, is without doubt a safe pair of hands and has a wealth of experience that Sarkozy would be hard-pressed to find in many other politicians - male let alone female - whenever he decides it's time to reshuffle his cabinet.

Anyone for tennis? (All right, but just make sure nobody's watching)

There's a campaign on here in France at the moment to get people - young and old - to eat better, cut down on the takeaways and fast food while reducing their intake of fats. We're exhorted to eat more fruit and veg, and definitely get off our backsides to play more sport.

Television commercials for any food or drink products even carry a reminder to check a government-sponsored website. They want us all to lose weight and be healthier.

It was with that thought in mind that I decided as local sports clubs were now recruiting for new members, I would follow such pearls of wisdom and sign up for something. Tennis perhaps - although it was donkeys years since I had last held a racket, let alone put my best foot forward and ventured on to a court.

So I joined a club. Actually it's pretty much the way things happen here. You can't just decide on the spur of the moment that "ooh a gentle spot of hitting the ball back and forth with a friend is just what I fancy doing." You cannot pitch up any time you like - unless you join. So that's exactly what I did.

Except of course once you join something like a tennis club, it doesn't just stop at that. You then have to have all the paraphernalia that goes with the burden of membership. Well at least the racket.

Although I knew I used to own one - way back when - I wasn't convinced that after several house moves I would ever be able to find it.

Besides, if I wanted to be taken at least half seriously, I would need one of these new-fangled carbon whatever things, that looked at though it meant business (even if I didn't) rather than a piece of antiquity more resembling something that had probably last seen action some time just after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.

So it was with that thought it mind that I headed off to the local sports shop.

I would be restrained. Just a racket. No fancy garb, oh and some balls of course. You can't play without those (although it might in my case have been easier).

And it didn't take me long to find just what I was looking for. Second hand with a big open-headed frame that would surely mean I couldn't miss a thing. It looked brand new and it only cost - well I'm not saying, because the price made me gulp a bit. The balls - well balls are balls aren't they? So six of those yellow ones with the flashy brand name.

Anything else? Oh did I have any shoes to wear? Perhaps my Timberland walking boots would look a little out of place, and you can't really wear sandals on a tennis court.

All right then, perhaps a pair of shoes. But what sort? There were dozens of different pairs to choose from. For beginners, intermediate and experienced, and then broken down into how often you intended to play. Once a week? Once a month? Once in a blue moon? What sort of surface, hard, grass, indoor?

Crikey what ever happened to pulling on a simple pair of gym shoes and being done with it?

Shorts - no I didn't need those. I had several pairs that I had worn on the beach over the summer. But would they really be appropriate? Red, yellow, blue and green stripes sort of 70s psychedelia meets "what does he think he looks like." Perhaps I had better buy some shorts after all.

A shirt? Surely I had a tee-shirt that would fit the bill. But there again as I had already decided to buy a new pair of shorts, why not the shirt as well? And that little navy blue number apparently had special ventilation flaps that would keep me cool as I lunged around the court. Oh and socks. Burlington knee lengths don't really look good with shorts, and six pairs of white ankle-lengths for the price of four seemed to good of a bargain to pass up.

Anything else? How about one of those smart bags the professional always carry around with them at the Grand Slams? Go on then? Shop 'til you drop. And then I was done. And so was my credit card. But at least I had all the gear necessary to make myself look the part, even if my skills were definitely lacking.

I had rung around my friends and found someone who claimed he was just as out of practice as me and we had both registered with the same local tennis club. That meant we could use the court whenever we liked.

So we did, and the big day came this weekend. Everything was packed and we were ready to go.

The courts were free, and there was nobody else around (thank goodness) and we could pretend we had both taken to the Centre Court for the all-important final to determine the end of season rankings.

A gentle warm up - where the longest rally involved successfully being able to return the ball over the net - once. I remembered how to serve though - and 40 per cent of the time it went cracking over the net and remained inside the tramlines - impossible to return. Eat your heart out Pistol Pete.

But I clearly hadn't got the knack of actually hitting the ball very accurately when it was headed towards me. It ricocheted off my racket and headed skywards behind me more often than not. Sort of reverse slice.

Or I made a desperate swing, missed entirely and ended up on my bottom. I could lob though - into the next court. I could even hit a double-handed backhand - straight into the net and although my playing partner didn't appear much better, I foolishly agreed to try to play a set - heck a match.

It wasn't so much the Grand Slam occasion I had somehow pictured in my mind. More Laurel and Hardy taking to the court and doing their best to show just how bad they were.

Except that both Laurel and Hardy were on my side of the net. I was both of them at once to my opponent's sudden transformation into Roger Federer.

I fired off serve after serve. He suddenly remembered how to return. I wheezed my way from one side of the court to the other, arms flailing and temper fraying. He just converted every shot of mine that trickled over the net into a winner.

And it didn't get any better. "Practice makes perfect," goes the old saying - yeah a "perfect fool out of me," I thought.

After 45 minutes the inevitable had happened. I had lost. Actually not just lost, I had been annihilated. 6-0, 6-0. But apart from the score, there wasn't much love on my side of the net.

I couldn't stand the thought of another set, and besides there were now a couple of teenagers who had arrived on the adjoining court and I didn't really want to make a complete fool of myself in public.

So far I had got away with just humiliating myself in front of my friend. There was no need to labour the point.

But boy did I feel better? That was the most fun I'd had in a long time wasn't it? The heart was beating faster, the pulse was racing. I was perspiring (men perspire don't they, it's horses that sweat, so I've been told) and I was feeling good about myself wasn't I?

Well the answer to all of those questions was a big fat NO. So why then did I agree to put myself through it all over again the following weekend? In the hope that I might just win one game perhaps.

Anyone for tennis? (All right, but just make sure nobody's watching).

Sex on legs - not the last Tango in Paris

I can't dance - well not really. All right so I can do a pretty good arm-flailing impression of a latter-day Travolta when the light's right, and the mirror ball is deflecting attention in the opposite direction. But I ain't really got rythmn and there's no tripping the light fantastic on the dance floor for me.

As for the mysteries of the Cha Cha, the Fox Trot or the Salsa - well when it comes to feet, my two aren't left. They're simply on back to front. Thank goodness there's no Little Person's version of "Dancing with Stars" here in France, because I wouldn't even make it to the auditions.

But one thing I do recognise is Hot Stuff on the dance floor. And that's exactly what Parisian audiences are being treated to at the moment with the exhaustingly energetic but sublimely sensual "Tanguera" playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

It's a musical but told in dance - the Tango of course.

And what makes it especially compelling and innovative is how it manages to tell the history of its own roots by going back to its beginnings and at the same time combining it with a love story typical for any era, but that was very much part of the milieu in which the Tango was born.

Set in the poor quarter of Boca in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, Tanguera tracks the tale of Giselle, a young woman from France, who has recently arrived as part of the wave of immigration from Europe to South America at the time.

She cannot find legitimate work and gets drawn into prostitution under the "comforting arm" of Gaudencio, a gangster, pimp and drug trafficker.

From prostitution she moves into the seedy world of cabaret, controlled by Gaudencio, and discovers the Tango. It becomes her drug almost, and she in return becomes a star of the scene, quickly attracting the attention of the virtuous Lorenzo, a docker.

He of course at the end finally takes his courage in his hands and challenges Gaudencio to a fight, where the two men slug it out in mortal combat - all for the love of a woman.

Directed by Omar Pacheco, the choreography of Mora Godoy is phenonmenal. and after 18 months of playing to packed houses back in Argentina, it has been brought to Paris as part of an international tour.

Exceptionally for the performances in the French capital, there's a live orchestra playing alongside the dancers, which only adds to the authenticity of the programme - no mean feat given that the sumptuous setting of the Théâtre du Châtelet is a world removed from the poorer districts of late 19th century Buenos Aires.

The 20 couples who keep the action flowing are seductive and sensual without being vulgar. There's a vibrancy, energy and speed that leaves the audience feeling just as exhausted as surely the dancers must be by the end.

And as the national daily Le Monde said in its review, the dancing shows how "a heavy tale can be made easily digestible."

"Tanguera" is just under two hours of electrifying moves and wonderful music that left even the most heavy-footed member of the public panting for more and almost ready to throw all caution to the wind and run on to the stage to be part of the performance.

It draws you in, keeps you transfixed and simply put it's sex on legs. Not to be missed if you're planning a visit to the French capital.

It's playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris until September 21.

Friday, 12 September 2008

France awaits arrival of Benedict XVI

A word of advice if you're planning a trip to France on Friday, especially if you're scheduled to arrive at Orly airport, south of the capital, Paris. You might to rethink your travel arrangements as you could be held up for a while.

Just in case you hadn't already guessed from the headline, the Pope will be arriving late morning (11h15 to be precise) to begin a three day visit, and security is likely to be at a maximum.

When Benedict XVI (or Benoit XVI as he's known here in France) touches down he can expect to be met by the assembled hoards of Vatican watchers, media hacks and just the plain curious who will be there to greet him.

That's not forgetting the faithful who've come to catch a glimpse of the head of the Catholic church of course, nor the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and the first lady Carla-Bruni Sarkozy, who are expected to welcome him officially to France on this, his first trip as Pope.

That has raised a few eyebrows here in France, as it marks a break with protocol which would normally have the prime minister, François Fillon, greeting the Pontiff and then accompanying him to the president's official residence, the Elysée palace.

Benedict XVI will be in France until Monday lunchtime and not surprisingly the agenda is packed by anyone's standards, let alone that of an 81-year-old. He'll take in the French capital on Friday and Saturday followed by a day and a half in Lourdes in the south west of the country.

The national daily Le Figaro assures us that there'll be a minimum of French red tape with only a handful of services restricted to those with passes. Otherwise "the public ceremonies require neither registration nor reservation. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for as many who wish, to join in," it says.

Here's just a taster of the Parisian leg of his trip. For a complete rundown you can look at the schedule as published in Le Figaro.

After his meeting with Sarkozy, he'll see representatives of France's Jewish community and that'll be followed by an afternoon visit to the Collège des Bernardins, where he'll meet representatives from the French cultural world (invitation only).

Later on there'll be a trip through the Latin quarter in the Popemobile towards Notre Dame. For Parisians it'll be the only time they'll be able to get really close to the Pope.

In the evening he'll celebrate Vespers at Notre Dame with priests and other members of the Catholic church, a service that'll be relayed to the public outside the cathedral on giant screens.

Afterwards Benedict XVI will address the Catholic Youth who will have gathered outside the cathedral, and there will then be a procession "Chemin de lumière" (the way of light) - minus the Pope - to Esplanade des Invalides. It's a space that can hold up to 200,000 people.

The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois will lead a service there. Again the Pope is not expected to be present.

And overnight there'll be the chance for young (an old alike) to gather and await a service at 10 o'clock the next morning when the Pope will lead Mass.

At 4.30pm - another reason to give Orly airport a wide berth - he'll leave for Lourdes and the second part of his visit until his scheduled departure at lunchtime on Monday.

How exactly the French will respond to Benedict XVI was a question put to Cardinal Vingt-Trois by the popular daily, Le Parisien. And he had had an interesting perspective on how the French in general view the Pope - particularly in relation to John-Paul II to whom they (the French) often apparently start off any reply when asked their feelings about the current Pontiff.

"That's normal. John-Paul II was the Pope for 27 years," he responded.

"He came to France on average every two or three years.

"The Pope, for the French, remains John-Paul II. There is also an inherent difference in the personality of the two men", he added.

"Benedict XVI is not a man who loves crowds. He is much more introverted."

Anyone planning a trip to France or who's already here can find out all the information they want from three different (official) websites - once again courtesy of Le Figaro. One in French and the other two in French, English, German, Italian and Spanish.
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